Scenario: Two long term friends, Dermot Hughes (Mr H) from Belfast, Northern Ireland and Colin Reid of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia spent 12 days birding along the Russian border, east of Oulu and similarly in the south, east of Helsinki. We planned and conducted the trip independent of any guides or in-country assistance. We knew the ‘risks’ of missing birds – specifically the Owls – if we chose this course of action, but we were prepared to miss stuff, rather than have it pointed out to us – and pay what appears to be excessive premiums for that (dubious) pleasure. We had moderate success.
Transport: We used Finnair as the cheapest option from Dublin, Ireland to Helsinki and then on to Oulu and back by the same route. With 23 kg check-in and 10 kg carry-on bags – always necessary when carrying tripods and optics. I would hesitate to use Finnair again, but if you chose to do so, be aware, check-in on-line is imperative to guarantee your seat (hopefully……) That process may come naturally to most of you, but to us – we book a flight, pay the fare and expect no hassle at the airport? Nah – they don’t work like that, read on….
We hired a car from a local supplier - a manual diesel that was comfortable to drive and handled the roads we encountered with relative ease. I did most of the driving as Mr H is the navigation expert and had organised the whole trip – good work (again) Mr H!
The car had a built in sat nav, which was very handy – especially for longer drives across country. For in-close work Mr H preferred Google Maps on his phone, is a lover of old school paper maps and I had an iPad with the free MapsMe app as a backup. We didn’t encounter any problems with navigation – then again, there are not a lot of roads and Finns are very organised.
Accommodation: We camped throughout. Interestingly some of the campsites we had chosen or looked at were closed. Generally the facilities in the open ones we used were good and the ground very forgiving to tent pegs.
We did have an unpleasant experience in one campsite in the Parikkala area, when ‘someone’ didn’t like us camping where we had set up and took our tents down while we were off birding, but other than that the camping was good.
Internet access: As we were camping WiFi access was limited and we had to go to shopping centers and coffee shops for me to get my laptop on line – in a couple of cases it was available around the kitchen or lounge areas in the campsites. However, with the mobile phone arrangement between European countries, our SIM cards bought in Ireland and Northern Ireland respectively, worked almost everywhere – and not at excessive cost.
Research: Once again Mr H had done most of the research based on trip reports (not many available for this time of year) and on a couple of books he purchased. It was very difficult to find accurate details on Owl locations – most likely due to the fact that nearly everyone goes with a guide and either doesn’t know where they are or are sworn to secrecy. However, we had a number of other birds we wanted and working with E-Bird and topographical maps (Mr H’s specialty) identified spots that looked good.
We used Collins Bird Guide, of course, as the best bird book in the world (in our opinion) and I had the app on my iPhone for calls and ease of use in the field.
Our targets dictated our direction –Western Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Common or Scarlet Rosefinch, Greenish Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Marsh Warbler, River Warbler, Lanceolated Warbler, Siberian Jay, Red-flanked Bluetail, Little & Rustic Bunting, Great Reed Warbler and Thrush Nightingale – and, of course, The Owls – Northern Hawk, Great Grey, Ural and Tengmalm’s. There was also the attraction of seeing Irish winter visitors in breeding plumage - for example, Mr H had a passionate desire to see Brambling in breeding plumage and I was hoping for Divers, Ducks and Little Gull specifically in similar form. We didn’t get them all, I’ll tell you now, but we did OK for two 60+ birders scratching around with minimal info.
On the road we referred to E-bird for recent reports of specific species. These proved both useful and useless – but, as always, no report is a guarantee of any bird so we accepted all research as such and went with open minds.
A few brief notes on driving in Finland:
1. If you live outside Europe it’s best to take an International Driving Permit. I had one, but never needed to show it, but just in case….
2. The roads were very good. Few major highways where we went, but the lack of traffic and sensible speed limits made movement very easy. Other drivers were, dare I say it, very ‘Scandinavian’ – i.e. tolerant and cautious. I say that with respect – and it did make driving a more relaxed experience than in southern Europe.
3. In and around Oulu when we left the airport at ‘night’ the traffic lights appeared to be ‘intelligent’, i.e. changing as we approached - if that really was the case, and not our imagination, it was brilliant!
4. And you need to drive on the right hand side of the road……..ALL the time.
24 hour light, aka no dark…..
We managed to sleep without any problems despite camping and having no curtains to pull. The hardest thing was trying to decipher when the birds would be most active.
When you think about it – there’s no dawn, as such. No stimulus to get them up and running after a good night’s sleep. No real time when they should roost. This was weird. Not so much for us, personally, but trying to pick when to get up and get at it.
Along with that, the weather for the first week, at least, was grey, raining and generally damp which meant the light was pretty much the same 24/7.
In the end we experimented with going to bed early (18.00/6pm) and getting up near midnight and birding through to 2 or 3am. Or getting up at 3am and getting into it. This was very tiring as we weren’t getting any decent sleep at all!
And it didn’t seem to make much difference – apart probably from roding Woodcocks and calling Corncrakes which both appeared to be more active during the ‘night’ hours or very early mornings.
In the south the light was a little more real – i.e. it did get dark for a few hours.
Day 1 – Sunday 26.5.19
Up at 5, out of the house bang on 7. I walked up to the Aircoach bus stop with 30 kgs of gear hanging off me. A bus arrived at the stop as I did. I had planned to get the 7.15, this was only 5 past, he was running a few minutes late, but I got it anyway.
At the airport at 8.00. I headed for Mackers for a coffee and sent a txt to Mr H to let him know where I was. He joined me 20 minutes later.
At 8.50 we were at the Finnair check-in and then the fun started.
Mr H hadn’t checked in on-line and as a result they were unsure for a few minutes as to whether we could fly or not. They had overbooked the flight – standard practice according to them and, as a result, were not sure if they had seats for us. I threw a hissy spit and we ended up with two seats together anyway.
We boarded along with half the population of Japan and enjoyed the exit seats with the extra legroom – amazing what they can do when they try!
The flight was 3 hours but we arrived in Helsinki 5 hours later due to the time difference. Then the fun continued.
We queued with the whole population of Europe, Japan and South Korea, it seemed, for ages to get to the automatic passport control machines. My passport failed to pass muster and I had to queue again briefly to have it processed manually.
Then we made our way to the bag collection area and managed to wrestle our three check-in bags out of the crowd and up to the departure gates.
When we tried to check-in at the automatic machines we couldn’t get them to work because we didn’t have a seat yet……. Jesus Christ! Once again manual intervention sorted it BUT we were only on ‘Standby’ for the Oulu flight because again they had overbooked, blah blah blah…
We made our way to the gate. It took us 20 minutes of stiff walking to get there. Helsinki is not a big airport but it’s spread out in a long two-story building with no ‘islands’ for planes to dock.
Getting there we asked for seats to be assigned, but were told we’d have to wait and see. The flight was scheduled for 19.00, but was delayed, initially, until 19.25. We eventually got seats but not together, and the prop driven plane finally departed at 19.45.
We got to Oulu at 21.00 and I waited for the baggage while Mr H sorted the car. We drove away at 21.45. Bear in mind it was still bright daylight even though it was a quarter to ten.
Mr H had picked a campsite about 20 minutes away on the coast for our first stop and we reached it to find it all closed up. Well, the reception was all closed and we couldn’t get the car through the barrier so we parked outside and carried our stuff in to a grassy area behind reception where we pitched the tents, had a coffee and went for a short walk. The sun was going down at 23.15.
We didn’t see much, it was all very quiet. A roding Eurasian Woodcock over the campsite was pretty cool though. We hit the sack around 11; it was about 9 degrees, damp and chilly, but dead still and very quiet.
Day 2 – Monday 27.5.19
After an OK sleep, Mr H woke me at 5 and, after another coffee, we broke camp, packed everything into the car and drove away to park nearby and go for a walk.
Plenty of Redwings and Fieldfares, Pied Flycatchers, dozens of Willow Warblers (they’re going to be the bane of our lives this trip), a Common Snipe drumming overhead, the Woodcock again, Reed Buntings, Common Whitethroat, Siskin, Common Swifts, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and at least 3 singing Garden Warblers, although we didn’t actually manage to see any of them. We also had a t least three singing Common Rosefinch’s one of our target birds.
Mr H managed to pick one out in a birch tree, but it flew before I could get onto it so he ticked it, but I didn’t.
We headed for a wetland area – Virkkula (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) and visited two hides there. The first was a 300 meter walk and we had good views over the shallow water of hundreds of Whooper Swans, Garganey (my first since the 70’s), Common Cranes, Western Marsh Harriers and more drumming Common Snipe. A good scattering of ducks on the water, but best of all two Ruffs – one male in breeding plumage – really amazing looking.
Back to the carpark and we decided to try another hide. A bit of a drive, then a 700 meter walk along a low three-planks-wide boardwalk across the marshy ground and through the reed beds to the second ‘tower’.
We had much the same birds here adding Sedge Warbler, Great Crested & Slavonian Grebes, Barnacle Goose and 3 White-tailed Eagles to the trip list.
We left and drove back into a nearby village to go to the supermarket and stock up on food for the next few days, then we headed east, the 220 ks, towards the Russian border, to Kuusamo.
I was very, very tired and started to nod off at the wheel, so Mr H took over after about 100 ks and I slept for a while. Along the way we saw our first Reindeer Rangifer tarandus – 3 animals on the side of the road. We saw a couple more later with red collars around their necks, but the first group were ‘clean’ so we’re assuming they were at least semi-wild.
The roads were pretty quiet. Maximum speed limit 100 kms with regular 80 and even 60 k speed limits. It rained for the second half of the drive and the weather overall looked pretty gloomy.
We stopped off at another supermarket to get a second gas cylinder and had a coffee before heading north out of town towards another Mr H-chosen campsite.
Between the town and the camp site we stopped twice beside roadside lakes (there are 170,000 lakes in Finland apparently but most don’t have much on them – presumably too acidic) however, on one we had a single male Velvet Scoter, showing well 100 meters offshore and at the second a pair of Smew.
This campsite, too, was deserted, but we drove in among the birch and pine trees and set up camp, after some debate, beside a wooden picnic shelter thing where we could sit, cook and eat and update our lists and blog in some comfort. At least we weren’t paying any camping fees! Facilities were pretty minimal but Mr H found a basic toilet set off in the bush so at least we didn’t have to dig a hole with our non-existent spade.
We sat around for a while then went for a wander. It was pretty quiet but we spent some time trying to find a singing Brambling only to have it fly off without being seen properly. We added Willow Tit, Spotted Flycatcher, Common Redstart and Lesser Black-backed Gull (the Baltic subspecies) to the trip list before sitting down to eat, do the log, write this up and crash early. It was about 5 degrees, damp, still, cold – fingerless gloves, beanie and Gortex jacket on as I typed.
Day 3 – Tuesday 28.5.19
Mr H woke me from a deep sleep at 3am. It was, of course, daylight. Not really the full-blown daylight one is used to when one wakes up, more a dull, grey kind of light. That may have been partly ‘cause the sky was leaden and misty, but daylight it was, never the less. Neither of us had seen any darkness.
We had a substantial breakfast then set off north in the car. We stopped at yet another lake that we had heard had breeding Black-throated Divers on it and, sure enough, a beautiful pair were sitting about 50 meters off shore – stunning! Especially when the male started calling and semi displaying – Wow!!
We turned off the next side road and drove about a kilometer or so before pulling in at a small carpark (Valtavaara) at the start of several trails up and down the hillside. We saw two European Hares on the way – but different from any Hares I had seen before. Mostly a light smoky grey colour with white soles to their hind feet and white backs to their ears – really cute but quite astonishing as they bounded away through the fallen timber and scrub along the roadside. We were to see several more pairs during the day.
We decided to walk down the road to a track (Konttaisjarvi - Blue trail) that promised some good birds and headed that way. It was quite cold, very damp and misty under the trees. The light was shit for photos but there wasn’t a lot to take photos of to start with.
Mr H heard a Red-flanked Bluetail singing off to one side and we went off-track in that direction. It was infuriatingly frustrating trying to locate the Robin-sized bird in the tall pine trees and we staggered along the narrow root-strewn track in pursuit. I, of course, couldn’t hear it at all so was no help whatsoever.
Suddenly, a movement to my right and I turned to find a Siberian Jay perched up 6 feet away! I called it to Mr H’s attention and we held our breath as it hopped and flew around us. It was unnecessary to be so careful as it turned out, as several times during the next hour or two one or two birds would come to check us out and fearlessly come very close providing ample opportunities for photos.
While we were chasing the Bluetail, Mr H said he could hear a Song Thrush going off, but we didn’t bother trying to find it, as we were otherwise occupied.
Eventually we dropped down onto the original track and headed further into the forest still tracking a Bluetail singing somewhere up ahead. This brought us close to the Song Thrush – still going off – so we went to see what was happening.
Mr H located its rough presence and, as he looked for it through his bins, spotted a Great Grey Owl low down in a thick tree about 20 meters away. As he started to call it, it flew, out and down the slope into the distance. It wasn’t a perfect view but certainly perfectly tickable! Wow!! Owl no 1 in the bag! We didn’t see much else in the forest but did eventually locate a singing Red-flanked Bluetail about 150 meters away at the extreme top of a tall pine – a European tick for me.
Back to the car and we debated whether we would walk another trail. I suggested that with the forest so quiet and the weather so shit we should drive the side roads instead and see what turned up.
We set off up a narrow, graveled track and first up was a pair of Brambling which were nice to see. Next up, a lifer for Mr H – a female Black Grouse. We watched it for about 10 minutes before we moved on and it flew off and found 3 males further up the road. Another 2 males ’perched up’ well enabling prolonged views, followed by a very close female with a second female companion we didn’t even see till we drove away.
Our driving continued without much more success so we headed back to camp. We were both pretty tired so had a coffee and a rest before driving the 30kms into Kuusamo. Along the way we ‘found’ a lake on the right swarming with Little Gulls in full breeding plumage. I took about 50 shots of them swooping over the lake, but nothing really worthwhile keeping, unfortunately – they were really beautiful with their light grey wings, black head & underwing, red legs and clean white underparts – very delicate.
At Kuusamo we picked up some bits and pieces and spent some time over coffee while I sorted my photos, then we headed south. There were some spots recommended for a couple of species we needed so we started checking these out.
Cutting a longer story shorter, we eventually added several new birds to our trip list including Bohemian Waxwing, Red-necked Grebe, Willow Ptarmigan (Red Grouse is now a subspecies) and Common Cuckoo. And we did get our two main targets – Little Bunting and Rustic Bunting – both thanks to Mr H’s incredible hearing. (Both lifers for Mr H)
We had 2 Little flitting around responding to playback and 1 Rustic sitting up nearby on a lake shore. Neither were photographical, but acceptable views never the less.
We had lunch by the lake then headed for another spot where Pine Grosbeak was alleged.
It was a bit of a drive, including 18 kms along a pitted clay road, but we got there anyway and started to head the 2.5 km hike up the hill. After about 300 meters we re-assessed our action. Might sound silly having driven all that way, but we figured we’d have a good chance at the PG closer to home and in easier conditions and we were both feeling pretty drained anyway, having been up for 12 hours at this stage today already, so……we turned back. And lucky we did! Such a difference little things can make!
Walking back through the scattered pine trees a bird broke cover without any work from us – a Northern Hawk Owl!!
Owl no 2 was in the bag!
It perched up really well enabling photos, video, playback (to see what it would do – it didn’t carry on too much and we didn’t prolong it) and lengthy discussion regarding its plumage and appearance. It was brilliant!! 2 Owls in one day? Are we good or what!! Ha ha Ha ha….
The drive back to Kuusamo was much quicker and enjoyable and we retired to another coffee shop to download the photos and replay the incident.
Then it was ‘home’ and a lazy couple of hours until dinner time – Elk meat and vegies! well, when in Finland……..and bed by 21.30.
Finland List – 99 Lifers – 4 New European – 2
Day 4 – Wednesday 29.5.19
Our day started at 4 – and rain. The latter continued through the day, sometimes heavier, most times just a light drizzle. We had known it was coming and had made plans to manage our day around it.
We started off driving some of the roads and tracks we had tried before, targets Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse. We got nothing apart from a few European Hares.
Looking at the map Mr H suggested we try a National Park, Oulangan Kansallispuisto, about 20 kms away and off we went. It was a slow drive getting there as a long stretch of the road in was under construction with the appropriately slow speed limits.
It was a waste of time anyway. The habitat was pretty degraded and the trees too small and overgrown to support either of our targets. We headed back and up to our carpark of yesterday. We walked the same track and checked the Grey Owl tree hopefully – but nothing. It didn’t appear to be a regular roost either – no droppings or pellets in evidence. The forest was particularly quiet and we returned to the car in the drizzle a little dispirited. A pair of confiding Siberian Jays whom we could almost hand feed were engaging.
We returned to camp and crashed for a couple of hours as the rain continued.
After lunch we headed in towards Kuusamo and checked a couple of lakes on the way. We did see a pair of Red-necked Grebes, Little Gulls, Smew, Goldeneye, Tufted Ducks etc but little else exciting – so to speak. We added three birds to the trip list – Common Greenshank (1), Long-tailed Duck (3) and Sand Martin (40 or so hawking over a lake). We also saw a Wood Sandpiper display flighting and landing on the top of a pine tree – weird!
Ending up in Kuusamo we filled up with fuel (Euro 1.41/liter = Aus$2.28), had more lousy coffee and then checked a couple of other lakes before heading home, an early dinner and bed in preparation for an early start tomorrow when the weather was predicted to be sunny and dry.
Finland List – 102 Lifers – 4 New European - 2
Day 5 – Thursday 30.5.19
We dragged our sorry asses out of our warm sleeping bags at 2.30am. Into the grey ‘night’ light. Not dark, by any means, but not pure daylight either. After breakfast we left the campsite at 3.45 and headed up the road and onto the side road.
By 3.48 we had one of our main target birds – a male Western Capercaillie strutted off the roadside into the bush! Wow! What a big black motherf….r of a bird! Impressive.
Awake now and excited we drove the same track as previous days, (the first turn off left after the carpark for the Valtavaara trails). Not a lot for most of the drive, apart from 6 male Black Grouse all over the road at a junction half way along. One determinedly chasing the others off, tail raised, head down, until they realised we were there and they all flew off.
We drove a dead end track in hope – but nothing overly exciting apart from a Willow Ptarmigan right beside the car – basically a Red Grouse with white flecks in the feathering. Good view, but not a major tick!
Back to the carpark and we set off up the trail directly opposite, up the hill/mountain. This time our targets were Pine Grosbeak and Parrot Crossbill.
It was a steep at times climb, but not very long. At one stage a rope had been staked alongside the track to aid walkers.
We didn’t see anything like either of our targets, although a flock of Common Crossbill flew unseen overhead, and descended the hill past a birding tour group heading up. The guide didn’t look happy when we said we’d seen nowt. Their target seemed to be Red-flanked Bluetail and we told him where we’d had them two days ago.
We headed back to camp – it was all of 8am by now – and after a short rest and coffee, headed off for the area behind the skiing ‘mountain’ where we hoped for the Grosbeak and/or Three-toed Woodpecker. My phone told me it was 3 degrees – but felt like minus 3….
Once again we failed in our quest and driving around the mountain ended up back at the carpark again. This time we walked the same trail as Tuesday (Great Grey Owl day) but the wind had picked up and, although it was dry and tending to sunny spells, was very difficult to bird.
By the time we’d walked back to the car, we were, once again, shagged, and headed back to camp for lunch (at 10.30) and a sleep (for 3 hours). The wind by now was ferocious and cold but the sun was shining. Jeez if we had the sun and no wind it’d be a huge day.
We didn’t do much for the rest of the day except some planning discussion for the rest of the trip. The wind continued to blow and the sun continued to shine, but birds were almost non-existent.
We cooked dinner at 6 – canned reindeer and beans – and crashed early.
Finland List – 105 Lifers – 5 New European – 2
Day 6 – Friday 31.5.19
We got up again at 2.30am, had a quick coffee in a very cold, windy, rainy morning and headed out on the road again.
We drove the same track, saw two Black Grouse males briefly and, right at the end of the side road, a female Western Capercaillie. Unfortunately, we only saw her at the last moment and she flew before we could get the bins on her.
Back to camp by 4 and back into bed. We slept on and off till 8.30, then it was breakfast and pack up. It was very cold, very windy and drizzling throughout – a thoroughly miserable morning.
Packed up the wet tents and out of there by 10. A 220 km drive and one stop for coffee saw us back in Oulu at 13.00. We went to a park, Lintulampi, in Oulu following recent EBird reports of Three-toed Woodpecker and Pygmy Owl, but saw neither – still raining gently and blowing strongly. We did see a breeding pair of Slavonian Grebes on the lake and 2 Red Squirrels to add to our trip list.
We tried some coastal lagoons where Terek Sandpiper was reported but the wind was so strong it was blowing the sea spray across the road. We did add Eurasian Oystercatcher and Common Ringed Plover (one of each) to the trip list.
We ended up at Virkkula again, as on last Tuesday, but declined the option to walk to the tower and sheltered in a picnic hut for lunch.
Then it was time for the airport and running the Finnair gauntlet again.
In fact it was very easy this time and we bag dropped without any hassle. The plane was only two thirds full so that was probably why it went so smoothly.
An uneventful flight saw us back in Helsinki airport 55 minutes later – God, it’s a hopeless case.
We got our bags then had to walk for miles to get to the rental car guy in the car park. It was a small company Mr H had rented from – they only had 5 spaces in the car park - but it was very confusing finding him. We did, eventually, and after a prolonged description of why, where and how we managed to get on the road for the 400 km drive to the Parikkala area far over in the east of the country on the Russian border. It was 20.30, sunny, clear and relatively warm (17 degrees) as we left Helsinki and headed east at a respectable (legal) 120 k/hr. We saw our first Grey Heron of the trip as we left the airport! All those lakes up north and no herons? Weird. Maybe it’s too cold?
We stopped at a garage/market and re-stocked with basic food and had gigantic burgers & coffee before heading on. Along the way we saw several roding Eurasian Woodcocks over the pines.
The sun disappeared at 22.30 but the twilight persisted only getting sort of dark after midnight.
On an 80km stretch of road a female Elk trotted off the verge into the trees as we blasted past.
We got to the campsite at 01.30, appeared completely deserted. We picked a spot in the middle of a field, set up the tents by the car headlights and I had my first shower and shave since leaving Ireland last Saturday – bliss! Then we crashed.
Finland List – 108 Lifers – 5 New European – 2
Day 7 – Saturday 1.6.19
We were up at 8 to a sunny, warmish, bright morning. We found a complete kitchen set-up with electric kettle, microwave, hotplates, fridge and utensils beside the toilet and decided to move the tents down to camp beside the building after breakfast.
We went for a walk in the deciduous woodland around the campsite. A number of Garden Warblers were singing but they were frustratingly bloody difficult to see. We gave up after about half an hour and headed off in the car to an area 10 minutes away – an arboretum – where Spotted Nutcracker had its only presence in Finland.
We couldn’t find any though and despite the excellent mixed habitat the birds were pretty few and far between.
Possibly because it was later in the morning, we thought, the continuing high winds didn’t help the matter either. We did have fleeting glimpses of a Garden Warbler and good, but brief views, of our first Blyth’s Reed Warbler.
Leaving there after a couple of hours with photos of several butterflies, mostly unidentified, but one was a Brimstone, we headed back towards Parrikala with the intention of sussing out an area for our future endeavors.
Along the way we stopped off at another supermarket place and bought dinner meals to cook in the microwave – and had a cup of coffee at a small bar/café. The coffee here is all pretty shit – its drip filtered, they don’t seem to know what a skinny flat white, extra hot is….
The area we were looking at was right along the Russian Border – literally.
We stopped on the side of the road and walked a few meters into the trees looking for stuff. As we turned back to the car a heavily marked van pulled up and three heavily armed border police all dressed in black got out. They must have seen us on video from somewhere cause they drove from the border post, and back to it after they left us. They were very friendly but quizzed us as to who, what and from where in excellent English. They gave us a brochure outlining the signs we should understand so ‘we wouldn’t make any mistakes’ then wished us well and drove back from whence they came. As we’re planning on driving the same area very early tomorrow morning we were sure to describe exactly what we were doing and when we intended doing it. Don’t want that dude using his Taser on us any time soon…..
We continued on along the road to within 100 meters of the border and then turned away ending up at Siikalahti Nature Reserve. We had lunch before walking into the reserve and looking for stuff.
Best ‘stuff’ were 3 Eurasian Hobbys and a Eurasian Otter, but no new ticks. There were heaps of dragonflies and I took pictures which I will probably never identify the subjects of, but anyway…
By the time we’d finished there we were feeling a bit knackered so headed home and just chilled for the rest of the evening.
Finland List – 119 Lifers – 6 New European – 2
Day 8 – Sunday 2.6.19
We got up at 2am. It was raining. It had been raining since about 22.00 the previous night and showed no sign of stopping. It was a pretty miserable morning.
However, we headed out and down to the roads near the border. We drove along slowly, stopping every now and again so Mr H could put his ears to use. It continued to rain. He heard a number of birds but they were pretty few and far between. Things like Grasshopper Warbler (1) and Corncrake (1) were exciting, but invisible and not close. At several locations nothing was singing.
We finally admitted defeat and headed home – it was still raining when we crawled into the soaking tents and slept on and of until 8.30am. It was still drizzling after we had breakfast but we decided we needed to press on and try and see something.
Donning all the wet gear we headed back to the Arboretum and walked around there for a while. But we got nothing but wet. We assumed the rain and dull conditions were putting the birds off any activity.
It was all a bit depressing. We didn’t have a lot of time to spare and losing almost a complete day’s birding was a disaster.
Driving on we stopped at a service station and filled the car, then had coffee.
By the time we’d finished that, it looked like it might be easing, but it didn’t actually cease until midday. It still remained cloudy and dull but spots of sun started to appear and the birds started to pick up.
We spent the next two hours stopping randomly on quiet side roads at potential habitat spots and had some luck.
At one stop we had several Blyth’s Reed Warblers singing and managed to get excellent views of a couple. Just up the road from there we pulled over and Mr H heard a Common or Scarlet Rosefinch singing. We’d heard – and he had seen one – on our first day, but I hadn’t so was keen. It was a bird I thought we’d see easily, they seem to be everywhere according to EBird. I suspect now that most records are of them singing. We did end up seeing this one, 150 meters away across a field perched up right on top of a birch tree. It didn’t hang around when we started to approach closer, but it was an identifiable tick.
A third stop produced a brief but good view (finally) of a Garden Warbler responding to playback. We also had a Lesser Whitethroat and an un-locatable singing Rosefinch there too.
At our final stop a pair of Northern Goshawks showed – one in flight disappeared and the perched up one vanished too before we could get the scopes out of the car.
We headed home to sleep in preparation for what we hope will be a big night tonight. When we arrived back at our campsite we found both tents taken down and piled in a damp heap, tent pegs everywhere, even my washing line had been thrown on the pile. Obviously the owner didn’t like us camping outside what she considered the camping area – a large sloping field. We had camped close to the kitchen and toilet and there was no one else around anyway.
To say I was unhappy would be an understatement. If she’d approached us and instructed us to move, we would have, but to take our tents down when we weren’t there? That’s f…..d.
That’s Finnish hospitality for you. We moved the tents 100 meters into the ‘camping’ field, had lunch and settled down to sleep the rest of the afternoon away.
We had been going to ‘rest’ till 20.30 but by 18.30 we were awake so got up and watched a TV download on my iPad, had dinner and were on the road at 20.30.
We had just reached the area we wanted to drive and were coasting gently along an unsealed track across farmland when MR H called an Owl flying across in front of us. We watched until it landed in the forest, turning once to drop to ground briefly, before vanishing into the trees near a farm house. Ural Owl – our third Owl this trip, a lifer for him and a new European species for me. We drove to the farm buildings which seemed to be deserted, although it was 23.00 and maybe everyone was in bed - it was twilight, not dark at all – and tried playback, with no response.
We birded through the night until after 1.30am visiting several locations close to the border. We heard more than we saw, needless to say, including at least two lifers which I didn’t claim as they were unseen – Thrush Nightingale & Spotted Crake. We did have one very vocal Great Reed Warbler at Siikalahti Nature Reserve that we did see flitting through the reeds which was, of course, a lifer for me.
We also heard Great Bittern (5), Common Crane (1), Black-throated Diver, Black Grouse, Common Cuckoo (10), Common Snipe, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Corncrake (3). We saw several roding Eurasian Woodcock and on 4 occasions we had one standing in the road in front of the car for an extended period.
It was an amazing experience and we got home tired, but happy. We didn’t manage to locate any Marsh or River Warblers, which was a bit of a disappointment, but we felt we’d done quite well.
Finland List – 128 Lifers –8 New European – 3
Day 9 – Monday 3.6.19
We woke at 8, groggily had breakfast, broke camp and were on the road by 10. Unfortunately (and probably much to Mr H’s relief) I didn’t get the chance to share my thoughts with the owner of the caravan park, the tent-taker-downer, as she was sat in her office with her wig on, on the phone, ignoring me, until she opened her window and I dropped the keys into her meaty claw with the strongest look of disdain and disgust I could muster on my face. I doubt she noticed.
Heading south 200 kms, we stopped for coffee once and arrived at our next campsite (Vaalimaa Camping site) at the top of the ‘gulf’ of Finland, once again right beside the Russians.
We set up camp and went down the road to a tower right beside the border. From this tower it had been reported that Greater Spotted Eagles could be seen circling the Russian forest, where they have a breeding site.
We didn’t see any but we did see a Honey Buzzard, 3 European Hobbys, a Common Kestrel and a White-tailed Eagle. These towers are excellent view points, well constructed and high enough to see over the surrounding trees. We discussed starting a bird list for Russia, but abandoned the idea as frivolous…..
As we descended from the tower a Black Woodpecker put it in a confiding performance. I managed to get some shots but they weren’t brilliant.
We drove along the unsealed well-maintained border road for several kilometers sussing out potential sites for a night visit. At the end, back on the main road, we headed for a spot where an old hotel was located, another tower and potential Warbler site.
As we drove in Mr H said ‘that sounded like a River Warbler’!
God bless his ears. The bird was calling, like a Grasshopper Warbler, 150 meters away from the track. Fifty meters from it and I still couldn’t hear it. After a lot of work waiting and looking, and playback - and thinking it might be a Lanceolated, the call is very similar - Mr H had two fleeting glimpses, but it took him another 30 minutes to get me onto the bloody bird. Thank God I did see it, it would have been a real piss off if he did and I didn’t.
Anyway we ended up with pretty good views of it perched up singing, but intervening branches denied my camera.
We walked out to the tower beside the old hotel, overlooking an extensive marsh/wetland area. We didn’t see a lot, despite its great potential – a single White-tailed Eagle and a male Garganey were best birds.
Back at the car Himself remarked on a singing Thrush Nightingale and, as it was still daylight, he said, maybe we should try to see it? He’d seen it before and we’d heard quite a few on this trip, but hadn’t actually seen it in the flesh (hence I hadn’t ticked it) - so we started stalking it.
It took us over 30 minutes to get close enough to the continually singing bird, perched up in a birch tree. It was surprisingly difficult to actually spot despite its loud voice that even I could hear. In reality it’s wasn’t much to look at (apologies to all TNs), but its song was really cool. I was very happy with the view, photos and video and can tick that one off very satisfactorily.
We headed ‘home’ and crashed at 17.30. At 20.00 we got up again, had dinner and headed off up the road. Over the next 3 hours we re-visited the places we had been in the afternoon. We didn’t have quite the same success as the previous night in Parikkala, but did have very close calling Corncrakes, 2 River Warblers and various other previously seen/heard species, adding European Nightjar and European Reed Warbler (both unseen) to the trip list. We tried for all the Owls at several spots without any success.
We were pretty knackered by the time we’d finished and crashed as soon as we got back, just after midnight.
Finland List – 136 Lifers – 10 New European – 3
Day 10 – Tuesday 4.6.19
Dragged our sorry asses once again into the daylight at 7am. Had breakfast and headed off to a new area to check it out.
Another tower, another wetland, another White-tailed Eagle. Sigh. We did add Northern Pintail and Common Redshank to the trip list and sat in contemplation for a while, both quite drained.
As we walked back to the car we met a local birder whose English was very good. We chatted for a few minutes and then gently interrogated him re species-still-to-be-seen. He gave us a location close-by for Greenish Warbler and we went there, but didn’t find it. Being on the coast itself though we did add Eider Duck and Great Black-backed Gull to the trip list and saw a heap of Goosanders, Goldeneye, Great Cormorants, Barnacle Geese and Great Black-backed Gulls.
We headed home then at 12 and crashed – again - for the afternoon. We didn’t last all that long – it was very hot in the tents. 22 degrees and only a small breeze. We put up the tarp beside the car and sat in the shade until 18.00, then headed out again.
This time we went to a tower along the border to the north. On the way we drove up to the actual Vaalimaa Finnish/Russian border crossing and checked out the Zsar outlet shopping center just inside it. – specially designed, no doubt, for visiting Russians.
At the tower we sat in the evening sun for a while listening to a Great Bittern booming away in the nearby marsh. We had a Western Marsh Harrier, a distant European Honey Buzzard, an even more distant Common Buzzard and a Black Woodpecker flew overhead, while a couple of Common Cuckoos called in the background – very pleasant!
Heading back from the tower along the unsealed road, a bird flew up from a small tree on Mr H’s side of the car and headed off across an open field. ‘Grey-headed Woodpecker’ he cried and we watched as it landed briefly in a copse 150 meters away. Then it flew right across the field and down to a small grove of trees bedside the road 100 meters away. We grabbed the scopes and headed down the road on foot, but couldn’t locate it.
As Mr H put it – a classic case of ‘out of arse, pulling’. On then to the tower closest to camp but half an hour there produced nothing of interest so we went on to camp, dinner and crashed at 10, another Great Bittern lulling us to sleep.
Finland List – 141 Lifers – 11 New European – 3
Day 11 – Wednesday 5.6.19
Up at 5 to a bright, warm, clear, still morning – Finland at its best, the Great Bittern still calling. Got coffeed up and headed down to the Greenish Warbler locale. Hung around, listening, watching and using playback – all to no result. We returned home Greenish Warbler-challenged.
A bite of breakfast and broke camp to leave at 8.00 to drive the 195 kms/2 hours to Helsinki, stopping only for fuel.
Arrived at Vanhankaupunginlathi – yeah, good luck with that! Luckily also known as Vikki, on the outskirts of Helsinki, it turned out to be surprisingly good. Parked up and headed out towards what was reported to be Citrine Wagtail country. Only a few breeding pairs in this one Finnish location apparently.
Within the first 100 meters we had a Redwing on nest in the back of a children’s cubby house in their play area. I really wanted to see its eggs, but, in the end, didn’t have the heart to disturb her.
50 meters further on and an Icterine Warbler was belting out a tune just above our heads! Yahhooo – lifer no 12 for me!
Further along the track Yellowhammers were very confiding – in fact all the birds at Vikki were quite comfortable with human association, for a change. It seems to be a very popular walking/cycling area and was quite busy despite being mid-week.
Just before we got to the Citrine Wagtail area Mr H heard a bird, God bless him, and we turned down a narrow side track to spend 15 minutes or so watching, but only getting glimpses of, a singing Marsh Warbler. Brilliant! But very poor, basic, views.
No sign of any Citrines here, so, after a suitable period of scanning fence posts and muddy areas, getting our best view (scope) to date of a coloured up Common Rosefinch, we headed back to the car finding another Marsh Warbler on the way - this one much more obliging and sitting up well, if only briefly, in the open for a few seconds at about 5 meter range. Much more satisfactory – a real skulker and absolutely no photographic opportunity!
Back at the car we drove to another access point to this huge area of wetland and walked about a k and a half along a well constructed and maintained boardwalk to another location popular with Citrines.
Once again we failed to find any, seeing only 4 or 5 Yellow (Blue-headed) Wagtails in the fields, but scoring really well on crippling views of a singing Common Rosefinch (good views at last!) and I realised I hadn’t taken any pictures of Fieldfare – so I did.
Back to the car by 13.00, packed the bags, had a quick coffee/lunch and headed off to the airport. Dropped the car in the car park successfully and walked the half kilometer to the bag drop area.
Helsinki is an airport to avoid and Finnair along with it.
Just total chaos - I’ve never seen a busier airport. It was like trying to swim up a salmon choked river. The only place I have seen so busy was the central station in Tokyo at rush hour….
We had checked-in on-line so just had to do the self-service bag drop, but that was still a nightmare. Anyway we managed it and headed through security, then walked the next half kilometer to get a coffee. We were still 20 minutes from our boarding gate and so at 15.15 we headed off in that direction for the 16.00 flight to Dublin.
Flight was fine – in fact the staff were very pleasant, it’s just the organization that stinks.
Landed Dublin at 17.30, took a while to get Mr H’s second bag, then we found it, off the conveyor on the floor – someone had dropped it off and didn’t tell anyone. Dashed outside, him running, me pushing the heavily loaded trolley behind (luckily it was Dublin airport and not Helsinki or we’d have been f….d) His Belfast bus home left at 18.00, luckily, too, it was delayed by a few minutes and we said our goodbyes before he hopped aboard and was gone.
I got my Aircoach at 18.25 and walked the kilometer or so down to home with my 30 kgs of bags hanging off me by 20.00.
Finland List – 144 Lifers – 13 New European – 3
Summary: I think, in retrospect, we did quite well. But there were times during the trip when we seemed to be struggling. This may have been due to the distortion of reality by the 24 hour almost-light – and our somewhat erratic behavior as a result, trying to pick the best time to bird.
We did see several species in breeding plumage that we had only seen in winter before. We did see 3 of the 4 Owl targets – flukily though they may have been, it wasn’t for lack of effort and shows it can be done. We had anticipated that Tengmalm’s was always going to be the most difficult – and so it proved to be.
But we did have some great warblers – thanks, in large part to Mr H’s hearing which, for a 60+ year old is amazing – well, I think so anyway, me with my one good eye and only 60% hearing……
We recorded 144 bird species, 10 Mammals, 9 Butterflies, 2 Bees and 2 Dragonflies.
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