Finland has always been a destination high up on my wish list with the mouth-watering possibility of more lifers than most other European destinations. High costs relative to other similar trips, plus the potential for 24 hour birding has, in the past, left it on the back burner. With Amanda not really wanting to undertake a full-on birding trip, when our son Nick suggested he accompany me instead, the die was cast.
What follows is very much a personal account of our trip to Finland and Arctic Norway and not a trip report reflecting the combined views and experiences of the overall party of Birdfinders tour in 2009.
We really fancied making the trip on our own, with a guide/driver accompanying us around Oulu and Kuusamo for the many specialist species, including owls. Initially we tried Finnature but were restricted to their advertised standard daily guiding and transport packages around Oulu and Kuusamo, starting at the ungodly times of 01.00hrs to 03.00hrs and lasting for 8 hours. Two years earlier when we had previously looked at this destination, Finnature had been interested in putting together a full package to cover the whole trip…but not this year: for longer trips the only service offered was links to other Birding Holiday Companies who were including the area in their offerings for 2009 and being accompanied by a Finnature guide. Having found the name on a previous trip report on the internet, we contacted Hannu Jannes and he quoted a provisional cost (based on a 13 night itinerary) of around 3675 Euros per person for ground transportation by rental car, full guiding service throughout the tour and accommodation in double room with half board. Not included were international or internal flights, fuel, lunches and possible boat trip to a bird island in Norway. If we were able to put together a party of 6 then the cost reduced to a much more reasonable 2125 Euros each. Unable to put together a larger party, we eventually decided to bite the bullet and go with a Birding Tour Company by mid February 2009.
Comparing the various offerings it appeared most companies visited the same areas and even appeared to stay in most of the same hotels. All used Finnature guides to benefit from their expertise as well as their tried and tested network of local knowledge. With a wide variety of prices we decided to look for value for money on the assumption that if the birds were around, the Finnature guides would know where to find them. Initially we chose Celtic Bird Tours where Neil Donaghy was extremely helpful; a local birding group who were to take up over half the places on his trip had just cancelled as a result of the fall in value of sterling and the potential surcharge for all destinations. He was therefore left with no alternative but to cancel his trip. He kindly mentioned that as far as he was aware, Birdfinders were still going ahead with their plans. I contacted Vaughn Ashby to find that with four people already committed, with us, he was just short of his minimum requirement of 7. However he did have a number of interested parties who had not yet confirmed commitment and he was therefore hopeful the tour would proceed. We therefore booked with Birdfinders and in the event, the final party was eleven plus two leaders. The initial cost was £2350 plus a surcharge of £195 (total £2545 each) but this was all inclusive, unlike the private trip we were originally contemplating.
With the costs based on Flights from London Heathrow I was able to fly direct from Manchester to Helsinki, rather than travel down to London, for an extra £75 and join the rest of the party there. Finnair flight AY934 left Manchester on time at 10.25hrs and arrived in Helsinki at 15.15hrs local time after a flight of a little under 3 hours. The connecting flight to Oulu was Finnair AY355 departing at 19.05hrs and arriving at 20.05hrs, where we were met by our local guide, Toni. The 4 hour wait in Helsinki was far from ideal as there was another flight to Oulu a little over 2 hours earlier and the hotel was only 15 minutes from the airport. For the additional cost of a taxi it would have been well worth meeting up with the rest of the party at our first base, rather than following Vaughn’s suggestion and waiting for the London contingent before flying to Oulu.
The return flight was Finnair AY366 leaving Oulu on time at 14.10hrs and arriving in Helsinki at 15.15, leaving me just enough time to say farewell to the rest of the group and dash across the terminal for the connecting flight AY937 at 16.00hrs to Manchester where we arrived at 16.55hrs local time, again with a flight of a little under 3 hours. The return trip of 5 hours was much better than the outward 8 hours. Flights were all on Airbus A319/320 apart from the return trip to Manchester on board a smaller, but still very comfortable, Embraer 190. The internal flights from Helsinki-Oulu-Helsinki were full and based on unallocated seating. The outward flight to Helsinki on Monday morning was full but the return on Saturday afternoon was half empty. Luggage was conveniently booked through to final destination on both legs of the trip.
Accommodation throughout was good. Rooms were spacious, clean and all had en-suite facilities. The most basic of the hotels at Vardø was still quite comfortable, had good views over the harbour and probably the best food of the trip. The hotel at Kuusamo was the best as regards size and quality of the rooms as well as overall facilities. The Airport Hotel at Kempele was the only one where we had tea and coffee making facilities in the room on our first stay; not all guests were as lucky. However the supplies were not replenished during our three night stay, the room was not cleaned or beds made and the towels were only changed after a request to the front desk. Rooms were serviced at both Kuusamo and Vardø where we had other extended stops. During the trip we had 4 nights at the Vihiluodontie (Airport) Hotel Kempele, 3 nights at the Sokos Hotel Kuusamo, 2 nights at the Hotel Ivalo (see also) and 3 nights at the Vardø Hotel in Norway.
All meals were good throughout with plenty of variety. Breakfasts consisted of a mixture of breads, meats, cheeses, boiled eggs, cereals, porridge and on occasions, cooked sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs etc. At Oulu and Vardø, pancakes and waffles were also on offer but the best breakfasts were at Kuusamo. For dinner, first courses were usually a tasty soup or mixed salad, or both. Main courses, accompanied by vegetables, potatoes or rice were reindeer steak, chicken, salmon and pork at Oulu; beef kebab, chicken and smoked salmon filet at Kuusamo; pork and lamb, both with a fish alternative at Ivalo and salmon, mixed fish and reindeer at Vardø. Sweets came in a variety of mousses, fresh fruit, ice cream and pancakes. Lunches were a mixture of sandwiches and hot meals at ABC service stations (like motorway cafes) when we were on the road; plus two days with packed lunches; two excellent lunches at Hotelli Pohjan Tuli near Utsjoki, including the best salmon/fish stew I have ever tasted; an excellent lunch at a forest cabin south of Kuusamo with reindeer stew and mashed potatoes and a superb berry/fruit tarte whilst we watched Siberian Jay; finally on our last day we had a chicken pasta salad at the hotel in Oulu and, the most exotic lunch – of gull’s egg and caviar with spider crab claw salad preceded by a tasty fish soup – at the Vardø Hotel. It’s fair to say there was always something to suit everyone’s taste.
The first two days were hot and sunny with temperatures around 24°C. On the second day the wind started to build and day 3 was warm and windy, but overcast with a heavy shower for about 30 minutes at 16.45hrs. By day 4 the weather had changed completely: it was cold, very windy and there were continual showers. As we were travelling to Kuusamo this was not a problem and we even managed to bird despite a short period of heavy rain around 16.30hrs. During our two days in Kuusamo the weather changed for the better with no rain, the wind gradually dropping and temperatures getting warmer. On day 7 we left for Ivalo on a beautiful sunny morning and as we crossed the Arctic Circle it was 24°C again. We were beginning to wonder why we had brought all our cold weather gear….. fear not! The following day it was 20°C as we left Ivalo at 08.00hrs. By the time we reached the Norwegian border around noon, the wind was getting up and, coming from the north, it was quite chilly. Temperatures dropped as we progressed along Varanger Fjord towards Vadsø and by the time we arrived in Vardø the temperature was down to about 2°C, the showers had turned to sleet and every time we got out of the vehicles an extra layer was added. As we explored the coast north west of Vardø on Day 9 it was cold but quite pleasant at times with some sun and a light wind. It was even quite balmy in some sheltered bays. Despite our numerous layers the locals thought the weather was great and summer had arrived; some were even wearing T-shirts. Day 10 with the scheduled boat trip to Hornøya island was quite a mixture: early on it was cloudy and cold, with a light wind. By lunch time as we returned to Vardø the wind was picking up and the sea was quite choppy. Although it was sunny late in the evening, there were also occasional light snow showers. As we returned to Ivalo it remained windy and cold, but as we progressed further south the temperature did “climb” to 6°C. Returning to Oulu, an early morning 3°C had risen to a balmy 7°C as the unseasonal low temperatures we had experienced were influenced by the northerly winds which had persisted for the last 5 days. On our final day there was still an icy blast off the Gulf, but temperatures did pick up as we returned to Helsinki. Be warned…..plenty of layers are essential. You can manage without wellingtons though, as long as you have a stout pair of hiking boots or similar waterproof footwear.
RESEARCH & TRIP ESSENTIALS
Although I knew from research on the internet where we would be travelling, with c70% of Finland covered by forest it is essential to have a guide if you want to see all the specialist woodland species and owls. A few of the more well known coastal sites and the Varanger-Vardø section of the trip could probably be done just as successfully on your own, but the forests around Oulu and Kuusamo with their multitude of lakes and bogs can seem quite impenetrable at times, with most roads and tracks looking virtually the same. The Lonely Planet Guide to Finland is good background reading to the country whilst I think the Collins Bird Guide by Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstrom and Grant is the best bird book to take. With a knowledgeable guide, as we had, a lot of background research and guide books are probably not necessary, especially if you are worried about your luggage allowance. A good map is quite useful if you are interested in where you are going and where you have been. I used the Michelin motoring and tourist map of Scandinavia-Finland No 985.
We were warned that insect repellent etc was essential, but we were not troubled throughout the trip, other than at two stops where there were swarms of midges, but we were quite correctly advised they were of the non-biting variety. Just annoying little buggers, especially when you are trying to enjoy a picnic lunch.
We were driven throughout in two VW Caravelle 9-seater vans which were much more comfortable with a driver and 5 passengers than a full complement. Three rear facing seats proved unpopular with most of the party. For those attempting the trip on their own, on average, petrol was €1.40 per litre whilst diesel was €0.96.
Toni Eskelin was our Finnature guide. He speaks good English, is excellent with bird calls and ID and was very patient in his attempts to locate all the specialist birds for the party. The really big dip was with Hawk Owl and it wasn’t for want of trying. Quite simply there were insufficient voles this year in the usual areas and these nomadic creatures had just moved on. Toni himself had only seen three birds this year. As a result of a late increase in numbers Martin Cade, the warden at Portland Bird Observatory, was recruited as the UK tour leader. In his own words when we met, he came along as a van driver who had never visited Finland & Norway before. He seemed like a good bloke who knows his birds, but didn’t have much interaction with the passengers in Toni’s van and appeared more interested in photography and recording bird song than actually ensuring all the party saw the target species.
DAY 1 – 25th May 2009
After travelling for most of the day we were all very pleased at c21.00hrs to have reached our first destination, the Airport Hotel, Kempele which was to be our base for the next three nights. After settling in we had a late dinner at 21.30hrs. Afterwards, with ample daylight left, Nick and I decided to explore the hotel grounds and walk out to the shoreline of the reed-fringed bay at the back of the hotel to stretch our legs and help the digestion. On the water was a selection of ducks, including the only 2 Pochard of the trip. We were pleased to see our first 20 Whooper Swan – one of the joys of this trip was seeing some common winter passage birds from the UK in their breeding grounds, in summer plumage and often in full song and engaged in courtship displays. A small selection of waders were dotted along the shoreline, hirundines drifted overhead and White Wagtail, Redstart, Pied & Spotted Flycatcher, Fieldfare, Redwing and Red Squirrel had all made themselves at home in the hotel grounds along with Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Great Tit. Common Rosefinch was still singing in the trees behind the hotel, even at this late hour. With breakfast at 06.30hrs in the morning, bed beckoned.
DAY 2 – 26th May 2009
Today we travelled south west of Oulu at 07.30hrs for about 50km mainly along the E8 towards Raahe on the coast and then we went off onto the forest tracks near Siikajoki in search of owls. The cultivated fields along the way were just starting to show signs of coming out of their winter hibernation as the first shoots of the area’s main crops, barley and potatoes, were beginning to appear. Lapwing and assorted gulls were common as we travelled along with the occasional Common Crane. Between Tupos and Liminka the only breeding flock of Rook in the area were noisily going about their business. Arriving at our destination we formed an orderly line and quietly walked along a woodland track for about 800m to the nest site of Great Grey Owl. To our delight the female was sitting quite majestically on the nest, a mass of twigs which was probably first used by Northern Goshawk. We were told the owls had 5 young to feed and the female quietly went about her business, staring at us disinterestedly from time to time as we enjoyed the scene for about half an hour. During this time the male appeared briefly to bring a vole to his partner and then retire a little deeper into the forest to roost for a while. Super views of very special birds and what a way to start the day! Sated, we moved off back to the vans to travel a little deeper into the forest to an area that had been recently cleared. Scanning the few remaining trees we came across a singing Ortolan Bunting whilst Whinchat, Wryneck and Tree Pipit also put in an appearance. In the distance a lone Arctic Skua was spotted by Simon, who was to prove time and again during the trip what phenomenal eyesight he had by spotting and correctly calling numerous raptors, which on occasions the rest of us couldn’t pick up with the naked eye. Moving on a little further we saw the only Song Thrush of the trip grubbing about on the wet edges of the forest floor along with Blackbird, Robin and Redwing; whilst just overhead a Lesser Whitethroat was singing in the treetops, out in the open giving excellent views to all. Although it was reasonably quiet by now, we walked a little further seeing Common Buzzard overhead and as we returned to the vans two crossbill species flew over calling and luckily one landed in the trees at the side of the track to reveal an immature Parrot Crossbill. What a cone cracker! Finally, with lunch time approaching, we moved on to an Ural Owl nesting site and at a safe distance watched an empty looking nest box for about 20 minutes. These owls have a reputation for fiercely defending their territories and, being mindful of this, everyone waited in a group whilst Toni set out to survey the surrounding trees for any sign of the birds. He eventually found a roosting male deep in conifer branches and barely visible at first. The bird occasionally moved position as we watched and we eventually had quite good views of its face and huge dark eyes as the branches wavered about in the breeze. A few days later Toni advised us one of the same pair of owls had attacked the British bird photographer, Paul Doherty, near the nest site.
We retraced our steps towards Oulu for lunch at the ABC service station at Tupos and then moved on to the Liminganlahti Nature Reserve on Liminka Bay. The site held a variety of ducks and waders including numerous Ruff in their breeding finery, Black-tailed Godwit and Greenshank. Marsh Harrier quartered the reedbeds as Common Crane, Arctic and Common Tern and the occasional Little Gull drifted by. After a short stay we moved on back to the forest near Siikajoki to look for more owls. Tony took us a short distance off the beaten track and carefully positioned us either side of a steeply banked drainage ditch so that we could all get a view of a nearby Silver Birch with a nest box. When everyone was ready he moved up to the tree and tapped the trunk. Almost immediately a little head popped out of the nest hole to reveal an adult Tengmalm’s Owl which was content to watch us and look around for about 15 minutes, totally unconcerned by our presence. Whilst watching the owl Toni heard a Hazel Grouse in the woods nearby. Out came the MP3 player and speakers and we soon had fleeting glimpses of an adult male bird which briefly perched in full view. As Pygmy Owl are also known to frequent the area Toni attempted to call one in, but without success. However the calls did get the local tits interested and we had good views of both Willow and Crested Tit before moving on back to the hotel at 17.30hrs. With time to kill before dinner we drove the short distance to Vihiluoto harbour to get better views of the bays behind the hotel. With Woodcock roding overhead we added Ringed Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Garganey, Greylag, Common Scoter, Baltic Gull and Caspian Tern to the list.
After dinner we set out again to try for yet more owls. We travelled south east of Oulu on Route 22 for about 25km before heading back north for about 10km along the road to Sanginjoki and then on to forest tracks. We walked for about 500m to an area near where Pygmy Owl were nesting. Toni tried without success to attract the male’s attention and then wandered off into the forest to the nest box. Having ascertained the female was sitting firmly on the nest we were led, in silence and single file, to look one by one into the nest box as Toni carefully lifted the lid. Throughout the procedure the tiny female sat tight, making a clicking sound with her beak as she glared up at each one of us with the defiance only a mother can show when protecting her offspring. For a finale we returned to the hotel via Oulu rubbish tip where a seething mass of gulls were joined by Oystercatcher and Woodcock flying over and ever so briefly by an Eagle Owl, out hunting the numerous rats seen everywhere. I was lucky enough to pick up the owl perched on some rocks under a lamp post before it quickly disappeared over a ridge of rubbish and out of sight. Two other members of the group had a similar fleeting glimpse a few minutes earlier but the rest of the party were not as lucky. In reality the tip was like a fast food joint and with Eagle Owls being nocturnal hunters some group members found it difficult to grasp how these large birds could hunt for maybe 2 hours, or less a day, in semi darkness and still get enough food to feed the family. I thought it was great! They went out for a couple of hours at night and came back totally “ratted” with no effort at all.
What a start to the trip….7 of my 20 target species, 6 of them lifers (Baltic Gull didn’t count as it was only a new sub-species) and 79 species seen overall in the day. It wasn’t going to be easy to beat this.
DAY 3 – 27th May 2009
Once again at 08.00hrs we drove almost 50km south west of Oulu to the forests around Siikajoki in search of the woodland species we had missed yesterday. At our first stop in a clearing near some houses along one of the many forest tracks we saw 2 Raven, Cuckoo and Willow Warbler (many were heard throughout the trip but few were out in the open). Moving on a little we came across 12 Black Grouse in a cultivated field. Stopping the vans disturbed them and they flew off briefly into the tops of the conifers before disappearing into the forest. Our next stop, in an area of cleared woodland not a million miles from our first stop yesterday, produced Yellow Wagtail (thunbergi – Grey-headed variety), Skylark, Red-backed Shrike and two flying Black Woodpecker before we were treated to the magnificent sight of the male Great Grey Owl out hunting in broad daylight. After flying around for several minutes the bird then perched on one of the few trees in the area giving excellent views. Toni tempted 2 Wood Warbler to the edge of the nearby Birch woodland giving close views as they defended their territories. Still searching for our main target species we moved on a short distance, without success, but in the process picked up Jay and Great Grey Shrike. Moving on a little further a Three-toed Woodpecker at last responded to Toni’s promptings and gave excellent views, alongside a Great Spotted Woodpecker. Driving towards the coast we stopped by the roadside where the slight elevation gave us a view of the surrounding countryside including some open sandy heath. Despite best efforts two very distant raptors remained a mystery as they moved slowly upwards and away from us (thanks to Simon not many got away) a group of 12 Whooper Swan flew by just over the treetops and a singing Woodlark proved a bonus, just about on the northern edge of its range here. Next we explored some of the coastline along Liminka Bay where, amongst the usual array of gulls, ducks and waders, we found a lone Pintail, two Shelduck, a single Grey Plover and Temminck’s Stint along with the first of many White-tailed Eagle flying overhead.
Lunch was again at ABC Tupos as we were on our way back to the Oulu waterfront and the area south of the Harbour and container park. We stopped by a small reed-fringed inlet where the foreshore is fenced off to protect wildlife and soon saw 3 Temminck’s Stint in display flight along with Northern Wheatear and Little Ringed Plover amongst others. Toni was hoping for Terek Sandpiper but as there was no sign we returned to the hotel at 15.00hrs for a siesta to return to the waterfront and try again later. As we set out again just after 16.40hrs the heavens opened and we sat in the vans, steaming up the windows for 30 minutes as the heavy shower passed over. Our patience was rewarded as the rain stopped with two Terek Sandpiper briefly at the water’s edge and subsequently in display flight for c10 minutes overhead. On the way back to the hotel 2 Stock Dove were amongst the Wood Pigeon in the nearby fields. On our return we walked around the back of the hotel in search of the Common Rosefinch we had heard singing previously. This time we had excellent prolonged views of both male and female, first in the tree tops, then in the low scrub behind the belt of trees.
68 birds seen in total today with a further 2 lifers and 104 species seen since our arrival.
DAY 4 – 28th May 2009
Today we loaded up the vans and set off at 08.00hrs to travel the 220km north east from Oulu to Kuusamo. Our first stop about 40km from Oulu overlooked a wet bog and despite the strong wind we were able to locate 2 Taiga Bean Geese on their breeding habitat. We detoured off the main road to Iso Syöte but only managed to find a single Golden Plover along with Common Gull, Sand Martin and 2 Wigeon. We also saw our first of many Reindeer of the trip. Back on the main road we made a short detour to the Kuusamo rubbish tip about 10km out of town, where as usual there were large numbers of gulls, but nothing new. We arrived in Kuusamo at 12.45hrs and had a quick lunch at the local ABC before checking in to our very comfortable lakeside hotel for the next three nights. After briefly settling in we were out again at 14.30hrs travelling north along the E63 towards Ruka. At a lake on the outskirts of town we saw both male and female Smew along with the usual Goldeneye, Mallard and Whooper Swan. We eventually turned off the main road into the forest and were confronted by several fallen trees sprawled across the track in front of us; the strong gusts of wind had taken their toll. Undaunted, the intrepid birders piled out of the vans and quickly manhandled the “fallen giants” to the side of the track – nothing would stop us in pursuit of birds! For a while some of the party were a little non-plussed as a well-built Fin strolled up from a van stopped behind us with an axe swinging at his side. Thankfully it was only the trees he made short work of as he helped us clear the road. A few kilometres into the forest we stopped at a bird feeder maintained by a local birder and amongst the numerous finches and tits we saw several beautiful male Brambling and 2 Siberian Tit. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at another lake where we saw c30 Little Gull but as it had started to rain heavily at 16.30hrs and very little was about, we returned to the hotel within an hour and called it a day.
Only 30 species today but I had still added another target bird with Siberian Tit and the list total had moved on to 110.
DAY 5 – 29th May 2009
We were out and on the road at 04.00hrs today heading north east out of Kuusamo along un-metalled forest roads in search of grouse, filling their crops with grit before the day’s traffic disturbed them. With most birds already nesting, it was a little late in the year but there’s always hope. Just out of town we came across 13 male Black Grouse displaying in a grassy area close to the forest. Further into the forest we saw several Mountain Hare in various stages of moult from white to brown, 2 greyhens and a female Capercaille at the side of the road. A Siberian Jay flew across in front of the lead vehicle but only Toni saw it well enough to confirm ID; despite several tries with his MP3 player he was unable to coax it back out of the forest and across the road. Toni was more successful a little further on as he lured a Willow Grouse to fly over the road in front of us and then settle at the foot of the roadside bushes to give great views. Moving on north along the E63 then east towards the Russian border, we stopped in a lay-by at Valtavaara in the Oulanka National Park. Toni could hear a Red-flanked Bluetail singing in the distance and up the hillside above us. To get a better view of the tree tops we moved across the road on to an embankment, attracting the interest of a few local Reindeer. Eventually we spotted the bird still singing away, on top of a conifer right on top of the ridge about 700m away. We could just about make out some colour in the scopes, but as this was a lifer for some, the view was not really satisfactory. An overhead Kestrel was the only other bird of note as we returned to the Hotel for a welcome breakfast at 07.30hrs.
Suitably refreshed, we were back out at 09.00hrs at a lake adjacent to the one behind the hotel. For a magical half hour we watched c5 Red-necked Grebes displaying and calling, numerous Arctic Tern and Little Gull, some of which were nesting quite close to the shoreline where we stood, drake Garganey and several Muskrat, again close to the shore. As we left the lake we came across the incongruous sight of a female Willow Grouse at the roadside under a bush in someone’s front garden – there was forest and more suitable habitat just behind the property. Travelling south along the E63 we stopped at another lakeside about 10km out of Kuusamo where we had Osprey overhead and 4 Black-throated Diver on the water. Around 40km south along the E63 we left the main road and headed east along a forest road. With only a few birds and Mistle Thrush of note we arrived at a newly built log cabin of quite generous proportions for lunch at 11.45hrs. Unfortunately we were about 1¼ hours early and although there were bird feeders in the trees there was only a single Willow Tit in attendance and no sign of the Siberian Jays which were sometimes seen in the area. Several attempts to call the birds in failed and we had also been unlucky with similar attempts for Rustic Bunting at well known sites earlier. We eventually sat down for an excellent lunch and half way through two Siberian Jays were spotted through the windows at the feeders. Needless to say lunch was put on hold for a short while as we enjoyed great views of the birds which had previously proved so elusive. After lunch a female Northern Bullfinch spent some time around the feeders before we returned to the Hotel at 14.30hrs for a siesta.
After an 18.30hrs dinner we went back out to visit some of the lakes west of Kuusamo. Despite a cold evening breeze and some choppy water, highlights were 3 male Smew, Wood Sandpiper and 2 Red-necked Phalarope. 48 species for the day to give a running total of 120 and with a further 2 ticked of my wish list (Willow Grouse unfortunately didn’t count as a lifer though in view of Red Grouse in the UK).
DAY 6 – 30th May 2009
Today we were out a short distance from the Hotel at 06.30hrs in search of the ever elusive Rustic Bunting. Once again we were unlucky as all the birds seemed to have gone to ground, having found a mate and already begun nesting. Breakfast was at 07.00hrs and we were out again an hour later, complete with a picnic lunch, heading off north east again into Oulanka NP to Valtavaara in search of better views of Red-flanked Bluetail. When we arrived at the lay-by we could hear the birds singing on the hillside above so we set off on the stiff climb to the top. Even though it was a little windy we could clearly identify 3 different singing males in the area: although we stealthily approached the source of the songs and Toni used his MP3 player, we were unable to spot the birds, which on a couple of occasions must have been only 20-30m away. We did however spot our first Goldcrest as it briefly flitted about in the tops of the surrounding conifers. Returning to the lay-by we were just in time to spot a Honey Buzzard drifting by, across the top of the ridge on the opposite side of the road. We moved on further east towards the Russian border where we stopped on forest roads on a few occasions to try for Rustic Bunting (again!). Whilst Toni was in the forest trying to lure the bird, I spotted a low flying Rough-legged Buzzard overhead and we were all able to get excellent views as the bird eventually disappeared over the tree tops. Further east we stopped by a bridge over a small river where Toni advised we would find White-throated Dipper. Sure enough a pair of the nominate Black-bellied race were nesting and feeding young under the bridge.
Still heading towards the border we stopped by a lake for lunch. The day was by now quite warm but there was a stiff breeze and as we disembarked we were engulfed by swarms of midges, fortunately of the non-biting kind, but not the type of thing that goes down well with a sandwich, even though it is extra protien. Walking through the trees to the lakeside the breeze picked up a little as it blew into our faces off the lake – not ideal for a steady scope but it did dispatch the midge clouds. Amongst the numerous ducks we found 2 drake Garganey and 2 drake Smew along with up to 8 Velvet Scoter, 6 Wood Sandpiper and a Greenshank. A Cuckoo gave fleeting but good views as it flew across the lake in front of us. After lunch we continued on our way and whilst Toni was trying to locate a Rustic Bunting he had heard singing in the forest recesses, we had excellent views of a Black Kite as it drifted overhead along with a White-tailed Eagle, both being mobbed by the local Raven and Hooded Crows. We stopped briefly at the border zone looking across to Russia but saw very few birds (no Russian list then!) before heading back towards Kuusamo. At one stop along the way by some cultivated land we picked up pairs of Curlew and Golden Plover along with Whimbrel and Meadow Pipit, as a Goshawk floated across the treetops 200m away (thanks Simon once again). Almost inevitably we stopped at Kuusamo rubbish tip again as we neared the town in search of Siberian Gull. Amongst the usual array of gulls and ducks on the small roadside pond where the gulls come in to bathe we had brief views of 2 Red-necked Phalarope and Ringed Plover. The flock of pink-legged “argentatus” Herring Gulls also contained several slightly larger birds with yellow legs, much to our confusion. Toni confirmed these were in fact birds from the far north in the Baltic Sea where the yellow-legged population is sometimes referred to as “omissus”. After some searching over the tip itself at the back of the pond, Toni finally identified a single Siberian Gull “L.f.heuglini” (sometimes also known as Heuglin’s Gull) as it flew off with a host of Baltic Gulls and disappeared from sight behind the surrounding trees. What would bird trips be without rubbish tips and sewage ponds!
After dinner at 19.00hrs Nick and I went for a stroll around the lake at the back of the hotel to stretch our legs. A few of the usual suspects were about including two groups of well over 100 drake Goldeneye, no doubt on a boy’s night out whilst the little lady minded the coop back home in the forest. We saw 46 species today taking the list total to 129. Birding around Kuusamo appeared a little slow after Oulu.
DAY 7 – 31st May 2009
Time to load up the vans once more and head off north west to Ivalo, but before we did Toni took a few diehards out at 07.00hrs in search of the elusive Rustic Bunting once again. We stopped a short distance away from where we had tried the previous morning in the birch woods near the hotel and at long last a singing male responded almost immediately to Toni’s MP3 player and gave good views as it performed in a nearby treetop on the other side of the road. After a leisurely breakfast we set off for Ivalo at 08.30hrs and, for those in the group who had not been out earlier, Toni briefly stopped just west of town and once again the Rustic Bunting responded immediately. We had a few brief stops along the way, but with a new group member to pick up in Rovaniemi we had to make a detour south and add almost 100km to our scheduled journey of a little over 400km. At one stop, overlooking some wet fields we had brief distant views of Broad-billed Sandpiper as a bird flew calling overhead.
We stopped for lunch at Santa’s Village just north of Rovaniemi, having crossed the Arctic Circle with temperatures of 24°C. We then started the long trek north along the E75 with a stretch of c300km to Ivalo, with our first stop being Lintuluotopolku Bog after a bum-numbing 1¾ hours. Although it was still hot, the wind had picked up and, despite walking out to the wooden tower overlooking a lake, we saw very few birds. Still, it was more than worth it to stretch aching legs. Moving on a short distance to the edge of the bog we stopped on a track just off the main road; White-tailed Eagle, Osprey and 3 Common Crane went by at a distance but didn’t prepare us for what followed as first one, then three, and ultimately eight Broad-billed Sandpiper flew around in display flight overhead, this time giving everyone much closer and better views. Again moving on north a little further we stopped by a roadside café just after the road crosses over a sizeable river at Siltaharju and had excellent close-ups of at least 2 Pied Flycatcher and a Red Squirrel. Further north we made a detour up a hillside to the east of the E75 where we picked up a single Golden Plover and a pair of Dotterel. After what felt like a very long day we arrived at our hotel in Ivalo at 18.30hrs just in time for dinner an hour later. After dinner Nick and I went for a walk along the tracks east of the town, but with very few birds around we didn’t find anything new.
Only 36 birds for the day but our trip list had moved on to 133 and with Rustic Bunting (finally!) and Broad-billed Sandpiper I had picked up two more lifers.
DAY 8 – 1st June 2009
When we left Ivalo at 08.00hrs the temperature was well on the way to 20°C. On the outskirts of town we made a short detour from the E75 to look for Little Bunting and with nothing after 15 minutes of fruitless MP3 playback – déjà vu – Rustic Bunting all over again! However, perseverance eventually paid off as a bird started calling in response after about 25 minutes and finally put in a few brief appearances sufficient for the entire group to get reasonable, if slightly distant views. Getting underway again we made a brief stop at a roadside lake for 4 male and 4 female Smew as the countryside began to change with the trees beginning to thin out and large open boggy areas becoming more of a feature. Next stop was a café on the main road just north of Inari, for coffee and to look at the feeders out back. As we pulled up another small party of birders were already in the café and the Finnature guide who was leading them came out to tell us a Pine Grosbeak was at the feeders, just as Toni was lowering our expectations by saying Grosbeaks hadn’t been seen here for a while. We all eventually saw male and female Pine Grosbeak as they returned to the feeders after about half an hour. In the meantime we enjoyed a visual feast of Brambling, especially the numerous males, Mealy Redpoll and a fleeting single Arctic Redpoll.
Back on the road we carried on towards Utsjoki and the Norwegian border crossing over the Tana River, where we would gain an hour. Just south of there we stopped for lunch at the Hotelli Pohjan Tuli, Pappila, once again overlooking bird feeders. The action was as good as the lunch, with more Mealy Redpoll, a female/juvenile Pine Grosbeak and a pair of Northern Bullfinch, as well as a distant Rough-legged Buzzard above the hillside on the far side of the lake behind the hotel. As we carried on along the northern bank of the river in Norway I spotted two Green Sandpiper flying alongside the van briefly. Having crossed back over the river at Tana Bru, we left the E75 for Route 890 heading towards Bátsfjord. By now the scenery had changed dramatically, as had the temperature, with a biting northerly wind blowing straight down the river and necessitating a few extra layers of clothing. We stopped by some roadside cliffs, well known for a previous Gyr Falcon eyrie and after about 20 minutes were rewarded as a dark morph bird drifted slowly overhead. We carried on a short distance to the Tanamunningen Nature Reserve, a treeless boggy area near the start of the Tanafjorden. Here, the more common Arctic Skua was quickly followed by a beautiful Long-tailed Skua which flew by the vans and landed a short distance away, where it remained, completely unconcerned by our presence, before flying off after about 20 minutes. Moving on a short distance we saw Whimbrel, Northern Wheatear, Cormorant and Black Guillemot before turning around, going back to the main road and heading east to Varangerbotn and the start of Varangerfjord and the Varanger Peninsula. We stopped by the roadside overlooking the Fjord both before and after Nesseby, picking up several waders including Bar-tailed Godwit, with Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser and White-tailed Eagle seemingly everywhere, we also managed to spot distant Black-throated Diver, Greater Scaup and c40 Common Scoter as Short-eared Owl and more Arctic Skua passed close by. Two Woodcock flew over as we moved on past a small roadside flock of c20 Greylag. We stopped briefly at a small harbour near Vadsø for the first of many Purple Sandpiper, along with a single Dunlin.
After Vadsø the coast turns north east and is closely followed by the road, with the landscape becoming more and more rugged as we progressed to the north-eastern tip on the Arctic shores of the Barents Sea. Appropriately, the occasional showers had turned to sleet and the temperature was rapidly dropping towards zero. At 19.45hrs, after 12¾hrs and c400km on the road, we eventually reached our destination, Vardø, which is situated on a small island and connected to the mainland by a 2890m road tunnel. To reach our base for the next three nights we had travelled almost as far north as it is possible to go on the European mainland. After a welcome dinner, Nick and I wandered around the picturesque harbour where Goosander and Eider were joined by 2 Brunnich’s Guillemot and single Common & Black Guillemot and up to 10 Purple Sandpiper picked amongst the seaweed, whilst Arctic Tern and Kittiwake floated overhead.
58 birds for the day, including a further 4 target species and moving the trip list total on to 155, with a good selection of new species coming as a result of the dramatic change in habitat.
DAY 9 – 2nd June 2009
At 06.00hrs, despite yesterday’s marathon session, the majority of the party were out for a trip to the nearby headland for a spot of early morning sea-watching….as it turned out, quite an apt description. There was a biting cold wind coming in off the Barents Sea and bringing tears to the eyes of many. The majority of the auks were distant and, if it hadn’t been for the appearance of a Rock Pipit and male Snow Bunting on one of only two man-made structures on the headland, we would have sought some shelter sooner. As we moved away from the top and gained the cover of the headland we came across a beautiful Red-spotted Bluethroat singing and displaying in the stunted bushes at the side of the track. Having watched a few other regulars in a sheltered bay at the start of the headland, we returned to the hotel at 08.00hrs for a welcome and warming breakfast.
At 09.15hrs we set out again across to the mainland and the commercial harbour before following the road around to the north and Hamningberg to explore the many bays and inlets and inland cliffs along the top end of the peninsula. Meanwhile, after yesterday’s marathon trek, Nick decided he had seen more than enough of the inside of a van to last him a month of Sundays and, having grabbed his packed lunch, he set off on foot to explore the island for the day. He was able to spend several hours in peace and solitude, getting plenty of exercise and enjoying prolonged and close up views of Snow Bunting, displaying Bluethroat, Red-throated Pipit and both Redpoll species feeding alongside Twite on the shoreline in a sheltered bay on the headland.
There was plenty of action around the harbour with 4 Long-tailed Duck, c30 Eider, 14 Red-throated Diver, c60 Goosander and pairs of Pintail and Red-breasted Merganser, whilst a flock of c100 Knot wheeled and dived overhead and White-tailed Eagle and Arctic Skua drifted by barely disturbing the numerous Arctic Tern. A little further around the coast as we headed inland for a short while and gained a little altitude, we stopped to watch a Red-necked Phalarope on a roadside pool, along with a Greater Scaup. A male Lapland Bunting perched on the wires overhead and started singing and was soon joined by a second bird as they flitted around on the low vegetation. Offshore a raft of c500 Long-tailed Duck bobbed about on the waves whilst we had fleeting views of a White-billed Diver and, for comparison, Great Northern Diver. By now the wind had died down a little and the day had warmed up. We stopped in a sheltered bay where a small river meandered into the sea to enjoy our picnic lunch. No sooner had we stopped than there was an immediate distraction as a Red-spotted Bluethroat started singing and displaying in the tops of the stunted willows and low lying bushes, whilst on the other side of the road 2 Temminck’s Stint chased each other about on the river bank. Before we moved on, a mixed Redpoll flock kept us on our toes as they flitted across the road into the small stands of willows and birches on the opposite bank of the river.
As we neared Hamningberg we had more distant fleeting views of White-billed Diver along with Black-throated Diver, before finally finding a further bird, much closer inshore, as we parked in the village itself. Although the bird was buffeted by the waves, we were at long last able to enjoy much better views of White-billed Diver. A male Snow Bunting posed for the group around the foreshore of a small inlet in the bay. Heading back to Vardø we didn’t see anything new until Toni picked up a Sanderling amongst the many waders in a bay near the commercial harbour. We arrived back at the hotel at 18.00hrs and before dinner I just happened to look out of the window of our room overlooking the harbour and saw Martin amongst the rocks and seaweed snapping away with his camera. At first I thought he was after close-ups of the Purple Sandpiper which were regular here, but as I picked up my bins I realised he had a pristine female Red-necked Phalarope feeding away in a world of its own, virtually within touching distance at his feet. I picked up my camera and dashed outside (quite foolishly in shirt sleeves, such was my haste) and bumped into several other group members who had also witnessed the same scene. Although the light wasn’t ideal the bird was very obliging and continued feeding for another 20 minutes or so, giving unbelievable close-ups to all on the shore.
After dinner Nick and I went for a stroll around the harbour towards the headland and saw 2 Red-throated Pipit, Whimbrel and Golden Plover, with 2 Brunnich’s Guillemot in the harbour and a flock of c25 Purple Sandpiper together with 2 Ringed Plover and 2 Sanderling feeding on the foreshore in a little bay. 54 birds for the day and with White-billed Diver adding to my list of lifers, the trip list moved on to 171.
DAY 10 – 3rd June 2009
After a leisurely breakfast we walked down to the harbour at 09.00hrs for the boat trip across to Hornøya Island, the easternmost part of Norway, to visit the resident seabird colony. The mixed auk and Kittiwake colonies, with the occasional nesting Shag, Herring Gull and Greater Black-backed Gull, provide numerous photo opportunities as well as allowing a closer study of Brunnich’s Guillemot. Around the east side of the island in a bay below the Vardø lighthouse we found a male and 2 female Steller’s Eider loitering close inshore with the Common Eider and Toni picked out 4 Juvenile King Eider a little further out. “Blue” Fulmar passed regularly out at sea as we enjoyed 2½ hours surrounded by birds before finally returning to Vardø at 12.30hrs for lunch. With too many in the party for a single boat trip Nick and I had stayed behind with three others to wait for the “second wave” and I took the opportunity to get some shots of confiding Purple Sandpiper and Rock Pipit.
After lunch we set out at 14.00hrs back across to the mainland and south towards Vadsø, stopping frequently along the way to scan the sea and shoreline for anything new. We found several Ruff amongst the waders as well as the usual ducks and gulls. Lapland Bunting were again seen near the roadside. As we travelled south a mixed flock of gulls contained a solitary Glaucous Gull, which was easy to pick out as the whole flock took flight and circled around for a few minutes. A flock of c40 Common Scoter loitered off-shore and we also picked up a Tundra Bean Goose plus another superb male Steller’s Eider before reaching Vadsø. Once in the town we left the main road across the bridge at the entrance to a small marina and returned towards the shoreline to a small nature reserve. Two more male Steller’s Eider plus a female drifted across the bay in front of us as c20 Red-necked Phalarope were busy feeding around the edges of the bay along with a flock of c40 Knot. We found Mealy Redpoll and Red-throated Pipit skulking in the bushes with both responding well to Toni’s MP3 player, especially the pipit, which almost sat on the speakers. We returned to the hotel for dinner at 20.15hrs in pleasant evening sunshine, having seen 52 species today and the list total moving on to 176. Steller’s Eider was yet another lifer.
DAY 11 – 4th June 2009
After breakfast we loaded up the vans yet again and at 08.00hrs set off on our 400km return journey southward for Ivalo. Before crossing back to the mainland, we briefly visited the headland in search of Twite, but with the weather closing in and a snow storm rushing towards us off the Barents Sea we had to make do with a mixed flock of Redpoll as we beat a hasty retreat and tried to keep ahead of the snow showers. Back on the mainland we ventured up onto the fells and saw 2 Long-tailed Skua, Whimbrel and a Willow Grouse. Several stops for Shore Lark were unsuccessful and after one final stop at Nesseby we continued on our way, crossing back into Finland between Polmak and Nuorgram and keeping to the south of the Tana River on Route 970. Lunch was again at Papilla (with a superb salmon soup) overlooking the bird feeders. Amongst others, Pine Grosbeak put in an appearance and a stunning Arctic Redpoll joined the Mealys. A Wood Sandpiper feeding along the lakeshore at the back of the hotel was a good find for the photographers as it picked its way along to within a few metres of the waiting lenses.
After lunch we retraced our steps for a short distance to drive to a mountaintop north east of Utsjoki in search of Rock Ptarmigan. With snow showers in the distance and a brisk north wind blowing we spread out and walked around the summit to keep warm (sorry….to look for the birds!) but were unable to find any evidence of them having been there. Nick came across a stunning pair of Dotterel which gave everyone excellent views before we called it a day and headed back to the vans. As we descended the track back to the road a Merlin darted over the lead van and was only seen by a few of the party; shame really as it was the only one of the trip. Back on the main road, Toni and Martin put the pedal to the metal and got us back to our hotel in Ivalo for 19.00hrs. Dinner an hour later was a “treat” with a small rock band playing a variety of 60’s (and possibly older) hits to the delight of the local populace – some of the dancing was out of this world (quite literally). On the bird front, Merlin was the only new species I added to the list today.
DAY 12 – 5th June 2009
After a leisurely breakfast we set off at 09.00hrs heading south from Ivalo with a cold north wind to help us on our way with the 550km journey to Oulu. With a few short stops along the way to scan the treetops for the elusive Hawk Owl, (the only species left on my wish list) we saw the occasional Common Crane and Grey-headed Wagtail, but little else of note. Santa’s Village was once again our lunch destination as we motored south along the E75. Before reaching Kemi on the coast we detoured inland on Route 923 in search of better Hawk Owl habitat, but our search was once again in vain. Birds were far and few between but we did manage Green Sandpiper, Common Buzzard and 2 Waxwing as we joined Route 924 heading south again to rejoin the E75 at Simo, before finally reaching our hotel in Oulu at 16.20hrs.
Determined to make the most of our last full day we were out again within an hour driving the short distance to Vihiluoto harbour where the usual selection of ducks and waders included a few Black as well as Bar-tailed Godwit and Common Sandpiper. We moved on to a wooden watchtower on Liminka Bay where I picked up my first Spotted Redshank of the trip with a flock of c15 in fine summer plumage. Two Gadwall were also new, as was a Garden Warbler although they had been heard on several occasions. Nearby we heard both Greater and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker drumming but, unfortunately, we only managed to find the Greater perched on a wooden telegraph pole. We were back in the hotel at 19.00hrs for dinner an hour later and out again at 21.00hrs to visit several possible Thrush Nightingale sites. Toni didn’t get any response to his MP3 player but at the last site a bird was singing heartily. Unfortunately, because we were in an up-market residential area and the bird was singing in woodland at the rear of a large house, using the MP3 here was not really appropriate. Another one that got away! A visit to the Oulu rubbish tip to try again for Eagle Owl also proved abortive and we had to be content with 3 roding Woodcock and a lone calling Whimbrel overhead. We returned to the hotel at 23.40hrs; by far and away our latest outing, but it was still light – a poor excuse I know.
Four new birds for the trip moved the overall list on to 180 with 51 species for the day.
DAY 13 – 6th June 2009
With our flight only scheduled for 14.10hrs we had a leisurely breakfast and at 09.00hrs set out for the Liminganlahti Nature Reserve on Liminka Bay. We didn’t pick up anything new but highlights included 2 male Garganey right in front of the hide, Spotted Redshank, a single Caspian Tern and a flock of c70 Crane. With time at a premium we moved on to the watchtower we had visited yesterday, hoping the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker might perform again. Despite a stunning silence on the woodpecker front we did get excellent views of a singing Lesser Whitethroat in a Birch tree right next to the tower and were able to enjoy a male Marsh Harrier as it drifted over the reedbeds.
Sadly it was all over. We returned to the hotel for lunch at 11.45hrs and set off for the nearby airport at 13.45hrs. No new birds today but we did see 44 species in just under 3 hours and I ended the trip with an overall tally of 180 species with a further 6 heard only. I had 16 lifers and managed to see 19 out of 20 target species.
Toni was an excellent guide and managed to find the greater majority of the Scandinavian specialities for the group. With such a mouth-watering array of species which are not readily available in the rest of Europe it would be difficult not to enjoy this trip. The hotels were all good and the food much better than expected with previous trip reports making lots of references to reindeer as though it was the only food on the menu. The weather was a little mixed at times and the cold north wind chilled to the bone, but being well prepared for temperature variations it was not a problem. With almost 24 hour daylight, round the clock birding must be tempting with so much on offer. However Toni’s schedule was far from demanding in this direction and there was always the option not to go out on every occasion; nothing was compulsory. Having explored the possibility of doing the same trip by ourselves, Nick and I felt joining the Birdfinders tour provided a good compromise for us in that we didn’t quite have the same freedom and independence we normally enjoy. However, we saw some special birds in their normal breeding habitats and plumages and the tour provided good value for money. The beer was another matter, especially in Norway!