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Birding in Vardø

Vardö is situated at the tip of the Varanger Peninsula, probably the most well-known and popular region in Norway for visiting foreign birders. Vardö has an average temperature in July that is below 10 °C, and therefore truly belong in the Arctic Zone.

While most of the arctic is inaccessible or difficult to reach, the Varanger Peninsula has the necessary infrastructure that enables everyone to go there without planning f or an entire expedition. Sure you need to bring more clothes than on most holiday trips, but birding is easy along the road and you can find accommodation at a reasonable price. Most visiting birders reach Vardö by car via Finland or by plane via Oslo-Kirkenes, but you can also use the Coastal Ferry or go there directly by plane. Renting a car at the airport in Kirkenes and then driving around the Varanger Fjord is recommended - there will be lots of good birding along the way!

It is of course the arctic jewels that are the main targets for birders. The seabird colony outside Vardö, at Hornöya, holds good numbers of Brünnich's Guillemots in addition to Common Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Black-legged Kittiwake and Shag. Recently a small breeding colony of Leach's Petrels has been discovered as well, but these are not present until very late in the season when the midnight sun no longer prevent them from entering their burrows. While it's possible to see the auks from the shore or from the northeastern part of Vardö town, a trip out to the island is strongly recommended. A boat trip can easily be arranged at least during the week. You are allowed to follow a track through the main part of the colony, where you can have close encounters with all the seabird species. It could be a good idea to follow the track across the grassy slopes all the way to the lighthouse, passerines breeding in those areas include Meadow-, Red-throated- and Rock Pipits, while Twite is also sometimes seen. In recent years surprises have turned up at Hornöya in the form of such unlikely species as Red-rumped Swallow and Paddyfield Warbler - birding in extreme places can bring extreme surprises! And keep in mind that Hornøya is a Nature Reserve!

Persfjorden Hamningberg

But Vardö has a lot more to offer than the seabirds at Hornöya! Large numbers of Steller's Eiders and King Eiders winter along the Varanger Fjord and the northern shores of the peninsula. The best time to see these magnificent arctic ducks are during April-May, when there is plenty of light and thousands of t hese stunning birds are still present in full breeding plumage, alongside flocks of Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. During May they can be found anywhere, including Vardö harbour. The spring migration starts in late April-early May, good numbers remain throughout May, after that numbers soon drop. A few normally summer, but they can be hard to find. Summering King Eiders and Steller's Eiders are usually in the form of the more drab-colored second-year birds, so be careful and look closely when you scrutinize the eider flocks! The western (inside) shore of the island where Vardö town is situated may be a good spot particularly for summering King Eiders.

Common Guillemot Uria aalge at Hornøya. Photo (c) Alf Tore Mjøs.

In our opinion the best time to visit the area for birding is late May-early June. If seawatching is among your favorite pastimes you might consider an even earlier visit - the main part of the diver- and skuamigration takes place between May 10th and 20th. A good day at Hamningberg can produce 2-300 White-billed Divers and hundreds of Pomarine-, Arctic- and Long-tailed Skuas! After mid-May the migration of shorebirds increase day-by-day, and after the 25th most species have arrived. In addition to the breeding species such as Oystercatcher, Whimbrel, Bar-tailed Godwit, Redshank, European Golden Plover, Ruff, Dunlin, Temminck's Stint, Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone and Red-necked Phalarope, most of the shorebird species breeding in the northern parts of Europe can turn up on migration. In recent years Terek,-, White-rumped-, Pectoral- and Semipalmated Sandpipers and Pacific Golden Plovers have been seen in between the more common species.

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Even if you can't get to Varanger before later in summer, don't worry! There are birds everywhere, and birding is made easy by the fact that the main road follow the coastline closely most of the way. You will find most of your target species at any time of the summer-season, but it is important to adapt to the weather conditions and search the right spots for the right species. If, for instance, you have a day with calm offshore winds, then spend at least a part of the day searching for White-billed Divers. A calm sea will vastly increase your chances of finding one! Some birds always summer, the coastline between Skallelv and Kiberg is a good place to start, if that doeasn't pay off then try the Persfjorden-Hamningberg area. Do a thorough search of all the bays with your telescope, and don't expect to see them close to the shore. King Eiders and Steller's Eiders are a likely bonus. If the wind is i the west, it could be a good idea to do some seawatching at Hamningberg to look for Pomarine Skua.

White-tailed Eagles are all over the place, this species has had a tremendous population increase in the area and you can't possibly miss it. The five kilometers between Kramvik and Kiberg is particularly good, as is the Persfjorden-area. Peregrines and Gyrfalcon are birds that you can't expect to see, you need a bit of luck. They often turn up at a seabird colony to snatch some easy prey, though - you might have a better chance in such a place. Some Glaucous Gulls are seen along the coast also in summer, a good place to search is the area around Svartnes which often hold hundreds of gulls. A cold northerly wind will increase your chance for this one. Snowy Owl is a species you always hope for, a few are likely to be present each summer at the Varanger Peninsula but they are hard to find. The best advise is to talk to other birders - if some lucky birder has seen one, the rumour soon spreads! Shore Larks can be tricky, but a few pairs normally breed around the airport at Svartnes. Red-throated Pipits are most easily found in the Svartnes-area or on Vardöya, they also breed at Hornöya and Hamningberg.

The drive from Vardö to Hamningberg is spectacular, and a "must" not only for the birding possibilities. The landscape is simply spectacular and you won't see anything like it in Scandinavia at least. A few kilometers past Svartnes there is a nature reserve with high numbers of breeding Red-throated Divers and Arctic Skua. Other birds in the area include Bean Goose, Long-tailed Duck, Willow Grouse, Red-necked Phalarope, Ringed Plover, Lapland Bunting and Snow Bunting.

Harp Seal Grey Seal and Kittiwake

Persfjorden has already been mentioned, the large bay is more than four kilometers wide at the entrance and should be scanned thoroughly for divers and seaducks. The cliffs in the west can have Ring Ouzel and Twite. Five kilomerts before Hamningberg you will find a place with very high and dense willow-thickets along the river - Sandfjorden. This is where you have to get out of the car and do some "woodland"-birding, Arctic Redpoll is common here along with Common "Mealy" Redpoll, Redwing, Bluethroat and Brambling.

Take care!
Always remember to keep
your birding activity to the lowest possible impact to the birds and the fragile arctic nature!

The road ends at Hamningberg, the prime seawatching spot at the Varanger Peninsula. An hour or two behind the scope can bring pleasant surprises in the form of White-billed Divers or skuas. Black-legged Kittiwakes and Fulmars are usually plentiful, and Northern Gannets from the breeding colony at Syltefjordstauren a little further west fly past. The bays at both sides should be checked for King Eiders, Steller's Eider and shorebirds, and the small gardens can hold a few passerines at times. A small café is usually open in the summer season, why don't you finish the a splendid day with a waffle and a coffee here? Have a nice trip, and if you feel like joining an organized trip why don't you check out the Birding Norway tours here?

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