FINLAND - LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUNThursday 4th June 2015
Thursday 4th - Wednesday 10th June 2015
We all met bright and early at Heathrow Airport and once we had figured out how to print our boarding passes and luggage labels, we dropped our bags off and had some time to spare before catching our flight to Helsinki.
We arrived earlier than scheduled and after disembarking, took a leisurely wander through a busy Helsinki airport arriving at our gate in time to have some lunch before our next flight.
Our onward flight to Oulu took around 50 minutes and once we had gathered our luggage we met up with Antti, our guide for the tour. After sorting out the formalities of vehicle hire we loaded up and drove the short distance to our hotel where we had a little time to unpack and get our optics set up.
In the car park we were treated to a couple of PIED FLYCATCHERS plus a singing male COMMON ROSEFINCH that stubbornly refused to show! Common garden birds included FIELDFARE, CHAFFINCH and WILLOW WARBLER.
We headed off to the northern side of Oulu and once on quieter roads, had good views of two REINDEER wandering down the road plus roadside HOODED CROWS, JACKDAWS, a flyover RAVEN and two COMMON CRANES.
Once on gravelled tracks we reached a clearing where we hoped to find Hawk Owl but despite a thorough search it looked like we were going to draw a blank. That was until we heard a squeak and in flew a superb HAWK OWL that landed in the tree next to us whilst carrying a large vole. After around a minute it flew off, no doubt to feed one of its eight hungry chicks! Neil was lucky to see a BLACK WOODPECKER but no one else managed to get on it which was so frustrating.
Delighted by this, we carried on into the forest but only managed to see GREENSHANK, SWALLOW, SISKIN and the ubiquitous CHAFFINCH.
It was then back to base for a wonderful cooked meal which really hit the spot. Needless to say it went down very well indeed and whilst some went to bed, others explored the grounds which with almost 24hr daylight could certainly keep them out of mischief.
The group that explored the grounds enjoyed their time watching GARGANEY, LITTLE GULLS, RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, WHOOPER SWANS, LITTLE TERNS, YELLOWHAMMER and GOLDENEYE amongst others before getting some well-deserved rest.
Friday 5th June 2015
We met at 5.30am for a drive into the forest close to Oulu. As we got out of the vans we had good views of a CUCKOO being chased off by a male REDSTART. Taking a stroll into the woods, it soon became apparent that there were lots of Mosquitos taking advantage of the calm, sheltered conditions.
PIED FLYCATCHER, WILLOW WARBLER, REDSTART and TREE PIPITS sang and after quite a bit of searching Antti did well to find us a five week old URAL OWL chick on a branch above us. We enjoyed fantastic views of this lovely bird and it just sat watching us and even briefly went to sleep. Surely we were not that boring!
After taking lots of photographs we left the bird alone and wandered back up to the road where we had reasonable views of a WRYNECK whilst it did a circuit of the area. After all this excitement, it was back to the hotel for a very hearty breakfast.
We then tried several areas around Oulu looking for other specialities. Our first port of call saw us have stunning views of a pair of SLAVONIAN GREBE plus GOLDENEYE, ROOK and TREE SPARROW. At the next site we unfortunately drew a blank with locating any Terek Sandpipers at their usual haunts. We did however find YELLOW WAGTAIL, WHINCHAT, RINGED PLOVER, LAPWING, REDSHANK, ARCTIC and COMMON TERNS, HOBBY and a stunning pair of COMMON ROSEFINCHES that even mated in front of us and were nicknamed the ‘Randy Rosefinches’!
With some time remaining we popped into a site close to Oulu city centre and a short while later we were watching a cracker of a BLYTH'S REED WARBLER as it flitted around in front of us. Other goodies here included more PIED FLYCATCHERS, COMMON GULL, GOOSANDER and a single COMMON SANDPIPER.
We then took a drive around some agricultural land which was quite windy due to the strong south-westerly blowing! We did find WHITE-TAILED EAGLE, WHINCHAT, BLACK-TAILED GODWIT and CURLEW as some compensation.
It was then off for lunch in a service station that filled us up before heading back to the hotel for some rest before dinner. Some of the group managed a walk around the grounds which produced PHEASANT, LITTLE GULL, ARCTIC TERN, GREYLAG GOOSE, TEAL, COMMON CRANE plus the usual suspects of REDWING, FIELDFARE, PIED FLYCATCHER and CHAFFINCH.
It was soon time for our evening meal, which once again we managed to polish off quite well, especially the chocolate mousse that just slipped between the teeth!
Afterwards we made around a one hour journey to an area of forest where we made an unsuccessful attempt at seeing a Three-toed Woodpecker but we had much more luck watching an adult and two young GREAT GREY OWL at a nearby nest site. After enjoying these sought-after birds we drove just a short distance to another site and were rewarded with at least three GREAT GREY OWL chicks and a superb adult that drifted through the trees after bringing in a vole that a chick ate with just one gulp.
A WOODCOCK flew over and at least three ELK were seen in the area whilst COMMON CRANES and GREENSHANK called from the boggy areas behind our viewpoint.
It was then quite a long drive back and as the clock turned midnight we saw our first FIELDFARES and WOODCOCK of the new day. Another surprise was a SHORT-EARED OWL that was hovering over an open field - a fine end to the day.
Saturday 6th June 2015
We awoke a few hours later and still the sun was shining as we gathered in the car park where a SPARROWHAWK flew over as did a MEALY REDPOLL. Setting off, we drove around 30 minutes to an area of forest where we made our first attempt at seeing Pygmy Owl. Unfortunately the adult bird just didn't show but we could hear the chicks calling from inside the nest box. There was some compensation with calling COMMON CROSSBILL and GOLDCREST from the woods.
Our next site proved much more successful with an adult PYGMY OWL giving fantastic views as it surveyed us from its perch above the ground. This delightful bird was even seen to yawn as if it was quite bored with us being there admiring it!
Other birds heard included PARROT CROSSBILL, BLACKBIRD, REDSTART and WILLOW WARBLERS. It was then time for breakfast which set us up for the day.
A quick look around the hotel grounds for a reported Terek Sandpiper only yielded a singing COMMON ROSEFINCH and the usual suspects of SPOTTED FLYCATCHER, REDWING and FIELDFARE which were all nesting around the hotel.
It was then off to another area of deep forest where luck was with us once again. We enjoyed delightful views of a female THREE-TOED WOODPECKER as she fed on nearby trees before making her way back to the nest hole. PARROT CROSSBILLS were heard with their deep 'chupping' but remained unseen.
With quite a full agenda we left the forest and drove through open agricultural land and with the wind strength much lower than the previous day, it didn't take us too long to locate a lovely singing male ORTOLAN BUNTING that was perched up on a post in a nearby field. Three COMMON CRANES fed in the adjacent field and both YELLOWHAMMER and WHINCHAT were noted also.
It was then off for lunch in the wonderful Liminganlahti Visitor Centre where we tucked in to a great meal and then it was off to spent some time watching from the tower overlooking these vast wetlands. The water levels were very high but despite this, we had amazing views of several LITTLE GULLS flying right past us plus out on the water were a drake and two redhead SMEW with other ducks.
A small party of RUFF were seen lekking nearby whilst a nice thunbergi YELLOW WAGTAIL perched up for all to see. Rarity of the day had to go to a summer-plumaged GULL-BILLED TERN that patrolled over the wet grassland and gave some excellent views as it did so.
This bird has been returning to the area for the last five years and is quite a rarity in Finland so definitely a good bird to see and probably the best views any of us had seen of this species.
After a wander through the absolutely superb interpretation display we made our way into a forest for a brief look for Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. However, with it starting to rain we decided to try again later and so moved on to another area of the large bay to see what we could find.
An adult WHITE-TAILED EAGLE was mobbed by a PEREGRINE and out on the water were WHOOPER SWANS, GARGANEY, PINTAIL, RED-THROATED DIVERS, around 250 LITTLE GULLS and GREAT BLACK-BACKED GULLS amongst others.
Whilst standing there, the rain had started to fall quite heavily so we walked briskly back to the van but got waylaid by a lovely singing WOOD WARBLER as it flitted around a woodland clearing. Although raining, we gave the woodpecker another go and eventually a pair of LESSER SPOTTED WOODPECKERS gave good views at and around their nest hole and over our heads.
One last stop was made deep in the forest and although conditions were decidedly grotty, we donned our waterproofs and mosquito hats and strode off into the woods. The mosquitoes were particularly present in good numbers but this was all forgotten when Antti found a female URAL OWL perched up in a tree nearby. She kept her eye on us as we watched her and occasionally made a warning call to make sure we didn't go too near her nest!
It was then time to get back to the hotel which we did in good time but the van driven by Steve had got a puncture in its back wheel, so that would have to wait to be changed the following day.
After a wonderful meal, we did the bird checklist and retired for the night for some well-deserved rest!
Sunday 7th June 2015
We had a later breakfast which enabled Neil, Antti and Steve to change the wheel on the van and with some time to spare afterwards, enjoyed the hotel garden where some of the group had seen and heard a THRUSH NIGHTINGALE singing in the garden. The bird was seen and heard once again but unfortunately it was only briefly. We did however find LESSER WHITETHROAT, GARDEN WARBLER, BULLFINCH and PIED FLYCATCHER in the garden also.
Steve and Antti went off to sort out another spare wheel and to get fuel whilst the others finished packing. On their return, we loaded up the vans and drove round to the harbour but conditions were far from ideal with heavy rain and strong winds. A COMMON ROSEFINCH sang whilst REDSHANK, OYSTERCATCHER and RINGED PLOVERS were seen.
It was then time to head northwards towards Kuusamo which would take several hours. A break was made around halfway at a site where Merlin had been seen but apart from a brief view of a falcon, we drew a blank. A summer plumaged BLACK-THROATED DIVER was seen on the lake although quite distant.
After a coffee stop we carried on and arrived in Kuusamo at around 3pm and went straight for lunch in a nearby service station. Afterwards, we checked in at the hotel and headed back out to a site nearby where, after a short wait, we had good views of a pair of SIBERIAN TITS coming backwards and forwards from a nest box. It was so good to see this sought-after species so well.
It was then another short drive to a lake where up to eight VELVET SCOTER, including several fine drakes could be seen. The weather had improved significantly and this made birding easier for us. As we drove along forest tracks we came across a small pool with a pair of BALTIC GULLS posing nicely for us plus GOOSANDER, GOLDENEYE and a few BLACK-HEADED GULLS.
The day concluded with us visiting another part of the forest where the undoubted highlight was an adult TENGMALM'S OWL that peered at us disapprovingly from its nest box. A great ‘wow’ moment!
After studying this fine bird we headed back to the hotel for a hot shower before enjoying a lovely meal and then getting some sleep before an early morning start the following day.
Monday 8th June 2015
The morning dawned bright and sunny as we gathered at 4am for a local excursion that got off to a good start with MOUNTAIN HARE and WOODCOCK close to the road as we left the outskirts of Kuusamo. A few minutes later we arrived at an area of bog with woodland surrounding it that held singing YELLOW WAGTAIL and REDSTART but the real star of the show was a male WILLOW GROUSE that flew past us a couple of times before strutting his stuff out on the edge of the bog. This lovely bird with its white wings and legs, delighted everyone as it showed well in the scopes.
A hundred metres further along the road, a male LITTLE BUNTING uttered its simple buzzing song as it perched on top of small saplings for us all to see. How could the morning get off to a better start? Well, after leaving the bunting we turned off along a forest track and stopped to see or hear any grouse.
After a few minutes, a superb male HAZEL GROUSE strutted through the undergrowth although getting everyone to see this whilst sat in the vans proved a little challenging. Eventually it walked across the road and down one side before turning back and down the other and then started taking grit from the track. It was great to see this tricky species so well but we still had other targets to look for before breakfast.
A kilometre later we crept down a small track and in the ditch next to us was a male RUSTIC BUNTING. Again, despite it feeding at quite an acute angle down from the vans everyone managed to see it and although views were not brilliant it was still very good.
With one last stop we added RED-NECKED GREBE, WOOD SANDPIPER and MUSKRAT to the ever growing list.
It was then back for breakfast which set us up for the good walk that we took after around a 20 minute drive from the hotel. As we set off, the sky was beautifully clear and a little way up the slope we tried to attract a PYGMY OWL. After a few minutes, one could be heard calling and eventually it came in quite close and offered good views.
As we continued our climb up the hill, to our surprise we had point blank views of a female CAPERCAILLIE as it motored down the slopes and Martin and Steve had to duck as it flew over them! Carrying on, we reached a spot around three quarters of the way up where we could hear our main target: the RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL. Seeing it was a different matter and Dennis was the only one that caught a glimpse of it briefly. We continued to the top and the view was simply amazing with us seeing right into Russia from the summit.
On the way back down, another RED-FLANKED BLUETAIL started singing and this time we got the little blighter as it posed for us and sang its Redstart-like song. This is very much a target for all birders and is still treated with mythical-like status in Europe and the UK, although records are becoming more regular.
Whilst scanning the area, an OSPREY and GOLDEN EAGLE were seen before we made our way back down the slopes to the bottom where we discovered a cracker of a male BRAMBLING perched near a small river.
It was great to get back to the vans and have a rest (albeit temporarily), as we had an appointment with food once again! Arriving at a small lodge, the feeders opposite were alive with SISKINS plus the occasional GREENFINCH, GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER and WILLOW TIT with occasional visits from a RED SQUIRREL and BANK VOLE.
Inside the lodge we had an amazing meal of Reindeer Stew with salad and mashed potato followed by Blueberry Tart with vanilla sauce for dessert which really hit the spot especially for some members of the party who had thirds!
We said our goodbyes and drove slowly back to the hotel and along the way we stopped at a small lake which produced three BLACK-THROATED DIVERS, LITTLE GULLS, BALTIC GULL and both ARCTIC and COMMON TERNS side by side.
Arriving back at the hotel, some of the group went for a walk whilst the others took full advantage of a little bit of shut eye before reconvening for dinner at 8.00pm. After dinner, we drove out to an area north of Kuusamo to try and connect with some more grouse, as evening is the best time to see these as they feed on grit to help with digestion.
We soon picked up a WOODCOCK and ELK, MOUNTAIN HARE and a few REINDEER but otherwise, it was rather quiet. As it turned midnight, we tried a few other tracks just in case...
Tuesday 9th June 2015
With perseverance from Antti, we eventually found two male and a female BLACK GROUSE lekking in a distant field whilst a pair of WHIMBREL were seen with the male displaying over us. A MOUNTAIN HARE that was mostly white was seen also.
More WOODCOCK were noted as the time got on and we eventually arrived back at the hotel close to 2am. A few hours later, we were having breakfast at 6.30am which meant quite a lot of coffee!
We set off around the local circuit, seeing several RED-NECKED GREBES, MUSKRATS, a singing male LITTLE BUNTING, REDSTART, WHOOPER SWAN, GOLDENEYE, WIGEON and both ARCTIC and COMMON TERNS.
From there we set off northwards and made a stop adjacent to a fast flowing river which saw us find a lovely BLACK-BELLIED DIPPER which showed well for us. It was then onto another part of the area which yielded a HAWK OWL sitting on a nest and on the opposite side of the road there was a calling WRYNECK that everyone got good views of.
Whilst Steve and Antti moved the vans, the others walked up the road where they set their scopes on a nest hole that held a juvenile BLACK WOODPECKER. We saw the bird reasonably well although there was no sight of the adult. A pair of WHINCHATS showed well close-by and appeared to have a nest in some uprooted stumps. Moving on, a stop was made randomly in the forest where we lucky to find a pair of WAXWING which had a nest nearby and was an unexpected bonus!
Lots of other stops were made to try and find Siberian Jay but to no avail. So we headed back to Kuusamo for lunch and then back to the hotel where half the group were having an early dinner and going bear watching whilst the remainder were having a later dinner and going birding for the evening.
The bear group headed off with their guide for the evening and made a stop soon after leaving Kuusamo to see the delightful CALYPSO ORCHID which was growing next to the road and is a speciality in the area. After arriving at the site we slowly walked through the woods and took our positions in the hides. Quite a flock of HERRING and COMMON GULLS were seen along with at least four BALTIC GULLS and a few adult LESSER BLACK-BACKS of the race Graelsii. Up to eight WHITE-TAILED EAGLES were seen although most stayed on the edges of the woods and a male GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER was seen feeding close-by.
At around 10pm, we saw our first BROWN BEAR - an adult male around 10 years old and this was soon followed by at least four others during our time in the hide. The bears took advantage of a pig carcass as well as strategically placed salmon pieces in a nearby tree which the bears took no effort in reaching. During our time in the hides we watched at least five individual BROWN BEARS before we departed the hides at around 11.30pm.
This was a fantastic evening but afterwards we were desperate to get back and have some sleep but our guide decided to show us the sunset on top of Ruka Hill. However, when we got there the road was flooded so he took us to a large car park in the ski area where the light was much better. The banter in the minibus was hilarious as the guide just wouldn't give up but we just wanted to get to bed! Eventually we arrived back around 1am and headed straight to bed after a very good evening.
The birding group spent the evening around Kuusamo with highlights being a particularly showy HAWK OWL plus more lekking BLACK GROUSE. They also had the added bonus of going to bed early! Before going to bed, Neil managed to see a SHORT-EARED OWL being mobbed close to the hotel.
Wednesday 10th June 2015
After a 7am breakfast we left the hotel and unbelievably, Steve's van had another puncture but this time in a different tyre! After a quick tyre change we were soon on our way to visit the pine forests around Valtavaara Hill and after a short but steep climb up the slope we spread out along the footpath whilst Antti headed off into the woods.
He came back with an unexpected visitor, a superb male CAPERCAILLIE that he was fending off with a large stick. This huge bird gave amazing views as it displaying just metres from us and was the closest any of us had been to this enigmatic species. It was very entertaining watching Antti jousting with the Capercaillie before leading it back into the forest where it was safe from harm.
A SPOTTED FLYCATCHER fed from a small spruce and a male BRAMBLING wheezed nearby as we headed back along the path. A quick look for HAZEL GROUSE saw us finding a cracker of a male as it flew into a tree and then dropped down to the undergrowth and Roger did well to locate this secretive species. Eventually it ran off up the slope and we left the bird alone.
With some time left before heading back to the hotel we called in at Konntainen Hill and tried once again for Siberian Jay. Apart from a displaying SISKIN and a couple of flyover MEALY REDPOLLS it was looking like we were going to miss this species.
Then suddenly two SIBERIAN JAYS flew in and started feeding at point-blank range. Everyone was delighted to see these birds, especially after all the effort Antti had gone to find them.
It was then time to head back to the hotel to have lunch and then load up the vans and make the long drive south to Oulu. An unexpected SIBERIAN JAY flew across the road whilst other birds seen on the drive included SPARROWHAWK, RAVEN and lots of FIELDFARES.
We arrived at Oulu airport in good time and said our goodbyes to Antti who had been a superb guide and down-right nice chap. Check in was smooth and our flight took off on time and landed in Helsinki around 50 minutes later.
Martin was staying a few extra days in Helsinki so we went our separate ways and then walked to the gate ready for our next flight back to London Heathrow. The flight arrived back around 15 minutes early and after negotiating passport control and baggage reclaim, we said our goodbyes. This had been the most amazing tour with just so many bird highlights and a lovely group who it was a pleasure to guide!