Camargue is the region defined by the delta of the Rhône river, in southern France. It’s a region of wetlands and fields, where nature and human activty often meld; specific breeds of bulls and horses are raised there, in partial liberty. I saw a few cows, but no horse. Anyway, cattle was not what had allured me there.
My first birding trip, with the LPO (the French bird protection society), had led me there. That was in 2004, and I had never returned before this winter.
From Grenoble, it’s a 3-hour drive to Le Sambuc, a quiet but windswept village in the Natural Regional Park. I had not left early, so I arrived in Camargue only a couple of hours before sunset.
After a quick jump to Budapest, where I stayed with my friend Marci and had a blast in his studio, I flew to Stockholm for work. The bad idea was to fly to Helsinki on Sunday evening only to fly out again to Sweden on the morning after; it would have made much more sense to fly directly to Stockholm and sleep a bit longer than 3 hours. Still learning.
After two days of work with a new RELEX customer, my colleague Pessi and I were exhausted, but we had a bit of free time before the flight back, and I had never seen Stockholm… so we left the office and had a one-hour walk in the city. It had snowed since the morning, and my excitement had grown consequently: you know, I love the white stuff 😉
January the sixth, first outing out the year. The weather forecast announces a schizophrenic weekend: Saturday will be cloudy and possibly rainy, with temperatures above zero, while Sunday promises to be sunny and coldish, with temperatures dipping below freezing, a little. My plan is the following: Viikki with clouds, Suomenlinna for sunrise.
A week ago, a Black redstart (Phenicurus ochruros) was reported in Viikki, in the reedbed, and has been so since then, every day. This redstart is not very common in Finland, especially in winter, but the Viikki bird is even more special: it belongs to subspecies phoenicuroides, which means it comes from central Asia, somewhere between Mongolia and Iran. That’s a long trip, and not in the right direction for a migrating species.
I want to see that pretty fellow, and then go to Suomenlinna on the day after to enjoy the sun.
On Saturday, I have no reason to hurry, since the weather is so bad. Not much rain on the radar though, fortunately. I leave at 10, and enter the area with no precise direction to the bird. I see some people around, but no gathering. While I’m at the Pornaistenniemi hide, a woman enters, and we start chatting. My Finnish hasn’t improved during my holidays, but I understand that she has seen the redstart that day, and that if I walk to the north, about 400 meters, I will find it. First, I will found people watching it, of course.
Black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros)
A red door, in Danish. That’s with this expression that our teacher introduced us to both the “ø” sound (a bit like “ö” in Finnish or “eu” or “œ” in French) and the soft “d”, which is for me pretty much like a “l”, except the tongue goes to the bottom of the mouth and not the top. At first, it sounded complicated… after a few months, it still felt complicated, but I also found the whole pronounciation very funny, and I learnt to appreciate it.
Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)
We arrived in Vardø in the middle of the afternoon, and soon found our accommodation before heading out again for sunset. At that moment, we were at the very end of Norway, still far North but also further East than Saint-Petersburg or Istanbul (it’s easy at this latitude ;)). The small town lies on a island linked to the continent by a tunnel; Marci was really impressed to see such infrastructure in a remote location like this one.
In the evening of our fourth day in Varanger, we slept in Vadsø, the administrative center of the county of Finnmark, home to some five thousand souls. In the morning, before driving to Ekkerøy, we visited the little town. Marci looked for a souvenir shop, but there didn’t seem to be anything of interest in the citycenter. What I noticed, in Vadsø but also in other towns, was a lamp store. I guess that, in places where the sun disappears for several weeks every year, inhabitants are particularly mindful about lighting in their houses, and so this kind of business thrives. I also liked the colourful houses.
After our stopover in the far north, we took the road to the south again, back to the shores of the Varangerfjord. Instead of going back to Kirkenes, we followed the other side of the inlet, in the direction of Vardø. On our way, we had a few stops planned in scenic places and birding spots (which often coincided).
Båtsfjord. A small Arctic town, lost somewhere in the north at the end of a fjord (hence the name, maybe?). Isolated from its neighbours by a rugged landscape made of abrupt cliffs and rolling hills, the main activity there seems to be fishing. This industry has attracted workers from 40 different nationalities; many Lithuanians came directly there with their cars, as the registration plates could certify.
We checked in at BIRK Husky, a place well known to the birding community for its feeders, which offer great opportunities to meet the local fauna, and particularly the taiga specialities.
Right after waking up, on my way to the toilets, I saw two Siberian tits (Poecile cinctus) at the feeders. A bit later, I spotted three or four squirrels in the vicinity, some chasing each other in the trees while other peacefully enjoyed sunflower seeds from the feeders. That was before birds woke up: usually, they are active at dawn, but that day it seemed that activity peaked a bit later, and the morning was slow to start.
Red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
So there we were, flying north above a sea of clouds. I had awakened at 3.30 to catch an early flight to Oslo. There, I had met my friend Marci, and we had embarked on Norwegian flight DY310 to Kirkenes. The seat layout was a bit cramped up there, but my friend enjoyed the free wi-fi. Actually, I really saw no difference between this low-cost airline company and another non-low-cost one (except for the wi-fi). A good thing for travellers.
The trip was absolutely uneventful, until we arrived to the main airport of Finnmark. Under the clouds, we saw snow and sea pass by before our eyes, and just when we thought we would land directly with no fuss, the pilot pushed the throttle, and up again we went, for “a bit of sightseeing”, as he put it. Visibility was too low, so we tried from the other side, and managed to touch the ground (we assumed the crew used autopilot for the second attempt). However, the runway was kinda icy, and I felt the plane move from left to right after touchdown. The pilot had to add an extra bit of reverse thrust to take the plane to a halt. It was quite brutal, I had never experienced that, but it was effective: soon we were walking on the tarmac, trying not to slip on the ice while reaching the terminal. Needless to say, it was quite chilly. It was even snowing.