Varanger peninsula - birds galore!

June 10, 2012  •  2 Comments


At Whitsun, I attended a course about the birds of the Varanger peninsula in Finnmark, Norway. Just as the temperatures hit 25-30 degrees Centigrade in the south of Norway, I headed as far north and especially as far east as I could get on the Norwegian mainland. The Norwegian Ornithology Society organizes birding and bird-photography courses and trips for girls only, which are heaps of fun. I attended one last year to Andøya ( and of course - my expectations were high this year too.

11 ladies/girls met at Kirkenes airport and drove three cars from there to Varangerbotn, and on to Vardø on the first day. The course was held at the very atmospheric local pub (Nordpolen Pub), we were met our course presenters. Knut-Sverre Horn ( gave a presentation garnished with fantastic photographs of the many bird species we could expect to see. I felt myself rearing to go already... Tormod Amundsen, a birder and an architecht also gave a very interesting presentation of how he is working to develop Varanger as a travel destination for international birding by getting the communities to work together, and designing good birding destinations. As an architecht, Tormod specializes in designing hides for birders. See more on

Early Saturday morning we headed off to one of my main goals for the weekend: Hornøya. Hornøya is a very important sea bird colony about as far east as you can get in Norway. There is a lighthouse on the island, and I was originally scheduled to stay there from Tuesday to Friday before the course, but didn't get the time. The other main goal was Ekkerøy. Both these are important sea bird colonies. Hornøya has common guillemots (Uria aalge) by the thousands, many kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), puffins (Fratercula arctica), razorbills (Alca torda), and if you study the colony closer you will find some Brünnichs guillemots (Uria lomvis) nesting among the common guillemots. On Ekkerøy the kittiwakes make up the bird colony. You can also see the difference in the geology at these two places and almost predict why the alcids are at Hornøya. I didn't tak many pictures of the white tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) this time. Maybe it's because of my work with oil spill risk assessment, but it's the alcids and kittiwakes I like the best.

Photographically, these species are fantastic to watch, they have so much body language during courtship and nesting, and are such characters.

Hornøya is one of the few places where you can walk near the bird cliff, but you should do so with the greatest care so the nesting birds are disturbed as little as possible. Always stay on the track, no matter how close you would like to get to the birds. On Monday, we visited Ekkerøy as well, where there is a kittiwake colony that can be seen very easily from the trail. 

I will let the birds of Hornøya and Ekkerøy speak for themselves. For the ultimate colony experience, turn your microphone on. The sounds you hear are mainly kittiwakes (gull-like sound), and the common guillemots.


The next day, we headed up North to Hamningberg, where we saw a couple of King eiders (Somateria spectabilis) that were too far away at sea to photograph. However the tough little purple sandpipers (Calidris maritima) were braving the elements of the Barents Sea. These little waders even stay in Finnmark throughout the winter! Say no more.

The little birds and the sea  Big world. Small being.

A whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) near Hamningberg:



From there we drove down further south, to see if the ruffs were in courtship at Komagvær.  I was stunned by their different plumages, although we saw them only at a distance, and they didn't fight. You probably need a good hide and more time for good photographs of these marvelous birds. I have put another trip to Varanger on my bucket list to see these fantastic waders in full fancy dress.

One of them, the light coloured male, even had me fooled. I think he may have acted as a decoy as we followed them to photograph. While he distracted me and walked right out on a clear spot on the moor, the others - two males and a female - flew to a different place, even though I saw them land there,  I never saw them leave. Oh well, the decoy was pretty.



Different waders are abundant in Varanger, this image is from Ekkerøy, where there is a beautiful belt of seaweed that's exposed at low tide, providing a haven for the waders, here purple sandpipers and red knots (Calidris canutus). The red knots are migratory and gather in large flocks in areas succh as this. You can imagine how important such belts are for sea bird life, and they are very vulnerable to oil spills as well.

You can hardly see the purple sandpipers, they are so well camouflaged.

Seaweed belt with purple sandpipers

Seaweed belt with red knots

Another good area for spotting waders is Nesseby. More red knots:

Red knots

The final place we stayed was at Arntzen Arctic Adventures' cabins at Vestre Jakobselv, near Vadsø ( Behind the cabin Øyvind has put up several nest boxes and feeding stations for various species of birds. One of the species that nests there is the Northern Hawk Owl (Surnia ulula). The weather was rather grey, and that light was bad, but the beautiful bird posed well, although at a long distance.

Northern Hawk Owl


Northern Hawk Owl


I would strongly recommend a visit to the Varanger peninsula. There are so many possibilities to see species that we don't see in the south, and it's a very pleasant part of Norway to travel to. People are very friendly everywhere, and although the distances are long, the roads are better than many places I've been to.

Other interesting links for the area:


And when you have stayed here for a while, make sure you travel west and again north to Kongsfjord.

Thanks for watching!



Cathrine Stephansen
Takk, Lasse!
Fantastiska bilder på din blogg !!
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