Norwegian Arctic

An introduction to a wild area for sound recording.

by Roger Charters

Kittiwake - photo Roger Charters
Kittiwakes, photo: Roger Charters

Listen to Roger Charters' recordings from Norway: Kittiwakes
Red-Necked Phalaropes
Wood Sandpiper Song

In the arctic, Norway occupies all of the north coast of Europe. The country stretches over the north of Finland and reaches south-eastward where it shares a 110 mile border with Russia. This part of Norway is some 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, so daylight is apparent 24 hours a day between May and August. During a brief spell around midnight, birds and mammals seem to be less active. It is thus a birder's, and especially a wildlife sound recordist's, paradise.

The Pasvic River runs from south to north and enters the Barents Sea close to the port of Kirkenes in the north-east of the country. Except for a stretch near where the river enters the Sea, it provides the border between Norway and Russia for 77 miles. The river valley can be entered only from the north. The farther one travels southward beside the river, the less people one encounters and the less noise. Over- flying aircraft are limited to an infrequent Norwegian army helicopter observing the border with Russia.

On the north coast, the modern port of Kirkenes is the largest town, having its own busy airport with connections to Oslo and many small airports in the north. It has a wide selection of shops, banks, garages, a major post office, restaurants and cafes, taxis and hire cars. It also has a museum and art gallery, and a modern church. 1: 50,000 maps covering the Pasvic Valley can be bought in the town. The reason for the town's modernity is due to the scorched earth policy adopted by the Germans when they evacuated the area in 1945 towards the end of the Second World War. No building was left standing, all were burnt, and the population of several thousand were transported south.

The snow in this area does not disappear until the end of May, at which time the streams and lakes begin to lose their covering of ice. During the winter the ice would have been feet thick. The Pasvic River, however, sheds its ice much sooner, often by early May. It is this phenomenon which makes the river and its environs so attractive to birds, be they Whooper Swans, ducks, geese, waders or passerines. Until the snow and ice which covers the rest of the land disappears there is no opportunity for the birds to feed or nest elsewhere. They therefore pack into the river area displaying and pairing whilst waiting for the conditions to be right for them to disperse to breed beside the countless small lakes that populate Lapland.

The area around the Pasvic Valley is relatively flat. The river only falls 210 feet between its appearance at the Norwegian border in the south and the sea to the north. Several Russian and Norwegian hydroelectric schemes block, and thus enlarge, the river: in some places it is more than a mile wide. Dairy farms and their attendant grass fields border the river, though many fields are becoming overgrown as farms close. The fields and farm buildings provide feeding and nesting locations for Fieldfares which are seen in hundreds.

The roads in Northern Norway are excellent. Even the road that follows the Pasvic River for 65 miles southward as far as the policeman's house at Nyrod is kept open in winter and has an excellent surface. There are several well-made and well-graded forest tracks that lead into the hinterland. Although these are not cleared during the winter they are used by locals in two-wheel-drive vehicles during the Spring as soon as the snow has melted. The tracks lead to interesting areas for the recordist with different habitats. Species to be found include Ring Ouzel, Brambling, Redwing, Greenshank, Whimbrel, Wood and Green Sandpiper, Siberian Jay and Smew, Willow Ptarmigan, Rough-legged Buzzard, Black Grouse and Capercaille. From one of these tracks and with a walk of a couple of kilometres the Ovre Pasvic National Park can be reached. This is the dramatic area that contains the Taiga or remnants of the Siberian forest. It has never been felled and is therefore populated with ancient tall trees and skeletal fallen monarchs of the forest.

On entering the Pasvic valley, a notice beside the road in several languages states the prohibitions that are applicable to the area and the penalties for not abiding by them. For example you may not cross the border, accost a Russian, photograph military personnel or equipment or use a lens greater than 200mm or use a tripod. Non conformity with these proscriptions may lead to the confiscation of equipment. This is bad news for wildlife sound recordists with tripod-mounted mics or reflector. The resident policeman understood my problem when I explained to him that I wanted to use a tripod for a reflector. He intimated that provided I used the tripod away from the Pasvic River I should be all right. The first time the policeman sees you he requires you to show your passport and driving licence: both of which he records together with one's vehicle number. This I believe is because there has been much egg collecting in the past and the police are guarding against it. I found the policeman very helpful with regard to forest track conditions and where certain species could be located.

The Pasvic Valley is the most fruitful area for wildlife sound recording. It is so full of birdsong and variety of species it is pointless to identify all of them. At one location I recorded twenty three bird species within 100 metres. However the display song of the Spotted Redshank, the Black-throated Diver, Common Crane and Whooper Swan make it a memorable location. All the arctic birds can be found there including Little and Rustic Bunting, Common Crossbill, Common and Arctic Tern, Green and Wood Sandpiper, Jack Snipe, Siskin, Siberian Tit, Little Gull, Common Goldeneye, Whimbrel, Willow Ptarmigan, Northern Hawk Owl and, during good Lemming years, Great Grey Owl.

Wolf, Bear and Fox tracks show that those animals are about but the first two are rarely seen even by the locals. Elk however are numerous and you may be lucky to see one: they become active mostly late in the day and early morning.

Ekkeroy is a small peninsula 12 miles NE of Vadso on Varanger Fjord. Here the vast Black-legged Kittiwake colony extends along the SE cliffs. Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, Horned Larks and Red-throated Pipit all breed as do Ruddy Turnstone, Arctic Tern, Golden Plover and Common Eider with Arctic Skua and Purple Sandpiper breeding nearby. Here beside the small fishing harbour on Ekkeroy I saw approximately 6000 Long-tailed Ducks gathered, interspersed with Common Eider, while they all displayed and paired 100 metres offshore. The fjord contains several hundred Stellar's Eider in small parties of 20 or so: this species can also be found in Vadso harbour at times. Farther East, Neiden Fjord offers spectacular views of Red-throated Diver, several hundred of which gather here prior to moving to the shallow lakes inland when the ice disappears. Long-tailed Duck, Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser are also in the fjord. Overhead, White Tailed and Golden Eagle are seen while Reindeer feed off seaweed at the water's edge. Bean Geese, Dunlin, Bar-tailed Godwit, Whimbrel, Greenshank, Little Stint and Knot frequent the shallow areas of the fjord.

Red-Necked Phalaropes - photo Roger Charters
Red-Necked Phalaropes, photo: Roger Charters

A place not strictly in Norway but 13km from the border is a must if you are travelling north by car or camper. This is near the border village of Karagasneimi in the far NW of Finland. It is a place renowned for the gathering of Red-necked Phalarope during late May and early June. On the lake and on the spring fed stream up to fifty can be seen pirouetting while they feed, and display. Single birds arrive and within a few hours have paired, mated and together have flown off to their breeding grounds in the tundra nearby. The immediate area is also good for breeding Arctic Redpoll, Temminck's Stint, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Wood and Broad-billed Sandpiper, Golden Plover, Long-tailed Duck, Teal, Mew Gull, Lapland Longspur, Reed Bunting, Yellow wagtail, Pied Flycatcher, Bluethroat, Brambling and Redwing. Long-tailed Skua and Bar-tailed Godwit breed nearby. Raven and White-tailed Eagle are seen frequently.

Insects can be a problem, especially mosquitoes which become troublesome when the temperature rises above 13°C: this occurs about mid June, by which time you may have completed your recording schedule anyway.

Getting there: Other than travelling by car or campervan, there are direct flights to Kirkenes from Oslo by SAS. Both Vadso on Varanger Fjord and Kirkenes are served by the Norwegian carrier Wideroe that has a comprehensive service that covers the whole of Norway. Accommodation and hire cars can be obtained at both locations.

Should you take a campervan to Norway you will have no problem in remaining out in the wild. There are no restrictions provided you are more that 150 metres from a dwelling and are parked at the side of the road or track for three days or less.

Roger Charters

Norwegian Arctic was published in the Autumn 2005 WSRS Journal

Wood Sandpiper
Wood Sandpiper - photo: Roger Charters


Reference books:

Where to watch birds in Scandinavia, Gustaf Aulen, Hamlyn 1996.

Soft cover, 216pp. This book is a good guide for the area and assists the planning of a visit. It indicates the likely birds to be found in each of the 143 locations described for Sweden Finland and Norway. The book also describes 41 sites in Denmark Protected areas of the Barents Region, Moreton Günther, Pub: Svanhovd Environment Centre 2004 (in English). Hardback, 373pp. Address: Svanhovd Environment Centre, N-9925 Svanvik. Norway. Edited and written mostly by Moreton, the resident ornithologist at the Centre, this book is supported by many excellent b/w pictures and contains details of 50 nature reserves north of the 65° parallel in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The book describes at length each NR, its location and means of access, lists the birds and flora to be found there and the maps useful for its exploration. In addition the book includes many authoritative articles on the fauna and flora to be found in the Barents Region giving distribution and changes that have occurred over the last few years. (Much recommended)

Lapland: A Natural History by Derek Ratcliffe. Pub A&C Black.

Hardback, 320 pp. Price £36. To be published in September 2005. Colour photographs by the author. The publisher states:

'The book looks at the flora and fauna of Lapland - that area of northern Europe and north-western Russia which lies within the Arctic Circle. After general introductions, the book examines the Lapland ecosystems and species by habitat type, with one chapter dealing with freshwater habitats, another with open tundra and so on. The history of natural history study in the region, and the conservation issues affecting it today, are also discussed'.

Derek Ratcliffe, who readers will recall demonstrated and exposed the connection between DDT and the decline of the Peregrine in the 1960s. This work resulted in the banning of the pesticide. He died in May this year having spent each of the twelve previous years visiting Lapland. He was with the Nature Conservancy and the NCC for nearly forty years where he was the chief scientific officer. (I await this book with pleasant anticipation - comment written Aug 2005, RPC)

Useful contacts:

www.svanhovd.no/engelsk/engelsk.html

www.wideroe.no/english - for Wideroe Airline information.

www.acblack.com

www.stanfords.co.uk - for maps

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