Back in January, I was at a christening along with Lincs
birder, Andy Chick. Needless to say we talked birds, and lo and behold, four
days later we had a spring birding trip to Finland booked… (one of the more productive christenings I've been to). This was to be a
fairly flying visit, as (a) I could only negotiate a few days away from the
family, and (b) it was already shaping up to be an expensive trip (albeit much
less than a trip with a tour company).
May rolled round, and we were off, flying out on
Wednesday 15th, returning on Saturday 18th. Our itinerary was to arrive
Wednesday night, have a morning's birding with Finnature around Oulu on the
Thursday before driving over the Kuusamo, where we would have another a
morning's birding with Finnature on the Friday before returning back to Oulu
that evening, and then flying home on Saturday morning.
All in all it was a pretty successful trip - we had a
tight connection in Oulu, which we made (although this wasn't helped by our
Helsinki flight being delayed - we had to run through the terminal), and our accommodation in (or rather, just south of) Oulo was... interesting (think 1970s motel). We also had one big dip, but we were always going to be lucky to get a
clean sweep. This is how things panned out:
We arrived into Oulu (which is at the northern end of the
Gulf of Bothnia, Finland's fifth largest city, and self-titled 'Capital of
Northern Scandinavia') in the late afternoon. After picking up the hire car, we
drove a short distance to the Finlandia Hotel Airport, which was to be our
meeting point the following morning.
|Flying from Helsinki to Oulu|
This was found without any difficulties, and would have
been a very pleasant place to stay had we not been on a budget... There is
also a viewing platform and trails on the shoreline behind the hotel, and of
course we couldn't resist a quick look, which a range of wildfowl (including a
pair of Garganey) and waders (including displaying Snipe and Green Sandpiper),
and a selection of other bits and pieces, including a Crane over, singing Redwing,
Fieldfare, Swallow and House Martin, White Wagtail, Willow Warbler, and plenty of Little Gulls.
|Our first bit of birding|
It was then off to our hotel for a very unsatisfactory
night's sleep before out early start the following morning….
With alarms set for 2.30am, it felt like I’d barely
closed my eyes before it was time to get up; we arrived back at the Finlandia
Hotel Airport just before 3am, meeting our Finnature guide for the day and the
rest of our group – three fellow Brits, a Dutchman and a Californian.
Finnature are obviously keen not to have the locations of breeding owls etc.. published on the internet (and to be honest, I didn’t really know where we were going anyway), so ‘Stop 1’ was somewhere north of Oulu, and produced a singing Pygmy Owl, brought in by a quick bit of playback. Only my second ever, following my first in Slovakia back in 2007. This patch of forest also held Black Grouse (bubbling somewhere in the distance), Waxwing and displaying Greenshank. A female Moose was the first of three we saw during the trip, and both Brown and Mountain Hares the first of many.
|Our group and guide at our first stop|
|Moose - big beasts!|
A short distance further on, our second stop produced my Most
Wanted – a Great Grey Owl, initially spotted in a roadside tree by the Dutchman
who was riding shotgun. It moved further away as the minibus was backed up, but
we had satisfactory views of it before it melted away into the forest.
Excellent! I was surprised that it wasn't in some pristine bit of forest, but on the edge of a small settlement (lots of rodent prey I guess). This area also produced Goshawk, 2 Parrot Crossbills and trumpeting Northern
|The track through the forest|
Slightly further on, in the same area, we were then taken
to a Great Grey Owl nest. This is what Finnature do (under controlled conditions), and it’s what you pay an
eye-watering sum of money for 8 hours guiding for. The female was clearly used
to visitors, looking at us for a couple of minutes, before losing interest. She was sat on a huge old Goshawk next, and the whole experience was fairly
mind-blowing, made even more so when the male appeared with some prey. What fantastic birds.
|Heading towards the nest|
|And what a nest it was...|
|Views of the male|
|The male Great Grey Owl|
After a bit of a drive off somewhere to the east, seeing thunbergi Yellow Wagtail, Wood Sand,
Whooper Swan and Raven on the way, we were taken to location 3 for another owl
nesting site – this time Ural Owl. This was a bit unsatisfactory, requiring a
mirror to see into the nest box, and raised a philosophical dilemma – can you
tick a bird if you’ve only seen its reflection? I have... This productive piece of forest and adjacent mire also
held singing Pied Fly, Redstart and Tree Pipit, borealis Willow Tit (very smart and frosty), Cuckoo, Hazel and
Black Grouse and Crane.
|Wood Sand on a roadside pool|
|Viewing the Ural Owl nest box...|
|She was visible in real life!|
|Female Black Grouse|
|Birding in the forest|
|The forest is commercially managed, but still pretty nice|
Stop 4, back towards Oulu, was for Tengmalm’s Owl –
another bird in a nest box, but this time bird did at least stick it’s head out
to see what was going on; we enjoyed its permanent state of surprise for a few
minutes before backing off.
|Better at least than the Ural Owl...|
Our fifth and final stop was back on the
coast at Oulu – a small and unprepossessing tidal pond next to an industrial
area, but one of just of a handful of sites were Terek Sandpiper still breed in Finland –
and we were rewarded with a bird flying in and giving a quick burst of song. An
LRP and two displaying Common Sands were also present here. And that completed our first session with Finnature – and
very good it was too.
We then started our nearly 3 hour journey north-east to
Kuusamo, breaking at a couple of places along the way. First up was a huge mire site called Hirvisuo, although
we didn’t see that much here – thunbergi
Yellow Wags, Siskin, Common Redpoll, Tree Pipit, 2 Whinchats, and Cranes. Just
short of Kuusamo we stopped by a lake just south of Kuolio, which yielded an
adult White-tailed Eagle, several Little Gulls, our first singing Brambling,
and a male Smew. Birds seen on the drive included familiar fare, such as Whooper Swan (not quite present on every lake and wetland).
After a much better night’s sleep, we were up again at
2.30am for a 3am meet with our new Finnature guide. Our group today was comprised of three of yesterday’s
party (two of the Brits and the Dutchman), plus a third Brit who was driving
up through Scandinavia in his motorhome. Our first stop was just outside town, with a Willow
Grouse by the road and two singing Rustic Buntings. Driving on, Capercaillie,
Black Grouse and Hazel Grouse were all seen on the roadside, making it a
four-grouse day, whilst two Woodcock were feeding in a grassy field.
Arriving at our second stop, the singing Red-flanked
Bluetail present the day before failed to show, which was a shame – this was
something I had been looking forward to. I think we were still slightly early
in the season for this species (and seemingly others too, as many areas of forest were very quiet). However, compensation came in the form of a
pair of Pine Grosbeaks which flew in and showed well for about 10 minutes – I’d
not realised how big these would be (the size of a Redwing), and the colour of the male was something else - superb. Other birds
included a pair of Rustic Buntings (I tried to log the call in my memorybank...), breeding Greenshank and Black-throated
Diver, a Short-eared Owl and several crossbill sp over.
|Male Pine Grosbeak and an annoying twig|
|Male Rustic Bunting - very smart|
Our next stop produced Siberian Tit without too much
difficulty, and we enjoyed watching these birds over coffee. However, our luck
then began to falter – at our fourth stop of the day, within spitting distance of the Russian border, there was no sign
of the Hawk Owl which had been seen as recently as the previous day by another
group. It was a bit windy, which perhaps didn’t help. A pair of Waxwings, 5
Taiga Bean Geese and a Rough-legged Buzzard provided some interest whilst not
seeing the owl.
|Andy not seeing a Hawk Owl|
|Taiga Bean Geese in the taiga|
Our luck continued to waiver, as we spent ages looking
for Siberian Jay in a very nice patch of protected forest at our fifth and final stop – this was a bird I really didn’t want to dip, as it would have required another trip back! However, they eventually showed up back by the minibus just before we were due to leave, but only because another group had arrived, and their guide had put some bits of sausage out; the Jays took approximately 2 minutes to arrive! We also couldn’t locate any Three-toed Woodpeckers here, despite plenty of
fresh field signs – a would-be tick for Andy.
|Nice (protected) forest|
|Waiting for the Siberian Jays to show up|
Back in Kuusamo, and having said farewell to our companions,
we grabbed a quick bite for lunch before retracing our steps, first to an area
just north of Kuusamo airport where our guide said a Hawk Owl had been seen two
weeks previously. Needless to say, we couldn’t find it, but did have an
immature White-tailed Eagle overhead, plus 3 Whimbrel, and a Golden Plover.
|No Hawk Owls here either|
|Juv White-tailed Eagle - I'm not quite sure of the age of this - looks like a |
2cy on plumage (lacking extensive white mottling on the belly), but a 3cy
based on wing moult?
Heading back to the Siberian Jay spot, we saw another
Moose and a Rough-legged Buzzard en route,
and then enjoyed close and prolonged views of the Siberian Jays, and wondering at their ability to appear out of nowhere, and vanish equally quickly on silent wings. However, once again the
Three-toed Woodpeckers didn’t show. In fact, the only woodpeckers we saw or
heard during our trip were Great Spots, which was a bit surprising given all
It was then an uneventful drive back to Oulu, for another night in strange (albeit different) accommodation.With a little time to kill before our flight on Saturday morning, we
revisited the Terek Sandpiper site, seeing two birds before they were flushed
by a photographer, along with 2 Ruff and a Wood Sand. Back at Finlandia Hotel Airport, the tide was lower than
our previous visit, and the exposed mud held at least 12 Temminck’s Stints,
lots of Ruff (including a displaying male), and a Black-tailed Godwit.
|Coastal habitat looking towards Oulu|
And that was it – two flights and we were home by mid-afternoon.
We clocked up just over 100 species in our short stay, despite several notable omissions, including Red-flanked
Bluetail, Bluethroat, Two-barred Crossbill, Little Bunting and Three-toed Woodpecker. However, I can’t complain having seen 6 of
my 7 target species – Great Grey, Ural and Tengmalm’s Owls, Siberian Tit and
Jay, and Pine Grosbeak, and a nice selection of other northern species. I’ll
have to twitch a Hawk Owl next time there is one within striking distance of
the UK (or maybe even in the UK…).