Why go birding in Norway?
Norway retains a feeling of wilderness, with dramatic scenery, harsh but beautiful weather and an extant megafauna such as bears, wolverines, moose and whales. The birdlife is extremely varied, seasonally and regionally, the natural wonder of migration evident. Norway hosts species which are desirable for birders to see due to their rarity, beauty or because they are difficult to see elsewhere. Thanks to great seasonal differences, birding in Norway is a totally different experience at different times of the year, both in terms of scenery and wildlife. Visitors return to see the changes the country and its wildlife undertake.
Working with birding in Norway in many ways needs a similar approach to that of Spain. In a European perspective, Norway is unique. There is still a feeling of untouched nature in some areas, with pristine forests, mountains and beautiful fjords. Much of the land is intact nature, providing good birding in amazing sceneries. Other natural wonders such as the aurora borealis only help to cement Norway as a world-class nature location.
For birds and wildlife, Norway is also spectacular. The habitats are varied and by extension so are the birds. There are extensive marshes, tundra, vast forests, mountains and endless kilometres of coastline, all with their own supporting cast of wildlife. Especially notable are Norway´s seabird colonies which provide an experience for all the senses.
There is an exclusivity with the birdlife of Norway, mainly thanks to the Arctic species to be found in Northern Norway, and in particular in Eastern Finnmark. The combination of species here at any time of the year are unique and unlike any European country, making this area extremely desirable to birders. A birder cannot find another easily accessible location where they have the chance of seeing King and Steller´s Eiders, Snowy Owls, White-billed Divers, Brünnich´s Guillemots and Gyrfalcon all within the same trip. Without Varanger the birdlife of Norway, while still spectacular, is made up of species which can be seen elsewhere.
The country lies on a flyway, a path which migratory birds take on their seasonal journeys. Large numbers of birds including waders, wildfowl and birds of prey, pass south down the country in the autumn and return north again in the spring. Sites such as the Lofoten Islands and Lista, Røst and Utsira are well-known for being migrant-magnets: islands that provide birds with a rest-stop during their long journey. The sight of migrating birds can be spectacular at times and as such the latter islands mentioned have all become popular among Norwegian birders. Every year, each site sees many thousands and birds pass through, including many rare birds that should not be there but have become caught up in the migration of other species, or appear as wind-blown strays. In fact, many of these islands have their own bird observatories, purely to study birds.
Migration is also evident at other specialised sites, including Slettnes on the Nordkyn Peninsula. Every spring birders gather to watch the annual migration of seabirds, the main draw being Whitebilled Divers (gulnebblom) and skuas (particularly Pomarine Skua / polarjo) moving north to breed on Siberian tundra in Russia. Nordkyn is considered to be a part of the wider Varanger region. However it does have large potential for much more fame and recognition internationally. Nordkyn is still relatively unknown, and could easily see an increase in numbers of visitors provided more promotion and work to better cater to birders.
Unlike many countries, Norway has retained its megafauna (large herbivores and carnivores - mainly mammals) which a big draw for wildlife-watchers. Many want to see them as evidence of a healthy working ecosystem, as each plays an important part in the habit they occur in. Brown Bears, Grey Wolves, Wolverine, Elk, Musk Ox, Reindeer, Eurasian Lynx and a variety of whale species are all possible to see in Norway. In Svaldbard there is also the Polar Bear which is a huge attraction.
There is massive potential for wildlife-based tourism centred on these creatures which is yet to be explored in Norway. Looking over to Finland, there are several specialised Brown Bear, Wolverine and Grey Wolf photohides: large, secure hides in the taiga forest which are baited with carcass of livestock. Photographers (or even simply dedicated wildlife watchers) pay good money to spend several hours in these hides*. It is exhilarating nature, up-close-and-personal. Visitors to these hides also see a range of bird species like White-tailed Eagles. This market is not just unique to Finland, with hides available to hire in Estonia and Slovenia amongst others. A similar hide experience in Norway would be extremely in-demand. There is obviously a challenge with the conflict between large predators and livestock. Legislation dictates that Norway´s Brown Bear numbers are culled every year to “reduce livestock predation”. There are around 150 bears in Norway, yet in the 1800s, 200 - 300 were killed every year, showing how much larger the population used to be. The story is similar with Wolverines, lynxes and wolves in Norway. A photohide project would rely on an area having at least a relatively healthy population of the desired predator and a good working relationship with those that work and live on the land adjacent. There is already great interest in the Musk Ox in Dovrefjell national park, central Norway, with organised safaris for wildlife watching tourists to get great views of these animals. Musk Ox used to occur across Scandinavia but were hunted to extinction. In the 1940s, animals from herds in Greenland were brought back to Norway and bred to create the two small herds that exist today.
Another advantage Norway has over many similar locations is it is hassle-free birding. The chances of getting mugged or experiencing a threatening situation is virtually zero. The infrastructure is secure, the government stable and everywhere will have English speaking residents. Roads are well developed, easy to use and open all year. This is particularly true for the “off the beaten track” locations such as Arctic Norway, where you can still get about easily by car to wildlife sites on good roads that are managed to be drivable even in the depths of winter. Both accommodation and food are easily available and are of a high standard. All the above is not a matter of course in many of the worlds most desired birding destinations.
Seasonal changes: A birder visiting in June will see an entirely different cast of birdlife than one visiting in February. In the north, this is even more apparent. Summer is characterised by a wide range of breeding waders, passerines (perching birds like Bluethroats and Arctic Warbler) and other migratory birds which spend the winter in warmer climates. The 24-hour sunlight means the wildlife-watcher can theoretically be out at any time on the lookout for nature. A return visit in winter or early spring will not only give a totally new range of species, but a completely different experience, of the same place. In winter the species are fewer in number but it is still “high quality” birding, with rare seaducks, white-winged gulls from Siberia and the aurora borealis on show in a pristine snowy landscape. This vast polarisation over the seasons creates a higher level of “site loyalty” for many wildlife watchers, who may come in one season and are interested in seeing the location at another time of the year.
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