A Natural Born Birder in Norway

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A Natural Born Birder in Norway

There are about 9,000 known bird species in the world. Around 300 have their natural habitat in Norway and an additional number of around 200 rarer bird types are found at certain places and times every year. “Natural Born Birder” is the name of British Julian Bell’s blog. Every day, year- round, he blogs about the bird life in Øygarden outside Bergen where he has lived since 2003. Read more about the natural born birder in Norway.

Millions of people across the world are birdwatchers, and Daily Scandinavian is proud to present the below interview with local birdwatcher Julian Bell. Please stay tuned throughout the year and read his posts.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
The white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) is a very large species of sea eagle widely distributed across temperate Eurasia.
DS: When did you become a birdwatcher?

JULIAN: It is hard to put a date on when I became a birder – but it was as a young boy growing up on the coast of Northumberland in the UK. My earliest memories are of birding experiences and by the age of around 13 I was hooked. Living where I lived I never had a chance….

Related: Swedish Ornithologist has Co-written Handbook of Western Palearctic Birding

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Another white tailed eagle photographed by Julian Bell
DS: What popular bird is your favorite? Why?

JULIAN: A very difficult question! I’m tempted to say Pomarine Skua – a bird that is exotic, can thrive in tough conditions and brings with it associations with the areas in which it breeds – the arctic!

Away from the breeding grounds it can be difficult to see but we experience a decent passage of them where I live on the west coast of Norway nearly every spring.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Julian at work on Shtokman field in the Barent’s Sea
DS: Are there still rare birds you want to see? Why?

JULIAN: YES!!!! There are many rare birds I would still like to see! Rarity can mean all kinds of things – from being a scarce bird on a world basis to being a great find at home. So, there are rare birds I would like to travel to see and there are rarities (or vagrants) I would like to find in my local area.

A bird that is rare found locally gives a kind of “kick” – perhaps it is a long-awaited rarity that could be at least partly predicted by looking at occurrence patterns, the weather and so on. Alternatively, it could be a total surprise and completely out of the blue.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Wilson’s Bird of Paradise

Rare birds that one travels to see often live in remote places and may well be something that one has either read about or seen on television. This gives a different kind of reaction as seeing such birds is more of a planned event.

One of the rare birds that is reasonably regular in parts of Norway that I would like to see is the Snowy Owl. I’ve seen them in other countries but would like to see one in Norway – either by travelling to where they occur or by finding one closer to home.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
There are many rare birds I would still like to see, says Julian
Related: Scandinavian Wild Fowl

DS: What unusual things have you done?

JULIAN: Too many to mention! The normal for me is probably unusual for many. Due to my choice of work I regularly travel at short notice to end up in all kinds of places, all over the world and many of these are off the beaten track both for tourists and normal birders.

From a birding perspective I suppose the most unusual thing I have done is finding the first ever documented Crag Martin for Norway. Finding a first for a country must be one of the most unusual things to happen – whilst at the same time always remaining hopeful that something on this scale will occur.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Isisbill descends from the upper reaches of #Himalayas in the winter season

Another unusual thing I did was to stop working for three months to monitor the bird migration along the coast of Norway. I counted migrating birds in the spring and as such went sea-watching at Skogsøy (close to where I live west of Bergen) every single day from mid-March to the end of May from dawn until early afternoon.

Being bitten by a flying fox (fruit bat) whilst rescuing it from drowning in a river in Sri Lanka – the bat had been dropped there by a White-bellied Sea Eagle and then left there after the eagle was chased off by Brahminy Kites. Thinking only about a wound infection I washed the cuts with whisky back at the hotel room and thought no more of it. It turned out that there was a rather more insidious risk which I only found out about after it was too late for treatment – rabies! Thankfully I am still here but I won’t be rescuing any drowning bats again.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Julian Bell in Bhutan

During an unplanned extra day in Iceland in conjunction with a crew-change the crew was given a free trip to experience the usual tourist attractions such as the Blue Lagoon. I chose not to do this – there were birds in Iceland that were much more interesting than the tourist attractions that “normal” people visit. Similarly, I dropped Bangkok whilst staying there and went off to see Spoon-billed Sandpiper at some mudflats a couple of hours away – MUCH better!

A whole bunch of things have happened to be whilst birding from being stopped at gunpoint whilst birding a nature reserve in the former republic of Yugoslavia to stumbling out of beachside scrub onto a beach full of nudists whilst trying to take a short cut to a headland that looked like a promising place to bird.

I’ve picked exhausted Goldcrests out of coastal bushes during migration. Ring Ousels have landed on me whilst I watched the visible migration of birds in the mountains. I have had all manner of seabirds swimming around in my bath as I nursed them back to health having found them on the beach after oil spills or winter storms. Once I had a tame Shag (like a Cormorant) that would not swim and avoided water at all costs but used to sit on my shoulder when I took my dog for a walk – it made for an unusual sight on the beach!

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
The pomarine jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus), pomarine skua, or pomatorhine skua,is a seabird in the skua family Stercorariidae. It is a migrant, wintering at sea in the tropical oceans

Related: Watch the Majestic Sea Eagles in Norway

DS: What brought you to Norway?

JULIAN: Initially it was work – as a hydrographic surveyor I worked in Norwegian waters quite regularly before a period of particularly violent winter storms forced us alongside in Bergen on a number of occasions. It was here I became a victim of the charm of Norway, eventually fell in love with a Norwegian girl and have stayed here ever since.

DS: Are there other places you would like to visit to watch birds?

JULIAN: There are lots of places! I love heading home to Northumberland to catch up with the birds there. Falsterbo in Sweden is another favorite. I also like returning to Lanzarote and have a long list of places I would like to go – many of which are here in Norway.

Svalbard is a place I would love to go to, various mid Atlantic Islands, Siberia and plenty more besides. I would like to spend some more time in the mountains of Norway, as well as travel rather more in Finnmark – most notably Slettnes/Gamvik.

DS: Any special experiences you want to share with us?

JULIAN: Birding is full of special experiences too numerous to get into here and some of them may be difficult to relate to for non-birders. Some of the special experiences are almost daily, like being able to go out on my terrace and see White-tailed Eagles flying over, others are related to places, atmosphere or even time of year.

Sitting by an estuary and watching waders gather to roost at high tide, flights of geese coming into roost are everyday occurrences but non the less special.

The first arrival of migrants of the spring are always special too – so the first Lapwing, Swallow and so on.

My choice of work and where I live is based on being about to have as many special experiences as possible.

I like finding my own birds so discovering my first Hawk Owl and Pine Grosbeaks on a mountain near where I used to live (Gull jell outside Bergen) are right up there with the special experiences. This place is not noted for rarities and expectations of seeing much at all in the winter months are, to put it mildly, quite low.  To find these incredible birds on my home turf at this time of year was pure magic.

Many of the most memorable birding memories come from work – such as falls of migrants onboard in the North Sea, Black Sea, Mediterranean or wherever. Tired migrants landing on the deck are a common occurrence but occasionally they turn up in large numbers. Owls can take up residence on the vessel during periods of migration, coming out at night to hunt passing birds.

The variety and sheer numbers of my favorite group of birds – seabirds – in the South Atlantic was one of the most exciting experiences I have had at work. I spent an hour on deck every day after shift and saw a huge variety of seabirds in vast numbers. During a four-week trip that started off the coast of Argentina and ended in Cape Town, by way of Tristan da Chunam I lived the seabird dream.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Royal albatross

Bird migration of any form can be a fantastic experience – on the right day the numbers of birds can be huge and sometimes they come close enough that one can sense the urgency and feel like one should join them on their journey.

Finding a site for breeding Broad-billed Sandpiper on the southern edge of its breeding range in Norway was incredible – both in terms of the excitement of finding this enigmatic wader using a map to locate likely breeding habitat and in terms of the place itself – an upland lake. Fish were rising to insects, the birch woods full of birdsong whilst the surrounding wetlands were full of other waders and wildfowl. Heaven!

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Another Norwegian experience was warching the sandpiper

Listening to calling Eagle Owls can give an almost religious experience as one stands somewhere near the edge of a wood on a calm late winter’s evening and hear their booming call, often followed by a sighting of this massive owl in silhouette against the night sky.

Having always been interested in wading birds one of my dream species to see was Ibisbill – a remarkable looking wading bird that lives beside wild, fast flowing rivers in the mountains. About an hour after landing in Bhutan we were standing beside the river and watching these amazing birds feeding. A dream comes true!

One of my most recent special experiences was seeing Wilson’s Bird of Paradise in Raja Ampat, Indonesia. I was picked up in a small dugout boat whilst it was still dark and took a short trip over to a nearby island. This boat journey was an experience in itself with the most amazing starry sky complete with shooting stars and flashes of distant lightening whilst the sea around us glowed with bioluminescence as we passed through. Still well before dawn we arrived on the shore of another island and then started to trek uphill through the jungle in the dark. The sounds of the animals and birds was incredible. Finally, we arrived at the viewing point and shortly after this a male showed up and started displaying, it did not take long before he was joined by a female. This was a true “David Attenborough” moment – in fact he has filmed in the same place.

DS: Is there any reason why people should become more interested in bird watching?

JULIAN: The places it takes you and the people you meet. Being interested in birds gives an extra dimension to being outside, wherever that may be. It also makes one care more about the environment and hopefully be less of a consumer.

There is always something new to learn so it is an interest that never becomes dull.

But be careful – it can take over your life!

DS: What equipment and knowledge does one need?

JULIAN: Curiosity is perhaps the main thing. Equipment wise the only thing you really need is binoculars. A notebook may sound old fashioned, but it helps as does a decent field guide.

It is quite possible to teach yourself everything you need to know but it is a big help to join a bird club (and there are plenty of these in Norway) where you can meet people and go on outings with more experienced birders.

A camera can also be important – both as an aid to identification and for documenting what you have seen. If you are going to claim a rare bird then it is a massive help to have photographs to back up your sighting, especially if you’re a beginner.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
Chasing a glaucous gull in the Barents sea
DS: How can the average person best help birds?

JULIAN: Many bird species are declining. Birds are one of the best indicators of environmental health, so to stop the decline means looking after the environment. This may sound like a big challenge to the average person but there are things that anyone can do:

Support and / or join a bird conservancy organization. These help to protect the environment and therefore ultimately ourselves.

Don’t let your cats outside – especially in the breeding season.

If you have a garden keep at least part of it a bit on the wild side. What many of us see as weeds are important food sources for birds- or for insects which are again food for birds. If you can then provide water too – a small pond or a bird bath can really help – whatever the time of year.

Tolerate the mess and / or noise of birds breeding close to where you live or work. Put up a shelf under that Swallow nest in your shed / garage / under your terrace. Don’t kill gulls or smash their eggs just because they are noisy or messy – regrettably an all too common occurrence.

Put up suitable nest-boxes if you can. This can be anything from “normal” nest-boxes on trees in your garden to more specialized ones – for example Swifts often breed under tiles on the roof and often lose out in modern cities. The swirling clouds of swifts over many older towns in Europe is one of the sounds of summer. In Europe where Starlings are a native species, they can help gardeners and farmers by removing pests from the soil. This year I am lucky enough to have a pair breeding in a box I hung on the wall of my house and they are feeding their young on grubs that would ruin my vegetables.

A Natural Born Birder in Norway
DS: Thank you Julian for sharing your experiences and thoughts with our readers!

All images © Julian Bell

A Natural Born Birder in Norway, Julian Bell was interviewed by Tor Kjolberg

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