When I read about this on BirdGuides it was something I just had to do. Late October had seen the largest south-westward movement of Pine Grosbeak since 1976. This had already eclipsed an irruption in 2012 when one bird reached Shetland, and numbers were expected to multiply further in southern Scandinavia through early winter (see here). With 60-something regularly occurring species still required for my pan-European bird list, a spring trip to Sweden is on my next-up agenda. But the iconic far-northern Finches are not on the target list for the tour I am considering, so this at once seemed my best chance of recording them.
There is some anticipation amongst British birders presently as to whether PG will arrive on these shores again in the near future. But after such a dull autumn within my range at home I felt that getting to southern Norway from London Stansted airport would be rather easier and more affordable than reaching such far flung locations as offered the British Isles’ hardcore birding interest through October. So thus it was that on Wednesday (6th) Ewan and myself stepped off a 9:30am Ryanair at Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport to meet our guide Simon Rix then go in search of PG and some other rather special regional birds.
Simon cited two hill-top locations on the northern edge of suburban Oslo at which he had observed groups of Pine Grosbeak in recent days. At the first, Grefsenkollen he had been interviewed at first light on national radio, such is the interest that thousands of these birds moving through Norway each day is generating. When we arrived there a number of his local birding colleagues were staking out the site, but no “Grozzers” had been seen again since 8am. So after a brief look around ourselves we moved on.
Now we went to the area around Holmenkollen ski jump, an up-market residential district that commands panoramic views over the city and Oslo Fjord. It was a cold, clear and crisp early winter’s day and we drove around checking the stands of berry bearing mountain ash or Rowan (sp) trees that grow here. These provide a ready food source for the taiga breeding avian visitors in what is an exceptional berry year, and the birds are likely to start high up then work their way down to lower areas of the city as the fruit is stripped.
Before too long our quest was located in good light, a flock of seven then 17 more flew over. The first group contained just one red-toned adult male, whilst females and first winter birds are difficult to tell apart. These are Redwing-sized and often extend their necks downward into elongated postures when feeding, before stripping the berries of their skins and digesting the pulp within. In doing so their acrobatic jizz is reminiscent of Waxwings, but my favourite trait is when they shimmy sideways on their twig and branch perches to re-position themselves. What absolutely stunning beauties they are … words such as captivate, enthral and allure, or derivations thereof, barely do them justice!
These birds alternated between feeding on the Rowan berries and the buds of Spruce trees, moving regularly between the two food sources. When in the berry trees the PG were quite fearless of human presence, allowing us to approach very closely. But they were much more sensitive to the threat from above and with Sparrowhawk active at the site would scatter at intervals. At one point a Pygmy Owl even flew through fast, though only Simon noticed it.
We stayed here taking pictures for around two hours. Rather noisy machines were busily creating snow cover for cross country ski tracks just below us, causing a constant fine spray to drift through proceedings. This served to interfere with camera settings and lowered the air temperature that would naturally have been a couple of degrees below zero. Eventually something spooked the Grosbeaks and they all flew off, but after a brief drive around checking other locations we returned to find a new flock of a further 10 birds. Now the quality of picture on offer took a turn for the better, including most of those that appear above and below.
Pine Grosbeak’s breeding range is in the mature, undisturbed taiga forests of northern Fennoscandia and Russia. There in contrast to their bold behaviour when feeding in winter they are unobtrusive and retiring. This present irruption is somewhat earlier than is typical and unusually high numbers have also penetrated Denmark. But they are not known for making long sea crossings, so multiple arrivals in Great Britain would be truly exceptional.
In the early afternoon we relocated to Forneba, another exclusive residential district on the shore of Oslo Fjord, to seek out Little Auk. Recent weeks have seen numbers of them moving down eastern British coasts, as is usual in any autumn when birds from huge Arctic breeding colonies migrate to their north Atlantic wintering grounds. Some southward bound Auks stray into Oslo Fjord especially after squalls at sea. So as with the main target, being guided to this second lifer for the trip in Norway seemed like a safer option than trying to guess a good sea watching point then hoping they pass by at home.
As things turned out it was myself who called the single individual we found here (below left), which proceeded to offer exceptional views as it made long dives close in along the shoreline. This experience was greatly preferable to trying to sea watch one in England, a type of birding that has never appealed to me given the distance at which passing birds are mostly seen. We also observed three Guillemot (below right) at Forneba, which upon checking I find was my first sighting anywhere since 1991; but I haven’t been looking.
We ended the daylight hours by trying for a Great Grey Owl that had been reported along a forested road near the airport. But now our luck on what had been a superb day in Oslo ran out, then we did not find the long shot again on the morning and late afternoon of 7th. It could have been a lifer for both Ewan and myself, but not this time.
Overnight we stayed at the excellent Thon Hotel Gardermoen four miles from the airport, that itself is a 40-minute drive from Oslo. Here an adequate evening meal and superb breakfast were both included in the room rate, being real value in a country I concluded is prohibitively expensive due to its very high economic level. For that reason I feel disinclined to bird in Norway again, other than on one or two day trips such as this.
Thursday (7th) fell a little flat by comparison with our superlative first day. In the morning we visited the forest park of Lindenkollen from where Simon had recently published video of a Hazel Grouse on his blog (see here). I particularly wanted to see this species as it was an only trip target not gained on the April 2017 tour I joined in Estonia. Our guide re-located the bird and heard it calling several times but it just would not show itself, possibly because it was watching the three of us and so was very wary. This was a repeat of my experience in Estonia with the guide knowing a bird was present nearby that I didn’t see.
Whilst in that forest we also observed three Nutcracker and parties of Parrot Crossbill and Willow Tit (record shots above). But we all wanted some more Pine Grosbeak action and so returned to Holmenkollen in the afternoon. Now the weather had deteriorated and light conditions were poor. The snow machines had also succeeded in covering the area with a light dusting. And once again we came across another PG flock of 18 birds that this time contained three adult males.
We thus estimated having seen 34 of the main trip target at this site over the two days. The latest contingent proceeded to entertain us just like the previous day’s birds. At one point a similar number of Waxwing flew in and the two species fed communally in the same Rowan trees, which was quite a novel experience.
Ultimately it was disappointing to have converted just two of the four trip targets, but the Pine Grosbeaks of our main intent were absolutely superb value. They have some competition to be my birds of the year – including Allen’s Gallinule and Dwarf Bittern in Fuerteventura, the Cape Rhir Bald Ibis flock again in Morocco, and everything I saw on June’s Wildwings tour of Turkey – but I think these Scandinavian stunners probably make it. Very important is the trail blazing aspect of this visit to “Groslo” since myself and Ewan are the first British birders to undertake it. So all in all it was a highly worthwhile and unforgettable exercise. Cue a fade out …