July 2, 2014
June of 2014 found me once again in France with my wife so I took the opportunity to scratch an item off my bucket list, birding Finland.
I was supposed to fly British Air from Marseille to London and then on to Helsinki. Unfortunately the British Air flight was delayed but British Air instantly put me on an Air France flight to Amsterdam with a tight connection to Helsinki on SAS which got me to Helsinki slightly before my original itinerary was to get me there.
I arrived at 11 p.m. in Helsinki as it was just getting darkish. I didn’t get out of the airport with my Europcar rental (a well performing Golf) until 12:30 am. Europcar stayed open for my flight until after midnight which was critical for a good start for this trip. I asked if there was an extra charge to enter Norway. No, there wasn’t. I could drive to Norway or Sweden if I so chose. On the other hand, Russia and Estonia were a Nyet.
It was definitively dark as I finally walked to the parking structure storing the rental vehicles. I heard and spotted in flood lights a Blackbird singing from a post outside the parking structure. A list is born. My frame of mind was that sleep could wait until I got back to the States so I just started driving east and north. My lack of planning for this trip would shock hard core birders. But you know what? It didn’t matter much: I got almost all of my target birds and a lot of other cool birds as well. Having two weeks to do it, made up for missteps in pre-trip planning. In my defense, I did order both the Bird Finding Guides to Southern Finland and the one for Lapland from NHSB in England. I had them mailed to a business address in Marseille. Unfortunately they did not arrive before I left for Finland despite more than two weeks for them to get there. It was not the fault of the British book company who promptly mailed them both to France. For some reason the French postal authorities would not deliver it with my name and not the business name on the address. NHSB refunded me my money but after I returned from Finland the books were finally delivered to Bernard on July 16th. I did go over some trip reports on the internet but almost all birders visit Finland in spring for owls (not a priority with me as I have seen all but Pygmy Owl and Tawny Owl elsewhere) or early summer for everything else and I would be there a month later. I looked at ebird and that had some useful posts as well and I copied some of the google maps from ebird for key locations. As for a map of Finland, I used the rental company’s map that was quite good. I did reach out to one Finnish birder before arriving, Tom Nordblad, and he promptly responded to all my inquiries which was indeed helpful. Tom had mentioned that a Booted Warbler was on territory in the Lappeenranta area near the Russian border so that was my first point of attack. Twice as I drove along during the brief night, owl sp. flew up from the side of the road and vanished in the darkness. I was a bit surprised that it was boreal forest even on the outskirts of Helsinki.
As I went north finally along the eastern edge of Finland, there was quite a bit of farmland. In such a stretch of habitat, at 2:40 am I spotted a Short-eared Owl sitting on a utility line along Highway 6 a kilometer south of route 364 (all these locations can be found through my ebird postings). It was just getting light as I watched it lift off and fly over the meadow across the road. It was overcast and cool with off and on drizzle. Once it got really light I got off of Highway 6, cut through a swath of pine forest and down into farm country along a river with a sign designating the place as “Kakkostie” It was tough finding anything. Virtually no song. A Corncrake was busy calling from a relatively small field. An unfamiliar song that was soon to be a very familiar song was tracked down to a Yellowhammer. The other birds I had on my first foray into Finnish birds turned out to be standard fare for the rest of the trip -Fieldfare, Barn Swallow, White Wagtail, Chaffinch. You have to start somewhere.
Near Luumaki, I pulled off the road in a brushy area and had Tree Pipit and Whinchat. I was starting to fade out of conscientiousness as I was driving so I pulled into a gas station for a deep two hour nap. After that, I was good to go for the rest of the day. Finland is a very civilized place of course. Along Highway 6 there is a parallel paved bike trail for hundreds of kilometers. As you approach a major town like Lappeenranta, there is typically a pulloff what a large map of the town and highlights of what to see in the area. Also there are pulloffs for bus stops every 10 kilometers or so and numerous pulloffs for drivers to rest as well (not many WCs/bathrooms though). I got off the now expressway that is highway 6 and checked out a nearby Ristikankaan Cemetery on the outskirts of Lappeenranta. Wood Pigeons flying about. European Pied Flycatchers were flitting from one tombstone to another. Chaffinches numerous. I saw singles of Common Rosefinch and Red Crossbill, both birds that basically went unseen for the rest of the trip. Other birds I noticed in the cemetery were Jackdaw and Blue Tits. I was looking for the village of Konnunsuo where the Booted Warbler was supposed to be. It was not on my map but eventually, once passed Lappeenranta, I saw a sign for that locale so I headed off in that direction. Heavy rains recently had lead to many flooded areas in fields in this vicinity. As I followed the signs to Konnunsuo, I spotted a dirt side road going east in open country so I headed down it, a good choice for me at least on my return visit in 10 days. It lead to a large scale peat mining operation now with many temporary pools. Gulls liked the area, namely Common Gulls (I have a hard time calling them “Mew” Gulls in Europe), Black-headed Gulls and a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Corvids were also attracted to the area with numerous Ravens and Hooded Crows plus Jackdaws and Magpies. A nearby rubbish tip no doubt accounted for all the gulls and corvids. Little Ringed Plovers were doing their best to distract me from where there young might be hiding. A Marsh Harrier flew over. Common Swifts and Eurasian Kestrels were overhead. To me, a large number of Bank Swallows were over the flooded peat areas, say 60. I went back to the paved road and continued my drive toward Konnunsuo. I didn’t get far before I came to flooded crop lands with a good numbers of gulls and shorebirds present. Lapwings were numerous, some with nearly fledged young. Male Spotted Redshanks were still in full breeding plumage, a plumage I have rarely seen. I picked out a couple of Temminck’s Stints. Skylarks were in that field. I found a couple of singing Willow Warblers, a loud song that was to become very familiar to me. I found a sign that said Konnunsuo on a side road that went along the back side of the peat mining operation. I thought I had arrived where the Booted Warbler might be. Not even close as I later found out. A Green Sandpiper landed on a dirt track making me think it could be a breeding bird. This was one of the times I played the Eurasian Pygmy Owl tape in hopes of a pygmy owl or birds that might mob it. It never worked great. Here it drew in an agitated Great Tit but not much else.
I headed back to Highway 6 and north a dozen kilometers to Joutseno where I had directions to the model airplane field where historically Booted Warbler have been found. None this year. There was a flooded area by the model airplane field that had attracted seven Ruffs, most males in splendid breeding plumage of a wide range of plumages. Wood Sandpipers also present as was a male Eurasian Wigeon. There was a small gravel pit like area just before a small hill on the road going back into Joutseno and in that area I got to see a Garden Warbler that responded to my taped call of the species plus Eurasian Tree Sparrow and European Greenfinch.
I pressed on to the north on Hwy 6 but didn’t get far before I was distracted by birds on the wide Vuoksi River in Imatra so I took the cloverleaf exit to check out the river. Common Terns were conspicuous. I had one adult Little Gull fly down the river toward Russia which is only about 4 miles away. A female Common Goldeneye was out in the river, a bird I was to see frequently in central and northern Finland. Back onto Highway 6 on my northward course. That road is lined with evil speed cameras. These are forewarned by a sign of a camera with the actual camera being in an old fashioned looking camera box that would be a couple kilometers further on. Now whether most or all actually had active cameras in them I could only speculate on (unlikely) but with Finland’s draconian fines on speeding, based on your income level, I was not going to risk it.
My next destination was Parikkala on yet another large Finnish Lake. It proved to be a bust for me. North of town I did pick up Byth’s Reed Warbler and Curlew which were useful. Curlew proved to be a fairly common bird in cultivated areas of Finland.
I veered toward the Russian border again to visit Siikalahti, a large protected marsh with several wildlife towers, long boardwalks over the marsh and a hide for wildlife photography at the end of one of the boardwalks. All this said, I saw little there. Of course taking a three hour nap in the parking lot cuts into one’s birding efficiency. A pair of Hobbys were over the marsh. Common Terns were breeding there. Blue Tits were in the deciduous woods on the walk to the closest wildlife tower. I saw a few Coots and a female Common Pochard but at mid-day, after my nap, I pressed on northward again. At the junction of Highway 6 & 403, I saw a Common Buzzard, a bird I rarely saw on this trip.
My goal for today was to drive to Lieksa to try for Lanceolated Warbler in the morning. On the south side of Lieksa I found a nature reserve with boardwalks over the marsh to a tower per usual and decided to sleep in my car in the small parking area for that nature reserve, Kolinkaupunki. Still very light at 11:30 p.m. when I saw a Green-winged Teal in a creek through the marsh. I fell asleep in the car around midnight. Now I was in the land of the Midnight Sun.
July 3, 2014
I was sound asleep in the back seat of my car at 4 am when there was loud banging on the car window. It was the police, something I saw little of in Finland. They made me get out of the car, produce my passport (showing I had entered Europe in Marseille) and asked what I was doing in Finland and was this the first time I had been in Finland. It took a few seconds to get my bearings but after a few minutes they seemed satisfied with my explanations (I showed one of them my bird photos in the camera) and they bid me a pleasant stay in Finland. Well I needed to be up at this hour anyway to try for Lanceolated Warbler on the NW side on Lieksa in an area known as Niitty-Jamali. I had a google map of the area so I found the area quite easily. It was farm country as is clearly shown by the Google Streetside map of the area. Lapwings were flocking in the fields with a few Curlews mixed in. A Common Snipe was up on a utility pole proclaiming the area his. A Short-eared Owl was hunting over the fields. I stopped and listened often but no Lanceolated Warbler. For the first time on the trip I started seeing Redwings. Back to driving north. Highway 6 ended for me at Kajaani from which point I started taking highway 5 north, eventually to Norway. North of Kajaani, a couple of Eurasian Jays flew up from the side of the road, a bird I strangely saw very little of on this trip. At Hyrynsalmi, yet another large roadside lake, there is a picnic area/camping area on a small peninsula so I checked that out. Three Arctic Loons and 5 Little Gulls were present for my troubles.
As I started north again on Highway 5, I was going too fast to stop for the grouse I spotted on the side of the road. A bit of traffic slowed me down for a minute but I turned around and slowly drove down the wrong side of the road looking for the grouse. No sign of it. I then parked and walked the same stretch of road. Bingo, a female Black Grouse flushed from the side of the road, flying across the road showing the white markings in the wings. Now that is the kind of bird I came to Finland to see. Time to seriously get in the driving mode and so I did for hours and hours. It was cold and rainy, perfect for driving and not birding. I arrived at Kuusamo around 2 pm. One of the logistical issues I had to deal with was that my ATM card and two credit cards did not have chips in them like many US credit cards. That made it impossible for me to get gas at most places in Finland as most of the gas pumps are automated and you either need cash in euros or a card with a chip.
In Kuusamo I went to a large supermarket and found an Otto bank ATM that had two slots, one for cards with chips and one with cards with no chips. Saved for the moment so I withdrew a pile of cash. I then found an ABC gas station in town which did not have automated gas pumps so you had to pay inside. Now I got to use my chip free credit card and I found this to be true whenever I had to go inside to pay for gas in Finland.
A second logistic stop for me was to go to the Visitor Center visible from Highway 5. Quite elaborate. Donuts pretty good and cheap. Wildlife one way or another (birding, hunting, fishing) is a key component to the economy of Kuusamo and there was lots of information on these sights available. Excellent detailed maps of the area are free along with a good checklist of birds in the region. A guy at the desk even kept a log of when the Red-flanked Bluetails were being seen in the area and where. I asked about seeing wolves and bears but that required a six hour commitment and 100 euros so I stayed focused on birds. The guy at the visitor center gave me explicit oral and written directions to where to look for Red-flanked Bluetail on the Valtavaara Ridge.
Once the rain let up, I headed north to Ruka and then east on road 8694. When I got the the paved pullout at the Valtavaara Ridge, I saw the trail right in front of me going up and up so I headed up the steep trail. Once on top quite flat and more than quite birdless--completely dead. I was chagrined to see that the trail did not stay up on the ridge for long but plunged down toward a bog and lake far below. No Bluetails. I went back to the car and tried the Porontimantie Road, which is very close to the pullout going east. Rustic Buntings had been seen here within the past 10 days according to ebird right across from the Black Grouse lek. Well it was too late for grouse to be on the lek but there was a prominent sign noting where the lek was. No Rustic Bunting. I drove around on this one lane road over to Lake Alimmainan Sarvilampi where I had a number of Common Goldeneyes, a family of Green-winged Teal and a Whooper Swan. The bog across the road had Wood Sandpiper on territory and two Bohemian Waxwings flycatching low to the ground. I came across a female Common Redstart feeding a fledged young.
Back on road 8694 heading east again, I quickly came to a sign for Virkulan Village, so I took that detour. Interesting open area. Arctic Loons on the lake below. In the open area of the village I finally caught up with Eurasian Siskin, six of them. Both Barn Swallows and House Martins were around a barn there.
I took Tahkolanrannantie Road south through an interesting mix of habitats, mature boreal forest, clear cuts, and meadows. Still in the land of Yellowhammers though I don’t recall seeing them north of this area. I picked up my first Brambling of the trip. I was scanning a line of trees on the far side of a meadow on the east side of the road when I pick up an owl sitting on a post. This was around 7:15 p.m. and of course it was very light. Through the scope I could tell it was a Ural Owl, an unexpected pick up. I stayed overnight at the Kuusamo Hotel for 80 Euros but no breakfast.
July 4, 2014
Well I was to be highly focused today. Red-flanked Bluetail. I quickly lost focus when I came upon superb boreal forest around the Ilsakki Village area. Lots of cabins in the woods here. I did get a reward though, namely two Siberian Tits (Gray-headed Chickadees). Unfortunately with my camera in the car and by the time I got back to them they had drifted back into the taiga. Heard Goldcrest there and saw a territorial Wood Sandpiper.
I drove to the pullout on 8694 and went up the Valtavaara Ridge again. Nothing. Now I was getting worried about getting Red-flanked Bluetail and thinking I could waste days here looking in vain for the species. My solution was to forget this one species for now and try for it after I had done arctic Norway. So around 10 am I started driving north. But first, before I had even gotten back to Highway 5, a Great Spotted Woodpecker caught my eye on the side of the road. I stopped to try to photograph it. I never got around to photographing it as above the woodpecker was a very intriguingly shaped large passerine. Yes, it was indeed a Siberian Jay. Actually two were present. I pished and they came in as if to try to eat me alive. Wow, what a response. This was at the beginning of road to Purnajarventie. Now I really could leave the Kuusamo area with a clear conscience and leave I did.
I hadn’t gone very far north and west on Highway 5, when the road went across a narrow land bridge between two lakes with a sign saying “Varpasalmi”. I spotted two Red-necked Grebes on the north side of the road. On the south side of the road there was a short drive to park the car so I checked the lake. A Reed Bunting was there as were 5 Little Gulls. Later in the trip I had 15 Little Gulls there. Another kilometer further along Highway 5 and I had another pair of Red-necked Grebes and a pair of Greater Scaup. I went into a serious driving mode after this.
About 35 km north of Sodankyla there is a sign in Finnish for bird nature trail which goes across a bog to a tower. The steps up the tower are very steep. I didn’t take my scope to ID the distant waterfowl there. A few kilometers north of there I had my only White-tailed Eagle in Finland fly over the road. In an area around 66 kilometers south of Utsjoki in northernmost Finland the terrain was very open, pre-tundra looking with just scattered low birches for trees. Oddly further north there was more boreal forest. In this habitat with numerous lakes and bogs I stopped to scan a roadside lake and found 4 Smew, 4 White-winged (Velvet) Scoters and four Tufted Ducks. This was at 9 p.m. Cold, with the winter coat I brought, a welcomed addition to the wardrobe now. I noticed local Finns also were sporting winter coats today. As I had planned, I stayed at Hotelli Pohjan Tuli about 8 kilometers south of Utsjoki and the Norway border. In various trip reports and an ebird report, good birds had been seen at the feeders there. The feeders were well stocked but during my two stays I never saw the likes of Pine Grosbeak or Siberian Jay as others have not to mention Rustic Bunting. Greenfinches were a mainstay at the feeders with Bramblings and Common Redpolls appearing regularly as well. A Common Sandpiper flushed from the shore of the lake. This was at 10:30 p.m. and at that hour the motel was locked so I had to use the buzzer to get in and register. Back outside I ran into a Finnish lepidopterist and he gave me the useful tip that a road goes up to the radio tower on the mountain across the lake from the motel. He said he had been to Vardo, Norway yesterday but it had been cold for days so no butterflies. He also knew birds and pointed out a Red-throated Loon on the lake next to the motel. The charge for the motel was 60 euros including a nice breakfast. This was the cheapest rate which required walking to the shower, sauna and water closet. Not a problem for a guy now used to sleeping in his car. The wifi there was barely functioning. On my second stay there it was worse but a guy went and installed another modem in the hallway outside my room and then wifi worked fine.
July 5, 2014
Saw the usual birds at the feeder looking from my bed through the window. A Willow Tit appeared and I didn’t see a lot of them on this trip. I packed up and left, knowing I would be heading to the arctic on the Varanger Peninsula of Norway sometime today. First though, I wanted to look for Rock Ptarmigan and Dotteral up around the radio tower at Ailigas, which overlooks Utsjoki. I found the dirt road going up. You eventually come to a big metal gate. It is unlocked so I just pushed it opened and then closed it once through the entrance. I was tramping around the tundra for around two hours and no one else came by. Two Rough-legged Hawks were soaring in the distance. Meadow Pipit was common and Northern Wheatear was fairly common. Mosquitos annoying but no more so than Michigan at this time of the year. I walked south and eventually into a shallow valley that had some willows and a small pond. I flushed a Willow Ptarmigan in the low willows. I started hearing a shorebird calling and track the call down to several European Golden Plover on the slope beyond this valley. Dotterel would have to wait for another day.
I knew goods would be considerably more expensive in Norway than in Finland so I tried getting gas and snacks in Utsjoki before crossing the bridge into Norway. Unfortunately the same thought occurred to a tour bus from Poland so there was a very long line at the check out line in the larger of the two stores in town. The gas I got in Finland lasted me until I got back to Finland. I crossed the impressive bridge over the Tana River into Norway around 11:20 am. Not a building, let along a customs building, on the Norwegian side. Eight kilometers south at the motel I stayed at, there were still some pine woods around but once in Norway there were no pines. The hillsides were still forested by only with low birch woods. There were a few farms along the river. Salmon fisherman were everywhere along the Tana River. I stopped at the small farming village of Bateng to start my Norwegian list: Fieldfare, Willow Warbler (singing from power line), Rough-legged Hawk, White Wagtail and Herring Gull. Some power lines came across the river and on the tower supporting them on the Norwegian side, I spotted a Merlin. I picked up a lone Bohemian Waxwing near Holmesund. I heard a Common Cuckoo near there. Soon after recrossing the Tana River, this time both sides in Norway, I flushed a pair of Eurasian Wigeon from a roadside pool. I saw very few dabbling ducks while in Norway.
Once on the ocean, I stopped at the church at Nesseby, a well known birding locale and sure enough there were a number of birders around. In the pool behind the church I found only two Red-necked Phalaropes. Gulls were well represented in the area with Herring, Mew (Common), and Great Black-backed Gull all numerous. Black-legged Kittiwake was in a class by itself as it was abundant. Masses of them were all flying northwest this afternoon, right along the shoreline as well as off shore. Common Eider was another abundant species along the shore of the Varanger Peninsula with pods of them with young. Common Mergansers were frequently seen in flocks close to shore along this coastline. White-tailed Eagles were fairly common in the area. On the mudflats there were a few Bar-tailed Godwits and farther out in the bay, a flock of 80 or so came in for a landing. Eurasian Oystercatcher was a common bird along this coast. It still was not true tundra at Nesseby. That came north of Vadso. This arctic coast of Norway was very civilized with nice houses and amenities such as a Mercedes dealership, definitely not an arctic scene you would find in North America. There was still some farming until Vadso and in these hay fields Common Redshank seemed to reach the limits of its breeding range.
After a long nap, I drove to the Vardo area, stopping at the harbor at Kiberg first. Sunny but cool and a bit windy. In the raft of Common Mergansers there I picked out some Red-breasted Mergansers. A few Long-tailed Ducks were in the harbor. I saw this species in small numbers on the coast but never came across them on tundra lakes. Arctic Terns were along the shoreline. In the inner harbor there was a small, dark duck that caught my eye. It proved to be a female Steller’s Eider, the bird I most wanted to see in arctic Norway on this trip. It was still in that inner harbor on the following day.
I went inland a bit on a track to houses in an area designated as protected for wildlife, Kramvikmyra. This proved to be the easiest area for me to see Long-tailed Jaegers on the trip. I never saw them over the ocean. I also saw Parasitic Jaegers sitting around on this tundra and that species was common on the Varanger Peninsula including off shore waters. Many birders were staying at the Vardo Hotel and this night I stayed there as well. I think the price was 120 euros including breakfast. The town of Vardo is on an island connected to the mainland by a long tunnel that must have been expensive to construct for such a small population to service. Oil money to burn I guess.
July 6, 2014
A highlight to birding the Varanger Peninsula is going to the large seabird colony on Hornoya Island off Vardo. You can buy tickets at the Vardo Hotel which I did. You can’t use euros to purchase the tickets: It’s either Norwegian Krones or charging it. I signed up for the earliest boat which was at 10 am. The dock is next to the hotel. I was not the only one who signed up for the 10 am trip. Actually 60 some people did with the boat only taking 11 at a time. That meant cooling your heels as people were ferried over a boat load at a time until an hour later when a second, bigger boat arrived which is the one I took. I spent the down time talking with various European birders so it didn’t bother me and I had all the time on the island I wanted once I got there. Sunny, warm day. Approaching Hornoya, you are confronted with masses of birds on the water and in the air. Common Murre was the dominant bird on the water around the landing for the island with Kittiwakes dominating the air space. The birds breeding on the cliff ledges were oblivious to you as you walked by or aimed cameras at them. The species breeding colonially on the island were Common Murre, Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake and European Shag. I walked through the colony up to the lighthouse. There were specific areas where you could and couldn’t go. Breeding landbirds on this small island that I saw were White Wagtail, Rock Pipit, Meadow Pipit, and Northern Wheatear. It seems most of the birders today saw Twites but I dipped on that species. Gulls nesting included Herring and Great Black-backed. A couple of Ravens flew over the island. Parasitic Jaegers were a constant sight over the narrow passage between the two islands. Back in Vardo at the dock, Arctic Terns were easy to photograph in the small harbor area.
The two German birders I talked to while waiting at the dock mentioned that going north there is a nice stretch of tundra so I tried that and indeed found nice tundra habitat for 10 or so kilometers. Taking a drive into a gravel area, I had breeding Common Ringed Plover and a half dozen Lapland Longspurs, the latter was a bird I saw surprisingly infrequently. I photographed a roadside European Golden-Plover only to notice later in the photo that it was banded. I had a couple White-tailed Eagles on this stretch of road. One tundra lake held 5 Whooper Swans and a much small lake had a pair of Red-throated Loons. I finally pick out a Dunlin on territory on the tundra.
Once I reached the coast again, the tundra habitat was mostly gone and in its place was a devilish stretch of jagged rocks that must have made road construction hellish. I checked one group of waterbirds on the sea and picked out a number of Black Scoters. Back in the vicinity of Vardo, actually on the mainland at Svartnes. a Short-eared Owl was flying near buildings over the tundra at 7 p.m. I drove the short distance to Kiberg where I found a Glaucous Gull on a beach.
I went inland a bit from there to find a place to sleep in my car with the game plan being to climb up hills on the tundra in the morning to look for Rock Ptarmigan and Dotterel so I went to the Kramvikmyra area for the “night”. I wasn’t alone in spending the night there as there were tents and motor homes in the area as well.
July 7, 2014
Where I spent the night there are some houses along a river with a low ridge above. I climbed up the ridge starting at 4:45 am. Whimbrel were unhappy with me being up there, about 5 of them. Dunlin also liked this habitat. A pair of Long-tailed Jaegers almost took my head off but after one pass at me they left me alone. I watched a Ruddy Turnstone fly in from a long distance and land on a distant ridge. I later saw another Ruddy Turnstone on the tundra at the beginning of the dirt road into this area by the coastal road. Back up on the ridge, I had Lapland Longspurs again. European Golden-Plover were common. Alas, all the tramping around on the tundra up there did not turn up a ptarmigan nor Dotterel.
Back at the car, I noticed a Bluethroat singing from the top of a chimney on a cottage. A Redwing was also around the habitations. I read in a trip report that on several evenings in June they had Yellow-billed Loons off Ekkeroya so I gave that a shot at 7:20 am. Looked promising even though I did not see that species. I did have a number of loons off shore there though, both Arctic Loon and Red-throated Loon. Arctic Terns seemed to be breeding right on the shoreline in this small town. I picked out three female King Eiders sitting on rocks along the shoreline with Common Eiders. A Black
Guillemot was not too far off shore.
By now I had made up my mind to leave the Varanger Peninsula and head back to Finland even though I had only spent one full day there and two partial days. The birding was fun and photographic opportunities were numerous but I had run out of life bird prospects so I started heading back to Finland. Near Goines, Norway, I took a drive way uphill a bit into low willow growth. I saw a singing Bluethroat and a singing Reed Bunting. A Rough-legged Hawk fly by as well.
A birder somewhere along the line had told me there were Red-throated Pipits on the island at Vadso so I put that on my mental itinerary. Always looking for free wifi access, I perched outside the impressive new looking library in Vadso before it opened to put in some ebird records. I then crossed over to the island and went to the nature preserve at one end and instantly came across a bright Red-throated Pipit carrying food. I quickly left the area. I stopped at Nesseby’s church again. Out on the shallow flats I noticed Graylag Geese with large young. My birding in Norway had come to an end.
I drove back to Finland and again stayed at the Hotelli Pohjan Tuli a few kilometers south of Utsjoki. A Bohemian Waxwing was in a birch where the feeders were.
July 8, 2014
The reason I was staying at Utsjoki again was to try for Dotterel and Rock Ptarmigan again. First though I checked around the small open area across from the church. It is an historical site with a few small buildings. A butterfly guy said this was the stake out for some butterfly species so I went to check it out. I had Pied Flycatcher, Whinchat and Yellow Wagtail but no butterflies at 8 am.
On the dirt road going up to the radio tower at Ailigas I photographed an Arctic Woodland Ringlet and a very reddish Willow Ptarmigan. Warm and pleasant today as I walked across the tundra on this mountain. I went in a different direction this time, heading further east in an area relatively flat. Butterflies out an about including a Arctic Grayling (Oeneis bore).
As I was scanning the tundra with my bins, I distantly picked out a promising shape near a very large flat topped boulder with a sharp pointed at the right end. I think it is actually a Dotterel. I hurriedly walked closer and scanned again. Indeed at long last it is a Eurasian Dotterel. I eventually got a fine photo of the bird which had at least one tiny chick running around. I wasn’t going to spend anymore time here as I got the key bird. Rock Ptarmigan can wait until I go to Alaska. I did bump into a couple of Lapland Longspurs in that alpine habitat. A Raven flew over. Once I got down to turn onto the main road, I had yet another single Bohemian Waxwing. Singles is not how I normally get either waxwing in North America.
Time to drive south as I still needed to get Red-flanked Bluetail if I was to have any respect in the birding world and that meant going to Kuusamo again. I stopped at around 66 Km south of Utsjoki where there are a couple of lakes, one being Kutujarvi, as I had on the way north. The same mix of ducks that I had the first time there except a female type Red-breasted Merganser was new. I was puzzled to find a flock of 20 Yellow Wagtails, a number being juveniles. They did not want to leave the area of bog and very open birch woods. A Merlin came by to check out the scene. A classic locale in Finland for alpine birds like Rock Ptarmigan and Dotterel is Kiilopaa, a mountain with a trail on a boardwalk, a zillion steps and then less clearly defined trails once on top. It was 7 p.m. when I got there. I thought I would do the hike up to check it out for a serious try in the morning if I was so motivated. The hike up was basically birdless with still lots of families hiking up. I didn’t wander around much on top before I started back down the trail. Now I was alone heading down the long stretch of stairs. Eventually I hit a step and out burst a ptarmigan in flight. It didn’t fly far, settling in the uniquely flat growing birches. Of course I photographed it. It didn’t look very red. More brown and yellow. I was thinking it was a female Rock Ptarmigan. Well eventually Sampsa Cairenius looked at the photo and pronounced it a Willow Ptarmigan which was a nagging fear of mine. I resumed my drive south and around 11 p.m. found a paved parking area with a CC down a short side road where I was going to spend the night.
July 9, 2014
It was a short “night” when again there was no darkness. I had this lingering thought about a trip report having Capercaillie on a forest road at 1:30 in the morning so as I was still awake at 1 am, I just started driving south. A couple of times I took roads going off the main road, E 75, into forest but not bumping into anything. Then at 2:41 am on E75, a stunning male Capercaillie, showed up on the side of the road in pine woods. I had time to slow down and stop the car in the road as the bird slowly walked in front of the car. I really wanted a photo of course and I was afraid if I got out o the car the bird would bolt so I took a couple of photos through my bug splattered windshield. Once that was accomplished I left the car in the middle of the road and slowly got out. Still not with enough stealth on my part as the bird instantly ran for cover on the other side of road and then flew off as I approached further. Even so it was a coup to get this great European bird.
I again stopped at the Llmakki-aapa preserve on E75 north of Sodankyla. This was at 4:30 in the morning. A Common Crane was standing out in the bog. I flushed a Smew from a pool in the bog. Yet another singleton Bohemian Waxwing was low in the vegetation along the lake. A few kilometers further south I had the trip Northern Harrier fly over the road.
I drove to Kuusamo to spend the night and work on Red-flanked Bluetail. Another try this afternoon was futile once again. I did stop in at the visitor center again in Kuusamo and the guy said the Bluetail was again seen yesterday up on the ridge.
July 10, 2014
Yesterday it finally dawned on me that I was going the wrong direction in all my prior efforts for Red-flanked Bluetail. I can’t even claim I got bad directions. I had great, explicit directions in writing but I was still willing to overlook them and I kept on hiking straight up from the pull out on 8694 north of Ruka instead of crossing the road and then hiking up. Well I did that today and once I had hiked up beyond a small lake up on the ridge, I heard and then finally saw a Red-flanked Bluetail. I had expected it to sing from an exposed perch on top of one of the many mature spruce up on the ridge but this bird was buried in a pine as it sang. Still I could see it well enough to easily tell it was the Bluetail.
Now that this key bird is out of the way, I need to rethink my course of action. It is early on July 10th and my flight to Germany is in the morning of July 15th. Lots of time and no real likely life birds to go after. So it would be general birding and photography for these nearly five days.
The nearby Virkulan Village with its open areas looked promising. A Treecreeper seen there was a trip bird. I took 8694 further east that I had previously and started seeing signs telling all that no photos were allowed. I saw a Wryneck in an isolated tree. This has to be near the northern edge of that species range. I back tracked a bit and started down the Tahkolanrannantie Road and was a bit surprised to see a Rough-legged Hawk perched in a tree in a small clear cut.
I went on the south side of Lake Kuusamo, yet another very big lake in Finland. It was a beautiful sunny day with perfect temperatures. I was hoping for dragonflies and butterflies at least and I did find some. Unfortunately the dragonflies were rarely to never perching. On the lake was an wildlife viewing area, Salpalinja. Checking out the lake itself, a couple Arctic Loons were close to shore. Common Sandpipers were flying around. Across the road at the small parking lot for Salpalinja, I saw pairs of Bullfinch and Blue Tit. I started down the nature trail there. The trail in 30 meters or so comes into a small opening and right in the middle of the trail, taking a dust bath was a male Hazel Grouse. I think I am going to like this trail. In 20 meters or so the trail becomes a boardwalk through wet brushy deciduous woods before entering pine woods. In that stretch of boardwalk I came across a major surprise - a couple of Rustic Buntings. I had given up hope of seeing that bird on this trip. Now I really like this trail. I drove down Hiltusentie Road. Nice habitat but I knew there really was nothing more for me to realistically see around Kuusamo and there were still prospects in SE Finland so I was getting antsy to hit the road again. At one stopped I was intrigued to see a Spotted Flycatcher that liked to stay close to my parked car, making easy meals of all the flies the car was attracting.
I drove south on Hwy 6, thinking I would try for Lanceolated Warbler again near Leiksa. Late in the day while prospecting for a place to sleep in the car, I had yet another Short-eared Owl, this one at 10:58 p.m. at Karhunpaa Road & 6.
July 11, 2014
I did try for Lanceolated Warbler early this morning near Lieksa in an area known as Niitty-Jamali and again came up empty. At mid-day I stopped at Parikkala. Out on the lake I had one Arctic Loon and 7 Red-breasted Mergansers.
I went to the nearby preserve of Siikalahti. Five Common Cranes flew over as I walked the extensive boardwalk system there. A good area for butterflies. White-backed Woodpeckers occur but I had none. Sedge Warblers are common there. Three Osprey were overhead. Saw a Eurasian Wigeon with her brood. A few Whooper Swans were around. Twice I saw Marsh Harriers over agricultural fields near the marsh.
I thought birding around Lappeenranta was interesting on my first pass through the area so I returned there and went again to the Kommo peat farm. As I looked up the track to the peat farm, I noticed two people using a nice scope. Hmm, possible sources of local gen so I better introduce myself. When I got closer I found a man and a woman with the woman having a smallish telephoto lens but neither carrying binoculars. Not a good sign. Sure enough they knew little about birds and nothing about Booted Warbler. However all was not lost. Looking further up the track, there are two men both with scopes and both with good bins. Now we are talking. I went up to them. One spoke excellent English with the second understanding English well but being a bit reticent to speak it. Both were top notch birders and both really knew what was going on regarding birds in the region. Sampsa Cairenius was the one speaking the best English Sampsa was there trying to pad his BGBY list which he managed to do with a Curlew Sandpiper there which I missed. I did see a Greenshank there. I really didn’t care much what was there based on the information they gave me. They not only knew about the Booted Warbler but also revealed to me that there were nearby Lanceolated Warbler and Arctic Warbler. Jackpot. Sampsa offered to take me to the Booted Warbler locale. He tied his scope to the back of his bike and he peddled off - six kilometers out of his way each way, as he lived in Joutseno which was in the opposite direction. After giving him a head start, I met him at the edge of the village of Konnunsuo. I offered to give him a ride but he would have none of that - it would break the BGBY rules. So he peddled down a couple roads, dashing down a dirt track through woods (heard Chiffchaff there finally) and then along a myriad of farm tracks to a pristine looking field. Not a bush in the field. Now it was after 8 p.m. I had been forewarned that the Booted Warblers had ceased singing (at least 2 singing birds had been present) and they were now feeding fledged young. By mutual understanding among birders, no walking in the field. In short order we had an adult Booted Warbler in the scope. The farmer had planned on plowing the field but agreed not to when told of the presence of these rare warblers. Sampsa has birded nearby areas of Russia and said that a couple hundred kilometers east of St. Petersburg, there is a habitat change with boreal forest giving way to steppe with many shallow lakes and in this habitat Booted Warbler was common. Well Sampsa and I were not finished for the day. He had to peddle home to Joutseno which would take an hour and I was to pick him up across from the church at 11 p.m. so that he could take me to the Russian border to try for Lanceolated Warbler. He said that species sings best around midnight, hence the late meeting time. I picked him up on schedule and we were off to the Russian border. Birding along the Russian frontier somewhat reminded me of birding along the border lands in Israel, though the Russian border was not (to my eye at least) heavily fortified like the Israeli border. There is a no mans land though along the lengthy border with that no mans land widening in Lapland. As in Israel, this no man’s land is a boon to wildlife. This is where raptors, wolves and bears come from in this part of Finland though Sampsa had never seen a wolf in this region. It is also a great area for owls both wintering and breeding. As soon as we pulled up to the field at 11:20 p.m., we could hear the distinctive, repetitive song of Lanceolated Warbler out in the field.
I was a startled to see a young, heavily laden Belgian birder walk up to us at this remote location at this late hour. I think Sander might have been his name. Anyway, he had on a heavy coat, a broad brimmed hat with mosquito netting hanging all around the brim of the hat, a heavy back pack and a good scope. He was there for the Lanceolated Warbler and he was going to spend the night there. He was hitch hiking around Finland and Norway birding and this evening a Finnish woman had picked him up, agreed to drop him off at this late hour at this remote site and to pick him up at 9 am the following morning. To paraphrase, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Oh to be 50 again. A Corncrake was also singing there which ties into the Lanceolated Warbler as the warbler was found by a birder doing a nocturnal census of Corncrakes. Lighting conditions were dusk-like at 11:30 and an hour later it was actually dark. A River Warbler was singing from adjacent woods, sometimes drowning out the song of the Lanceolated Warbler. We got to scope the Lanceolated Warbler as it perched on a small bush in the field. The Belgian birder joined Sampsa and I as we drove around trying to come up with Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Alas, we stopped at 3 or 4 knowns sites where they had been singing at this hour several days ago but they now appeared to be done singing for the year.
Sampsa wanted to get us Ural Owl and he did managed to get a young bird to respond which he and the Belgian birder heard but my deteriorating auditory skills made it impossible for me to hear it. I had Sampsa back home but 12:45 am which would make a short night for both of us. I would be sleeping in the car somewhere in Lappeenranta to try for Arctic Warbler per Sampsa’s directions at dawn and Sampsa was leaving at 5 am to drive several hours to the north to try for Rosy Starling at a rubbish tip.
July 12, 2014
Yet another beautiful day. Of course I was up early and driving between large lakes in the Taipalsaari area NW of Lappeenranta. Sampsa and his friend had given me explicit directions to where an Arctic Warbler was on territory in this area. It was on Sillanmaentie Road, a lovely rural area. I had a Red-backed Shrike on the way there. There were two houses on the north side of the road and a strand of deciduous woods nearby going across the road. In short order I heard the Arctic Warbler and soon saw it as well. It sang virtually non-stop from 8:13 am to 8:45 am and then drifted north and I stopped hearing it. Often it was singing in shade trees in one of the yards. An old woman came out of the house to check me out but was quickly satisfied that I was harmless. Then she reappeared and waved me over to her so she could show me an old Finnish bird book. She was one of the few Finns I came across who spoke no English. She kept on pointing to a shorebird for some reason and I showed her the illustration of the Arctic Warbler. I saw Bullfinch and Song Thrush among many other standard rural birds.
Now I really was out of potential life birds in Finland realistically. I went back to the Russian border area near Joutsano and in farm country saw Common Cuckoo and Red-backed Shrike. I decided to drive to the Kotka area on the Baltic to explore. I managed to find my way to the Mantyniemi Resort Hotel a bit west on Kotka on an island. A nice place set in wooded country. It was 70 Euros a night including a first rate breakfast. The manager had been an exchange student in Pennsylvania so his English was impeccable....as was his Russian, Swedish, German, well you get the picture. Glancing over the license plates in the parking lot, Russians were the dominant clientele and as it was a Saturday night, there was no room at the inn so to speak. There was room for tomorrow night which was critical for me as I wanted to watch the German-Argentinian World Cup soccer final.
I drove off to Helsinki to bird Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve. This is a well known birding locale that is right in Helsinki and so heavily used by Finns just as an urban park as well. I particularly wanted to see Barnacle Geese. Well I didn’t have to work for that species. They acted like Canada Geese around golf courses in southern Michigan. Flocks with young were right at your feet in the vicinity of the suspension bridge in the park. Great Crested Grebes were swimming under the bridge as well. I spotted a Grey Heron in flight.
July 13, 2014
Early this morning I drove back to the vicinity of Mantyniemi Resort Hotel west of Kotko. At a boat launch on the island before the turn off to the resort, I had a Black Woodpecker flying along the shoreline. That is always a bonus bird in my mind. In the wide, marshy channel a single Caspian and a number of Common Terns milling around. A Green Sandpiper flushed from the boat launch parking area. Ospreys were around. I saw a Eurasian Sparrowhawk at the south end of the island. At the Mantyniemi Resort, they had a nice bird feeding operation. Eurasian Siskins were always in attendance at those feeders. Birding was a low priority for me at the moment but of course I kept my bins handy. Little over the Baltic. One Great Cormorant in the distance. A Common Merganser was close to shore. The resort is set in woods on the shore of the Baltic. In the adjacent woods I had Treecreeper, Lesser Whitethroat, Spotted Flycatcher, Fieldfare, European Robin, Great Spotted Woodpecker. That night I watched Germany win the World Cup over Argentina with the resort manager.
July 14, 2014
Walking around the parking lot of the resort, I spotted a Black Woodpecker banging away at the base of a tree. I had a early flight tomorrow morning from Helsinki so today I would bird Viikki-Vanhankaupunginlahti Nature Reserve and then play tourist in Helsinki. Euraasian Tree Sparrows and Spotted Flycatcher were on the fenceline with apartment buildings. In the woods I found a silent Icterine Warbler. I took a boardwalk to a photo blind in the marsh but only had one Coot there. I busied myself photographing common things and went back to my car where I came upon a well equipped Finnish birder. He told me how to get to the shorebirding area in the park and with that tip I was off again.
I found the area after a bit of a walk across the reedbeds and climbed the tower overlooking the area. It was an estuary with a heron rookery in view. Cattle were intentionally placed here to keep the vegetation low. There were some flats with shorebirds but it was a long look with me without a scope. As I anticipated it wasn’t long before a Finnish birder with a good scope climbed up the tower and let me use his scope. Geese were prominent - Barnacle Geese in good numbers with small numbers of Graylag and Canada Geese. A couple of Mute Swans were in the distance. Forty Lapwings were resting on the flats. Other shorebirds present were Little Ringed Plover, Eurasian Oystercatcher (4), Ruff, Spotted Redshank and Greenshank (1). Seven Caspian Terns were resting on a tiny island. Ducks were uninteresting - Mallards and 4 Green-winged Teal. I had Great Black-backed Gull at this locale in the park and Lesser Black-backed Gulls on the newly mowed meadow by the main parking lot. That concluded my birding in Finland and arctic Norway, a trip that I viewed as highly successful.