Friday, 8 November 2019

Twitching Pine Grosbeaks in Norway 6th-7th November 2019

Last week Peter called me after reading an article written for Birdguides about an ongoing and unprecedented irruption of Pine Grosbeaks into Norway, Sweden and Denmark that began in October and is gathering pace in November.

I have only ever seen one Pine Grosbeak and that was on Shetland in February 2013, the first to be twitchable in Britain since 1992. It was a truly memorable experience and I vowed then and there that I wanted to see more of this wonderfully attractive species but it looked as though I would need to wait a very long time for another one to come to Britain. Maybe one would arrive on the back of this current irruption but it was a long shot. I had, earlier in the year, toyed with the idea of going to Finland to see them this winter but that would involve much expense so when Peter rang and said it was possible to go to Norway at a lot cheaper price to connect with the Pine Grosbeaks currently flooding into that country, it was too good an opportunity to pass up.

There is something about this species that really sets my pulse racing. Maybe it's their chunky size and the attractive variations in their plumage. Maybe it's the mystique they possess, coming as they do from the vast areas of taiga in sub arctic Fenno Scandia and the pine forests of Siberia, and the fact they are very rarely seen in Britain. Whatever it is, they are  one of those birds that virtually everyone agrees is a must to go and see, given the opportunity.

The current irruption of Pine Grosbeaks into Scandinavia, involving thousands of birds moving southwest, is the largest such irruption since 1976 and is, by grosbeak standards, very early in the year as such irruptions are normally later in winter. In Sweden 13,000 have been recorded during the last week of October and 9750 the week before.There were a minimum of 1000 daily in the last week of October throughout Norway and large numbers are being seen in Denmark too.

Peter had researched the internet thoroughly and came up with an excellent plan to fly to Oslo on Ryanair early on Wednesday 6th November from Stansted in Essex and come back on the evening of Thursday 7th November. This would give us two days of birding in and around Oslo. He had contacted the author of the Birdguides article, Simon Rix, who is British but married to a Norwegian lady and has been living in Oslo for fifteen years and, having made a major career change, is now a full time bird guide in Norway. Simon agreed to guide us for our two day stay. For more background info on the grosbeaks and Simon's blog see here

The midweek return flight on Ryanair from Stansted to Oslo came in at the very low price of £75.00 each. A room at a budget hotel (Thon Hotel Gardermoen) for one night would only cost £55.00 each to include not only breakfast but an evening meal. Bearing in mind the astronomical prices of most things in Norway the hotel was a real bargain.

Peter booked both the flights and the hotel and we drove to my sister's house in Harlow on Tuesday night  and as always, she kindly agreed to drive us to nearby Stansted at the ridiculously early time of 4am on Wednesday morning to catch our 6.30am flight to Oslo.

Somewhat groggily we endured the dehumanising nightmare of passing through the airport security checks and then sat with similarly sleep deprived passengers in the departure hall awaiting our flight to be called. It was then onto the aircraft for another hour and a half of 'The Ryanair Experience', fending off an endless bombardment of entreaties from the cabin staff to purchase overpriced food, scratch cards, bargain price perfume or alcohol, you name it. I just shut my eyes and dreamed of Pine Grosbeaks. We arrived fifteen minutes early, disembarking into the pleasant modern surrounds of Oslo's Gardermoen airport, gasping at the drop in temperature as we left the plane. A quick call to Simon and we were duly collected ten minutes later, at around 9am. It had all gone as planned so far but now we had to find the grosbeaks.

Simon told us that earlier in the morning he had done a live radio interview with Norwegian national radio on a conifer clad hillside called Grefsenkollen  and whilst talking to them four Pine Grosbeaks had flown in, as if on cue, to add another dimension to the interview. It therefore seemed logical to go there first to see if the grosbeaks were still about but on arriving we were met by half a dozen glum looking local birders who told us the grosbeaks had not been seen since Simon's interview.

This was a disappointing start and my spirits sunk a little at this news but on the walk back to Simon's car we did see and hear both Northern and Common Bullfinches, distinguished by their very different calls and a Parrot Crossbill also flew over us, calling.

It was cold, very cold by our standards, minus two degrees celsius but it was going to be a pleasant day with sun and little wind. Suitably layered in thermals, woolley jumpers, hats, gloves and goose down jackets we were well insulated.

Despite our initial failure Simon was upbeat about finding some grosbeaks and told us he planned to drive us across Oslo to another pine clad hillside and a place called Holmenkollen  where there was a huge ski jump and slope and he was pretty certain there would be Pine Grosbeaks there.

On the way Simon pointed out the large number of what looked like pruned rowan trees, if that is what they were, by the roadsides or in gardens,  all bearing a plethora of shiny red berries. Apparently this year there is an exceptional abundance of berries and this is probably a factor in attracting the grosbeaks as they will happily eat these berries as well as the more traditional hard brown conifer buds they favour. The downside was that there were so many berry laden trees there was no shortage of places for the grosbeaks to go, thus making pinning them down that much harder.

On the way parties of Fieldfares, availing themselves of the berries, flew from these same trees and I saw a single male Blackbird and some Magpies but little else.

We arrived at Holmenkollen, an upmarket area of large expensive looking houses that overlooks Oslo and the Oslo Fjord and is dominated by the huge ski jump and an arena for spectators, a bit of an eyesore in my opinion but nevertheless awe inspiring in its stark brutish ugliness and, looking at it, I shuddered thinking about those brave souls who would be hurtling down it this winter.

The Ski Jump at Holmenkollen
We drove further uphill towards an imposing Lutheran church where there was a mixture of conifers and berry laden rowan trees, passing a flock of around thirty Waxwings, sat, as they do, in the bare topmost branches of  a tall tree awaiting their next opportunity to plunge down and plunder the rowan berries.

Suddenly Simon exclaimed 'There they are!' and indeed they were. Pine Grosbeaks. Seven of them. We parked the car by the road. I could hardly wait to get out. Excitedly we scrambled up a steep bank by the roadside and at the top found ourselves on a wide flat track running through a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees including berry laden rowan trees. 

Holmenkollen overlooking Oslo in the distance

Walking a few metres down the track we came to the seven Pine Grosbeaks busily feeding on the clusters of red berries hanging from some rowan trees by the road. They were all females or immature males apart from one absolutely beautiful adult male, a mouthwatering combination of raspberry pink plumage admixed with some grey and blackish brown wings bearing two prominent white bars across each wing and broad white fringes to the tertials. 

I should add that the immature males and females, which are often indistinguishable from each other, were also very attractive, showing a pleasing and variable amount of yellow or golden orange on their heads and breasts contrasting very nicely with the rest of their predominantly dove grey plumage, again with the striking white bars across each wing. This was the plumage of the bird I saw in Shetland which was a first winter male, and instantly brought back many happy memories.

They are a large finch, thrush sized with a longish tail and remarkably acrobatic, almost parrot like in their actions. sidling along twigs and branches, perching on a berry laden stalk and leaning over to pluck a berry which they then manipulate in their bulbous bill, discarding the outer red casing and swallowing the orange pulp and seeds. 

They are leisurely feeders, plucking a berry and then sitting quietly and reflectively,  fiddling with and rotating the berry in their beaks until the outer skin is removed and discarded so they can eat the pulp. Some got quite a  mess of berry pulp and skins stuck to their bills.

At first I was a little wary about approaching them too closely but I soon realised they did not really care and would tolerate us standing very close to them.  They fed for a while on the berries but then moved into a nearby spruce tree where they sat for a time. doing nothing and were remarkably hard to see amongst the dense dark green foliage.They were obviously stuffed full of berries but gradually they became more active and commenced nibbling at the hard brown buds of the spruce and then descended below the spruce to pick at fallen berries on the ground. 

Naturally we were reluctant to leave  and decided to remain watching this group as they fed in the tree. Eventually they emerged out of the spruce and commenced feeding on another berry laden rowan and we could virtually walk up to them and they showed not the slightest concern.

Simon, our guide on the left and Peter

Another flock of seventeen Pine Grosbeaks flew high above us, calling to each other with melodic whistles. They looked as if they might descend to join the others, which responded with the same pleasant contact call, but in the end the passing flock disappeared over the hill. Not to worry we were quite happy enjoying the group in front of us.

We had the place entirely to ourselves with not another birder in sight. How different it would be if this was in Britain. Just over the road there was a continuous roar coming from a blower that was creating snow. To us this seemed very strange, if not daft, as here we were in Norway which in another two or three weeks would be covered in snow but apparently the Norwegians cannot wait so they create artificial snow in order to commence their winter sports and recreation earlier!

The snow blower in action. It never stopped!
The group of seven grosbeaks suddenly took off and disappeared and we took this as our cue to go and look around the area for more grosbeaks but half an hour of driving around, looking at suitable rowan trees failed to find any more and coming back to our original spot we found there were now ten Pine Grosbeaks in the same trees.Whether they were the same group as before with another two having joined them or a new group entirely, we were never quite sure. Naturally it was imperative that we rejoined and spent more time with them as both Peter and myself were very conscious that this was an almost unique event and certainly we were unlikely to ever experience something like this ever again.

Time, although passing enjoyably, was also passing quickly and daylight in Norway at this time of year is gone by four in the afternoon. Peter wanted to try and see a Little Auk as he had yet to see one anywhere. We reasoned the 'grozzers' would still be here tomorrow so headed off back down the hill to Forneba, nearby on the coast and where there was a reasonable chance of finding a Little Auk.

Simon cautioned us on the way that it was a hit and miss affair. There might be one or two Little Auks there or there might not. If there was they could be way out to sea or really close into the shore.

We drove into another deserted car park by a pleasant rocky shoreline which is obviously popular in summer and getting out of the car it took Peter all of a minute or two to find a Little Auk and really close in to the shore too. This was a real stroke of luck and we followed the auk as it frustratingly kept diving and surfacing for just a brief few seconds, steadily progressing parallel with the shore. 

Eventually it stopped diving for a brief spell and we could get some images of this tiny seabird. It looked so small compared to a nearby Guillemot as it swam on the sea in a typical auk pose, its wings held akimbo to its body in preparation to propel it below the surface. It was surfacing so close to us that we sometimes missed it due to its small size and looking too far out on the sea.

Little Auk
Not much else was about, three Guillemots, a few Red breasted Mergansers, a couple of female Common Eiders and some Herring and Black headed Gulls. Forneba is an attractive place and I could see why there were a number of tasteful summer chalets lined along the shore, all now of course locked and deserted for the oncoming winter.

We left the Little Auk and drove back to have a go at looking for a Great Grey Owl that has occasionally been seen perched on a fence running alongside a busy dual carriageway. It was a very slim chance of finding the owl and no one was surprised when we failed.

It was now approaching four in the afternoon and getting markedly colder as the sun set and night drew in. Simon drove us back to our hotel and left us, arranging to collect us at 7.45 tomorrow morning.

The hotel was a pleasant and unexpected surprise. Being a budget hotel we did not expect anything exceptional but it was clean and modern in that particular Scandinavian way and the room was similarly minimalist, spacious and spotlessly clean with an excellent shower. 

I felt it was similar to a Travel Lodge but with a lot more class and so it was. We ate early, at six pm, from an all you can eat buffet and retired to bed by eight, very very tired after our early start at Stansted but elated at seeing the Pine Grosbeaks.

                                        Whatever's written in your heart that's all that matters

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