The Hornoya island bird cliff in Norway is the residence to nearly 100,000 birds that come there to breed and raise their chicks every year between March and August. It is a small island located in the Finnmark county in Norway, just off the Varanger Peninsula.
Last update: 28 June 2018
I had dreamt for a while to photograph one of the goofiest and cutest looking birds out there: the Atlantic puffin. So while spending time in Inari, Finnish Lapland, the decision to drive 5 hours to Vardø to visit the bird cliff was an easy one. Read below to find out everything about this. And as always, the photos are clickable and will open in a Lightbox at a larger resolution.
Puffins of Hornøya island
The puffins were initially the main reason why I wanted to travel to the bird cliff of Hornoya island. I had never seen puffins in real before, and let’s be honest, there is no cuter bird than that, is there?
They are not the majority bird on the cliff. I have seen much larger numbers of guillemots and kittiwakes. However, they are easily recognisable with their bright orange beaks and legs. You really cannot miss them. I found them scattered more or less everywhere, except on the steepest parts of the cliff. This is because they breed in burrows that they dig in the soil. There are about 7,500 pairs of puffins on Hornøya island.
The common guillemot is the most numerous bird on the cliff. There are about 15,000 breeding pairs there, and they are visible literally everywhere.
As you can see on the previous picture, one guillemot has some “spectacles”, i.e. the white ring around the eye, with a white line extending backwards on its head. This is also a common guillemot, and not another subspecies. There are also supposedly 500 pairs of Brünnich’s breeding on the bird cliff of Hornoya, but unfortunately I did not manage to spot any. Maybe next year?
Black legged kittiwakes
These small gulls also come in huge numbers on the bird cliff, with about 7,500 pairs breeding on Hornøya island.
The kittiwakes have a very distinctive call, and I believe that they are the bird that are the loudest on the island.
There are many cormorants on the island. I did not manage to capture them properly, as they are all black and really challenging to balance against the lighter backgrounds. That’s the only photo I could save…
Many other birds are either residents or passing by the island. Unfortunately, I did not have the chance to see them or photograph them. This makes me look forward to my next trip, hoping for new encounters. This page summarises most of the species that visit the island.
This was my first trip that would really include wildlife and especially bird photography. For this reason, I struggled choosing my gear before leaving. Birds are small and usually shy, so you need a long focal length to take interesting enough photos without scaring them away. Ideally I would have used the Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM lens with a 1.4x or even 2x extender, but its price is prohibitive for my current budget. Alternatively, I considered purchasing one of the recent Tamron or Sigma 150-600mm lenses that have a much more affordable price tag. However, I did not want to rush such a purchase, and I really wanted to rather rent a lens. So what are here my options?
I ended up renting the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens. But on my full frame 1DX Mark II body, 400mm would be too short for comfortable bird photography. I googled “Canon 100-400 with 1.4 teleconverter”, just in case, and without any hope. To my big surprise I found many reviews describing how good this combination was. I tried it out in the harbour of Vardø on some Arctic terns and I concluded with my own experience that these reviews were accurate.
If you click on any of the photos in this blog post, they will open as a large view, and you can judge for yourselves the amazing details.
All the close-up photos in this blog post about the bird cliff of Hornøya island were taken with a focal length of 560mm and an aperture of f/8. I set my camera to use a shutter speed of at least 1/500s (1/1000s for birds in flight), and let it chose the appropriate ISO setting accordingly.
How to get there
There is an airport in Vardø but it is not deserved by any major hub. As a result, from Oslo you will have to go through at least 1 or sometimes even 2 stopovers (in Tromso and/or Kirkenes). The airlines SAS and Wideroe are offering this trip. Alternatively you can fly to Vadsø, about an hour drive from Vardø, but the connections are quite similar. So if coming from Oslo, I rather recommend you fly to Kirkenes, where you can rent a car and drive easily to Vardø.
Alternatively, you can travel through Finland, which is what I did. From Helsinki you can take a flight to Ivalo, the northernmost airport in the European Union. In summer, only Finnair operates flights to Ivalo from Helsinki, In winter, Finnair also flies directly to Ivalo from other European cities. This is also a more economic option as car rentals and fuel are a lot cheaper in Finland compared to Norway. And the best is that it allows you to enjoy the amazing nature and hikes that Finnish Lapland has to offer.
This is the way some other photographers I met also travelled. They were part of Jari Peltomäki‘s tour and drove from Finland. On a side note, what a fantastic coincidence to meet for the first time one of my favorite wildlife photographers on a tiny island in the Barents Sea!
Once you are in Vardø island (connected to the mainland by a tunnel), the only way to travel to the island of Hornøya is by boat. I used the services of Wild Varanger. It has become so rare to find such a helpful and friendly service provider in touristic places, that I just have to mention how amazing they have been. They even have an avid photographer in their team, who gave me precious advice on the birds before reaching the island.
This is a very safe and specialised boat for the rough seas of the Arctic Ocean. The team at Varanger Wild has your safety as a top priority. Listen to their instructions before stepping on the boat. I highly recommend them. They are also quite flexible in the timing of the trips to/from the island. Don’t hesitate to ask them if you have any special needs.
When to visit the bird cliff of Hornøya island
The first birds arrive in March, and the last ones leave in August. In March and potentially April, you have a chance to see the island under the snow. In July, the chicks are ready to leave the nest, and you have a chance to see the guillemot chicks jump of the cliff towards the ocean.
I visited the bird cliff of Hornøya island in the first week of July 2017. That year, winter lasted for a very long time there, and everything was a little late. For example, I did not witness any guillemot chicks jumping from the cliff (although this may also have a little to do with the fact that there were 14 knots of wind that day).
My recommendation is to just keep in mind that so far in the north, nature and weather are really unpredictable and fast changing. If you travel there, you need an open mind and flexibility. If you do have those, then you will never be disappointed. And whatever happens, there is a very efficient wind shelter on the island, so you can warm yourself up in there.
You can also use the opportunity of being in Vardø to take the scenic road to Hamningberg.
At the time of visiting the island, I could not (and still cannot) consider myself as a wildlife photographer. This is however something I started really loving and that I want to do more. Visiting the bird cliff of Hornøya island has helped me making a huge step towards this goal. With a lot of patience, a lot of reading, and talking to the locals, I managed to come back with a few decent photos that I am quite proud of.
But to be completely honest, I had been trying for at least a year shooting birds with a long lens around where I live, in preparation for such a trip. So if you intend to go there and photograph birds for the first time, maybe just train at home, even with the most common pigeons.
I could not have achieved this trip without the amazing source of information on the website of Biotope. They are Norway’s first and only architectural office with special expertise on birds and birdwatching. They have issued the book “Birding Varanger”, which you can order on their website. It has been an immense source of information for my entire trip around the Varanger peninsula.
Protect the environment and the birds
These are the last lines in this blog post, I promise. I just could not publish it without raising the attention to the fragile environment in which these birds live. I was horrified to find some trash left behind by previous visitors in the wind shelter. How hard is it to bring back with you on the boat your empty bottle of coke? After all, you did bring it, full and thus heavier, to the island, didn’t you?
I was also shocked by the behaviour of one photographer. He was standing on a rock, under which a cormorant was watching her young. At first, I thought OK, this is a honest mistake, and the guy would just leave. Instead of this, he stayed there. His wife even started taking close up photos of the bird with her iPhone. The poor bird was looking more and more stressed by the second. I just had to politely intervene and explain that they were stressing the bird with their behaviour. This was not welcomed in a friendly manner at all.
To really wrap up please never forget that the island is the home of the birds. We are just a guests there. It is not OK to disturb the birds. Even if you think that your photo will make the cover of the most famous nature magazine.
I will be happy to read what you think of the island, and to help you organise your next visit. Just leave me a message in the comments below.
Update 22 March 2019: the trail to the lighthouse is still closed and will remain so until the end of the current breeding season. You can however access the lighthouse, which welcomes overnight visitors (book at Vardø harbour), by taking the boat to the pontoon on the other side of the island. By the way, the company Varanger Wild does not operate anymore, and therefore, you can only travel now to the island by the boat of Vardø harbour.
Update 28 June 2018: the trail to the lighthouse is still closed this breeding season. You can access the island by boat, and stay on the trail under the cliff, but it remains impossible to go any further. It is not clear yet whether the trail to the lighthouse will ever re-open. I will post an update again when more is known! Note that even with the limited area that’s currently accessible, you can still get some amazing pictures of the birds!