Did I ever tell you about that time I went camping and birding in Sweden?
Probably not in the blog. This is another in a series of adventures that happened in the last few years that has made it in some of my keynotes or conversations over libations at Birds and Beers, but never made it here.
Believe it or not, this trip was work related but I still look back on this trip and wonder...did that really happen? We were based at Kolarbyn Ecolodge which literally bills itself as "Sweden's most primitive hotel." But even though it's primitive, it's still beautiful and your experience is more relaxing than you'd think. It's about a two hour drive northwest of Stockholm.
Imagine if some designers from IKEA went out into the Swedish wilderness and designed very tasteful, elegant and minimalist huts with trees, dirt and mosses--you'd have Kolarbyn. The camp specializes in giving you a complete outdoor and survival experience. They were a bit baffled by birders. They expect their guests to be ready for hikes--which birders are but when they hear good birds, they are going to plant ourselves to observe and identify. Even experienced bird trip leaders know that guiding birders is like guiding cats. They walked us past an area that had nesting a family of black-throated divers (aka Arctic loon in North American field guides) and we planted to enjoy not only the view of the birds but the sounds as well. But I think they gradually got the hang of birders.
The food was wonderful. Sometimes a chef cooked for us and there were times when we helped prepare the meal. One of the experiences you can have at Kolarbyn is learning to identify edible foods in the Swedish mountains. During our trip in September, blueberries and lingonberries were plentiful and a handy snacks. There were also a variety of edible mushrooms which tasted great sauteed in butter over the campfire.
My first morning when I joined the camp for some coffee, the owner of Kolarbyn offered me some caviar from a tube. I soon learned that I could get meat and cheese from a tube as well. You really haven't lived until you have had reindeer meat squeezed out like toothpaste onto toast heated over a campfire. As I marveled over this strange food, they asked me what food I would have in Minnesota that they might find weird in Sweden. "Lutefisk," I said without thinking--it's the grossest thing people eat here. Fish soaked in lye with the consistency of Jell-O is enough to weird most people out. But I forgot where I was and the Swedes looked at me in astonishment and said that they loved lutefisk. Of course.
Now typically on these sorts of trips, the end of the day is capped off by a large meal and a few drinks. Our first night we sat down to an early dinner. The plan was to go out on a moose and wolf safari in the dark. The beverages were presented in the form of juice and non-alcoholic beer. Everyone looked confused and asked where the real booze was hiding. Our safari host smiled and said, "We have learned that if we don't give you alcohol you are much quieter and we have a better chance of finding wolf and moose."
More than one of us lamented that we hadn't hit the duty free shop at the airport before arriving to the camp.
The moose safari did not disappoint--we saw several. Moose are kind of a confusing thing in Europe. Over there, they call moose "elk." What we call elk in North America, they call "wapiti." We have had a steep decline in the moose population in my home state of Minnesota so it was a real treat to see so many. One of the moose we saw had a fresh injury on its nose, like a chunk had been bitten out of it--perhaps by wolves. Actually, I can understand why Minnesota had so many Swedes settle here. The landscape is very similar--as is the wildlife. Not only did we see moose but we had divers (loons) and wolves.
We saw lots of evidence of wolves--especially their poop. We staked out a spot on a trail to one of their dens in the hopes of one or two passing by. Though we didn't see the wolves, we did have some capercaillie settling into a roost tree near by--those things are so huge, their bodies cracking branches sounded more like Big Foot was coming through the forest than grouse. We never did see wolves on this trip, but we did hear them howl. I've seen wolves in Minnesota and Israel (though that one looked more like a coyote) but getting to hear a pack howl on one of our nighttime safaris was one of the coolest non-birding things I have ever part of--and worth a bit of sobriety. Sitting in utter darkness and in such a remote area of the Swedish wilderness under innumerable stars on a carpet of spongy mosses and a pack of wolves starts howling...I get goosebumps now remembering.
Speaking of sounds, get a load of this video:
One night they brought in a woman named Christina Holmström who does "kulning" which is a method of calling in livestock from the mountains. On our final night they allowed us to cut loose and have some wine around the fire. As we were sipping and toasting, this song started echoing off of the lake. Her evening song was just has haunting as the wolves howling. By the way, Kolarbyn also has a floating sauna on this lake which I highly recommend using, if you get too hot simply jump in to cool off or sit on the dock marveling the stars or northern lights.
After camping we headed back towards to Stockholm but did a bit of wetlands birding along the way. I was excited because we met up with Daniel Green of Bird Safaris Sweden who I have met before on my travels in Israel and south Texas. A great birder who is a great guide for Sweden or anywhere else you'd wish to travel around the world.
I was excited for this spot because it was chock full of barnacle geese. This is a glassy looking goose that I've always wanted to see. Thanks to television, they're also known as the "base jumping goose."
But there were all sorts of waterfowl and shorebirds here including lesser white-fronted goose (which my pictures are terrible and are not here). It was a great trip and between the food and the birds, I think Europe is one of my all time favorite birding destinations outside of the United States.
More birds below: