Puffin (live Hornøya webcam)
One of the famous faces of Hornøya. Over 7.5 thousand pairs of puffin breed inside burrows on Hornøya’s grassy slopes and clifftops. Each pair mates for life. After a winter spent at sea, the puffins return to Hornøya in March, old mates reuniting at their previous nesting site. Those puffins without mates or a nest site begin digging their burrows, using their beaks as shovels. Nesting deep within in a burrow means their eggs and chicks are relatively safe from predators such as gulls. The right site is imperative to the survival of puffin chicks. Fights frequently break out between newly-arrived puffins over the best nesting spots.
Approximately 500 pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemot breed on the birdcliff, wedged between the tightly packed Common Guillemots. These Arctic specialists can be told from their commoner cousins by their white beakl-stripes. Their habits are very similar to the Common Guillemot, though Brünnich’s Guillemots tend to breed on steeper cliffs than their relatives, affording better protection from potential predators. In the rest of their range, which extends across Arctic Russia and North America, their nests may be at risk from Arctic Foxes and even Polar Bears - no such threat here on Hornøya!
The Common Guillemot is the most numerous bird on Hornøya, with 15 000 breeding pairs. While clumsy on land, and not especially graceful in flight, under the water is where they excel. Using their wings like flippers, the guillemots glide through the water to hunt fish. They mainly feed on capelin, herring and young cod. The population of guillemots here crashed during the 1980s, when fish stocks were extremely low, but they have since made a recovery. In fact, contrary to many of the other guillemot colonies in Norway, the Honøya colony is still increasing and has since risen above the pre-collapse numbers.
Approximately 500 pairs of Razorbill breed among rock crevices on the birdcliff. As with all auks, they hunt fish in underwater dives, usually 25m below the surface, although they can reach depths of 120m. The Razorbill is the closest living relative to the extinct flightless Great Auk, which used to breed on Hornøya, but is a fifth of the Great Auk’s size. Being so closely related to this remarkable bird did not do the Hornøya Razorbills many favours: five of them were killed to recreate the stuffed skin of reputedly the world’s last Great Auk, which was seen swimming around Hornøya in 1848.
One of the smaller seabirds you are likely to see around Hornøya. They are distinctive birds, with an all-black body, white wing patches and bright red feet. Black Guillemots breed in crevices lower down on the cliffs than other auks. They too dive underwater for their prey, specialising in hunting the elongated Rock Gunnel or Butterfish. This fish is generally found close to the coast, meaning Black Guillemots do not typically forage far from land.
Black-legged Kittiwake (live Hornøya webcam)
This delicate gull is an important fixture in the Hornøya soundscape. Named after their “kitti-wa-aake, kitti-wa-aake, kitti-wa-aake” call, about 7 500 pairs breed on the cliffs here. Because of their small size, they are constantly at risk of predation from Gyrfalcons, White-tailed Eagles, skuas and larger gulls. The kittiwake is not faring well, having declined massively across almost all of their colonies. Hornøya is no exception: numbers have nearly halved since the 1980s. Some kittiwakes can be seen nesting on the sides of buildings in Vardø.
The Glaucous Gulls on Hornøya are visitors from the Russian tundra, where they breed. They resemble Herring Gulls, but have white wing tips. Glaucous Gulls are most commonly seen on the island from autumn through to spring, though some individuals remain in Varanger all year round. Large numbers of gulls build up on Hornøya in April before their migration back to Siberia. They are fearsome predators of smaller birds, chasing puffins and kittiwakes. They are also opportunists, feeding on animal carcasses, human waste and discarded fish in harbours across Varanger.
Herring Gull & Great Black-backed Gull
Large numbers of gulls breed on the grassy eastern slope of Hornøya and on neighbouring Reinøya. In summer, visitors to Hornøya may find themselves being dive-bombed by gulls. These birds are ones that have nested near to the footpaths and are simply trying to defend their chicks from people walking past. They rarely strike a person’s head, and waving a hand or hat into the air is enough to discourage them. Gulls are fearsome predators, particularly the huge Great Black-backed Gulls, and hunt many of the birds on the cliff. They are perfectly capable of killing and eating an adult puffin or kittiwake.
The shag is another success story on Hornøya, having increased massively in number since the 1990s. Some 1300 pairs now breed on the island. Shags are found on the lower reaches of the rocky island, constructing basic nests of sticks and seaweed. They breed quite close to the paths, and may warn visitors to stay away by snapping their bills and uttering gargling calls. Please maintain a respectful distance. Juvenile shags are brown, while their parents are a dark, iridescent green. Shags hunt fish underwater, propelling themselves forwards with their feet.
Great Cormorants do not actually breed on Hornøya but they are common in the surrounding area, often seen perched on rocks with their wings held outstretched to dry their feathers. The Great Cormorants of Arctic Norway are of particular interest to ornithologists, who claim that the cormorants here are genetically separate from the European subspecies carbo and sinensis. It is thought the cormorants here are more closely related to the Japanese Cormorant Phalocrocorax capillatus and should become a new subspecies: norvegicus.
Arctic Skuas do not breed on Hornøya, but hunt in the waters around the island. Arctic Skuas are pirates. They attack and rob other seabirds. If a skua spots a guillemot or tern with a fish, they will harass it, swooping and pecking at the bird until it drops its catch. Arctic Skuas come in a range of colour forms, some with pale undersides while others are dark brown. Arctic Skuas breed on the mainland, nesting on the short turf of the tundra. They are fearless when it comes to protecting their nests, making aggressive dives at any potential predators that come too near.
Fulmars have a toehold on Hornøya, with a handful of pairs nesting on the cliff each year. Fulmars have expanded their range in recent times, a fact often attributed to the spread of the fishing industry. The increase in fish waste discarded by boats and factories is said to have allowed fulmars to move into new areas. Before the 18th century, the species was restricted mainly to Iceland and Svalbard, but has since colonised much of the north Atlantic. Fulmars visiting Hornøya in the winter and spring from the high Arctic are striking birds, a steely blue-grey in colour, darker than the birds breeding here.
After all the other seabirds have fledged their young, Leach’s Petrels arrive on Hornøya to begin their breeding season. Despite Leach’s Petrels having a ‘normal’ spring-summer breeding season across the rest of their range in Europe and North America, Arctic-breeding petrels must wait until the autumn to begin theirs. Leach’s Petrels are small and very slow-moving on land, making them particularly vulnerable to gulls. To counter this, they only visit their nests at night, where they can remain undetected. In the Arctic summer the midnight sun means that it constantly light, so the birds first chance to return to their nesting colonies and begin breeding is from September onwards when dark nights return.
Gyrfalcons, the largest falcon in the world, do not breed on Hornøya but regularly visit the island to hunt. The cliffs here provide an abundance of prey for them. Young kittiwakes are particularly easy targets. The presence of a Gyrfalcon is usually indicated by sheer pandemonium on the cliff, with birds scattering in all directions. Ravens and larger gulls do not tolerate the falcons, and attempt to chase them away from the colony. Away from Hornøya, Gyrfalcons mainly hunt grouse. Gyrfalcons breed on the mainland, nesting on cliff faces or in old raven nests.
White-tailed Eagles do not breed on Hornøya, but visit to hunt the seabirds. Adult guillemots and kittiwake chicks are popular eagle prey. They may be seen perched on the rocky outcrops around Hornøya and Reinøya or soaring high over the island. Usually, eagles over Hornøya are met by aggressive ravens and gulls attempting to drive them out of the area. After many years of persecution and near-extinction in the country, Norway’s White-tailed Eagles have made a comeback and now Norway holds the largest White-tailed Eagle population in Europe
Greylag Goose & Barnacle Goose
On the on the flat vegetated area of Hornøya’s eastern side, small numbers of Greylag and Barnacle Geese breed amongst the gull colony. Greylag Geese are common across Varanger and the few pairs which breed on the island are safe from foxes and human disturbance. The smaller Barnacle Geese (pictured) migrate through Varanger every year between their Russian breeding grounds and winter quarters on the North Sea coast. However, a few pairs choose to stay in Norway for the summer and breed on Hornøya! These are the only breeding Barnacle Geese in Finnmark.
One of Varanager’s signature species, King Eiders arrive to the waters around Hornøya in winter from their Siberian breeding grounds, with spectacular numbers building up from early spring. Such huge numbers are drawn to the Barents Sea because of the North Atlantic drift. This phenomenon carries the warm ocean current of the Gulf Stream so that it just reaches Varanger, meaning the seas are ice-free and nutrient rich. Small numbers of King Eiders may remain throughout the summer, usually young non-breeding birds. The small beach on the east side of Hornøya is a good place to search for summering birds.
Common Eiders are present all year around Hornøya. Small numbers breed among the vegetation cover on the island in the summer. While sitting on the nest, female eiders pluck soft feathers from their chests to line their nest. The feathers have tiny barbs which hook into one another and create a light, airy ‘duvet ’which retains heat. Eiders dive underwater to find shellfish such as mussels and urchins. In February and March, Common Eiders congregate in huge numbers around Hornøya and Vardøya. Many of these birds will have come from Siberia.
Ravens can be seen patrolling Hornøya in pairs or small flocks, often performing areal acrobatics such as rolling upside down or chasing each other, seemingly just for fun. They are opportunistic omnivores, raiding seabird nests for eggs and young chicks, as well as feeding on carcasses and human food waste. They breed on the cliff, using seaweed and sticks they find washed up to create a messy nest. Ravens one of the world’s most intelligent birds, shown to have a brain-to-weight ratio just below that of a human’s.
In addition to the seabirds, Hornøya supports a population of pipits on the grassy areas of the island. Three species breed here, the ubiquitous Meadow Pipit, the Rock Pipit and the rarer Red-throated Pipit, an Arctic specialist. All three species nest on the ground, hidden deep in the long grass and vegetation. This is another good reason why visitors must stay on the marked paths. Pipit nests may be trodden on if visitors start walking over the grassy areas. All three species are summer migrants to Hornøya, spending the winter further south in Europe and, in the case of the Red-throated Pipit, Africa.
Twite are a species of finch that can be found on Hornøya, often perched on the wires and buildings around the lighthouse. They are summer migrants, spending winter in central and westerns Europe. Twite are unusual in the fact that they feed their chicks on seeds. Most other passerines (small perching birds) feed their chicks insects, even if the adults themselves are seed-eaters. Hornøya’s covering of seed-bearing plants means the Twite have numerous places to forage. They are particularly fond of the Persian Hogweed Heracleum persicum, a plant that has been introduced across Scandinavia from its native Iran.
Hornøya in autumn provides a welcome rest stop for scores of migrating birds headed southwards for the winter. Redwings, Bluethroats, Twite, Common Redpolls, Lapland Buntings, Snow Buntings, pipits and even migrant geese use the islands as a refuge, feeding up on the seeds, berries and insects before their journey. Some of the smaller migrants may feed in the empty nests of seabirds, where some insects may still survive. Adverse weather could create a "fall" on the island, where rainy conditions force large numbers of migrating birds to seek shelter. One minute the island can be devoid of birds, the next they appear to be everywhere.
As well as providing a huge draw for breeding seabirds and migrating passerines, Hornøya has also received its fair share of rare vagrant birds. Perhaps the rarest bird recorded there in a Norwegian context was a Lesser Short-toed Lark in May 2013, only the 2nd ever recorded for the country. Stragglers from Asia have included a Black-throated Thrush and an Olive-backed Pipit and from southern Europe have come Red-rumped Swallow, Quail and Red-backed Shrike. Hornøya’s position; the last body of land in Europe before the wide expanse of the Barents Sea, may account for why rare birds stick around on the isle. It could also be because, compared the majority of Varanger, this site is pretty well covered by birders during the season, so if something turns up, it is likely to be discovered.