Norwegian Double Dip! March 2022 and June 2023 (Part 2 of 2: June 2023)

It did not take long after the March 2022 visit to plan a return trip to Varanger for the breeding season. This time I teamed up with Mike Sylvia, former Massachusetts birder who is currently residing in Ireland. Having been to the area so recently, and having read through Biotope's fantastic "Birding Varanger" guidebook multiple times, planning was pretty easy. The one big change this time would be doing our forest birding in northern Finland instead of the Pasvik Valley. The Finland leg increased our chances at a few target species such as Broad-billed Sandpiper and Parrot Crossbill, among others. There would be more driving this way, but I was game to see a new area.

Otherwise the route was pretty similar to the March visit. We flew in and out of Kirkenes and rented from Hertz, who provided us our vehicle at the airport with easy pick-up and drop-off and no hidden fees or scams.

We arrived on the evening of June 20, fetched the car, stocked up on groceries, checked into our tiny nearby Airbnb, and went into town for a real meal (which are quite expensive here!). Turned out that our Airbnb was right around the corner from an excellent ARCTIC WARBLER spot, and this was the first place we hit the following morning (6/21) on our way towards Finland.

Arctic Warbler

Much of the rest of the morning was spent driving and birding along Route 971 via Neiden. Along this road we had our first ARCTIC LOON, SHORT-EARED OWLS, PIED FLYCATCHERS, SIBERIAN TITS and SMEW (hen) of the trip amongst the commoners like WOOD SANDPIPER, ROUGH-LEGGED HAWK, WILLOW WARBLER, FIELDFARE, BRAMBLING, and WESTERN YELLOW WAGTAIL.

We eventually hit the E75 and spent some time atop a tower outside Kaamanen. It was not terribly birdy, but we saw our only MOOSE of the trip feeding out in the marsh.

The rest of the day was spent hopping from spot to spot as we worked our way south to Ivalo. A mid-afternoon boreal forest walk revealed a troupe of SIBERIAN JAYS and a stunning male PINE GROSBEAK, plus a pair of SIBERIAN TITS occupying a nest box. As we reached the southern terminus of our route, Parrot Crossbill became one of our bigger targets, as they were far more likely down here than anywhere else on the route. That afternoon we heard a flock of RED CROSSBILLS that to our ears were clearly not Parrots.

crossbill and grouse habitat, allegedly

Siberian Tit

Pine Grosbeak

Siberian Jay

Forcing yourself to sleep is no easy task when you are surrounded by 24/7 daylight and pumped up on adrenaline. Still, we did our best to bag some rest before starting the next morning (6/22) before 4am. We encountered another flock of RED CROSSBILLS before finally crossing paths with about five PARROT CROSSBILLS overhead, an ID that was confirmed by spectrogram analysis. I'm really not sure what to make of red crossbill taxonomy in general, but for now this goes on the list as a "good" species.

We had a lead on a EURASIAN THREE-TOED WOODPECKER nest, and sure enough we located the birds pretty easily, as the adults were shuttling food back to the nest hole on a regular basis.

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker

Later that morning we walked up Kiilopaa, a rocky hilltop that was a known breeding site for EURASIAN DOTTEREL. This species I had only seen once before, a few distant basic plumaged birds in Portugal a couple autumns ago, and was keen on seeing one in alternate plumage. We did find a pair rather quickly, but they proved elusive for photos. I nearly tripped over a frozen family of ROCK PTARMIGAN on the walk back, though I'm sure they saw me coming the whole time! Mom waited until the last second to scurry away, chattering and clearly annoyed.

Rock Ptarmigan

Our next hit was a scrubby field that seemed to be THE spot for LITTLE BUNTING if eBird pins are any indication. It took some time, but we secured decent views of a singing individual. As we were birding the road by the car, preparing to leave, I pished up a RUSTIC BUNTING that was interacting with several REED BUNTINGS. No images of that bird sadly, but it was an unexpected trip highlight as we were a bit north of that species' typical range.

From Ivalo the rest of the afternoon was spent driving up the E75 and then westward on the 92 to our lodging at Giellajhoka. This would put us in prime position to make a midnight foray (6/23) to Kevon Iuonnonpuisto for a couple of our most-wanted shorebirds of the trip. First, some roadside bogs along 92 held a nice assortment of displaying waders including JACK SNIPE, one of my most hoped-for species of the trip. The display call is one of the strangest I have ever heard and really does sound like some sort of galloping Headless Horseman. We then proceeded northward off the main road towards a larger complex of bogs. Here, we encountered more breeding shorebirds, the best of which was a rather cooperative BROAD-BILLED SANDPIPER, a species very high on Mike's list and one I haven't seen in many years. Thoroughly satisfied with our experience there, and ahead of schedule, we decided to act on intel we received from a Finnish birder who kindly tipped us off to a singing YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER not too far west of us, near the Norwegian border. Her directions were spot-on, and we had repeated views of this tiny warbler as it quickly shot from treetop to treetop at a clearing. This was a life bird for me and honestly was not at all on the radar - a true vagrant!

Broad-billed Sandpiper

European Golden-Plover

By the time we had accomplished all of that, it was still early enough to grab breakfast back at the lodge before departing back east and then northward up the E75. The rest of the day would be spent driving to the Varanger Peninsula (and back into Norway) where we would be exposed to a whole new suite of birds. Along the way we saw a NORTHERN HAWK-OWL on roadside powerlines and a couple dozen LITTLE GULLS hawking insects over the river along the 970 road. We spent a couple hours with the gulls, trying our best to wade far enough into the river to improve the light angle.

Little Gulls

Though we had been pushing pretty hard already, we wanted to maximize our field time in the best lighting conditions. This meant birding "overnight" when the skies were clear and "during the day" when clouds dominated. That midnight sun is pretty magical.

Our first night on the peninsula was forecast to be clear, so we sacrificed sleep to take advantage of that (6/24). We were rewarded with some beautifully lit subjects and active birdlife on the tundra. On this bright morning, activity died down pretty early, by say 0630ish. We made the most of our few hours and enjoyed such species as EUROPEAN GOLDEN-PLOVER, NORTHERN WHEATEAR, LONG-TAILED JAEGER, BLUETHROAT and HOARY REDPOLL.

Northern Wheatear

Long-tailed Jaeger


Lapland Longspur

Photography on the tundra was shot thanks to the harsh light and heat shimmer, so we diverted to the coast and found a few lingering STELLER'S EIDER. Compared to my spectacular eider experience in March, this was shit, but it was possible that we could have missed Steller's altogether at this time of year, so we were pleased to see the few females that were present. We also had our first encounter with TEMMINCK'S STINT, which we thought would be more common than it was, and was a long-overdue lifer for me.

We took the bright midday to catch up on sleep. Kudos to Mike for being so willing and eager to disrupt his sleep/wake cycle so much to adapt to the quickly-changing weather out here. It really does seem crucial to stay flexible and play the weather if you want to maximize your success.

But it doesn't always work out as planned! Having slept so well during the day of the 24th, we planned on staying out for an entirely clear overnight period. We felt like geniuses at first, as we started at 9pm under gorgeously clear skies and a lowering sun. The breeding shorebirds on the tundra seemed at peak activity, and we were really enjoying the WHIMBRELS, BAR-TAILED GODWITS, and PARASITIC JAEGERS. But it seemed just as we were getting started, a thick fog rolled in and would not budge. With it, bird activity grinded to a halt. We stuck it out for a while but eventually waved the white flag and called it a night.

Common Redshank

Short-eared Owl


Whimbrel chick

Whimbrel and Parasitic Jaegers took turns harassing one another.

Parasitic Jaeger

midnight sun before the fog rolled in

Bar-tailed Godwit

It was still foggy in the morning (6/25), so tundra birding was out, and we decided to walk around Vadsoya. This was the first place we encountered numbers of male RUFFS, but they were not actively lekking, which told us that we must have been past peak for observing this fascinating social behavior; this likely peaks in May-early June. We did have better luck with RED-THROATED PIPIT, our first of the trip.

European Golden-Plover

Red-throated Pipit

In an attempt to rid ourselves of fog, we drove west back towards the mainland, which tends to be the drier part of the Varangerfjord, especially on an east wind. Along the way we stopped at any gull flock we saw, eventually turning up a small, dark LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL that looked the part for the nominate subspecies, which was a new taxon for the both of us I think.

The iconic church at Nesseby

Later that night, Mike caught some shuteye while I rode adrenaline for a couple more hours and headed to Ekkeroy. As I was driving out there, a massive splash just offshore caught my eye which could only have been a breaching whale. Sure enough, a HUMPBACK WHALE took flight a couple more times. So damn cool. Ekkeroy itself was reasonably birdy though nothing unusual popped except for an adult LITTLE GULL, a good bird this far out the peninsula.

The next morning (6/26) I returned to Ekkeroy with Mike, and it was clear enough this time to see the 10,000+ BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKES on their nesting cliff. As we continued eastward, making our move from Vadso to Vardo, we detoured inland slightly to search for photogenic BLUETHROATS. To this point, Mike had already crushed this species but I had not yet had a good look at a male. He was a great sport in trying to rectify that, which finally did pay off when we located a pair carrying food to a nest.


The cliffs at Ekkeroy

Common Ringed Plover

Eurasian Oystercatcher

We began to encounter a bit more sea duck diversity as we moved east, mostly by picking through the COMMON EIDER flocks. Our first few KING EIDER were out there, plus some COMMON SCOTER and LONG-TAILED DUCKS. VELVET SCOTER were quite scarce and we only saw a few handfuls the entire trip.

Eventually we checked into our place on Vardo and decided to continue up the coast towards Hamningberg. The landscape quickly became more rugged the further north we got, and the coastal scenery was quite stunning in spots. Brush-covered ravines between the cliffs undoubtedly held Ring Ouzels, as our research suggested, but our attempts to locate this evening were futile.

Black-legged Kittiwake colony in town

White Wagtail enjoys the view

The Hurtigruten navigates between the Barents and Norwegian Seas

The road to Hamningberg

The next morning (6/27) we took the boat ferry to the small island of Hornoya, which is an absolute must-do. After seeing the place in its late winter glory, I was eager to see what it looked like in the heart of summer. This was one of the few locations on this trip that was arguably more beautiful at this time of year than it was in March. Alcids perched on tufts of rich green grass. Tiny wildflowers were in bloom. Rocks were covered in lichens that varied in color from wintergreen to burnt orange. We spent five hours there and I could have stayed longer. At one point I was lying in one position for about 90 minutes watching and photographing the comings and goings of the hundreds of breeding auks from an elevation of what seemed like a couple hundred feet (in reality I have no idea how tall that cliff is!). Among the hordes of COMMON MURRES were many RAZORBILLS and ATLANTIC PUFFINS, plus a handful of THICK-BILLED MURRES if you knew where to look. 

Atlantic Puffins


Atlantic Puffin


Common Murre

The BARNACLE GEESE here were our only of the trip. PARASITIC JAEGERS patrolled offshore and several MINKE WHALES popped up and down. TWITE is perhaps the top passerine priority out here, and we saw a few along the trail up to the lighthouse. ROCK PIPITS are also present.


After another night on Vardo, we headed back north towards Hamningberg with RING OUZEL again on the mind in the wee hours of the morning (6/28). This time we connected, though they did play quite hard to get. With our quarry in the bag, we turned around and headed back down the coast with quite a long drive ahead of us, as we were to be in Kongsfjord for the night. We had all day to make the journey and planned a few stops en route. First was a cliff just inland near Kiberg that held a family of RING OUZEL, easily our best looks yet. The birds again proved furtive with recently fledged young about.

Ring Ouzel

We made a point of scanning every river mouth as we worked our way back westward along the varangerfjord. In late June, shorebird migration should just be starting as failed breeders begin to move around. We had seen very little evidence of staging to this point, so we were pleased to find a handful of waders feeding on the flats of the Skallelva River just south of the "town" of Skallelv. We were initially drawn to the TEMMINCK'S STINTS, of which there were about a half dozen, which had probably doubled our total to that point. Mike picked out something different which wound up being, a bit to our disbelief, a stunning alternate plumaged STILT SANDPIPER with nice chestnut ear coverts and everything.

Stilt Sandpiper

Temminck's Stint

I remarked that it was probably the best-looking Stilt Sand I had ever seen! I usually see molting adults or juveniles in the northeast US. Anyway, it gave us a bit of a jolt, and it is always nice to find something locally rare on a trip.

Afterwards we worked our way west through Varangerbotn and then north along the Tana River, stopping here and there but not seeing much of note. Our birding was about done for the day and we relaxed at our accommodations at Kongsfjord.

Early the next morning (6/29) we set out for the high tundra in search of DOTTEREL, SHORE LARK and others. The high tundra was very quiet; this held true for each of the few hikes we took here. We did find one cooperative DOTTEREL that was happy to be approached while it was feeding. A light mist kept everything wet but not soaked, so we were comfortable enough. Later on we scored our first nice looks at SHORE LARK which was a particular target for Mike, who had found a North American Horned Lark in Ireland the year before.

Eurasian Dotterel

It was back to the coast for the rest of the morning as we took the road north towards Berlevag. We found one concentration of seabirds that were focused on feeding HUMPBACK WHALES that were reasonably close to shore. Tubenoses were represented by several NORTHERN FULMAR and a few MANX SHEARWATERS, the latter not terribly common around here. Four alcid species and several KING EIDER were other highlights.

Later on, kicking around the Kongsfjord Arctic Lodge, we checked out the nearby cliffs where Gyrfalcons are known to nest. Unfortunately we were too late in the season and the local Gyrs had already dispersed.

Parasitic Jaeger

Long-tailed Jaeger catching bugs

Long-tailed Jaegers

June 30th was our last day of birding before our departure the following morning. One last attempt at the high tundra remained largely devoid of birds and no more Dotterel. With not much else planned for the peninsula, we headed towards Kirkenes, where we would be spending the night. We decided on an unexpected detour in the Pasvik Valley for our final afternoon. We added WILLOW TIT to the trip list and stumbled upon a family of NORTHERN HAWK OWLS right along one of the side roads. Super cool.

fledgling Northern Hawk-Owl

We reacquainted ourselves with some forest species that we saw earlier in Finland. A tower at Skroytnes gave us our only, albeit distant, views of drake SMEW.

We dicked around the rest of the afternoon by building a Russian list from the narrowest points along the river. We recorded about 20 species in Russian airspace and failed to spot anyone keeping watch from any of the several towers over there. A couple of Norwegian military boats ripped up and down river. Nothing to see here!!

Take that, Putin!

And that was it! Another trip in the books. Overall we had a solid tour of the region and saw most of what we reasonably expected. Late June is really tough for some of the grouse and forest owls, so it was no surprise that we did not connect with many of those. Our timing in the heart of the breeding season, when many species become secretive with young around, made things more difficult than, say, a visit in late May. Everything is still just have to work a bit harder for it. A late May visit would also have more to offer from a migration standpoint, especially things like jaegers and loons, so the seawatches tend to be way more productive at that time. We knew this going in, but even we were surprised at just how quiet some places were. However we really enjoyed what we did see, and I would recommend a trip to this part of the world to anyone who enjoys the arctic environment that is equal parts harsh and gorgeous.

 - Nick


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