Sunday, November 26, 2017

On top of the world (Norway)

As a present from my brother, Natalia and I made a long weekend trip up to Norway.

This was much more of a bucket list trip than a birding trip.

We got really lucky with a clear night and intense aurora activity. Clouds can thwart light chasers for days, so going on trip to see the lights can be a big gamble.
I was curious to discover what bird life could persist at such a high latitude (~70 degrees) so late in the season. How do birds cope with so little daylight?

We didn't exactly solve that mystery. All I can say is that clearly some small Passerines have figured it out, such as Great Tit, Treecreeper, Bullfinch, and Greenfinch, to name a few that we stumbled upon. And then there were large flocks of Redwings flowing across the countryside.

The sun traces a lazy low arc, barely cresting the horizon for a few hours. In theory this sounds terribly depressing. In practice what you get is a daily 6 hour sunrise/sunset, which sets the rugged, snow-covered landscape aglow.

Norway is a dream for photographers. I feel like I'm letting them down a bit with this average shot.

The Tromsø waterfront is teaming with Common Eiders. We tried hard to pick through the flocks for a King, but came up empty. Still it was pretty neat to get to look down on hundreds of these things from a bridge and watch them take off on underwater flights into the frigid depths.

A few of the several hundred Common Eider foraging around Tromsø

A few Long-tailed Ducks were tucked in the harbor.
I was excited to get out whale watching. Typically the same prey that attracts whales often brings in flocks of sea birds as well. Unfortunately the herring schools hadn't yet returned to the fjords around Tromsø  this season, so we had to be shuttled 3 hours over to Skjervoy to get out and after the humpbacks.

This meant that our time on the water was a bit brief. We did get to see a young humpback attempt some breaches and bird highlights for us were our first ever looks at Black-legged Kittiwake (finally!). A few came in to investigate the wake of our boat.

Of course the crew had a singular focus of chasing blow spouts of whales, which were all over the place. There were plenty of alcids about too, but the ones close enough to identify were either Puffins or Common Murres. I'm sure there were some Thick-billed Murres and Black Guillemots lurking out there someplace, but alcid chasing wasn't exactly on the agenda!

At a bathroom stop on our way to the port, I pointed out a flock of alcids flying past, which our Italian guide enthusiastically declared to be 'Little Auks.' This inspired in me a great measure of excitement, which dissipated when I later realized that 'Little Auk,' is just the British term for 'Dovekie,' a bird I have seen many times in the US. These birds in question weren't Dovekie/Little Auk anyway, but rather young winter plumage Atlantic Puffins. Classic.

We ended up with 21 species, which sounds like nothing, but is actually quite a few given how little daylight we had to work with and that our birding was almost entirely incidental. Tromsø gives a nice taste of the arctic birdscape. It be interesting to visit again in summer.

 I'll leave you with this quintessential arctic inhabitant.
This is a poor photo (taken at a great distance from a moving boat) of an Iceland Gull in the harbor at Skjervoy. These aren't terribly unexpected in this location, but the Europe book says they are 'rare.'