As there was not a single moment on the trip where I was bored, it seems strange to pick a highlight, but given that Grahame's wife Jacqui was almost more entertained by my 'kid on Christmas morning' excitement from within the King Eider photography hide than the actual birds, I will have to say that this was the highlight of the trip for me.
Ørjan Hansens runs a floating Eider hide in Båtsfjord harbour, Northern Varanger. This allows you to sit/lie comfortably within a floating bird hide whilst 3 species of Eider and Long-tailed Ducks feed on scraps outside the fish factory just feet in front of you. Whilst I am used to seeing Common Eider at close quarters at Martin Mere WWT etc (not the same, I know) it was fantastic to see these completely wild birds going about their business, oblivious to your presence!
A memory that will always stay with me is looking up from the camera after photographing a drake King Eider 4-5 metres away and seeing a drake Steller's Eider literally close enough to touch right outside the window of the hide!
Needless to say, I got an awful lot of photos, so I will post a selection of each species on show, starting with my personal highlight of the trip.
Female Steller's are really different to the males and remarkably dark when sat next to the white and orange beacons! I set myself a personal goal whilst in the hide to get a decent photo of the females and capture their subtlety. I was really pleased with the above photo as I think I've captured the bird in a nice pose and nicely exposed showing the warmer flecking to the plumage. Beautiful birds in their own right!
Whilst this hide mainly advertises Kings, we were mainly treated to Steller's with at least 30 feeding out in front. Kings were much quieter with the occasional bird making a brief appearance. Towards the end of the 3 hour stint in the hide, we were treated to a 'flock' of 8 including two lovely adult males. They really are gorgeous birds, especially at this distance.
I have to admit, I was more interested in the 1st winter birds. The above two are both of the same age, but look very different indeed! I was more interested in these from an ID point of view as, let's be honest, the males don't pose much of a head scratching identification! The dark 1st winters were really interesting though. I wonder how similar these would look to drake Common Scoters if they were out 'on the horizon' in loose association with a distant scoter flock (size not taken into consideration of course!)
The Eider vortex is now a thing of legend! We went out on a 'safari' in the Varangerfjord and it took what felt like an age and one seasick casualty before we found the raft. As you approach, the entire flock lifts to the sky and starts circling around the boat and you witness the Eider Vortex! There was a great showing of all three species with the main focus being Common Eider and very closely followed by Kings.
It was to my horror that, on the day we came back, Tormod was looking through his vortex photos and refound the Pacific Eider first discovered a month before Gullfest, meaning I was less than 50m from a first for the Western Palearctic and I didn't even know about it! A real shame as it's a stunning bird, but it doesn't detract too much from the amazing birds I actually did see.
Of the birds I scrutinised, I only actually saw 2 other 1st winter males (both of which had some white flecking on the median and lesser coverts.