Low cost birding in Finland with RyanAir, June 2004

Published by Surfbirds Admin (surfbirds AT surfbirds.com)


with Barry McCarthy, John Bannon, Paul Thomason, June Watt, John Dempsey,
Simon Jackson and young Mike Stocker

The new daily Ryanair flight from Stansted to Tampere in southern Finland has opened up the previously expensive Finnish birding experience, to anyone who is prepared to take advantage of the opportunity and plan a trip accordingly. (Ryanair also fly to many other potentially excellent destinations and I am already researching a Guide to Low-Cost Birding in Europe, for publication at the end of the year)

The Southport Birders are one such group and as I had previously visited Tampere on business I eventually managed to convince my birding friends that here was a once in a lifetime opportunity to see much desired Western Palearctic species such as the northern owls, woodpeckers, displaying waders and if we were very lucky, Europe's only Red-flanked Bluetails.

Planning, logistics and costs

Late May/ early June appeared to be the ideal time for most of the species in the Oulu and Kuusamo areas, as early on we decided that Lappland proper and the Varanger peninsula, warranted a completely separate trip, already in the planning stages by the way for mid-June 2005.

We booked our seven flights only six weeks before at £117.40 return including all taxes, previously available at half that figure and travelled leisurely down to Stansted on the morning of June 4th 2004 for the 1650 flight to Tampere, where we arrive 30 minutes early at 2015 local time (BST + 2hrs).

A superb Volkswagen Transporter 4WD Turbo Diesel, hired from Hertz arranged through Finnature as part of our overall package arrangements, was parked not 10 metres from the terminal building. By 2130 we were on the road and birding and at 2200 collected my friend Jouni Numminen, a Tampere birder whom I had met up with on my previous business trip, thanks to www.birdingpal.org.

All Finland inward travel arrangements had been organised by Oulu-based Finnature, of whom I cannot speak too highly. If there is a more professional birding tour outfit anywhere in the world, I would be please to know of them. Our youngish guide Markku Hukkanen, (anyone under 45 qualifies for that epithet by us old gits) was not just an excellent birder, but also a professional biologist and all-round naturalist as well.

He was also made of strong stuff, which he proved by putting up with our motley crew for 48h hrs; especially the nauseous and probably toxic emissions emitted at fartoo regular intervals from the rear end of one particularly anally-challenged individual.

Finnature charged us a very reasonable £ 200 each for their services, which included two full day's guiding in the Oulu area and Kuusamo, the VW Transporter hire, all of the costs for our excellent accommodation and even breakfast on our last morning in Oulu.

The entire six full days trip cost us less than £450 each all in; depending upon one's alcoholic input, and many of the crew had 10 Western Palearctic ticks, of which Hawk Owl, Ural Owl, Hazelhen and Red-flanked Bluetail particularly stand out.

Where we went, when and what we saw.

Friday June 4th

Within 30 minutes we were in the Kangasala area, some 25 kms south east of Tampere, listening to hordes of Thrush Nightingales, watching abundant 'roding' Woodcock and in the midnight daylight had common birds such as Fieldfare, Redwing and Brambling but not the hoped-for 'night singers' such as Blyth's Reed Warbler, Marsh Warbler and River Warbler, all of which have now extended their range to the Tampere area.

Saturday June 5th

Slightly disappointed but ever hopeful we bade goodbye to Jouni and Tampere and began our long 490 km journey north to rendezvous with Markku at Oulu railway station at 0600. Brief stops en route added new birds such as Common Rosefinch; Lesser Whitethroat; Black Grouse; Garden Warbler; a brief and hence untickable view of a probable Siberian Jay and even a Woodcock strolled across the superbly maintained E75 as we hurtled towards the sunrise at not less than 160 km per hour.

Please be advised that despite this admission, Finland's national speed limit is 100 kph and that another unfortunate crew, led by Peter Antrobus (Tripod) and John Gregory ( Gregsy - NW Birdline) were stopped on the same long and winding road only 12 hours previously and have been told they will be fined 600 Euros!

The deserted Oulu railway station was reached at 0545 and the merits or otherwise of Gerard Houllier's departure from LFC was debated with two young Finns. They were waiting to catch the 0630 train to the bright lights of Helsinki; a mere eight hour journey away by student railcard no doubt, and were looking forward to their night on the town before catching the Sunday afternoon train back to Oulu, for college on Monday morning. Whooper Swans and Goosander were flyovers and our first House Sparrows and White Wagtails were seen.

At 0600 prompt our Finnature guide Markku materialised and within five minutes we were on our way westwards from Oulu towards Raahe, passing the world famous Liminiki Bay (Liminganlahti) NR on the way. Several of the world's most northerly population of Rooks were feeding in the fields with 'eastern' form/intermediate Jackdaws as by 0700 we turned down one of Finland's many secondary dirt roads for 3.7 km and parked up.

A huge female Goshawk voiced her displeasure from her equally huge stick nest above us, as we settled down to await the arrival of our first target bird at their nest hole. The breeding pair of fabulous Three-toed Woodpeckers duly obliged and we were so close that we could even see that the male appeared to have a noticeable crest when he was calling the female. The first of 2.5 million Pied Flycatchers; 2.4 million Siskins and 12.5 million Willow Warblers were seen and heard and we also had Treecreeper; Crested Tit; Mealy Redpoll; Bullfinch and a displaying Greenshank singing overhead for good measure. We liked Finland a lot and wondered why we hadn't been coming here for the past twenty years and then remembered that pre-Ryanair, the cheapest return air fare was about £300 or so.

It was now warming up, and at our next stop alongside some roadside lakes near Raahe, fleeces were off and a superb pair of displaying Slavonian Grebes were on our growing list of good value birds. Our first Arctic and Common Terns; a handsome Baltic Gull (Larus fuscus fuscus) and calling Cuckoo were soon added, plus the first singing Sedge and Garden Warblers, which along with Lesser Whitethroat and the super-abundant Willow Warbler (Finland has an estimated 8-13 million pairs) seemed to be everywhere we went.

We retraced our steps to reach the truly fantastic Liminganlahti Reserve by mid-morning and settled in at the main tower hide (Lintutorni) to scan the marshy bay and seashore that stretched to the horizon. An adult White-tailed Eagle was almost our first bird, followed by Marsh Harriers (3); Osprey (2); Common Crane (35); Whooper Swan (>100); Taiga Bean Goose (4); Scaup (>100); an overflying Black-throated Diver; a single drake Gadwall; eight Garganey including six immaculate males; six Pintail; hordes of Wigeon and Teal; Red-breasted Merganser (30>); nine 'lekking' Ruff, complete with ruffs; three rare Black-tailed Godwit, two 'drumming' Common Snipe; displaying Greenshank; summer-plumaged Spotted Redshank (15) and two Wood Sandpipers.

A single Green Sandpiper and at least 10 Little Gulls rounded off the Lintutorni list as we returned to the main car park with its singing Pied Flycatchers, Yellowhammers, Reed Buntings and superb Ortolan Bunting. However the former Yellow-breasted Bunting population here has declined to just one male singing in 2003 and we had no sight or sound of it on our two visits.

Markku then suggested that although it was now almost 0900, we might like to try for a glimpse of the breeding Terek Sandpipers at Oulu Oilport, to where there was no longer any access in case of unholy disturbance from the local Birding Club. He explained that they mostly feed around forestry flotsam and jetsam, industrial logging operations and such, and like Purple Sandpipers are very difficult to see.

Needless to stay we didn't, but along with the very weird sight, even for Finns, of a cuddly Giant Panda suspended on a nearby gallows, we did see our only Little Tern for the trip, Turnstone (2); Ringed Plover (10); Temminck's Stint (3); Shelduck (2); plus our first drake Long-tailed Duck, Robin and Tree Pipit.

Now for the owls said Markku on our return to our trusty VW Transporter and at 1030, somewhere near Ylikiiminki, we were all enthralled by the sight of four young Pygmy Owls, being sat upon by their perfectly relaxed mother. Many photos, all exactly the same were taken and then we trudged happily back to the van, disturbing a Green Hairstreak butterfly on the way. Black Woodpeckers at their nearby nesthole with two vociferous young were soon giving us great views as midday saw us arriving at a guaranteed Tengmalm's Owl site somewhere around Jokikylä. Well at least they were the day before when the three young had been in the nestbox, but when we had arrived they had flown. Luckily Markku soon located one young bird nearby and eagle-eyed JW, found another on an adjacent tree. We all had superb views.

Pehr Gustav Tengmalm (1754-1803) was born in Stockholm on 29 June 1754 and although the family was poor his parents made sure he had a good education. He studied medicine at Uppsala University and found time to study birds, Tawny Owl (strix aluco) in particular and published a paper called utkast til uggelslägtets, i synnerhet de svenska arternas, naturalhistoria in 1793.

J.F.Gmelin named the owl strix Tengmalmi in 1788, believing Tengmalm had been the first to distinguish it, but it had been described and colour plates drawn of it by Olof Rudbeck of Uppsala, who sent them to Linnaeus in 1746, even before Tengmalm was born. So really it should be called Rudbeck's Owl and anyway most of Scandinavia/ and Russia knows it as the 'Pearly Owl', which is a much better description.

An hour later we were cautiously approaching a nest site for Ural Owl, known in Sweden as the Slaguggla, (the Punch or Hit Owl) for very good reason. Enraged parents go for your eyes first, especially when their young are about to fledge and fully-sighted Ural Owl ringers who wish to remain that way, only approach their nest sites in fully padded combat gear, gauntlets and motorcycle helmets with the visor firmly snapped down over their faces. So you can imagine our trepidation as we looked at the two young birds in their classic many holed 'chimney' nest, from a very respectful distance.

Obviously this pair were 'wimps' as no attack materialised, nor did an enormous adult respond as it glided away from us at the edge of the clearing. What a bird; what a day.

On the road again at 1500 we headed for our overnight stop just north of Kuusamo, stopping off to stretch our legs beside a beautifully tranquil bog and lake. 'Grey-headed' Yellow Wagtail; Green and Wood Sandpipers; a pair of Goldeneye with five chicks and two Greenshanks entertained us in the early evening light, as once more we thanked our lucky stars for deciding to come to this wonderful country.

We reached our Finnature pre-booked accommodation, namely the Kaukosaari Holiday cabins in Ala-Kitka at 2130. These excellent traditional Finnish wooden holiday chalets are some 35 kms north of Kuusamo and very convenient for the world-famous Valtavaara ridge and hopefully birds like Red-flanked Bluetail, Siberian Jay and Pine Grosbeak. As we drifted off to sleep a cold northerly wind set in and the temperature plummeted to near zero, but our local male Common Redstart sang on undeterred, through the midnight daylight.

Sunday June 6th

After lying-in to 0400, we soon got our act together and 0422 we pulled in to the car park on the north side of Valtavaara, full of excited expectation. I had read about this area in Gooders 'Where to Watch Birds in Europe' some 20 years ago and had always dreamt about visiting there one day; now I was doing just that. The weather was awful, low clouds, with a cold northerly wind and periods of heavy rain and the rocky, very steep and treacherous track up onto the ridge was playing havoc with my poor arthritic knees. The magic of Valtavaara was beginning to fade somewhat, in the greater interest of actually surviving the experience.

Happily the track eventually levelled out and dropped down to a beautiful lake, complete with picnic area and shelter from the now persistent rain, in one of the many hiking refuges, so thoughtfully constructed all over northern Finland. No sign of any Bluetails of course, but on producing a supply of sliced smoked sausage from my pocket, the local pair of Siberian Jays soon materialised from the other side of the lake and began calling, almost begging to be fed one of their favourite delicacies. We had amazing views down to a couple of feet. They were eating one and then flying back with the next to their nest nearby and as we left a singing Green Sandpiper flew in and the Sibe Jays were still availing themselves of their unexpected bonus.

Typical English woodland birds such as Goldcrests; Song Thrush; Dunnock; Great Spotted Woodpecker and Robin were added to our growing list as we made carefully negotiated the steep descent back to the car park; the strange song of Black-throated Diver, echoing through the pines.

The feeding station at the car park produced several surprises, including the arrival of an identical Hertz minibus containing Peter Antrobus ((Tripod), John Gregory (Gregsy) and other posh Cheshire listers, in a crew on the same itinerary as us. Needless to say we exchanged abundant profanities and as much dis-information as possible, before wishing each other good luck, but obviously not as much as we would wish for ourselves. Extremely handsome 'borealis' Willow Tits and 'northern' Bullfinches were on the feeders and our first Eurasian Jay flew across the road, but we had sadly 'dipped' on Bluetail.

Not 20 minutes later, our spirits and the weather lifted considerably, as we drove slowly down yet another forest track in search of another mega-bird. Markku assured us that both adults and at least two young would be present, although the male who usually perched on the most prominent and highest tree stump, could well be sheltering from the rain somewhere. A broken tree was soon scoped and the back of a superb female Hawk Owl could be clearly seen. Presumably sat upon the young ones.

We scanned around the absolutely typical habitat of clear-felled forest for the next 30 minutes, adding six Wheatears; Brambling; Tree Pipits; Redwings and Siskins in the process. A Green Sandpiper display flighted and Goldeneye and Tufted Ducks whistled overhead; all very nice but no sign of our most wanted. None of us were prepared to tick probably our most desired Palearctic lifer on the partial views of the female, deciding that it was the full bird or nowt . Somewhat disappointed we began packing our scopes and gear away into the back the van, vowing to return as many times as it took to get the proper views we desired.

As I was about to shut the huge tailgate, Barry exclaimed "my god I think I see it !" and pointed to a tall dead tree some 200 metres distant. Sure enough, there sat the male Hawk Owl in all his glory, shaking the rain off his feathers and preparing to resume his postponed parental duties. We gorged ourselves on spectacular views, giving homage to the one bird that we had all dreamt about seeing. He flew closer, with a stylish upwards swoop like a Golden Oriole to land with contemptuous ease not 50 metres away from us, on the very tip of another broken tree trunk.

Nothing else mattered now as we reluctantly retraced our steps to the main E63, the Via Karelia, which runs down the eastern axis of Finland all the way from northern Lapland to the south-eastern lake district. However, we were not yet finished with owls as Markku guided us to another good site at Nissinjärvi, south of Ruka. Turning off into a large camping area, we somehow managed to park right next to our first Siberian Tit, foraging on a tree trunk like a Nuthatch.

More Bramblings and Siskins later, we scrambled up a wooded slope to overlook a gorge, on the opposite side of which sat a hugely impressive Eagle Owl. What a bird; the size of a small horse and the ultimate predator. It apparently kills anything from a medium-sized Reindeer and Capercaillie to other owls and birds of prey. One of the reasons suggested by the Finns as to why locally breeding raptors such as Rough-legged and Honey Buzzards often keep a very low profile, is because you would also do so, if this terrifyingly efficient avian 'velociraptor', came looking for you and your loved ones. Apparently 25-30 pairs live in the Kuusamo area, but like all owls they are usually impossible to find.

After taking our fill of the big 'un, Markku suggested that we should not miss a visit to the Oulanka National Park, some 40 km north. Accepting without reservation that Markku knew best we headed northwards on the good old E63 once more to Kayla, then took a right on a dirt road towards the park headquarters and its excellent nature centre (luontokeskus).

Oulanka National Park is one of 3,245 protected areas in the country, many of which were established on state-owned lands in 1992 and is managed by Metsähallitus. Forming part of a transfrontier conservation area with Pannajärvi NP in Russian Karelia,

Oulanka NP was established in 1956 and is 270 km2 in area. One of the most bio-diverse regions in Finland it has a unique mixture of eastern, northern and southern flora and fauna, including Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) and Calypso Orchids (calypso bulbosa) - the park's symbol - plus Brown Bears, Siberian Jays, Siberian Tits, Pine Grosbeak and in good vole years, the Rough-legged Buzzard is the commonest raptor.

We had seven Waxwings overhead in the car park and a Mealy Redpoll fed on the edge of the gravel with 15 plus Siskins. The wide Oulankajoki River, flows part the park HQ and eventually after some 150 km into the White Sea in Russia. Apparently it is a fabulous fishing water and Oulanka fishing flies are world renowned, especially made to attract the local trout (salmo trutta lacustris), aka 'the king of the rushing waters' by local Finns.

It should also be awarded another important accolade. The home-made Cinnamon buns on sale for 80 cents in the visitor centre café are world-class and are gastronomically far superior to any of the other 1032 cinnamon buns we purchased elsewhere in Cinnamonbunland (aka Finland) that week.

Suitably refreshed, our attention was drawn by PT to all three species of flycatcher, hawking insects along the opposite river bank, in the lee of the bitterly cold northerly wind now blowing from the Arctic. We managed to get on both Spotted and Pied, but not the male Red-breasted, which certain individuals ungraciously suggested he may well have 'strung' after seeing a Robin. After this stringing incident we pressed on in the pouring miserable rain and low cloud towards the end of the now very greasy road and the Russian Border itself. This was the only occasion when the van's 4WD capabilities came into their own.

A simple red and yellow striped barrier across the road signified the border zone and in the distance, over the ranks of conifers, we could see a Russian watchtower and imagined eagle-eyed guards sizing us up through the telescopic sights of their long range Kalashnikov sniper's rifles, daring us to put just one step across the border, into the realm of the Russian bear.

In less than ten seconds we were taking photographs of each other invading this tiny part of Russia, secure in the knowledge that not only was the watchtower unmanned, but as the main priority of the Border Patrol is to stop Russians illegally invading the EU's backdoor, stopping seven UK birders pretending that they were being extremely daring, was unlikely to be on their must-do list for the day.

Lunacy over for the moment, we retraced our route, stopping off at the world's remotest café at Neidonkenka for more addictive cinnamon bun intake and close-up views of five spikes of the fabulous Calypso Orchid. There had been up to 20 so spikes a few days earlier, until some unspeakable soulless idiot had dug them up.

The feeder here was full of birds in the cold weather with Common Rosefinch (4 birds with 3 cracking males), superb male Brambling, five Bullfinches, Great Tit, Blue Tit, 30 plus Siskins and Great Spotted Woodpecker. The posh Cheshire listers (aka NoSeeum Hazelhens) also turned up and yet more unintelligible birding banter was indulged in. We left them to the lure of the cinnamon buns and headed back down the switchback road and civilization, stopping off at several regular Rustic Bunting sites without any success.

Passing through a particularly dense stretch of forest at Kotaniemi, Markku indicated that I should pull over, as this particular area was a favourite for Hazelhens. At this time of year they are particularly elusive; the females on eggs and the males hanging around in small groups trying to be invisible. But if you 'don't get out you don't see nowt' so we set off behind Markku through the dense spruce forest, more in hope than expectation.

After 30 minutes of scrambling over 200 years of dead and decaying trees, we came to the edge of a small ravine. Markku suddenly heard them ahead and as we all crouched down, he blew his magic Hazelhen hunter's whistle several times. One male replied almost immediately and very close; then a whirr of wings and there it was, sat right out in the open on a branch, not ten feet above our head. Then, as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone.

As they are considered a delicacy right across their range from Scandinavia, through Russia to China and are thereby very intensively hunted, surely you would think that they would have cottoned on to the old magic whistle trick by now but seemingly not.

The drive southwards, down the E63 towards Kuusamo was almost an anti-climax. After all, apart from Great Grey Owl, (which was to be found nesting near Oulu six hours after we left for home) and Red-flanked Bluetail, we had seen all of our desired target birds. After a continuous 48 hours of stake-outs, we could now almost afford to relax and do some 'proper' birding, but first would you now like to see breeding plumaged Red-necked Grebe and Willow Grouse said Markku.

At Tolpianiemmi, just southeast of Kuusamo centre, we found ourselves scanning the large windswept vastness of Kuusamojärvi in a bitter northerly wind. A pair of nest-building Red-necked Grebes was soon obvious and a fine Black-throated Diver was close inshore. Hundreds of Sand Martins and other hirundines were skimming low for whatever insect sustenance they could find; a Grey-headed Wagtail was feeding on a small island and other birds seen included Ringed Plover (3), Wood Sandpiper, Common Sandpiper, Wigeon and Teal.

Ten minutes was all we could take in the now squally freezing weather, so we turned our attentions to a small heathery, wooded area, next to a nearby housing estate. Despite our reservations and within five seconds of playing the tape an angry male Willow Grouse replied and came hurtling towards us, to repel the invader. Like our Red Grouse, but with snow-white underparts like a Ptarmigan, he gave us very close and superb views, perched on the top of a nearby low bush, glowering about to see who had dared to challenge him. Good one to get on your front room tick list.

We called in at a nearby Little Bunting site, again without success as like Rustics the females were on eggs and the males keep a very low profile. However, we did add Kestrel, Meadow Pipit and Whinchat to our growing trip list and another two Waxwings flew over. Markku suggested we finish off his guiding by dropping him off for the 1800 bus to Oulu, which took three hours, but not before he took us to see one of his Siberian Tit nest boxes. After a few minutes we all had excellent views of an adult with food visiting the box.

He had also taken time out to mark out our map with several good sites in the Kuusamo area, including an often more reliable Red-flanked Bluetail breeding area at the Iivaara ridge, some 50 km southwest of Kuusamo and bogs for both Jack Snipe and Broad-billed Sandpiper. We thanked him profusely for all his help, shook hands and wishing all well he departed on the express bus to Oulu. We were now on our own.

One site he had marked was the lintutorno at Antinperä, just east of the E63, so we stopped in on the way back and as way of a change, found ourselves looking across a huge boggy lake. The usual suspects of Greenshank, Temminck's Stint, Spotted Redshank (4), Osprey (3), Curlew (2) and Whooper Swan (30) were noted and on the way back to the van along the boardwalk, a Capercaillie's nest with seven hen-like eggs was obvious right next to the track, under a bush. How we had missed it on the way down, god only knows.

At the end of what was an extremely full day, we wandered the back roads in the evening light towards Ruka and came across a grassy field with seven displaying Black Grouse, our first and only Mistle Thrush and near our cabins a superb grey-brown Arctic Hare bounded across the road in front of us; the perfect end to the perfect day.

Monday June 7th

I swear the alarm on my mobile went off as soon as my head touched the pillow, as at 0309 we were up and ready for action. By 0415 we were in the car park at Iivaara ridge, some 40 km south-west of Kuusamo, having already glimpsed a hunting Merlin and a Hazelhen at the roadside. Our instructions told us to head across the bridge over the marsh and up to the top of the ridge and as the track turns 90 degrees right, head straight on for some 500 metres until we reached a noticeable break in the forest and then 150 metres further on, the Bluetail would be singing from the top of tall mature spruces.

We did just that to find that the clearly defined track ended in a boggy marsh, with no clear break in sight; obviously Markku had given us some 'duff gen' and after half-an-hour of wandering around like lost souls, with little else than a singing male Brambling for company, we headed back to the top of the ridge and slumped down dejectedly.

However within ten minutes 'Lady Luck' was soon to smile upon us again big time, when several voices were heard ascending the main track below us and a small animated party of brightly coloured birders arrived, led by our larger than life hero; one Olli Lamminsalo, proprietor of Kuusamo Bird Touring Ltd for guided twitching, birdtours and photo safaris.

"Would you like to follow me to see the singing Red-flanked Bluetail, that I have seen and heard five times already in the past week ?" he inquired in a loud confident voice, his massive six foot six frame looming over us.

We looked at each other in shock and awe, but being a very strange and perversely stubborn bunch, we thanked him for his kind offer, but replied that we much preferred to find the bird for ourselves!15 long minutes later, we were standing below the tall spruces listening to the wonderfully evocative song of the Bluetail and then soon scoping him on a variety of lofty song posts, on the very top of the tallest trees. He was a fantastic full adult male, apparently the best-plumaged bird in the Kuusamo area this year and only one of half-a-dozen singing males at three locations. They nest amongst the roots of the tall spruces, but as this was the very edge of their Palearctic range, some years no females turn up, due to adverse weather conditions en-route from their winter quarters in SE Asia.

We spent a good hour taking it all in as 'Olli the Bluetail Giver' replayed his CD over and over, until we were all happily Bluetailed to near death, whereupon we made our way back up towards the summit again; altogether a much easier, although more enclosed experience than Valtavaara the day previously. The descent to the car park was also much better on my arthritic knees.

A singing Little Bunting in the willow scrub by the bridge, although only glimpsed by some, was nice, although nowhere near as nice as lashings of celebratory butties and drinks, greedily and rapidly consumed after four hours on the mountains.

Now for some gull ID, eagerly anticipated by the larid officianados on our team, of which I am definitely not one. Happily, besides the 2nd year Glaucous Gull, 3rd year 'Siberian Gull' hueglini/taimyrensis, Great Black-backed Gulls (6 plus), definite Baltic Gulls (15) and many Herring Gulls of the Fenno-Scandinavian omissus type (see trip list for fuller ID details) hanging around the usual noxious landfill area at Kuusamo Tip, a party of seven Red-necked Phalaropes dropped in on the gull's ablution pool, along with two Wood Sandpipers and a Greenshank with small parties of Tufted and Goldeneye also sharing the pool. Although Glaucous Gulls nest on the northern Siberian coast some 300/400 km northeast of Kuusamo, beyond the White Sea, they are quite rare inland, with only one or two immatures a season recorded here on migration between April and June.

Our next site suggested by Markku, was another enormous boggy peatland at Kurkijärvi, not 15 km from the tip. We decided to risk walking out on the mire in the squally sleet showers and were duly rewarded with close-up views of two immaculate drake Smew, amongst many other of the usual duck species such as Goldeneye, Tufted, Wigeon and Teal. Our only Whimbrel flew over calling as the usual Wood Sands displayed; altogether a superb place amongst thousands of similar superb places. We also had at least five Grey-headed Wagtails, our first Common Sandpiper, three Crossbills and a Black-throated Diver, plus a very striking adult 'northern' Golden Plover, probably on nest guarding duty.

Calling in at the Valtavaara car park again, we listened hard for the Wren like song of Greenish Warbler, that we may have 'strung' as a Wren the day before. No luck, but the feeder was busy with the comings and goings of the usual Siberian Jays (2), Brambling, Willow Tit, Bullfinches (2) and Great Spotted Woodpecker. Another quick return visit to Antinperä enabled SJ to see the female Capercaillie on her nest before we decided to return to our cabins at Kaukosaari for R&R.

The new lintutorni here is apparently one of the best 360 degrees watchpoints on the overland migration route from the Gulf of Bothnia to the White Sea and the log had records of recent Steppe Eagle, flocks of Scoters and a party of Long-tailed Skuas. Needless to say all we had of note in a half-hour sampling was a migrating kettle of 30 plus Black-headed Gulls, a beautiful drake Smew and our first Spotted Flycatcher.

The late evening saw us heading off for one of the best sites we visited, at Ahvenjärvi; an enormous boggy mire (surprise, surprise), some 5 km long by 3 km wide, northwest from Ruka on the E63, turning off left onto a dirt road just past the Koramoniemi parking area.We even managed to find a reasonable parking place and donning wellies, we set off to explore, what looked like a fabulous place in the bright evening sunshine.

Ahvenjärvi was all we expected and more, with displaying Broad-Billed Sandpiper and Jack Snipe as 'song' ticks, a huge female Goshawk hunting not 200 metres from us across the bog, ten Wood Sandpipers and even a nest found, Green Sandpiper, up to a dozen Greenshanks, five summer-plumaged Spotted Reds, seven Temminck's Stints, ten Ringed Plover, two Ruff, a pair of 'bugling' Common Cranes, a solitary Common Snipe, plus singing Bramblings and Fieldfares. Just magic. We stayed for almost two hours just absorbing the sights and sounds before reluctantly dragging ourselves away. Happily, because of the cold northerly wind the mossies were not a problem, but I would not want to imagine what it would be like on a warm evening any time now.

A brief visit to the Hawk Owl site again on the way 'home' gave us superb views of the male sat up high at midnight and chiding us for disturbing him again. We had been once and that was all we were allocated, so sod off! A singing Greenshank was perched on the very top of a nearby conifer and the whole experience of 24 hrs birding in Finland, after all we had been on the go since 0315, was beginning to take on a life-changing importance. Certainly, none of us had expected it to be quite as good as this.

Tuesday June 8th

An early hours birdwalk to the other side of the causeway at Kaukosaari, produced several night songsters, including Whinchat, Reed Bunting and a superbly handsome, black, white and chestnut male Rustic Bunting. Attracted by its beautiful, yet unrecognisable song I was able to get within 50 metres of this new lifer, for me at least, singing his heart out at 0122 in the midnight sunlight. I drifted happily of to sleep knowing that we had a lie in until 0700.

Another beautiful sunny morning as we bade goodbye to our wooden cabins, complete with sauna, shower and all facilities and also Ruka and Kuusamo, which had been our home for the past 48 hours, or should that be weeks. We set off for Oulu, glimpsing yet another Three-toed Woodpecker flying across the road and less than two hours later, we were pulling into the car park at Särkkamminselkä NR and yet another lintuotorni.

Another peaty vastness with myriads of small pools was laid out before us and we soon got onto one of the special birds breeding here; again one of Markku's recommended sites. A fierce adult Great Grey Shrike was perched up the top of on a tall tree and Woodlark (2), Common Crane (2), Grey-headed Wagtails (2), adult Peregrine Falcon, Ravens, Meadow Pipits and the usual Pied Flycatcher and Wood Sandpipers were also noted on our brief visit, but not the regular Golden Eagles from nesting in the forests just to the north. The area also looked ideal for Hobby and Honey Buzzard.

At 1100 we checked in again at Liminganlahti Reserve near Oulu, having reserved two rooms at 10 Euros each person for our last night. The usual male Ortolan was still singing from the power cables near the Visitor Centre and I just had time to chat with the resident warden. He confirmed the absence of Yellow-breasted Buntings, only a single male turning up in 2003, but did tell me about a pair of Red-footed Falcons nesting nearby.

But first we decided to do some seawatching from Marjaniemi, right at the very westernmost tip of Hailuoto Island in Liminiki Bay and the Gulf of Bothnia. The FREE ferry ride took 22 minutes and by 1345 we had set up our scopes under the new windmills on the breakwater at Marjaniemi and scanned the Gulf of Bothnia for its famous seabird and wildfowl passage. Rather, some of our seawatching devotees did. I sensibly sat out of the chilly northwesterly on the open tailgate of the van, eating my butties and watching the resident pair of Arctic Terns, especially the female, trying to remove the heads of all who ventured too close to her nest scrape.

She was no fool, soon recognising that it was only our two 'nest' photographers who posed any real threat to her nest. As soon as these particular interlopers appeared from the relative safety of the van's open tailgate, she set about them furiously, with or without their cameras and the rest of us were left in peace. Excellent stuff.

A regular but not amazing list of passing birds was shouted out by our seawatchers which included Velvet and Common Scoters, a single Black Guillemot; Long tailed-Ducks; Arctic, Common and one huge Caspian Tern; good numbers of Goosander, Red-breasted Merganser, Goldeneye and Tufted Ducks; Black-throated Diver and a single moulting adult Kittiwake, which turned out to be a Finnish rarity, as they only nest in the very south of the Baltic and nowhere near Finland.

After two hours we called it a day and set off back down Hailuoto's only major road towards the ferry landing. A diversion southwards brought us out on the Gulf of Bothnia again, which presumably because of all the ice melting into it, is only partially saline. This probably explained the abundance of freshwater ducks, nesting on the shoreline and also the nest of a Common Sandpiper right next to that of a Yellowhammer, just above the beach itself with Tree Pipit and Northern Wheatears. The ferry terminal produced our first of only two Oystercatchers of the trip and hordes of freshwater ducks. Various small offshore islets scoped on the ferry journey produced our only two Knot, Turnstones, the very scarce Cormorant (5) and Greylag Geese (10). Incidentally, Hailuoto is one of only two places in Europe where Greylag have been recorded nesting in trees.

Back on the mainland we stopped only briefly, before making our way to the former peat workings at Hirvineva south of Liminganlahti to look for the reported Redfoots. Although one had been seen earlier we didn't coincide with them, but as the whole area was teeming with dragonflies and hirundines , we had very good views of at least three different Hobbies hunting and perched, plus three more Ortolans in song, two Whinchats and a bonus pair of Waxwings, seen well through the scopes. Spotted Red, Common and Wood Sands and a displaying Greenshank made up the usual wader interest.

The day and most of our remaining beer was finished of in the evening at the superb lintutorni at Liminganlahti, where all the usual fare was recorded including; 28 Great Crested Grebes; four Black-throated Divers; 100 plus Whoopers, 19 Common Crane; four drake Smew, four drumming Common Snipe; three Marsh Harriers, four scarce breeding Blackwits; ten plus Spotted Reds; a pair of Curlews with four chicks; our second and last Oystercatcher; plus the only sighting of Short-eared Owl. Happy and suitably imbibed, we turned in for our last night at the very early hour of 2230 hours.

Wednesday June 9th

Our last day in Finland; with the absolute need to get to Tampere airport, 500 km to the south by 2000, meant that we were up and out by 0700 after enjoying an excellent breakfast at the reserve centre. After two hours on the road we stopped off overlooking a nice lake at Pihtipudos for coffee and buns plus singing Wood Warbler, Pied Flycatchers, Garden and Sedge Warblers and Common Rosefinch.

We picked up Jouni from his house at 1245 and set off to find our first target bird in the Tampere area. At Sinivudren (luonnonpuisto - nature reserve) we drove some back roads and then parked up. Within five minutes of playing its song a few times, a displaying, parachuting Greenish Warbler was singing its heart, coming very close over our heads and determined to out-sing our cassette-player. I had close views of a male Three-toed Woodpecker nearby and Chiffchaff, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers also put in an appearance.

A beautiful river and a meadow with scattered bushes just behind Orivesi railway station was our next venue. Again the tape was invaluable as within a few minutes of playback a superb Blyth's Reed Warbler was giving his all to see off the intruder. Unfortunately, the Brick (JD) suffered from an unexplainable attack of Dupont's syndrome and was totally unable to get on the bird, which although skulking, did give excellent views at times, right out in the open. However, we did return later to lay that particular bogey and to allow him to fully tick a new lifer. Our first Blackcap and Whitethroat were also seen and heard, along with the usual Thrush Nightingale, Spotted and Pied Flycatcher, Garden Warbler and even our first Goldfinch of the trip.

Dupont's syndrome is so called after the fantastically difficult experiences one of our crew had in seeing Dupont's Lark in Sepulveda, Spain in 2003. It is probably brought on by new tick over-excitement, causing target-bird blindness in the sufferer and can only be really remedied by perserverance and the support of one's fellow birders. Happily, as in Spain, this remedy worked successfully on this occasion too.

Grey-headed Woodpeckers had been heard calling and seen on territory that morning at Säynäniemi, not two km away, so although it was now mid-afternoon, we decided to try for a lifer for most. Despite trying the tape once or twice we not too surprisingly had no luck. However, a noisy pair of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers were nesting right next to the road giving us the best ever views of a usually unobtrusive bird. A feeding Wryneck was flushed from a track by the lake and several Wood Warblers trilled amongst the usual Pied and Spotted Flycatchers.

Still no Icterine or Marsh Warblers, although Jounni told us that they were available in the Tampere area, along with River Warblers and this year both Spotted and Little Crakes. However we were running out of time and decided to make just one last stop on the way back to Tampere.

The dead-end dirt road to Palo, just off the E63 was a nice finish to our Finnish trip, as we scoped a dandy male Red-backed Shrike on a pile of brushwood in the middle of a field. Finland still has 30 - 40,000 pairs of this wonderful bird, which has sadly declined to extinction in our impoverished UK countryside, although the reasons are probably to do with climatic change as well as habitat and land-use changes.

We dropped Jounni off at 1900 and thanking him for producing the goods so well for us, we reluctantly set off to the airport. After seeing 160 species in five almost 24-hour days, we were all extremely content, vowing to return to this fantastically diverse, friendly country as soon as possible.

Contacts and info/websites,etc

1/ Do yourself a massive favour and book the services of a Finnature guide, or better still let them organise all your inward-bound itinerary. It was worth every penny and I doubt if we would have seen any of the target species without them, particularly the northern owls and woodpeckers.

Contact them via www.finnature.com

2/ www.ryanair.com for the birder's favourite airline.

3/ www.tarsiger.com for excellent up to date Finnish bird news.

4/ www.kuusamobirds.net for Olli Lamminsalo's great site and guiding.

5/ www.ruka.fi and www.kuusamo.fi for tourist info.

6/ www.hailuoto.fi for info on the island off Oulu.

7/ www.birdlife.fi for more bird info.

8/ www.metsa.fi for Finland's equivalent of the Forestry Commission.

9/ www.surfbirds.com for everything.

Separate complete illustrated systematic listing of Birds, Butterflies, Flora and Mammals is currently being compiled and like this interim trip report, will be available very soon on surfbirds.com

Reading material, maps and Finnish for birders.

By far the best maps we found are the 1: 200 000 GT Genimaps, which are almost equivalent to the UK Ordnance Survey. Not cheap at Euros 15 and available at most larger foodstops/petrol stations and town bookshops, 18 maps cover the entire country, but they are worth every penny. An even larger scale 1: 100 000 walking and hiking map which is available in the larger bookshops and Kuusamo TIC also covers the Kuusamo area.

Plenty of trip reports on the web, but I would also recommend the Lonely Planet Finland Guide and Suomalainen Lintu-Opas, a new photographic guide to Finnish Birds, by Lasse J. Laine. Published in 2002 in Finnish , you can still easily work out the status, range, population and occurrence/migration period from the superb maps and graphics on every page and the bird pics are stunning too.

Nordens Fåglar, Scandinavia's Birds, is a superb book giving the full status and occurrence of the Birds of Norway, Sweden and Finland. Although in Swedish, it has excellent maps and text, which can be understood quite well with a little effort and practice.

If you can get hold of it in the Oulu/ Kuusamo area; I got mine from the Oulanka NP Visitor Centre, a very handy little book is the Hiker's Dictionary / Vaellussanasto, which is a multiple English/Finnish/German Dictionary and gives all the bird, plant and tree names.

Although the Finnish language looks very difficult to pronounce and somewhat unintelligible to we monolingual Brits, like everything it becomes easier as you try. The Finns, aware that their language is akin to Martian for most us, certainly appreciate it if you do. You see ä in almost every word, just remember it is pronounced almost as an e, as in met; so Sodankylä for example is Sodankyle.

Hello is Hei ( pronounced Heh) and Goodbye is Hei Hei (Heh Heh) , preferably not always followed by "it's the Monkees" , as was the case on many of our exchanges with the locals.

Thank you is Kiitos (keetos), very much is paljon (palyon).

You're welcome is Ole Hyvä (Olly hoova)

How are you is Mitä kuuluu (meeta kooloo)

"mina rakastan sinwa" means "I love you" and we take no responsibility whatsoever for its use, which is solely at your risk and discretion. We said it to Markku on several occasions, particularly at the Hawk Owl site, but he is yet to accept one of our several proposals of marriage.

Report compiled by John Bannon on behalf of the Southport Birders, aka, "the Bakerboyys"

Please also see our BLOG, "2004 Reports from Mount Baker" on surfbirds