In June 1998 I was finally able to satisfy a long outstanding ambition to travel to this wonderful part of Europe in search of some of its most magical birds. I had wanted to visit this region for many years, but concerns about the likely cost of such a trip had put me off many times. I was also concerned about the difficulty of seeing some of the better birds without very careful planning, and I was therefore determined to make sure that I had done my homework thoroughly before embarking on this trip.
In the event, my fears were largely unfounded. Recent currency devaluations have drastically reduced costs for the tourist in Scandinavia, and in fact I found it no more expensive an area to visit than most other parts of Europe. Furthermore, thanks to EBN and the generosity of birders all over Scandinavia and further afield, I was able to gather a great deal of information prior to my trip. Crucially, I was also able to obtain assistance in the field from several local Scandinavian birders, who made it possible for me to see some of the most special birds, especially the owls. In fact, one particularly noteworthy feature of the trip was the great kindness and friendliness shown by everyone we met, birder and non-birder, throughout the region.
The main problem I had was regarding the timing of the trip. Mid June is very much at the tail end of the owl season, and a great deal of luck and local knowledge is needed for these birds at this time. May is much more reliable for seeing owls. On the other hand, I badly wanted to see Yellow-breasted Bunting which is absent in May. In the event, work constraints meant that mid June was the earliest that I could travel, and in the end it worked our perfectly. I just about managed to see almost all the owls I wanted, and I think that if I had gone two weeks earlier I would have missed the bunting.
On this trip, as with most of my birding trips, I was accompanied by my non-birding but exceptionally patient wife. This meant that I was not able to devote all my time to birding, although most of my time was still spent in the field. I make no apologies for stating that the main priority for me on these trips is to see lifers. I tend to work on the basis that if I plan the trip around these birds, other good birds tend to come along. On this trip therefore, as with others, I concentrated my efforts on seeing those birds which I had not seen before. This meant that I did not look for nor see many species which I had seen previously, but which other birders may be seeking. I therefore apologise for not being able to provide site information on these birds, which include such sought after species as Terek Sandpiper, Red-flanked Bluetail, King Eider and Arctic Warbler.
The weather in the first week was very poor, and this had delayed the arrival of many migrant species. I did not meet anyone during my trip who had seen Arctic Warbler nor Terek Sandpiper, and the bluetails were proving very elusive, although they were being seen.
We started in the town of Luleå in northern Sweden, travelling north and east into Finland. We birded sites near Oulu, then Kuusamo, before heading north into Lapland. We crossed the border into Norway, birding the areas of Kongsfjord and Varangerfjord, then headed back south to Luleå via Ivalo.
I was extremely satisfied with the birds I saw on this trip. I succeeded (with a great deal of help) in seeing the large majority of my target species, including 5 species of owl, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Yellow-breasted Bunting, Steller's Eider, Gyrfalcon and Brünnich's Guillemot. Many of the site details given may appear a little vague, but it is difficult to be more specific without maps. Unfortunately, my computer skills are not quite up to that. If you would like any more specific details, however, please do not hesitate to e-mail or write to me.
Although I consider the trip to have been a success, I must point out that the birding was far from easy, and at times very frustrating, especially when the weather was poor. At times, I walked for hours, involving a great deal of effort, without seeing a single identifiable bird. Birds are few and far between in the northern forests. On the other hand, what is lacking in terms of quantity is certainly made up for in terms of quality. There may not be many birds around, but most of them are crackers. The majority of birds that I did see were either lifers, in unfamiliar breeding plumage (Brambling, Lapland Bunting etc), or engaged in behaviour which is rarely if ever seen in the UK. Some of my fondest memories are of songflighting Temminck's Stints, male Ruffs lekking on a frozen pond, surrounded by snow etc. It seemed that every time I'd start to lose heart at the difficulty of the birding, something would turn up which would make it all worthwhile. If you go you won't regret it, but don't expect the birding to be easy.
One last tip - if you take no other luggage at all, whatever you do don't go without wellington boots! Not an hour went by that I didn't thank God that I had taken mine. It's amazing how quickly the driest piece of forest can turn into soaking wet bog.
The main constraint on visiting Scandinavia previously had been the high cost of flying to Finland, and especially of car hire in that country. I have previously been quoted over £450 per week to hire a Ford Fiesta in Helsinki! Eventually I was able to devise a route which involved flying to northern Sweden, hiring a car, and touring northern Scandinavia from there. This actually reduced the costs dramatically, and saved us having to make the long drive north from Stockholm or Göteborg,
The only down side to this was that I overestimated the amount of time I needed to see the northern specialities and we could therefore have spent some time in the south of Finland or Sweden, looking for extra species such as Blyth's Reed Warbler, Thrush Nightingale etc. In fact, I had already recruited the help of a local birder in the town of Tampere to help me see these birds. Unfortunately, one of the conditions attached to the price of the cheap tickets we had booked was that they were not amendable after the time of booking. Nevertheless I would definitely recommend the route we took, as we were covering much less mileage than other birders we met who had flown into Stockholm or Helsinki. In the event, we actually abandoned our return flight (booked for the afternoon of 27.6.98) and took an overnight train to Stockholm (Skr 605, c. £47 each, one-way) arriving early on 27.6.98, and spent the last day and a half on "normal" tourist activities.
We flew on an early morning flight with Ryan Air from London Stansted to Skavsta airport, Nyköping (south of Stockholm), on Saturday 13 June 1998, arriving (from memory) at about 10 a.m.. This cost an amazing £109 each. We took the shuttle bus into Stockholm (90 minutes), and then a bus north to Stockholm Arlanda airport, from which we took a Scandinavian Airline Systems flight at 2 p.m. to Luleå in the north east of Sweden. This flight was prebooked in the UK at the same time as the Ryan Air flight, and cost an incredible £74 for the 600 mile each way trip! Compare that with the price of the train tickets. In case you are wondering why we took the train back down south, rather than flying, the fare we paid with SAS was a specially discounted prebooked rate. We were quoted over £200 each at Luleå for a standby ticket back to Stockholm.
At Luleå airport we collected our hire car, a Vauxhall Astra, booked with Budget in the UK. This was again excellent value at just £187 per week, inclusive of unlimited mileage, CDW, local taxes etc. The only extra charge made was for the petrol we used. This price is much much less than anything I have previously been quoted for Finland, Sweden or Norway and, again from memory, the equivalent quote I received for Finland was some £375 per week. You will definitely need unlimited mileage as part of the deal. We covered just over 5,000 kilometres in 2 weeks, despite not visiting anywhere in either southern Scandinavia or the Swedish mountains. The distances in Lapland are just vast.
Our route was as follows:
Luleå - Skellefteå
Skellefteå - Luleå - Oulu
Oulu - Kuusamo
16 - 18.6.98
Kuusamo - Oulu - Peurasuvanto
Peurasuvanto - Tana
Tana - Kongsfjord - Tana - Jakobselv
Jakobselv - Vardø - Jakobselv
Jakobselv - Tana - Ivalo
Ivalo - Luleå
Train to Stockholm
Stockholm a.m., fly home
Most nights we stayed in cabins on campsites, which we found very easily in most towns and even villages. Campsites are signposted very clearly on road signs, especially in Finland where there are very prominent blue signs. The quality of this accommodation was excellent throughout, and the prices generally came as a very pleasant surprise, with a typical night costing around £20 between us, for a warm comfortable cabin. Some, however, do not have bedding provided. We had taken sheet sleeping bags, and found these to be mostly adequate, although we were a little cold in northern Norway. Interestingly, the quality of the cabins in Finland and Sweden were much superior to those in Norway.
In fairness to my patient and long suffering wife we stayed in a few places which most birders would consider to be extravagantly luxurious (indoor toilets, running water, blankets etc!), but even this was very reasonably priced. We spent 2 night in Kuusamo at the Rantatropikkii cabins, which cost FIM 460 (c. £51) per night for a superb cabin which slept 6 (the price was per cabin, regardless of occupancy). Furthermore, this included a huge buffet breakfast and free unlimited access to the adjacent swimming pool, fitness centre and spa complex (not that I used them!).
I would also heartily recommend the Hotel Martina in the centre of Kuusamo, where a lovely en suite double room cost FIM 320 (c.£35) per night. The food in the restaurant was about the same price as a Beefeater meal, but the quality was in a different league - I can still taste the home made salmon soup now!
Finally, in Jakobselv, Varangerfjord we stayed in a Christian evangelical hostel, which was an incredible bargain. We spent the first night in a 4 bed private room (where there was an 11 p.m. curfew), and the second in a 4 bed cabin (where there wasn't!), each of which cost just Nkr 210 (c. £17) per night in total. Who said Scandinavia was expensive?! They seemed quite happy to allow general tourists like ourselves, as did another similar hostel at Luleå in Sweden, and both were very much cheaper than similar places nearby.
The exchange rates during the time of my visit were as follows:
£1 = Skr 12.93
£1 = FIM 8.92
£1 = Nkr 12.45
There were plenty of cashpoints in most towns allowing cash to be drawn by Eurocheque, Delta, Visa etc. I used my Eurocheque card several times with no difficulties. I had taken a supply of local currency with me as I was not sure how frequent the cashpoints would be, and I did not want to lose valuable birding time looking for one. In the event, there were plenty available in the main birding areas - Oulu, Kuusamo, Rovaniemi, Sodankylä, Ivalo, Vadsø etc.
I have already indicated how reasonably priced we found accommodation costs. Most other costs were broadly in line with those in the UK. Petrol cost around 70 pence per litre which is a little dearer than the UK, but not significantly so. Bottled beer in supermarkets cost around £1 per bottle, which is again on a par. The local beer is excellent - I can particularly recommend Karjala and Lapin Kulta as being well worth a try!
The only time we ate out properly was in Kuusamo, as mentioned above. The rest of the time, we either cooked for ourselves (if the cabins had the facilities) or ate at fast food restaurants - pizza, burgers, fish and chips etc. This rarely cost more than some £6 each.
According to local birders, Northern Scandinavia had experienced a cold wet spring and early summer, and this had delayed the arrival of many birds. From 13.6.98 to 20.6.98 the weather was poor, although not impossible. The weather at Kuusamo was very bad, being both wet and very windy and birding was extremely slow. Walking up Valtavaara in the mist and drizzle, and trying to pick out birdsong in gale force winds was quite a depressing experience. Every birder I met, including locals, seemed to be struggling to see good birds, and single numbers of species at the end of the day were by no means unusual.
However, from 20.6.98 onwards the weather improved greatly, and we hardly saw a cloud for the rest of the trip, and the wind also died down a lot. The conditions in Northern Norway in particular were really exceptional - birding in bright sunshine with snow on the ground at 3 a.m. is an unforgettable experience!
One pleasant surprise was that mosquitoes and other biting insects were virtually absent throughout, (with one or two minor exceptions) although everyone kept telling us that they'd be arriving any day soon! The weather probably helped, although June is nowhere near as much of a problem as July and August.
Where do I start?! So many people helped me with this trip that I am terrified of leaving anyone out. Special thanks are due to those birders who gave up valuable time to assist me in the field, and showed me some of the best birds of the trip - Håkan Engström (Skellefteå), Heikki Karhu (Ivalo), Tommy Pedersen (Vadsø) and Olli (Kuusamo). Also, thanks to Jani Vastamki (Tampere), Dag Korsnes (Tana) and Rolf Gustafsson (Luleå) who offered to guide me, but whom I was unable to meet due to time constraints, and Mika Asikainen who offered me a place on his team for the Annual Kuusamo Bird Race - sadly I was a week too late.
Many other birders provided very valuable assistance during the planning stage, or put me in touch with other birders - thank you to Annika Forsten, Dave Cooper, Juha Piiponen, Heikki Seppänen, Olavi Nyyssönen, Olli Karhu, Tomas Byström, Pirkka Aalto, Niklas Lindberg, Jim Sundberg, Bill Unwin, David Stanley, Dick Forsmann, Martin Helin and Morten Gunther.
Left Stansted at c. 7.00 a.m. on our Ryan Air flight. Arrived at Skavsta airport, Nyköping at 10 a.m. (local time). Bus to Stockholm Central Bus Station. Second bus to Stockholm Arlanda airport, arriving 1 p.m.. This total trip takes the best part of 3 hours, even with quick connections, so allow plenty of time between flights. Caught the 2 p.m. SAS flight to Luleå, arriving at about 3 p.m. Collected hire car from Budget and drove south (80 miles / 130 km) to Skellefteå. Booked into a cabin at Skellefteå Camping - Skr 260 per night. The cabin was quite small, but warm and comfortable with cooking facilities. The campsite was excellent with a shop, TV lounge (well, the football World Cup was on at the time!) and clean bathroom and showers. Cabins with bathrooms were available at extra cost.
I had arranged to phone a local birder, Håkan Engström, that night to arrange to go owling. I spoke to him at 9.30 p.m., and he immediately drove up to the campsite to collect me. Two hours later, we had had incredible close-up views of nesting Great Grey, Eagle and Tengmalm's Owls, all in the vicinity of Skellefteå - what a start to the trip! The Great Grey Owls were particularly impressive - a female was on eggs, and while we were watching her the male arrived with a vole. It was getting late in the year to see these birds, but this pair were breeding very late. Håkan surveys these birds and organises nest platforms, and therefore knows where many pairs can be found. With his assistance, you should therefore have a good chance of seeing this species, even well into June. He is happy to assist visiting birders, and can be contacted on his mobile phone on +46 70 684 6462 or by e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org
I was leaving Skellefteå the next day, so Håkan suggested that I contact him a few days before returning to Luleå, and in the meantime he would try to locate Ural Owl for me.
Left Skellefteå and drove around the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia to Oulu, Finland crossing the Swedish-Finnish border at Tornio (no formalities). Distance covered - c. 250 miles.(390 km)
Arrived mid-afternoon, and headed straight to the Virkkula tower near the village of Liminka south of Oulu, which is the most reliable site for Yellow-breasted Bunting. I had hoped to see this bird quite quickly, and continue on the journey to Kuusamo that night. Unfortunately, things did not prove quite so easy.
It appears that the days when these birds nested in the bushes between the car park and the bird tower are gone. This bird appears to have declined badly in Finland in recent years, and one Finnish birder told me that the total estimated Finnish breeding population now amounts to only some 10 pairs. Due to the poor early summer weather, they were late arriving, and only one singing male was being seen regularly at that time, at a distance of some 500 metres. However, it was extremely windy that day, and the bird was not showing at all, despite the attentions of a dozen or so other birders. Several hours of waiting proved fruitless, so I headed for an adjacent tower where another male had been reported briefly, but with no luck. A new complex had just been built and was owned and run by the reserve managers on the car park site. This had a nice coffee bar, and some very pleasant rooms for FIM 340 per night including breakfast. We decided to check in for the night and try again in the morning.
Still no sign of the bird in the morning, with the wind as bad as ever, although a very nice singing male Scarlet Rosefinch provided some compensation. The marsh held some good waders, including Whimbrel, Snipe and Black-tailed Godwits, and there was a large flock of Cranes in the bay, visible from the tower.
With no change in the weather expected for several days we decided to cut our losses and set out on the 140 mile (220 km) drive to Kuusamo. Arrived in Kuusamo mid afternoon, by which time the wind was accompanied by a steady drizzle. Booked into a rather luxurious cabin at Rantatropikkii, some 5 km north of Kuusamo, on the way towards Ruka. Cost FIM 460 per night. If you intend spending any time in Kuusamo, I would strongly recommend an early visit to the Tourist Information Centre (Karhuntassu) at the southern end of town to purchase a copy of the local Tourist map. It is very detailed, with all paths, minor roads, campsites etc shown, and will be invaluable if you meet other birders who give you site info. There are very few reference points otherwise, and it can be difficult finding your way around without it.
I headed firstly for the area of Torangitaival, around Lake Toranki just east of Kuusamo, which is a famous site for both Little and Rustic Bunting. Unfortunately, neither species was apparent. During my entire visit, I met no-one who had seen Rustic Bunting at this site, and Little Buntings were only being heard or, at best, seen fleetingly.
I had arranged to contact a local birder, Heikki Seppänen, to obtain some up to date local info., and possibly arrange some guiding. Heikki had just returned to work after several weeks holiday, and was therefore unable to help, however, he put me in touch with Olli, a friend of his, who met me that night to give me some info.
Unfortunately, Olli had already agreed to act as guide to another visiting birder and was therefore unable to guide me personally. He did however provide me with detailed site info for many of the local specialities, which proved useful. He also took both myself and the other birder that night to a site near the Rantatropikkii complex, where a resident male Capercaillie was defending his territory from all comers. Sure enough, within a few minutes of arriving he appeared from some bushes and chased us back to the car, before perching on the bonnet. The sight of a full grown male Caper in full breeding plumage perched on my windscreen wipers and pecking the window is not one that I will forget in a hurry - magnificent!
After leaving Olli, I headed east to a site near the hamlet of Oravalampi where Olli knew of an occupied Siberian Tit nestbox, but despite finding the box quite quickly an hour's stakeout at a safe distance produced no results - probably too late in the day. By this time, I was beginning to realise just how difficult Finnish forest birding was going to be!
I started the day with a return visit to Oravalampi, and this time got wonderful views over a two hour period of a male Siberian Tit bringing food to the female sitting on her eggs. This is an extremely distinctive bird with very pale plumage, giving it a ghost-like appearance as it flies between the trees.
A return visit was made to see the Caper, accompanied by my disbelieving, then astonished, then highly amused wife. I then headed to the fabled Valtavaara full of hope for the birds I was going to see. Several hours later, shattered, soaking wet and very disillusioned, with only some nice male Bramblings to my name, I returned to Kuusamo. I am sure that Valtavaara has some wonderful birds but on a wet and windy day it is extremely hard work! I met about half a dozen other birders that day, and the sum total of interesting birds seen amounted to one Hazelhen!
Siberian Jays were supposedly quite easy to see a little earlier in the year at the car park at the bottom of Valtavaara ridge. However, by the time of my visit it appears that the young had fledged, and the family parties were therefore much more mobile, and less dependant on handouts from tourists. I met many people who failed to see this bird.
Hazelhen were being seen sporadically on the lower slopes of Valtavaara and Kontainen (the hill behind the car park), but I failed to see or hear one despite much searching.
Pine Grosbeaks had been seen overflying the car park occasionally, and apparently on one occasion taking grit at the side of the road, although I didn't actually meet anyone who had seen one.
Red-flanked Bluetails were being seen reasonably regularly, although the high winds were making it far from easy. Furthermore, they were primarily being seen some distance to the left of the track up Valtavaara. Fortunately, I have seen one previously in Dorset, so I decided not to spend time searching for these, although I heard one singing briefly from the roadside downhill from the car park.
Greenish Warblers were also elusive. A Finnish birder told me that a few weeks previously they were singing and therefore quite easy to find, but that it was now getting late in the season and this, together with the awful weather made them very difficult.
I met one couple who had seen Parrot Crossbill, but no-one else. This bird is highly nomadic at this time of year, and it is almost impossible to predict where it might turn up. There were reports of Broad-billed Sandpiper at a marsh some 30 km west of Kuusamo. I didn't need this bird, and so didn't make the attempt, but I met a few other birders who had tried, but with no success. I heard of no sightings of Arctic Warbler, Two-barred Crossbill or Three-toed Woodpeckers (all of which I have seen previously so I didn't spend time looking).
By the time I returned to Kuusamo, the rain had stopped and it had brightened up. A brief visit to Torangitaival produced a Grey-headed Wagtail and a distant Little Bunting called in response to a tape played by some Swedish birders but didn't show. Again, I had seen a couple of these previously and so resisted the temptation to follow them into the soaking wet undergrowth in search of it!
Stayed again at Rantatropikkii, north of Kuusamo.
Woke very early, only to find that the rain was worse than ever. Headed back to Ruka for an unproductive and wet thrash around the lower slopes of Valtavaara and Kontainen in search of Hazelhen. Returned to the car in the hope that a Siberian Jay or Pine Grosbeak would make one of their reputed visits to the car park, and promptly fell asleep! Woke up with a jump two hours later to the sound of calling Siberian Jays, only to find Olli pishing loudly behind my car!
Decided on another hike up Valtavaara, via the "bluetail route", i.e. across a bog and several streams, then up a very steep slope through thick undergrowth. Didn't see a single bird until I arrived at the shelter (laavu) by the lake at the top of the third hill. Then I heard what sounded like a party of Siberian Jays calling from the other side of the lake. Five minutes later, and a quick hike around the right hand side of the lake and I found myself in the middle of a family party of 5+ of these fantastic birds. I have always believed that the amount of pleasure you get from seeing a new bird is directly related to the amount of effort involved in seeing it. Well, here was the proof!
Nothing else was showing so I decided to head for some sites south of Kuusamo, where Olli had provided some details for Greenish Warbler and Parrot Crossbills. Unfortunately, I had no luck with either of these birds, and in fact the only bird of interest I saw was a Chiffchaff of the Scandinavian abietinus race at the village of Sarkkasuo.
Another visit to Torangitaival produced no buntings, although 2 each of Smew and Wood Sandpipers from the bird tower were satisfying. Met three Dutch birders who had just seen a Rustic Bunting at a site called Ronkaisenniemi, just south of Kuusamo. Headed out there collecting an English couple en route, and spent the rest of the evening at that site. No sign of any Rustics, although it was a nice little spot, with drumming Snipe overhead, plenty of Reed Buntings, White Wagtails and a Bullfinch.
Moved from Rantatropikkii to the Hotel Martina, in the centre of Kuusamo. I can't recommend this place highly enough. It was half the price of other hotels in the area, at FIM 320 per night, the rooms were great with our own TV, and the restaurant was just fantastic. The food was traditional Finnish cooking, and the quality was superb - made a very nice change from pizza and burgers!
A return early morning visit to Ronkaisenniemi still produced no Rustic Buntings, so I headed back to Valtavaara. There I met an English birder (Sorry - didn't get your name, but I'm very grateful for the tip!) who had just seen Rustic Buntings at a village called Kalliojärvi, east of Ruka, so I went straight there. The site itself involved parking near a bridge, and walking several hundred yards through dense waterlogged birch scrub along the river. Eventually I managed to get flight views of a male Rustic, and good views of a perched female - what a relief! I also had 4 Siskin here and drumming Snipe overhead.
A visit to a cut area of woodland just east of Valtavaara ridge, on the way back to Ruka for a reported Great Grey Shrike produced only a Grey-headed Wagtail on top of a pine tree. Almost every time I saw one of these birds it was perched on top of a tree or bush. I've never seen this behaviour from any of the other "races of Yellow Wagtail" that I have seen (Yellow, Blue-headed, Black-headed or Sykes') - an adaptation to the terrain it inhabits or an indication of specific status?
The rest of the day was spent in "normal" tourist activities around Ruka and Kuusamo, before retiring to our room to watch the World Cup. Stayed again at the Hotel Martina, Kuusamo.
I am afraid that by now I had become very disillusioned with the Kuusamo area, and I therefore decided to move on. Interestingly, this sentiment was shared by several other birders I met, who felt that the area had been a bit of an anticlimax. I think the problem is that the list of potential birds to be seen is so mouthwatering that you fail to really appreciate that most of them are far from easy to see. Consequently, you soon become frustrated at your failure to quickly "tick them off". In reality, very few birders manage to see all the specialities, and some such as Broad-billed Sandpiper, Pine Grosbeak and Two-barred Crossbill are extremely elusive and seen by very few. The dreadful weather didn't help either.
The birder who had given me the site details for the Rustic Bunting had just travelled up from Oulu. He informed me that the weather there had improved, that there were now a few singing Yellow-breasted Buntings around, and that the one at Virkkula near Liminka was showing again.
Although the plan was to head north towards Ivalo, I had a little spare time before I was scheduled to meet my next Scandinavian contact, and I therefore decided to make an early start from Kuusamo, and return to Oulu. We arrived at Virkkula in late morning, and I was immediately put on to the singing male bunting. The views were actually very distant at about 500 metres, although its plumage and song were sufficiently distinctive to allow a positive identification. Maybe I'll have to wait until I visit the Far East for a better view. By this time the rain had stopped, and we enjoyed nothing but excellent weather for the rest of the trip
Having finally seen this bird, we then headed north through Kemi, Rovaniemi, and Sodankylä to our scheduled rest stop at the village of Peurasuvanto, some 100 km south of Ivalo. This was a tiring day on the road, covering a total of some 400 miles (630 km). We stayed the night in a cabin at Peurasuvannon Siltamajat, on the bank of the river Kitinen. The cabins were very pleasant with en suite shower and toilet, but a little expensive at FIM 350 per night. Cheaper cabins without shower and toilet were also available at FIM 250 per night, but we felt like a little luxury after the long drive! Food was also available although we cooked our own in our cabin.
The reason we stayed at this particular cabin site was that it is run by a local birder Olavi Nyyssönen (Fax +358 16 636721), who I had contacted before leaving the UK. The immediate vicinity was a prime area for Hawk Owl and Olavi, a professional bird guide, had agreed to try to find this bird for me - his fee was FIM 300 for three hours guiding.
I have to say that this morning was something of a disappointment. Olavi knew the location of a nest, which he showed me, but unfortunately we were about a week too late, and the birds had flown. Despite extensive searching we were unsuccessful in our attempts to see this bird, although we met a couple of local fishermen who had seen one fly past that morning. Furthermore, not only did we not see the Hawk Owl, but we also saw very few other birds, possibly due to a rather late start - late morning in these northern woods is very hard work. We heard a singing male Rustic Bunting, but it was on the far side of a wide stream which we were unable to cross. We also managed to get lost in some thick forest for about half an hour, which was actually pretty scary, as we could have been wandering around for days. It was pure chance that we eventually found the car again.
If you are passing by this area earlier in the year, say before the end of May, I would suggest that you stop by and ask Olavi if he can guide you to a nest site for these birds. However, if they have left the nest, then I can think of many better ways of spending FIM 300. At this time, the birds could be anywhere and I would think you stand just as much chance of seeing one by yourselves by driving the minor roads and tracks in the area, but be careful not to get lost.
Having left Peurasuvanto I headed back south again for a few kilometres to a small marsh on the west side of the road near Petkula. I am afraid that I can't remember the name of the marsh - it was very distinctive with a wide parking area on the east side, and a winding boardwalk leading out westwards over the marsh to a tower overlooking a lake. This was undoubtedly the most dilapidated boardwalk I have ever walked on - it was very narrow, frequently sank under you and submerged your feet in water, occasionally swayed from side to side in a most alarming manner, and had many loose and wobbly planks which caught you unawares! If it was in a theme park, you could charge people for a walk along it!
The marsh was a site for Broad-billed Sandpiper and Jack Snipe, but neither was apparent during my brief visit. Some consolation was provided by a couple of male Smew on the lake from the tower.
Then, northwards again towards the Norwegian border. We stopped for a few hours at the town of Inari to visit the Same Museum, which is dedicated to the history, traditions and life of the Same, (or Lapp) people. This was fascinating, and well worth a stop. The bulk of the museum is open air, set amongst the pine forests, and many genuine old buildings etc have been brought here and re-erected in a natural setting.
Buzzards became more evident north of Inari, and a brief stop near Merasjärvi produced a confirmed Rough-legged Buzzard. There were probably lots more of these birds en route, but we had too much distance to cover to stop and check each soaring buzzard we saw.
We crossed the Finnish-Norwegian border at Utsjoki, and followed the Tenojoki river eastwards to Tana. The English birder I had met at Valtavaara on 18.6.98 had given me details of a road-side Gyrfalcon eyrie near the town of Harrelv, some 30 km north of Tana, on the road towards Kongsfjord. The site seemed to be very well known among Scandinavian birders, and the birds had apparently bred there successfully for several years. I arrived at the site late evening, and immediately picked up an adult Gyr flying along the cliff face - what a bird! It was actually easy to pick up by following the cries of the Herring Gulls (argentatus race) which also bred on the cliff face.
We then returned back to Tana to find some accommodation for the night, and stayed in a cabin at Camping Tana Bru. This was quite run down, and cost a depressing Nkr 350 for a night in a very cold cabin, with no bedding or cooking facilities, and very average washrooms. There was also a motel on site, which looked better, but was full. The guide books suggested a greater choice of accommodation but this was not apparent, and by this time it was about 10 p.m. so too late to look around.
Another long day on the road - about 240 miles (385 km). The scenery is northernmost Finland can get very monotonous, but the roads are excellent and very quiet, although the 90 km speed limit gets tedious. The weather all day was glorious - cloudless and quite hot at times.
Today probably goes down as the best birding day of the trip, and yet it was the only birding day which didn't produce a lifer! We spent most of the day on the road between Tana and Kongsfjord, on the Arctic Ocean - just being there was a real thrill in itself. There was snow on the ground throughout, the weather was absolutely perfect, without a cloud in sight and no wind, we practically had the place to ourselves, and almost every bird we saw was noteworthy. The highlights included Scaup and Long-tailed Duck displaying on a small lake in the middle of a village (?Gedense), some half a dozen Ruff in full breeding plumage lekking and displaying on a frozen canal right alongside the car, Temminck's Stints calling from a roadside crash barrier, before launching into their wonderful and bizarre parachuting songflight overhead, Lapland Buntings, Dunlin and Golden Plover in glorious full breeding plumage, tame roadside Shorelarks and Mealy Redpolls, and occasional flurries of excitement as Long-tailed Skuas flew past. Lapland birding at its best.
Late afternoon we returned to Tana and headed east to the Varangerfjord. This is one of those places, like the Coto Doñana, Hortobagy, Bialowieska etc which I had read about and dreamed of visiting since I was about eight years old, and the thrill of seeing roadsigns with magical names like Nesseby, Vadsø and Vardø was wonderful - another ambition realised.
A brief stop at the famous church at Nesseby produced 2 Red-necked Phalaropes, not on the pool but on the inlet below the church. Other good birds included summer plumaged Bar-tailed Godwits and the first of very many Arctic Terns. It was getting late so we pressed on to Vadsø to find accommodation. Unfortunately, the town's only camp site with cabins was closed, and the price of hotel accommodation just astronomical, but we were directed back westwards to Vestre Jakobselv, where there was a camp site (Jakobselv Camping) run by a Christian Evangelical organisation. This provided the bargain of the trip. We spent the first night in a very comfortable private room, and the second in a cabin. Each slept four people and cost just Nkr 210 per night. The room was more comfortable, being warmer, but was situated in the main building, on which there is a 11 p.m. curfew - not much use for all night Arctic birding - but the cabin was perfectly adequate, and much more private.
The day's travelling was very relaxed, covering some 110 miles (180 km) over about a 14 hour period, and the scenery was absolutely spectacular throughout.
I had arranged to meet a local birder, Tommy Pedersen, at 9 p.m. when he came off duty. Tommy was a pilot for a local airline, and spent alternate weeks on duty based at Vadsø, and at rest at his home in Oslo. Fortunately for Tommy, but unfortunately for future visitors to the Varangerfjord, he has since obtained a better job with Braathens, and now works from Oslo, but will probably be able to provide a great deal of information on birding the Varanger area, even if he cannot guide you personally. He can be contacted on email@example.com
In the meantime, I was eager to see my two main target species for this area, Steller's Eider and Brünnich's Guillemot. The most reliable way to see Brünnich's Guillemot is to visit the island of Hornøya, near the town of Vardø on the eastern end of the fjord. A poster in the reception area of Jakobselv Camping stated that boat trips were run several times daily from Vardø harbour, and that you should telephone the harbourmaster to arrange a crossing. Having done so, I drove straight to Vardø to catch the boat. The whole set-up was quite informal but extremely friendly and a thoroughly pleasant experience. The boat had been out earlier in the day to drop off some other birders, including a tour run by Jari Peltomaki's company Finnature, based in Liminka.
Only myself was waiting to travel at the appointed time, but the boat's captain was quite happy to take me over. I cannot recall the exact cost of the trip, but it was in the region of £10. The weather was again bright and sunny, but quite windy, and the boat was very small, so the crossing was interesting to say the least. There was nowhere to sit on deck, the boat was pitching and rolling ferociously, and occasionally waves would sweep over the deck. I was perched on the step of the wheelhouse, trying to keep myself as dry as possible and hanging on to both my optics and the wheelhouse door for dear life. At one point we were hit by a particularly big wave, the boat pitched to an angle of about 30 degrees and I honestly thought I was going overboard!
On landing on Hornøya, a large colony of auks was visible on a cliff straight in front of the landing site, and birds were floating on the sea and flying to and fro the whole time. Just like Skomer, Pembrokeshire in late May! A number of Brünnich's Guillemot were quickly located at close range on the cliff above, allowing easy comparison with accompanying Northern Guillemots. While the white gape line is easily visible, by far the most distinctive field mark was the very clean white flanks, lacking the grey smudges shown by Northern Guillemots. Once this has been identified, birds could be picked up easily on the cliffs, on the sea, and even in flight (although be aware of Razorbills!). The Brünnich's also seemed to nest in small groups of their own, usually lower down the cliffs than the Northerns, rather than mixed in with them.
Also noteworthy were the large number of the Bridled form of Northern Guillemots seen - this morph gets commoner as you travel further north. Razorbills, Puffins and Kittiwakes were also very common, and a dark-phase Long-tailed Skua flew over. After an hour admiring the auks, it was time to catch the return boat back to Vardø.
On the return trip, a drake King Eider was seen on the sea, although the pitching of the boat made good views difficult. This is a difficult bird to see in Varanger in mid-summer, although this male bird had been seen regularly in the Vardø area, and another had been reported from Hamningberg, further to the east. I had only recently made the trip to the Ythan Estuary in Aberdeenshire to see the regular drake there, so I didn't spend any more time looking for the Vardø bird - I was to keen to see Steller's Eider.
After returning to the car in Vardø, I returned slowly westwards along the fjord towards Vadsø, stopping to scan every bay for the Steller's. I was a little concerned following a conversation with an English birder in Kuusamo, who said that while he had seen reasonable numbers of Steller's, he had only seen one breeding-plumaged male. Seeing this bird but not seeing a nice male seemed inconceivable, so I wanted to spend as much time as possible trying to find one. I eventually arrived at the village of Skallelv, where I spotted a flock of duck on the sandbank on the west side of the river estuary. I drove down a track along the east side until I was opposite the flock and upon scanning it was delighted to find that they were primarily Steller's Eider, with a few Common Eiders thrown in for handy size comparison. A total of 155 Steller's were counted, of which 16 were beautiful males in full breeding plumage - the jackpot!
Three Arctic Skuas (two light, one dark) flew around very near the car just outside Skallelv, before settling on the ground nearby. Further stops produced large numbers of Common Eiders all along the shore, before a further flock of 20 Steller's (including 2 breeding males) were found near Ekkerøy.
We returned to Jakobselv for a rest before meeting Tommy Pedersen at 9 p.m. for a late night birding session. A nesting Shorelark was found on rough ground near the Lailas hotel in Vadsø. We then spent the next five hours between Vadsø and Skallelv, the highlights of which included Rough-legged Buzzard, Red-throated Diver, Glaucous Gull, Arctic Redpoll, Long-tailed Duck Red-throated Pipit and Arctic Skuas. Finally, on returning to Vadsø at around 2 a.m., we found a large flock (c. 250) of Steller's Eiders, including many breeding males, in Vadsø harbour. The night was spent again at Jakobselv Camping.
It was time to leave Varangerfjord, and head southwards again. Time for a return visit to Harrelv, however, for another look at the Gyrfalcons - this was too good a bird to see just once. When we arrived at the eyrie mid-morning a group of Swedes I had already bumped into at Oulu, Kuusamo and Ekkerøy were in place and watching the eyrie - small world! Unfortunately, despite a 2 hour wait the adults failed to show, but there was plenty of compensation in excellent views of the 4 almost fully grown young on the nest - wonderful birds.
On leaving Harrelv, we headed south to Finland, crossing the border at Nuorgam, this time following the south bank of the Tenojoki river to Utsjoki. One bird that had constantly eluded me throughout the trip was Willow Grouse, and this bank of the river was supposed to be a good site, but unfortunately no luck, and I never did see this bird.
I was heading for Ivalo where another birder, Heikki Karhu firstname.lastname@example.org had agreed to help me have another look for Hawk Owl. Heikki was another fantastically helpful birder who made an enormous difference to my enjoyment of the trip. He had previously told me to phone him when I arrived at Ivalo, but I was a little worried that this would impose on him too much. Heikki didn't seem at all concerned, however - ten minutes after my phone call he turned up, and off we went. Only the previous day Heikki and his son Olli (who gave me a great deal of information and provided some valuable contact names during the planning stages) had found a pair of Hawk Owls and four young near the town of Mustola, north-east of Ivalo near the border with Russia.
The young were already starting to fly, and would soon become very hard to find, but for the present appeared faithful to the nest area. On arriving at the site, we quickly located the young birds by their persistent begging calls, but no sign of the adult birds. A Waxwing was heard calling as it flew over. During the next two hours we watched the young birds extensively, and even managed to catch one bird by hand and ring it - the look of surprise on its face was wonderful but it seemed unaffected by its ordeal and resumed normal behaviour very quickly after it was released.
After about two and half hours of waiting, we gave up on the adults and starting leaving the site. In true birding fashion, at that exact moment, an adult bird (Heikki believed it to be the female) flew into the copse of trees, and perched over our heads, at a distance of about 10 metres. This is definitely a bird that looks even better in real life than it does in the books, and was probably one of the highlights of my birding life to date - a quite magnificent bird. Some geographical context was provided by the sight of a guard tower on a hill on the horizon - that was the border with Russia!
We then returned to Ivalo, said goodbye to Heikki, and booked in a cabin at Näverniemi Lomakylä, on the southern edge of town; excellent value with a large en suite cabin for just FIM 200 per night - highly recommended. A quick phone call to Håkan Engström in Skellefteå produced the exciting news that he might have located a nesting Ural Owl for me near Luleå - what a day! Total mileage covered was about 220 miles (350 km).
The day was spent on the long trip back southwards to Luleå - a distance of 260 miles (420 km). Non-birding stops were made at Rovaniemi and Haparanda, and in Luleå itself. We spent this night and the next at another Christian Evangelical campsite called ERS Sundet just outside Luleå. A very pleasant room cost Skr 350 per night, the whole place was very clean and well-maintained, there were plenty of showers and 2 TV rooms. There were also plenty of cheap places to eat nearby, including one very good value Italian restaurant, the name of which unfortunately escapes me. The cabin site was partially occupied by a group of Christian youngsters, but they didn't seem to mind accepting general tourists like ourselves. There was no curfew, and we were left totally to ourselves. As an indication of the great value of these places, the only other campsite we located in the Luleå area was asking around Skr 900 per night for a cabin!
The day was spent at leisure on non-birding activities in Luleå and the nearby town of Boden. I phoned Håkan late afternoon, who had driven with his wife Ulrika the 80 miles from Skellefteå to Luleå to meet me - where else would you see this kind of hospitality and helpfulness?! We drove north west to a place near Boden where a friend of his had informed him that a pair of Ural Owls had nested. These normally nest earlier in the year, and are usually very difficult to see after the end of May, but as with the Skellefteå Great Grey Owls this pair was nesting late.
When we arrived at the site, Håkan quickly located the nest box, but it was empty - the birds had obviously flown, and could be anywhere in the surrounding forest. Just as I was resigning myself to a night time return visit, we heard the female calling from some nearby birch trees, and Ulrika soon picked up the bird perched on an open branch. This species is notoriously aggressive near nest and young, and customarily attacks the faces of intruding humans. This bird was giving its warning call so we didn't approach too closely, and in any case it was near enough to allow quite superb telescope views. This bird was again much more impressive than it looks in the books. Most of the pictures I have seen suggest a rather plain bird, but it was in fact beautifully plumaged, with incredibly intricate feather patterns, and a placid facial expression which seemed at odds with its reputation. A wonderful bird, and all the more pleasant as I had not expected to see one so late in the year.
A final stop at a site where a Black Woodpecker nest had been reported produced 2 almost fully grown birds at the nest hole, but unfortunately no adult birds were seen, although at least one was heard drumming. A Three-toed Woodpecker was also seen briefly here. A fitting end to the trip was the chance discovery of another late Great Grey Owl sitting on a nest - Great Grey and Ural Owls within an hour of each other - not bad at all! The night was again spent at EFS Camping, Luleå
The day was spent at leisure in Luleå, then we caught the overnight train to Stockholm.
At leisure in Stockholm. The only birding interest was the Scandinavian race of Jackdaw, with a distinctive white mark on the neck, common in the centre of the city.
All day in Stockholm, then caught the bus to Skavsta for the 8 p.m. flight to Stansted.
Sites mentioned are as follows:
Byske, Harrvauken, Töre, Rolfs - small towns between Skellefteå and Tornio, Sweden.
Virkkula - the area around the main bird tower signposted as Liminganlahti opastuskeskus, just east of the village of Liminka, south of Oulu, Finland
Torangitaival - the road between Lakes Toranki and Kuusamo, east of the Tourist Info Centre in Kuusamo, Finland
Rantatropikkii - an area of cabins, hotel and spa complex 5 km north of Kuusamo towards Ruka, Finland
Oravalampi - a small village east of Kuusamo, Finland
Valtavaara, Kontainen - the famous wooded ridge east of Ruka, Finland. Head north from Ruka, until you see Viipus Camping on the RHS. Take the next tarmac road to the right, The road starts to climb between two hills, then you will see a car park on the LHS. Kontainen is the hill to the north of the car park. Valtavaara (literally 7 hills) is the ridge to the south. It is generally considered worthwhile walking as far as the third hill, which is the one with a small shelter (laavu) signposted to the left, on the shore of a small lake.
Sarkkasuo - a hamlet south of Kuusamo, Finland. Nothing special here.
Valivaara - a smaller ridge just west of and parallel with Valtavaara, Finland
Ronkaisseniemi - a small village a few kilometres south of Kuusamo, Finland, to the east of the road to Kajaani. Nice looking area of marsh, where Rustic Buntings were reported.
Kalliojärvi - a small hamlet east of Ruka, Finland.
Kemi - large town in Finland, at the junction of the coast road from Luleå to Oulu, and the road north to Lapland.
Peurasuvanto - small village between Sodankylä and Ivalo, Finland
Merasjärvi - village north of Inari, Finland on the way to Utsjoki.
Harrelv - village in Norway, on the road between Tana and Kongsfjord
Kongsfjord - this term refers to the stretch of road between Harrelv and Kongsfjord village, not the village itself
Nyborg, Nesseby, Vadsø, Vardø, Kramvik, Kvalnes, Skallelv, Jakobselv, Krampenes, Ekkerøy - villages along the northern shore of the Varangerfjord, Norway
Hornøya - offshore island reached by boat from Vardø, Norway
Mustola - village north east of Ivalo, Finland near the Russian border
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