Thursday, August 18, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Days 6 and 7: The End of Europe

I woke on Day 6 to what sounded like rushing water outside the hotel room. It appeared unfortunately that the weather forecast was correct for once, and the predicted blast of the wind from the north had arrived. Rolling up the black out blind my suspicions were confirmed by the low scrub on the island being pummelled by a brutal, icy blast. We were going to be struggling with any photography in this weather. The wind was not like a windy day in the UK when you get gusts this was just blowing at a constant and unrelenting 40-50 mph.

Having decided any bird life would be well hunkered down and sheltering the only thing which was a possibility was to try for some Mountain Hare on Vadsoya Island. The previous day I had found some old WWII trenches that would allow a potential route to get in amongst one of the hares preferred areas unseen. It was worth a try and sort of worked but even the hares were unsurprisingly not very active in this crazy arctic wind.

It was a hopeless situation with the weather for photography and the the above images are the only ones I took on Day 6. The weather is always a risk factor when travelling so far north. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast whilst the wind seemed to be increasing in strength to a constant roar from the north. We looked at maps and decided we would go on a reconnaissance trip up the valley above Vestre Jacobslev in the half hope that it may offer be more sheltered from the wind but it was not the case. The twisted black birch woodland up the valley was being shaken to its roots and bird life was keeping a low profile with only the occasional Brambling heard and seen deep within the undergrowth. We headed back to the hotel knowing it was fruitless to try any photography in the deteriorating conditions and had a relaxed afternoon going through some photos and Adam increasing his rapidly growing photography knowledge. After some early food in Vadso which meant we had a greater choice than just  pizza on the menu, we decided to go fishing.

Adam had brought in his case a small travel fishing rod and so in the evening, despite the continuing strong wind, we had a session with the fishing rod. Firstly fishing off some rocks into the fjord but with no success before having a brief spell on a small windswept lake on the tundra. Adam was  casting around a small spinner to no avail and passed me the rod and first cast I caught a beautiful looking brown trout of around 3/4lb. That was the first and last fish we saw on the bank . Adam had two large Arctic Char in the crystal clear water follow the spinner right into the bank but failed to take it. We returned to the hotel. Not a very productive day but it was good to have a little relaxation time to recharge the batteries.

The weather forecast for the following day looked better in terms of wind but it was going to be a cloudy day. Friday was looking a lot more promising.

After a fairly slow start on Day 7, we hit the road and headed north towards Vardo as there looked to be interesting sites to check in that area. At least the wind had eased down to something more manageable but a low blanket of grey cloud stubbornly covered the sky throughout the day..

Our first stop was for a roadside Redshank to get warmed up and back into the swing of photography.

We headed northwards and out to Vardo Island through the 3km long tunnel that resembles an oversized sewer pipe. I had arranged to call into the Biotope Office to have a brew and chat with Alonza who works there. Biotope are all keen birders and it is an architect business that designs bird watching hides. They also produced a excellent guide book for anyone wanting to go on bird watching or photography trip on the Varanger Peninsula.  Some maps were pulled up on the computer and discussed some sites worth visiting. Alonza also showed us some of the wonderful photographs he has taken during the 6 months of the year when there is some light! The photographs included a family of foxes in the abandoned village of Hamningberg. Having seen a photograph taken by one of the hotel guests of an amazingly beautiful red fox there a couple days previously, and armed with some extra information from Alonza, we decided it was worth the hour trip to the most north-easterly point of Europe to try and see if we could find them.

Just before heading off to Hamningberg, we stopped in the dune area along the coast close to the mainland side of the Vardo tunnel where a locally rare bird in the shape of a Citrine Wagtail had been reported. We found the bird although didn't stay very long to get photographs as the thoughts of fox moved us on. Whilst trying to get a photography of the yellow-headed wagtai,l a Wood Sandpiper, the first I had seen on the trip, emerged at the edge of a small pool.

We stopped again briefly a little further along the road where we had spotted several Ruff but they were too distant to get any reasonable photographs, especially given that we had been so spoilt with Ruff previously on the lek site.

The road to Hamningberg, apart from being shut due to snow for a good proportion of the year, is a little like stepping off the planet as the landscape changes to one of odd barren rock formations and huge drifts of glacial moraine.

We made our way along the narrow road the snakes along the coast and were about half way to Hamningberg when we spotted a Red Fox at the site of the road. This was one of the best looking foxes I have seen with its long fur. Given this was June, I can only imagine what one must look like in full winter coat. We were with the fox long enough to capture a few images before it disappeared over a shingle and rock ridge.

Always concerning when they look right at you and start licking their lips

Unfortunately these beautiful long-furred red foxes may not be a sight of this area in the future as there is an active culling programme being currently undertaken in a bid to try and enhance the smaller Arctic Fox numbers.

We carried on to Hamingberg. Occasionally the barren rock gives way to green as you drop into a valley with a river channel. These areas act as an oasis for wildlife with their grasslands and short willow scrub. In one of these areas we came across some Reindeer and stopped briefly to take a few photographs before continuing our journey.

Eventually we reached Hamningberg, at the end of Europe, which is quite an eerie place as it is a long abandoned fishing village which only gets the occasional person staying there in the summer (although probably not in this property).

Despite searching around extensively for the village foxes we saw no sign or evidence of them. In the end we moved up to the far end of the village where there is a parking area for campervans in the hope that the foxes may have been lurking around humans and the rubbish bins but it was not to be. However, we did locate a pair of Arctic Skua, both dark and pale phase, and spend some time getting our best photographs of the trip of these birds.

Trying to get flight photographs of these birds against a grey sky was pointless.

It was time to wind our way back towards Vardo and we picked up a female Golden Plover at the side of the road. On some photographs of this bird it can be seen sporting a leg ring which indicated in had been ringed in Holland.

We stopped for a while in one of the willow scrub 'oasis' set in a shallow valley which seemed to have plenty of birds moving through including Redpoll, Redwing, Brambling and Bluethroat. One of the Bluethroat seemed particularly obliging and so I spent a while trying to get some images of it which proved challenging in the vegetation and poor light conditions.

Brambling in full wheezing song

Back in the dune area near Vardo, we tried to find a Shorelark, which we managed but our encounter with it was too fleeting to achieve any decent photographs. This was a shame as it was a superb looking bird in full breeding plumage. As consolidation, a return visit to the Citrine Wagtail was made which remained elusive and so settled on a lovely looking Snipe at point blank range. They are such attractive birds and it is always wonderful to look at their intricate patterning on the feathers when they are so close.

Our last stop for the day before heading back to Vadso was a fairly large lake just to the south of Vardo. I headed off with the camera while Adam went off round the lake with his fishing rod in the hope of catching an Arctic Char. He managed a fine looking brown trout for his efforts. The light was fairly poor for photography and I spent the next hour or so photographing a Temmincks Stint on the lake shore, together with a Ringed Plover and spent the rest of the time trying to photograph some wary Golden Plover on foot which is never an easy task.

Overall the day had not been too bad despite the conditions being far from ideal. The forecast the following day was looking favourable and it was our intention to head up to the high tundra area. This would include finding the last main bird on the photography 'hit list', and a notorious bogey species of mine, the Dotterel.


Related Posts with Thumbnails