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Arctic Birding and Digiscoping

A different world awaiting in the North

Varanger Peninsula, in the very north of Norway, is a secret location for seasoned and aspiring Arctic birders. Birder Tormod Amundsen describes the preparations that are required for winter birding and digiscoping in the cold and poor light conditions, and the very exciting observations that can be made as a reward for this.

© Tormod Amundsen

Tormod Amundsen from Norway is not only an excellent and passionate birder, but, thanks to his training as an architect, he is also an expert in building sophisticated hides.
He used an ATX 30-70x95 spotting scope and EL 42 binoculars for his observations.

My company is called Biotope, which I set up to combine my passion for both birding and architecture. We build a wide variety of customized birding hides with an architectural slant.

When day becomes night

We’ve had lots to do in our office during the past few months. We started off with a trip to the Rutland Bird Fair, which is the largest birder gathering in the world that takes place in August. This was followed by a trip to the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival to put on an exhibition and give some talks. Recently, the island of Smøla of the west coast of Norway was on the itinerary, where we were involved in a nature development program. In addition, we were invited to a few nature and travel conferences to present our knowledge and ideas. There were also another couple of birding architecture projects in Varanger. Before you know it, it is suddenly November and the last rays of the sun are visible. From this point on, we have two months of twilight and darkness as the sun doesn’t return until the end of January.

Equipment required for winter birding

You can put this time to good use. During winter birding in Varanger, it isn’t so much the number of different species that is appealing, but their quality. November and December are, to be frank, the quietest months for Arctic birding. As very few people visit Varanger during this period, you can definitely have a productive time birding. There are never more than four or five birders out and about throughout the region.

What do you need for winter birding in Varanger? The main requirements are warm, windproof clothing, and top-quality, high-luminosity optics.

Tyrolean quality brings joy to Arctic birders

Precisely for the reason I have just mentioned, any birder can imagine very well how they would feel if they were to find a package from SWAROVSKI OPTIK in the office on returning home from a trip in the US.

We are very proud at Biotope that we were equipped with an ATX 30-70x95 spotting scope and a pair of EL 42 binoculars. Anyone who is familiar with optics knows that SWAROVSKI OPTIK produces the finest devices for birders.

The icy north is the toughest test site

Our job was to put this equipment through an “Arctic Birding Test” to see how the optics operates in the harshest conditions. After a lengthy period, I had a day off again on November 23, 2013. I took this opportunity to go straight to the port to try out my new birding kit. As expected, there were numerous Glaucous Gulls seeking protection from the icy wind and feeding on the waste from the fisheries. My personal record for the number of Glaucous Gulls that I observed this fall was 500, which I saw in and some way outside of the port of Vardø. This was a week ago, after a heavy storm.

Today, it is a bit calmer in Vardø, with a temperature of -5°C/23°F and a fresh breeze. The port is still home to hundreds of seagulls (and around 45 Glaucous Gulls), 150 Common Eiders, 12 Long-tailed Ducks, 2 Black Guillemots, and about 50 Purple Sandpipers. These are good conditions for both birding and digiscoping.

  • © Tormod Amundsen - King eider
  • © Tormod Amundsen
  • © Tormod Amundsen
  • © Tormod Amundsen
  • © Tormod Amundsen

A morning in the port of Vardø

Let me start by saying straight off that it was an absolute pleasure to use the ATX 30-70x95 spotting scope from SWAROVSKI OPTIK for birding. It certainly made a powerful first impression. The 95-mm lens is the largest of the three options available and I can’t imagine using any better as an Arctic birder. The long focal length pays dividends particularly when observing and digiscoping birds by the sea. I connected it to a Sony RX 100 II for digiscoping so that I could capture both a fishing boat and Glaucous Gull.

Some unexpected visitors

While I was watching the gulls on the pier, I caught a very brief glimpse out of the corner of my eye of some small birds flying above the water. I picked up my binoculars and noticed that they weren’t Purple Sandpipers, as I had initially assumed, and I tried to get a better look at them. They were three very bright wading birds, which disappeared behind the pier. At this time of year you don’t expect to see any wading birds in Varanger other than Purple Sandpipers.

In December 2011 I once saw a Red Phalarope in Vardø and I now felt that this might be the second sighting of this species in Varanger in winter (and perhaps even in the whole of the Finnmark region and northern Norway). I ran to the end of the pier, focused the spotting scope, and that’s when I saw them: three Red Phalaropes that were swimming around at the other end of the port. What an awesome start to using my new equipment!

Varanger’s blue period

Varanger is not only an interesting place for watching birdlife. The light and landscape are absolutely spectacular in the Arctic winter. The sky takes on a dark-blue hue when the sun disappears on the horizon. The snow-covered landscape then displays every shade of blue. I have photographed this sight during my regular flights between the port towns of Vardø, Båtsfjord, Berlevåg, and Vadsø.

Until a few years ago, Varanger was virtually only a destination for summer birding. Now winter birders also come from all over the world to explore this region. If you’re looking for a captivating landscape and very cool bird species, I can’t recommend Varanger highly enough. We are currently expanding the infrastructure to make birding an even more pleasant experience. We are in the process of building a new hide at Kongsfjord that is also weatherproof. You can enjoy a spectacular view of the Barents Sea from this vantage point.