Arctic puffin silhuette73 degrees North, 31 degrees East, home to more than 40 000 breeding pair of noicy birds. One of the largest and most easily accessable bird cliffs in the World.

Arctic puffins, kittiwakes, common shags, common guillemots, thick-billed murre, razorbills, black guillemots, glaucous gulls,  European herring gulls, great black-backed gulls, king eiders and common eiders. A paradise for ornithologiests and nature photographers. This is Hornøya, the easternmost island in Norway, loacated in the Barents Sea, one kilometer off Vardø.

Protected as a nature reserve since 1983. The lighthouse on the top of the island is a famous landmark for sea farers sailing stormy waters. In March 2017 I visited this magificent island together with two fellow nature photographers.

How to get there?
Hornøya is about as far north and east you can be on the Norwegian mainland. Although we did meet a Sweedish fellow photographer who had driven 2000 kilometers from Gothenburg to Vardø, spent 2-3 days at Hornøya photographing birds, then turned his car and drove the same 2000 km back, the best way to get to the island is to jump on a SAS or Norwegian Airlines plane and fly to Kirkenes from Oslo.  In Kirkenes you board the local air transporter Viderø Air who will jump and bump you to Vardø. We left Stavanger early morning and arrived in Vardø by noon.

A nice place to stay is Vardø Hotel, which can also offer you good, local sea food, but it is also possible to book yourself into the lighthous at the top of the island.  Vardø Havn (Port of Vardø) takes care of bookings as well as organising daily boat transport to and from Hornøya for the cost of NOK 400 per person. Tickets to be bought at Vardø Hotel. The last return is at 17:00 if weather permits.

Hornøya and the city of Vardø (Photo: magnethy, Wikimedia Commons)

Vardø Lighthouse (Photo: Åge Jakobsen)

The Nature Reserve
Hornøya and Reinøya Nature Reserve was established in 1983.  From 2014 on restriction in where to move on the island was implemented from March 1st to August 15th.  You are then allowed to wak on specific trails only, but not to worry, you will still be able to get very close to the birds and to get perfect photos. You are also able to walk to the very top of the island and get a splendid view of the surroundings as well as visiting the lighthouse.

When is the best time to visit Hornøya?  If you want to have maximum bird activity, late March is a very good time.  Then you also have the most interesting weather usually with periods of snow, wind and sun all in a perfect mix for the most interesting photos.

When we visited Hornøya the last week of March, the birds were getting ready to nest, but no eggs have yet been laid. Later in the year, you can experience Hornøya and the birds during the midnight sun and in winter time you might even be able to see the northern light from the top of the island.

The bird cliff in late March during a shower of light snow and wind from the east (click for larger version)

The bird cliff during a sunny day in late March (click for larger version)

The birds through the camera
More than 100 species of birds have been recorded from Hornøya. Among these are some rareties like the black-throathed thrush (Turdus atrogularis) [Norwegian: Svartstrupetrost], which is a migratory Asian species, and the small lesser short-toes lark (Alaudala rufescens) [Norwegian: Flekkdverglerke], which was recorded in May 2013. The island is a neat stop over for migratory birds heading south in Autumn.

However, it is the sea birds that strike you when you set foot on the island. Some 80 000 birds occupy the island from early Spring till late summer, making a stunning sight and a lot of noice.

Common guillemots swarming (click for larger version)

Approximat number of birds from nine different species in 1983 compared to 2012.
(Modified from Martinussen, 2014)
SPECIES 1983 2012
European Shag (Toppskarv) 140 600-650
Great Black-backed Gull  (Svartbak) 180 50-100
European Herring Gull (Gråmåke) 14 500 5 000-10 000
Kittiwake (Krykkje) 21 000 7 000 - 10 000
Razorbill (Alke) 200 200-300
Common Guillemot (Lomvi) 5 000 ~ 30 000
Thick-billed Murre (Polarlomvi) 350 300
Black Guillemot (Teist) 100 <10
Atlantic Puffin (Lunde) 5 000 15 - 15 000

European Shag
European Shag close up

The first bird that greets you when you set foot on Hornøya is the European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristolelis), which breeds along rocky shores of northern, western and southern Europe, southwest Asia and north Africa. At Hornøya the species nests very close to the track and you will be able to approch it very close. 

Usually a group of shags occupy flat rocks just north of the shelter where the both arrives and this gives great oppurtunities for even wide angel photography.  The shags displays and poses to you if you use the "slow approach technique" and lay down silently.  From time to time they take off, fly in circle over the area and then land safely greeted noicely by the fellow shags that did not even borther to lift off. European shags fly out on the ocean and can dive to more than 40 meters depth hunting for fish, mostly benthic species such as sand eels.

At Hornøya the population has increased a lot and steadily since the middle 1990-ties.

European shags close to the landing site

European shags photographes with 70mm FL

We were very lucky having a stunning sunset on our second evening at Hornøya. For about an hour the light was magic. I focused on photographing shags and other birds against the sun hoping to get some interesing silhuette shots. I used my old Nikon 200-400 mm zoom lens (a piece of glass that I am extreemly satisfied with especially when being on safari), low ISO and manuel settings and underexposed heavily. The most difficult thing was to get the shags to all look in the same direction. Plenty of series gave a couple of interesting frames, where my best two are shown below.

shag silhuette
Shag shilluette. Nikon D4, 200-400mm @ 290mm, f9, 1/1600 sec, ISO100 (click for larger version)

European Shag silhuette
Shag directly against the setting sun. Nikon D4, 200-400mm + TC1.4 @ 550mm, f9, 1/8000sec, ISO64, (click for larger version)


Atlantic puffin
Atlantic Puffin

A lot of visitors to Hornøya come to see the Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica) that nests in the thousands on the island. The European population of Atlantic Puffins counted nearly six millions pairs (2015), but is declining and the status for the species has been changed from "least concern" (LC) to "Voulnerable" (VU) by IUCN in 2015.

The reasons fro the decline are probably many but not well known. Increased predation, contamination by toxic reidues, drwoning in fishing nests, climate change and especially declining food supplies are all probably part of the story.

Each pair of puffins lays one single egg only and are monogamic, meaning that they stay together in pairs for life. The Norwegian population is estimated to beeing about 1,5 million pairs, but is declining in several locations.  At Hornøya, however, the population of nesting pairs has increased since the island was protected in 1983 (see table above).

At Hornøya several pairs of Atlantic Puffins nest cvlose to the track, but most nests in the grass-covered slopes closer to the top of the island.  Be ready with your action camera to photograph puffins as they swarm in numbers along the steep cliff.

Flying puffins

The puffin's head is very colourfull and is a good motive for close up shots.  The beak is coloured like a rainbow and is designed to hold several small fish, which the adult brings back from the ocean to feed to the single hatchling that waits for food deep inside the burrow where the pair nest.

Colourfull sea parrot

Thousands of photos of Atlantic Puffins are taken at Hornøya every week.  It is difficult to shoot a really interesting photo of the puffin.  The somewhat clumsy birds usually gather in smaller or larger groups, now and then they wiggle their head, make strange sounds and fight over nesting ground. 


Atlantic Puffin
Atlantic Puffin (click for larger version)

Large American military radars are situated in Vardø with Globus II as the most sophisticated unit.  The giant radar among other carries out space surveillance and can track aircrafts up to 7 000 km away. The dome is well visible from Hornøya.  When I saw three puffins gathering on top of a rocky outcrop and the dome of Globus II in the background, I got the idea for a photo titled "On the Watch".  The puffins are clearly on the watch and just like the military they want to keep an eye on what happens in their world.

On the Watch (click for larger version)


Guillemot with prey

By far the most common and successful bird at Hornøya is the Common Guillemot (Uria aalge). While the population of guillemots has declined stadily in Norway since the 1960ties, the population at Hornøya has increased.  However, the guillemot popyulation at Hornøya crashed during the winter of 1986/87 when about 80% of the birds died. On the famous island of Röst (Lofoten) the guillemots are considered lost and only a small population is left on Vedöya, the neighbouring island to Röst. However, the population at Hornøya is 15 times bigger than in the middle eighties! Why is this the case?

The answer seems to be linked to the number of cod larvae found around Hornøya (Erikstad al., 2013). The studies from 2013 showed that there was a connection between the population of prey organisms (capelin, sandeel, juvenil herring and juvenile cod) where the juvenile cods had the largest effect on the survival rate of guillemots. The population of all prey species, including juvenile cod, were very low in 1986/87, explaining the crash of guoillemot population that winter. Since then the prey species have been present in abundance in waters off Hornøya, causing the population of guillemots to increase. Hornøya is situated in a very favourable position regarding the consentration of juvenile pelagic cod. This is most important for the birds!

Guillemots at Hornøya (click for larger version)

Common Guillremot is the largest of all members of the family, reaching 43 cm in length and a eweight of 1,3 kg. It can be confused with Brünnich's Guillemots (Uria lomvia), which lso nests at Hornøya, but has a longer and slimer body, thin and pointed becon and dark lines on the body sides. Some individuals in the population has a white ring around the eye extending back as  white line.  This is a colour form (polymorphism) of the species and not regarded as a subspecies.  It is named "bridled guillemots" [Norwegian: "Ringvie"]. The further north we move, the more common the bridled guillemot becomes.

Bridled Guillemots, a polymorphism of the species.

My most successfull photo of the Common Guillemots was obtained when I photographed a group of specimens in inflight. I overexposed a bit to creat an almost white background.  The below photo shows the result (a tiny stripe of white background has been added to the lower edge).

Guillmots inflight. Nikon D810, 70-200mm @ 160mm, f4.5, +0,67EV, 1/2500 sec, ISO250.

Great Auk
The extinct Great Auk is the closest relative to the Razorbill
(Wikimedia Commons, J. G. Keulemans (1842-1912),
public domaine)
Personally I find the Razorbill (Alca torda torda) the most beautiful bird living on Hornøya.  May be it is it close relationship to the extinct Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis) [Norwegian: Geirfugl], who was slaughtered to ecxtinction by humans and observed at Hornøya the last time in 1848, that causes my fascination for these beautiful sea birds?  Or may be it is because the species was hunted for food at our local island when I grew up. I felt sorry for the dead birds that hung in our boat house a couple of days before they were prepared for dinner.

Not at all as numeraous as the Common Guillemot, but easy to observe still. About 300 individuals nest at Hornøya, many very close to the track where they can be observed very close. A monogamic species that pair for life and lay one single per year egg only. A second subspecies, Alca torda islandica, occurs throughout the Ireland, Britain and France.

The razorbills are magnificent divers that can go as deep av 120 meters catching food by swelling many schooling fish that are delivered in portions to the young waiting back home in the nest. The Norwegian population of razorbills is regarded as endangered and just like for many other sea birds in Norway, it declines.

Nesting pair of Razorbills at Hornøya

Razorbills (click for larger version)

Kittiwakes nesting at Hornøya

Kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) used to be the most numerous bird species at Hornøya and occured numerously also in other bird cliff in Northern Norway.  However, due to a decline in food source for the juveniles, expecially capeline [Norwegian: Lodde], the kittiwakes cannot raise the juvenile kittiwakes like they used to.  The distances they have to fly to catch sufficient food are just too long. Consequently the population in Norway and northern Atlantic in general, has declined severely.

In Vesteråle 90% of the kittiwakes have dissappeared over a periode of 25 years (reference).Climate changes are also considered to affecting the kittiwake population negatively.

The Norwegian mainland population of nesting kittiwakes was in 2005 estimated to be 700 000 individuals, while only 175 000 ten years later.  The species has now status at "endangered" (EN) in the Norwegian Red List. The population in Svalbard is considered "near threatned" (NT), as the decline in this population has been 15-30% in the period 1980-2014, while the world-wide population is still considered "least concern" (LC) in IUCN's list.

At Hornøya kittiwakes make a hell of a noice. From time to time they take off in large groups flying like crazy along the steep cliff, only to settle next to their occupied spot on a small shelf only centimeters from a neighboring pair.  The quarrel begins!

kittiwakes hornøya
Kittiwakes flying formation (click for larger version)

Kittiwakes are beautiful birds!  With their pure, white body, grey wings, yellow beak, black legs and deep red mouth, they are actually very colourful. At Hornøya the pairs nest very close to eachother using nests that are rebuilt from last year's season.  This can cause some nests to be large. At Vardø Harbour, kittiwakes are also common, mainly because of the plenty of nutrient found in the harbour. Here some pairs nest on the window frames (do see photos below).

Pair of kittiwakes nesting (click for larger version)

bird cliff hornøya
Kittiwakes and guillemots in Hornøya bird cliff (click for larger version)

Now.... what about predatory birds and predators at Hornøya?  There are for sure a lot of prey accessible, so who hunt them?  The most common predator are the three gulls; Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus), European Herring Gull (Larus argentatus), both nesting numerously at the top of the island, and the opurtunistic Glaucous Gull (Larus hyperboreus) which is present at Hornøya from Autumn to Spring with some indinviduals staying here all year round.  All three gull species catch and feed on juvenile birds in the bird cliff and the Great Black-backed Gull can even take adult puffins and kittiwakes.

Great Black-backed Gulls at Hornøya

True bird of prey are also present at Hornøya, although they do not nest here.  The white-tailead eagle (Haliaetus albicilla) regulary comes around to hunt sea birds and do take adult guillemots and kittiwakes.  When the largest bird of prey in Norway shows up, panic breakes loose in the bird cliff.

Another bird of prey seen at Hornøya is the Gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus). Like the white-tailed eagle it does not nest at the island, but show up to hunt for sea birds.  Hell breaks loose when the largest falcon in the World comes in at a very high speed.  Åge managed to catch a remarkable photo of a specimen hunting a puffin but lost its prey just when it was about to fly into safety with it's dinner.

Gyrfalcon loosing it's puffin. Photo: Åge Jakobsen, (used with permission, click for larger version)

Fellow nature photographers: Ragnvald (left) and Åge


Birding Varanger
A "must have" book when in Vardø

Vardø Peninsula and Vardø Port
When you visit Vardø, be aware that the area has a lot more to offer and just the bird cliff at Hornøya.  The Varanger peninsula contains what is by many regarded as the best bird sites in Arctic Norway.  Do take the oppurtunity to explore the area.  Besides birding, you can also do scooter hiking into Finmarksvidda at night time to absorbe and photograph the Northern Light. 

In order to plan such activities you should do two things: Contact the organisation biotope and buy the book "Birding Varanger" (left) published by the same organisation. Whith this book in hand, you will be able to get a perfect overview of the area and it's many exciting nature sites!

Vardø Port is home to wharfs, fish landings, small and large finhing boats, fluctuating tide, graffiti, a great pub ("Nordpolen"), a lot of birds and a lot of nice people!  Tons of cod from the Barents Sea are landed here winter time. This is a site to explore!

Vardø Port

Cod is Great

Vardø Port is divided by a bridge in an Eastern and Western part, in Norwegian called "Østervågen" and "Vestervågen". Both places are easily accessable by foot when staying at Vardø Hotel and locations where a lot of interesting birds can be observed and photographed. Steller's Eider, King Eider, Common Eider, and Long-tailed Duck, Black Guillemot as well as the small Purple Sandpiper were species that we photographed in "Vestervågen" one morning when the wind was so strong that Hornøya was not accesible.

Black Guillemot

Purple Sandpiper

The King Eider (Somateria spectabilis) is an iconic species for this part of Norway and is a circumpolar species found throughout the Arctic. In Varanger the birds arrive in geeat numbers from Sibiria where they nest. They gather in large flocks off shore. Sometimes flocks can comntain 100 000 birds. Fishermen reported to us about thousands of King Eiders at sea when we were there in late March. Unfortunately the boat that we had planned to hire to spend half a day off shore was not accessible those days, so we still have an event to look forward to when we return.

However, usually a few birds settle in Vardø Port as there are plenty of nutrient available here, and this was luckily the case also this year. We managed to get two spectacular males up close and got some nice species-shots. The strong wind from the north just made the scene more interesting.

King Eider (male)

King Eiders fighting the wind

common eiders
Common Eiders in Vardø Port (click for larger version)

We could even photograph birds from our hotel room, using it as a photo shelter and adding a 1,7 converter.  Nice to have a beer handy and having it warm and cosy when pulling the trigger.  The vulnerable and spectacular Steller's Eider (Polysticta stelleri) and the Long tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) as well as a King Eider were all photographed out of the window. Unexpected and fun!

Steller's Eider (three males and one female)

Long-tailed Duck (male)

Male King Eider photographed from Vardø Hotel

Eider with fish nets
Pair of Common Eider that suffer from being entangled in a fish net (click for a closer view and note the remains of the polyfilaments).     Photo: Åge Jakobsen

So.... our days at Hornøya had ended and we had to pack our gear, check out and head south. Spectacular days! Falling in love with Varanger and Northern Norway is not difficult....

(I would apprecate your comments and questions....)

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