Five BLNGers; (members of Birdlife North Gauteng, formerly the Pretoria Bird Club) namely Andre Marx, Verona Veltman, Tana Coetzer, Betsie Lategan and Anneke Vincent plus photographer/birder Sandy Mason, met up at Helsinki Airport (via Frankfurt on Lufthansa) with trip organiser John Bannon, on the early afternoon of Friday June 8th 2012.
Our 11 nights, 12 days itinerary gave us the first two nights to 'acclimatise' in the Helsinki area, before flying north 538 km to Oulu in central Finland, to stay at Liminganlahti, one of Finland's major wetlands. Then eastwards some 212 km by road to Kuusamo, close by the Russian border, for three nights, before heading 722 km northwards for four nights in Vestre Jakobselv, on the southern shores of Norway's fabled Varangerfjord.
Our 733 km return journey south to Oulu, allowed us to bird several sites en route, before another overnight stay at Liminganlahti and our afternoon return flight to Helsinki. Total road travel in the north was 35,727 km (Oulu back to Oulu) and we covered 378 km travelling to various sites around Helsinki.
An excellent trip list of no less than 195 species was posted, not all seen or even heard by all team members of course, but with some exceptional sightings. These included White-backed Woodpecker; three male Pine Grosbeaks; male Parrot Crossbill, nesting Citrine Wagtails; male Pallid Harrier and nest-building Penduline Tits. All of the northern owls were seen except Ural; all the woodpeckers except Grey-headed and best of all, the northern waders were in full summer plumage, song flighting and displaying overhead. Just wonderful!
As most of the participants had never birded in Europe before, almost everything was new and I can honestly say I really enjoyed studying the commoner species for a change, including one superb male Goldcrest, our smallest bird, who insisted in almost landing on our heads to enquire just who we were. Our 'official photographer' Sandy Mason was quite unlike the self-obsessed, never satisfied bird photographers of my usual experience, being also a very considerate human bean and very much part of our small, friendly and mostly laid back team.
FRIDAY JUNE 8
After checking in through the fortified entrance of the definitely odd but perfectly acceptable, Hotel Kuininkantie in Espoo, northwest of Helsinki, we set off for a late afternoon's birding at Suomenoja; a very productive 'birdy' lake, overlooked by the chimneys of a power station.
Thrush Nightingales sang incessantly, as dozens of immaculate Slavonian Grebes attended to their nests on the edges of the vast reed beds; home to the deafening chorus of thousands of nesting Black-headed Gulls. Waterfowl species came thick and fast and before long we had added Eurasian Coot, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Shoveler, Northern Pochard, Tufted, Goldeneye, Gadwall, Eurasian Teal and real Mallard. Huge numbers of Common Swifts, Barn Swallows, House Martins and a few Sand Martins hawked overhead and a European Hobby swept through over the bay.
A male Pied Flycatcher gave us excellent views and singing warblers included numerous Sedge plus European Reed, Great Reed, Common Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcap and Willow Warbler. Other gulls included the enormous Great Black Backed, plus fuscus Lesser black-backed, Herring and Common Gulls. To finish, a superb rosy-breasted Common Rosefinch gave his distinctive 'pleased to meet you' song from the willows on the edge of 'lahti' bay. A good start and a nice, gentle introduction to Finnish birding.
Finland has 5,4 million people, less than the Joburg-Pretoria metropolis, but they are thinly spread across 338,000 square km, with around 50% living in the Helsinki and along the south coast. In the far north, Lappland has around 20,000 inhabitants, which is less than two people per square kilometer. It also has 188,000 lakes and literally billions of trees.
Returning to the hotel we were met by top local birder Tuomas Seimola and arranged a 5am start for the following morning.
SATURDAY JUNE 9
By 05:45 we were standing on the banks of the Vantaa river at Haitala, in suburban Helsinki with Tuomas, trying to listen to a whole host of warblers over the very loud songs of Thrush Nightingales.
Blyth’s Reed, Marsh and a just arrived River Warbler competed with the vociferous Sedge Warblers, Common Whitethroats, Garden Warblers and Blackcaps. Other new 'farmland' species seen included Lapwing, Skylark, Meadow Pipit, Tree Sparrow and Stock Dove. We eventually managed to get brilliant 'scope' views of a continuously singing Blyth's Reed Warbler, perched up in a bush by the riverside.
We moved on to Vanhankaupunginselka - thankfully also better known as 'Vikki' - through the now awakening, tram-tracked streets of Helsinki; which we all agreed looked a very nice place and well worth at least half-an-hour 'tourist time' later in the day perhaps. Tuomas guided us out onto a boardwalk through the newly growing reed beds and we were soon scoping the very distant, but just about tickable Citrine Wagtails, which now nest there. Recent extreme winters had destroyed the formerly extensive reed beds, so that the local Bearded Tits and Bitterns had been forced to move out while the new green reed beds reclaim the marshes. We also saw Yellow and White Wagtails, Grey Heron, Jackdaws and several Eurasian Marsh Harriers.
Returning to the car park through the rich mature woodlands, we stopped to admire a pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers at their nest hole, right next to the track. Icterine Warblers and Stock Doves sang from the canopy around us and then Tuomas told us all to follow him quietly. He had just heard the quiet 'chip' contact calls of White-backed Woodpecker and after a few minutes we all had fantastic views of this very scarce and elusive species. A fantastic, totally unexpected sighting and the first I have ever seen in Finland. A female and an accompanying juvenile were feeding in the bushes very close to us. Both Lesser Spotted and Great Spotted Woodpeckers also appeared, giving us close comparisons between the three pied species.
We adjourned for coffee to the car park at the rear of the attractive Gardenia Horticultural Centre, which adjoins the north side of Vikki and a short walk added Linnet, Ortolan Bunting, Yellowhammer, Spotted Flycatcher and both Barnacle and Greylag Geese to our growing trip list, most of which were lifers for our group.
Next on the list were woodland species and the obligatory mosquitoes, so we purchased plenty of OFF mozzie spray and headed for Mustavuori in the north-eastern suburbs of the city with our first Common Cranes and a handsome male Red-backed Shrike noted en route. These mature, old-growth, forests produced our first singing Greenish and Wood Warblers, a Sparrowhawk flashed by, Goldcrests, Robins and Dunnocks sang, but best of all a 2nd-year male Red-breasted Flycatcher gave his lilting song from the very top of a spruce.
Our lunch was taken near the stables at Huse, a well-known Grey-headed Woodpecker site, but Tuomas had already advised that they are impossible to connect with after early breeding season and so it proved. A Common Snipe 'chipped' from the very top of an oak tree, Eurasian Cuckoo and Tree Pipits called continuously, a fine adult Hobby swept through, noisy Common Redshank and Little Ringed Plovers called from the roadside meadows with handsome Shoveler and some of us even managed a brief glimpse of our first Osprey.
Our route back to Espoo meant driving through downtown Helsinki, so the decision was made to take in some of the tourist stops on the way. The harbour area and major thoroughfares were bustling with cars, trams, small ferries, enormous cruise liners, sailing ships, market stalls, people and birds. We added Feral Pigeon, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander, Great Cormorants, both Common and Arctic Terns and Shelducks with lots more nesting Barnacles and Greylags. The world's best and certainly most delicious Italian ice-cream stall was selling an amazing kaleidoscope of colours and flavours, which despite the cool, grey, weather we couldn't resist.
Our final stop on the way back to Espoo was at the tall lintutorno (birdwatching tower) overlooking Laajalahti (Laaja Bay). Yet more new species made it onto our list, including two wonderful 'dusky' Spotted Redshanks that shared a shallow pool with an equally striking male Garganey. Several Wigeon and Common Teal, a huge Caspian Tern, three dainty Little Gulls, Yellow Wagtails, Ringed Plovers and our first Canada Geese added to the interest, at this very productive site.
However, Tuomas had saved the best for last, when he led us along yet another narrow boardwalk to find a pair of amazing Penduline Tits, busily constructing their fantastic new home for the summer.
Both sexes resemble a miniature male Red-backed Shrike, with a striking black facemask, grey crown and rufous mantle. She is a little more subdued, with a smaller black mask. Their piercing calls, whistles and trills were also very striking. The Penduline Tit is only a very recent coloniser of southern Finland after increasing ten-fold in the Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania immediately to the south.
A very happy return to our hotel, with the doors of a mediaeval castle, followed an immaculate male Northern Wheatear in the reserve car park. As we bade goodbye to Tuomas, we rewarded him with a tip of no less than 50 trillion dollars in Zimbabwean currency of course.
SUNDAY JUNE 10
As we all needed to catch an early afternoon flight to Oulu, we decided on an quick visit to the nearby Nuuksio National Park, which I had briefly visited in the early hours of the previous Friday, when I had been lucky enough to see Black Woodpecker.
We revisited that site first; a large boggy clearing with lots of dead tree stumps and bushes. Green Sandpipers and Common Snipe displayed overhead, Red-backed Shrikes chased each other from bush to bush and a Black Woodpecker was even heard, but unfortunately not seen. Close views of Siskins, Northern Bullfinches, Fieldfares, Redwings and Bramblings followed, but only Great Spotted Woodpecker put in an appearance.
The flight to Oulu was less than an hour and we were soon picking up another white, 4WD, nine-seater VW Transporter and heading for our overnight accommodation at the world-renowned Liminganlahti Nature Reserve. My potential shortcut resulted in Mossie-hell, deep in the backwoods and a quick retreat to the main road to Limininka.
We met up with our next Finnature guide, Matti Sillanpaa at Liminganlahti. He was a veritable mine of knowledge, spoke excellent English and was a really nice, helpful guy. With a 4am start scheduled for the morning he suggested a quick visit to some local sites and an early night.
Before long we were watching an adult female Pygmy Owl at her nest box full of baby owls; but dipped again on Black Woodpecker, but as some consolation we watched a female Goldeneye leaving her nest hole in a roadside Aspen. A large jarvi (lake) held a pair of Black-throated Divers, which gradually came much closer as Matti impersonated their 'yodeling' calls. A calling Common Greenshank and a Common Sandpiper were on the lake edge, as we left the mosquitoes behind and returned to Liminganlahti for dinner and a good night's sleep well five hours at least!
MONDAY JUNE 11
Within ten minutes of our 4am start, we were 'ticking' some very northerly Collared Doves plus Lesser Whitethroat in the centre of Limininki village! Another big birding day was on the cards as we saw our first Pintails in roadside fields and while searching for a reported Corncrake, Woodcocks were 'roding' overhead.
Our first and only Common Buzzard was sat up in a roadside clearing and a Black Woodpecker was briefly seen in flight, but only by those on the starboard side of our rocket ship. We eventually reached a small car park where very Common Redstarts and Chiffchaffs sang and millions of mozzies buzzed, so we all OFFed up and followed Matti's tracks into the forest.
After only 10 minutes he beckoned to us to be quiet and ushered us forward, There sat on a low branch, was a juvenile Great Grey Owl. As Matti approached closer it was obvious that he/she immediately recognised him and began calling loudly for food. Just then the enormous female swept in and perched up very close to keep a careful eye on proceedings. Matti then produced two recently deceased, fat juicy rodents and carefully fed them whole to the chick. Mum occasionally 'bill clapped' in warning, but like her young one she also readily accepted Matti as a surrogate parent and showed no real concern at all as he continued to feed her youngster. She was probably very grateful for the extra help.
The vole situation in southern and central Finland is disastrous this year. After a massive peak in autumn 2011, the vole population was devastated by disease, that spread rapidly throughout the entire country, so that only the far north has any voles to speak of. Supplementary feeding by volunteers like Matti is helping to support the few pairs that have bred and it was extremely satisfying to see the trusting bond between 'his' owls and himself. What an amazing experience!
Leaving his wonderful owls in peace, we headed for our next owl rendezvous in the maze of forests, somewhere south of Oulu. An intermediate-phase Honey Buzzard soared over a clearing giving us excellent views of this hard-to-see raptor and some 30 minutes later we had pulled off into another forest layby, but this time we needed our portable ladder.
Some four metres up in a nest box was a female Tengmalm's Owl and her brood of youngsters. She was not inclined to pop her head out as these owls usually do, so we all went to see her. Nearby a male Crested Tit was singing loudly and we all had excellent close views of him and also the tiny jewel of a male Goldcrest, which had a nest close by.
By now it was already mid-morning and we had been birding solidly for six hours, but we also had more birds to find. A large clearing with some open fields eventually gave us distant views of a 'northern' Great Grey Shrike and as we were clambering back into the van, Matti shouted 'Pallid Harrier!' as a fine male flew right overhead. Since 2000, Pallid Harriers have become much more frequent in Finland and in 2011, five pairs bred. This westwards range extension probably accounts for the upsurge in UK sightings, which has seen the species' status go from that of an extreme rarity to that of a scarce, but regular, passage migrant.
Our last target bird was Three-toed Woodpecker and as luck would have it, en-route to the nest site, two birds flew alongside our van giving everybody brief but acceptable views. However, we still decided to visit the nest hole, which was a very bad decision! Every mosquito this side of the Urals descended upon us and even the OFF spray was swamped by the hordes from hell! We beat a rapid retreat to our transport and disappeared inside, still swatting mozzies many kilometres later.
Matti had done the business, for without doubt we would never have found any of these target species independently. We would probably still be wandering the forests now, after having unwillingly donated at least ten litres of blood each to the local Finnmossiebludbankki.
It was now time to set sail to Kuusamo, one of my favourite places in the world and home to several scarce species of eastern distribution that just push into Finland. These included the beautiful Red-flanked Bluetail, Little Bunting and Rustic Bunting and the four grouse species, such as Willow Grouse, the enormous Capercailzie, Black Grouse and Hazelhen, plus Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Red-necked Grebe, Smew,etc.
On the 212 km drive from Oulu we stopped briefly at a large aapa (open bog) overlooked by another lintutorno which gave us only distant views of Cranes, nesting Whooper Swans, displaying Green Sandpipers and Hobby. A huge downpour descended upon us just as we returned to our van.
Antti Peunna, our substitute Finnature guide, met us at the Sokos Hotel in the early evening and we discussed tactics. Another early start was arranged as we decided upon an early night, but not before a quick look around the Kuusamo area with some of our party. We searched the local back roads for Hazelhen, some of us seeing a male's tail disappear into the forest, but they were just not responding to the whistle call. More Woodcock 'roding', Little Gulls, nesting Red-necked Grebes, displaying Wood Sandpipers and a Short-eared Owl right over our heads was a perfect finish to the day, in the bright midnight sunlight.
TUESDAY JUNE 12
Another 5am start with Antti, who was also very busy reconnoitering the entire Kuusamo region for his team in the Kuusamo Bird Race, which was taking place the following weekend. (We later learned that his team had won with 134 species seen in the day, only two less than the all time record.) We soon had Willow Grouse and Little Bunting on our list, more Red-necked Grebes and Velvet Scoter. Little Gulls and Arctic Terns everywhere and an Osprey was scoped sitting on her nest, as was a Black-throated Diver.
Kuusamo was bird heaven as usual and after watching a small Black Grouse lek, we had a very fierce cock Merlin pursuing a Skylark right into the ditch alongside us. Willow Tits carried food to their nest right by the main highway and we had our best views of a splendid male Brambling, perched at the very top of a pine. A search for Capercaillie was unsuccessful, but we did manage brief views of the very common Redstart, which was singing almost everywhere but very difficult to pin down.
Now for the real specialities Antii had promised, and we headed north for Ruka and the famous Valtavaara car park with the well-stocked feeders so beloved by the local Siberian Jays. By impersonating their calls, Matti called in a family party of four Siberian Jays before we even reached the car park which was just as well because a snowplough driver had apparently scooped up not just the feeders, but also the bushes they had hung from!
Setting off up the Kontainnen path, we heard the Bluetail's distinctive song almost immediately and eventually we all had superb scope views of this marvelous bird, singing his heart out right from the top of the tallest tree in his territory. Several Common Crossbills flew over and then a Two-barred Crossbill was seen giving its distinctive flight call if only we could get one on the ground. Greenish Warbler was heard and then a mega bird appeared right at the top of the nearby trees. 'Pine Grosbeak!' shouted Antii and we all got onto a stonking male in the 'scope, savouring its absolutely stunning pink/red plumage and distinctive outline. Within minutes we had found another territorial male nearby, and as three (Bohemian) Waxwings flew over triiiilling we determined that we would just have to get a better, much more tickable view of them!
Our promised Black Woodpeckers were not showing at a 'definite' nest site but a female Peregrine's head and dark blue upperwings could just be made out through the 'scope, as she sat on her nest on a huge cliff face. Antti then showed us a Siberian Tit's nestbox in some dry, sandy pine woodland, their favoured habitat. They were very actively feeding their 10 young and took no notice of us at all, so used are they to the positive human intervention, that has enabled their population to rapidly expand in eastern Finland. Yet another Hobby soared above us and our final stop was an open clearing, where a very handsome male Whinchat was very loudly proclaiming his territory. What a mega day for chats and crossbills!
Goodbyes were exchanged with young Antti and our best wishes or his success in the forthcoming Kuusamo Bird Race, Finland's biggest birding event - he was to later text(sms) us with more local birding info, with the proviso of course that we didn't tell his rivals, especially Olli Laminsallo - his boss!
We had virtually cleared up on Kuusamo's birds, but after dinner some of us took a quick trip eastwards to see if we could add Dipper to our list. It was under the very same bridge where I had seen it in 2009, but Bets was even more delighted by the Highland cooos in the fields near the joki (river).
Originally meant as a late evening quick look around the local area, turned into an epic voyage as Sandy and I decided to visit the Russian border area. Perhaps, not surprisingly his Rattling Cisticola song did not elicit any responses from the border zone inhabitants, mostly Reindeers and a singing Rustic Bunting, but he did manage to photograph the self same Dipper at 1am in the morning!
We stumbled across fields full of Whooper Swans and a huge Black Grouse lek of some 70 birds, which I promptly put to flight by getting out of the van and slamming the door to boot. Fieldcraft or what?
WEDNESDAY JUNE 13
This was my lie-in day, as my other team members left me in my pit and set off for the delights of Kuusamo tip. It wasn't very productive but a quiet road nearby gave then a female Capercailzie - a big lifer for most, albeit not the striking male bird.
Today was earmarked for Oulanka National Park, where hopefully my pilgrimage to purchase Cinnamon buns would be over. On my only previous visit to the excellent Naturkeskusta, the Cinnamon buns had been superb and I was eager to introduce my compatriots to their delights if only I could find anywhere that sold them!
Antti had kindly given us the location for another Black Woodpecker nest site, which we visited immediately upon our arrival at the park. No sign of them! Which green house did he mean? There was no mention of a working timber yard; did we have the right place? Did we also have the dreaded Black Woodpecker curse, because we had scored with the much more difficult White-backed?
We need not have worried, as, with the exact tree being pointed out to us, we all sat on the convenient steps of the nearby timber yard office to await their arrival. What an arrival! First the male, making his strange 'klaaar' contact calls, then the female and then both birds together. Andre returned from his walk and we all enjoyed the spectacle together, just wonderful and one of our big target birds crossed of the list - and how. Green and Common Sandpipers flew over calling and pair of Pied Flycatchers were busy at their nearby nest box, but it was the magnificent Black Woodpeckers that stole the show.
Unfortunately, the Naturkekusta had sold out of celebratory Cinnamon buns, so we slowly made our way back towards Kuusamo and got completely lost looking for the lake at Vuotunki. Luckily we ran into a huge immature Goshawk being mobbed by Fieldfares, called in two Eurasian Jays, and had superb views of a European Cuckoo on the railings of a dam wall. Vuotunki was excellent as usual with five immaculate drake Smews, 10 Velvet Scoter, several Muskrats and hordes of Little Gulls feeding on midges as dark clouds overhead were accompanied by the flashes and thundering rumbles of a fast approaching storm. It was time to head back to the strangely comforting Sokos Hotel and enjoy our last evening in Kuusamo.
THURSDAY JUNE 14
This was the day of our 722 km drive from Kuusamo to Vestre Jaakobselv on the shores of the Varangerfjord in N Norway, so we breakfasted early and were on the road by 7am.
Antti had advised us of a local site to pick up both Waxwings and Rustic Bunting and within 10 minutes we had successfully found both species, with everybody enthralled by the Waxwings in particular. As we resolutely headed northwards we soon crossed the Arctic Circle (circa 66,33 degrees and called Napapiiri in Finnish) and a quick pit stop at Sodanklya meant I actually got to look around one of Finland's oldest wooden churches (1679) for the first time on the fifth pit stop outside it.
At Kaamanen, north of Inari, the Neljan Tullan Tupa cafe had both male and female Pine Grosbeaks on its feeders, just as it did in June 2009, plus Bullfinches, Siskins, Greenfinches and Common Redpolls and we spotted our first Elk, next to the roadside, on our way to Utsjoki.
From Utsjoki we kept to the Finnish side of the Tana river and at the EU's most northerly village, Nuorgam, headed into the fjells to check out one of the remotest areas, but apart from Northern Wheatears, Yellow Wagtails, Redstarts and Pied Flycatchers, little else showed on a bitterly cold, grey evening.
We reached our accommodation, the Pikkitskiti Lodge, on the harbour wall at Vestre Jakobselv around 8pm and co-owner Leena soon appeared to show us around. Although, still a prime and convenient location, the place looked a bit rundown and unloved compared to my previous visits and unfortunately the fish drying racks, so characteristic of the immediate area, are no longer used - the 'fresh' cod is now probably imported from China, like virtually everything else nowadays.
A wander around the local area was decided upon, so we headed inland following the river and soon came across a very helpful lady jogger called Gunn. She asked if we would like to see some young owls and within five minutes we were watching two hungry juvenile Hawk Owls, one of which had just been fed a large rodent by an adult, while the other one begged loudly for his supper.
Welcome to Varangerfjord!
FRIDAY JUNE 15
We awoke to bright glorious sunshine and light winds, with the temperature rocketing to 17 degrees centigrade. Such days are not very frequent on Varanger, where you can get all the seasons in one day, so we made another early start eastwards along the peninsular towards Vadso and Vardo.
Vadsoy (island) was superb as usual with many Red-throated Pipits, Common Redpolls, Scandinavian Rock Pipits and dozens of spinning Red-necked Phalaropes on the pool. The newly arrived local Greenfinches were also much admired along with Arctic Skuas, Redshanks and the local Oystercatchers.
Our next stop was at the Kittiwake cliffs at Storre Ekkeroy, where a Little Stint, Black Guillemots and a distant Red-throated Diver were also present. A superb male Shorelark was scoped right next to the road gathering food for his young and he was so close even his horns could be seen well. The local Red-throated Pipits flitted around the rooftops and a Common Gull had made its nest on the rusting engine block of an old fishing boat. Our first four Northern Golden Plovers, in glistening summer plumage, produced gasps of admiration from the Southern Hemispherians - but we were going to see plenty more.
The 2,9km long FREE tunnel from the mainland took us onto Vardo island, to find that most of the seabirds were on the farthest side of the channel, in the lee of Hornoya island. With some difficulty we all eventually got passable views of the numerous Guillemots, Razorbills, Puffins, Shags and Kittiwakes, but the Brunnich's Guillemots, were just too far away to be certain of. A nearby colony of nesting Arctic Terns made sure we kept our heads down, but they all erupted as one, when Arctic Skuas and the marauding Great Black-backed Gulls came near.
Deciding to return for the boat trip to Hornoya on Sunday, we set off for the lighthouse, recording passing Northern Gannets and a few Northern Fulmars. But by god it was cold on the headland, so we clambered for shelter into our van and the drive to the end of the world, aka Hamningberg.
The famous Hamningberg road starts by Vadso Airport and heads north through amazing lunar-like rock formations for some 37 kms before reaching the desolate hamlet on the edge of the Arctic Ocean. This remote location was used as the set for the moon walks in the James Bond film Moonraker. As we had already started to run out of time if not sunlight, we decided to only bird the first 15 kms of the road, but still added nesting Rough-legged Buzzard, Arctic Redpoll, Ruff, nesting Red-throated Diver and Long-tailed Ducks to our list. A new hide overlooking the best area of wet mires and fjells looked interesting as we soon became blase about the multitude of Arctic Skuas on their nest mounds beside the road.
As fresh fish a la Sandy was on tonight's gourmet menu and having already birded solidly for 12 hours, we decided discretion was the better part of valour and returned to Vestre Jakobselv, with the weather steadily deteriorating into low cloud and cold rain. We had already experienced spring and summer earlier in the day, autumn was now upon us, and no doubt winter would arrive before we got back to base.
SATURDAY JUNE 16
Our first three White-tailed Eagles were seen on route to Varangerbotn, where at 7:30am the Sami Museum WiFi facilities and toilets were very much appreciated. The low tide mudflats held a few Shelduck and Wigeon but little else and there was also no sign of the Hawk Owls reported to be nesting in the area.
The Tana river valley beckoned and at milepost 28,5 we pulled over to look for the long gone Gyr Falcons on the towering cliffs. A flyover Golden Eagle mobbed by Ravens was a bonus, but was only got onto by a few of the group. The very active Ring Ouzels 'chacked' constantly, especially when a Rough-legged Buzzard hung above the cliffs for a few moments. A very strange song was eventually pinned down to a Willow Warbler; perhaps the Tana valley birds have their own local dialect. We looked out for King Eiders, trying hard to turn a female Common Eider into the rarer species, but found only two Spotted Redshanks on a nearby estuary - possibly females already returning south, after having left the male sat on the eggs high on the fjells.
As we traveled on into the fjells, a roadside Oystercatcher was nesting inches from the tarmac, exactly where one had nested in 2009. Another Hawk Owl site was checked out, but enquiries at the nearby yellow house with a matching yellow barn revealed that the birds were still around, but only showed themselves between 11pm and 3am.
We had now reached the magnificent snowfields, lakes and Arctic tundra of Kongsfjordfjellet, just before the road junction to Batsfjord and Berlevag. It was very cold but dry as we set off in different directions to explore the area. Norway Lemming tracks were everywhere and apparently this year was a good year, which probably explained the presence of several pairs of the very handsome Long-tailed Skuas.
At least two distant Rough-legged Buzzards were seen and the lakes held Red-throated Divers, Long-tailed Ducks, displaying Temminck’s Stints, Red-necked Phalaropes, Ringed and Golden Plovers but only one Lapland Bunting was seen briefly in flight. Not so with Shorelarks, which seemed to be everywhere, almost as common as the numerous Rock Pipits calling and display flighting. This year, 'spring' seemed at least two weeks late and the local willow beds were only just in bud, so perhaps the lack of Dotterel meant they had not yet arrived.
The lakes at the road junction held both divers, plus phalaropes, and several pairs of Greater Scaup, but our best sighting was of 15 'lekking' Ruff - uniquely described as 'looking like very strange Chinamen' by a certain member of our group! Leaving the unusual Orientals to their pugilism, we took the road towards Batsfjord and soon came across more Lapland Buntings, several Willow Grouse and two Snow Buntings! One of Andre's best finds, top of his wanted list, and a very desired lifer for all of the party. It was also very strange to watch the small flockettes of displaying Ringed Plovers calling and landing on the mini icebergs to pick off insects as they thawed from the ice.
The high road descended into the fishing port of Batsfjord, with Russian trawlers in the harbour and huge numbers of Goosanders and Goldeneyes on the lake just outside the town. I left our group to have my customary Cherry-flavoured cigar and started to scan the nearby seaweed-covered shoreline to find it was crawling with very close, summer-plumaged Purple Sandpipers and Ruddy Turnstones. Yet more lifers for some.
Heading back we stopped briefly on the fjells to look for roadside Dotterel, before reaching the Tanamungen estuary, which was now now bathed in glorious evening sunlight. It was full of displaying Temminck's Stints, and the fast flowing waters were teeming with more Red-breasted Mergansers, Goldeneye and Goosanders. We witnessed the amazing sight of some 30 Common or Harbour Seals, leaping from the water heading upstream, aquaplaning and chasing after fish, presumably Atlantic Salmon. Another memorable end to another memorable day!
SUNDAY JUNE 17
Our second day of unbroken sunshine and another early start meant that we were rapidly heading eastwards again with the specific intention of completing our journey to the very end of the road to Hamningberg. Briefly delayed by a small party of 15 taiga Bean Geese very close to the road below Krampenes bridge we were further delayed by more Snow Buntings at various sites, nesting Arctic Skuas, flyover waders a fine cock Merlin close to the road and a large colony of Scandinavian Lesser-blacked Gulls on the hillsides. 11 more Bean Geese flew over as we stopped at an area of riverside willows to check for Bluethroats. Within a few minutes a stonking male 'red-spotted' Bluethroat was in full song from the tops of a nearby willow bush and we all had excellent views of this amazing little chat through the scope.
The end of the road at Hamningberg was less productive than on previous vists with only fly-past Gannets, Fulmars, various auks and Kittiwakes. A Dipper hurtled under the bridge at Sandfjord, but conscious of our date with the harbourmaster's boat to Hornoya, we decide to head back to Vardo, passing through the 2,9km long Ishavstunnelelen (Arctic Ocean tunnel) once again, before it was too late to join the only sailing on a Sunday, at 12:00 noon.
We paid our 45 Euros for return trip tickets, the obviously well brought- up young assistant was reading the LFC supporters magazine in Norwegian, but it soon became apparent there were at least 25 people wishing to cross - in a rubber zodiac-type craft that only carried 12!
A double trip across the choppy seas was required and on our voyage across, my decision to shelter on the lee side of the rubber boat turned out to be the right one, as those on the starboard side got soaked to the skin. I could have told them, but by now nobody was listening to me.
Scrambling around the bird island of Hornoya is a superbly unmissable experience, even at Euros 45. You get very close views of all the nesting seabirds, including their vomit and excrement, but the sounds and the visual delights are stunning.
Hordes of Puffins, Kittiwakes, Shags, Guillemots including many bridled forms, Razorbills and harder to find Brunnich's Guillemots, crowded the cliffs and grassy banks, studded with wild flowers. A path wound right around the island, which Andre and I decided to follow. We were rewarded by panoramic vistas of the Barendts Sea, plus nesting Twites, Meadow, Rock and Red-throated Pipits, Ravens and 12 Bean Goose, which flew along the cliffs.
For the return sailing the harbourmaster had turned out a much bigger boat altogether, with a spacious and warm inside cabin and powerful twin turbo-diesel engines. We chatted with the 'Minkman', whose summer job it was to trap and dispose of these major predators of the local seabird colonies. He showed us a dead one in his collection sack as we all pondered quite how a Mink could swim across the 2km fast flowing strait that separates Hornoya from the mainland. Red- legged Black Guillemots were pottering around the harbour as we returned.
Vardo is the only town in Europe truly within the Arctic Climatic Zone and Hornoya is the most easterly point of Norway. It has an average July temperature below 10 degrees centigrade and with the northerly winds coming straight in from the Arctic icecap I can see why. It also has an 18th century fortress and is infamous for burning 80 of its female citizens as witches, between 1620 and 1692. Not a good place to be at the time if you happened to be a reclusive old lady with a black cat. It's now home to 2,500 inhabitants with a sizeable population of Russians and apparently Sri Lankans! So it says in the Lonely Planet guide!
Our seabirds appetite sated, we set sail for our adopted 'home' at the Pikkitskitsi Lodge, which despite its 'worn round the edges' condition is a truly excellent location. Sandy and I took our last stroll in the midnight sun, with our shadows stretched out 15 metres before us. A beautiful Little Stint called in flight and then displayed over the tranquil harbour.
Tomorrow we would be leaving magnificent Varangerfjord behind to return to the 'real' world.
MONDAY JUNE 18
We said goodbye to Leena and Jens at the Pikkiskitsi Lodge to head south, deciding to cross the Tana at Tanabru and head up the north side of the river to Utsjoki in Finland. There are no border formalities and still looking for Dotterel, we tried the Aigas fjell area just east of the town. No luck, although two Finnish birders advised us that they had seen one the day before. Later that day they found a Finnish mega-rarity at Nuorgam, in the shape of a Corn Bunting only 1,500 km beyond its normal range.
For some reason we were soon dispersed all over the fjell and it was at least an hour before we all met up again. Combined with the hour ahead time difference in Finland from Norway, it was now already 11am and we were seriously behind time with some 600 km plus to go!
Our next stop was at Pilopaa fjell south of Ivalo, for potential Dotterel, Arctic Warbler and Ptarmigan, but the required 4km round boardwalk put everybody off and again we 'wandered' about, drank coffee and generally frittered away the day. However, Andre was on a roll and made up for our mutual lethargy by finding an absolutely stonking 100% Parrot Crossbill at the top of a nearby spruce. Scopes out, we watched a glorious male for some time, calling and giving his distinctive 'trriiil'. Mega bird and only the second I have ever seen in Fennoscandia and definitely one of my top birds of the trip!
Gradually we shepherded everyone back on board and headed for Oulu, stopping only at the official Santa Claus Village, just north of Rovaniemi, for the obligatory Arctic Circle certificates and Saami souvenirs.
Delayed further by traffic and in deteriorating weather despite some very slick driving - we didn't reach Liminingahti until after 10pm, almost two hours later than we had planned. Luckily we had kept in constant touch with Jari Hannus, the very obliging chef and accommodation manager, so he still made us very welcome despite the late hour.
The excellent dinner was very soon 'wolfed down' and totally 'knakkeridd' (my contribution to the Finnish language) we all staggered into our rooms to sleep like the proverbial logs. Our Finnish had improved as we traveled, but we never ever got to sample the delights of the roadside Grillis - shame!.
TUESDAY JUNE 19
Our last day and still no Cinnamon Buns to be had anywhere. We laid in until 7am before visiting the various lintutornos around the Liminingahti reserve, target birds were Bearded Tit, Bittern, Black-tailed Godwit, Hen Harrier and any of the waders we hadn't yet seen, which included Dunlin, which is usually easily seen on Varanger.
Unfortunately the water levels were extremely high and just finding any waders at all was a real challenge. Marsh Harriers were everywhere and a female Sparrowhawk was flushed near one tower, but the only brief view of the resident breeding Blackwits, was at very long range and certainly not tickable as a lifer for most.
To be honest, Liminingahti was a disappointment. The former extensive, reed beds have all been destroyed; as the ice floes had shifted in previous severe winters and had carried them all away. The new green reed beds will eventually replace those lost, but it might take years before its former glory is restored. High water levels made most areas unattractive to waders and in four hours of birding we struggled to find any new birds, when at least six species should have been possible.
Returning to the reserve centre we packed up for our return flights to Helsinki and tried the lake immediately adjacent to the airport. A pair of Common Scoters pottered around in the middle, our last new species for the trip and a fitting end to our wonderfully enjoyable Odysseus.
As my flight was slightly earlier than my South African compatriots we parted regretfully, vowing to repeat the experience one day. I checked in and went to sample the delights of the Hello Cafe in the departures lounge and there they were in all their glory - Korvapuustii!
Well Cinnamon Rolls actually, but close enough, so I texted (SA = SMSed) my fellow travelers with the good news.
'Only 2,50 Euros each, warmed up first and served with a glass of cold milk' - at long last Cinnamon Bun Heaven awaited them!
As usual, Finnature's services were indispensable and they booked all our land transport and accommodation throughout the trip, as well as providing truly expert guides for the key target species in Helsinki, Oulu and Kuusamo. They also helped us with up to date information on recent bird sightings around Oulu, Kuusamo and on Varanger.
So if you still believe that you can find your own birds, especially the various owls and woodpeckers, at the height of the breeding season, in a poor vole year, in the vast expanses of Finland's 338,000 sq km wilderness of pines, larches, birches, bogs and mires - then all I can say is - jolly good luck to you!
Species that we missed which were available, or had been very recently so prior to our trip, included both Steller's and King Eider; White-billed Diver; Glaucous Gull; Gyr Falcon and both 'night-time' displaying waders, Jack Snipe and Broad-billed Sandpiper. Quite why we never came across any Dunlin on Varanger is a complete mystery to me and certainly the very distant views of the usually noisy and obvious Black-tailed Godwits in Oulu, was also very disappointing.
Ptarmigan were as invisible as ever and only a few of us managed to get a glimpse of the tail end of a Hazel Grouse but if we had had the strength to put in more 'overnight' birding time, they were certainly there to be seen. Both Black and Willow Grouse were relatively easy but any cock Capercailzie had long disappeared into the depths of the forests. Only one small family party of Siberian Jays was seen, after being expertly 'called' out and as the usual feeder sites at Valtavaara car park are no more, this species can be easily missed in mid-June.
Around 400 established territories of the increasing Red-flanked Bluetail meant, that this year at least, this superb bird was much easier to come across than Siberian Jay! We could have easily ticked a mega Finnish rarity at Nuorgam on our journey south, namely a Corn Bunting - some 2,000 km north of its usual range - but decided to search for Dotterel instead.
Excluding Dotterel, the tundra species were all seen well, with very close Purple Sandpipers, almost common Shorelarks and many more Snow Buntings than on previous visits. Scandinavian Rock Pipits and Red-throated Pipits were also widespread and abundant, but perversely Lapland Buntings were more difficult to find that Rustic or Little Buntings. The almost total lack of voles, except on Varanger, meant that without Finnature's superb services, we would only have only recorded Hawk Owl - which is usually one of the most unpredictable to find!
Terek Sandpipers around Oulu have very much declined and were not looked for; Barred Warblers around Helsinki and the Oulu Yellow-breasted Buntings are no more, but we did jam in on Pallid Harrier, White-backed Woodpecker, Citrine Wagtail, Parrot Crossbill and Penduline Tit - so we can have no complaints at all.
Thanks to all my compatriots for their good company, good humour, bird finding expertise, food preparation and the overall craic. The Finns and Norwegians we met with were invariably friendly and helpful and I would do it all again tomorrow, given the slightest opportunity.
John K Bannon (email@example.com)
4th July 2012