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.’

Thursday, 9 March 2017

February Highlights!

Weather: At the start of the month, a south-westerly brought mild, but unsettled weather, which was wet and windy, frequently sweeping north-eastwards across the UK. Conditions then became colder and quieter, with regular easterly winds and snow for some in the second week. From the third week onwards it was generally mild and after a fairly quiet spell, it turned wet and windy towards the end of the month. Storm Doris brought damaging winds and significant snow for some.

Places Visited: Amwell; Cheshunt; Norway; Rye Meads.

Star Sightings of the Month:
Bird: King Eider
Mammal: Moose

The Arctic is a canary in the coal mine of the world’s climate.
It's sending us a warning cry.

The highlight this month was the much-anticipated trip to Norway, to try to see the Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights. I had failed to see them on earlier trips, in years gone by.

However, this time my luck finally changed, seeing great displays over two nights. One was on dry land, just outside Tromso, whilst the other display was on board one of the famous Hurtigruten cruise ships.

After a few abortive and frustrating attempts, I managed to take a few photographs. Before the trip I had read up on which settings to use and, although heeding the advice, the results weren’t too encouraging. However, when I ‘did my own thing’, the results were quite spectacular, even if I say so myself.

The ‘Lights’ weren’t the only things to see in northern Norway. King and Common Eiders were present and in some numbers, together with Long-tailed Duck, Common and Velvet Scoter, Goldeneye, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, White-tailed Eagle, Purple Sandpiper, Black Guillemots, Coal Tit, Nuthatch, Hawfinch, Bullfinch, Siskin and Snow Bunting. It was a short list, with only 34 species seen - by me - but a quality one.

There was also a surprise bird that was much deliberated by the group. At least three of us saw what we were fairly sure was a Yellow Wagtail, a bird that should have be down in Africa around now. Unfortunately, it flew off before I could get a photo.

The mammal count was low, but, apart from loads of Reindeer, we had a wonderful sighting of a Moose. A few Harbour Porpoise and Otter were seen by others in the group.

On the last day, in Trondheim, I was in such a good mood I even let the others drag me around on a City Tour, taking in some dead stuff, i.e. Museums and Cathedrals. I must have been happy – I even took a few photos!

Norway’s visit was at the end of the month. Due to poor weather, I only managed two other visits this month. A combined trip to Amwell/Rye Meads and another to Cheshunt.

My good friends, Shane and Marianne, made the trip up to see me, for the combined visit. I wasn’t sure which Reserve we should go to, so I hedged my bets and suggested we visit both.

The morning visit to Amwell produced Water Rail, Goldeneye, Sparrowhawk, Red Kite, Siskin, Kingfisher and Muntjac. The visit to Rye Meads was just as productive, seeing Shelduck, Grey Heron, Chiffchaff, Kingfisher, Green Sandpiper, Grey Wagtail, Buzzard and Little Egret.

There was a report of a Bittern at RM, but it remained elusive to us. It was a cold, but excellent day, with great company.

The trip to Cheshunt was a lot more interesting than the previous visit there. Reports of Smew a few days earlier had tempted me down. It had been seen on one of the lakes I don’t usually visit. After about 15 minutes, I spotted the drake, floating beside a small island, in the middle of the lake. It was a good start.

A little later, a Redhead was seen on Friday Lake. Little Egret was seen, then I found a pair of Great Crested Grebes, in courtship mode, in the same area as last year. I watched them for about 30 minutes, seeing the weed exchange, before moving on. Mindful of earlier experiences, I also kept a wary eye out for any dog-walkers.

Unfortunately, it was another Bittern no-show again today. However, there were excellent close-up views of Water Rail and Jay. There were also a pair of White-fronted Geese, at the back of lake.

A little later, on the way back, I had terrific, close-up views of Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Kingfisher, while a pair of Muntjac eyed me cautiously, from the opposite bank, as I walked by.

Not many outings this month, after last month’s extravaganza, but all were memorable in their own way.

Hopefully, the weather will improve in March. I’ve been looking forward to my favourite season – Spring – for seemingly ages.

Empty vessels make the most noise.

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