We were sitting in a small boat, trying not to blink as we alternated our steady gaze between the largish dead fish floating a way away on the water and the distant tops of the spruces lining the shore of the fjord. Overhead, a dozen Herring and Black-headed Gulls shrieked as they circled. Occasionally, they would swoop to the fish but it was slightly bigger than they were prepared to tackle, so they left it alone. They had already feasted on some smaller fish, thrown out to attract them in the first place. Attracting the gulls was part of the strategy to catch the attention of the eagle. Now we saw it come. Straight as an arrow, massive wings outspread, intent on only one thing: our fishy offering. In the back of my head the Dambusters theme played as the White-tailed Eagle came in, resembling nothing so much as a World War Two bomber powering over the fjord from half a mile away.
In seconds it was upon us, spiralling lower and lower until, in a last moment snatch and grab, it thrust its powerful talons forward and lifted the fish. Then it was away, oblivious to the harrying gulls that trailed in its wake. We all breathed again. That was the culmination of our two-hour wait and without question the highlight of our trip to Norway’s Trondheimfjord.
It was, however, the highlight in a week of highlights. Nestled warmly in my memory are Great Snipe and Ruff lekking, Tengmalm’s, Hawk and Pigmy Owls nesting, Hazel, Willow and Black Grouse and Capercaillie, a pair of Rough-legged Buzzards, a Wryneck, Slavonian Grebes by the dozen, a King Eider... the list of fabulous birds goes on.
We were staying by the side of the fjord in a peaceful rural spot most often frequented by fishermen. In mid-May, the sun set sometime around midnight and rose again at about 3am, a situation which led to one panicky awakening when I thought my 6am alarm hadn’t gone off and I’d missed out on the day trip on the mountain road to Sweden to get Willow Grouse. I was halfway to the door before I realised the sun really was shining in the middle of the night and there was still four hours to go before we were supposed to meet our guide.
The fields around the accommodation were full of Hooded Crows and Fieldfares. I thought about how excited I am to see just two or three of the latter in my winter garden. In Norway they were everywhere. I’ve also never seen so many Eider gathered together in one place. About 15 minutes drive from where we were staying there was a narrow neck of fast-running water at the edge of a town where a river emptied into a fjord.
This was Eider Alley. Local photographers position themselves at the narrowest part and get superb fly-by shots without really trying, as the birds motor downstream and then fly back up. At the time we were there, you could count 200 or more birds without straying out into the fjord or scanning the riverbank where those tired of running the rapids were resting. The Eider were predominantly male, the females being rooted to secret nests in their month-long solitary egg-sit.
For most of the time we were in Norway we were self-guided, using an ingenious system devised by our hosts, Dintur Nature Travel. At the airport we picked up a hire car, complete with a satellite navigation device. In the accommodation there was a folder with descriptions of many local birding hotspots, what you can see there and the best strategy to adopt to get the best birds.
Each area was allocated a code which corresponded to the codes programmed into the GPS sat nav. We chose where we wanted to go, selected the number in the sat nav and off we went. There’s even a mechanical English voice to guide you on the road, which you can select in the instrument’s settings. With this kind of help, making the most of your birding in an unfamiliar area is easy.
The sat nav guided us to some of the best spots for waders and some late-departing Pink-footed Geese. It led us to waterfowl at beautiful Vera lake – Goldeneye, Scaup and Common and Velvet Scoter – and it guided us to mixed woodland where we saw Icterine Warbler. We found a lot of great birds under our own steam, but for the stars of the show we needed the expert local knowledge of a human guide – ornithologist and ace photographer, Terje Kolaas, who knew just where to find the goodies.
On a day with Terje we had the thrill of standing under the nest of Rough-legged Buzzard, tucked carefully into the face of a jagged rock formation that overhung a mountain road. As we watched, the male circled and the female called, encouraging him down with his prey. At the side of a field overlooking a lake we heard the distinctive ping-pong ball sound of a Great Snipe lekking, which enabled us to scope out the bird. Turning slightly to our left we picked out a Ruff from a flock of Golden Plover, which promptly obliged us with its own lekking display.
Our owl nest encounters were all down to Terje, who is careful to keep secret the locations of the nests. Just off a road, next to a riverbed, he pointed out an Aspen tree with a Black Woodpecker hole high up on the trunk. As we watched, the resident Tengmalm’s Owl looked out. In no way fazed by an audience, it surveyed the scene below for some minutes before ducking back down to the nest.
Perhaps the biggest owl thrill, though, came at dusk when we trekked into the heart of a spruce forest to a tree and the small hole made by a Three-toed Woodpecker, at head height in the trunk. We stood in drizzling rain for half an hour, on the other side of a clearing from the target tree, and were rewarded not only with a chirpy Crested Tit, that paused a while near the tree we were under, but by the appearance of a female Pigmy Owl which flew out of the old woodpecker hole, left the area for perhaps 10 minutes and then returned to perch on a branch just above our heads. After a minute or two, establishing that all was well, she darted back into the hole and left us to make our way back to the car, elated.
In Norway you can see many of the common birds we see at home but sometimes they show with brighter colours or in greater numbers. And you can see some fantastic birds that you don’t get here. People are friendly and helpful, the roads are all but empty outside of the main towns and life has a slow pace. Food and drink are expensive but if you cater for yourself and stock up on the duty free on the way out, you can have an unforgettable birding experience.
For more information contact Dintur Nature travel or call 0047 7407 3000