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Birding on the Varanger Peninsula

The Varanger peninsula is located in the very northeast of Norway. The Arctic landscape is unique in mainland Europe, the geology is particularly interesting, and both flora and fauna have elements which are not found anywhere else in Fennoscandia.


The peninsula is surprisingly flat. There are no high mountains or peaks, only long rounded ridges separated by broad river valleys. The most dramatic landscape is found along the northern shore where steep cliffs meet the Arctic Ocean. In between the cliffs there are some shallow bays with  beautiful sandy beaches. The tundra vegetation is dominated by mires and moors. Most of the peninsula has no trees at all, but there are some birch forests along the southern coast, along the Jakobselv River and in the Syltefjorddalen Valley.


To protect the various ecosystems there are several nature reserves and  protected landscapes in the area, most of them along the coasts. The central part of the peninsula was protected as Varanger Peninsula National Park in 2006.


The Varanger area is well known among birders and ornithologists internationally, and it is probably one of the most famous birding areas in Northern Europe. Both individual birdwatchers and organized groups visit the area during spring and summer to enjoy the high diversity of migrating seabirds, arctic ducks, breeding waders and birds of prey.


Compared to other parts of the Norwegian coast the Varanger Fjord gets little benefit from the Gulf Stream and it is therefore both cold and inhospitable. Nevertheless, it does not freeze over in winter and for many eastern migrants this area is like a “warm-water” haven. 


About 80-90% of the European winter population of Steller's Eider (Polysticta stelleri) (8-15,000 ind.) winter in the Varanger Fjord. The area is also important for wintering King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) (1,500-4,000 ind.), Common Eider (Somateria mollissima) (5-6,000 ind.), Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) (1,200 ind.) and Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) (1,000 ind.).


During migration seasons the shores and wetlands are alive with waterfowl, waders and passerines. Some species may occur in very high numbers, e.g. Little Stint (Calidris minuta), Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), Dunlin (Calidris alpina) (10,000 in autumn) and Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus).

A large number of species have been recorded at the Varanger Peninsula and the list of vagrants include species from North-America, Siberia, Southern Europe and the high Arctic. A few surprising examples are Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis), Harlequin Duck (Histrionichus histrionichus),  Spectacled Eider (Somateria fischeri), Egyptian Vulture (Neophron percnopterus), Greater Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga), Little Bustard (Tetrax tetrax), Semipalmated Plover (Charadrius semipalmatus), Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus), Stilt Sandpiper (Calidris himantopus), Little Curlew (Numenius minutus), Ross’s Gull (Rhodostethia rosea), European Roller (Coracias garrullus), Buff-bellied Pipit (Anthus rubescens) and White-winged Lark (Melanocorypha leucoptera).