Hornøya and Reinøya Nature reserve
East of Istanbul and at the same longitude as Cairo lies one of mainland Europe’s northernmost nature reserves. The Hornøya/Reinøya Nature Reserve is one of 14 seabird colonies in Finnmark that were protected in 1983, and is the easternmost locality in Norway. Hornøya and Reinøya are two islands off the town of Vardø with views across the southern Barents Sea to the west coast of the Kola Peninsula. Within an area of 2 km2, of which 1.5 km2 are land is a rich and populous seabird community and a lush vegetation, like a green oasis in an otherwise near barren Varanger landscape.
The rocks of both islands are sandstones and shales that dip southeastwards at an angle of ca 25°. The strata outcrop along the west sides of the islands along steep cliff faces and form excellent nesting ledges for seabirds. Compared to many classic seabird colonies, the cliffs are low, only 20-30 m high, and the tops of the islands are only 60-65 m a.s.l.
Reinøya is closed to the public, but visitors are allowed on Hornøya to which access is easy with a 10-minute boat trip from the harbour in Vardø. The boat ferries visitors across the sound several times a day. Once on the island, public access during the birds’ breeding season is limited to a large area under the cliffs, a path across the island to the boat houses and onwards up to the lighthouse where there is a limited area in which to roam. To avoid disturbing the nesting birds unnecessarily, movement within the remainder of the reserve is only allowed by permit holders. The best time to visit Hornøya is at the height of the breeding season in May to July.
The seabird colony on Hornøya is very diverse with relatively large numbers of many species breeding on the island. The main cliff is dominated by black-legged kittiwakes, common guillemots and Atlantic puffins, interspersed by European shags, Brünnich’s guillemots, razorbills and a few black guillemots. All are easy to see, hear and smell(!) from the areas open to the public. On the vegetated areas below the cliff and covering the island as a whole breed large numbers of herring gulls and great black-backed gulls, plus a few common eider. Due to the lack of tree cover and the overall exposure of the island to the elements, very few passerines breed on Hornøya. Apart from several pairs of white wagtail, rock-pipit and raven, one highlight is a small population of red-throated pipits, representatives of which willingly pose for photographs on the fence or electric wire that stretches up to the lighthouse. Other favourites are king eiders and Steller’s eiders that are common in the late winter and of which a few stragglers are often seen throughout the summer in the bay on the southeast side of Hornøya. From the lighthouse, there are excellent opportunities for seawatching with good views of fulmars, gannets etc. and sometimes shearwaters, minke whales and seals. If you are really lucky, you might see white whales or beluga as they pass round the island in June or July. Seabird numbers on Hornøya (and Reinøya) have fluctuated greatly through the years, with declines in some species and increases in others. Annual counts have been made since 1980, and the colony is now one of several key-sites on which annual monitoring of seabird populations and their breeding success continues, in addition to several basic seabird research projects that address what factors regulate the populations. Much of this activity is coordinated by the national SEAPOP programme, about which you can read more at www. seapop.no. Among some of the largest changes recorded since 1980 have been a 90% collapse in the common guillemot population in 1986/87 followed by an unprecedented increase to present numbers above the pre-collapse numbers, a near doubling of the puffin population and a near halving of kittiwake numbers. The populations of the herring gull and great blackbacked gull have also decreased over the years, while that of the shag has increased about 10-fold since 1990.