A unique and pioneering birding festival was announced last year: the festival would be held in arctic Norway and the title was 'Gullfest'... what's not to like?! I first heard about the event via Martin Garner and was instantly intrigued. The main drive of the event was gulls: given the geographical position of the festival the potential for extreme vagrants was mouth-watering. In addition, the supporting cast of arctic specialities made this an event I did not want to miss. I was then delighted to be invited to attend as a contributor; I was tasked with blogging and podcasting about the event through Talking Naturally and giving a talk about my unique fundraising initiative 'Giving My Right Arm'. So the plan was in motion, and on April 11th, kitted up for the arctic weather, I was on my way to Norway.
Arctic Norway (Tristan Reid).
The first few days were really the Gullfest Prologue. We were to be based at the Birk Husky Guest House. Our welcome was fantastic; on arrival we were invited into the Viking Longhouse for our evening meal — an amazing introduction to Finmark! Our group consisted of Martin and Sharon Garner, Tormod Amundsen (co-organiser with Elin Taranger, Martin and Sharon), Ian Wright, Seamus Enright, Vincent van der Spek, Murray Yeomans, Nils van Duivendijk, Willem Visser, Mike Robinson and me. This was an excellent group of people; everyone got on instantly. The following morning, after a very pleasant breakfast, we got suited up and met at the dog yard ready for our first great adventure. Trine (the owner) instructed us on how to drive the sleds and then pointed us to the dogs that would be driving us. Once we had harnessed the dogs up we were ready to set off on the 8km trek to the taiga cabins. Travelling through the taiga forest on dog sleds was an amazing experience, though not particularly easy; let's just say I spent a lot of time in the snow!
Once we got to the taiga cabins there were birds everywhere. We didn't know what to look at first! Pine Grosbeaks, Siberian Tits, Siberian Jays, borealis Willow Tits, all showing incredibly closely. Then Martin informed us that Nils had found a Hawk Owl on his way in — OK, so now we knew what to look at first! We got fantastic views of this stunning diurnal owl, a dream bird in a dream location. We spent the day watching the taiga specialities and enjoyed a barbecue lunch courtesy of Trine and her team. The birds showed so incredibly well here: Siberian Tits would even take food from your hands! After another eventful trek back to the guesthouse via dog sled, we were left to reflect on our first taiga adventure. This was one of the most memorable experiences of my life (and I've had a few): I will always remember my first taiga experience.
The following morning it was sadly time to leave Birk Husky. Trine and her team had provided great hospitality with this amazing experience. One thing is for sure, if you want to experience taiga birds properly, you have to do it Birk Husky-style! We were soon travelling again, this time back to Kirkenes and onto the Hurtigruten (Coastal Express) that would take us through the Varanger Fjord to the Gullfest HQ of Vardø. This ferry trip was pretty much like a 3.5-hour pelagic. We saw a range of auk species, Red-throated Divers, Common Eiders, King Eiders and my first ever Steller's Eiders. We also met some other Gullfest attendees including Wouter van Pelt, Gijsbert Mourik , Mark Maftei and Schanti Davis. As we sailed past the Hornøya seabird cliff we could see a Gyr Falcon causing mayhem — what an epic welcome to Vardø! There were flocks of Snow Buntings everywhere and Purple Sandpiper was the commonest wader. We checked into our hotel rooms (from where I could see Steller's Eiders) and enjoyed a fantastic evening meal. Then it was time to go to the historical Nordpol Kro (North Pole Pub) for the official opening of the very first Arctic Gullfest. On entering the pub I was amazed to see so many locals and birders supporting this new festival. This was testament to the hard work of Tormod and Elin. Tormod gave an inspiring opening talk and introduced many of the contributors, both from the local area and overseas. The mayor also gave a short speech, in itself showing the great local support for this project. The evening finished with a tantalising talk by Martin Garner and some fantastic photographs by local wildlife photographer Knut-Sverre Horn.
Steller's Eider, Norway (Photo: Tristan Reid)
Over the following days we were able to explore the amazing seabird cliff of Hornøya, where — aside from the breathtaking scenery — we enjoyed the spectacle of 'Arctic' Guillemots, Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots and Brünnich's Guillemot coming and going from the cliffs.
Brünnich's Guillemot (Tristan Reid).
We were also able to enjoy the experience of an "blue Fulmar pelagic" out into the Barents Sea. Here we had great views of 50+ Glaucous Gulls, Scandinavian Herring Gull and, of course, the hoped-for blue Fulmars. We also explored the coastline on the mainland, where we observed big numbers of Steller's Eider, Common Eider, King Eider, ridiculous numbers of White-tailed Eagles, Rough-legged Buzzard, at least three White-billed Divers, 6 Killer Whales, Otters and lots of Reindeer.
Blue Fulmar (Tristan Reid).
Steller's Eider (Tristan Reid).
Reindeer (Tristan Reid).
One of the highlights for many of us was the gull-ringing sessions run by Morten Helberg and Arild Breistøl. This was a spectacle in itself, as at one point more than 20 gulls were trapped. The memory of seeing some of the local children helping out by holding the gulls under their arms will stay with me forever. It was great to see so many Scandinavian Herring Gull wingtip patterns so close up: a rare opportunity. Interestingly, there were two already-ringed birds: one was a Scandinavian Herring Gull ringed in Poland and the other was a Russian-ringed small dark gull with an intriguing primary pattern — it will be interesting to find out more about this bird. We also observed a Darvic-ringed Great Black-backed Gull that was ringed at Pitsea in Essex! As well as the gulls, we got a chance to search through the Snow Bunting flocks for the Siberian form.
Gulls (Tristan Reid).
The evening talks were very good. Tormod gave some excellent presentations showing what he and Elin were doing in Varanger working with the wildlife and the people; their passion, energy and philosophy were inspiring. Martin Garner is an incredibly talented speaker and gave some fantastic presentations about identification and discovery. Japan is now firmly on my 'must-visit' list after a great presentation by Daniel López-Velasco on the Asian/Pacific gulls he observed during a recent trip there. The true gent that is Nils van Duivendijk gave a fascinating talk about how the idea for his Advanced ID Guide came about; he also set us a rather tricky gull ID quiz (not for the faint-hearted). Mark Maftei, a Canadian arctic research scientist, gave a fascinating talk on the unusual behaviour observed in Ross's Gulls on the breeding grounds. I also gave my talk about my 'Giving My Right Arm' fundraising initiative, which I think was well received!
The Gullfest proper had now finished but our group and some of the other attendees still had the Gullfest epilogue! We headed onto the mainland and made our way down the coast to Vadsø. Stopping at one of the harbours, Tormod and his team put down some of the remaining fish to see what gulls we could attract in: big numbers of Scandinavian Herring Gulls (including a few intriguing individuals with yellow legs) and a handful of Glaucous Gulls. In the harbour there were good numbers of Steller's Eider along with smaller numbers of Common Eider. En route to Vadsø we clocked a few White-tailed Eagles, King Eiders, Steller's Eiders and scoters, etc. We then met up with Arntzen (http://www.varanger.info) before travelling into the taiga on snowmobiles! On arrival, we enjoyed another barbeque lunch, fantastic close views of Siberian Tit and point-blank views of Arctic Redpolls. Nearby we were treated to more views of Hawk Owls. However, the biggest surprise was fabulous views of a Tengmalm's Owl!
Tengmalm's Owl (Tristan Reid).
A few of our group had a bonus day of birding after the event had closed. After managing views of Willow Grouse and Snow Hare, we decided to explore the Tana Valley. What a beautiful area it was! Along the taiga sections of the valley we observed an astounding eight Hawk Owls and as we climbed up into the tundra habitat we all fell silent in awe of the majestic and vast landscape. We were very excited to get amazing views of a Norwegian Lemming.
Norwegian Lemming (Tristan Reid).
The festival had been a total success; an amazing experience. To sum the Varanger peninsula up in one word: wow! Tormod, Elin, Martin and Sharon had worked very hard on this prototype festival and with the massive support of the local people they had pulled off a fantastic event. Huge thanks to everyone involved. Will you be joining us next year? I hope so!
Tundra (Tristan Reid).
Gullfest will become an annual event; announcements and updates on Gullfest 2013 can be found at www.biotope.no.