Here it is (finally), John Bannon's trip report from the boys' (and girl's) voyage to Finland earlier this year. Spruced up by Simon Jackson's splendid pictures...
BE WARNED, JB's account is exhaustive...and possibly longer than the car journey from Tampere to Kuusamo.
Take it away John...
HEH, HEHÃ¢ÂÅ LOVE THE MÃÂNKES
A BIRDING ROAD TRIP FROM SOUTHERN FINLAND TO VARANGERFJORD AND BACK AGAIN (JUNE 20 Ã¢ÂÂ27, 2007)
This voyage of discovery was undertaken by the Southport BirdersÃ¢ÂÂ Arctic Expedition Team:
Simon Jackson, Mike Stocker, June Watt, Pete Allen, Matthew and John Bannon
I have always yearned to visit the almost mythical Varangerfjord in northern Norway. ItÃ¢ÂÂs just about as far north as you can travel in Europe and for over two months around midsummer, the sun never goes below the horizon. Which of course means that if you want to, you can bird for 24 hours a day.
Books like Ã¢ÂÂAn Arctic SummerÃ¢ÂÂ and Ã¢ÂÂWild Wings to the NorthlandsÃ¢ÂÂ and an illustrated slide show and lecture on the subject by Dr John Raines held by the Chester & District Ornithological Society way back in the late 1970s, had left a life-long impression upon me. It was definitely VardÃÅŸ or bust, as far as I was concerned.
Dr RainesÃ¢ÂÂ expedition travelled all the way from the Wirral in a 1971 Volvo estate, carrying tents, primus stoves, thermals and no doubt beef-paste sandwiches and Kendal mint cake. They took the Olsen ferry from Newcastle and drove north to the midnight sun from southern Sweden and were away for a mere 56 days. Thanks to that wonderful benefactor of birding-mankind(aka Ryanair), we were flying from Liverpool John Lennon International direct to Tampere in southern Finland, for less than ÃÂ£20 return each and we had even allocated a full seven days to fully appreciate the experience.
Logistics and planning
I was truly astounded by RyanairÃ¢ÂÂs prices from Liverpool to Tampere and back. The flights cost twopence return, but with the taxes and extras it came to an exorbitant ÃÂ£ 18.67p each. We booked in March and the flight from Liverpool was discontinued from May 9th. The alternative flight arrangements of flying to and from London Stansted, only 173.6 miles from Liverpool, or your miserable pittance back by 2009, if you went through the claim procedures, were grudgingly accepted online.
Many birders, especially those of a masochistic persuasion actually seem to like to be disappointed. They insist on finding their own birds, entirely untainted by the employment of a professional guide and of course often return bemoaning their luck and thus are really extremely happy. The truth is that like 99 percent of their birding peers, they are too bloody mean to spend the money. If they insist on wandering alone through thousand of miles of forest then good luck to them. The self-sacrifice of these poor demented souls, means that the rest of us with a brain, have much more chance of a top-notch local guide, when we need them.
Even on our late mid-summer nightÃ¢ÂÂs dream schedule, Finnature as usual did the business in the shape of Ari Latja. We rented the boy for two very full days and after our first full Ã¢ÂÂnightÃ¢ÂÂ in Kuusamo, Ã¢ÂÂkaraokeingÃ¢ÂÂ until dawn didnÃ¢ÂÂt come around, the suggestion was made that he was actually the representative of FinnatureÃ¢ÂÂs new venture FinnParty. His indispensable services cost us EUR 500 for two amazingly productive 48-hour days, or EUR 83 each.
The lovely Leena from Finnature also pre-booked all our accommodation, plus the superb 4-wheel-drive, long-wheelbase, nine-seater, VW Transporter VIP minibus from Europcar and otherwise, was extremely helpful to us throughout. All the travel and digs (including flights and parking at Stansted) plus the bird guiding and Finnparty karaoke, worked out at ÃÂ£383 per head. Obviously food and fuel Ã¢ÂÂ we managed to cover 4,757 kilometres - and Koff lager added to the bill, but the all-in cost was no more than ÃÂ£550 each, for the seven frenetic, fabulously full days.
Wednesday June 20
The excellent flight touched down in Tampere at 10:10 pm, ahead of schedule as usual, so that Ryanair can continue to claim their number one position in Europe for timekeeping. We collected a magnificent dark-blue VW Transporter, VIP 4-Motion from Europcar and set off for Oulu on FinlandÃ¢ÂÂs superbly maintained roads. In the midnight Ã¢ÂÂsunsetÃ¢ÂÂ, our first and only Black Terns and the inevitable Woodcocks were duly noted down. A stop for coffee nearer Oulu produced our first Common Rosefinch.
Thursday June 21
We were scheduled to meet Ari Latja at the ABC 24-hour service station at 6am, but had already seen Common Rosefinch and Baltic and plenty of very Common Gulls, when arriving at the strangely deserted and run-down Liminangahti reserve at 5am. No night-singers, but three very nice Whinchats and the first of 20 million Yellowhammers, which I tried very hard to string into an Ortolan Bunting.
Ari, complete with his original Lapp hat - like a black Stetson but with a very gay red-patterned band - was waiting for us when we returned to the ABC. Some 20 minutes later, we were waiting at a Three-toed WoodpeckerÃ¢ÂÂs nest hole, listening to the very noisy young demanding to be fed. Pied and Spotted Flycatchers Ã¢ÂÂwispedÃ¢ÂÂ, Snipe Ã¢ÂÂdrummedÃ¢ÂÂ , Cuckoos did exactly that, Common Cranes Ã¢ÂÂtrumpetedÃ¢ÂÂ and a Wood Warbler Ã¢ÂÂtrilledÃ¢ÂÂ and then a yellow-crowned male ThreeÃ¢ÂÂtoed Woodpecker appeared on the tree and began feeding his hungry family.
After the Great Spotted Woodpecker which has an estimated Finnish breeding population of 350,000 pairs, the Three-toed, or Pohjan (boreal)tikka in Finnish is the next commonest woodpecker, with 15,000 to 20,000 pairs. But when you divide that into five hundred thousand trillion trees, they are still very difficult to come across.
One or two mossies and horseflies also made their presence felt, but we had acquired the mythical Ã¢ÂÂOFFÃ¢ÂÂ gel and spray, which really does work and which is readily available at every ABC petrol station. Even the human mossie-bait we brought with us (aka Peter Allen), proved to be an entirely unnecessary luxury; so we dumped him in the forest with ten crates of Koff and collected him on the way back, a week later.
Several Wheatears, a very handsome male Red-backed Shrike and a Woodlark were all seen on the Vartti forest tracks, somewhere near Revonlahti and a soaring Honey Buzzard over the main road was also a good find. Despite searching the nesting area, there was no sign of the recently-fledged Ural Owls but the haunting melody of a genuine Ortolan came floating down from some nearby pines, along with our first Tree Pipits and Siskins.
Thanks to AriÃ¢ÂÂs Amazing i-Pod with an Ã¢ÂÂintegralÃ¢ÂÂ (gaffer-taped attached) speaker system, we were soon hearing and then seeing a very outspoken BlythÃ¢ÂÂs Reed Warbler in Liminka village, plus Garden Warblers and our first Common Sandpiper and scarce Collared Doves. But now it was time for more owling said Ari. His favourite Pygmy Owl site was just off the Kuusamo road, but although we heard one calling in reply, their young had also fledged and we couldnÃ¢ÂÂt find them, although he was certain they were still around. Calling Whooper Swans echoed through the pines as we wondered if our good mÃÂ¶nke thus far, was now beginning to desert us.
Somewhere inland between Oulu and Kemi, we turned off a very narrow road onto one that was more like the secret path to an ElkÃ¢ÂÂs summer cabin. It ended in a large forest clearing with isolated pines, ideal habitat for Hawk Owls and lo and behold, there wasnÃ¢ÂÂt one anywhere to be seen. An hourÃ¢ÂÂs searching saw us finding only a single Kestrel and several Tree Pipits as very poor consolation. However, our constant scanning paid off when a distant Peregrine happened to cruise over, prompting a wonderfully long-tailed Hawk Owl to present his greetings to the intruder. The i-Pod was wound up again and in no time at all he called back in disgust and flew towards us, swooping up to perch in the nearest pine. What a wonderful bird.
Great Grey Owl was a certainty said Ari, they were still feeding large young at the nest site and we would have no problem finding them and having good views. Each region of Finland and in fact most of Fenno -Scandia has its own Ã¢ÂÂowlmeisterÃ¢ÂÂ. They check out the natural nest sites and nest boxes early in the season and co-ordinate ringing and conservation activities. So their owls are not disturbed too much, they control and permit access to the sites for birders, which includes FinnatureÃ¢ÂÂs guides and their clients. This very sensible system guarantees that no one site gets too much disturbance and the welfare of the birds is always paramount.
Finland is 10 times the size of little Britain, with probably less than one percent of the birders to do the disturbing. Of course, it is always possible to come across your own owls, but by then you would have become well used to winning the lottery every week since your first birthday. You will have also probably walked across one of FinlandÃ¢ÂÂs 10,000 lakes on puffing on some mind-bending weed or other, happy to be unhappy.
Near a place called Rautiola, west of Olhava on the 8523, we once again turned onto a forestry track and were soon tramping across a clear-fell area, towards a stand of mature pines. The haunting sound of a huge female Great Grey Owl inquired as to our intrusion, as an enormous silent grey shape materialised in one of the trees ahead. The yellow-eyed baleful glare of EuropeÃ¢ÂÂs largest owl had us all mesmerised and looking back at the record shot on my new mobile phone, I recorded my mumblings at the time; Ã¢ÂÂOh my god, they're enormous!Ã¢Â?
However, she flatters to deceive. Apparently, even the tiny Pygmy Owl is much fiercer, pursuing even much larger birds, such as Fieldfares and ripping them to pieces like a Tasmanian Devil. The Great Grey, is really a bit of a wimp, with a relatively small body, but lots of downy feathers and fluffy soft plumage which it puffs out to keep warm in winter and to gently float down on unsuspecting voles, on which it relies entirely. The Hawk Owl and in particular, the Ural Owl (aka the Slaguggla, or Hit owl), are much more dangerous at the nest site, but I will let someone else find out the veracity of that.
Happily back at the van, we fully appreciated our good fortune, deciding to celebrate on the way to Kuusamo, with an iced cinnamon mÃÂ¶nke, whilst all the time looking out for any other interesting mÃÂ¶nkes of the female mammary persuasion. Ari inquired as to who would like to see a nearby Wryneck and once again activated his amazing i-Pod. Within seconds the usually elusive snakebird materialised in the bush in front of us and we feasted upon this usually invisible vision. On the way out, we also had to manoeuvre very carefully around a gaggle of day old Black Grouse chicks and their fussing mother, who was trying hard to shepherd them safely across the forest track.
Birding at 120 km plus per hour is not easy, but one bird you can recognise is a swooping and dipping Black Woodpecker, especially when it flies right in front of you. With anchors full on, we still managed to overrun the site by 200 metres, but had soon reversed into a handy parking place and played AriÃ¢ÂÂs magic machine once more. He appeared instantly and gave that eerie ringing call they give in response, wondering no doubt why someone who had the nerve to challenge him, still remained invisible. I consider Black Woodpeckers to be seriously lucky birds and if I see one then all will go well in whatever endeavour I am involved in. Of course back in Blighty I would be damned forever, so the lucky bird role has been designated to the Stonechat.
It was now late afternoon and we still had 200 plus km to go before reaching Kuusamo and our first nightÃ¢ÂÂs sleep for two days. We pressed on ferociously, stopping only at another storre (big) moss, the size of Cornwall, to walk out on a decidedly dodgy boardwalk and see yet more Tree Pipits, Whinchats and Willow Tits. The place was called WÃâ¬Ãâ¬nki - and was, although we did add a distant Merlin to our list.
Sometime around 9.30 pm we eventually hit Kuusamo town and checked in to the superbly comfortable Hotel Sokos, for some well earned rest, some grub and an early nightÃ¢ÂÅ just as if! 30 minutes later we went out looking to eat some food, with perhaps an odd Koff lager or two and found ourselves in the local Irish pub, slap bang in the middle of Ã¢ÂÂJuhannusÃ¢ÂÂ Ã¢ÂÂ the Finnish version of the pagan festival which celebrates the midsummer solstice.
In Finland, Midsummer Day is called Ã¢ÂÂJuhannusÃ¢ÂÂ by the Finnish speaking population and Ã¢ÂÂMidsommarÃ¢ÂÂ by the Swedo-Finns. Finland's Flag Day is also celebrated on the same day and they are officially displayed all around the country from Midsummer's Eve to the evening of the following day. A bit like St GeorgeÃ¢ÂÂs Day, but with people actually bothering to take part and without the National Front connotations. The most typical Finnish tradition is the burning of the kokko, the Ã¢ÂÂJuhannusÃ¢ÂÂ bonfire, which is originally linked to rituals of cleansing and scaring-off of evil spirits.
Friday June 22
At 3.30am on Ã¢ÂÂJuhannus mornÃ¢ÂÂ the prospect of being sacrificed on the local bonfire, remember Ã¢ÂÂThe Wicker ManÃ¢ÂÂ starring Edward Woodward as the badly burnt bobby, became significantly more likely. Our rendition of Ã¢ÂÂMessage in a BottleÃ¢ÂÂ had not greatly impressed the local karaoke officionados, so after being badly barged by several big lads and yet somehow managing to win 150 Euros on roulette, I strongly suggested to my colleagues that we should quit while we still had our heads.
We had not eaten properly or even slept at all since Tuesday night, yet this well-intended proposal was savagely rejected out of hand, as some of my companions much preferred the new Finnparty to the old Finnature.
Fortunately the local take-away, aka the Kuusamo Grilli, was still in full swing. On joining the queue of drunken pagan deviants (mostly Arsenal and Man United supporters of course), we thanked Juhannus that we had left behind our most extreme Carlsberg Kitted Koppite and managed to order some food, with only minor skirmishes to contend with. Ari continued to reassure us that we would somehow be up and out birding by 6am as planned, and that he would undertake to rouse us all at 5.30am. By my reckoning, that was in exactly 52 minutes time.
A wonderful buffet breakfast was greatly appreciated by all and around 10am we were birding to the northwest of Kuusamo around Salminen, looking for Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay. The lake behind the hotel had many Goldeneye with an immaculate Red-necked Grebe and three Black Ã¢ÂÂthroated Divers had even flown over the hotel car park. A female Parrot Crossbill was amongst the many flocks of Ã¢ÂÂkippingÃ¢ÂÂ Common Crossbills with Ã¢ÂÂbuzzingÃ¢ÂÂ Mealy Redpolls constantly overhead. Before long we were alo watching handsome Siberian Tits feeding their young at a nest box.
Nearby, a striking male Rustic Bunting was joyfully giving his wonderful melody from the roadside pines, although it still took us five minutes to locate the bird to the song. His perch overlooked the reedy KuontijÃâ¬rvi, which was full of nesting Little Gulls, plus Arctic Terns and a female Smew; four youngsters scurrying behind her Ã¢ÂÂ another chick-tick, the first being the Black Grouse yesterday.
The Kuusamo area was proving to be just as good, if not better, as the first time I had visited it in 2005, so pushing our mÃÂ¶nke even further, we decided to try the famous Valtavaara (vaara = ridge) lay-by, for chances of Siberian Jay, which becomes almost invisible in late June, when they are feeding their young, deep in the forests.
A brief diversion en-route took us into the roadside territory of an aggressive male Willow Grouse, who told us in uncertain terms to Ã¢ÂÂget-backÃ¢ÂÂ amongst his many other grousy expletives. He came within a metre and showed no fear at all, obviously too hyped-up on testosterone, to worry about us. The lay-by was a disappointment, but 200 metres in, the singing, first-year male, Red-flanked Bluetail wasnÃ¢ÂÂt. He kept returning to sing from the top of the tallest pine and was just one of the record 40 singing males in the Kuusamo area this year. The females arrive two to three weeks later than the males and if they hit adverse weather on migration from their winter quarters, half the world away in Burma and Indo-China, they donÃ¢ÂÂt bother turning up at all. So even male Bluetails know what itÃ¢ÂÂ like to be stood up.
We also tried for Hazelhen, but without any success. They are very difficult to see in midsummer, when they are quietly shepherding their young around the forest undergrowth. The Sami people believe that the Pyy grow smaller and smaller as the end of the world approaches, until on the last day of eternity, it is able to pass through the eye of a needle. Presumably they mean the one they sew reindeer hides together with, which is about a 18 inches long, so perhaps the legend is not as far-fetched as it seems.
The next stop was on a wooden bridge overlooking the swiftly flowing Kallijoki (joki = river) near SuorajÃâ¬rvi (pronounced jervi = lake), where we treated to the sight of a dozen or more Waxwings actively hawking insects over the water. Their behaviour resembled that of a Crag Martin crossed with a Pratincole and nothing like the slow-moving berry-guzzling beasts we see outside Tesco or Asda. A greyish juvenile Dipper was also interesting to see and the Ã¢ÂÂchook-chookÃ¢ÂÂ of a flying Greenshank was in exactly the right location. A Ã¢ÂÂbootiful-plumageÃ¢ÂÂ male Brambling was singing from the riverside bushes, which were filled with the summery song of Willow Warblers. They could be called the Carlsberg Warbler, as with some 10 million breeding pairs in Finland alone, it is Ã¢ÂÂprobablyÃ¢ÂÂ Fenno-ScandiaÃ¢ÂÂs most abundant bird.
On our previous trip to the area we had not really connected with Little Buntings and Ari suggested we try one or two sites on the way to the Russian border. Near Vuotunki his I-Pod brought out another Rustic Bunting and from the nearby lintutorno (birdtower) overlooking VuotunkijÃâ¬rvi, we had seven Velvet Scoter, 15 Smew, two Red-breasted Mergansers, Whooper Swans, Tufted, Wigeon, Teal and Goldeneye. The ever present Ã¢ÂÂliro-ingÃ¢ÂÂ Wood Sandpipers, there are 200,000 to 300,000 pairs in Finland alone, chased each other around the lake. The Swedes know the Green Sandpiper as the Skog(wood)snÃâ¬ppa and the Finns also call it the MetsÃâ¬(wood)viklo. The Wood Sandpiper in Sweden is the GrÃÂ¶nbena (greenlegs) and the Finns as the Liro Ã¢ÂÂ referring to the call. So once again we Brits make sure that Ã¢ÂÂwe drive on the left ensuring our sword arm is ready for action at all timesÃ¢ÂÂ.
Thanks once again to the Apple Corporation we finally connected with Little Buntings at JyrkÃâ¬nkoski some two km further down the road. A beautiful male sang back at us from nearby pines, with another singing in the distance - little crackers. Then on to the Russian border, flushing a Black Woodpecker from the roadside before coming to the barrier, just south of Kuntivaara. From the wobbly boardwalk, which paralleled the neutral zone, were more Tree Pipits, two Korppi (Hrafns), more Wood Sandpipers and what was to be our first Ã¢ÂÂthunbergiÃ¢ÂÂ Yellow Wagtail of the trip. On the way back down the same road we also flushed a Jack Snipe from a roadside ditch. Spotted and Steppe Eagles plus Black Kites are sometimes seen in the border area Ã¢ÂÂ but not today.
Wending our way back to Kuusamo in the late afternoon, Ari had one more surprise for us. We stopped on yet another indistinguishable back road, somewhere near Valmosuo and started up his magic machine. By the time it took me to turn the van around, a stunning male Arctic Warbler was giving his distinctive River x BonelliÃ¢ÂÂs Warbler song from the top of yet another pine tree.
Arctic Warblers fill exactly the same ecological niche as the Willow Warbler in their mostly Eastern Palearctic range and in a normal year Finland has around 5,000 singing males, with only 100 in Norway and less than a dozen in Sweden. They donÃ¢ÂÂt arrive until midsummer or later and are gone again by late August, so these far western birds spend almost 10 months a year migrating back and forth to the Far East.
That fantastic little book, Ã¢ÂÂ One Season in the TaigaÃ¢ÂÂ, published by Russian Nature Press is all about two Russian scientists/madmen who spend an entire season researching in every detail the breeding cycle of the Arctic Warbler and observing the other wild life of the remote taiga. They catch and colour ring every bird in a two-kilometre square area, plotting each territory and the interaction between individual Arctic Warblers. They even wait until the nestlings are being fed and then tie thin twine below their crops so they are unable to swallow. In the name of science, they even steal the food from these babiesÃ¢ÂÂ mouths with tweezers, so as to accurately identify the prey items being fed. Amazing people these Russians.
Back in Kuusamo, in fact at KuusamojÃâ¬rvi, we climbed to the top of the Tolpanniemi lintutorno where a pair of Red-necked Grebes were displaying noisily. Also present was a single female Pintail, more Ã¢ÂÂthunbergiÃ¢ÂÂ Yellow Wagtails, 30 plus nesting Arctic Terns, a few Common Terns and more Little Gulls. Not surprisingly, there was no sign of the introduced Muskrats, which are hunted for their fur; only their well worn channels through the reeds. Kuusamo Tip was quiet, with only 30 plus Baltic Gulls, six Wood Sandpipers, a Ã¢ÂÂspringÃ¢ÂÂ of 11 Teal and various larger gulls in all their very interesting (not) plumages. So back to the hotel, as Ari needed to check out and continue his 700 km journey to SE Finland with his lovely daughter, who was just finishing college and also about to join Finnature as a trainee.
By 8.30 pm we were patrolling the pinewoods on the banks of PennikkajÃâ¬rvi, looking for a Goldeneye nesting box. A pair of TengmalmÃ¢ÂÂs Owls had taken it over, and somewhat belatedly were now raising their young. As usual, Ari found it first and after we all gathered round he scratched on the trunk of the tree, like a Pine Marten does apparently, and the TengmalmÃ¢ÂÂs obligingly peered out. What a perfect end to a superb day.
A pair of Black-throated Divers were busily Ã¢ÂÂlooningÃ¢ÂÂ about on the lake and a loud Ã¢ÂÂchook-chookÃ¢ÂÂ saw a Greenshank, flushed off its nest. All was well in a wonderful world, bathed in glorious late evening sunshine.
Bidding our fond farewells to Ari and his daughter, we wandered our now weary way back towards the hamlet of Poussu, with its Reindeer farms. Suddenly, a male Capercaillie materialised at the side of the road and reversing we all had half-decent views of this wonderful Ã¢ÂÂcock of the forestÃ¢ÂÂ. We decided to build a small monument to the great MÃÂ¶nke God, who was continuing to shower his favours upon us. Somewhere along these back roads you may come across a small Blair Witch-like cairn of stones, supporting a sharp stick, on which is reverently positioned a half-eaten BratwÃÅrst sausage Ã¢ÂÂ enjoy.
A well-earned, wonderful meal of liver, onions and mash was washed down with Koff lager and salutations to Ari of FinnParty, the wonderful town and people of Kuusamo, the festival of Juhannus and particularly the god/goddess of MÃÂ¶nke, who had looked after us so far. For tomorrow morning we were off to the real Arctic and the mythical Varangerfjord and I was so excited, I couldnÃ¢ÂÂt sleep. Standing in the Sokos Hotel car park, enjoying a now barely-legal cigar, I was circled by at least three Ã¢ÂÂtsickingÃ¢ÂÂ eye-level Woodcock, whilst the lilting song of a Brambling filled the midnight daylight. I threw my hat in the air as they came round again and as it landed, one of the Woodcocks also landed by it, in case it was an interested female. Good to be alive - or what?
Saturday June 23rd
We made a leisurely start next morning, enjoying another superb breakfast before setting off around 10 am on our 732 km trip north to our destination, Vestre Jakobselv, situated on the arctic shores of Varangerfjord, in Norway. At least we didnÃ¢ÂÂt need to worry about driving in the dark, as once we entered the Arctic Circle, Napapiiri in Finnish, at 66ÃÂº 33Ã¢ÂÂ 07Ã¢Â? North, the sun shines for 720 hours without setting.
Bowling along the superbly maintained E63 at a fair lick we headed for KemijÃâ¬rvi to join the E75, the Arctic Highway at SodankylÃâ¬ (which translates as town of war). The worldÃ¢ÂÂs luckiest Red Squirrel wandered onto the highway 50 metres ahead and as we passed over it for one one hundreth of a second, if perhaps wondered why it had gone ever so briefly dark and where had that wind and noise come fromÃ¢ÂÅ and gone to.
Approaching KemijÃâ¬rvi, we saw the signs for Lentssons Resort Suomunhelmi, which straddles the Arctic Circle, so like all good tourists should, we decided to pull in and take the obligatory photos. Run by the formidable Jane Lentsson, this proved to be an excellent decision, as we were able to stock-up on homemade Cinnamon buns, drink lashings of coffee, take our photos and obtain our official Arctic Circle visitor certificates. The lakeside cabins and other facilities looked superb and in the midwinter peak season, the action really gets going with snowmobiles, the Aurora Borealis, Reindeers and of course Santa. No doubt the feeders are full of Pine Grosbeaks and Azure Tits too. (www.lentssons-suomunhelmi.com)
The next town was SodankylÃâ¬ and luckily I had begun to slow down for the urban area ahead, when a very smart police patrol Mercedes van passed me going the other way. He had clocked me at 118 kph entering the 80 kph zone, so obviously wasnÃ¢ÂÂt too pleased. After a smart u-turn and a brief pursuit, I was invited into their mobile police station to take a breath test and explain my actions.
If you are driving in Finland donÃ¢ÂÂt even think about having even one small drink and then driving. There is very sensible zero-tolerance policy of alcohol in the blood and as I donÃ¢ÂÂt drink very much anyway, that wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a problem. I do know one or two other birders though, who would have ended up in prison for a few days Ã¢ÂÂ the mandatory sentence Ã¢ÂÂ for driving the day after consuming six pints or more the evening before.
As a British tourist I was let off with a warning, especially after my passport revealed that I was from Sami Hypia Ã¢ÂÂland. Whether my excuses of being lured into travelling too fast by FinlandÃ¢ÂÂs wonderful roads cut any ice, is debatable. Seriously though, watch your speed and keep a sharp eye out for posh Mercedes vans, which are clocking you as you approach them.
North of Inari, the taiga forest zone starts to thin out, with only scattered birches and pines and seemingly thousands of kilometres of bogs, lakes and marshes. As we approached Kaamenen, our first flying barn-door, aka White-tailed Eagle was being seen off by an adult Golden Eagle. Ã¢ÂÂWalkaboutÃ¢ÂÂ Jackson engaged a Finnish couple in conversation, who advised us to stop at a hotel near Utsjoki, where Pine Grosbeaks can sometimes be seen - in winter they thought. This information really set my alarm bells ringing. In planning this trip, I came across vague reports of Pine Grosbeaks at feeders at a hotel in the far north of Finland and apparently not in winter!
After a further 50 km, the E75 wound down the beautiful valley of the Utsjoki, with mature Caledonian pine forest and cliffs and I saw an interestingly large, reddish-looking finch, perched at the very top of a roadside pine. We obtained only very brief views, before it flew off, but the consensus was, that it had very likely been a GrosbeakÃ¢ÂÅ but obviously not a tickable one !
Bemoaning our bad mÃÂ¶nke, we saw the sign for the lakeside Hotelli Pohjan Tuli (Aurora Borealis)), swung into the car park and immediately began looking for the feeders, more in hope than expectation. 20 plus Greenfinches, some immaculate male Bramblings and our first Ringed Plover on the lakeshore was the result, but as we made our way back to the van we were hailed by the owner of the hotel. Ã¢ÂÂWelcomeÃ¢Â? he said greeting us like long lost friends, Ã¢ÂÂwould you like to see some interesting birds? Ã¢Â?
Kari Westerlund, led us inside to the bar and restaurant which overlooked the dozen or more feeders and the lake. Ã¢ÂÂThey like sunflower seeds bestÃ¢Â? he added. Ã¢ÂÂWhat do?Ã¢Â? I asked. Ã¢ÂÂWhy the Pine Grosbeaks of course Ã¢ÂÂ they come here each morning between 8.30 and 9.30 am.Ã¢Â? As the smug know-it-all worldwide birder I am, a fact that will be confirmed by all that know and love me, I added, Ã¢ÂÂOh - in winter of course.Ã¢Â? He looked at me like I had some kind of serious mental impediment. Ã¢ÂÂNo, no, no! They are coming now. The male was here this morning, just before nine!Ã¢Â?
As this incredible news sank in, he showed us several amazing photos of his Grosbeaks, including some of the stunning red male. Ã¢ÂÂSee, I took these myself from my office window, they like that feeder best, itÃ¢ÂÂs only a metre or so from my desk.Ã¢Â? We all needed his strong excellent coffee to appreciate our amazingly good fortune and arranged with him, to be back for breakfast the very next morning at 8am sharp.
Utsjoki border post between Finland and the Finnmark region of Norway was empty as we crossed the Tana River and continued along the north bank heading towards Tana Bru(bridge). Five Rough-legged Buzzards and a superb Long-tailed Skua soared above us in the glorious sunshine as we crossed the Tana again and headed for Varangerbotn. The hillsides were full of many dead birches, victims of the Autumnal Moth plague in the mid-1960s.
A Short-eared Owl floated above yet another roadside bog, as we descended to the road junction at Varangerbotn and our first glimpse of this spectacular inlet of the Barends Sea. Due to the warming influence of the Gulf Stream it doesnÃ¢ÂÂt freeze in winter, when its home to many White-billed Divers and tens of thousands of Common, StellerÃ¢ÂÂs and King Eiders. Hoping that some of these birds had also decided to remain for the summer, we continued on the E75, hugging the beautiful coastline of the Varangerfjord and our destination at Vestre Jakobselv, near VadsÃÅŸ.
We passed several White-tailed Eagles on the rocky shoreline, along with crÃÅ¡ches of Common Eiders, our first 100 plus Kittiwakes, more Arctic Terns and our first Arctic Skua, before pulling in to the Pikkuskitsi Lodge Ã¢ÂÂ a restored 19th century fish market, right in the centre of the picturesque harbour at Vestre Jakobselv and our superb accommodation for two nights. We had made it to our Arctic Summer!
As it was still only 9 pm and of course it would never go dark, we decided to explore the coast as far as VadsÃÅŸ harbour, starting with the immediate area. 40 plus nesting Arctic Terns occupied the breakwater along with a breeding pair of Bar-tailed Godwits, their song and alarm calls were Ã¢ÂÂsound ticksÃ¢ÂÂ for us all, despite having thousands wintering on the Ribble and Dee, none of them ever say much. Wheatears perched on the fish-drying racks and both pale and dark-phase Arctic Skuas harried the terns offshore.
We met a helpful Swiss birder who told us of 10 male StellerÃ¢ÂÂs Eiders he had seen earlier today at low tide, feeding close inshore just past VadsÃÅŸ, so we raced off to connect with them Ã¢ÂÅ and didnÃ¢ÂÂt. The Midsommar festivities were still in full swing, with multitudes of bonfires along the beaches and much frivolity being enjoyed by all. No self-respecting StellerÃ¢ÂÂs Eider would tolerate such behaviour so close to them and they were no doubt at least 50 km offshore by now. The fact that it was high tide and that the StellerÃ¢ÂÂs are only to be seen close inshore at low tide, completely escaped our attention.
We did however see 100Ã¢ÂÂs of Common Eiders, Goosanders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Kittiwakes and Arctic Terns, with three Arctic Skuas and a superb adult, pale phase Pomarine Skua, which barrelled past offshore. But the best sight, was 129, summer-plumaged Red-necked Phalaropes, all apparently females, spinning around like tops on a small pool on the island of VadsÃÅŸy, off VadsÃÅŸ harbour. They must have all completed their egg-laying duties and cleared off to the worldÃ¢ÂÂs biggest midsummer hen-party, leaving their poor mates to fend for themselves Ã¢ÂÅ and their young ones.
It was hard to believe that Varangerfjord was ours for two entire 24-hour days, but first there was the matter of PGs, just across the border to deal with. As the tiny fishing village of Vestre Jakobselv lacked a Ã¢ÂÂkaraokeÃ¢ÂÂ pub, or in fact an entertainment outlet of any kind, it was much easier to negotiate a 5am start for the following morning.
Sunday June 24th
As Finland is one hour ahead of Norway, we were on the road westwards back to the Pohjan Tuli Hotel at 5.15am. A sub-adult White Ã¢ÂÂtailed Eagle was passed at the side of the road and a probable immature White-billed Diver was feeding close inshore, just past Nesseby. But averaging warp speed nine I refused to slow down for just a White-billed Diver and should have done so when a hidden dip in the road between Tana Bru and Utsjoki produced a short period of weightlessness and a potential broken neck for the rear cabin passengers.
At 8am we were settled in the breakfast room overlooking the feeders anticipating the arrival of the guaranteed Pine Grosbeaks Ã¢ÂÂ but by mid-morning they still hadnÃ¢ÂÂt arrived. A constant procession of handsome male Bramblings, Greenfinches, Mealy Redpolls and the odd Bullfinch was some consolation Ã¢ÂÂ but not enough. Even a Red Squirrel and a Grey-sided Vole around the base of the feeders only temporarily lifted the black dog of dipping, so there and then we decided we would switch our accommodation for Monday evening to the Pohjan Tuli.
KarinÃ¢ÂÂs offer of making his world-famous Tana salmon soup for dinner clinched the deal and on his recommendation, we set off to explore the 342-metre high Ailigas Fjell, which overlooked Utsjoki. A stunning male red-spotted Bluethroat Ã¢ÂÂ there are an estimated 200,000 breeding pairs in Finland - was singing from the willows by the lake and our first Ringed Plover made itself very noticeable, attracting us away from his sitting female, no doubt. It was not until I got back home, that I read about the extremely rare Treeline Emerald Dragonfly, which breeds in roadside pools in the Utsjoki area in late June and virtually nowhere else in Europe Ã¢ÂÂ another gold star for preparation was duly awarded.
Ailigas Fjell was superb for views of the snow-topped Finnmark mountain scenery, but less so for its birdlife, with no sign of Ptarmigan or Dotterel. However Red-throated, Rock and Meadow Pipits were present, plus Twite, three Rough-legged Buzzards, two Golden Plover, six or more Long-tailed Skuas, several Wheatears and a superb adult Golden Eagle, which soared lazily right over my head.
We took the Finnish road back to Varanger via Nuorgam, which cuts about 20 minutes off the journey. Contrary to reports, this road is a delight to drive and you hardly notice the border crossing and within an hour we were nearing VadsÃÅŸ harbour again. As it was high tide, the StellerÃ¢ÂÂs Eiders still werenÃ¢ÂÂt about and then extreme panic set in when a young Norwegian birder, told us of about a flock of some 60 Spectacled Eiders at the very tip of Varanger in VardÃÅŸ !
The Latin name for King Eider is Somateria spectabilis, and as our Norwegian is dire, we decided that perhaps he should be allowed the odd mistake in translation. But being the archetypical ungrateful listers we were, we decided to cover him with stones inside a midsummer bonfire before heading for VardÃÅŸ anyway. I
In Golnes, a roadside French birder was watching a first-year Great Northern Diver close inshore, not a common bird so far east; so he was invited onboard and in deteriorating weather, we continued our journey eastwards. The 2.9 km long underwater tunnel as you enter VardÃÅŸ is amazing and also completely free. Without doubt it would cost at least ÃÂ£5 each way in our much more commercial-minded world.
VardÃÅŸ is a fascinating commercial fishing town of some 2,500 inhabitants on the Barents Sea and is the only town in Europe within the Arctic Climate Zone. The town dates back to the Middle Ages and between 1621 and 1692 about 80 people, mostly old ladies with black cats
no doubt, were burnt on local bonfires for being witches. If they cried out with the pain they were guilty and obviously deserved to die, whereas if they remained silent they were declared innocent and what was left of them was later buried in hallowed ground.
Lying just east of VardÃÅŸ harbour is the seabird nesting island of HornÃÅŸya and today the narrow channel which separated it from the mainland was full of Guillemots, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Puffins, Shags and Kittiwakes Ã¢ÂÂ but picking out a definite BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs Guillemot amongst the teeming masses in an almost gale-force wind, was not going to be easy. After an hour of being blasted by the freezing northerly wind, we gave up. Deciding instead to have a look in the fishing harbour, where a 2nd-summer Glaucous Gull was a much-wanted lifer for our French compatriot.
He then suggested that we should scan the straits to the west of VardÃÅŸ for the King Eiders and very soon we were watching a 1st summer male and two females hauled out on the shoreline. At this site, friendly Italian birders/serious video recordists led by the affable Mauritzio Ravezini gave us more information on Gyr Falcons, Shorelarks and Arctic Redpolls on the road to Hamningberg and also confirmed the regular presence of at least 10 male StellerÃ¢ÂÂs Eider at VadsÃÅŸ Ã¢ÂÂ but only at low tide. Still didnÃ¢ÂÂt register.
We re-crossed to the mainland, stopping at the tiny airport to watch Red-throated Pipits and Long-tailed Skuas, while nearby hundreds of Kittiwakes and Ã¢ÂÂargentatusÃ¢ÂÂ Herring Gulls were bathing in a freshwater outflow on the beach. The bleak tundra road to Hamningberg was fantastic, with interesting birds every hundred metres or so. Striking summer-plumaged male Lapland Buntings were singing next to the road; Red-throated Pipits competing with them. Arctic Skuas dashed about us and waders included displaying Dunlin, TemminckÃ¢ÂÂs Stint and Golden Plover, while White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard were also seen. What a fabulous place!
It soon became even better, when we came upon the nesting cliff of Gyr Falcons, with the four well grown young in the nest. We were extremely lucky that our visit coincided with feeding time and we witnessed the amazing sight of both very vocal parents attending the nest, the male carrying a snow-white male Ptarmigan. The female screamed at him to transfer the evening meal to her, which he did and she settled on the nest to tear the (hopefully already dead) bird to pieces and began feeding her young ones Ã¢ÂÂ nature in the raw. As we never did see a live Ptarmigan, we havenÃ¢ÂÂt however counted it on our trip list total.
Somewhat overawed by the natural spectacle that is Varangerfjord we happily made our way back towards VadsÃÅŸ and just east of the harbour, before the bridge across to the island, we stopped once again to scan for the stellar bird, hoping that this time, our mÃÂ¶nke would well and truly be in.
As the tide wasnÃ¢ÂÂt, ten male StellerÃ¢ÂÂs Eiders were actively feeding just off the rocky shore in a tight flock not 100 metres away, with an Ã¢ÂÂI want to be aloneÃ¢ÂÂ female resting on the rocks nearby. In recent years, they have become increasingly difficult to connect with in summer, but flocks of 25,000 to 40,000 are still present in Norwegian waters in winter, along with 100,000 King Eiders.
With heavy rain and strong northerly winds forecast for tomorrow, I wondered if we would be able to take the planned boat trip out to HornÃÅŸya from VardÃÅŸ and was thinking of Plan B, which involved a 300 km round trip to their nearest other breeding cliffs at Syltefjorden on the north-east coast of the Varanger peninsular Ã¢ÂÂ without any real guarantee of seeing BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs Guillemot, when we got there.
Monday June 25th
We awoke for a leisurely 7am breakfast and as forecasted the weather was awful, with heavy periods of rain and a strong north-easterly wind. However Ã¢ÂÂif you donÃ¢ÂÂt go out you donÃ¢ÂÂt see nowtÃ¢ÂÂ (had to get it in somewhere), so we set off for VardÃÅŸ wondering if our proposed boat trip might go ahead. As it was low tide again, the StellerÃ¢ÂÂs were still close inshore at VadsÃÅŸ and Turnstones, TemminckÃ¢ÂÂs Stints and Arctic Skuas were seen briefly but well, along the coast road.
We arrived at the VardÃÅŸ Havn office at 10am to find it deserted and the tiny harbour launch tied up at the harbour quay, but still bobbing about alarmingly, like a cork in a whirlpool bath. It seemed like our little boat ride was not going to happen, but of course that would only be the case in a health & safety obsessed country like ours. Without much trouble, we managed to find the Havnmeiester and despite his obvious incredulity that we wanted to get across to HornÃÅŸya in such awful weather, once I explained that we were lunatic birders from Little Britain, he replied Ã¢ÂÂOf course. We go in half-hour Ã¢ÂÂ no problem.Ã¢ÂÂ
We passed on our valuables, phone numbers of loved ones and other personal items to June, who was not just a very bad sailor but who had very sensibly already seen the BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs on Shetland. Within five minutes we were leaving the Ã¢ÂÂshelterÃ¢ÂÂ of the harbour for the two kilometre crossing to the island.
The powerful launch and its two-man crew were obviously completely at home in the raging storms and icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. Apart from one dodgy period in the middle of the channel, where the opposing currents of the Varangerfjord and the Barents Sea meet each other head-on, causing the boat to attempt a one and half pike with 180 degrees backflip, the crossing was only 99 percent life-threatening.
Our skipper/hero had obviously done all this before. Not only could he steer the boat while talking on his cell phone about his latest sightings in the Polar Bear (explained later) to Mrs Havnmeister, he also constantly pointed out probable BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs to us all the way across. What must he have thought of us grim faced, white-knuckled wimps, hanging on for dear life. However our true test of Arctic endurance and our legendary British Ã¢ÂÂbulldog spiritÃ¢ÂÂ was yet to come.
The wooden landing jetty was connected to the island by a narrow, stepped metal walkway angled at 30 degrees and to facilitate the gentle swaying and rocking under normal weather, its bottom edge had rollers, allowing it to move gently about. In todayÃ¢ÂÂs gale, it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt doing that. Instead it was thrashing about like a demented seal, moving six feet backwards and forwards; charging right to the front edge of the landing jetty and then all the way back again to the rear. To further complicate matters the boat was also being rammed into the rubber tyre fenders protecting the landing stage while rising and falling by several in the heavy swell.
Coinciding the leap onto the moving and slippery walkway with the momentum of the boat was quite a challenge, but one that in pursuit of a Ã¢ÂÂtickÃ¢ÂÂ was not to be refused. One by one we gained the safety of the guano and seaweed oozed rocks and slithered to shelter in the lee of a small wooden survey Ã¢ÂÂhytteÃ¢ÂÂ where we started to scan the bird-packed cliffs for our quarry. In the mist and rain with the noise and pungent odour of tens of thousands of auks, Kittiwakes and Shags, we were soon watching breeding BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs Guillemots scattered here and there amongst their much commoner Guillemots cousins, including many of the bridled variety, plus squadrons of chunky Razorbills and cheeky Puffins.
BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs GuillemotsÃ¢ÂÂ lay a single egg on their rocky ledge in late May or June, which hatches out after a month or so. After a further three weeks the fledgling leaps off the ledge into the freezing seas and accompanied by the now flightless male, swims off into the Arctic Ocean for the next month Ã¢ÂÂ to learn the ropes from dad, so to speak. One million birds a year plus eggs, are taken for food in Greenland, so itÃ¢ÂÂs tough out there if you are an auk. Ask the Great AukÃ¢ÂÅ and if you do get a reply, please let me be the first to know.
Mission completed, we waved to the launch, which occasionally appeared from amongst the waves some 100 metres offshore. They had decided that the jetty might sink the boat if they stayed moored to it, but now heroically returned to rescue us from a night huddled together in the freezing rain, potentially to be covered in Kittiwake vomit and Shag shit. We slithered back down the walkway and praying fervently to our mÃÂ¶nke god for deliverance and like the good young penguins we were, leapt one-by-one into the abyss. We were all gathered in like mailbags and steered safely into the lower cabin.
As Mr Havnmeister steered, smoked and chatted on his mobile, we engaged in congratulatory nods and smiles and in 15 short minutes we were back in the safety of the harbour, extremely proud of our heroic achievements and our Admunsen-like Arctic endeavour. Some kind of celebration was in order and it came in the form of the Polar Bear.
I drank coffee and chatted with the owner and the others had a pint or two of Stella, in the nicest pub Ã¢ÂÂ in fact the only pub, we had seen since Kuusamo. Apparently a real live Polar Bear had been seen in the area Ã¢ÂÂ 300 km away in Batsfjord to be exact Ã¢ÂÂ not a week before our arrival. But as none of the regulars knew the number of the local PolarBearLine, we felt unable to twitch the beast, choosing to stay in the comfort of our own discovery instead.
The walls of the Polar bear had old historic photographs of Varanger and its people. Roald Admunsen in 1926 and Umberto Nobile in 1928 both led expeditions to the North Pole from here and earlier in 1893 Fridjof Nansen has also set off in his ship the Fram. Nowadays its Helly Hansen and expensive jumpers which most people associate with Norway, but talk about hard people.
Simon and Mike also related that on waiting to disembark (being thrown onto the island), they had seen a large, two metre plus, uniformly coloured greyish seal glide past the boat. This was likely to have been the truly arctic Bearded Seal, the main prey of both the Polar Bear and those darned Greenlanders. HavenÃ¢ÂÂt they got a TescoÃ¢ÂÂs there for goodnessÃ¢ÂÂ sake.
Several trip reports advise that the boat trip to HornÃÅŸya is a rip-off, with only one tick being available for what amounts to about ÃÂ£15 return. If you do manage to get all the way to VardÃÅŸ and then decide that itÃ¢ÂÂs not worth the trip for just one tick and you would rather Ã¢ÂÂstringÃ¢ÂÂ one flying past or in the harbour, then you either have no soul, or no brain, or both.
Now was the time to return to the moonscape terrain of the road to Hamningberg, which incidentally was used for the extra-terrestial locations in the James Bond film Moonraker.
The weather was now appalling with driving rain, mist and howling winds, but if you are a bird that chooses to nest in the Arctic Climatic Zone, then this was probably a decent enough day to go about your business and so it was. Red-throated Pipits and Lapland Buntings were actively feeding their young, Snow Buntings searched for seeds amongst the rocks, one or two Shorelarks put in a brief appearance and the first largish patch of dwarf willow bushes by a stream produced several beautifully frosted Arctic Redpolls. An immaculate Red-throated Diver was sat on its nest by a small roadside lake and at Sandfjord we came across both Swallows and Sand Martins; surely their most northerly breeding locations in the world. One Sand Martin was even leisurely picking up food over the raging surf, for all the world behaving just like a petrel.
A one-hour seawatch overlooking the Arctic Ocean from literally the end of the road at the metropolis of Hamningberg, produced our first Gannets and Fulmars, thousands of auks and Kittiwakes and the usual Arctic Terns, Shags and Arctic Skuas. All were passing close offshore in the rough, but probably normal sea conditions and in May hundreds of summer-plumaged White-billed Divers can be seen here too. We had been told to look out for a one-legged Iceland Gull that was always around the harbour here, but it must have hopped it. Probably the most northerly House Sparrows and White Wagtails in the world were seen and four more Red - throated Pipits; without doubt the common passerine of the area.
The drive back towards VardÃÅŸ was an anticlimax. We had just birded one of the most dramatic and amazing places in the world and felt reluctant to leave. But is was late afternoon and we needed to say goodbye to Varangerfjord and head for our evening stop at the Hotel Pohjan Tuli, with its promise of salmon soup, followed by a melba of Pine Grosbeaks.
We stopped off at various places on the way, more to pay homage to their legendary names and locations than to look for birds. Store EkkerÃÅŸy was one and at Nesseby Church, we looked for the phalarope pool and couldnÃ¢ÂÂt find it. We did see our first and only Long-tailed Duck from the churchyard, a nice male and also 20 handsome Bar-tailed Godwits, three Cormorants and the usual flocks of Eiders, Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers. The last bird that Varanger gave us was an adult White-tailed Eagle on the cliffs near Nesseby, a fitting farewell to a wonderfully wild place, which we all vowed to return to, as soon as we possibly can.
In just over an hour we were once more back in the excellent company of Kari Westerlund and his family, at the Hotelli Pohjan Tuli near Utsjoki, eating superb Salmon soup, drinking beer and generally relaxing and enjoying ourselves. I went outside to smoke a cigar and as two Woodcock Ã¢ÂÂtissickedÃ¢ÂÂ in the bright nightlight, I shouted in Ã¢ÂÂWoodcock!Ã¢ÂÂ to the others. Kari thought I was shouting for Wodka and on returning to the bar, he was busy asking my travelling companions which brand I preferred.
Tuesday June 26th
After the best nightÃ¢ÂÂs sleep for almost a week, we were all at the breakfast room overlooking the feeders at 8 am sharp. Half -an-hour later, there was still no sign of any Grosbeaks and the first glimmer of doubt was beginning to set in. Then at 8.46 am Matthew said very calmlyÃ¢ÂÅ Ã¢ÂÂ Dad, IÃ¢ÂÂve got a female Grosser on the feeders.Ã¢Â? Rice Crispies were thrown aside as we were all got on to an aggressive female Pine Grosbeak taking over her favoured sunflower seed feeder, from the puny Greenfinches. Over the next couple of hours, she returned regularly as did a more nervous 1st summer male, but we werenÃ¢ÂÂt treated to a sight of the stunning adult male; maybe next time. I was surprised at quite how chunky they are, being almost twice the size of the accompanying Greenfinches.
Karin (aka Mr Pinus Grosbeakus) told us that the PGs come back in mid-March and are then present almost every day until mid-August, when they disappear. The maximum number he has seen at any one time is nine birds and other regular sightings on and around his feeders include Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Hawk Owl and Willow Grouse. So, if you would like to see almost guaranteed Pine Grosbeaks from early spring right through to early autumn, then the Hotelli Pohjan Tuli, just 6.8 km south of Utsjoki on the E 75 is the place and Kari Westerlund is your man.
So happy were we with the experience and the company, that we felt very sorry to leave, but vowing to return next year, we set off our marathon journey southwards through Finnish Lapland, heading for our next overnight stop at Oulu Ã¢ÂÅ once again. The roadside mires and open tundra/taiga were as usual wader heaven and by the time we reached Inari, we had seen Spotted Redshank, yet more Wood Sandpipers of course and also we had a beautiful Whimbrel in the hand, unfortunately only as a very recent road - kill. It appeared completely untouched, so we placed it at the edge of the nearby bog, while its mate flew around calling plaintively for a response that would never come. At least it would not be disrespectfully mangled by passing traffic and if an Arctic Fox came sniffing, it would not suffer the same fate.
We stopped off at various sites, including the MetsÃâ¬hallitus Visitor Centre at Tankivaara, south of SaariselkÃâ¬, the site of old gold mine workings and the headquarters of the Urho Kekkonen National Park. As usual books, CDs and panoramic displays were appreciated and yet more free leaflets and brochures added to our burgeoning collection. We also tried a quick stroll along the promisingly entitled Ã¢ÂÂSiberian Jay TrailÃ¢ÂÂ, but apart from a very confiding Cuckoo and Ã¢ÂÂtrillingÃ¢ÂÂ calls of Crested Tit, the Sibe Jays were obviously lying low. We thought of lighting a fire, as apparently the smell of a BBQ has them arriving in an instant, but as we didnÃ¢ÂÂt have any matches or sausages, we didnÃ¢ÂÂt bother.
Nearing Kemi and the shores of the Baltic, more Rough-legged Buzzards and Cranes were glimpsed and by late evening we were once again back at the ABC services near Liminka for a well-earned coffee and yet another iced mÃÂ¶nke. We had kindly been advised of nearby sites for Ã¢ÂÂnight-singersÃ¢ÂÂ and Corncrakes by Finnature and by 11 pm we listening to Corncrake and Thrush Nightingale but missed out on previously reliable River Warblers near Raahe; so we decided to call it a very long day. We checked into our luxury cabin at the VÃâ¬rminkoski Campsite, complete with a new tick for the trip, of a plastic Mute Swan on the small lake. Unfortunately, it was actually made of real Ã¢ÂÂplasticÃ¢ÂÂ but after almost 18 hours of travel, I would have counted it no problem.
However, news had just come through of a 100 percent genuine 1st for Finland, in the shape of a Long-toed Stint at Salminlahti between Kotka and Hamina on the south coast and only 250 km or so from Tampere airportÃ¢ÂÅ so guess we were we going tomorrow.
Wednesday June 27th
Having calculated that we had until 9.30 pm to get to the airport for our 10.50 pm flight back to Stansted, we unanimously decided to Ã¢ÂÂtwitchÃ¢ÂÂ the Long-toed Stint, adding around 600 km to our already marathon trip. But first we would visit Liminganlahti Reserve and another nearby site at HirnevÃâ¬Ãâ¬, which had been excellent on our previous visit in 2005.
For some unexplained reason, the formerly busy nature centre was still closed and looked decidedly forlorn and neglected. We went out on the boardwalk to the first lintutorno and although not as good as we anticipated we did add several new species to our list. A female Marsh Harrier quartered the nearby fields and other birds present included at least 70 Cranes, 200 plus Whooper Swans, a solitary Black-tailed Godwit, our first Coot of the trip and the usual waders and wildfowl. The Yellow-breasted Buntings that used to be present here have not turned up for many years now and these days very few birds at all are being seen anywhere in Finland.
The old peat workings some 10 km south at HirnevÃâ¬Ãâ¬ were decidedly more interesting with Osprey, Hobby, Great Crested Grebe and Ortolan Bunting from the very unusual lintutorno. To reach the viewing platform and still avoid a guaranteed fractured skull, you are required to perform a backwards Ã¢ÂÂlimbo danceÃ¢ÂÂ technique. Finland is full of lintutornos, most excellently maintained, but you use them at your own risk. Seemingly the Finns still get by without Ã¢ÂÂbig brotherÃ¢ÂÂ health and safety legislation and litigation. They assume that if you are careless enough to injure or even kill yourself, then you are in some way responsible for that.
Early afternoon saw us heading southwards on the E75, with phone calls to my friend Jouni Numminen in Tampere confirming that the Ã¢ÂÂtwitchÃ¢ÂÂ was still on and the Ã¢ÂÂbird was showing well but distantÃ¢ÂÂ. The simultaneous onset of heavy rain and sleep deprivation in the driver, saw reinforcements at the helm of our familiar friendly rocket ship-cum-home and by 5pm we were turning off towards the shores of the Gulf of Finland.
The rain was bucketing down as we turned down a very narrow lane behind a small housing estate and the spaceship was jammed into the only space still available at the parking area. The well-trodden path was full of returning smiling faces, so we knew Ã¢ÂÂthe birdÃ¢ÂÂ was still showing and within a few minutes we were lined up at the edge of a very waterlogged peaty field, which had been especially prepared for wading birds. A massive Finnish twitch was in progress with at least a dozen other birders grilling the distant Long-toed Stint. Its pale yellowish legs, brownish crown and bright rufous scapulars helped us to pick it out from the many Wood Sandpipers around it Ã¢ÂÅ apart from the fact it was the only stint there of course.
Two Marsh Harriers, a Hobby, both Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers and singing Marsh Warbler and Blackcap all added further interest to the day.I also managed to tick Annika Forsten, the editor of FinlandÃ¢ÂÂs Alula magazine, who I hadnÃ¢ÂÂt met for ten years of more and that was in Dubai. It was good to chew the fat for a while, observing a constant stream of nervous Finnish twitchers as they arrived, always asking the same question of course Ã¢ÂÅ Ã¢ÂÂis it still showing?Ã¢Â?
At 6.30 pm we left for the 247 km journey back to Tampere airport and as my adrenaline flow had now almost ceased I pulled into the first motorway services we came across. At 7.45 pm it suddenly dawned upon me that we still had 187 km to go and yet had only 145 minutes in which to do it in. We made it just in time and as yet, no speeding tickets have come through from the car rental company, touch wood Ã¢ÂÅ and itÃ¢ÂÂs all down to the right kind of mÃÂ¶nke.
1 Red-necked Grebe regular in the Kuusamo area
2 King Eider (1st summer male with two females VardÃÅŸ, up to 60 in the area)
3 StellerÃ¢ÂÂs Eider (10 males and female regular at VadsÃÅŸ Ã¢ÂÂ at low tide only)
4 Long-toed Stint ( Finlands 1st record on our last day)
5 Golden Eagle (two adults seen between Ivalo and Utsjoki)
6 Gyr Falcon (apparently well-known eyrie on the Hamninberg road, with four young)
7 Long-tailed Skua (a good vole year as common on Varanger and high fells)
8 Glaucous Gull (2nd summer bird in VardÃÅŸ harbour)
9 BrunnichÃ¢ÂÂs Guillemot (no problem on HornÃÅŸya, doubtful ID offshore, unless calm)
10 Great Grey Owl (book Finnature)
11 Hawk Owl (book Finnature)
12 TengmalmÃ¢ÂÂs Owl (book Finnature)
13 Pygmy Owl (heard only, book Finnature)
14 Three-toed Woodpecker (book Finnature)
15 Red-throated Pipit (commonest pipit on Varanger)
16 Shorelark (difficult but around on Varanger)
17 Red-flanked Bluetail (easy at Valtavaara, 40 males in song in Kuusamo area)
18 BlythÃ¢ÂÂs Reed Warbler (Oulu area)
19 Arctic Warbler (Kuusamo area)
20 Siberian Tit (Kuusamo area)
21 Arctic Redpoll (fairly easy to find on Varanger)
22 Parrot Crossbill (Kuusamo area)
23 Pine Grosbeak (stay at the Hotel Pohjan Tuli near Utsjoki between mid March and mid August and have one or two for breakfast)
24 Little Bunting (book Finnature)
25 Rustic Bunting (book Finnature)
26 Lapland Bunting (impossible not to find on Varanger)
27 Snow Bunting (localised on Varanger)
In total we saw or heard 184 species, which apart from the above also included the scarce Great Northern Diver (and a probable White Billed, not counted)); lots of White-tailed Eagles and Rough-legged Buzzards; Honey Buzzard; Hobby; Merlin; Corncrake; Willow Grouse; Capercaillie; Black Grouse; Jack Snipe; Red-necked Phalarope; Pomarine Skua; Wryneck; Woodlark, Bluethroat and Red-backed Shrike. 22 species of waders were recorded, with most in summer plumage and displaying. Notable absentees were Siberian Jay, Hazelhen, Dotterel and Ptarmigan. We also had some mammals like Grey-sided Vole, Red Squirrel, Bearded Seal and Reindeer, but not one solitary Elk. Flutterbys were not generally looked for IÃ¢ÂÂm ashamed to say, but some interesting ones that flew past us included Cranberry Blue, Cranberry Fritillary, Arctic Sulphur, Lapland Ringlet, Swallowtail and Wood White. Dragonflies were not abundant but Northern Damselfly and Northern Emerald as well as White-faced Darters were noted.