After a wonderful summer on the Varanger peninsula 2 years ago, I decided to return in the middle of March, for some spring birdwatching on Hornøya island. I was based as most of the years in March in the north of Finnish Lapland, which allowed me for a long day road trip and back. What a great idea this was! The trip itself is a treat for the eyes, with gorgeous views on the Varanger Fjord and the surrounding tundra all along. But this time, I knew better than stopping at every rock along the way, and headed straight to Vardø and on to the ship to Hornøya island.
At this time of the year, tourists are still scare and as a result, the ship does not operate on a regular schedule. If you call ahead, you can warn that you are coming and they will arrange a trip for you.
When people talk about spring birdwatching on Hornøya island, they are often primarily attracted by the large colony of Atlantic Puffins that find themselves on the island. And I am not going to lie, although I have seen puffins many times before, I had this dream of photographing them on a snow covered landscape.
Well… Mission accomplished!
I found also a very nice razorbill on the snow, click! Too bad the fellow had his eye closed, but that’s a keeper anyway!
Puffins always make the show
Their clumsy appearance and bright orange beaks made them famous, and they always live up to a photographers expectations.
But don’t forget the other birds
The bird cliff on Hornøya island is home to 100,000 seabirds, so you’ll have to give some attention to the other guys out there. The other dominating species are the Common Guillemot, the Razorbill and the Kittiwake. There are also very large numbers of Shags. Brünnich’s Guillemot, of which I saw plenty on Svalbard the year before, are supposedly there too, but I was not able to spot any through the binoculars. Spring birding in Varanger will definitely bring you close to all these species!
When to go spring birdwatching on Hornøya island?
Many sea birds arrive already in March, so around mid-March you are already good for an exceptional experience. Depending on the year, you should have snow there until mid or end April.
Unfortunately, the large boulder that fell on the trail was not removed and the trail was not repaired. It is actually forbidden to go beyond a certain point on the trail, clearly marked by a large sign.
As you can see with the tracks in the snow, the sign did not stop many people from going further. Alternatively, you can ask the ship to drop you on the other side of the island, and follow the trail to just the other side of the boulder. It is a real pity that the Norwegian nature organisation that deals with trails did nothing about this for already 2.5 years since last time I was there in the summer.
How to travel to Hornøya?
You can fly to Kirkenes and on to Vardø. Alternatively you can fly to Ivalo in Finland, which seems to have the favour or many birdwatchers who rent a car there and drive all the way to Vardø. If you are not keen on driving, you can book a stay in Utsjoki, in the very north of Finnish Lapland. There, companies like Aurora Holidays organise birding trips to Varanger and Hornøya.
I did not take any super fancy photography equipment to the island. You can enjoy your spring birdwatching on Hornøya with simple binoculars and a 100-400mm lens. The birds get indeed that close to you.
And I have one last recommendation. Do check Biotope’s website and book prior to your trip. They contain a tonne of super useful information on the entire Varanger peninsula, making birding in the area super easy and fun, even for beginners!
So, are you planning your trip now? Or planning a summer trip?