Sunday 8 April 2012

Norway: Day Three - Hornoya

One of the things that we had wanted to do - indeed billed as a must-do - was to get over to the seabird colony on Hornoya Island. This is just off the most easterly town on Varangerfjord, Vardo, itself an island and reached from the mainland via a long tunnel. After a brief wait in the car for an intense blizzard to pass, we made contact with the harbourmaster's office, who confirmed that the boat would be leaving in around an hour. Just enough time for some Kittiwake photography - they nest on the ledges of buildings on the harbourside - more of them later.

As I looked out of the harbour to the north, with a vicious wind hammering through me, I wondered whether we were doing the right thing. Too late to change my mind however, the boatman was ready, and Bradders was just parting with an astonishing 900 Kroner (makes the St Mary's Boatmen's Association look like a charitable organisation....). I was hoping for a real boat, one with shelter and so on. No. This is the boat in question. The floating pier is icy, and bobbing up and down. The boat itself is icy, and bobbing up and down even more. And once you get on the boat you have to sit on something ressembling a motorcycle seat and hang on to a freezing metal hoop for dear life. Perhaps I'm just a wimp - you decide.

The boat whips along at about a hundred miles an hour, sometimes taking off then slapping the surface with a huge thump. Whilst in the harbour I spotted a Glaucous Gull, but once out into the Barents Sea (which is as cold as it sounds) it was all I could do to even keep one eye open. We were going directly into the wind, and large particles of sharpened snow were slamming horizontally into my poor soft face at three thousand miles an hour. I ended up pulling my hood entirely round my head, and the rest of the journey passed in darkness. Staggering off the boat, this fabulous sight awaited me.

A birders shelter, specially constructed by a birder for birders. Genius. It is open to the elements, and wind can pass through it (presumably the wind would otherwise just pick it up and smash it to smithereens on the rocks below), but no matter which direction the wind comes from, you can shelter from it. This we now did. With coffee.

What an extraordinary place. To put it into context, here's a map. The red "A" is where we were. Look how far north that is! That people actually live there is amazing. I thought Shetland was quite far north, but look at this place! Look where Moscow is! Look where St Petersburg is! It's exactly 2,250 miles by road from sunny Wanstead, but only another 1,300 miles or so separate it from the North Pole. Seriously far away from home in a cold direction.

There were birds all over the place. Once coffee had been gratefully consumed, we got down to the serious business of finding and ticking Brunnich's Guillemot, aka Thick-billed Murre. Scope up, point at Auk-raft, find bird. Find several birds actually - extremely distinctive, and after a few hours on the cliff you could easily pick them from Common Guillemot at some distance as they flew past. 

Sorry for the poncy new copyright mark. In my ongoing effort to become a better photographer I spent a lot of time looking at other people's work, and noticed that more than a few had similar ones. I felt my previous one was somewhat amateurish in comparison, and on a whim changed it to this. That's not really my signature by the way, that would be an illegible squiggle.

Sadly there were no auks on the cliff face, so we had to be content with either observing them on the sea, or watching them fly past. Mostly I did the latter, trying to pick out the Brunnich's as they came in. Many many gigabytes were deleted, it's incredibly difficult. I have no idea on the relative proportion of "bridled" Guilles to normal ones, but it struck me on Hornoya that I was seeing many more of the bridled ones that I was used to. I've decided that I find them much more pleasing than normal ones, especially against a bright sky.

It was whilst photographing incoming Auks that I noticed a different shape in the sky. Falcon-shaped......GYR! What an amazing bird - immense. Everytime it cruised past, 10,000 Kittiwakes collectively rose of the cliff and crapped themselves. It was the same size as the Ravens that harrassed it, think a Peregrine on extreme steroids - the Flo-jo of falcons. Not that it cared much about the attention it was getting - it was the master of the cliff and it knew it. We had seen it distantly from the mainland, but these views were incredible. Gyrfalcon is one of those birds whose name is almost whispered. This was a juvenile, so the streaking was distinctly brown - imagine seeing a white-morph from Greenland!

Our time on the island was up all to soon, but there was more birding to do on the mainland. A thrilling experience. Here's a short clip of what it was like.

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