The North of Finland and its easy access to Varanger mean that this area of Europe has relatively simple access to some of the most specialised species on the European (and Western Palearctic) list. It has therefore become a firm favourite of the birder's itinerary and many reports have concentrated on a trip in June or even later in the summer.
This has the benefit of the weather being reasonable, but the disadvantage that the ducks are in lower numbers than the winter. The theory behind the Naturetrek Varanger trip is that it offers big flocks of the Varanger ducks plus the opportunity to catch up with the arctic residents at a time when they are less elusive.
I travelled with the Naturetrek group from the 29th March - 2nd April and then along with Dave Pearson, I spent a further three days in arctic Finland in an ad-hoc extension.
The Naturetrek "long weekend" has been long established as an early spring trip for the Finnish Owls around Oulu. This is the second year that the trip has been offered and at £895.00 is surprising good value compared with the longer alternatives later in the year. Finnature act as the ground agent and provide the guides. All travel is in 8 seater minibuses and accommodation is in comfortable hotels. The two provided guides - Harri Taavetti and Toni Eskelin were excellent.
For the extension we opted to use local birders gen, hire a car and stay at self-catering cabins. The choice is wide, and as Finland is one of the most "wired" nations on the planet it is relatively easy to find a selection of options on the Internet. Unfortunately Finnish is not a readily understood language (for me at least), but most .fi sites have English translations for most, if not all, of their pages. We had information from a series of local birders, but generally few are active in these areas at this time of year. Many thanks however to Heikki Karhu, Jukka Jokimakki and Olavi Nyyssönen for their help and encouragement.
Finland is surprisingly cheap as a Scandinavian destination, thus only putting it on a par with the UK. Certainly it is noticeable how reasonable everything compared with Norway. It is said that the Euro has helped reducing prices and the imminent EU membership of Estonia has reduced prices as well.
Norway still retains the Krone and is frighteningly expensive
The weather was not particularly good throughout. Although there is a reputation for windless and bright days in the north at this time of year, discussion with the local says that windy days are relatively frequent. This makes birding extremely difficult. We had days of snow flurries and generally the temperature was in the range of -3 to -6oC in Finland during the day. However, the 3rd April in Rovaniemi was substantially colder and was indicated as -13oC.
Norway, and particularly Varanger east of Vadso, felt much colder than Finland. Temperatures seemed to be generally -8 to -10oC and with the often substantial wind chill felt much colder. Certainly a place to wear every item of clothing you have!
On the clear night of the 31st March in Vardo we had a brief display of the Northern lights.
The work around Varanger was basically bus based, and needs to be in these temperatures.
In Finland, in the forests, the only approach is to find the old mature forests and see what can be found. Tramping around in the snow is not really possible except on existing roads/tracks - the only result of going "off piste" was sinking up to your waist in a snow drift!
There were two big successes. The feeders attract birds and tend to concentrate them in easily viewable spots. The Cafes are also warm and convivial. The other success was pishing, particularly in the quite mature forests. The birds certainly came and you got the feeling that you were bringing nearly everything out that was about.
Tapes we used sparingly and with limited effect. The only response we got was from the Three-toed Woodpeckers.
29th March - 7.30 flight Heathrow - Helsinki, transfer to Ivalo and arrive at 16.00. Visit to local sites. Overnight stay at Hotelli Ivalo
30th March - Before breakfast walk around Ivalo, long drive to Vardo via Utsjoki, Tana Bru, Vadso. Overnight stay at Hotel Vardo
31st March - Varanger around Vardo, boat trip to Hornoyo Island. Overnight stay at Hotel Vardo.
1st April - Long drive back to Ivalo from Vardo via Vadso, Utsjoki and Inari. Overnight stay in Hotelli Ivalo
2nd April - Various sites around Ivalo, night in Hotelli Ivalo
3rd April - Drive from Ivalo to Rovaniemi, evening around Rovaniemi. Overnight at Ounasvaaran Pirit.
4th April - Around Rovaniemi. Overnight at Ounasvaaran Pirit.
5th April - Drive from Rovaniemi to Ivalo, flight from Ivalo to Heathrow via Helsinki
In some respects the approach to birding is habitat dependent and therefore any suitable habitat could lead to the same species list. Because of the route most sites chosen were close to the E75, the main (only) north south route in this area. Around Ivalo the easiest birding was around the bird feeders. The now famous feeder at Kaamanen (50kms N of Inari) being a classic example, and the feeder at Olavi Nyyssönen's place at Peurasuvanto.
Other areas included the road to Tolenen just south of the airport. The road to Kuttura, particularly around Koysivaara and the suburbs in spruce forest towards Nellimo.
Most of the forest roads to the South of the road to Kuusamo were tried, particularly around Jokela on the 9421. The ski tracks around Ounasvaara were also useful.
Most of the sites visited are well known, including the Gyr Falcon site 30km north of Tana Bru and Vardo and Vadso harbours. Nesseby was surprising quiet.
Any of the small bays along the coast had the possibility of seaduck and the harbours of Vadso and Vardo we particularly good. Staying in Hotel Vardo can give good views over the harbour and gives the opportunity of watching Steller's Eider, Brunnich's Guillemot and a range of other northern species from the warmth of your hotel room.
Red throated Diver (Gavia stellata) - one found in a bay nr Vardo on 31st March. Despite extensive searching this was the only diver sp. Seen although White-billed are recorded at this time of year.
Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis aristotelis) - Only seen around Varanger with small numbers in Vardo harbour and many seen on Hornoyo island on 31st March
Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo carbo) - Only seen at Varanger. Many hundreds seen along the foreshore on 30th, 31st and 1st April
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos platyrhynchos) - Only seen at Varanger with 7 birds around Varangerbotn on the 30th March and a pair near Vadso on the 1st April
Common Eider (Somateria mollissima mollissima) - Rafts of fifty of more were a common sight along the coast of Varanger
King Eider (Somateria spectablis) - relatively common in Varanger with small groups of ten to twenty along the full length of Varanger from Varangerbotn to Vardo
Steller's Eider (Polysticta stelleri) - probably the commonest Eider in Varanger and certainly the most approachable. Rafts of up to fifty birds in most bays and harbours
Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis) - small groups were a familiar sight in Varanger and the harbours at Vardo and Vadso
Common Scoter (Melanitta nigra nigra) - the least common scoter, only seen around Vardo on 31st March and perhaps 15 birds seen in total.
Velvet Scoter (Melanitta fusca fusca) - small flocks seen around Varanger on both the 30th and 31st March.
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) - a familiar sight in pairs and small groups along the Varanger foreshore
White-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) - the first birds appeared almost immediately we crossed into Norway. An adult was seen west of Tana Bru, a juvenile at the Gyr Falcon site, and the perched adult near Vadso on the 30th March. On a 1st April an adult was seen briefly in flight near Vardo. The only Finnish bird of the trip was an adult at Peurasuvanto on 3rd April.
Gyr Falcon (Falco rusticolus) - a pair we around their now traditional cliff site 30 km north of Tana Bru on 30th March.
Willow Grouse (Lagopus lagopus lagopus) - 8 birds were seen from E75 near Utsjoki on 30th March. The only other record was 3 flushed near Peurasuvanto on 3rd April.
Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus 'karelicus'?) - a pair were flushed nr Peurasuvanto on 3rd April
Hazel Hen (Bonasia bonasia bonasia) - The first record was a pair nr the E75 on the road to Tolenen on the evening of the 29th April. The male performed for the group when his call was imitated by Harri. Three further birds were seen on the same road on the 2nd April. 2 were seen close to the E75 in trees on 3rd April and lastly a confiding male was seen near Jokela on the 4th April, who responded to pishing!
Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maratima) - the wader of Varanger, with flocks of up to fifty birds in the sheltered bays. Surprisingly they were not limited to rocky areas but were active on the sandy beaches - a bit like odd Sanderling.
Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus ostralegus) - two singles around Vadso on 1st April.
Common Gull (Larus canus canus) - a few individuals were spotted in the gull flocks along Varanger.
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus argentatus) - the common gull along the Varanger coast. One adult at Porttipahta on 5th April.
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus) - Common around Varanger
Glaucous Gull (Larus hyberboreus hyberboreus) - One was a Vadso harbour on 30th March. Three were around Vardo on the 31st and 2 the following day.
Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides glaucoides) - just two birds seen, a second winter bird just east of Vadso on the 30th March. Surprisingly, at exactly the same spot, a full adult was seen on the 1st April. Obviously our stay in Varanger was longer than it seemed!
Kittiwake (Rissa trydactyla) - very common in Varanger. Flocks of 30-40 birds were a common sight moving up and down the fjord. Hornoyo Island already had several thousand birds holding territories on the cliffs.
Brunnich's Guillemot (Uria lomvia lomvia) - first seen from the reception of Hotel Vardo on 30th March! A familiar bird in Vardo harbour with 3-4 birds present and small groups around Hornoyo Island on 31st March.
Razorbill (Alca torda torda) - a single bird was loafing in Vardo harbour during our stay. Up to a dozen birds were seen around Hornoyo Island on 31st March.
Black Guillemot (Cepphus grille mandtii) - Only recorded around Vardo, with 3-4 generally around the harbour and similar numbers around Hornoyo Island
Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica arctica) - first seen with 3 close to Varangerbotn on 30th March. Small numbers around Hornoyo on 31st March.
Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon (Columbia livia) - a single bird was seen at Helsinki airport on 29th March. 3 different birds, only one of any purity at all, were around Vardo habour.
Hawk Owl (Surnia ulala ulala) - a total of seven birds were seen. The first records were on the 30th of April when three or four birds we seen along the roadside from Tana Bru to the Gyr Falcon site. One was seen near Nuorgam, Finland on 1st April. The first bird was sitting on the television aerial of a house whilst the remainder were sitting on telegraph poles. A single was seen on a tree from the E75 15km south of Peurasuvanto on the 3rd April and lastly one was seen and heard between Rovaniemi and Jokela on the night of 4th April.
Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo) - a single distant bird heard calling nr Rovaniemi on the night of the 4th April
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major major) - First seen near Tolenen on 2nd April. A familiar sight around Roveniemi, and the most active drumming species there.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor minor) - One, a female, seen near Tolenen on 2nd April.
Three toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus tridactylus) - A female watched and two males heard drumming in the old spruce woods at Koysivaara on 3rd April. The timber yard at Rovaniemi rail station had held up to ten birds over winter but there was no sign on our visit.
Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius martius)-a pair seen in flight along the road to Narkaus from Jokela on 4th April, included the male giving the distinctive display call.
Skylark (Alauda arvensis arvensis)- five birds were seen at Helsinki Airport on 29th April.
Dipper (Cinclus cinclus cinclus) - a pair were seen on the river near the junction of the E75 and the road to Tolenen on 29th April. The site was severely disturbed by building work during our visit but surprisingly the birds were back and singing on 5th April. 3 were on the river at Vikajarvi on the 5th April.
Willow Tit (Parus montanus borealis) - probably the commonest tit in the spruce forests and a familiar sight at the bird feeders throughout Finland. This species was generally the first to respond to pishing. A couple seen in Norway, near Varangerbotn on 30th March.
Siberian Tit (Parus cinctus lapponicus) - the cause of initial concern as we couldn't find one. Once the duck was broken with a single at the feeders at Kaamenan they were seen in all suitable habitat around Ivalo, over a dozen birds seen in total. Not found around Rovaniemi, although they are certainly present.
Crested Tit (Parus cristatus cristatus) - a minimum of two were seen at Ounasvaara, Rovaniemi on 4th April.
Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus caeruleus) - a few birds seen in the residential areas of Ivalo on 29th, 30th March and 2nd April.
Great Tit (Parus major major) - widespread and encountered in most woodland and residential areas. Oddest record was a single on a balcony feeder in Vardo - there are no trees on the island!
Siberian Jay (Perisoreus infaustus infaustus) - First record was three nr Utsjoki on 30th March. Then seen regularly in mixed spruce forest around Tolenen, Koysivaara, Peurasuvanto, Jokela in groups of 3-4. Very approachable they would respond well to pishing.
Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius severtzowi)- only record was 2 that flew across the E75 on 5th April approx 20Km N of Rovaniemei
Magpie (Pica pica fennorum) - seen most days and a familiar sight in low numbers wherever we went.
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix) - seen on all days in low numbers in all habitats
Raven (Corvus corax corax) - a common corvid and generally ones and twos in most habitats. Most together were a loose group of six at the Tana cliffs, 30km N of Tana Bru. One at Ounasvaara responded to pishing!
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus domesticus) - the familiar cheeping of this species was in nearly every town and village, including those that we totally snow bound and no trees.
Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris chloris) - Common around Ivalo and Rovaniemi, particularly on feeders.
Mealy Redpoll (Carduelis flammea flammea) - In most areas of Finland this appeared to be the commonest bird. Flocks up to 150 strong were around Ivalo and smaller groups were in the forests and around the feeders throughout.
Arctic Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni exilipes) - Represented about 5-10% of the Mealy flocks and easy to find at feeders in the North. Less common further south around Rovaniemi.
Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula pyrrhula) - a common species in wooded areas of Finland. It is readily attracted to feeders and the sight of up to six males jostling for seed was one of the surprises for British birders.
Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra curvirostra) - Only seen at Ounasvaara on 4th April. A single male responded to pishing and started singing. It (or another) was later re-found with a female.
Parrot Crossbill (Loxia pytopsittacus) - A pair were seen nr Tolenen on 1st April, Two further males were seen Jokela on 4th April, the birds responding to pishing by coming close and starting to sing.
Pine Grosbeak (Pinicolor enucleator enucleator) - a male was seen distantly at Toivoniemi on 30th March. 1 male and 3 females were at the feeders at Kaamanen also on the 30th March. Fly-overs across the E75 were glimpsed on 30th and 1st. Around Ivalo further birds were found in mature spruce forest including an "orange" immature male on 2nd. A male and female were at feeders at Peurasuvanto on 3rd April.
Snow Bunting (Plectrophenax nivalis nivalis) - the first record was a single bird on the beach nr Vardo on 31st March. A flock of c40 were seen next to the E75 c.65km north of Rovaniemi on 3rd April.
Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella citrinella) - only recorded at a bird feeder in Ivalo on 1st April, where 7 birds were present
Red Squirrel - 3 at Kaamanen on 30th March.
Red Fox - singles were seen in open habitat around Vardo and Ivalo on 30th, 31st March and 1st April
Reindeer - Semi domesticated herds were seen in most open areas, and occasionally drifting on to the roads
Mountain Hare - 2 seen nr Vardo on 31st , and 1 nr Jokela on 4th April. These were the commonest tracks seen in the snow.
Harp Seal - 6-8 seen in a family party in a bay west of Vardo on 31st March
Seal sp - unidentified seal, see picture, on Hornoyo on 31st March.