FINLAND and Varanger Fjord
(20 June - 5 July 1998)
by Roberto Garavaglia & Federico Bonicelli
green links are maps - red links are photos
The main target of our summer birdwatching trip was the famous Varanger Fjord in Norway. We combined this destination with a tour of the main birding spots in both south-eastern and northern Finland. We took a flight to Helsinki and rented a car there. Then we drove all the way up to the Varanger, through Karelia (south-eastern Finland), Oulu, Kusamo, then Ivalo. This resulted in a 4,700 km, rather tightly-packed, trip. Two weeks are decidely too short for such a program; a three weeks holiday would have produced a more relaxed pace.
Timing is the second mistake we did: end of June is good for the arctic, but it is definitely too late for all but a few of the singing forest birds. Almost all species are breeding at that time, and their behaviour turns extremely wary, so that all forests appear quite and almost lifeless. Finding the most wanted forest species became a very hard job, and we missed some, indeed. Moreover, owls are early breeders and their youngster had already fledged. Nonetheless, with some local help, we still managed to get some wonderful observations.
As refer to timing, our choice was wrong also for a different reason, not related to bird life but still closely linked to birding: mosquitoes. At the end of June every square meter in Lapland is home to millions of biting mosquitoes. No insect repellent seems to work: the only way to survive is to cover every bit of your skin and wearing a mosquito-net over your head.
Finnish birders have their unique criteria on how to watch birds. None of the many nature reserve we visited offered any strategically-sited hide from where to watch birds at close quarters. Instead, Finnish reserves have observation towers (called lintutorni), overlooking a whole lake or bay. They are useful vantage points for counting birds over vast areas, but are most often very distant from the birds. They also seem to have been specially designed to make all birds well aware of any birdwatcher, and to keep at safe distance. Therefore, a telescope is essential and sometime not even enough.
Birding the Varanger was much easier: birds are generally predictable and tame, and plenty of birdwatchers are around eager to exchange information on the latest sightings.
All in all, it was a successful trip: we managed a 170-long trip list, even though we had more than our fair share of bad luck. As it is usual with birdwatching, we had none of some of the commonest species (Chiffchaff, for instance), we missed some bird we were looking for (e.g. Greenish Warbler and Rustic Bunting), we got some unexpected goodies (Iceland Gull and Little Auk), and we dipped the most sought-after (White-billed Diver).
Plenty of useful practical information on general tourism in Finland may be found either at the STN, the WebTravel, or the Finnish Tourist Board Web Sites.
The Finnair/EuropCar fly-and-drive combination, inclusive of the two return tickets from Milano to Helsinki and the car rental for 15 day (unlimited mileage, all insurance coverage) resulted the cheapest on offer.
The easiest way to travel around Finland and Norway is to look for accommodation at camping grounds; they are plentiful everywhere. Sleeping in a tent is not advisable in such a climate; all camping grounds have cottages available for 2 (rarely) to 6 persons. Prices for a four-bedded cottage ranged from 150 FIM for the more basic, up to 300 FIM for the luxury one (with private facilities and sauna, colour TV, refrigerator, and kitchen). Most often blanket are provided, but it is wise to bring along your own sleeping-bag.
All over Finland, restaurants (ravintola) are plentiful, where a dinner may cost from 60-80 FIM, depending on how much beer you may drink.
Restaurants in Norway are more expensive. Fast-foods (grilli) are widespread and they also are relatively expensive: one hamburger and cola comes for about 100 NOK.
All the birding hot-spots we visited are well known and fully described in the available books and trip reports, so that we are not going to give here details of the "how-to-get-there" type. Detailed information may be found in:
- Gustaf Aulen Where to watch birds in Scandinavia - Hamlyn, London 1996;
- Dave Gosney Finding birds in Finland - Birdguide (now sold-out, new updated edition being prepared; some useful sample may be found at Dave's Web Site);
- Pentti Zetterberg & Jouni Pursiainen Värtsila: birding at the eastern frontier of Europe - Alula 2/1996, vol. 2;
- Jari Paltomaki & Jouni Pursiainen Liminganlahti - Alula 3/1996 vol. 2;
- several trip reports distributed by the Dutch Birding Trip Reports Service;
- Morten Gunther's Birding in Finnmark excellent Web Site,
- Tommy Pedersen's Varanger Peninsula Web Site.
Click here to download a map of Finland (363 Kbytes, jpg format).
We leave Italy in a bright sunny morning, to land in a dull, wet Finnish afternoon. At the Helsinki Vantaa airport we pick up the rented car and immediately head east, to Virolahti. Somewhere along the road a soaring Honey Buzzard makes for a sudden stop.
We have agreement to meet in Virolahti with two Italian friends, both named Maurizio. Having much longer holidays than we have, they planned to depart by car from Italy and to join us on the way north to Varanger, then they will visit Norway on the southbound leg of they journey.
At the very beginning, here comes the first hint of this trip's misfortune: the two Maurizios miss the ferry from Sweden and reach us one day late, at mid-afternoon. Thus, me and Federico alone bird the area in a wet day with intermittent showers.
Virolahti and its surrounding is at its best during migrations, nevertheless we listed a total of 80 species. Other than ducks, the Vilkkilantura bird tower give us a pair of displaying Black Woodpeckers; Hurpu has fuscus Lesser Black-backed Gull and Goosander. An interesting birding spot is the road heading south past the Vaaliman camp ground, toward the Russian border Where a bridge crosses a river, we watch Black-throated Diver, Wooper Swan, Goldeneye, and Caspian Tern. The surrounding fields have Ortolan Bunting, Whinchat, Red-backed Shrike, and Hobby. In places, this road runs very close to the Russian border: birdwatching is allowed but it is strictly forbidden to leave the road toward the border line (the opposite side of the road is perfectly safe, anyway). The Border Police patrols the road.
In the area from Virolahti north to Vakevanjärvi, the only remarkable birds we get are Thrush Nightingale, Mistle Thrush and Common Rosefinch. By following the indication in Guastaf Aulen's book we are not able to find the (apparently easy) Sammalinen cliff.
Around midnight, from the camping place we hear distant singing Blyth's Reed Warbler togheter with churring Nightjar, a rather unusual combination.
The next morning we move north to Parrikalla. Along the trail within the Nature Reserve we get a fortunate close encounter with a female White-backed Woodpecker, which shows well for several minutes. From the birdwatching tower we spot two Ospreys, seven Slavonian Greebes, assorted ducks, Marsh Harrier, Water Rail, Little Gull, then the heavy rain forces us to run to shelter. The reserve warden gives us some hints for spots where River and Blyth's Reed Warbler were singing the night before. The rain and the strong wind soon discourage us (and the birds from either singing or reacting to the tape recorded call).
Our next stop, lake Saperi near Vartsila, seems very promising, wouldn't it be raining. A singing Yellow Breasted Bunting has been reported in the area a few days before. We bravely walk the path to the birding tower in the pouring rain: Little Gulls are breeding alongside Black-headed Gulls and a few Slavonian Greebes. We quickly get completely wet and our enthusiasm vanishes; so we momentarily give up and decide for a very early wake up the next morning to work out the area. As expected, it goes on raining all night long and the morning as well. From the previous' day rain and dump clothes, Maurizio (one of the two) also developed a cold.
Much disappointed, we decide to leave the wet Karelia to head north to Oulu: as hoped the weather condition there are much better there. The Liminka Bay provides several birwatching towers, from which we get distant views of hundreds Whooper Swans, about 80 Cranes, Greylag Geese, Smew, Red-breasted Merganser, all sort of ducks, Hen Harrier, and Black-tailed Godwit, among others. At the visitor centre we meet with Jari Paltomaki which we contacted beforehand for a guided excursion. Jari lives in Liminka and in recent years he set up Finnature, a professional birding-guides organisation. He may either arrange a one-night excursion to watch breeding owls at their nest, or lead a fortnight tour to Lapland and northern Norway. Any birder travelling though Finland should wisely ask him for a guided excursion; his contact address is as follow:
Jari Paltomaki - Finnature
P.O. BOX 42
91901 Liminka Finland
fax: +358 - (0)8 - 381914
mobile: +358 - (0)40 - 5919120
Just arrived, we are greeting Jari when an immature Golden Eagle glides overhead. We are soon informed by Jari that 1998 has been a poor year, as for owls. Moreover end of June is too late: all youngsters are grown up and already left the nest. None of the many possible species (up to six) is still available. Given that, we ask Jari for those passerines we were seeking in the inhospitable Karelia and he easily arranges for an excursion the following night to some late-singing Blyth's and River Warblers, guided by a friend of him.
The Liminka Bay used to be the place for Yellow-breasted Bunting; in past years up to 50 pairs bred in the reserve, some of them very close to the visitor centre. In spring 1998 not more then 10 singing males have been reported, and the only one in the nearby of the visitor centre holds its territory well inside the protected area, so that it may only be scoped from some 300 meters. Even worse, that bird is now breeding and stopped singing at all. Thus, only the fortunate birder might, after much searching, catch a one-second glimpse of it. We are not that lucky, only the yellow breast of a Yellow Wagtail causes some temporary panic. We get then informed by a fellow birder that two singing males have been reported in the Kempeleenlathi Bay. The following morning, we thoroughly work out the area: after much splashing in the marshy meadow, and much tape playing, we eventually contact an inquisitive male Yellow-breasted Bunting, in its glorious bright colours. Much satisfied by this finding, we spend the rest of the day leisurely birding the Liminkalathi, only worried for Maurizio, whose cold by now has turned into a bad flue. This convinces him to give up the guided night excursion. For those who attend, Blyth's Warbler and River Warbler are both very obliging. Later that night, we repeatedely dip Terek Sandpiper, despite much searching and walking the whole stretch of tidal coast from the Oulu oilport to the Eden Hotel, at several different time of the night (not that easy, anyway, to tell night from day at this latitude).
After a few hours sleep, we leave Oulu to Kusamo. Unfortunately, Maurizio's flue get worse and will force him to bed for the next couple of days.
Along the way, we stop at the Huivisuo Bog. While walking the nature trail, twice we flush female Willow Grouses and, watching at them flying, we almost trample on their brood of 3-4 days-old cheecks. On approaching the Kusamo area, Whooper Swans breeding in roadside pond become a common sight, and the trip's first Rough-legged Buzzard appears.
The main reason for birder to flock to Kusamo is the famous Valtavaara hill, most probably the only reliable site in Europe for Red-flanked Bluetail. An excellent range of other forest specialities occurs as well. The Viipus camp ground close to Ruka is the most conveniently located, being only four km from the Valtavaara car park. It also gave us a male Red-breasted Flycatcher.
The much sought-after and very secretive Red-flanked Bluetail may be located while singing on a tree top, but still it is rather shy. It invariably sings at very unsociable hours, with peak activity from 2 to 4 a. m., and ceasing any singing by 5 a.m. We locate this specie by walking along the eastern slope of the Valtavaara. About one km south of the main road we hear its song and, after ten frantic minutes searching into the deep forest, we spot the male Red-flanked Bluetail on the very top of a spruce tree. It shows up for a while and then disappears not to be relocated again. Along this trail we also add Siberian Jay and Hazel hen to our trip list. The Bear Ring trail (signposted Karhunkierros), climbing the west side of the hill, give us Pine Gosbeak and more Siberian Jays. The latter are specially tame around the picnic tables at the shelter (laavu), as mentioned by Dave Gosney.
The shores of lake Toranki near Kusamo offer very well-known spots for Rustic and Little Bunting: we dip them both, but we are well paid back by an unexpected Arctic Warbler. At the birding tower there are no birds worth mentioning; instead, a mighty male Elk grazing at the water edge draws all our attention and cause a great deal of film to be exposed. The density of mosquitoes in this area is simply awful: only to be seen to be believed.
The Kiurusuo bog described by Dave Gosney is not easy to be worked out: it only produce distant views of flying terns, waders, and Cranes.
From Kusamo we then moved north to Ivalo. The Ukonjarvi camp site is located on a lake shore and surrounded by forest; in recent times it accumulated an impressive bird list. As for us, the star is undoubtedly the pair of Siberian Tits breeding in the nest box just behind the restaurant.
In Ivalo we have an arrangement with Olli Karhu, a local birding guide. Olli may be contacted at:
Hukka Pera 4
99800 Ivalo Finland
phone: +358-(0)16-661014 or -671128
The appointment with him has been arranged for 10 a.m., thus me and Federico wake up at 5 with a list of sites to search for Little Bunting, that we are still missing (and we dip once more). In the meanwhile the healthy Maurizio nurses the now severely ill friend and takes him to the local hospital for medical examination. We rejoin later and we get to know what the doctor diagnosed: pneumonia, to be treated by antibiotics and absolute rest. No problems with the antibiotics, but birding is not exactly what is commonly meant by absolute rest, and Maurizio resolutely declines our offer to take him to the airport for immediate return home. Well, when the going get tough......
Thus, all four of us depart under Olli's lead. He drives us along an apparently endless forest road, barely passable in place. Olli has in store something very special; an Hawk Owl appetiser first and then a Great Grey Owl's nest as the main course. The magnificent female Great Grey Owl is tending her brood and shows only a feeble interest for us taking photos below her nest. Added bonus of the excursion are a group of Waxwing at the top of pine trees and a Pigmy Owl's nest: the bird is in and answers with much whistling, but stubbornly refuses to show up.
After this successful morning birding, our travel-mates decide to drive straight to Varanger. We stay a bit longer in the area and, thanks to Olli's hints, at last I get to grips with that boogie bird the Little Bunting (not that easy, anyway: it took a great deal of tape playing).
One day later, on reaching the Svartnes camp, located at the eastern tip of Varanger Fjord, we are greeted by a smiling and apparently recovered Maurizio. He nonchalantly tells us that the previous night, not being able to sleep due to his persistent cough, he has gone for a short walk behind the camp ground, just to see a Snowy Owl!! This new immediately sparks a search for the Holy Graal among an international group of birders, lasting for several nights on. Fruitless. Nevertheless that expanse of bare tundra offered many breeding arctic specialities: Red-throated Diver, Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Turnstone, Long-tailed Skua, Red-throated Pipit, Shore Lark, Snow Bunting, an occasional Arctic Redpoll and three overflying Pomarine Skuas. Most probably, this area is as good as any other in interior Varanger.
All the usual birding spots in Varanger prove reliable.
At the Nesseby Church about one hundred summering Steller's Eiders roost on a small offshore island, to come ashore at low tide for feeding in the bay west of the church. Two Yellow-billed Divers have been repeatedly observed by many on the past days, but we are not that lucky. As a compensation, one morning seawatching gives us an unexpected goody: parties of Little Auks are swimming and flying low over the waters.
The small pond on Vadsoya island, near Vadso is realy impressive, with 200+ feeding Red-necked Phalaropes; they are unbelievably tame, but move so frantically to pose a very expensive test for any photographer.
The birches and bushes behind the now-closed Vadso camping place have Arctic Warbler and plentiful Redpolls, but we are not able to find Arctic Redpoll.
The Ekkeroj cliff has thousands breeding Kittiwakes, that we almost ignore: we prefer to concentrate on the heater moorland topping the headland, in search of Snow and Lapland Bunting.
The seabird colony on the Hornoya island is home to Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Kittiwake, Puffin, Guillemot, Brunnich's Guillemot, Black Guillemot, and a few Razorbill, all of them very easily watched. During the sea crossing a Beluga Whale is also briefly seen from the boat.
The Vardo's fishing harbour gives us a couple more surprises, in the form of one Glaucous and one Iceland Gulls.
The Vardo airport area hosts a breeding pair of Marsh Owls; they are much active during daytime and show well.
Along the road to Hamningberg we find Long-tailed Ducks, and Temmink's Stint close to the river mouth at km 16. From the Hamningberg headland we see the only Gannets of the trip.
Some bird are much more widespread: roadside Arctic Tern colonies are a common sight, as are the huge flocks of Common Eiders (for some reason the latter are all extremely wary); it takes much scanning amidst them before locating our first drake King Eider.
Common and Velvet Scooters, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander, Ruff, Rough-legged Buzzard, Arctic Skua, and Rock Pipit are everyday species.
One of these sunny night, Lady (Mis)Fortune decides to strike again and Maurizio, while driving through the desert town of Vardo, succeeds in crashing to only one other car for miles around. No one gets hurt, but the cars.
The following day time has come for us to start the return leg of our trip; we say goodbye (and good luck) to our travel mates and move back into Finland.
Back in Finland and back to rainy weather.
At Karigasniemi, the gravel road up to the Mount Ailigas' top allows us to closely approach three Dotterels, a bird I've ever dreamed to watch in summer plumage. The lowland east of the Ailigas, have Long-tailed Skua, Red-throated Pipit and very high density of Lapland Bunting. No sign of the famous Broad-billed Sandpiper at km 14. A short walk from the Kevo NP parking place gives us a family party of Siberian Tits and Bluethroat, plus the more common Brambling, Siskin, Redpoll.
As we move south, we notice again Swallows, House Martins and Swift, which were all absent in the far north.
The only stop worth mentioning on our way south is at Pyha Hakki NP, not far from Saarijarvi. The magnificent primeval forest is silent and apparently lifeless, until we spot a female Three-toed Woodpecker quietly working her way in full view. Few minutes later a flock of unidentified Crossbills appears out from nowhere high on the trees top, and puzzles us with much speculation on their species identification.
On reaching Helsinki, before getting to the airport we find a couple of spare hours to spend at the Laajalahti Protected Area, located within the residential outskirts of Helsinki. Here we are treated to good views of Scarlet Rosefinch and a late-singing Icterine Warbler, together with more mundane Willow, Wood, Sedge, and Garden Warblers, and Withethroat.
After the chilly days beyond the Arctic Circle, the return back to Italy is shocking: 35ºC and tropical humidity is the hot welcome we are given when stepping out the aircraft.