The Land of the Midnight Sun, Reindeer, Moose, Koff beer, gorgeous Arctic specialities, Lapin Kulta and landscapes that superlatives haven't been invented for, have been my playground for the last eight days, in the redoubtable company of John "Mad Dog" Bannon, his son Matt, Bazzo, Paul Derbyshire and South African birders, Andre Marx and Ron Searle (no, he didn't write the "St Trinians" books, at least I don't think so).
Before I go any further, thanks must go to the Bannon boys for their astonishing feats of long-distance driving in the VW Transporter we picked up from Tampere airport late on Wednesday June 10th.
Their efforts behind the wheel allowed the rest of us back in the naughty seats to debate the finer points of Lapin Kulta and Koff beer and swap birding war stories as the kilometres zipped by.
All 4,241.3 of 'em.
We drove overnight from Tampere to Oulu, where we were met by Finnature guide Antero Topp (crazy name, crazy guy), at about 5am, he promptly whisked us off to a Great Grey Owl site (one of my target birds for the trip), with the omnious caveat that the young owls had flown the nest the day before, so they may be hard to find.
Parking up, we admired singing Blyth's Reed Warbler, before walking into a wood where the entire Western Palearctic population of mosquitos were waiting to greet us.
And they were hungry.
An hour or so walking through the cover, watching Siskins, Lesser Peckers at the nest hole and Pied Flys, while the mozzies gorged, and we were finally rewarded with the disovery of a young Great Grey Owl perched out in the morning sun, and nearby, an adult bird peering from behind a pine trunk.
I was made up - this was the species I'd missed when I first visited Finland in 2005, and I scoped the birds for a good 40 minutes or so, until the mozzies and I had both had our fill.
In the clearer areas outside the woodland the sun came through bright and warm, with Swallows and Sand Martins hawking about, Tree Pipits displaying, singing Yellowhammers and Ortolan, Whinchats and Three Toed Woodpecker at the nest.
Greyer northern Willow Warblers were singing way (is it me, or was their song slightly different?) and a fine trilling Wood Warbler joined the chorus as the morning warmed up.
Cuckoos and Redstarts tuned up, while a superb male Red Backed Shrike sung from the top of a tree in the middle of his territory.
We spent the rest of the day birding around Oulu at sites we'd never have found without the guiding hand of Antero and Finnature - if you don't use these guys over here, you don't see the birds, it's that simple, but the cost of their services is more than repaid by the birds you get.
With the Great Greys safely tucked under our belts, it was time to move on through the labyrinth of woodland and lakes, clouds of mozzies, and glorious sunshine.
The next woodland we stopped at brought us an adult Ural Owl, which only a week or so before had given Paul Doherty a good walloping, so we kept a respectful distance.
Much more amenable was a male Pygmy Owl nearby which swept into the clearing we stood in in response to a tape, and glared at us for five minutes, before heading off through the maze of branches.
Best views I've had of the species.
The woods held Ruby Whiteface and Briliant Emerald dragonflies, and a few Painted Ladies fluttered by.
The waterside in Oulo provided Temminck's Stints, Arctic Terns and Little Gulls, with a few long distance Baltic Gulls and cracking Thunbergi Yellow Wags.
Common Rosefinches were singing away everywhere ("pleased to meetcha!") as we moved on to "Lemonade Gateau", the vast shallow bay, stacked with waders and wildfowl, and better known as Liminingahti, for a fine few hours.
Ruffs displaying, Snipe drumming, flocks of Spotted Reds and Smews, White Tailed Eagle etc etc.
I love this place.
Stayed the night at the Airport Hotel at Vihiluoto near Oulo, and after a spot of birding at 4am, then brekkie, we pushed on to Kuusamo, where after a quick conflab with 6ft 6 inch Finn Olli Lamminsalo, we checked out the local singing Rustic and Little Bunting, then headed up to Valtavaara ridge, where in warm-ish sun, Siberian Jays swept into the roadside feeding station, joined by hulking great northern Greater Peckers, Northern Bullfinch, Willow Tit and Siskins.
Bazzo and I stuck around the road edge and watched a Honey Buzzard drift overhead, while Red Flanked Bluetails and Tree Pipits sat up at the tops of the dead larches on the ridge to sing.
Displaying Green Sandpipers and a calling Parrot Crossbill flew over the trees.
Return journey to the Sokos Hotel, where we stayed for two nights, gave us good numbers of Smew, Velvet Scoter, Whooper Swan and even Muskrat, before the rain edged in and we headed back to Kuusamo.
Lots of beer, Woodcock and Fieldfare were the best way to prepare for Oli coming to take us out at 1am for a 12 hour session in the field - with 24 hour light, sleep is a rare commodity in the northern latitudes, but time spent with this guy is always time well spent.
I first met him in 2005, when he found us lost in the woods and totally failing to find Red Flanked Bluetail.
Within 20 minutes the great man had put us onto a singing male - so his kudos rides high with Marshside's finest!
Decked out in mosquito hoods (effective, but a bit on the gimpy side), Olli collected the sleep deprived troops and took us on a tour around the area that was stacked with cracking birds, even though the temperature had dropped and mist and showers descended.
At Iivaari, a female Capercaillie sat almost invisible on her nest, while on the ridge above up to four Red Flanked Bluetails were singing.
More birders are coming here these days, and if truth be told, I think some of them pushed the Bluetails too hard, so Olli pulled us back and we waited until the crowds had moved on, so we could listen to the singing males in relative peace and quiet.
Lovely simple song, which the birds utter from the topmost branches...too dark to get decent pix, but totally atmospheric.
A privilege to stand and watch them in the cold northern air.
More top drawer birding followed, with Great Grey Shrike, Black Woodpecker, Hazel Hen, Black Grouse and Red Necked Grebe performing just fine.
We forged on through the wilderness, calling at a Siberian Tit's nest, to watch one of these hardy little birds zipping in and out of its box in relatively new commercial forest, while a Black Throated Diver performed well on one of a gazillion lakes dotted around the landscape. Olli dropped off our shattered remains at the hotel, where we prepared for the evening shift, with the sensible getting some shut-eye, while the rest of us retired to the bar to feast on Lapin Kulta and play with our newly-acquired Hazelhen whistles.
These things are astonishing, within seconds, the shrill whistles had attracted a Ptarmigan, which swept into the bar and perched on Derbyshire's right shoulder to give crippling views.
At least I think that's what happened, or we could have drunk too much beer and ended up playing with the stuffed bar decorations.
A quick look at Kuusamo dump gave us two fine Heuglin's Gulls, 10+ Baltic Gulls, Little Gulls, Wood Sand and the biggest argentatus Herring Gulls in the world, before it was back to Kuusamo for more beer and birding round town, while the sensible slept some more then headed out to score with a Tengmalm's Owl at the nest.
The area around Kuusamo is a remarkable place, many thanks for your time and efforts Olli.
Not too sure about the sauteed Reindeer for tea though.
Next day we headed north again, destination Varangerfjord in Norway, many hundreds of miles into the arctic circle, and a place I have dreamt of visiting since childhood.
Drizzle and cloud increased as the kilometres whizzed by, and a quick stop off at the Neljan Tuulen Tupa motel, where we were to stay on the way back down later in the week, brought us two Pine Grosbeaks, feeding six inches from us through the window, alongside Bramblings, Arctic and Mealy Redpoll and Siskins.
Possibly my bird of the trip, the raspberry coloured male and more subtle, and for my money, more attractive female, dwarfed Greenfinches and other passers as they fed on seeds.
Tick number two.
The redpolls were equally intriguing, with Mealys and Arctics side by side allowing us to grill the various, and confusing id pointers that separate them....the intermediate birds were particularly perplexing, but we had at least one good Arctic here.
As we drove on through the rain, the pines and larches began to give away to birch scrub and more open areas of bog, until we reached the Finnish Norwegian border at Utsjoki (who invented these place names?).
With Norway being eye-wateringly expensive, we stocked up on supplies at the border supermarket, while Waxwings trilled in the birch scrub across the road.
Bazzo and I are seasoned travellers, and we knew getting the correct supplies was imperative to enjoy our three days on Varangerfjord, so after careful consideration we bought two big bags of crisps and 48 bottles of Koff beer, which served us well in the harsh arctic conditions of the tundra.
Cruising east along Varangerfjord, we raced past our digs at Vestre Jakobselv and got to Vadso, where in freezing rain Derbyshire found three male and three female Steller's Eider in a roost of Common Eider at the southern side of the harbour.
Poor visibilty meant we sheltered in a fishing shed to watch 'em at a distance, but with three days on Varanger ahead of us, we all knew we'd be back.
Tick number three.
Tired we drove back to Vestre Jakobselv and the Pikkuskitsi hostel which we made our centre for the next three days.
A wonderful place, I wandered about after the rain lifted to watch Red Necked Phals and Arctic Terns in the harbour, while the fish racks of this storm battered burg were loaded up before smoking.
Vast numbers of Goosander were gathered to moult at any suitable sand bar or sheltered inlet, and Swallows, Sand Martins, Magpies and House Sparrows proved they have the grit to survive this far north.
The pockets of birch scrub that stubbornly thrive in the lee of low slopes scream out as a perfect spot for mega Sibe vagrants in autumn - if anyone could hack it up here when the days start drawing in and the weather starts getting seriously cold.
Monday and we were out early and on the road to Vadso and beyond, for an absolutely superb day's birding.
Weather wasn't too bad - sunny periods and cloud, but the birds were out of this world.
First stop Vadso, where we quickly found the Steller's Eider again roosting with Common Eider on the sandy shore just over the bridge from the town by the Vadsoya Kulturpark.
Stunning birds, we got much better views in vastly improved weather conditions.
The headland reserve was worth an hour or two, so we split up and gave it a through going over - Red Throated Pipit were common, with Reed Bunting and Arctic Redpoll cashing in on the emerging Mozzies too.
A small pool held at least 30 Red Necked Phalaropes, busy feeding and courting, wonderful birds, oblivious to our presence in their own little phalaropey world.
From Vadso, the weather began to pick up as we moved along the coast, and the birding just got better and better - rafts of Eider and Long Tailed Duck inshore, hunting Short Eared Owl, and White Tailed Eagles perched up by the roadside.
We stopped to check a dead Minke Whale by the roadside as the habitat became more and more tundra, packed with glacial features - a geologist's dream - and a decided nip kicked into the air.
I thought about taking the whale home as a souvenir, but given Ryanair's daft 15kg maximum weight allowance, quickly gave up on the idea.
Few flowering plants grew, but those that did, like Mossy Campion and Arctic Saxifrage (I think) looked lovely blossoming through the lichen covered rocks and scree.
We drove on to the old whaling town of Vardo (fine colony of nesting Kittiwake on the old whaling sheds), only to learn that the swell was too great to make the trip across to Hornoya Island, so had to make do with admiring the vast seabird colony there through scopes from the headland.
The sea was covered with auks - Guillemot, "bridled" Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Puffin and Razorbill, Eiders bobbed about and Long Tailed and Arctic Skuas skimmed past.
A blotchy blue phase Fulmar moved through in the mist, but it took Bazzo and I three hours in an increasing windchill before we'd satisfactorily pinned down a party of Brunnich's Guillemots bobbing about on the swell.
Unless you can get on the island, these babies are hard work.
Tick number four.
Warmed up, we continued along the coast, pausing to admire a full summer plumage Glauc on the beach as the sun broke through the mist.
Boss of the shore, it towered above Kittiwakes, Herring Gulls, Long Tailed Ducks and Eiders.
Out on the lichen covered and cold shattered scree of the tundra, Arctic Skuas filled the air, while Lapland Buntings, and Reindeers posed for touristy pix.
We pushed on as the landscape became more and more hostile - snow stained fjells, jagged rocks and stonefields stretching away to the horizon over ice cold bays.
Black bellied Dipper, Peregrine, Arctic Skua and nesting Red Throated Diver all made us stop as we headed on towards Hamingberg, right at the end of the road.
From there, the grey swell stretched away to the North Pole and oblivion, but a bit of hard scoping produced a pair of Black Throated Divers, and finally a young White Billed Diver several hundred metres out - huge, sandy grey brown, with a thick neck, pale upturned bill and absolutely no inclination to come any closer.
At least Bazzo and Derbyshire got good views of it too.
Tick number five.
Retracing our steps to Vestre Jakobselv we found singing Bluethroat in the birch scrub, and thanks to a helpful Nordic birder, Little Stint and Broad Billed Sandpiper feeding on the muddy edge of a sheltered river.
What a day!
In many ways, Tuesday was payback for the glories of the day before - near constant rain, grey, cold and overcast.
The obvious day for Bazzo, Derbyshire and I to stake out a Gyr cliff up the road from Tanabru from 9.30am till 5pm.
Gorgeous views over the Tana river, but not a sniff of Gyr.
Enigmatic is as enigmatic does.
Some consolation came in the form of Ring Ouzel, Redstart, Brambling, Willow Warbler, a distant Rough Legged Buzzard, Twite and Arctic Skua.
The rest of the crew enjoyed the splendours of the high fjells, a pleasure we would have to save till the following day.
The luck of Odin's finest underpants was with us on Wednesday, as the sky cleared and the sun shone for our final day up north.
After another top breakfast we headed up onto the high fjells, and spent the day wandering the hills and scree.
A truly breathtaking place, with displaying Temminck's Stint, Dotterel, Golden Plover, Long Tailed and Arctic Skua, Golden Eagle, Willow Grouse, Long Tailed Ducks, Lapland Bunts, Shorelark, littoralis Rock Pipit and Arctic Redpoll.
I could have stayed up there forever.
A bad vole and lemming year has had an impact on the owls and other predators up in arctic Europe this year, with large numbers of frozen lemming corpses scattered about the tundra, but luckily there were still some glorious Long Tailed Skuas back on breeding grounds, displaying and generally adding an air of style to the proceedings.
Wonderful to watch them as Dotterel and Golden Plover called around me.
A closer look at a little pocket of willow scrub revealed at least five male Lapland Buntings vying for the attentions of a single female, strutting about in a tiny clear patch of moss amongst the branches, like Ruff at a lek.
Reluctantly we left the tops and began the long haul south, stopping off at the Hotel Pohjan Tuhli near Utsjoki, where Kari Westerlund feeds the Grozzas, Arctic Reds and everything else - no sign of the big finches today though.
We pulled up for our last night at Neljan Tuulen Tupa, where the Pine Grozzas performed for us again and the beer flowed till it was falling over time.
Next day a drive of a mere 1,000km lay ahead for the Bannon boys and the rest of us, as we headed back to Tampere and home.
A quick look at the Grozzas over breakfast helped get me ready for the day.
Osprey, Whoopers and Cuckoo were a welcome diversion on the endless road.
Sorry if I've gone on a bit - wait till I add the full trip list (between 170 and 180 sp).
Eyes to the skies everyone, eyes to the skies...