Birdwatching in Varanger, Finnmark. Photo: Tormod Amundsen / Biotope
The Varanger peninsula in Finnmark is among the world's top birding destinations, and the most accessible one in the Arctic. Our travel editor Marie Peyre has the lowdown on the best birdwatching spots in Norway's far north.
Colourful birds, exotic birds, rare birds. And of course lots of birds. Once the sole preserve of birders in the know, Varanger has of late been attracting birdwatchers from all corners of the world, keen to catch a glimpse of the area's many feathery residents. But other delightful nature experiences await too, from stunning scenery and wildlife encounters to midnight sun and northern lights, ensuring Varanger's enduring popularity among all nature lovers. My advice? Get there now, while you can still have the place to yourself.
The Pasvik Valley
The Pasvik Valley is a textbook example of taiga environment, made up of ancient woodland, bogs and lakes. Keep an eye out for the 'parrot of the northern forest', the pine grosbeak, as well as for Siberian tits and Siberian jays - the key taiga species. Several kinds of owls (including the great grey owl and the hawk owl) can also be found here. Best time to visit is March-April, when the forest birds that can be elusive in summer can all easily be spotted at a good bird feeder. Try the ones at Birk Husky (see below) or at the Ellentjern Cabin in Øvre Pasvik for example.
Pine grosbeak in Pasvik. Photo: Tormod Amundsen / Biotope
You will easily spot Nesseby Church from the main road, silhouetted against the turquoise waters of the Varangerfjord. The area surrounding the church is a nature reserve and makes for a lovely coastal walk. It is also popular with birdwatchers, and an easily accessible spot to see waders and seabirds, particularly in the summer months (May to September). Bar-tailed godwits, red knots, dunlins and ringed plovers can be seen in flocks of hundreds of individuals.
Located on a peninsula just a few kilometres east of Vadsø, this is one of Finnmark's most scenic bird cliffs, home to 20,000 pairs of breeding kittiwakes. Plenty of black guillemots can also be observed from here, flying at sea. Ekkerøy Feriehus (see below) organises photo courses specifically geared towards bird-watchers interested in improving their photo skills.
Birdwatching on Ekkerøy. Photo: Marie Peyre
The jewel in Varanger's crown, Hornøya is a birder's paradise, and a must for anyone visiting the area. Norway's easternmost island in the Barents Sea is only a short boat ride from Vardø harbour. Here you will find Europe's most accessible colony of Brünnich's guillemots, a species that only nests in the Arctic, as well as plenty of puffins, razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots, kittiwakes, European shags, great cormorants and European storm petrels. Hornøya is also one of the most important wintering areas for Arctic sea ducks, like Steller's eiders, king eiders and common eiders. Unlike the barren Arctic landscape on the northern part of the Varanger peninsula, Hornøya boasts lush vegetation thanks to the rich fertilizer the birds leave behind, namely poop.
Puffins, Hornøya. Photo: Tormod Amundsen / Biotope
King and Steller's eiders are plentiful in winter in Båtsfjord. Here you can get really close to the action thanks to a floating hide which provides unique opportunities to study these beautiful sea ducks without disturbing them. Photo opportunities abound - make sure you bring a wide angle lens with you! Best time to visit is late winter early spring (January to March).
Male king eider, Båtsfjord. Photo: Tormod Amundsen / Biotope
The coastal road between Kongsfjord and the small town of Berlevåg offers beautiful scenery at every bend, almost guaranteed sightings of wild reindeer, and good bird-watching. Take the short hike from Kongsfjord Guest House to the striking bird hide perched above the cliffside, from which you might catch a glimpse of the gyrfalcon, the largest of the falcon species. Alternatively join a guided walk with Åse, the owner, to learn more about the local tradition of harvesting seagull eggs.
Bird hide in Kongsfjord. Photo: Marie Peyre
Plan your trip
Travel: Fly into Kirkenes and rent a car from there. Europcar, Hertz and Budget all have concessions at the airport.
Eat: Make sure you sample local specialities like reindeer and king crab during your stay. Also try eating a Sami meal in a lavvo (see Birk Husky below), a unique experience. If you are travelling to Varanger in summer, you'll be able to pick your own cloudberries for dessert too.
Shop: Italian artist Claudia Casaletti first came to Kongsfjord on her honeymoon. She loved it so much she moved there a year later. She now has her own engraving studio
and makes beautiful bird art - the perfect souvenir to take home after a birding trip to Varanger
Travel tip: Although mosquitoes are not a problem in other parts of Varanger, they are a real nuisance in Pasvik in summer. Pack mosquito repellent (and a mosquito hat) if you are travelling that time of year. You've been warned!
Don't miss: The Gullfest Festival
is a great opportunity to meet other birders and learn more about local birds. It takes place in Vardø every spring.
Book: Birding Varanger
, published by Biotope, is a comprehensive guide to the best birding sites in the area, in English