Northern Finland, Varangerfjord and a little bit of Sweden
May 26th - June 6th 2000
Simon Woolley and Julia Casson
See photo page here
Please send any comments or notes of errors to email@example.com
This trip had been a dream for years, and in 1999 the circumstances finally came together which allowed us to go for it. The key concerns were (i) timing and time needed, (ii) information, and (iii) expense.
Timing and time needed
For owls, the recommended timing is either February/March, when birds are calling, or May, when they are nesting. Once they have young out of the nest, they are virtually impossible. For breeding waders and passerine migrants, the former period is out of the question. For certain species, notably Yellow-breasted Bunting and Arctic Warbler, even early June can be too early. So some compromise is necessary - we decided on late May because it would give us the maximum chance of our most desired species, and owls were pretty much at the top of the list!
We were restricted for various reasons to a short visit, alas - but we were very pleasantly surprised that (with some early starts and serious mileage!) we were able to rack up 179 species in 12 days, of which 2 were mostly spent travelling. Ideally, we could have done with an extra day in Kuusamo, and perhaps another at Varangerfjord, but a two week trip should be regarded as seriously worthwhile.
This is critical. People simply do not see the best birds without either excellent gen., or contacts and guides, but probably both! I must here thank the people who helped make this trip a success.
Gruff Dodd (firstname.lastname@example.org, or email@example.com), whose 1998 report provided much of our inspiration, and in fact pretty much our itinerary, was immensely helpful with e-mail contacts, maps, and personal advice on the phone, as well as much reassurance!
Ulla Peltomaki (firstname.lastname@example.org) and her co-guide Tony, of Finnature, were indispensable in our quest for owls, and very helpful in other ways too.
Heikki Seppanen (email@example.com) was a tremendous help with gen. for the Kuusamo area, and was kind enough to arrange for Lauri Rytila to meet up with us in Kuusamo, to pass on the latest info. over a map. Thanks also to Lauri for his kindness and time.
Heikki Karhu (firstname.lastname@example.org) was also very generous with his time and experience in Ivalo, and he and his wife Sinikki were most hospitable when I called round. Thanks, too, to James McCallum, who was staying with them at the time.
Dag Korsnes (email@example.com), Tord Gustafsson and Tomas Carlberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) all provided detailed local information for Varangerfjord, Lulea and Nykoping respectively - thank you all!
My apologies if I've spelt anyone's name wrongly! I hope the e-mail addresses work....
We used various gen. sources, the most useful of which were:
I won't be writing up full site details here, as most of it would be repetition, and if anything, you can have too much gen. on what are mostly quite easy sites to find and work. That says much about the quality of the work put in by all the above, I must add!
If you would like further details on any of the sites mentioned, please e-mail me at the address at the top of the page.
c. 3200 km
On balance, we were lucky, and in some cases, exceptionally lucky! We arrived in Scandinavia to cloud, wind and some rain, and the drive to Oulu was thoroughly wet and depressing. The first morning in Liminganlahti was foggy and drizzly, but things had cleared up by the afternoon. A little rain on day 3 soon gave way to sunshine, and we then stayed dry until we reached Varangerfjord. Again, it rained mostly while we were on the move, and we were fortunate to have glorious sunshine when birding in the far north. Again, it rained hard on the way south from Ivalo, but we had miles to cover anyway, so that was no problem. It was cold in the far north, but not at all unpleasantly so. We were warm enough at night on each occasion. In southern Sweden, it was warm, dry and sunny. And, of course, it rained when we got back to England
Blow-by-blow birding account
I won't drone on about the practicalities - if you want details, contact me! We flew to Stockholm Skavsta from Stansted with RyanAir - 2 hours or so, with a male Marsh Harrier from the plane at the far end! A slick transfer into Stockholm and out again got us to Arlanda airport for our flight north to Lulea with SAS. Very easy, on reflection! Picked up our hire car at Lulea, and set off in driving rain on the E4 towards Oulu. We had intended to arrange owling near Lulea, but in the end, we had gone for the pro outfit of Finnature at Oulu - it was turning out to be a generally poor owl year, and when numbers are low, we reckoned we were best with a commercial outfit with the best reputation!
We stopped a couple of times on the way, picking up our first Black-throated Diver, Little Gulls and Whooper Swans, and a Woodcock flew over the road.
We finally reached Oulu at about 9 pm Finnish time (+1 on Swedish, +2 on UK), and rang Kari at Liminganlahti to say we were nearly there. He very kindly waited for us at the WWF centre, and we checked in to our very comfortable room. We could hardly resist visiting the hides, tired as we were, and set off down the 400m boardwalk to the bay. Fantastic! The rain had stopped, and we were birding in Finland, at 10 pm, in broad daylight!
We had soon scored 80+ Cranes, 300+ Whooper Swans, lekking Ruff and another Marsh Harrier, but we really were exhausted, and so went to bed for a few hours of sleep.
We spent the morning birding the Liminganlahti area, and visiting the three bird towers on the southern shore of the bay. Dense fog hampered viewing at the western towers, unfortunately, but we still connected with a singing (orange) Common Rosefinch, Garganey, masses of waders, including 9 Temminck's Stints and several Black-tailed Godwits, 2 Little Terns (scarce here), and 2 singing Ortolan Buntings, plus Grey-headed Wagtails. After lunch we bumped into Ulla Peltomaki of Finnature at the WWF Centre, and once we'd confirmed arrangements for tomorrow, she tipped us off about some Broad-billed Sandpipers she'd just found back down the boardwalk!
We shot straight out there, and there were 13 of the little beauties, roosting on some little grassy islands near the hide. Ideal! A British birder turned up, whom I thought I recognized - he needed Broad-billed Sand. for a life tick, and was chuffed to bits to see them. We chatted for a bit - we had met before! It was Nick Riddiford, to whom I'd spoken briefly on Fair Isle last year.
We had a long and very pleasant chat, and discussed a probable blythi Lesser Whitethroat Nick had seen singing nearby the previous day - I never saw it! After a cup of tea and the first of many excellent Scandinavian doughnuts, we set off with Nick as our navigator to the Oulu oil port area. Terek Sandpiper was not being seen this year, and none of us 'needed' it anyway, so we enjoyed instead the breeding birds of a derelict plot of land and a rubbish tip. Amazing! Eight Temminck's Stints songflighting, LRP, many Arctic Terns, and even a Caspian Tern offshore.
Back at Liminganlahti, a late evening watch produced two very late Barnacle geese flying north, and still more waders and wildfowl. What a start. Also I met Peregrine Rowse, who was coming on the owl trip tomorrow too.
This was the big one! After a brief look at the hide (our first Bean Goose, and Julia hearing a Bittern booming in the reeds), we met up with Peregrine for breakfast, and waited for Ulla in the car-park. A Black-throated Diver flew right overhead as she arrived with a van full of Belgian birders. We set off in convoy with a second van (about 10 of us on the trip as a whole), and our other guide, Tony. Within 20 minutes, we were at a Tengmalm's Owl nest box, and Ulla had lured the female to the hole. This was going to work!
We stopped off in Liminka for wellies for some of the less well-prepared members of the party, and within half an hour, we were at a second nest box, this one containing a Ural Owl. Pretty sharpish, we glimpsed the male bird in nearby trees - and at that point we stopped! Ural Owls are known as being ultra aggressive at the nest, and this chap was looking pretty narky! He was bobbing and lowering his head as he barked a warning at us as we got stunning scope views.
After a coffee break, it was on into the interior (somewhere!), some 50 km or so from Oulu, for Great Grey Owl. We had to walk a good hour or so into the forest from the muddy track, picking up borealis Willow Tit, Crossbill, our first Bramblings, another Rosefinch and a low-flying Honey Buzzard on the way. And there was the nest! The huge female allowed close approach and inspection on the big stick nest, constructed on a platform. Wonderful!
By the time we got back to the van, it was mid afternoon. We had one site left, for Pygmy Owl. Again, there was the nest box, but Pygmies don't respond like Tengmalm's - we had to find the male who would be somewhere nearby. Sadly, we never did. Ulla offered to open the top of the box for us to have a look, but we decided that it would be best to leave the bird undisturbed - Ulla seemed relieved at that, and I can't say it would have been the best way to see a new bird! Still, it was difficult being within 10 feet of a life tick, and not being able to see it . Reflection showed that this was an important lesson. Still more frustrating was the call of nearby but invisible Hazel Hens, though another Honey Buzzard provided some compensation.
Back at Liminganlahti, we capped off a wonderful day with a cracking Black Tern feeding with Little Gulls in front of the hide.
After a bit of a lie in, we headed off in convoy with Peregrine to Hirvisuo Bog, about 50 km north-east of Oulu on the Kuusamo road, picking up yet another Honey Buzzard and a Goshawk en route. This site was supposed to be good for waders and grouse, but while a striking and lovely place, was a bit disappointing. Well, only by Finnish standards, I suppose! We had a cracking male Bluethroat down to just a few feet on the boardwalk, a scattering of common waders, including Golden Plover, and two very brief Black Grouse, plus Raft Spiders, Green Hairstreak and Black Darter.
We made our rendezvous with Tony and the Belgians at the car-park at noon, and drove onwards for a few km to a Hawk Owl site. This bird was rare in Finland this year, and we were lucky to have even a sniff at the species. We paced through the damp forest, seeing Camberwell Beauty en route, and all of a sudden, the male started calling, a Kestrel-like 'ki-ki-ki-ki-ki'. Soon we had him pinned down, right at the top of a tall spruce just a few yards away! And there he stayed, calling, for the next half hour, until we left! Shortly, we found the female on the far side of the bog, and she flew across to the young, carrying a vole. We were even able to scope the nestbox through the trees, to see one of the juvvies peering out. A dream realised.
It was time to head on, and to say goodbye to Tony and owls - though we'd be seeing the Belgians later! We drove in convoy with Peregrine, who was also having a couple of nights in Kuusamo, stopping just once or twice for Smew and Black-throated Diver on the way.
We immediately went to Lake Toranki, south-east of town, in search of our two target bunting species, Little and Rustic. We soon had Smew, Red-necked Grebe and various waders, plus musk rats, and in a very wet bog, Peregrine found a singing male Little Bunting, which gave good, if brief views. But no Rustics .
We returned to town, and I called Lauri Rytila, a friend of Heikki Seppanen, who instantly came down to the info. centre and armed us with maps and lots of local knowledge. This was most useful. We drove on to our hostel at Oivanki, about 12 km north-west of town, and agreed to meet Peregrine the next morning at Valtavaara - early night time!
We arrived at Valtavaara on time at 4 am, meeting Peregrine on the way where he was stopped watching a Black Grouse displaying and jumping up and down by the roadside! Siberian Jay fell instantly in the car-park, rapidly making it's way onto my cheese sandwich eating list. And within seconds, we'd had a Siberian Tit by the road too! Two lifers already!
Perhaps our fears of Valtavaara as a birdless anticlimax were unfounded? Sadly, they weren't. Although the ridge was lovely and high quality forest, birds were very thin on the ground. We had no sight or sound of Red-flanked Bluetail, nor did we see either woodpecker, Pine Grosbeak or Hazel Hen. We did find our only Chiffchaffs of the trip, a very few Crossbills (all Common), a couple of Cuckoos and a Redstart or two. But it was pretty galling and downheartening in all.
We birded some forest tracks back by the road after giving it a good three hours, hearing a Waxwing, but still there were few birds about. Finally, at Viipus camping, we heard Hazel Hen again, and Julia quickly found a pair feeding in a nearby birch, well above our heads! We had wonderful and prolonged views of them there and on the ground. By this stage, I was knackered, so we went and had a tactical couple of hours sleep, before meeting Peregrine again in the afternoon, back at Lake Toranki. Near there, we found another pair of Hazel Hens, right by the road, plus 6 fine Black-throated Divers, more Smew, Red-necked Grebes and Whooper Swans, but still no Rustic Buntings .
We gave Valtavaara another shot in the evening - it was even quieter overall, though we did see a further Hazel Hen and a pair of Goshawks. Final goodbyes to Peregrine, and then home.
Not quite dawn, but an early start provided us with one last chance at Valtavaara. We saw absolutely nothing of interest. I'm sure this place can be magical, but as so many have before us, we left really quite disappointed and let down. Never mind.
It was time to head north. We ticked Moose by the roadside near Maaninkavaara on the E63-5, and flew onwards beyond Sodankyla. About 20 km north of there we found the so-called Petkula Bog, easy to find on the west of the road with a big parking space on the east. We had read Gruff Dodd's reports of the boardwalk here, but were pleased to find it had been repaired, though largely by nailing new boards on top of the old, sunken and rotten ones! It was entirely serviceable.
After a singing Bluethroat by the car-park, we quickly found a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes, and also had our only two Spotted Redshanks here, displaying, along with flyover Broad-billed Sandpipers, many Ruff, some Common Scoter, Smew and various other ducks and waders - a really good little spot!
Further north still, we tried to find the road to Lake Sompiojarvi, a reputed White-tailed Eagle site, but it was far too wet for much progress - but the detour did turn up a Great Grey Shrike and two more Siberian Jays.
We stopped at Kilopaa Hill, some 40 km south of Ivalo, and thrashed up it in search of Ptarmigan and Dotterel. Sadly, we found neither, but did have our first Willow Grouse (a very tame pair), 2 more Bluethroats and our first Rough-legged Buzzard. In the car park, a roving Finnature guide had stopped for a cigarette, and he told us he had seen Dotterel that very morning on Kaunispaa hill, a little further north - and this hill had a road to the top! So we tried it, and there they were - a brilliant breeding pair only metres away from the road.
We finally reached Ivalo, and checked in to a comfortable cabin at Nyverniemi Camping. While Julia had a rest, I went shopping, and called Heikki Karhu. He kindly invited me straight round to his house, and we sat and talked local bird gen. for a while. He was immensely helpful, and gave us the benefit of his considerable local knowledge. We decided to try straight away that evening at his only local Rustic Bunting site - this species is at the very northern limit of it range here, and is thin on the ground.
We headed round the back of the Border Patrol garrison, and along a little residential track to the end of the road. There, a local lady broke off from her barbecue and helped us interpret our rather tricky gen., and we headed off, more in hope than expectation, under the powerlines and into a wet spruce/birch wood. What was that singing? It did sound a bit like a Dunnock and then 'tic .tic .tic'. Yes! There it was, a stunning singing male Rustic Bunting, my commonest bird finally ticked! He responded well to pishing, and we soon had him grilled to within a few metres. Though not on the barbecue.
Elated, and with some Waxwings into the bargain, we headed off for some sleep.
We had two sites north of Ivalo for Capercaillie, and we worked them both this morning - but without success - in fact, we saw very few birds in this particularly lovely forest!
So, we set off for our Arctic adventure. Roadside lakes were soon turning up wonderful birds as the trees thinned out and the ice and snow got thicker and more extensive - Red-throated Diver, Velvet Scoter, more Phalaropes, Ruffs, Bluethroat, another Willow Grouse and lots of waders. By late morning, we had reached Utsjoki, the border town - and everything was shut. It was Ascension Day, a Finnish holiday. Ooops. Luckily, the petrol station had automatic payment pumps, so we were on track after all - and there were Siberian Tits at a bird table in a garden just south of the café - another Bluethroat and 3 Waxwings here too.
On arrival at Tana, after a great drive along ice bordered torrents, we headed straight for a well known Gyr Falcon site, reasoning that if we didn't see it this time, we could always come back. We dipped! It turns out we were in almost the right place, though .found a dolphin sp. skull here, presumably washed onto the bank by floodwaters. Left it for others to admire. More of that later.
We spent the next few hours driving slowly up and down the snow-covered fells between Birkestrand and Gednje. This was utterly magical. We had about 10 Long-tailed Skuas floating around over the snow, lit magnificently, plus singing Lapland Buntings, Shore Larks and Bluethroat, displaying Stints and Turnstone, Long-tailed Duck on a little pond, and another Rough-legged Buzzard overhead. Several rolls of film later ..
We found the recommended campsite at Jakobselv, and checked in for two nights - we thought about a bit of comfort in a hotel up here, but the prices in both hotels (which were no great shakes) in Vadso started at 80UKP a night! Much better value was 25UKP a night in our own little cabin. Perfectly comfortable.
We spent the evening birding the Varangerfjord shore and at Nesseby - more Long-tailed Skuas, Bean Goose, Bar-tailed Godwits in glorious summer plumage, lots of Eiders and Scoters, and at the last gasp, a first summer drake Steller's Eider flew in! Yes! The sun still beaming down, we turned in at 10 o'clock for some sleep.
What a day. Glorious, blue skies and sunshine all day, if cold when out of the car, and tons of fantastic birds. We headed east along the shore, past Vadso, stopping every now and then whenever we saw birds on the sea. Very soon, we had had scores of Steller's Eiders, including a very few adult drakes, and were beginning to see King Eiders too, though again most were in immature plumages. Finally, near Kiberg, I picked up a large diver on the sea at some range - and it swiftly turned side on to reveal the so much desired ivory yellow bill! White-billed Diver had survived just two days at the top of my hit list of wanted birds!
Lots more skuas were to be had from the road, plus Merlin, more Scoter, Shore Larks and Lapland Buntings. This place was just unreal. At Vardo we stopped for coffee, photographed Purple Sands and Kittiwakes in the harbour, found our watches were an hour out by Norwegian time, and arranged our boat trip to Hornoya Island. It was very easy - from the Vardo Hotel (there is only one), just go a few metres to the north, and ask at the freight dock for the boatman and mention the island. They run you out there and back for about 13UKP a head, picking up when you want. There's no timetable - just turn up! It does get a bit more expensive after 3 p.m. (for some reason .)
On the crossing (flat calm, Gruff!), we were soon seeing vast rafts of auks and eiders - and the first Brunnich's Guillemots started to appear! On landing, we were able to scope at least fifty of them on the ledges and on the sea below, right alongside Common Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins and Black Guillemots. The photography was mindblowing - Shags and Kittiwakes just inches away in places, and all the usual cacophony of a full-blown seabird colony. We had a couple of hours on the island (including a Harp Seal to add to an earlier Grey, and a later Common), and then returned to Vardo, before making the trip on to our northerly point, Hamningberg, through amazing bleak, rocky scenery. We had hoped for more divers, but sadly we found no more. In fact, although it was a great drive, we saw rather few birds up this way. At least one Snowy Owl had been seen on the fjells from the road the night before, but the area is so vast that you need massive luck to see this species at this time of year.
Back along the northern shore, and we gave Store Ekkeroy, with its massive Kittiwake colony, a quick look - more eiders of various kinds, and more Black-throated Divers, including one in non-breeding plumage. Weirdly, a Woodcock flew over the road on the way home!
We spent our last few hours along Varangerfjord at Nesseby, photographing Phalaropes and Terns. This whole shore is alive with quality birds - it's a place I shall always remember visiting.
Up near Tana, we saw both Red Fox and Stoat (in ermine) crossing the road - the latter even provided another mammal tick by catching a vole right by the car!
Our gen. at the Gyr Falcon site was now improved - 'stand by the dolphin skull and ..' etc.!! courtesy of the Belgian birders, who had checked in at Jakobselv the night before. And sure, enough, there was the eyrie, and there, on its favourite perch, was the adult Gyr Falcon! What a great bird - and did we have some Arctic Redpolls in the bushes right by us while we watched it? Oh yes!
But it was time to head south once more, via Utsjoki to Ivalo. Again, we tried for Capercaillie, and again, alas, we dipped, picking up 'just' Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay by way of compensation.
On the way south, we again tried Kilopaa Hill for Ptarmigan, but this time in thick fog! Again we saw Willow Grouse and Bluethroat, but at last on the rocky screes, we found an almost completely white male Ptarmigan. Although the call and habitat were pretty distinctive, this bird is actually quite hard to tell from Willow Grouse - but we clinched it by the black lores of this male bird.
Now it was sheeting it down, so we drove hard and fast south to Rovaniemi, south of the Arctic Circle, and onwards to the Baltic, via our first Common Buzzard, a very southerly Rough-legged Buzzard, and a displaying Short-eared Owl. Julia was dozing when an Osprey showed momentarily by the road, and she also dipped her second and final chance of Collared Dove for the trip!
We reached Lulea, and checked in at the very flash but reasonable Arcus Camping site outside town. We struggled a bit to find Gammelstadviken, a site recommended by Tord Gustafsson, but did in the end locate it! Not bad at all - a second Caspian Tern, a migrant Red-necked Phalarope, Marsh Harrier and more Little Gulls and Red-necked Grebes, plus Canada Goose and Pochard for the trip.
We caught the 0805 SAS flight to Arlanda, and quickly arranged a second hire car with Europcar - we were able to drop it off at the other airport next day.
Tomas Carlberg had suggested various sites near Nykoping for us on the phone, and we headed off round Stockholm for the first, Tullgarn Palace, a few km south of the city. Its a lovely old castle/stately home in a gorgeous lakeside and rural setting, with many mature trees and woods. We took a walk in the grounds, and quickly found various 'new' species, including singing Icterine and Wood Warblers, plus reed Warbler and another (red!) Common Rosefinch.
Heading onwards, we reached Nykoping early afternoon, and got ourselves a tiny cabin (more of a garden shed, really!) at Strandstuguviken Camping. The beach and grassland area nearby had nine stunning Caspian Terns, 2 Ospreys and a small colony of Barnacle Geese breeding on the shoreline.
We also managed to find the small Labro Angar (=Labro Meadows) reserve in east Nykoping. You have to find the suburb of Bryngelstorp, and park at the end of Tuvhattevagen, a residential cul-de-sac. From there, head on down through the (coppiced) woodlands, and into the coastal meadows. There is a noticeboard there with a map and a suggested loop trail, which shows (rather implausibly, we thought, a White-tailed Eagle. Perhaps the odd one gets here in the winter, we thought, having dipped in Varangerfjord
So what did we find? FIVE White-tailed eagles, that's all! All soaring about, talon grappling, one fishing, and this within sight of leafy suburbs, boating marinas and best of all, us! What a finale - and throw in another Caspian Tern, an Osprey and more Wood Warblers for good measure.
We had time for some local birding at Strandstuguviken in the morning - much the same species, plus Crested Tit in the pines by the cabin. Then it was time to get to the airport, return the car, and catch out 1105 flight home.
What an amazing trip. I've hardly even mentioned such 'commonplace' birds as Redwing, Fieldfare, Goosander, Little Gull, Arctic Tern, Brambling and so on. To see all the birds mentioned in the list that follows, with so many of them in cracking summer plumage, displaying and/or singing, plus so many owls at such close range (we photographed them all!), plus only dreamed-of Arctic specialities, plus stunning scenery, plus Moose, Reindeer, Arctic Hare .what a trip. Don't hesitate any more - go!