Tuesday, 13 June 2017

May Highlights!

Weather: A month of two halves. The first half of the month started with showers and easterly winds. The second half was more changeable but warmer. There was a notable hot and sunny spell heading in to the final week, which was then compounded by significant thunderstorms across many areas at the end of the month.

Places Visited:  Amwell; Rye Meads; WWT Barnes.

Star Sightings of the Month:
Bird: Redshank
Mammal: Water Vole
Butterfly: Painted Lady
Odonata: Large Red
Insect: Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn Beetle
Flower: Bee Orchid

Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less.’ Marie Curie

Sadly, the poor weather and my poor health continued on in to May. Fortunately, both cleared up by the end of the second week and I was able to get out and about.

I paid three visits to Rye Meads, with just the one visit to Amwell, plus my annual trip down to the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. RM again extended its’ lead, with quite a few interesting sightings. The visit to the LWC was a little later in the year than I would have liked, as I missed the Bluebell and Snake’s Head Fritillary displays.

Spring migration is continuing apace. The female Bittern was reported early in the month, but nothing has been seen or heard since, despite a well-organised ‘Bittern Watch’. Cuckoos, Terns and Warblers have all arrived, slowly at first, but then in good numbers.

Even though the wildfowl numbers have dwindled, there are still good populations of Pochard about. There is also a lone Wigeon mysteriously hanging around at RM. Raptors seem to have been few and far between. However, that may be because I haven’t been looking up.

Fewer and fewer waders are about now, most having departed for their summer breeding grounds. However, the ubiquitous Lapwings still remain, with successful breeding having commenced, especially at RM, with one pair producing 3 chicks. Oystercatcher, Redshank and Little Ringed Plover have all paid several fleeting visits to the area. Common Sandpiper and Snipe were last spotted early on in the month.

Common Terns have arrived and have even managed to sneak a few spaces on the rafts at both Amwell and RM. However, Black-headed Gulls continue to dominate and crowd them out. Chicks are now abundant, all fluffy and cute.

The first Cuckoos were heard and then seen. One lucky lady saw 3 together, at RM! Now, that’s just being greedy. I eventually managed to see a female, on the dead tree, outside the Kingfisher Hide.

The Tawny Owlets, at RM, finally fledged, with one or two still being seen around the area. Hirundines are still scarce, for me anyway. Again, probably because I’ve not been looking up. Swifts are also now present, but again, in low numbers. I really must look up on occasion.

The resident RM Kingfisher pair fledged their first brood, right at the end of the month. At least 5, maybe 6, fledglings were seen. I, of course, turned up the next day.

The over-wintering Cetti’s and Chiffchaff numbers were swollen with incoming migrants. They were ably accompanied by goodly numbers of Reed, Sedge and Blackcap, with sightings of Willow and Garden. The passerines were now mostly absent, probably tending to young.

These were all either at Amwell or RM. My visit to the LWC provided sightings of birds I wouldn’t normally get to see. It’s the reason why I visit. A high total included Bewick’s Swan, White-headed Duck, Eider, Black Swan, Whistling Ducks, Red-breasted Goose and Southern Screamer. All of them close up and a delight to see; especially at feeding time.

Plus, of course, they also had the birds I do normally see, including Little Ringed Plover, Redshank, Common Tern, Smew, Goldeneye and Sand Martin. Oddly, not many Warblers were heard or seen. Possibly because of too much disturbance - i.e. families?

There weren’t too many mammals or other such-like about this month. ‘Ratty’ the Water Vole was the star again, at RM. A Grass Snake was seen, fleetingly, as were several Brown Rats.

I was delighted to discover that the invertebrate season was now in full swing. More and more butterflies were now on the wing. Respectable numbers of Brimstone, lots of Holly Blues, the last of the Orange Tips, several Peacocks and Red Admirals were now about, while a few Small Whites and Speckled Woods started to appear. There was a lovely sighting of a Painted Lady, near to the Kingfisher Hide, while the LWC presented me with my first Common Blue of the season.

Several Mint Moths were also now starting to appear, as were Silver Ground Carpets. My moth trap was starting to bring in some interesting stuff, including Bee Moth. When, of course, I remember to keep the corridor window open!

The Odonata season has finally started! Deep joy! Blues at first, led mainly by Azures, followed by lots of Large Reds and a few Red-eyed. Then my favourites, the Banded Demoiselles started to show. The first dragons started to appear, with the usual Hairy Hawkers leading the charge, being ably supported by Black-tailed Skimmers. It was a good start and I’m hoping it will continue.

More and more Ladybirds, of varying spots, were being seen. The seasonal flies, like Alder and St. Mark’s came and went. The last of the Bee-flies were seen, at Rye Meads, early on - it’s been a good season for them. Likewise, it was also good to see plenty of Bees out in large numbers, always pleasing to witness. Cuckoo spit appeared nearly everywhere I looked, indicating that a large number of Froghoppers will soon be appearing. Dark Bush Cricket nymphs were about, as were Dock Bugs. There were sightings of Green Nettle Weevils, Green Shield Bugs and even a pair of Green Tortoise Beetles.

My first Leaf Beetles appeared. There were lots of Mayflies and Mint Leaf Beetles. Several Red-headed Cardinal Beetles were a delight to see, but I then found two Black-headed Cardinal Beetles at RM. Finally, Soldier Beetles were out in big battalions, as were Spotted Crane Flies and Thick-kneed Flower Beetles. I even managed to spot my first-ever Rose Chafer, which was a lot bigger than I thought they would be. A Fire Bug and a Ruby-tailed Wasp were observed, fleetingly, at the LWC.

However, the star of the month was undoubtedly a Golden-bloomed Grey Longhorn beetle, found at RM. It was only my second-ever sighting of one.

I was already in ‘Insect Heaven’. I’ll have to start digging out the ‘kevlar-reinforced’ trousers again!

The flower of the month was a lovely Bee Orchid, seen at the LWC, only my second-ever sighting of this lovely flower. Other orchids were also now in bloom, with the Orchid Garden at Amwell, looking particularly beautiful. All areas are now awash with flora, of all shapes, colours and sizes. There are some fantastic displays about now, especially at the LWC and Amwell.

All in all, despite only five visits and a poor(ish) month, weather-wise, it turned out to be an excellent few weeks. Summer is now almost upon us and I’m hoping that it won’t turn out to be another wash-out, like last year. It’s also holiday season and I’ve got some excellent trips lined up!

Watch this space!

I've been searching all over the world for a cure to my travel bug.

For more of my photos please visit my Flickr site.

Or you could follow me on Twitter!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

April Highlights!

WeatherAt the start of April, an area of low pressure brought showers, building up from the south. It was then reasonably warm until the 9th, with plenty of sunshine for much of the country. From the 10th onwards, temperatures were mostly close to average, with some cool nights, but the dry, anticyclonic theme continued. There was a late cold snap towards the end of the month, when a northerly outbreak brought scattered wintry showers and some overnight frosts.

Places Visited:  Amwell; River Stort/Thorley Wash; Rye Meads.

Star Sightings of the Month:
Bird: Green Sandpiper
Mammal: Water Vole
Butterfly: Small Tortoiseshell
Insect: Bee-fly
Flower: Bluebells

Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote
and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.Michael Palin

It was a tale of two halves, this month. The first two weeks were quite productive, whilst, unfortunately, the final two were disastrous, due to ill health.

However, before the illness, I managed visits out to Amwell, Rye Meads and the first outing of the year along the River Stort, ending up in HMWT Thorley Wash.

It was also a case of ‘April Showers’ this month, as most days were either wet or overcast. However, of the five days that I did manage to get out and about, all were sunny, warm and with clear(ish) skies.

First up, was a visit to Rye Meads, continuing its’ fine run of form and lead on the merit table. Two more visits were made, later in the month and sightings included Shelduck, Little Ringed Plover, Redshank, Green Sandpiper, Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail, Jay and Reed Bunting. The first of the new seasons’ Warblers showed here, with Reed & Sedge giving sporadic views.

The Green Sandpipers performed admirably, walking right up to the Hide, giving some great close-up views, in the sunshine. The Grey Wagtails did the same, while the resident male Kingfisher flew up on to the nearest stick, delighting everyone present. A pair of Redshank weren’t as accommodating, but were nonetheless a great sight to see.

If that wasn’t enough, a Tawny Owl was spotted nesting in the Kestrel Box, outside the Kingfisher Hide. A little later, it was confirmed that at least 2 chicks were also present. They weren’t good views, but it was fantastic to see them poking their little heads out, looking at us looking at them.

The one visit to Amwell brought me Little Egret, Garganey, Sparrowhawk, Oystercatcher, and Reed Bunting. The water levels were still quite high, meaning not much action was seen on the wader front; apart from the Oystercatchers and Lapwing. However, it was the 2 male and 1 female Garganey that were the stars of the day. All eventually giving some terrific views from the Watchpoint and the White Hide.

The following week I decided to try my luck with a stroll up the River Stort, towards HMWT Thorley Wash. It was a very good decision. The walk allowed me to spot my first Swallow and Blackcap of the season. There were plenty of other warblers about, including more Sedge Warblers. A couple of Buzzards were seen, screaming high in the sky and I even heard the brief, but distinctive call of a Water Rail.

Due to the wet weather, it wasn’t too surprising to see plenty of wildfowl still about. Although, numbers were noticeably down this month.

On the Mammal front, Brown Rat, Fox and Muntjac appeared at Rye Meads. However, the star of month was again ‘Ratty’ the Water Vole. It showed up again, in the same place as before, giving more great views, as it chewed on the bark. A Grass Snake appeared, fleetingly, in between Kingfisher sightings.

More and more butterfly species appeared. Green-veined White, Holly Blue, Orange Tip, Red Admiral and Speckled Wood all showed well. There were further sightings of Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. Unfortunately, no moths have showed yet, despite my homemade ‘moth trap’, where I keep the corridor windows open, overnight.

The Odonata season has begun without me, illness unfortunately keeping me in. The Dragonfly Trail is now open at Amwell and I’m extremely keen to pay my first visit. In fact, I’m desperate to pay a visit to see Odonata anywhere at the moment.

New invertebrates continue to appear and in some numbers, too. Alderflies, Banded Snail, Common Carder Bee, Dock Bug, an unidentified Ichneumon, Long-jawed Orb Spider and Nursery Web Spider were all new-for-year. A few St. Mark’s Flies also appeared, a few days earlier than they did last year.

Despite the mainly poor(ish) weather this month, it was good to see lots of insects about. It’s always a good sign of a healthy ecosystem.

The first Bluebells appeared, at Amwell and Rye Meads, always a delight to see. Cowslip, Cow Parsley, Cuckoo Flower and Forget-Me-Knots were all flowering now.

So, after a good start to the month, everything then went downhill. I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘over-the-counter’ medicines aren’t much good.

Hopefully, the weather will warm up and the sun will shine, enabling me to see my first dragons and damsels of the season very soon.

Revolution must be spontaneous.’ Rosa Luxemburg

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Monday, 10 April 2017

March Highlights!

WeatherThe start of the month saw changeable weather, with wintry showers for some and mild weather for others. The mild weather continued, before turning briefly colder by the third week. Several dry, sunny days then followed, before turning wetter towards the end of the month.

Places Visited: Abberton/Mersea; Amwell; Cheshunt; Rye Meads.

Star Sightings of the Month:
Bird: Bittern
Mammal: Water Vole
Butterfly: Orange Tip
Insect: Bee-fly
Flower: Daffodils

I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good
Elizabeth Bennet, Pride and Prejudice.

This month sees the customary migrant shift-change. There were plenty of comings and goings, with the winter birds heading off, being replaced with spring ones. However, there is always a small overlap which produces a few lean days.

On the plus side, the weather warmed up, giving us the hottest days of the year, so far. I might have to dig out my suntan cream soon. I might even be able to put my ‘magic scarf’ in storage!

It was a brilliant start to the month, at Rye Meads, with a spectacular sighting of a Bittern. RM continues to be the Reserve to beat, as the Bittern was seen again later in the month. Shelduck, Sparrowhawk, Oystercatcher, Little Ringed Plover, Green Sandpiper and Kingfisher all gave very good views, over several visits.

Elsewhere, Amwell finally started to improve. There were the last showings of Goldeneye and the ever dwindling winter wildfowl. A few Red-legged Partridges were a surprise sighting. There were also Redshank, Coal Tit and Treecreeper on show. I stayed late one evening, for the Barn Owl. It flew across the Watchpoint, giving several of us a ghostly fly-past.

The one trip to Cheshunt produced a wonderful courtship display by the, now resident, pair of Great Crested Grebes. Nesting began soon afterwards. A pair of Egyptian Geese proved good value, allowing me to approach to within a few yards. Although an otherwise quiet visit, bird-wise, it was a very satisfying and relaxing day out.

The combined trip to Abberton/Mersea proved to be a little disappointing, mainly due to the weather, which was misty and foggy for most of the day. Carol had promised sunshine until at least midday. There was quite a strong, cold wind as well. And I hadn’t brought my magic scarf.

All the usual birds were about though, but special mentions go to Brent Goose, Goosander, Goldeneye, Grey Plover, Dunlin and Curlew. Unfortunately, most of them were quite distant and so I wasn’t able to take many photos.

On the Mammal front, sightings improved somewhat. The Bank Vole outside the James Hide, at Amwell, provided some great entertainment, while there were brilliant views of a Water Vole munching on bark outside the Ashby Hide, at Rye Meads. Fox and Muntjac both showed well, with one Fox being particularly accommodating at RM, disturbing the Bittern, which promptly landed quite close to the Hide I was in.

I was also delighted to see the first butterflies of the season appear. There were lots of Commas early on, followed by Brimstone, Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell. I’m sure that, if the weather holds, more species will soon appear.

The reasonable weather also started to bring out the invertebrates. One of the first insects to reveal themselves are Bee-flies, with a few of them giving some particularly good views, posing nicely for the camera. Ladybirds, Bees and Hoverflies were also out in good numbers. There were millions of Midges at the Layer de la Haye Causeway!

Flowers were now starting to bloom again, thanks to the warm sunshine. The last of the Crocus and Snowdrops were replaced with Daffodils, Hawthorn, Lesser Celandine and Primrose. My botany lessons started again, with recognition of Pussy Willow.

All in all, another very good month. Quality and quantity, with Rye Meads taking the monthly honours again. Although, I have to say, there appears to be an increase in dog-walkers. And doggy-bags.

I’m always wary of March, as the migration season usually keeps sightings down. The twitchers love this month, though, with the winds bringing in rarities, which seems to greatly excite them. Not for me, I always yearn for April, when the main course starts. Roll on the Odonata season!

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge
faster than society gathers wisdom.Isaac Asimov

For more of my photos please visit my Flickr site.
Or you could follow me on Twitter!

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Fjords, Arctic Birds & Northern Lights!

 Fjords, Arctic Birds & Northern Lights.
A Norwegian Coastal Voyage: 23-28 February 17

Weather: Very cold. Heavy snow.

Birds: 34 species seen, including King Eider.
Plus: Elk; Reindeer.

'There's no-one up there in Northern Norway. The foods’ terrible, but it's very,
very beautiful to look at, if you've got eyes and enjoy looking.' David Hockney

Slow down and enjoy life. It's not only the scenery you miss by going too fast;
you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.’ Eddie Cantor

'Right now I would rank Norway as the largest country in the world;
I have never seen anything like it.' Barack Obama

'Apart from their goals, Norway haven't scored.' Terry Venables

It’s the Land of the Midnight Sun. A country of almost unbelievable natural beauty, from its fairytale-like fjords and its glacier plateaus, to its incredible mountain backdrops, which leads to it being one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Norway is a sovereign territory on the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula. It has a total area of over 385,000 sqkms and a population of over 5.2m. The country shares a long eastern border with Sweden and is bordered by Finland and Russia to the north-east, with Denmark to the south. Norway has an extensive coastline, facing the North Atlantic Ocean and the Barents Sea.

There are few places on earth which offer more ways to witness the Aurora Borealis. Experiencing the ‘out of this world’ colours moving across the Arctic sky is on many travellers’ bucket list. On a very basic level, the Northern Lights appear when the skies darken, resulting in collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere, with charged particles released from the Sun's atmosphere. It’s like a celestial ballet of light dancing across the night sky, with a colour palette of green, pink and violet. A sight that has to be seen to be believed.

Eleven of us were standing there, staring upwards, mouths wide open, under a very long plume of green light, streaking across the skies above us, looking supernatural but breathtaking. At last, I was looking up at the Aurora Borealis, the northern hemisphere’s fabulous light show.

Finally. It was my third time of asking, as two previous trips had resulted in nothing but cloudy skies and near misses. This time, it was third time lucky.

We were standing in the middle of nowhere, called Skulsfjord, just outside Tromso. It was cold, very cold. No, actually it was freezing. I was wearing as many layers as humanly possible, probably looking like ‘Michelin Man’. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes!

I was also trying to photograph the Lights. With very little success, I might add. I had followed all the expert instructions, reading up on the subject extensively, before I had left home. Correct camera and lens, correct settings, tripod, etc. However, my efforts only resulted in darkened photos. What was I doing wrong?

The long journey to Tromso had begun much earlier that morning, leaving home at 1.25am. Taxi, Coach, Plane and then, finally, car, brought us to our first hotel, the ‘Clarion Collection’. Surprisingly, every form of transport had arrived early. So far, so good.

The journey itself was relatively easy and relaxing, with only a few minor complications – the usual check-in and security taking seemingly forever and one or two problems obtaining the necessary amount of Kronor at five in the morning. The whole journey, door to door, took about 12 hours or so, with most of it waiting in departure lounges etc. The usual thing associated with travelling. It’s the only depressing thing about holidays.

Our Tour Guide Leaders, Rob & David met me in the departures lounge. Together, we hunted for the rest of the group. It wasn’t too difficult. Like me, they all stood out like sore thumbs, all wearing the necessary and very obvious de rigueur for wildlife travel and adventure.

After retrieving our baggage and a short wait for hire cars, we headed off. There was a quick stop at a Supermarket, to pick up our lunch and then we set off on the coastal road towards Kvaloyvagen and the Kvalsunder Strait, where we found Long-tailed Ducks and Common Eider, our first real birds of the trip. The ubiquitous Hooded Crow had already been ticked much earlier.

Even though the weather was sunny, if a little cold, in Oslo, we encountered heavy snow on arrival in Tromso, almost having to dig our hire cars out. It was also extremely cold. However, after checking in to our hotel, I had one of those delightful surprises in my room: a warm, tiled bathroom floor!

With not much need to unpack – we were moving on the next day – I decided to check out the Bar. I found myself chatting to a few of the others in our group and then we had dinner, at around 8.30.

Both Rob & David had informed us, over dinner that the weather forecast for the evening wasn’t too encouraging. Maybe Carol had something to do with it, I thought.

However, it was decided to give it a try anyway. We were here and on holiday! On the way, in the car with David, I told him of my previous failures, pessimism evident in my voice. David was new to Naturetrek, this was his first trip and he had been taken on because of his extensive knowledge of all things stellar, a new and highly inventive direction for the company.

We duly arrived at Skulsfjord and, to my total surprise, there above us, the most amazing view of the Aurora Borealis could be seen. The TGLs had found the only gap in the clouds, for miles around!

David was standing there, grinning at me. ‘There it is!’ He was helpfully pointing upward. I was initially gob smacked. This soon turned to panic, as I clawed at my bag, trying to retrieve my optics and set my tripod up, not easy with gloves on and in the dark.

Even though we seemed to be in an area away from light pollution, we were continually lit up by car headlights, which were frequently passing by.

This was the moment I had started having a few problems, trying to capture photographs of this amazing spectacle. David, beside me, also with camera and tripod, seemed to be getting some great shots, while I only managed a few poor, almost blacked-out record shots.

It was all very frustrating and so I contented myself with just witnessing the amazing spectacle above me. I say ‘just’ ever so lightly. I promised myself to investigate further, as regards the camera settings.

We arrived back at the hotel a few hours later and, with a few of the others, hit the bar for a few celebratory beers. I’d finally ‘ticked’ the Northern Lights! Chuffed wasn’t the word.

Breakfast was at 8 the next morning and, after loading up, we were on the road around 9. I’m quite sure that I wasn’t the only one with a smile still on my face.

We retraced our steps, heading towards the island of Kvaloya. Still glowing after last night’s success, we then concentrated our efforts on birding. Our first stop was at a fish processing plant. Naturetrek takes us to all the nicest places!

Despite frequent, heavy snow showers and lots of ‘white horses’ over the lake, we again spotted Common Eider, a very large group. We could also see Cormorant, Shag, a smattering of Gulls and more Long-tailed Duck. Then I spotted a small group of Red-breasted Mergansers, swimming purposefully away from us, having caught sight our group, gurning at them.

Then Rob spied another, distant group of Eiders and was certain that there were a few King Eiders amongst them. It was quite difficult identifying them, through the snow showers and at that distance. A slightly faulty Scope couldn’t provide a definitive answer.

We moved on to a place called Sommeroy. Despite the poor quality light the scenery looked to be quite breath-taking. We passed fabulous fjords and wonderfully picturesque fishing villages.

Stopping several times, for scenic photographs, we managed to see a small variety of wildlife. There were several semi-wild Reindeer to be seen, pawing at the deep snow, trying to graze. The weather here was astonishing, compared to what we experience in the UK. I’ll never look at snow at home the same way again.

We stopped for lunch in Sommeroy village, warming ourselves up with the local hot coffee. We then decided to take a circuit around the village, seeing a small flock of Snow Bunting. Unfortunately, there was a very stiff, cold breeze blowing and so we cut the walk short.

I took a look out over the harbour, while the others were finishing their coffee. There were a few Common Eiders up close and then I spotted a pair of Purple Sandpipers in the distance, foraging among the rocks. When we eventually moved on we passed more of them, this time a little closer, affording a much better view.

Taking the coast road back to Tromso, we managed to see a White-tailed Eagle, a juvenile, flying over. A second was seen a little later on, perched up on a rock, by the shoreline. A little further on, someone spotted an Elk. It was initially hidden by a few trees, but eventually he walked out into the open, giving everyone some great views.

The only other bird of note was what Richard and I believed to be a Yellow Wagtail. It was quite hard to believe that it was still around, in this weather, as they were all supposed to be in deepest Africa, at this time of year.

The weather seemed to change at the drop of a hat, being clear and sunny one minute, then becoming very overcast and snowing hard the next. It was generally very cold, going down to -9 at one point. The wind-chill brought the mercury down even further.

Eventually we returned to the hotel. As it was still quite light, we were given an opportunity to take a short tour of the City. To my surprise, we spotted Common Eider on the local river, totally unconcerned by the busy hubbub of City life all around them.

Later, after dinner, David treated us to a short, but sweet, presentation and lecture of the Aurora Borealis. It only served to whet our appetite to see more live action.

We had already officially checked out of the hotel before we headed out for the day, so I decided to have a few beers to while away the few remaining hours.

That’s because we weren’t able to embark on the Hurtigruten’s ‘Kong Harold’ until around midnight. Embarkation turned out to be quick and painless. I was soon allocated a room onboard a ship, by myself, for the first time, which was at the very front, or what I call the ‘pointy end’.

It was to be a 3-night stay, slowly sailing the 1,000-kilometres south, towards our destination, Trondheim.

After sorting my gear out I tried to settle down to sleep. This proved to be quite difficult, as the ship noisily weighed anchor and kept me awake, as we headed off. We made several more stops during the night. I slept on and off through to morning.

My cabin was, as to be expected, quite ‘bijou’. It was a twin-bedded room, but the other bed had been turned into a sofa. However, as they say, ‘it's not small, just space-efficient’. Both the showers here and back at the hotel were excellent, an important tick. Plus, there was again under-floor heating. Bliss!

Up around 8 for breakfast. The evening before, Rob had informed us that we were free to do our own thing during the entire journey. This, for me, would be mainly sea-watching.

Breakfast was quite a good spread, with a very wide selection. Not long after, we were apprised of what was where, on the ship. A few maps helped enormously. Then it was up on deck, for the first wildlife watch. Dressed appropriately, of course and armed with my magic scarf.

The first watch elicited White-tailed Eagle, Scoters, both Common and Velvet, Long-tailed Duck and Eiders, both Common and King. However, it was the stunning, dramatic scenery that took the icy breath away. The imposing range of snow-capped mountains either side reminded me of the trip I had taken up the Lemaire Channel, down in the Antarctic, many years before.

Of course, the clear, sunny blue skies helped tremendously. There were beautiful, colourful fishing villages to be seen, against a backdrop of mountains stained white with snow and ice, as we glided serenely by. The clear skies also brought hope for the coming evening.

The ship docked several times during the day, proving to be the best times to keep an eye out for wildlife. When the gong sounded for lunch I settled for just a coffee and a sandwich, as I had gorged on a big breakfast earlier. That had been an excellent tip from Rob.

As I hadn’t had much sleep overnight, I dozed for an hour mid-afternoon, before going back up top. I had a quick coffee break, before returning for one last outing before dark. There was nothing new to be seen, by me, but a few of the others had reported Otter and Harbour Porpoise.

Early evening saw us enter the Strait of Raftsundet, billed as one of the most scenic parts of the voyage. Everyone went up on deck, to witness the rugged, snowy peaks either side dropping dramatically into the deep, dark blue sea, making it look for all the while as if we were in the middle of Tolkien’s ‘Middle Earth’. I half expected ‘Gandalf’ to make an appearance.

Not long after, we docked in Svolvaer, in the Lofoten Islands, one of the best places to see the Lights. It was only a short stay and an hour later we were at sea again.

Almost immediately, the ‘Jungle Drums’ announced that there was a beautiful Aurora forming outside. I was already geared up, eagerly awaiting the call, new camera settings in place and tripod in hand.

We’d had a team meeting around six, to plan the evening, followed by an early dinner, where I had found Rob to be fluent in Italian, assisting another passenger. Are there no limits to Naturetrek’s TGL expertise?

We all raced up on deck to see a spectacular Northern Lights show. The skies were clear and the air was crisp and, as we all peered upwards, we could see a long, thick green plume of light slashing across the night sky. It gave us an equally fantastic star display, with the constellation of Orion, the associated Nebula, the Pleiades and the Andromeda Galaxy all pointed out by David and viewed through the scope. It was all unquestionably high on the milliHelen scale.

Although initially, it was a frustrating start. I had headed to the 'blunt end' of the ship, to find everyone else had had the same idea. I couldn’t get any clear shots, as people were always in the way. Eventually, David suggested we head to the 'pointy end', which we found was fortunately devoid of any other passengers. Soon we were all set up, taking photographs. Happily, the new settings worked and I managed to get some pretty good shots.

The Lights continued to flow overhead for another hour or so, delighting us and I later retired to bed a very happy chappy. It was a Chris Packham-like moment; thighs rubbed so much I would have to start wearing my kevlar-reinforced trousers, from now on.

However, I again had a poor nights sleep, mainly due to the constant workings of the ship, plus an badly aching shoulder. I wasn’t going to let it spoil the holiday, though. If I had to, I would snatch a few hours during the day.

After breakfast, we went up on deck to celebrate crossing the Arctic Circle, which we did with a glass of champagne. 66°33′ was marked by sailing past a golden globe structure, on top of Vikingen Island.

I passed on the proffered silver spoon souvenir. You had to swallow cod liver oil to qualify for one. Although, later, I bought the obligatory stamps, fridge magnets and a t-shirt.

I then spent a few hours catching up on some sleep, before togging up again and returning for an hour on deck. Later, I planted myself down, on a very comfortable reclining seat, in the viewing deck, at the pointy end, for a few hours, idly watching the mesmerising landscape pass slowly by.

It was during this period of heavy inertia that the ‘Jungle Drums’ informed us that we were about to pass the ‘Seven Sisters’, a famous line of mountains reaching up to 1,000 metres, which were steeped in local folklore. Unfortunately, I was being attacked by torpor at the time, ably supported by liberal doses of stupor. Nevertheless, I forced myself up and went on deck to take the obligatory photos.

After dinner, we had a few beers, before gearing up for another ‘Aurora Watch’. Even though the weather had been poor today, it had begun to clear up just before dusk. However, the lights failed to materialise this time and so I had an early night. Sadly, the kevlar wasn’t needed this evening.

I finally had a good night’s sleep. I had also found out what was making the almost continuous and incessant banging noises during the night. It was the metal coat hangars in the wooden wardrobe - doh!

The next morning saw us arrive at the very picturesque city of Trondheim. There was time for a leisurely breakfast, before we disembarked and transferred over to our second and final hotel, the Scandic Nidelven. As we were early, we had to wait a while, before checking in.

Then some of us went for a equally leisurely walk around the town, ending up at the famous Nidaros Cathedral, built over the burial site of Saint Olav, the King of Norway during the 10th Century. He later became the patron saint of the country.


During the walk, we surprisingly managed to spot Goldeneye, Goosander and Common Eider, on the local river. There were also sightings of Greenfinch, Blue and Great Tit, House Sparrow, Nuthatch and Fieldfare, in and around the cathedral grounds. It was a very productive birding walk, which made up for all the ‘dead stuff’, as I call it. Regular readers will know that I’m not a great fan of museums or cathedrals these days.

We had another packed lunch, before catching a tram to the local wildlife reserve in Bymarka. There was a slight problem with the transport mid-journey, forcing us to transfer to another tram. I was amused to find that it wasn’t just the Brits that had public transport problems.

We eventually arrived at Bymarka, where we spotted Hawfinch, Coal Tit, Bullfinch and Siskin. The forest provided quite a spectacular scene, with all the conifers covered in sparkling snow. Just like the postcards!

However, even out here, in the midst of all this wondrous beauty, I spotted a dog taking his owner for a walk.

We arrived back early evening for a quick hotel beer, before a hotel dinner. It was a very nice meal, like all the food out here, but this time it was one of those ‘nouveau cuisine’ meals. So I had a cheese course as well. Plus an ‘Irish Coffee’. Well, I was on holiday! I finished off with one more beer. Bed early.

I wandered down to breakfast around 9. The breakfasts in this hotel had been touted as the best in Norway, for a number of years. I was suitably impressed, seeing the biggest range of breakfast foods imaginable.

Sadly, it was our last day. We checked out of the hotel at 9.30 and then checked into the airport. A short flight to Oslo, then London, where everyone bade their fond farewells. From there I caught an early coach back to Stansted and then trained it home.

It was the end of a buckwashingly delumptious holiday, which I would recommend whole heartily. Both of the tour guide leaders, Rob & David were brilliant, if not downright friendly, as were the rest of the group. The Aurora Borealis weren’t too shabby, either. The Kevlar is optional.

A small but excellent party,’ said the man. He was drinking alone. (Norwegian Proverb)

The Swedish invented the toilet seat.
Twenty years later, the Norwegians invented the hole in it.’