Yikes. I’ve neglected my blog, and now I’ve got loads of stuff stacked up. Time clear the backlog…
In May of 2014 Jem and I went on Birdfinders’ 4-day owl tour to Finland. Overall it was a great birding tour, well-guided, and with lots of great views of some very special birds. Unfortunately Jem’s illness on the final morning meant we stayed behind in the hotel for the morning’s birding, and that lead to me missing out on most of the species I’d wanted to see most. With the exception of Hawk Owl and Little Tern, I came away from Finland without any having seen any new species. Hawk Owl was my priority target – so it could’ve been a lot worse – but there were a number of species that I’d really wanted to see which the group successfully found on that final day.
So, I borrowed some money and decided to return this year. It was exactly the same tour, with the same guides: Peter Lansdown for Birdfinders and Antti Vierimaa for Finnature – so straight away I new that this was going to be an enjoyable trip again.
For the record, the species we missed out on the final morning last year were: Red-flanked Bluetail, Rustic Bunting, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Willow Grouse and Smew. On top of this we missed a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker that flew through our hotel car park whilst we were checking out on the third day, and our views of Dotterel flying away against a bright sky meant we didn’t feel we’d really seen them – certainly not well enough to identify anything diagnostic. Since then we’ve managed to find Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Smew and the Red Grouse subspecies of Willow Grouse so they were no longer important targets for me.
The big one, however, was Hazelhen. I’d heard one peeping from in the deep forest on my first trip to Sweden in 2009, we completely failed to find any on my second trip to Sweden in 2012, and in Finland last year I somehow managed to be the only person in the entire group who didn’t see one (due to my location at the back of the second minibus) when two were spotted by a forest track. Even Jem saw them, briefly. I did hear one again though, near to the Pygmy Owl site. With Lesser Spotted Woodpecker finally seen earlier this spring after years of attempts and extraordinary near-misses, Hazelhen was my new top target species.
Right, I’d better get on with things and actually begin the tour report…
I will, however, begin with a mention of the evening preceding the tour. Due to the early flight out of Heathrow on the Friday morning and the fact that we no longer live in Putney, I spent the night in the cheapest hotel I could find near to the airport. The EasyHotel – part of the EasyJet brand – is quite bizarre. Nestled at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac in Harlington, it has all the expected bright orange livery of EasyJet’s planes. It has a real university halls-of-residence feel about it, with narrow corridors, minimal staff and facilities and tiny rooms similar to boat cabins, complete with an en-suite shower-and-loo ‘wet-room’ combo that was small enough that you could actually sit on the toilet and shower at the same time. And it was all made of the thick wipe-clean plastic and metal that you find in new train carriages. Absolutely functional, clean and practical, but just a bit weird at the same time. From my window I could watch planes taking off from the end of Runway 09L.
After three short hours’ sleep I was up and out listening to a Blackbird which was, despite the darkness, singing cheerily opposite the bus stop. I met up with Peter and the rest of group in the terminal and everything went as planned, arriving at Helsinki pretty much to schedule. Just before we boarded our follow-on flight to Oulu we noticed the destination on the screen above the gate change to Copenhagen. Bemused, we asked the staff what was going on and we were told that we would need to go to a different gate to catch another plane because “this plane is broken”. We were probably delayed only about an hour in total, and Antti was there to meet us at Oulu. Compared with last year, the noticeable difference was the weather. It was raining fairly heavily, and was quite cool. Last year we had almost unbroken sunshine and unseasonal scorching temperatures throughout much of the daytime. After getting settled in the hotel we had a wander along the stream out the back to the edge of the bay. Arctic and Common Terns were flying around, and there was a nice group of Ruff – with the males displaying in their breeding plumage. Garganey, Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Wood Sandpiper, Knot, Snipe and Common Crane were also seen. Pied Flycatchers and Fieldfares were around the hotel car park, and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was heard calling too.
We went back in for dinner (just as the rain finally stopped and things began to dry up), and then went out for the first bit of owl hunting. My big plan had been to (selfishly) make sure I was in the front minibus this year. Last year Jem and I were in the rear minibus as we were picked up at the airport and the groups stuck to their respective vehicles throughout the tour – which was what worked against me with the Hazelhens. I made sure I was in Antti’s minibus this time, and I felt smug that my plan was working.
Firstly we located a pair of Ural Owls near to their nest. They weren’t that far away from us, and the pine trees weren’t too dense, but it was incredibly difficult to get binoculars and scopes onto them, simply because every narrow tree looked identical to the one next to it! Every so often I managed to get my bins onto one of the birds as it perched on a branch, but no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t find it with my camera. Then we drove on towards a Pygmy Owl site. On the way we had great views of Black Grouse which had flown up and perched onto some bare trees in a woodland clearing, and we also saw female Capercaillie too. Antti saw a brief Hazelhen at one point, but the rest of us didn’t manage to get onto it. The Pygmy Owl site didn’t work for us this time. Antti tried his best in the hope that the male would be nearby and would come and investigate, but he decided not to show. A Goshawk was squawking from a nest nearby too, but it was too sensitive a site for us to have a look. A couple of us spotted a Goldcrest flitting in the trees above, but we had to give up on the Pygmy Owl and return to the hotel. On the way we stopped at a very open area with just a few dead trees, but one of which contained a Hawk Owl nest hole. Nothing appeared from the nest itself, but an adult owl soon appeared from behind us and called from a treetop. It really gave us a great look at how it got its name: when I first saw it in flight I was convinced for a second I was watching a Sparrowhawk.
Day Two began with my worst nightmare: as we waited in the car park to get into the minibuses, a request was made for us to rotate personnel as not everybody in the second minibus had seen the Black Grouse as well as we had the previous evening. I knew right then that my chances of finally seeing a Hazelhen were diminishing fast. As we left the hotel and made our way through Oulu I got a very brief glimpse of a Short-eared Owl flying across a field and out of sight behind a strip of trees, but I was the only person to see it. And of course, Hazelhen was seen by the front vehicle as we made our way through the forest, but not by the rest of us. A stop by a woodland margin brought my first tick of the tour (and crossed one off the target list): a Rustic Bunting that was initially elusive and flighty as it sang in the treetops, but which eventually came out and plonked itself nicely on a branch whereby everyone could get a great look (#446 on the lifelist). Crossbills also flew overhead, calling as they went.
After breakfast back at the hotel, we were back out to look for Tengmalm’s Owls. On the way we had a pleasant surprise: a pair of Woodcock sat on a grassy bank right next to the road as we passed an industrial site. Despite being just a couple of metres away from the minibus, they happily posed for photos in the bright sunshine. Then it was on to the Tengmalm’s nesting box. Antti knew there were owlets inside, and we could hear their calls too, but it took a long time before one eventually plucked up the courage to come out and have a look. It was the first Tengmalm’s owlet I’d seen, and it sat in the nest box entrance for some time even showing its feet – the first time I’ve seen more than just a head of this species! At least that proved that they do actually have bodies… After a while we decided to leave the owls in peace, and as we did so I looked back at the box from a side-on angle and got a few quick shots of the owlet poking its head out to make sure we really were leaving. Next was a nesting site for Black Woodpeckers. The trees in this location were mostly fairly low, but they were quite tightly packed together – quite unlike the very open clearing we saw them at last year – but a pair of adults flew in regular circuits around the taller trees surrounding the site. Very difficult for photography this time, but better flight views than I’d had before of the species. I’ve not had much luck with my camera equipment this year after cracking my new camera body on a stone staircase in the Cairngorms back in February, and this time I slipped on a rock as we left the woodpeckers and banged the end of my very expensive telephoto lens on it. Luckily, the only damage was a small cut to the rubber coating on the end of the hood.
The afternoon saw us go out to find Great Grey Owls. As we stopped the minibuses by the side of a woodland one of the huge birds flew straight across the road about fifty yards ahead of us. We got out and got in position and soon found the female sat on her massive nest – we didn’t even need to leave the road to be able to view it. I couldn’t see it myself, but apparently there was a an owlet in the nest with her. The male who we had just seen flying across the road was perched regally on a branch of a tree nearby and gave us great views too. After this show we headed off back towards Oulu to a site where Pallid Harrier had been nesting. On the way I saw a hawk above the road in one of the villages we drove though, but with nobody else getting a look I’ll have to assume it was most likely a Sparrowhawk. As we looked across the field in front of us I saw a distant raptor, which turned out to be a White-tailed Eagle being mobbed by a Marsh Harrier. Then another raptor flew from somewhere behind us and then went low across the field in front. It was definitely a harrier but despite lots of discussion it couldn’t be agreed on definitively. In the end, it was decided that it most likely was the Pallid Harrier we were waiting for. Soon after this along came another White-tailed Eagle, this time being chased by a gull. We saw two long items hanging from its talons and initially assumed that it was a falconer’s bird with jesses attached, but as it flew right over our heads we could see it was actually clutching a fish and the strings were its entrails – and that also told us why the gull was putting up such a chase. Definitely the best views of White-tailed Eagle I’ve ever had. Back at the hotel I managed to get a few snaps of a Pied Flycatcher that seemed to be living in a nesting box on one of the nearby tree trunks.
Day Three saw us go back out in search of the Pygmy Owl. On the way we had Black Grouse and Capercaillie again, but the male owl again was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, Antti quietly lined us up and let us each have a very careful peek into the nest box where the tiny female was sat (presumably on eggs) and clicked her bill at each of us in turn. Leaving the site I saw my first Siskin in years, singing from the top of a conifer. We roved around looking for possible Short-eared Owls and Hen Harriers, but had to make do with a Whinchat, Common Redpoll, and I saw a nice male Bullfinch feeding in a garden as we drove back to the hotel. A brief look around the bay before leaving Oulu for the drive north-east brought us another Common Crane and a Caspian Tern.
Unlike last year when we made a few stops – to eat, and to look for Hawk Owls – this time we drove directly to Kuusamo and had lunch after we’d settled into the hotel. Firstly, we went off down a road through the woods on the opposite of the lake to look for grouse. A Hazelhen was eventually heard, responding to Antti’s whistle, and after a while movement was spotted in some dense scrub. I got my bins onto it and could see some cryptic plumage and a head – it was my Hazelhen at long last (#447) – but despite Antti’s tireless efforts (encouraged by the fact that there were still several of us who had this species as a top priority), we couldn’t get anything more than a split-second glimpse as it moved behind the vegetation. It was only a few yards away, but it goes to show just how secretive these birds can be. A nice Mountain Hare came out and sat nearby for a few moments too, but no further luck on the Hazelhen. A drive to the end of the track took us to another Tengmalm’s Owl location, but there was nobody home so we drove off out of Kuusamo to look for other specialities. At one stage we stopped to check out a wader in a field – which turned out to be a Curlew – and as we did so Peter pointed out a flock of Waxwings in the trees lining the other side of the road. They were happily munching and didn’t seem bothered by us at all, so I went a bit crazy with the photos. Nicely backlit by the sun but very difficult to focus on, I still got a few shots that I’m happy with. Moving along we stopped at a lay-by at the foot of a hill. Straight away we found Siberian Jays – and Antti obviously knew what to expect because he had food for them and they happily came down to eat from his hand (#448). I’d been very unlucky to miss out on Siberian Jays the last time I was in Sweden – it was only the second time ever that they’d failed to show at their feeding station – and we obviously missed them last year, so this was a good experience. After a while we decided to head up the hillside, and as we did so a Black Kite floated overhead. Halfway up we stopped for Three-toed Woodpecker. A woodpecker was heard, and briefly seen by Antti and myself flying through the trees behind us, but most people didn’t get onto it. There were very nice views of the landscape from the top of the hill but no sign of the Rosefinch that had been reported there in previous days. We did, however, hear a Common Redstart in the trees further down. On the way back we stopped very briefly (Antti was trying to get us back to the hotel in time for dinner) at a roadside clearing and we got further views of a pair of nesting Hawk Owls. Luckily I was quick with the camera and tripod and managed to get a couple of nice shots, despite the gloomy conditions.
For the final morning we were up at 5am and returned to the roads around the lake. There was still ice on top and there was a nice White-tailed Eagle sitting on it, which then left when another one arrived and decided to start an aerial fight. Good close views of Muskrats were had, and then it was off to look for grouse again. This time we got the views we had hoped for. We stopped by a patch of denser woodland and out came a Hazelhen, which then proceeded to run around the minibuses and switch from one side of the road to the other. The light wasn’t good for taking anything other than poor-quality record shots, but the views of the bird with just our eyes were fantastic, and well worth returning to Finland for! And there was another bonus: Antti drove us to the end of the track to look for Bluethroats…and we found them. I’ve wanted to see a Bluethroat for years and never managed it – there was even one at Rye Meads recently but it didn’t stay long enough for us to get over there – and I certainly hadn’t been expecting to see one on this tour. There were at least two of them, but they were quick and skittish, always landing deep in the middle of the scrubby bushes so the views were mostly tantalising at best. But eventually one of them sat and sang in a position for long enough to get a few shots (#449). There were of the red-spotted race too, which was the one I’d wanted to see most. Whilst here we also had Red-necked Grebes out on the lake.
We then tried for Willow Grouse, but with time running out we didn’t try for long and had to admit defeat on that one. Then it was off to a Siberian Tit nesting site. We stood near the box for some time with no luck, but then one flew straight in and then popped out and left the area. Luckily I managed to see it land in some distant trees and actually got a really good look though my binoculars before it disappeared (#450). We also went to another Tengmalm’s Owl nest box and this time got an adult female who popped her head out and gave us a good a glare. A Cuckoo was heard calling nearby too. A very smart Black-throated Diver was also seen on a small lake as we headed back to the hotel to get ready to go home. It was a long drive back to Oulu Airport, but we made it and the flights back to London were as uneventful as ever, but that was fine by me. One thing to note was that in Lesbos the previous month we bumped into Killian Mullarney of the Collins Guide fame a few times throughout the week. On Day Four in Finland we stopped a couple of times for comfort breaks on the way back to Oulu Airport and there he was again, eating in one of the roadside cafes. He’ll think I’m following him…
In all, it was another very, very good trip. Of my main targets I didn’t manage to get Red-flanked Bluetail or Dotterel – spring has come around a bit later this year and they simply hadn’t arrived in that part of Finland yet – but I did finally get my Hazelhen, plus the Rustic Bunting, Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit. The Bluethroats were an unexpected bonus too, meaning I added five new species and brought my lifelist up to 450. The thing that was striking for me was the difference in temperature compared with last year. It was the same weekend of the year so the dates were out by just one day, but where we’d had scorching heat throughout the daytimes with only one day of significant cloud last year, this year was a combination of occasional sun and plenty of cloud with much lower temperatures, not to mention the rain on the first day. On the final morning as we watched the White-tailed Eagles on the lake there were even a couple of flakes of snow (the temperature on Day Four reached 33°C last year). The guiding was as good as it gets, with Antti’s patience and determination to get us good Hazelhen views being quite remarkable, and the food was as good as last year too.
I feel from a general birding point of view I’ve probably ‘done’ Finland now (or at least the broader part of Finland) but I would definitely return again in the future, perhaps with more emphasis on photography tours. The same could be said for Sweden. I love these northern Taiga Forests and the species they contain so I hope there will be future visits, even if not imminent ones.