Varangerfjord Diary

 

A couple of years ago i went to the Varangerjord in late winter to photograph the wintering King and Stellar eiders. Coming March i will be making this exciting trip again. Not many photographers go there that time of the year as it is not easy to get to!

I will be flying to Helsinki, followed by a connecting flight to Ivalo. From there onwards, transport will be a 4-wheel drive car. Although winter is coming to an end, snow will be  in abundance and the temperatures will still be very much below freezing. The trip will take me to the fishing harbors of Vardo, Vadso, Kongsberg and Batsfjord.

Not only King and Stellar eiders are wintering there but also other duck species like Long Tailed duck. Various Arctic species like Glaucous gull will also be wintering in the harbours.

An overnight stay in Kaamanen will give me ample opportunities to photograph the Pine grosbeak, Siberian Jay and other Boreal bird species, and with a bit of luck: Northern lights!

I will be updating my diary daily, so please stay tuned!

Arctic Redpoll, Kaamanen Finland

 

Me photographing Northern light, Kaamanen, Finland  (image courtesy Hugh Harrop)

 

Saturday 9th of March

A great trip has started and as usual .....early in the morning. By 05.15 Hans and myself arrived at Heathrow T3 where we met the other photographers at the check-in desk of Finnair. The check in was not as smooth as i hoped as Finnair has ridiculous weight restrictions on board their planes. 8KG! For fellow photographers ever going to Finland i can only recommend to avoid Finnair and fly British Airways. After some gentle intervention by Hugh Harrop i finally got through!

The flight took just over 3 hours, we had to wait for another 4 for our connecting flight to Ivalo where we arrived around 17.30. Another hour's drive took us to our cosey hotel in Kaamanen.

After diner we took our camera's outside. The night sky was clear and we were hoping to catch some Northern lights! We were not disappointed. They showed nicely and we were able to take some nice images. By midnight we were all in bed. Tomorrow we would spend most of the day at the bird feeders near the hotel. Famous for all kind of boreal bird species like Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit and Pine Grosbeak.

A rustic hotel with a fabulous bird feeder

Sunday 10th of March

I was up by 07.00. A beautiful day and only minus 10! I checked out the feeders and the first birds were already arriving. We had a quick breakfast and made our way to the bird feeder. Having the luxury of a hotel "around the corner" is a great way of photographing birds. When you are cold; just nip inside for a coffee!

The birds were very active and we took many images of the boreal species like Redpoll, Pine Grosbeak and Siberian jay. Even though you have the convenience to photograph them next to the hotel, the perches and background are not the best. You really need to work to get good clean images and use a bit of creativity to get the shots! Hugh has been very helpful and made sure that the perches were placed in the best possible positions.

After lunch, we spent another few hours near the feeders and i believe we all got away with some nice images. Diner was served and again we were hoping for Northern lights. the forecast for the evening was overcast but in fact it turned out to be a fantastic night for northern lights. There was a lot of activity and we stayed out till almost midnight. it was absolutely stunning to see the lights 'dancing" in the night sky.

By the time we returned to the hotel, my camera and lens were covered in frost. I used a 14mm Samyang lens for the northern lights. because of its wide angle, it really shows the curtain effect of the northern lights well. An indication of the settings for Northern light with a 2.8/14mm iare 30 seconds, 800 ISO and wide open.

After a quick Whiskey and a chat we all went to bed. Tomorrow we would spend most of the day in the car as we would be going to our next stop: Batsfjord in Norway.

Pine Grosbeak, Kaamanen, Finland

Monday 11th of March

A long drive of over 4 hours would take us over the Fjells into Norway to the fishing village of Batsfjord in Norway. Batsfjord is a great place to photograph wintering King and Steller eiders. Long tailed ducks are also very common. We will be spending time on a boat in the harbor to photograph the ducks and also be spending time in specially erected floating hides in the harbor to photograph the ducks up close and personal.

When we left it was minus 21 and very bright,. Closer to Norway the weather changed and it started to snow. The scenery, especially over the Fjell near Batsfjord, is stunning and we arrived around 14.30 in the afternoon. We quickly went to the hotel to dump our luggage and made our way into the harbor. 

Unfortunately it was very quiet  and we didn't see many ducks. The weather wasn't great either, so after a good hour we called it a day. Tomorrow before dawn, we would be ferried to the floating hides. We will be spending a couple of hours there ( a totally new experience for me), followed by a boat trip through the harbor in search of even more ducks!

Tuesday 12th of March

By 05.00 hours we were in the car for our short drive to the harbor of Batsfjord. This morning we would be spending time in the floating hide. The hide would give us the opportunities to photograph the various duck species from a low angle on the water.

The only way to photograph from this hide is to lay on your belly for a couple of hours while the birds pass the hide to feed in the shallow part of the harbor. It was amazing to be so close to the King eider, Steller eider, Long tailed duck and Common eider. The reflection of a lamp post in the water created great photographic opportunities.

The King eiders were very bold and easy to photograph. I recommend a short lens, like a 400mm or even a zoom lens like a 200-400 for this kind of bird photography. After a little while it started to snow steadily which  changed the setting in and outside the hide. I really liked the snow as it added somethign special to the images and it also shows what a harsh environment these birds live in. 

By 09.00 we were picked up and returned to the hotel to warm up, clean the equipment and recharged the batteries. This afternoon we would "patrol" Batsfjord harbor in 2 small boats in search for ducks that would fly in and out of the harbor.

Common eider from the floating hide

We headed for the landing site and after everyone had fitted a "Mae West" we went off into Batsfjord. The weather had improved somewhat, at least it was not snowing, but the lack of wind made it very difficult to predict in which direction the birds would fly off.

Mattia was scanning the horizon with his binoculars and guided us in the direction of the ducks. The boatman would then steer the small rubber dinky in position and then....we would hope for the best!

The birds were at times flying a bit too far out for some real frame fillers. I used my 400mm again as it is not so heavy which makes it easier to follow the birds when they fly past the boat. A few times we got lucky and had King eiders flying close by.

After a good 1 1/2 hour we headed back to the landing place where i was lucky to meet one of Sweden most famous nature photographers; Brutus Ostling. He told me that he was going to Texel with his family end of March. I told him i would be more then happy to give him some tips!

After a late lunch we headed back to the hotel. the weather was deteriorating again and heavy snow was falling. We decided to call it a day. Tomorrow we would go out on the small boats again. We are promised better weather! After the second assault on the birds, we will heading to our most northerly destination; Vardo.

For every serious bird photographer i can really recommend this destination in late Winter. The floating hide is really awesome.

Stellar's from the boat against Batsfjord fjell

 

Brutus Ostling and me

Wednesday 13th of March

Today was our last day in Batsfjord. As the weather wasn't fantastic yesterday, we decided to do a final Zodiac tour through the Batsfjord and harbor in search for cooperating ducks like King and Steller Eiders.

When i opened the curtains early this morning i was greeted by heavy snowfall. To be honest: i would have liked to see the sun, but you have to get on with it. So i put on all my outdoor kit, loaded the camera bag in the car and off we went to the pontoons to try our luck there before heading for the Zodiac.

It turned out to be a damned good decision. There were many King, Steller eiders and long tailed ducks sheltering from the snow. I can honestly say i took my nicest images this morning. Like a King eider with a starfish and displaying Long Tailed ducks.

After spending an hour or so, we returned to the hotel for breakfast. By 09.00 we were at the landing place and; the sun finally showed! We headed into the Batsfjord and spent a good 2 hours with the various duck species, who were all pretty cooperative! Flight shots were order of the day!  

I was thinking of using the 600mm on the flying birds but at the end opted again for the 400mm. I still think this is by far the BEST option when photographing from these flat small boats. So if anyone is tempted to go to Batsfjord next year; make sure you have a shorter lens at your disposal!

By 12.00 we said  goodbye to the Polar hotel and Batsfjord. It was a very memorable stay! The pass was open and we didn't need to drive back  in a convoy. We headed straight for Vardo and by 17.00 hours we arrived at our hotel. Tomorrow we will be heading for the Barentz sea on a boat and explore the rich bird areas around Hornoya island. We can expect more King and Steller eiders but also Guillemots, Puffins and Razorbills. The weather forecast is also pretty decent.

King eiders flying over Batsfjord

Thursday 14th of March

Unbelievable but true: we were allowed to stay in bed a bit longer today. We would be going on the boat trip around Hornoya, a small island just north of Vardo. The island is an important breeding ground for all kind of sea birds like: Razorbill, Puffin and Guillemot.

Despite a somewhat late start, i was already walking around Vardo by 06.00. It was a pretty decent start of the day. Not a lot of wind and sunny. I decided to take some "city scape" images of Vardo for an article that will be published in a little while.

After breakfast we headed for the quay and after a little while the boatman arrived. The boat was pretty big and within 15 minutes we were already "floating" around Hornoya. Many seabirds were either floating on the sea or flying around. We saw hundreds of Guillemots, Razorbill and the pinnacle of all Guillemots; the Brunnich version!

Photographing them, although they are pretty close, was not easy. I started off with the 600mm but as the boat rocks up and down, left to right, it is very difficult to keep the focus on the birds . I did manage some shots but overall it wasn't super. For the boat trip i would still recommend either a 400mm or a 300mm with a converter. It works so much easier.

More luck i had with the flying Shags. We all know the Shags from the English coast but the setting here is rather different then in the UK! If you want to photograph Shags in snow...this is the place!

Later on we moved further out to sea in search of flocks of King eiders. We did manage to find a large flock but just as a few years ago, the Eiders are very shy and didn't allow us to come close enough for any kind of images. We decided to return to Hornoya where we spent another hour or so to photograph the sea birds.

By 12.00 we returned to Vardo, had a quick lunch and headed out again in search of the local Purple sandpipers who normally stay at the local beach. Not today, so we headed for Kiburg, a small fishing village in the vicinity of Vardo. The harbor is generally good for Steller eiders. Upon arrival we noticed some flocks but it was low tide, so not good for photography. 

We headed back to Vardo. Dropped the 2 Dave's off at a small beach as they wanted to photograph Purple sandpipers. We went into Vardo and spent some time photographing the Kittiwakes which was good fun and fairly easy to do!

After a little while i decided to head back to the small beach where, normally, the Purple Sandpipers could be found. There were a few but i couldn't be bothered to crawl through a meter of snow. Instead i had a look in the harbor of Vardo and luck was with me! I spotted a small group of Steller Eiders in lovely light. I happily took some nice images. I used the 600mm with the new 2x converter. I must say that the AF speed is impressive and very secure

Tomorrow morning we will try again for the Steller eiders in Kiburg, although i have set my mind on the Purple sandpipers. I am not sure whether Vardo is worthwhile in terms of bird photography. I think i would have rather spent another day in Batsfjord. Compared with the other days we had, i think this was probably the least productive. Still we had fun and at this stage i can also say that the other photographers are all very nice. They enjoy a beer and are, unlike other photographers, no Prima Donna's!

Kittiwakes in downtown Vardo

 

Steller eiders in Vardo harbor

Friday 15th of March

While i am writing this, i have already returned to Kaamanen in Finland. So what happened today?

This morning the group decided to head for Kiberg to photograph the flock of Steller eiders in the harbor. I decided to stay in Vardo and try for the Purple sandpipers.

When i left the hotel it was snowing heavily, and when i approached the beach i could already see a number of these waders foraging along the shoreline. I was 'armed" with my 600mm and 1.4 converter, but as these birds are very tolerant, it was easy to get to close to them. I had a great time photographing them in the falling snow. It made for a completely different setting when compared with 3 years ago. The i photographed them in more sunny conditions.

I returned to the hotel after an hour to dry off and to download my images. As soon as i was in the hotel, it stopped snowing and the sun came through the clouds. I returned to the beach and photographed the Purple sandpipers in lovely sunlight. It shows how quickly the weather changes in these hostile parts of Europe. One moment a blizzard, the next moment the sun shines!

The group returned from Kiberg and after a late breakfast, we all had a last go at the Purple sandpipers. I moved to the far north of the small beach as the Sandpipers were also foraging on the rocks, which made for a different setting. I also discovered a group of Stellers in the harborand used the last hour to photograph them in beautiful light.

Around 11.30 we left Vardo for the long journey back back to Kaamanen, where we arrived around 17.00 hours. The weather was beautiful, very cold, no wind and sun! We were hoping for more Northern lights but this day it just didn't happen. At the end we all settled for a beer, brandy or whiskey reflecting on a fantastic week of bird photography. I love this part of the world and i will, for sure, miss it. There is of course always next year!

Purple sandpiper Vardo beach

Saturday 16th of March

Our return flight to Helsinki would leave Ivalo at 09.30 hours. Early start and by 07.00 we were in the car heading for the airport. It was minus 34 degrees when we left! Not much happened on the journey back, except for a suicidal Rendeer that decided to cross the road just in front of the car. It was VERY close!

Checking in was easy and by 12.00 hours we were in Helsinki, moved to international departures, had lunch and by 14.00 hours we were en-route to London. The flight always takes longer then i think....almost 3 hours.

At Heathrow we said our goodby's. Hans headed for Terminal 4 to get to his KLM flight back to Amsterdam. I was home by 16.00 hours.

It was great to see the family again. I had a great time in Northern Scandinavia and i was lucky to be in the company of a great bunch of other photographers.

Agle and Mika, the fab hosts of Neljan Tuulen Tupa, Kaamanen

Factsheet Varangerfjord trip 2013

I booked this trip through Shetland Wildlife. Hugh Harrop has been to this part of Europe many times. Hugh works closely with and in conjunction with Finnature, who are the ground operator for this trip.

Cost for this one week trip is not cheap and will set you back around £2500 including flights, accomodation, all food, excluding alcoholic drinks.

Alcohol is very expensive in Norway, so we stocked up with a couple of cases of beer which we bought en-route in Finland. Food was very good in Kaamanen (thank you Agle and Mika). It was also tasty in the Polar hotel in Vardo and was average at best in Batsfjord.

Weather is very unpredictable but it is ALWAYS cold. Sunshine, snowfall, white outs are all possible in a day! Make sure you dress properly. (layers, snow parka etc). Temperatures are always well below freezing.

The bird feeders in Kaamanen are very nice and attract many different boreal bird species like Siberian Jay, Siberian tit and Pine crossbeak. Perches need to be changed from time to time and the back gound is a challenge for any photographer.

The floating hide in Batsfjord is very special. It gets you very close to the various duck species like King eider, Long-Tailed duck and Steller eider. Be aware that your shooting angle is very low, so you willl be spending around 4 hours on your belly! Anglefinder would help.The boat trip through Batsfjord harbor is also very good and offers possibilities to photograph ducks in flight. The boat is very stable and low.

Vardo was my least interesting part of the trip. it offers very little in terms of serious bird photography with the exception of the Purple sandpipers. The boat trip i found not to be very productive, although the scenery is great. it is my understanding that next year there will be an extra day in Batsfjord, which i think is a very sensible thing to do.

Flight were with Finnair. Service on board is mediocre and be aware of SERIOUS weight restrictions for on board luggage. 8 KG doesn't get you far if you have a heavy camera bag. They also ONLY allow one piece of hand baggage. Check with Hugh Harrop. In my case his intervention worked and i was allowed to take my 15 KG camera bacg on board. I would suggest to fly with British Airways to Helsinki, followed by a domestic flight to Ivalo.

All in all a fantastic trip. Well organised with a great group of photographers. I can recommend this trip and if anyone would like some more information, just drop me a line.

I used the following camera equipment. Canon EOS1DX and Canon EOS5D Mark3 bodies, Canon 600mm version 2 with 1.4 and 2.0 converters. Canon 70-300L, Canon 400/5.6 and a 14mm for the Northern lights.  Transportation was in a Guragear Backpack.

Dave, Paul, Kevin, Hugh, David, Mattia, Hans and Kari at Vardo harbor