21 July 2015

Birding Iceland in summer - destination development in progress

Iceland is known throughout the world as the land of fire and ice. Large parts are covered by glaciers while others steam of boiling water from the ground. There are few countries where nature has such a strong presence. Then there are the birds. Rich wetlands, rivers and coastal sites are filled with amazing birdlife. A dream destination. We recently visited Iceland, invited by the good people of the Northeast Iceland Birding Trail. Together with a group of nature based tourism businesses and local communities we aim to put northeast Iceland on the map, and to develop better infrastructure for visitors and local communities. In October last year we spent 2 weeks visiting people and seeing sites. Our recent 2 week July trip was a great follow up, looking into a few new places, analysing potential of previously visited sites and, as always, meeting people who are into making new things happen!

The following blogpost show some of the sites we visited and a few of the birds we saw. This visit was part of our research leading up to a broader destination development scheme.

Also check out our previous Icleand trip in October 2014 for more info. The two photos above is of a Great Northern Diver, and the wetlands outside Raufarhöfn in the northeast.

Top sites visited included Husavik, Laxa river, Myvatn, Langanes, Melrakkasletta, Flatey, etc

Northeast Iceland offers the most concentrated and finest birding in Iceland. 

Mind the bird poo - Birding architecture in progress

One example of a an early phase design project: 
There are a lot of parameters that goes into placing and designing a bird hide or a photo hide. With the folks at the northeast Iceland birding trail we really hope to make a couple of cool pieces of birding architecture. The iconic Harlequin Duck is of course on top of the wish list for a photo hide. With good help from Husavik-based birder Gaukur we just might have the perfect place. At a stream near Husavik there are nearly always Harlequin Ducks present. With a properly placed and designed hide, the photo opportunities will potentially be amazing. In order to make a design that fits the site we have made detailed measurements and drawings of the site itself. Considering both sea winds, valley breeze, wave heights and spring melt water in the stream is key. Then a sheltered approach to the site is important, making sure the birds are not scared and fly away. Finding out where the birds prefer to stay is actually easy - where there is most bird droppings is their favoured site. Then there is a whole lot of other things to sort out too. Work is in progress...

Harlequin, male and female at the stream site 

Measuring potential site for Harlequin Duck photo hide

Husavik - the hub of northeast Iceland

Biotope aerial of Husavik, our base camp for many of our days in northeast Icleand. Just five minutes from Husavik you can find one of the best places in Europe to see and photograph Great Northern Diver. This very nice pond is in fact man made. At the nearby building project run by the Husavik municipality they decided to use the waste material to build a small dam and a pond. A very forward thinking project that made sure Husavik now have a beautiful and very bird rich pond near the town. Great for visitors, schools, kindergartens, etc. Now we aim complement this pond with better infrastructure, providing sheltered viewing opportunities and even better photo opportunities. In short: a birding to the people project. 

 Man made pond, with Husavik in the background

Great Northern Diver

Buzzing at lake Myvatn and river Laxa

13 species of duck breed in this area. A waterfowl species count higher then anywhere else in Europe for such a concentrated area. Myvatn basically means ´mosquito lake´. To a large extent the birds in the area feed on their larvae. However they are not mosquitos. Thankfully the Myvatn Blackflies are not bloodsuckers, which makes a very big difference. In fact there are no bloodsucking mosquitos in Iceland, and for someone used to the king size Taiga bloodsucking mosquitos this is a huge relief. Sure, the Blackflies can be intensely annoying, but they only occasionally bite (lightly). Thanks to the rich insect life the wetlands of Myvatn and the river Laxa is amazingly bird rich. We spent a couple of days checking out a series of sites and of course we enjoyed some great photo opportunities too. A big thanks to Myvatn Sel-Hotel for providing accommodation. 

Biotope aerial over Myvatn and the nearby ponds and lakes.

Diving Harlequin Duck

Drake Harlequin 

Barrow´s Goldeneye drake - another Iceland speciality. In icelandic it is called ´husand´, which translates to ´House Duck´, as they like to breed in boxes at farmhouses. In addition they breed extensively in hollow lava rock. If I could rename this bird then Lava Duck would be a pretty cool and fitting name. 

Wigeon, female. One more of the gazillion ducks we saw during our Iceland trip.  

Herding and birding at Ytra Lon Farm Hostel 

Mirjam and Sverrir run the Ytra Lon Farm Hostel at Langanes, the norteasternmost corner of Iceland. They have built the farm from the ground. At the Langanes peninsula they have made their living from sheep herding and a another Iceland speciality: eider down collecting. We always enjoy meeting people with whom we share a passion for nature. Seeing how Mirjam and Sverrir have worked with the land to make it productive both for themselves and for the local eider population is really great. The care that goes into their work is inspiring, and in return nature gives back to them. When they started their farm in the early 1990s there was about 25 eider nests on their land, today there are more then 350 eider nests on small islands at their farm lake. And Sverrir is planning to make another eider island to provide the eiders with nesting sites the fox can not reach. We joined Sverrir on a day out checking the eider nesting sites. At the end of the breeding season Sverrir collects the down from the nests. This is premium quality down harvested without hurting any animal (unlike what we see in goose down industry).  

Ytra Lon Farm in amazing surroundings. Ptarmigan, Golden Plovers, Artic Terns, Common Snipes and many more species are everywhere.

Enjoying a day out with Sverrir, checking the local eider population. A great experience! 

Mirjam and Sverrir explaining the eider down harvest. In the boxes are down from about 325 nests.

Melrakkasletta and the northeast shores

Thanks to the kind support from The Nest guesthouse we stayed to nights in Raufarhöfn. This is a perfect base camp for a couple of days of exploring the little visited wetlands, ponds and shores of the northeast. Again we where amazed by the numbers of birds present.


Dunlin stretching 

Golden Plover 

Purple Sandpiper 

Flatey bird paradise

This island is a 30 minute fast boat ride from Husavik. It truly is a bird paradise, with Icelands biggest Arctic Tern colony, counting several thousand individuals. In addition Red-necked Pahalaropes are everywhere. The same goes for Puffins which are becoming more numerous every year on the island. Flatey is also the place to go in Iceland to see the very stylish Red Phalarope. We had one Red Phalarope and 1000+ Red-necked Phalaropes. At Flatey we looked at how one can best preserve this beautiful place for birds and for people, while fascilitating for more visitors. A great place that needs to be treated with the outmost care. 

 Biotope aerial over Flatey. The pond next to the harbour was filled with phalaropes.

 Red Phalarope, male.

Fly by Red-necked Pahalarope 

Puffins breed in thousands on Flatey.

No visit to Iceland is complete without great views of Puffins. 

Arctic Tern drinking water at a pond 

 Arctic Tern

Thanks Iceland - see you again soon

A very big thanks goes to Hermann Bardarson of the Northeast Iceland Birding Trail with whom we have visited lots of sites, met a lot of people and businesses in the northeast. Also a very big thanks to Gunnar at Fjallasyn guide company for providing us with a great car during our stay in Iceland. And I forgot to mention the Gyfalcons: we saw a total of 14 Gyrfalcons. All in all: brilliant birding, great people, top sites and potential! 

Stay tuned for more niceness from northeast Iceland. Good things are in progress...

Tormod Amundsen
Architect & birder / Biotope

03 June 2015

Birding Nome, Alaska - spring in the US Arctic

This May we set out on a 4 week adventure to explore some of the top birding destinations of the North American Arctic. Birding the Alaskan tundra of the Seward Peninsula is strangely familiar to our own region, the Varanger Peninsula. The landscape, the birds and even the architecture is similar in many ways. The following is the last of a trio of blogposts from our recent Biotope Alaska birding trip. We arrived Nome on May 17th and spent 4 days birding the Seward Peninsula before we flew to Gambell, St.Lawrence island on the 21st of May. We spent 4 days on Gambell before returning to Nome where we spent our last 3 days of our Alaska adventure. The timing was brilliant as we got to experience the sudden arrival of spring. In just a few days Nome and the surrounding areas exploded with life. Nome´s Safety Sound instantly became our favourite hotspot for birding. The wetlands was packed with birds as this was one of few productive places with open water.

The below Biotope aerials are taken just 5 days apart! What an amazing speed of melting. The intensity of birdlife in the sound as ´spring breaks´ was unbelievable. Duck, geese, divers,  waders and passerines in thousands foraged in the melting wetlands. 

Safety Sound on May 20th

30 May 2015

Gambell, St.Lawrence island - Alaska spring birding

Gambell is the westernmost point in USA, with Russia seen in the horizon, surrounded by the Bering Sea. It is one of the most remote places to bird in the US, and some exceptionally cool arctic birding can be enjoyed here. On our recent Alaska adventure we spent 4 days on Gambell. This is a small Yupik (eskimo) community of approx 650 people living on the northernmost point on St.Lawrence island. They are mostly hunter gatherers, but every year a few birders find their way to this remote place and as such makes a little contribution to the local economy. 

19 May 2015

Birding Alaska in spring - Homer & Seward

The name Alaska rings of wilderness and grand nature. At Biotope we have a thing for the northern birding. Which is why we live and bird in Varanger, Arctic Norway. However, we allways need a bit of inspiration and fresh ideas to fuel our birding passion. Since moving to Varanger a few years ago we have started a project to visit top nature destinations around the northern hemisphere.

26 March 2015

Hasselnes Wind Shelter - Watching Auroras in Varanger

Aurora-watching from the new Hasselnes bird hide and wind shelter. To left in the distance is Hornøya bird cliff.


Hornøya bird cliff is one of the key attractions in Varanger. We are currently working on a project aiming at improving the fascilities on Hornøya, and to connect Hornøya more with Vardø island. At Hasselnes, northeasternmost Vardø island, you have great views of Hornøya bird cliff. Hasselnes used to be the town dump. With the new bird hide and windshelter we aim to make Hasselnes an attractive place to visit. It is already a key place for birders and all visitors to Vardø, but fasilities and information have been absent. During our recent bird festival Gullfest 2015 we opened the Hasselnes wind shelter.

22 March 2015

Ivory Gull in Varanger - the great white

Ivory Gull. The name itself rings of exclusiveness. This is the great white of the Arctic. A dream bird rarely seen unless you travel to the high arctic.

18 March 2015

Gullfest 2015 - art, architecture & science in the Arctic

Varangers iconic Steller´s Eider - field study by bird artist Lars Jonsson, Varanger March 2015

Lars Jonsson - field studies of Steller´s Eiders

11 March 2015

Gullfest 2015 - Arctic Art & Architecture in progress

Gyrfalcon by Lars Jonsson ©, Gullfest 2015 artist, talking at Unni´s Kafé in Vardø on Friday at 19.00hrs. Surely the birding talk of the year in Varanger.

Gullfest 2015 is just about to start. We have a lot happening at the same time these days: 
- A new Varanger Peninsula National Park Exhibitions opened yesterday, designed by Biotope in collaboration with Varanger Museum. 
- We have a new bird hide / wind shelter being built, to be ready for opening on Saturday on the Gullfest base camp. 
- The base camp itself is being set up ready for this weekend. 
- Our invited artists Lars Jonsson, James McCallum and Jonnie Fisk are already in the field creating their magic take on the Varanger birdlife!

03 March 2015

GULLFEST 2015 - Art & Birding in the Arctic

GULLFEST 2015 in Vardø, March 13-15 
(click on poster for slide show view)

The annual arctic bird festival, Gullfest, is coming up very soon! This year we go back to basics, with a big lavvo basecamp in Vardø. Local super chef Tor Emil will serve great Varanger food. We are very happy to say that Lars Jonsson, the world famous bird artist will join us! At Biotope we think art is an amazing way to show nature, so in addition we are very pleased that the brilliant UK bird artist James McCallum will join us to, together with up and coming bird artist Jonnie Fisk.

22 February 2015

Birding Architecture - bird hides & nature reserve innovation

 Merlin (adult female) at Snettisham RSPB reserve, Feb 2015

3000 kilometers on the road in UK 


On our recent tour around UK Tormod from Biotope and Graham White from RSPB visited several of RSPB´s nature reserves. We have also given many talks, both public and staff talks at various places, from Dorset in the south to Minsmere in the east and Flamborough in the north. Our aim has been to share ideas and inspire people by presenting our work. This article feature some thoughts and ideas presented on the UK tour.