The problem with moving flat is that it takes up valuable blogging time! Jem and I have just moved, and with all the kerfuffle that goes along with that my Finland report has had to be put on the back-burner. Until now…
Back in 2008 I saved up to book a Naturetrek holiday to Finland for the following Easter. Sadly, it had to be cancelled after only one other person booked – presumably because of the credit crunch having just hit hard. Instead I was given the option of switching to a Sweden tour, which turned out to be a great tour which I thoroughly enjoyed, and one which also got me several of the same species that I was hoping for: Great Grey Owl, Pygmy Owl, Tengmalm’s Owl, Ural Owl, Three-toed and Black Woodpeckers, plus White-tailed Eagles and a Wryneck. In fact, Sweden was so good that I returned for a winter tour a few years later.
However, I’ve still had my heart set on birding in Finland, and after seeing Jari Peltomaki’s presentation at last year’s Birdfair Jem and I finally got things together and booked it – this time via Birdfinders. It was a four-day trip led by Finnature’s Antti Vierimaa and Birdfinders’ Peter Lansdown.
We flew to Helsinki and then straight on to Oulu (pronounced, aptly, “owl-oo”). We stayed in the airport hotel, but it was a bit different from any airport hotels I’ve stayed in before. Our room had large windows looking directly onto reedbeds and a large expanse of water. A small stream to the left brought us a male Pied Flycatcher before we’d even opened our luggage, and an Osprey floated across the wetland behind. We met up a few minutes later with the rest of the group and explored the reedbeds and wetland. This brought us a Marsh Harrier, lots of waders (Wood Sandpiper being the stand-out species here), plus both Common and Arctic Terns. After a fine dinner of lamb chops we got into the minibuses and went out for the first ‘proper’ birding of the tour.
The evening sun lit at least three Short-eared Owls beautifully, and we also stopped several times to watch dozens of Ruff in breeding plumage and lots of Yellow Wagtails too. The first proper stop took us to a Tengmalm’s Owl nest box but there was no response. With a mild winter and early spring it appeared this family may have left already. Eventually we moved onto a second site. We watched a water vole in a small stream on the woodland boundary before reaching a well-hidden nest box, with its occupant lazily looking out. What did surprise me was this owl’s relaxed attitude. The one Tengmalm’s Owl I’d seen before in Sweden – and almost every one I’d seen in photos and video – displayed an obviously annoyed glare at all times. This one looked like it couldn’t have cared less. It was very gloomy and so we left after everyone had had a look. We made our way back to the hotel, seeing at least one more Short-eared Owl on the way.
We had to be at the minibuses by 3am for the next morning – there’s 19 hours of daylight in that part of Finland at this time of the year – to go looking for Great Grey Owls. On the way we briefly stopped to watch Black Grouse on their lek in the early morning sunlight. Almost as soon as we’d parked and got out we got a brief glimpse of a Great Grey flying across a meadow and into the woods, presumably with its breakfast. Walking towards the forest we heard our first Cuckoo and then a flock of trilling Waxwings passed over our heads. Some of us also saw something fly across the path in front and into the forest – potentially a Hazel Grouse – but there was no way of confirming. Hazel Grouse – or Hazelhen, as I prefer – have become a problem bird for me, second only to the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker…but more on that in Part Three…
We entered the forest and soon found ourselves watching a Ural Owl nest box (from a safe distance). The female was sat inside, with just the top of her head an an occasional eye visible. After a few minutes we continued through the forest until we found the Great Grey nest. The hen was sat on it, occasionally looking over in our direction, and a few minutes later the male arrived. He seemed reluctant to actually approach the nest though, so we retreated. It was surprising how close the Great Greys and Urals nest to each other, with no apparent problems. On the way back to the minibuses we watched Crested Tits high in the tree canopy.
Following this we moved out into a clearing so that we could have some for refreshments. Here we tried in vain for Black Woodpeckers but instead we got a pair of confiding Wrynecks, which was great. I’d seen one once before, on my first trip to Sweden, and it was remarkable how similar the habitats were – so much so that I’d have believed it if I’d been told I was actually in the same place as before. We moved on to another Tengmalm’s Owl nest box for better views than we’d had the previous evening. We weren’t disappointed, although the owl refused to look in my direction so I couldn’t get a photo of a direct glare. This bird was behaving far more typically of the species than the one we’d seen the previous evening. A short distance away we got a singing Ortolan Bunting – only my second, and a very good view it was – before we made our way back to the hotel for breakfast and some rest. While we were back here I went outside to the wetland tower and saw my first ever Little Tern (lifelist #402), and then a nice male Common Redstart by the stream.
The afternoon birding was a little more sedate as we roved around areas of open country. We checked out a small urban pond, which had a very nice male Slavonian Grebe on it – albeit fairly distant from where we were, and then we moved to a strange bit of urban wasteland which had Mountain Hares and Wood Sandpipers. We moved off into the countryside again for Dotterel and soon got a flock of four flying off into the distance, but for me the views weren’t good enough to tick them off – they were just nonspecific waders in silhouette – and another hunting Short-eared Owl arrived and took away my attention anyway. We got a second Ortolan Bunting nearby as we tried – and failed – to relocate the Dotterel, plus several Black-tailed Godwits in a large field before we headed back for a buffet dinner and some much-needed sleep.