The Ocean is everything

8 06 2016

“Ocean: A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man – who has no gills.”

– Ambrose Bierce

Some weeks ago, I was lucky, so extremely lucky, to came across 3 Blue whales Balaenoptera musculus off Sao Miguel, Azores. I’ve seen loads of both Fin and Bryde’s whales so I had expected the Blues to be the same but bigger. I was wrong, so terribly wrong. Their enormous size makes you feel insignificant but, at the same time, the peace and the slowness of their swimming makes you feel safe and comfortable. An encounter with these blue giants should therefore sum up the relationship between the oceans (and nature in general) and humans.

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It’s not been the case. Humans have killed whales for centuries and some whaling structures are still kept around the Azorean harbours, only as past times witnesses. Fortunately, the Azoreans switched whale hunting for whale watching some years ago and, although the whale watching business also have an obvious dark side, the situation is undeniably better nowadays. The same happens in other corners of the world, especially since the International Court of Justice finally banned the Japanese whale “research” in March 2014.

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Whales have traditionally attracted everybody’s attention but their prosecution is just one of the threads the ocean and its inhabitants face. I could now talk about my beloved tubenoses, the most endangered seabird species. But the ocean is everything. Having worked in the Canary Islands, one gets aware of how ocean-dependant most of in-land ecosystems are. The Azores aren’t an exception and some endemic taxa wholly depends on the oceanic environment. Azorean bullfinch Pyrrhula murina is the icing on the cake of a very charismatic Macaronesian habitat: the laurel forest.

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Its origin is none other than the ocean: The sun warms up the water-rich air over the water surface and hence it ascends along the steeply slopes while its temperature decreases. Eventually, it reaches a point where the temperature is that low that the water condensates forming clouds. Those clouds stop ascending when they hit a wall created by the constant hot high winds predominant in the region. At this point, the clouds are carried by the wind on its direction but, when they hit a mountain area such as those oceanic islands, they create a sea of clouds. Some plant species such as the Laurel take advantage of the situation by fixating this water suspended in the air. They effectively work as natural desalination plants originating this stunning landscape:

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So it’s not a coincidence that we saw both Blue whale and Azorean bullfinch within a 50 km. radius. Today, in the World Oceans Day, I want to point out the importance of the oceans not only for charismatic animals like whales but also for in-land high biodiversity areas and their endangered (sometimes endemic) species. To preserve one habitat while forgetting about the others would be just focusing on the palliative cares of a sick planet without actually understanding the nature of the disease.

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Pyrenean stars

12 06 2015

“I am prepared to go anywhere, provided it be forward”

– David Livingstone

Probably the best way to escape Barcelona’s crazy hot temperatures is going to the Pyrenees and, among all the nice Pyrenean areas, the best is probably Val d’Aran, the only Catalan region in the north face of the cordillera. Apart from exclusive species (not only birds) restricted to this area, to be in the north face has of course advantages and disadvantages: in one hand, the weather: it’s fresh and nice and you don’t sweat as in Barcelona’s underground. In the other hand, the weather: it can start raining at any time and the fog can turn up surprisingly quick.

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During the last three days, Martí and I have got both feelings, but all in all we’ve managed to have a good time. Maybe for the first time, we had 2 main targets: the first visit to our UTM square for the new Catalan Breeding Bird Atlas and a new search for the Black hairstreak Satyrium pruni, a new butterfly for Catalonia we found last year.

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We started with the UTM. As usual in early summer, the track was still full of snow, so we had to walk all the way up to Liat Mines. Snowfields, showers and a hole in my boots made it hard, but an unexpected prize awaited in the top. Almost the first bird we saw in our square, however, was a nice adult Lammergeier flying over.

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Apart from that, the area was packed with Water pipits and Northern wheatears, but nothing else. We had just sit and were taking a breathe when a lizard showed up nearby. We had found a still unidentified dead lizard some metres away and we knew we were in the exact location where Aran rock lizard occurs. Therefore, we were already paying attention to the rocks. And yeah, there it was. To be honest, we didn’t know how to identify it. Martí was sure it didn’t look like anything we regularly see. I agreed, but, despite I was not updated in terms of lizard taxonomy, I knew there had been several changes, with some new species described.

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This species is restricted to the Mauberme massif, right in the Spanish and French borders. It was not until 1993 that it was formally described, together with its close relative Aurelio rock lizard, which inhabits similar habitats 100km east.

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After such an unexpected lifer, we came down to Bagergue to take the car and spend the afternoon looking for butterflies. Sadly, it was cloudy and raining at any time so we ended up having nothing to do. After a couple of cups of coffee (each) that brought us back to life, we decided to visit the area where a Brown bear is usually seen. It spends the early summer there, and goes into the beech forest when it gets too hot. In the area, we came across Marc Gálvez, nice chat while waiting for the Bear. However, time went on and the sun suddenly showed up. Martí and I were already considering to actually look for some butterflies in our way to have a proper dinner in a bar when I spotted the Bear sat on a rock, apparently sleeping.

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After a while, it woke up and started feeding on plants, branches and all sort of vegetables. I’ve been asked if I was not scared while looking at the bear. The ones who have seen one know this is just a very stupid question.

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The same meadow from which we were looking at the bear was full of orchids, mainly pink morph Elder-flowered orchid Orchis sambucina. While looking at their refined dessign, I saw an ant whatching out for a spider. I’m new in the “macro world”, but it looks like I’ll spend some hours sat on the ground in a nearby future… No clue about the name of the ant or the spider [yet]

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It was sunny in the morning so, after a walk through the last 1×1 UTM square we had to check, we finally looked for butterflies. Despite the usual high diversity in most of flowered Val d’Aran meadows, we didn’t manage to find the hairstreak. However, we found a surprisingly high density of both Sooty Lycaena tityrus and Purple-edged Lycaena hippothoe coppers instead.

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And a Sombre goldenring Cordulegaster bidentata was hunting in the edge of the meadow. Another nice life of a dragonfly only found in the high Pyrenees.

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Time to come back home, to the hot and sweaty Barcelona, but it’s only a month until we’ll be back in Val d’Aran to the second round of the breeding bird survey. What a nice excuse for another 3 days in paradise.





Some nice photos

12 03 2015

“This is how the entire course of a life can be changed: by doing nothing.”

Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan

It’s been a busy winter. It’s not that I’ve not had the time to post something on the blog, the problem is that there has been so much stuff going on that I’ve not been able to sum it up. It’s quite easy actually: Borolo’s sheawater things in the Canary Islands and twitching in Catalonia.

The project with the shearwaters is going well and the first two birds have been successfully tagged, both reporting data about their unknown foraging range. Since all the information about this is already in the project’ blog post, I’ll focus on some other experiences. First of all, while trying to mistnet shearwaters, we caught several Grant’s storm-petrels. This species is not formally described yet and… oh wait, Stephen already spoke about that too!

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Should I write about the twitching then? Much ink has been already spilled about the Brown shrike at Ebro Delta, the Isabelline shrike at Marjal d’Almenara, the Pygmy cormorant and the Ring-necked duck at exactly the same locality in Aiguamolls de l’Empordà and the local megas (almost first twitchable ever) Rock pipit and Purple sandpiper (both at Ebro Delta and surrounding areas).

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So, what’s left? 3 months without posting and you end up showing some lichen photos to add some freshness. Here they go, Lepraria sp. and Xanthoria sp.:

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Both photos were taken at Fuerteventura. The Eastern Islands are bright like I had never seen them before, both full of flowers that create a stunning carpet. Keeping in mind most of these plants are endemic, the ecological benefits of this year’s rain are invaluable. The photo shows the currently violet surroundings of El Golfo village, due to the flowered Echium lancerottense.

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Echium lancerottense B

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Fuerteventura shows a similar aspect, but what always impresses me the most are the sharp colors of the spurges Euphorbia canariensis. While Stephen was chasing some stonechats, I was taking photos of the scene.

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So this has ended up being a crappy post with no information and just some nice photos. Trust me, it’s not been that bad…





Enjoying bird counts

4 11 2014

“I’m not counting any chickens.”

– Jeff Bridges

It’s not easy to enjoy birding when you have to count >4000 wigeons and >5000 barnacle geese under bad weather conditions, but when the weather is nice and the birds seem to cooperate, our weekly resting bird count becomes a very nice birding time around Knösen. After the whole season having seen almost nothing up there, the good vibrations started a couple of weeks ago, with a Gyr falcon flying over the meadows with a prey on its claws. Sadly, despite we saw the bird landing in the western meadows, it was impossible to relocate. However, notable numbers of White-fronted goose and Bewick’s swans were present, together with scattered Brent goose and Rough-legged buzzards.

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The week after, when it was time to count again, our expectations were much higher than usual. Encouraged by the previous week birds and the good visible migration early in the morning, we departed ready to actually enjoy the birding. When I think about “the attraction law”, I remove the magic component some people keenly adds and turn it into something empirical: when you are in a good mood, you find more interesting birds. This was probably what happened that day  from the beginning. Probably due to this excitement, our first stop was to check a flock of Jackdaws (yes, Jackdaws). Instead of our desired Daurian, we saw an interesting bird with a strikingly white a broad white collar and a light grey nape.

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My only contact with soemmerringii was in Turkey, already some years ago, and, to be honest, I don’t remember how did the underparts look like. However, it’s quite easy to find photos of Russian (here) or Turkish (here) birds with such pale and mottled underparts and after a quick check of photos of birds breeding in the Iberian Peninsula showing pale and mottled underparts strongly contrasting with the black wings (here and here), I don’t think this feature (described, for instance, in Offerein’s Dutch Birding paper) is as useful as it seemed. The collar, in the other hand, strikes me as being missing in the spermologus I’m used to, but of course present to some extent in nominate monedula. If we, therefore, are left with collar size and shape to tell them apart, what’s the minimum size for a nominate to become spermologus? What’s the maximum size to become soemmerringii?

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As usual in this kind of widespread taxa, while trying to dig into the subject, we end up hitting a wall in the shape of an east-west gradient and the conclusion usually is that only the extremes can be safely identified. However, when facing  a bird that is obviously not local, we can still try to guess the origine, looking for photos that allow us to draw the boundaries of the its kind’s range. After a [too] exhaustive search in the web, my conclusion is that this bird came from Western Russia, what Offerein calls “western soemmerringii“. Swedish breeding birds don’t show the broad white collar and Turkish soemmerringii seem to be darker in the underparts. I’ve not been able to find a photo of a Romanian bird (meant to be integrade) that striking, despite the variation covered in Chris Gibbins post. Interestingly, the bird was in a flock with two nominate monedula that are probably in the extreme of the species, not usual in Falsterbo breeding birds neither.

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Since these taxa are meant to be migratory, what are the wintering grounds? According to Giroud, they are wintering in notable numbers in France and there are evidences of them wintering also in Italy, so they must be overlooked in the Iberian Peninsula. Definetely something to look at!

After an interesting bird (the kind of stuff that makes you read what’s been published as soon as you arrive home), it was nice to see something a bit more cracking. This was an adult Red-breasted goose among thousands of Barnacles. The bird was still present yesterday, when we managed to get even better views.

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The species is surprisingly criptic among Barnacles, especially in dark ligth conditions, but still one of the most beautiful wildfowl of our region.

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The icing on the cake was the counting from the tip of Knösen. A flock of 70 scaups, more than 100 goldeneyes and dozens of Bewick’s swans together with thousands of wigeons. The sound of the birds without any wind at all, rather than the picture, was unforgettable.

 





Little things

2 04 2014

“You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”

– Andy Warhol

In my last lonely day of the second round of the Barolo shearwater survey, tired and already waiting for Genís to join me, I decided to spend the day enjoying Fuerteventura, its landscape and especially its little endemic: the Fuerteventura stonechat.

I reached Cofete, the wonderful tiny village in the north of the Jandía peninsula, and saw the same restaurant I had been 7 years ago. Although it’s a bit expensive (due to the place, don’t expect iranian caviar), after several days eating tins of tuna I thought I deserved some relax. I guess all trip guides/webs already say that, but, just in case, you should go there! Either with friends, with the couple or alone, but to be sit in the terrace looking at the landscape and enjoying the classical potatoes with spicy sauce (papas con mojo) is a good way to chase problems away, at least for a couple of hours.

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After an abundant meal, Southern people usually sleaps but, since I got no sofa nor bed, the car was a complete mess and it was raining hard, I decided to immediately go and look for the stonechats. 7 years ago I saw quite a lot of them almost everywhere, but this spring they seem to be restricted to the south of the island, or at least much more abundant there. A long-term evlutionary ecology survey such as that of Galapago’s ground finches would probably show strong fluctuations depending on rain and who knows what other variables. In the current year, I found 3 nests in 3 hours, all of them in the Canary Islands spurge Euphorbia canariensis area of the Jandía peninsula. It’s nice to see an endemic bird breeding under an endemic plant surrounded by such an unaltered area.

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Already focused on one of the couples, I started looking at the moult to age them. Illera & Atienza 2002 described the moult of this species as almost exactly the same than in European stonechat rubicola, that is, a partial post-juvenile that includes LCs, MCs and some to all GCs and a lack of pre-nuptial moult that leads to a worn body plumage in spring (in contrast with Siberian stonechat). However, both members of the couple I was looking at had moulted much more, and some feathers not even mentioned in the article, such as all 3 tertials in the case of the male and medium alula in the female. Although the article does say males moult much more than females in their PJ (to reach a bright adult-like appearence), it looks like this moult can be more extensive than previously expected.

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To determine the extension of the moult in the female (e.g. number of GCs moulted) is a bit trickier, although A2 looked obviously moulted in the field. I was not able to see the other wing in detail, so it could be just a replacement, but A2 is not a feather usually lost and replaced. All in all, among lots of questions, it would be interesting to assess how many males do moult tertials. Since PJ moult (especially in males) has an ecologycal/behavioral reason, it would be nice to see if 1stS males with moulted tertials have a higher breeding success.

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Finally, just a photo of another Fuerteventura specialty for those visiting the Canaries: Black-bellied sandgrouse. They were already in couples, flying over the steppes emitting their magic call that brings me to my childhood summers in the steppes of Soria…

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Round 1. Fight!

25 02 2014

“If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize”

– Muhammad Ali

Maybe one of the most important things I’ve done in my life so far is what I’m currently doing: a project for Barolo shearwater conservation in the Canary Islands. Although I don’t fear being ambitious when it comes to preserve nature, the several tasks to do in order to execute it properly make the field work hard, very hard. It is divided in three rounds of work and we’ve just finished the first one. Most of days’ work has included census from vessel between islands, from-land census with a scope and night hears in the breeding colonies. Some of this work carried in isolated islets, some of them hard to reach and of course not comfortable to live in.

However, after only a couple of days resting at home, things look much better. The experience is invaluable from a personal point of view. To hear several Barolo shearwaters entering the colony inside of the volcano in Montaña Clara islet, late at night, after a hard and cold time sleeping on the rocks can be only described as magic and goes straight to the podium of my birding memories.

The adventure started at La Gomera. Although for me it will be always one of the greenest islands of the Canaries, the fact that the areas we were interested in were all in the dry south combined with the extensive burnt area right in the heart of Garajonay National Park gave me a different taste than in my previous visits. However, we enjoyed good views of some birds typical from the Macaronesian laurel forest such as this Tenerife goldcrest. This taxa is not recognized as a species nowadays and, risking sounding like a twitcher, I don’t understand why. Note the dark grey head, the yellow-creamy wing bar and the dirty flanks. Keeping in mind this population is 4000km from the nearest breeding ground of regulus and the Madeiran firecrest has species status, I just don’t get it. I know, the genetic distance is not big enough, but neither it is in swifts and eiders.

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Anyway, it was time to move to Fuerteventura to carry on with the shearwaters. Bizarrely, we got rainy weather there, so again I got a different taste from this dry island than in my previous visits. Some of the Houbara bustards were already displaying with their high-speed version of Great bustards’ foam bath. Bad views of Cream-colored courser and a good study of a couple of Fuerteventura Common buzzards were the only stuff we got time for.

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These buzzards are indeed interesting. They are meant to be insularum like in the rest of the Archipelago, but the truth is they look more like Long-legged buzzards. Structure and tail band should be enough to rule out the north African cirtensis, but it’s hard to avoid thinking those birds don’t have any influence from this species. Judge by yourself:

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The plan for the next two days was to go to Lobos islet. Not so much to say about this small islet… Apart from an impressive landscape and a (too) big colony of Yellow-legged gull, it’s not as good as it could be for seabirds. Nowadays it’s packed of mice but it’s worth saying the last cat died there because it was really old. We are not talking about a big island but about an islet, where monitoring and management should be a priority.

After an extra night in Fuerteventura double-checking some good places for shearwaters, we faced Lanzarote, an island that I’ve always seen in a hurry. The bad point about leading the trips to La Concepción Bank with Lanzarote Pelagics is that I’ve rarely have time for birding in the island itself. This time was not that different… we were still focused on seabirds, although this time not as far away from the shore. However, we enjoyed the Houbaras and especially the Cream-colored coursers with even better views than at Fuerteventura.

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The coursers were already mating. This couple hidden behind some vegetation… not so different from humans actually.

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A visit to Janubio saltpans was quite nice to see some waders and ducks. Nothing of interest apart from Black-tailed godwits and the always stunning Ruddy shelducks. Nice to see as well the flock of Black-necked grebes that is wintering there. We counted 21 birds, but the maximum has been 23.

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Finally, a quick check at Tías golf course. This place has given so many rarities that is worth checking just in case. However, the only remarkable birds present were a flock of White wagtails and some Trumpeter finches. Even they are always there, for a birder from the Peninsula is always nice to see them, especially with these good views.

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And that’s it… Hard but enjoyable field work somehow. Now it’s time for another cetacean survey at this paradise called El Hierro, combined with more research on Barolo shearwaters.





Falsterbo – Kiruna – Andøya

18 11 2013

“I am a big Lady Gaga fan”

– Aron Anderson

End of the season in Falsterbo, time to come back to Barcelona, the city that can be considered my wintering range. In the last weeks, some people has asked me what do I think about Sweden. Well… bearing in mind that, apart from 2 seawatching days in Båstad and another one-day trip in March to Vombs Angar, Skryllegården and Hackebergasjon (in central Skåne), I’ve been the whole 8 months in the Falsterbo Peninsula, so it was impossible for me to give an opinion about Sweden. Hence, when Aron suggested that I should join him on his way to Kiruna (Norrland) my answer was yes.

The plan in the beginning consisted in renting a car in Malmö and driving all the way to Kiruna, stopping at some places to do some birding targeting the northern species that I’ve missed in Falsterbo. However, after realizing how expensive was to rent a car if you are not Swedish, the trip ended up in a 6-hour train from Malmö to Stockholm + a 14-hour train to Kiruna. Then, we were gonna burrow a car and carry on north, up to Andenes in the Norwegian island of Andøya. This guy down here is Aron in the train, and he is extremely happy for either going back home or the big burger he’s just eaten:

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As soon as we arrived to Kiruna, I realized it was something completely different. I wouldn’t say the real Sweden, but admittedly the image of Sweden that we have in the south of Europe. Snow, forest and frozen lakes. Also some nice birds, mainly visiting feeders, like this Siberian tit.

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Without more time for birding the area, we departed to Norway and we didn’t stop until we spotted a Northern Hawk owl sitting in the top of a tree, some kilometers before Abisko National Park. Even this is probably the only species of “northern owl” that I had seen before (bizarrely together with Snowy owl), still an stunning bird.

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A walk in the National Park didn’t produce anything but a flock of Willow tits, nice landscapes and a warming cup of coffee in Aron’s former work place.

It was already dark night when we crossed the border, a step obviously accompanied by Aron’s classic quote “welcome to Norway, fucker”. The weather forecast made me forget about Northern Lights: it was meant to be raining/snowing all day long the day after. Maybe even more worryingly, the birding was going to be hard. Of course, when you’ve been ringing for one month in a row, need a day off and there’s rain forecasted, it’s always wrong. In the other hand, when you only have 2 days for exploring such an amazing place like Andøya, the forecast is right and the birding hard.

However, we managed to see some good birds: there were several Little auks around Andenes harbor, Greater scaup, Black guillemot, Red-throated diver… but no sign of neither King eider nor Yellow-billed diver. We decided to check as many harbors as possible, so we started with Bleick, a small village in the west coast of the island. No northern specialties again, but hundreds of Purple sandpipers feeding in the seaweed.

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Since the west coast didn’t look so promising, we decided to cross to the east. The central part of the island is just stunning. Pure tundra surrounded by high snowed mountains. The rain was annoying, but this landscape must be seen in a cloudy day. The icing on the cake was an adult female Gyr falcon sitting in a mossy rock. I would never forget this image!

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The day finished with the feeling that there were loads of birds in the island, but the weather and the lack of information had led us to miss the good stuff. The forecast for the day after was promising: really strong westerly winds and cloudy, but no rain. The whole Lofoten archipelago was in orange alert due to the winds, but, as usual when this happens, we were happy.

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The first thing we did early in the morning was to check Andenes harbor again. As soon as we arrived, we realized it was a completely different story to the day before. There were at least 40 Glaucous gulls of all ages, big flocks of Long-tailed ducks, a similar number of Little auks than the day before and a female King eider among some Commons.

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Seawatching in the west coast was almost impossible due to the strong winds and the lack of sheltered places. Hence we crossed again to the east coast, where the sea was completely flat and the birds easier to spot. From the tiny Myre’ harbor, apart from a surprisingly high number of Slavonian grebes, the highlight of the day was a flock of 8 King eiders (sadly all females again) and a stunning landscape.

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Time to head back to Kiruna, under a strong snow shower and already thinking about coming back to Andøya. The island offers very good birding possibilities. The lack of information (almost no reports at all in November) and the bad weather conditions forced us to invest one day in exploring the island looking for the best places. Of course, the already limited number of light hours doesn’t help neither. However, the number of birds (mainly sea-ducks, auks, gulls and divers) is impressive and with good weather conditions it’s probably possible to see most of arctic specialties. The landscape, as in the rest of the Vesterålen archipelago, is impressive, in my opinion especially in winter time.








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