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ARCTIC FOXES OF PYRAMIDEN

A ‘Blue Fox’ runs off with a kittiwake wing (Mike Watson)

Ivory Gull, Nordenskjöldbreen (Mike Watson)

Previously I have always been in a rush to get around the island of Spitsbergen within a sixteen-day timescale so that usually means turning left out of Longyearbyen and heading for the open sea. However, to the right lie the upper reaches of Isfjorden, an often-ignored wilderness of Arctic tundra, huge escarpments and remote glaciers. In fact, the fjord extends so deep into the island of Spitsbergen that it almost cuts it in two. For instance, the large glacier Nordenskjöldbreen that flows into the head of Billefjorden leads directly to the ice cap of Olav V Land on the east coast. I felt sure that some of the wildlife that is commoner on the east coast probably uses these routes across the island and whilst we couldn’t find any bears during our time in Isfjorden (there had been at least one around two weeks earlier) we did see Sabine’s and Ivory Gulls here.

 

Worker’s accommodation building, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Passing this way also allowed a not-to-be-missed opportunity to visit the abandoned Russian mining settlement at Pyramiden (after the mountain of the same name that overlooks the town). I must admit to finding post-industrial decay fascinating, maybe it goes back to growing up on Tyneside in the 1970s surrounded by similar scenes but I also know that such places usually very quickly become havens for wildlife. I heard that Pyramiden was very good for Arctic Foxes and this proved to be worth the admission price alone.

Arctic Fox, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Kittiwake colony on the workers’ accommodation building and the covered mine shaft railway line (Mike Watson).

The rickety old wooden jetty gave an idea of what was to come, a ramshackle decaying Arctic town, much of which is being allowed to lie where it falls.  Pyramiden and its coal rights were bought in 1926 by Russia but it was not until after WWII that it flourished as a coal mining community. By 1989 there were 715 men, 228 women and 71 children living there. However, it was abandoned in 1998 owing to poor coal reserves and quickly fell into disrepair. We were picked up in a rather smart Russian bus and transferred to the hotel, which acts as the hub for the tourist activities, which are obviously growing in popularity. Our expedition leader, Phil Wickens, remembers only a couple of people living here not so long ago but there are now 30, employed as guides and hotel workers.

Opposite the hotel, there is a large kittiwake colony nesting on the old workers’ accommodation building, occupying every window ledge and overflowing onto surrounding buildings and even onto the swings in the adjacent derelict children’s playground. The settlement is a fascinating step back in time to the Soviet era and we were lucky to be allowed inside five buildings: the workers’ canteen, Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre, Swimming Pool, Cinema and the school. Most are now in a state of decay, minus much of their furniture and some have been tidied up a bit unfortunately, presumably to make them a little safer. I particularly liked the canteen and its awesome polar scene mural in the main dining hall. It struck me that whereas I am usually amazed at how much older than expected other artefacts are in Svalbard, I was equally stunned to learn how comparatively new the derelict Russian buildings are, thanks to a combination of shoddy Soviet era workmanship and the harsh winter environment.

 

Kittiwakes on the workers’ accommodation building (Mike Watson).

Kittiwake playground, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Workers’ canteen entrance (Mike Watson).

Mural in the former workers’ canteen (Mike Watson)

Lenin outside the Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre (Mike Watson).

Sports Hall in the Yuri Gagarin Sports Centre (Mike Watson).

Pyramiden (Mike Watson)

Kittiwake colony, Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

Mine shaft railway, Pyramiden (Mike Watson)

Phil Wickens in the school building at Pyramiden (Mike Watson).

It was not just the old buildings that were of interest, a pair of Long-tailed Jaegers flew over the jetty. We saw four separate Arctic Foxes, including two dark morphs (or ‘Blue Foxes’). Those up by the mine workings were taking numerous bits of kittiwake presumably to stash for the winter and the one that walked up to us by the jetty was particularly tame. The flora was good too, with Woolly Lousewort common (although now over) and of thistle proportions! Polar Dandelion and Arctic White Campion were growing everywhere among the buildings and Yellow Mountain Saxifrage was even to be found in coal deposits. A few of us had an evening in the bar of the restaurant sampling some nice Russian beer before hiking back to SV Noorderlicht and the 21st century. Thanks to Captain Floris Spikermann Immink and his crew of SV Noorderlicht and also to our expedition leader Phil Wickens for making the Pyramiden visit possible.

Phil Wickens at Pyramiden Jetty (Mike Watson).

Arctic Fox, Pyramiden Jetty (Mike Watson).

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MIGHTY DETTIFOSS

DETTIFOSS is my favourite waterfall. It is located in northeast Iceland to the east of Lake Myvatn, about one hour off the ‘Ring Road’ and is consifdered to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe with a flow of 193 cubic metres per second going over the 100m wide falls, dropping 43m into the gorge of the Jökulsa á Fjöllum River (Sarp Falls in Norway has a bigger flow but only stands about half the height of Dettifoss). The Jökulsa á Fjöllum is a glacial meltwater river emanating from the Vatnajökul Glacier and its water is consequently grey-white with sediment. Standing next to the thundering giant Dettifoss is a terrific experience, especially on the quiet eastern side of the falls. The western side is nearer to Lake Myvatn for the day-tripping bucket listers from the Husavík cruise ships and is best avoided at peak times. The view is better by far from the eastern side in my opinion as well.

Jökulsa á Fjöllum River Gorge downstream from Dettifoss

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LAXÁ HARLEQUINS REVISITED

Harlequin Duck, Laxá June 2019

SITTING NEXT TO A RUSHING SALMON RIVER WATCHING HARLEQUINS SHOOTING THE RAPIDS is one of my favourite wildlife experiences. We had such a great time in 2017 on the Laxá (‘Salmon River’) in Iceland’s Lake Myvatn region that I was looking forward to returning this summer. However, things are rarely as good a second time sadly. Although we enjoyed some stupendous close views again the chironomid flies after which the nearby lake was named were out in force making photographing quite arduous, even with a head net. Without it the experience of the non-biting although mega irritating flies is like having someone poke you in the face, ears or mouth every second or two. Expect to eat a few of them by accident as they fly into your mouth kamikaze style. Not painfull but very distracting, there can be clouds of several hundred of them around your head within minutes. The weather before my 2017 visit was very cold and they had not really got going but the weather recently had been unusually warm and the sodding flies were bad. Ah well, plenty of bird food I guess, looking on the bright side. Much worse was the sheer number of anglers all along the river at my favourite spots, which caused the Harlequins to move off elsewhere. I am going to need to find a quiet spot away from them when it return in 2020. Consequently my images were not as dramatic as in 2017 but I managed to get the lovely marigold flowers into backgrounds this time. Fortunately this was a birding rather than a photography tour so no one minded but next time with Wild Images this project is going to need some more effort. I also heard some disturbing news that Harlequins are declining in Iceland and no one knows why yet. My original Laxá Harlequins post can be seen here and you can see the details of my next Wild Images Iceland tour here.

Harlequin.jpg
Harlequin.jpg

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BROWN BEARS OF TRANSYLVANIA

Carpathian Brown Bear in Transylvania’s Harghita region, June 2019

THE HOPED-FOR 2019 ROSY STARLING INVASION OF ROMANIA HAD NOT MATERIALISED, so what to do at the end of our time there? Spend it in the forests of Transylvania was the answer. Janó’s Sakertour team had finished extending their ‘stream background’ photo hide with a view to capturing some artistic against-the-light images in early morning sun and Janó was very keen to try it. Sakertour also have a new bear lodge near the lovely town of Székelyudvarhely (or ‘Odorheiu Sequiesq’), which is located in the Harghita municipality of Transylvania, 300km (or 5 hours drive) from Bucharest’s Henri Coanda International (OTP) Airport. Transylvania, which means ‘beyond the forest’, holds the largest population of Brown Bears outside Russia and thankfully they are now protected and are no longer hunted. The bears’ mating season extends late into spring so June is a good time to watch them and as food is left for them outside the photo hides, there is a very high chance of success. Ultimately we had such a good sunrise session in the ‘stream background’ hide that the rest of the guys went home after it, leaving me to my own devices and an afternoon session at another of the hides with a mature forest background. We saw two bears in the morning, one of which crossed the stream several times and I had another six in the afternoon, a number boosted by a mum and her three cubs. The bears approach the hides very closely at times and were too close for the 500, as these virtually uncropped images show. An effective focal length of 300-400mm would have been ideal. It was wonderful to stay in a place where there are bears in the forest right on the edge of town bearing in mind that we got rid of our last one here at least 1000 years ago! Fab-u-lous in fact! It was also good to have some áfonya (blueberry) pálinka again at long last. I even brought some home too and am looking forward to a reason to open it. Finally thanks to János Oláh and his excellent Sakertour team of Zsolt and Tibi for looking after me so well and to Fiteti and Manu for making our trip such a lot of fun!

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