Finland July 26th- 2nd August.
This was our second visit to Finland. In 2010 we visited in late May and travelled from Helsinki to the northern border. The focus of that trip was to see owls and with the help of a Finnature guide on one day we saw six species. We managed to find almost all the other Finnish specialities on other days. This trip was very different as the aim was to view large carnivores and a limited number of other mammals, and any birds seen would be almost incidental. We only saw around one third of the bird species seen in 2010 but it did include some sought after species. Last year we visited the US, where the use of bait to attract large carnivores is forbidden, and so seeing animals like bears takes a great deal of persistence and luck, whereas at the baited sites in Finland success is almost assured. We stayed at three sites – Martinselkonen on 26th-27th July, Boreal Wildlife Centre 28th- 29th July and Base Camp Kuikka 30th July -2nd August. All lodges were very comfortable and clean. The hides were never crowded and usually we had the hide to ourselves. The trip was organised by Wildlife Worldwide www.wildlifeworldwide.com.
Photos from the trip can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/neiljulianthomas/
26th July. We left Norfolk in the early hours, seeing just Muntjac, a few Rabbits, and sadly a dead Polecat on the outskirts of Thetford. At Heathrow Airport had what would have been the unthinkable sight of a few decades ago of 2-3 Red Kites drifting over the area. We then had the unwelcome news that our flight was delayed. Gradually our cushion of a three hour transfer time in Helsinki was eroded, and further delays when we arrived at Helsinki made it seem impossible to catch the onward flight to Kajaani, but a sprint through the terminal to the gate was only just unsuccessful. Our fortunes then took a turn for the better, as we were allocated the very last seats on a later flight at 21.20, and so five hours later than we intended we arrived at Kajaani and were on our way along empty roads through boreal forest. Being south of the Arctic Circle the sun did set, but it never really became dark. Birdlife was not surprisingly limited, but several Woodcock were flushed from the roadside, and an Owl, resembling a large pale Tawny Owl flew from a shattered spruce – a Ural Owl. Mammals were limited to a Red Fox, c6 Mountain Hares and a Reindeer (not wild). We arrived at Martinselkonen at 01.30, by which time it was already approaching dawn.
27th July. Very warm (30’C) and sunny with patchy cloud. We emerged at 07.30 at Martinselkonen. Feeders around the lodge attracted several Red Squirrels, with dark tails, in contrast to the bleached tails of those occurring in Britain. Although very active in the morning none were about when I waited by the feeders at midday. We then went to a bird tower overlooking an extensive marsh at Juortananjarvi, some 22km south along the main road from the turn off to Martinselkonen. There was a rather drab collection of eclipse duck on the pools – Teal, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye and Wigeon. Further away there was a pair of Whooper Swans, with at least 3 cygnets, and a family of Common Cranes patrolled the marsh – two adults and two colts. A pair of White-tailed Eagles put in a brief appearance, soaring over the forest. On returning to Martinselkonen, although the squirrels were absent I was able to photograph Siskins and the gorgeous northern Bullfinches. A short walk from the lodge took one to a pingo, where a Hobby hunted the numerous dragonflies, and a flock of c25 Waxwings flew over.
At 16.00 we were taken to the hides to view the Brown Bears. After a 1.5km trek through forest and forest bogs, where Marsh Orchids were still in flower we arrived at a clearing where the large hides were situated, to find the astonishing sight of perhaps 20 Brown Bears already occupying the area while food (dry dogfood and salmon apparently) was being dished out. We didn’t stay to count these bears as we were quickly taken to the small two person ‘photographic’ hides some distance away. I am sure we had the better option as the forest in front of the hides looked quite natural, while the area in front of the large hides, after 20 years of feeding bears, looked suspiciously like the bear enclosure in a zoo. We were no sooner ensconced in the rather furnace like conditions in the hide when bears began appearing, and from then until 22.15, by which time all the food had been cleared the area was rarely unoccupied. The most we counted together at any one time was 12 bears, but with bears coming and going we could well have seen 30 individuals during the course of the night. There was a lot of variation between the bears, obviously in size, but also in colour of their pelage, as well as state of moult, and it was obvious they recognised each other as individuals. For much of the time several bears foraged amicably, but at times small yearling bears showed themselves to be very wary of some, but not all, the huge males, watching warily as the male lumbered into view, then galloping off. Other males did not seem to provoke any fear reaction from the smaller bears. One yearling bear went so far as to rapidly climb a Scots Pine, only stopping when it reached the canopy, some 15m above the ground. Several females were seen with cubs, mostly now quite well grown, but almost the last bears to put in an appearance were a female with three small cubs, one being a veritable runt. It was, of course, a very artificial situation but still an amazing experience to see so many wild bears at such close range, and being able to watch their social interactions. The only birds seen from the hides were Ravens and Hooded Crows, while the only other mammal seen was a Bank Vole, scurrying about after the bears had left.
28th July. Much cooler today, perhaps marking the end of Scandinavia’s heatwave. In the morning we drove to Boreal Wildlife Centre, some 170km south of Martinselkonen, and very close to the Russian border. Very little was seen in the way of wildlife on the journey, it is clearly much tougher to find birds in Finland in late July than on our previous visit in late May. A Redstart, Hobby and Arctic Tern were the only birds of any note.
Shortly before our departure to the hides at Boreal Wildlife Centre a raptor appeared over the forest, the slender cuckoo like head immediately confirming it was a nice male Honey Buzzard. For this session we were taken to the forest hide. Unfortunately it appears that with a largely failed Bilberry crop the bears have been visiting in particularly large numbers and as a result the hoped for Wolverine has been very reluctant to put in an appearance. The point about the bears was rapidly proven, as within minutes of distributing salmon carcases there were nine bears in front of the hide, all males, some of them quite massive. The two presumably dominant animals, which fed quite amicably side by side were extraordinarily obese. The available salmon carcases were cleared in a short time and within 30 minutes bears were drifting away. The feasting bears were accompanied by numerous Ravens, Baltic Gulls, BHGs and Common Gulls, but not by the 2+ White-tailed Eagles seen flying over the area. Although there was obviously little or nothing remaining Bears continued to put in brief appearances until 23.00, and from 05.00 the following morning. There was considerable variation in their reactions to each other – the appearance of a large male had one subordinate animal galloping at speed from the area, while other bears were ignored.
29th July. Much cooler (5’C in the early morning, with showers as well as clear sunny spells. A Black Woodpecker was seen from the hide, and in the morning a Honey Buzzard flew over.
Later in the morning we went for a hike through the nature reserve of Elimyskangas to the lake at its centre, Elimysjarvi. The trail went across extensive forest bogs alternating with old growth pine and lichen covered spruce forests on ridges. Some birds were located on the hike, including two Capercaillie, although only I saw the hen bird, and Jane, who had wandered further along the trail flushed a cock bird. In stunted pines at the edge of a bog we found both Little and Rustic Buntings, while other birds included many Redstarts, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, and Cuckoo. On the lake itself there were two families of Whooper Swans, and an adult White-tailed Eagle perched in a pine took wing to soar over the area.
In the afternoon we had a change of scene for wildlife viewing, being taken to the ‘swamp hide’, which we again had to ourselves, although it had capacity for ten. The hide overlooked an extensive forest bog, with the open terrain extending for 300m to the forest edge. Predictably the salmon handouts attracted numbers of Ravens (c30), Baltic, Black-headed, Common and Herring Gulls, but also 4 White-tailed Eagles. The two adults, a sub-adult and juvenile gave great views perched around the area, or swooping in to snatch fish debris. There were also Tree Pipits and Yellow Wagtails around the edge of the marsh. The first bear did not arrive until 17.15, and did not stay long, just gulping down a few salmon carcases; he seemed surprisingly nervous of the gulls and ravens. More bears soon arrived, with four not staying long, but the same two massively obese males we saw yesterday settled down for some serious feeding. At 18.57 Jane located the first Wolf, a striking cream coloured animal moving along the far edge of the clearing. Over the next 20 minutes three more Wolves moved separately round the clearing, and we were able to see one pass very close to the hide through, of all places, the toilet window. I had another view of a Wolf crossing the clearing in the twilight at 23.15, but the best views came just before we left, with the cream individual, and a typical grey animal coming much closer and giving a chance of reasonable photos.
We left Boreal Wildlife Centre at 09.00 and drove along forest trails to our next location of Kuikka Camp, which even with the Satnav took some finding, with an unwelcome detour to a dead end on the wrong side of Kuikka Lake. On the journey some wildlife sightings included two young Capercaillie which crossed the road in front of us, two Cranes dancing on a forest track, Mountain Hare, Fieldfares, and a family of four young mustelids. Apparently all dark brown they looked like young Mink; sadly the European Mink is extinct in Finland, while the American Mink is listed as an invasive alien species, so we were forced to conclude we had not been fortunate enough to find a critically endangered native species.
Around Kuikka Camp we could view Red Squirrels on the feeder, although by now it was cold(> 10’C) with grey skies and unceasing rain. We set off in late afternoon for our viewpoint for the evening, named ‘Paradise’ this was similar to the swamp hide at Boreal Wildlife Centre, with extensive views over forest bog to the surrounding birch, spruce and pine forest. We did not have very long to wait before the first sighting of Wolves, with one adult surrounded by a frenzy of half-grown pups. Three were of the cream coloured variant, two were normal coloured. The cubs licked the face of the adult, but failed to obtain any regurgitation. The cubs were seen several times during the evening, usually playing vigorously with mock fights and much chasing. At the distance we had to view them the telescope was a real asset. Two other adults were seen several times, one was a cream coloured male, the other a normal coloured female, and although the female did not come closer than c250m the male did cross to our side of the clearing and gave great views as he trotted past. Photos showing a distinctive scar on his left muzzle showed without doubt these were the same wolves we had seen earlier in the morning at the Boreal Swamp Hide. I was able to take a photo of this Wolf side by side with a Bear. As with Boreal Wildlife centre all the Bears seen were large males, although it was hard to be sure just how many had moved through, as all were uniformly dark with no obvious distinctive markings. Some brief skirmishing was seen between two Bears, although one quickly backed off. Very few birds were seen during the evening, just Ravens and Kestrels.
31st July. Still continuing cold with leaden skies, the heatwave of a few days ago seemingly a distant memory. At 05.30 a Honey Buzzard flew over the clearing, and later an adult White-tailed Eagle flew in to perch on a snag, and then on the ground. Two Wolf cubs were seen, having adventurously moved to the centre of the bog, before disappearing into forest to our right, and one large male Bear moved through. We were just on the point of leaving at 07.35 when Jane announced the arrival of the Wolverine, which loped into view, then excavated the ground to dig up a choice item of carrion, before scuttling off with its prize. We had been assured we should see Wolverines in the coming evening session, but to get this unexpected bonus view of this fantastic animal took off any pressure, and was the highlight of the session.
On the drive back a mixed flock of birds included Brambling and Willow Tit, while on Kuikka Lake we could view three supremely elegant Black-throated Divers, and compare Common and Arctic Terns. After a wait my patience was rewarded when one of the divers swam to our end of the lake and I was able to take reasonable photos of this stunning bird.
In the afternoon we drove to a site called ‘caravan’, logically as the hide was in a converted carvavan. Sited in some old growth pine and spruce and overlooking some large boulders, we settled down to wait for the arrival of Wolverines. We did not have to wait long after our arrival at 17.00, as at 17.15 a Wolverine was seen approaching in stops and starts, but gradually its confidence built and it began searching for salmon scraps concealed around the site. This Wolverine had sustained some injuries with a healing wound on its neck, and a severe rip across its scalp, I presume either the results of fighting with another Wolverine, or a swipe from a bear. The Wolverine used its acute sense of smell to locate food under rocks, and its enormous strength to flip them over, and also demonstrated its tree climbing capabilities. Not quite in the Pine Marten class, but still able to ascend a vertical pine with ease. After 45 minutes of viewing the Wolverine loped off. A different Wolverine, with no wounds and more richly marked appeared at 22.20 and stayed for 20 minutes. It must have been a rather disappointed animal as almost all the food had been eaten by the first Wolverine, and what remained took some extracting from crevices in the rocks. The third and final sighting was at 07.30 in the morning when our first visitor made a brief appearance but left empty-jawed. As we waited for the Wolverines a mixed party of Eurasian and Siberian Jays came foraging through the canopy of the pines, and on the way back to the car we were entertained by Crested Tits.
In the morning we hiked around the unsealed roads from Kuikka Camp. A variety of birds were seen including many Fieldfares and Bramblings, Willow Tits, Pied Flycatchers, Redstarts, Tree Pipits, Common Crossbills, and a Northern Wheatear. A stunning Camberwell Beauty flew by, but sadly did not linger. A ridge about Kuikka Camp adjacent to a clearfell gave extensive views, and from here saw Northern Goshawk cruise over the forest canopy, its size and bulk surely marking it out as a female.
In late afternoon we returned to the Paradise Hide. Another Goshawk was seen here, and a White-tailed Eagle flew in to spend hours perched on a dead tree. Other birds seen included 4 Curlew and a Whimbrel, which eventually flew off together. We commenced our vigil at 17.00, and at 17.15 three Brown Bears arrived from various directions, one leaving the area immediately a large fourth Bear appeared. They were shortly followed by the honey coloured male Wolf, who crossed the clearing, giving great views until he disappeared to our left. An hour or so later another normal coloured Wolf appeared, but never came as close as the first. Meanwhile two more large male Bears appeared, foraging about until anything edible had been accounted for and wandered off. There was no sign at all of the Wolf cubs, so one suspects they may have been moved to a new location.
It had gone very quiet by 21.15 when a Wolverine appeared, moving with the characteristic bounding canter of a mustelid. It appeared to perform a quick but thorough search of the area, before disappearing, to end sightings from the hide, before we departed at 22.00. On the way back a female Capercaillie flew up from the track to perch high in a pine. On returning to Kuikka Camp I went down to the lake to find a European Beaver swimming about. Several times it made spectacular and loud tail slaps. I would have assumed this was an alarm/warning signal, but this Beaver was obviously not alarmed, so I would assume that it must have other signalling roles.
2nd August. On our last morning in Finland I went down to the lake again, to where I had placed willow and aspen branches adjacent to some already stripped by Beavers. To my astonishment this had lured in two Beavers, one actively feeding out on a rock, the other cruising about and tail slapping the water, before it departed across the lake. The other remained, feeding busily just a few yards from me for 15 minutes before slowly swimming off.
Getting such fabulous views of this engaging animal was an excellent end to the trip. On the long 4-5 hour journey to Kuusamo saw just Whooper Swans, and an Osprey was the final addition to the bird list.
Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus. Pairs with cygnets were seen from the bird tower at Juortananjarvi and on Elimysjarvi, with a few others noted as we drove to Kuusamu on our final day.
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos. Only seen at Juortananjarvi from the bird tower.
Wigeon Anas penelope. Just three birds seen at Juortananjarvi.
Teal Anas crecca. Probably the most numerous dabbling duck, but still few noted on this trip.
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula. Fairly common on lakes throughout the country, but only seen at Juortananjarvi.
Goldeneye Bucephala clangula. A characteristic species of lakes forest lakes throughout the country, also often seen on fast flowing rivers, but again only noted in small numbers at Juortananjarvi.
Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus. A number of this forest species, which is normally very difficult to locate in mid-summer were seen. As we hiked through Elimyskangas both a female and the always spectacular male were flushed, while two female/juveniles were found on the road to Kuikka Camp, with another at dusk on the way back from the hides.
Black-throated Diver Gavia arctica. There were three birds on Kuikka Lake, although one was seen in flight and probably departed. They spent most time at the far end of the lake, but one swam close, giving the chance of decent photos of this dazzling bird.
White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. We only saw one on our previous trip, but this time saw several, mostly as a consequence of offal being laid out for carnivores. Pairs were seen at the lakes of Lintuorni and Elimysjarvi, but the closest and most spectacular views were from the swamp hide at Boreal wildlife Lodge, with at least four swooping in to snatch salmon carcases. Other birds were seen daily from Paradise hide at Kuikka.
Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus. This species was missed completely on our last trip, but birds were seen at Martinselkonen, Boreal, and Kuikka.
Osprey Pandion haliaetus. In Sweden this species was an ever present on lakes, but on both this and the last trip only one was seen – near Kuusamo. Perhaps the density of suitably sized prey (eg. Pike) is fairly low in Finnish lakes.
Goshawk Accipiter gentilis. Two birds, probably both females on account of their size and bulk were seen flying over the forest canopy at Kuikka. Two days ago some fortunate observers had one kill and butcher a Common Gull in front of the Caravan Hide.
Hobby Falco subuteo. Birds were seen hunting dragonflies over the pingo at Martinselkonen, and also close to Boreal Lodge
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus. Curiously not seen at allon our previous visit, but several were seen at various locations on this trip.
Crane Grus grus. A pair with a colt were seen around the margins of the lake at Juortananjarvi, and on the way to Kuikka Camp a pair were dancing on the somewhat incongruous setting of a forest track
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola. The forest bogs seemed already deserted by warders, but one was seen at Lintuorni.
Curlew Numenius arquata. Just three birds seen on the forest bog in front of Paradise Hide at Kuikka Camp.
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus. Two birds seen with the Curlews at Kuikka Camp.
Woodcock Scolopax rusticola. As we drove to Martinselkonen through the deepening twilight several birds (20+) were flushed from roadsides.
Black-headed Gull Chroicocephalus ridibundus. Several around the carnivore feeding sites.
Common Gull Larus canus. Several around carnivore feeding sites.
Herring Gull Larus argentatus. A few birds only with Baltic Gulls at the swamp hide at Boreal Wildlife Centre.
Lesser Black-backed (Baltic) Gull Larus fuscus. This very elegant, long winged gull was seen in numbers around the carnivore feeding sites.
Common Tern Sterna hirundo. A few birds seen over Kuikka Lake
Arctic Tern Sterna paradisea. This is the most common tern species, particularly in the north of Finland, but we only saw a few birds over Kuikka Lake.
Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus. A few birds seen in farmland areas.
Cuckoo Cuculus canorus. Just one bird seen, but it gave good photo opportunities around a bog in Elimyskangas.
Ural Owl Strix uralensis. Demonstrating how hard it is to locate owls in Finland without local assistance, one seen flying from a dead tree as we drove to Martinselkonen in the twilight was the only owl seen.
Swift Apus apus. Large numbers (hundreds) seen over Kaaajani Airport, but also several over Kuikka Lake.
Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius. One bird working a dead spruce enlivened a quiet spell in the Forest hide at Boreal Wildlife Centre.
Great-spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus major. Fairly common in forests throughout the country – seen or heard daily.
Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica. A common species across the country.
House Martin Delichon urbica. Less widespread than Swallow, but common around towns.
.Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis. Commonly seen along forest edge and in open woodland – clearly Finnish populations have not been subject to the massive declines seen over much of Britain.
White Wagtail Moticilla alba. A very common species in villages and open country in all areas visited. One wonders why the adaptable Grey Wagtail does not include Finland in its huge range.
Yellow Wagtail Moticilla flava. This species was fairly common around forest bogs, marshes and rivers. The sub-species here is the grey headed thunbergi.
Waxwing Bombycilla garrulous. A flock of c25 birds flew over while I watched Hobbies at Martinselkonen.
Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus. Fairly common in open forest and woodland throughout the country, particularly in old growth forest.
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. One bird seen in a clearfell area at Kuikka.
Song Thrush Turdus philomelos. Rather surprisingly this species seemed to be mainly encountered in old growth forest, its place as a garden bird being usurped by the northern thrushes.
Redwing Turdus iliacus. Few redwings were seen, certainly outnumbered by Fieldfares..
Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus. As with Song Thrush, far from being a garden bird this species seemed associated with old growth forest.
Fieldfare Turdus pilaris. This species was the common garden thrush in most of the country.
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus. Common in birch scrub.
Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata. A fairly common species in open forest, although certainly less numerous than Pied.
Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca. Certainly much harder to locate without singing males, but several seen in open forest.
Great Tit Parus major. The most numerous tit
Willow Tit Poecile montanus. A few seen around Kuikka Camp.
Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus. One of three species we missed on our previous visit to Finland, but c5 birds were tracked down by their purring trill around Kuikka Camp
Magpie Pica pica. A common species in much of Finland. Its abundance here made me wonder why this species does not occur in Scotland.
Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius. Parties seen at the forest hide at Boreal, and associating with Siberian jays at Kuikka.
Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus. This proved to be a tricky species to locate on our last visit, even with the use of tapes, but we had a party move through the forest as we waited for the Wolverines at Kuikka Camp..
Hooded Crow Corvus cornix. Fairly common over most of the country, but less so than the Raven.
Raven Corvus corax. Not surprisingly numbers gathered around all the carnivore feeding sites, with up to 30 around the swamp hide at Boreal, and Paradise at Kuikka.
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs. One of the most common birds in Finland.
Brambling Fringilla montifringilla. Less numerous than Chaffinch, but still a common bird in birch woods and boreal forest.
Greenfinch Chloris chloris. Seen around feeders at Martinselkonen.
Siskin Carduelis spinus. As one would expect fairly common in coniferous forest over most of the country, small numbers seen daily.
Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula. Several birds visited feeders at Martinselkonen and Kuikka.
Common Crossbill Loxia curvirostra. A few birds were feeding in pines around Kuikka Camp.
Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla. This is a fairly scarce bird in Finland, but one was seen in scattered spruce around a bog at Elimyskangas.
Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica. Two or three birds seen with Little Bunting at Elimyskangas, the habitat very similar to where I had seen this species near Kuusamo.
Yellowhammer Emberiza citronella. Only one seen at Martinselkonen.