IVALO – INARI – KAAMANEN – KARIGASNIEMI – VARDØ – HAMNINGBERG – KARIGASNIEMI – IVALO
May 25th – June 4th.
The northeastern part of the Scandinavian peninsula stretches way east of Sweden and meets the Russian border only a few hundred kilometers west of Murmansk. Up here the sun won’t set for 4 months and the weather is always surprising and most of the time rather harsh and unpleasant. I’ve visited the easternmost part of Norway, the Varanger peninsula, three times before. Once I spent a few very cold spring days photographing ducks in harbors and passerines at feeders in Finland, another time I visited in the second part of June and last time I visited Finland and Varanger in late May, which turned out to be great in Finland and Varanger but there were some key species missing like Little Stint and Dotterel. Therefore I thought that early June could be a great time to visit this year.
Already before the trip I understood that the conditions were extreme with a much thicker snow cover than usual throughout the whole region. That meant that from a birding perspective this trip was even earlier than my previous May trip and many species were going to be absent such as Dotterel and Little Stint.
During all my last three Varanger trips I’ve been flying to Ivalo from Helsinki Vantaa. It’s usually a cheaper and shorter way to fly from Stockholm because you can fly from Stockholm Bromma to Helsinki and avoid all the hassle at Arlanda Airport. The car hire and all groceries are cheaper in Finland than Norway and the drive goes through one of the best birding areas I know. It’s a stretch of the E75 with highland bogs starting from the pine woods around Kaamanen going about 50 km north. This is prime habitat for Spotted Redshank, Ruff and Smew.
We started off the trip staying three nights in Inari, which is quite a drive away from the best spots but the accommodation is way better than at the roadside motel Neljän Tuulen Tupa (House of the four winds in English) in Kaamanen. In Inari we saw Greenshanks running on lawns in town looking for insects while Black-throated Divers, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneyes were squeezed together in small open areas on the Inari Lake due to the cold weather. Most bogs were frozen and the feeling of arriving before the birds to a frozen bogland made me pessimistic. Things didn’t get better when I tried to jump into an open area with an outflow into a lake only to figure out that the water was only 15 cm deep and not enough to float around with my floating hide. Unfortunately the forecast promised cold northerly winds for at least another 10 days, so the odds were not great that things were going to change fast. Still, I was able to get a few quite different pictures, among them this Greenshank surrounded by ice.
After my dip in the lake I got up and realized that northeast bound Waxwings were everywhere. During the first days of the trip, pretty much everywhere we stopped, both in Lapland and Varanger, we saw migrating Waxwings moving on step by step through the terrain.
We spent three days birding the area around Kaamanen, Inari and Ivalo. We searched for but couldn’t find any Rustic or Little Bunting around Ivalo, probably because of the cold, harsh weather. The area around Toivoniemi (69.071451, 27.087385) turned out to be one of the best as birds were congregating on the river filled with rapidly melting drift ice. Wigeons, Smews, Mergansers, Tufted Ducks and Goldeneyes were all feeding on the river together with a lone early Red-necked Phalarope fighting through the current.
On May 27th the decided to make a day trip to Karigasniemi, 90 mins northwest of Inari lying on the Norwegian border. The landscape here was very different from my last May visit in 2015. Most of the area was still frozen and snow-covered. However, most breeding shorebirds were still around and congregated at the few open streams. The panoramic picture below shows one of the best areas. As the light was too harsh for photography I walked around with my binoculars wading through waist-deep snow in places. There were many good birds around, noticeably 3 Long-tailed Jaegers, a singing Red-throated Pipit, 10 Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlins, Wood Sandpipers, lekking Ruffs and much more.
From the Kaamanen-Karigasniemi road we hiked north to a Reindeer compound below the huge Piesjänkä bog. This area had running and open water area absolutely packed with Ruffs and Golden Plovers. By lying still on the ground, I was able to enjoy Ruff up close and my luck culminated the a pair of Pintails landed in front of me, only a few seconds after I was about to stand up. I picked up the female coming in, so I instantly dropped flat on the ground and got extremely lucky.
The next day we headed north towards Varanger. Passing through Kaamanen we spotted a Smew which I stopped to photograph. I went down to the edge of the water and waited in the meadows covered in camoflage. 20 minuters later the bird came back only to get flushed by a truck passing on the E75. I gave it another hour and eventually the bird came back and got close enough for some shots with 1200 mm. The coolest part was to hear it displaying, a new experience to me.
The original plan of the trip was to drive to Båtsfjord and explore the mountain tundra from there. Because of the unusually late spring and the great amount of snow we never went there. Thanks to the traffic cameras that Statens Vegvesen (Norway’s traffic authorities) share on their website we could keep track of the conditions up there and our decision to not go there turned of right. I heard that convoys got stuck up there and trucks had to be dug out of the snowbanks afterwards.
Five hours later we reached Vardö after stopping at Nesseby along the way. The weather was shifting heavily, with temperatures below 5 centigrade throughout our stay. We headed out to Kiberg where the two bays held a lot of migrating Golden Plovers, Greater Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, Purple Sandpipers and Red Knots. I spent the major part of the following two days trying to get good photos of these species.
The cloud cover cleared one night and I decided to trek up the hills to a Ruff lek site which wasn’t able to reach by car due to the snow masses. With 30 kg of stuff I set off for a 2 hour walk up the rolling hillsides. Especially crossing the snow patches was tough, but I made it in time to set up my camoflage and the reward was great. I had several Ruffs jumping around in great light.
After trekking back I crashed in our apartment. By the time I woke up, the weather had changed dramatically and freezing northeasternly winds and rain forced us to stay indoors much of the time remaining at Vardö.
After losing much time due to the hard wind and rain we drove south to Karigasniemi to spend one night there ahead of our final stopover in Ivalo before flying home. The target in Karigasniemi was to improve on Spotted Redshank and maybe also get another shot at a Smew along the way.
5 km east of Karigasniemi is a well known pool with several shorebird and duck species around, as this is a feeding area for many species breeding in the area. This pool was where my floating hide that I’ve been carrying around came to use. I was able to float around in the shallow pool with a thick mud layer below (more than 50 cm in places) and stay in the ice cold water for several hours. The water was full of Red-necked Phalaropes, Teals and wading Wood Sandpipers, Ruffs and Yellow Wagtails. After more than an hour of waiting in the water, the territorial Spotted Redshank pair came in to feed as well.
Happy with that session (although the light could’ve been smoother) we drove south to check in at the hotel in Ivalo. We only got back to the place we just left when my dad showed me a stream he had been birding while I was in the hide. The stream was full of hatched ephemerids that White and Yellow Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Temminck’s Stints and Wood Sandpipers were feeding on.
30 km before reaching Ivalo I found another Smew, this time a pair. Being one of the most skittish ducks, I realized that there was no idea trying to approach them. Instead I carefully snuck down into the opposite edge of the bog without them seeing me. I waited lying flat below a pine tree. Not long after that I got extremely lucky, as another bird photographer stopped his car to shoot from the car and the Smew pair set off swimming my way. I got the series below before the guy opened his car door and the birds took off.
It’s such a difference chasing birds and letting them come to you, that’s why camoflage, floating hides and a big bag of patience are the best tools you can bring into the field when photographing.
The evening rained away so we decided so not go looking for Little Bunting, instead we enjoyed great Whitefish dishes in Ivalo before heading home to Stockholm the following morning without any drama.
Thanks for reading,
FINNISH LAPLAND & VARANGER – MAY/JUNE 2017