Saturday, 8 February 2014

Arctic Norway

Well, Jackie and I have been off sailing around Arctic Norway, our main objective was to see the Aurora Borealis more commonly known as the Northern Lights.  Though as keen birders we obviously kept our eyes peeled for any of the arctic bird species that can be found in the Fjords and harbours we visited.
Flying over Arctic Norway to Tromsø
We flew from Bournemouth to Tromsø Norway which is the second largest city north of the Arctic Circle and has the largest number of wooden houses in Northern Norway the oldest being built in 1789. It's probably better known for the location of where the German Battleship Tirpitz was sank during WW2 and for its Arctic Cathedral built in 1965, and of course famous for the main starting point of many of Roald Amundsen's many arctic expedition. 
Our Ship Hurtigruten's MS Midnatsol
After collecting our baggage at the airport we were transported by coach to ship the Hurtigruten’s MS Midnatsol but as we weren’t due to sail for an hour or so we had time to have a walk around the harbour area of the city.  We found the Arctic Museum and stepped back in history of the city and it’s hunting past of hunting Polar Bear, Seals and Whaling, Fishing and Amundsen’s arctic expeditions before going aboard and settling in to our cabin.  Not long after we were having our evening meal and the ship left port to head north towards Skjervøy where we would stop for around fifteen minutes at 22.30hrs.   
The great Norwegian explorer
At around 20.35hrs a call came over the ships tannoy that an aurora had just started so we were out on deck as quickly as possible, for what Jackie and I thought was a pretty good light show which lasted around an hour or so.  Pretty happy with what we had seen we went to the cafe to warmup and had a coffee to celebrate then to bed.
Our first Aurora Borealis sighting
Our first whole day on board we had breakfast around eight and was on deck for when we entered Havøysund and watch the sun rise over the Fjord. Here we saw our first sea duck when a flight of Common Scoter flew past the ship, then scanning from the deck we found several rafts of Common Eider, Kittiwakes, Lesser Black-backed, Herring, Common and a few Black-headed Gulls.
Sunrise over Havøysund
Our next stop was Honningsvåg where we arrived at 11.15hrs and viewing from the panorama lounge I spotted our first Eagle, an obvious White-tailed Eagle, off to our left then another came into view and they drifted off and disappeared behind a snow clad mountain. As we were coming alongside the dock I spotted another being mobbed by Hooded Crows and one or two Raven so hastily I grabbed the camera and fired off a few memory shots.  Here we were able to leave the ship for a couple of hours, so we decided to explore the harbour area to see what we might see.  

Our first sighting was of a group of eider but this time not Commons but King Eider, unfortunately they were too far away to get a good photograph. Though further around the fjord towards the open sea we came across a larger flock this time mixed between Common and King. We also recorded Cormorant and Raven, House Sparrow, Great Tit, and just by a jetty when I tried to get closer to the Eider raft up popped a Black Guillemot.  We saw a few small groups of Common and King Eider fly in off the sea and head into the fjord.

We sailed on visiting Kjøllefjord, and Berlevåg.  It was after leaving Berlevåg that we were treated to a fantastic display with a aurora that lit the sky, that varied in shape whirling around arcing right over the ship.  Unfortunately no photograph could capture all of the sky so I tried to photograph a series of the different shapes that were being formed in a sky that was continually changing.

We were now in the area where the best birding and where the chance of sightings of Orca was possible but unfortunately we were passing through in the dark.  Our next brief stop was Båtsfjord and then on to Vardø then Vadsø. As we entered Vadsø the sky was just beginning to lighten and by the time we docked at Kirkenes the sun was up.

It was here that Jackie and I had booked a dog sled excursion and a visit to the Snow Hotel.  When we arrived the Alaskan Huskies were already waiting and keen to get going.  We were introduced to our Musher who just happened to be a birder as well.  The photo below was taken when we were allowing the dogs to cool down, it was a warm day -2 degrees and they were over heating which wasn’t surprising as they set quite a fast pace.  Our Musher said that if he didn’t stop them and take a break the dogs would just run themselves into the ground until they died from exhaustion.  

Jackie at the entrance to the Snow Hotel
This is Jackie at the entrance of the Snow Hotel we agreed that we wouldn’t like to stay in one of the room as the temperature inside was -5 degrees five degrees colder than outside.  After a snack of Reindeer sausage and a hot mixed berry drink in the cafe we went and had a look in the Reindeer enclosure where we saw a rare white individual.  We also checked out the hotel’s bird feeding station as they had been having Siberian Tit coming in to visit but I think there was to many tourists walking around.  Jackie and I then had a try at using the local shopping sled which I have to say we probably needed more practice in handling it but it was great fun particularly when going downhill.

Jackie with the shopping Sled
As with all good things our visit here was soon over and we were back to the Midnatsol and heading off out through the fjord on our way to Vardø where would get a chance to go ashore for a short while.  As we left it quickly became apparent that there were lots of Long-tailed Ducks dotted around in small groups and we had some great views of this delightful arctic diving duck.

Kirkenes Fjord where we saw many Long-tailed Ducks
We docked at Vardø in the dark of the late afternoon and we had time to have a quick look around the port and noted that there had been a few changes since we had stayed here back in 2003. The entrance of the hotel we stayed in now had some birding graffiti at the restaurant  entrance.

The Vardø Hotel-good place to stay if your a birder
All to soon we were back on the sea heading for Båtsfjord, then Berlevåg, Kjøllefjord, Honningsvåg and Havøysund before mooring up the next  morning at Hammerfest.  Here Jackie and I checked out the birds in the harbour then headed to the shops for a few presents for family and friends at home. Before checking out the birdlife in the harbour again. We found Common and King Eider, Long-tailed Ducks, Black Guillemots and a mix of gulls with what turned out to be an adult Iceland Gull among them.
Tromsø Bridge & Cathedral view from the Panorama Cafe
We arrived back at Tromsø at 23:45hrs staying the night at the Radisson Blu Hotel for the night.  We were up early next morning on to a coach to go to the Panorama Cafe. on the way we were shown and told about various aspects of the city and it’s history.  Such as the area where the German Battleship Tirpitz was sank during WW2.  We went up the Panorama Cafe in the cable car, we were at 421m overlooking Tromsø and this gave a fantastic view over the city.  In the photograph below you can see the bridge that links the mainland to the Island of Tromsøya, also in the bottom right the Tromsø Cathedral’s triangular shape stands out white against the multi-colours of the houses.

Night-time shot of the bridge crossing the fjord to the mainland and the Tromsø Cathedral

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