Seabourn Club Herald November 2011, V21 N3 : Page 31
A Bird’s-Eye View Norway is for the birds — and the people who love to watch them. By Susan Zimmerman Seabirds rule the roost in Norway. These “flighty” denizens are found in all seasons in every nook, cranny and rookery throughout one of the longest coastlines in the world, which stretches from Oslo to Vardø. But when nature calls and those birds’ biological alarms go off around early May, it’s time to duck. The air traffic picks up as Norway’s winged population soars with millions of birds who come to the country’s breeding grounds looking for a place to “nestle down” and raise a family. Puffins perched on a cliff
A Bird’s-Eye View
Norway is for the birds — and the people who love to watch them.<br /> <br /> Seabirds rule the roost in Norway.<br /> <br /> These “flighty” denizens are found in all seasons in every nook, cranny and rookery throughout one of the longest coastlines in the world, which stretches from Oslo to Vardø. But when nature calls and those birds’ biological alarms go off around early May, it’s time to duck. The air traffic picks up as Norway’s winged population soars with millions of birds who come to the country’s breeding grounds looking for a place to “nestle down” and raise a family.<br /> <br /> During this annual flight of passage, searching for the perfect summer cliff, crevice or burrow is paramount. Although site fidelity for returning migrant couples such as the Atlantic Puffins has its privileges at the breeding colonies, “squawkers rights” rule and first-come, first-roost. While the puffin and kittiwake populations take over some of the biggest chunks of real estate, the fulmars, gannets, shags, guillemots and various other species carve out their own little niches. The classic White-Tailed Eagle (but otherwise brownish) likes the good life on the island colonies as well since Europe’s largest raptor has the pick of the litter from its avian neighbors.<br /> <br /> Although seabirds have a home in every port from Bergen to Stavanger, in the northern two-thirds of the country where bird colonies are the largest, waterfront property is in high demand and the steeper, the better — islands, headlands and cliffs fill up fast. Runde Island (near Alesund), which attracts some 500,000 to 700,000 nesters, is famous for its 100,000 pairs of puffins while Røst, on the tip of the Lofoten Island chain, is home to some 2.5 million feathered residents. And then there’s Storstappen, an island community perched above the Arctic Circle in the country’s northernmost region of Finnmark, which is home to more than a million puffins.<br /> <br /> STOPPING AT STORSTAPPEN <br /> <br /> There are many reasons to make port at 71 degrees north on Magerøya Island. The small picturesque town of Honningsvåg is definitely one, while the even smaller and quainter fishing village of Gjesvær, the jumping off point to reach Storstappen, has more than a million reasons.<br /> <br /> “It’s about 2,000 miles to the North Pole from here — and nothing in between,” says my bird safari tour boat guide, Roger Walsoe, as the pier at Gjesvær disappears from view. That certainly seems believable as he points out the far-off cliff of Knivskjelodden, considered Europe’s true northernmost point, jutting out into the Arctic Ocean some 9 miles in the distance.But a voyage to the Pole will have to wait. The reason I’m here is for the birds.<br /> <br /> It takes only 10 minutes to reach Storstappen’s millennia-old nesting cliffs, the largest of Gjesværstappen Nature Reserve’s four islands. The sailing is smooth, the island is close to shore and the seabird spotting is a sure thing. As the 928-foot-tall island comes into view, what I see makes my jaw drop. <br /> Fortunately, I instinctively close the gap before gazing skyward, as flying overhead are the millions of “reasons,” plus or minus a few, to come to Gjesvær.<br /> <br /> Witnessing this would be worth the ride alone, but there are thousands of razorbills, guillemots, kittiwakes and gannets as well as other less-profuse species such as cormorants, shags and sea eagles.The dozens of passengers aboard the safari boat with me are primed for this coveted experience and armed with binoculars and cameras.I have a feeling the two-hour cruise is going to fly by.<br /> <br /> BIRDING BY BOAT <br /> <br /> The sunny July day and calm waters are made for bird watching.As the captain easily maneuvers the boat close to the cliffs for some bird’s-eye views, it also puts everyone within striking distance of the thousands of birds passing overhead. I am just a shoulder away from a passenger who gets the first “hit.” Before his wife removes the white telltale stain from his jacket, Walsoe tells her it is good luck and to let it be. I have my doubts about the veracity to this memento, but I am willing to test the theory.<br /> <br /> As the boat makes the rounds, Walsoe explains over a cacophony of bird calls that each colony has its own spot.This so-called niche separation looks like utter chaos to me, but apparently the madness of this method appeals to bird brains. The gannets roosting on their side of the island look sublimely serene with their elegant long beaks pointed skyward, though I catch a few “bird kisses” being slipped in. This touching courtship behavior when they clack their beaks together is known as billing. At the edge of the island, a lone cormorant airs out its wings, while at the other end, scores of kittiwakes dart from a sheer cleft like a white wave.<br /> <br /> The biggest land holding is riddled with puffin burrows belonging to the comical-faced Atlantic Puffins. The island’s most endearing species, known for their large triangular-shaped colorful bill, put on a stellar show diving off the cliff ledges to join a massive black swirling cloud of hundreds of thousands of circling puffins. Equally entertaining are these “clowns of the sea” afloat in the ocean running full tilt on the water in order to take off. It is simply impossible to take in the entire island’s activity in one fell swoop, especially basking in the warmth of the arctic sunshine in the company of millions of seabirds. The boat comes full circle way too soon.<br /> <br /> FLYING HIGH AND COUNTING S <br /> <br /> While getting to know the puffins from the kittiwakes is a no brainer, identifying the Common Guillemots from the Black Guillemots isn’t so black and white. In fact, trying to sort out the island’s almost dozen species makes me batty, which I guess is better than being a bird brain.<br /> <br /> Then again, maybe not. These birds get to hang out in this paradise all summer, and I’m just passing through. Although I leave without a telltale sign from a “hit,” I don’t go away empty-handed.I have millions of memories to keep me flying high.And if I ever need help catching some zzz’s, I’m counting puffins.
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