No one believed in Ørjan Hansen’s shack. Now, it is bringing bird lovers closer to nature than they had dreamed was possible.
“Over there, that’s a steller’s eider. And that one is a king eider.”
Sitting in a warm car, Ørjan Hansen is pointing a pair of small binoculars at the freezing fjord by the Båtsfjord harbour, where a flock of Arctic sea ducks have gathered on the water underneath a pale blue sky.
The birds have migrated here for winter with one purpose: Finding a spot where they can dive for food.
“This is where the Gulf Stream turns, so this is the easternmost harbour that is free of ice.”
The Arctic sea ducks are a rare sight. The steller’s eider can even be found on the ICUN Red list of endangered species.
Both birds are sought-after by birdwatchers from all across the globe, a fact that gave Ørjan the idea for an unusual addition to the Varanger region’s ever-expanding offering of wild nature experiences.
Every winter, bird lovers will undertake the long journey to Båtsfjord just to spend a few uninterrupted hours inside one of Ørjan’s two self-built floating shacks, right next to the spot in the fjord where the birds will spend their morning and noon.
The shacks have small peepholes allowing for a camera lens, the birds being none the wiser as the shutter starts clicking away. Although you’d think silence would be a requirement for this type of solemn activity, Ørjan says that it is not necessarily so.
“It’s not your voice they’re afraid of, but the silhouette of a human.”
According to Ørjan, this is more a lifestyle than a job to him. But it wasn’t always like that. Growing up, he paid no mind to these birds, even though they’d often be hanging out right by his grandmother’s window.
“Sometimes, you don’t see the forest for the trees.”
The turning point for Ørjan was when he worked in the desolate archipelago of Svalbard, a job where he had “plenty of time to contemplate life and what to do with it”, as he puts it.
“I thought that becoming my own boss might give me a chance to see my kids more often.”
So he started his business Arctic Tourist and started bringing summer tourists out to the nearby mountain of Syltefjordstauran, where one of Europe’s largest bird colonies is situated, featuring both black-legged kittiwakes, northern gannets and white-tailed eagles.
Soon, he expanded into boat trips for those looking to get up close with the Arctic sea ducks, but he ran into a problem.
“If you follow the birds around with a boat all day, the strain on them is huge. So that pushed me into thinking about a floating photo shack.”
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There was some resistance to the idea – few had much faith in his project – but in 2010 he nevertheless built himself a prototype. The unique close-ups the shack allowed for soon made their way across social media to bird lovers everywhere.
Then, the birdwatchers started drifting in from every corner of the world. The current photography record for the shacks is held by a Chinese man who somehow managed to snap 80,000 shots within a day.
Seeing these rare birds settle down so close to a town full of people might seem strange. The reason they prefer this particular spot is actually an artificial ecosystem, built by chance due to the waste water of a nearby fish factory producing filets.
“Bits of fish follow the water out into the ocean. This attracts benthos like sea urchins and snails. Now, snail houses and sea urchins are rock hard and you’d think the birds couldn’t eat them, but in the gizzard the birds have a muscle crushing and separating edible from non-edible.”
At night, the birds keep to themselves further out at sea, but at first dawn they come streaming in towards the Båtsfjord harbour. Rushing past Ørjan, where the sea meets the mainland, they sometimes look to him like cars on a highway.
Ørjan sets up his shack from the 15th of January and then keep it anchored until early April, welcoming a steady stream of enthusiasts from early February and onwards.
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As the sun begins to rise earlier and earlier, Ørjan has to adjust what time he transports his guests out to the shack – around March they go out as early as four in the morning. While the dawn is still a greyish blue, the birdwatchers eat breakfasts and drink coffee inside the shed, waiting patiently for the right lighting conditions.
Out here, bad weather is not a concern. In fact, quite the opposite.
“For the birdwatchers, bad weather just means wild pictures filled with blowing snow and freezing fog. If it’s just all sun and quiet, they grow tired after a couple of hours.”
One of Ørjan’s most vivid memories is that of an old Japanese man he transported out to one of the shacks as a storm came blowing in from the northwest. As the storm settled down later that day and he was picking the man up, Ørjan asked if he’d had a good time.
“He got up, shook my hand and said ‘I am 67 years old and this has been the best day of my life.’ At times like that, you can’t help but feel you’ve done something right in this world.”
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