As our plane approached Ivalo airport, almost one hundred and fifty miles inside the Arctic Circle, it was clear from the widespread snow and still frozen lakes, that spring was indeed late arriving this year. Driving north to Inari, the bilingual place names indicated that this was Lapland, home of the Sami Reindeer herders. Try Buoiddesguollejávrrit for size! It wasn’t long before we bumped into our first roadside Reindeer, with large chocolate brown eyes and creamy white fur coats. In fact this was to become a daily sight throughout the tour. Smew and Whooper Swan, confined to small areas of open water, were early birds en route to our hotel in Inari, where the grounds produced the first of many handsome male Bramblings, wearing glossy black hoods, as well as Fieldfare, Pied Flycatcher, Siskin and Red Squirrel, all from the dining room window. The Lemmenjoki river, racing past the back of the hotel, was a swollen torrent of raging white water, spilling into the adjacent trees, due to the late spring thaw, producing the biggest floods in fifty three years according to our local guide Martti Rikkonen.
Martti began his guided tour with a walk through a fairy tale forest of lichen-encrusted pines, gnarled by over five hundred frozen winters. With snow still falling even now at the end of May, this was the perfect setting for a really close encounter with a trio of super Siberian Jays, flashing brilliant rust-red tails as they hopped about, foraging on the forest floor. After lunch, Martti led us to Toivoniemi, where a hugely swollen river reminiscent of the Ouse Washes, pushed Greenshank, Temminck’s Stint, Wood and Common Sandpipers and Wheatear right up to the sides of the causeway track. The still wintry looking bushes offered refuge to Bluethroats and Yellow Wagtails of the grey-headed Fenno-Scandinavian race, while a scan of the open water yielded numerous Little Gulls, as a Short-eared Owl floated over the nearby pines. Approaching a tall observation tower, hoping for the elusive Pine Grosbeak, we immediately had two immature males in our path at point blank range. They ignored our close proximity and continued to peck at the ground while we all enjoyed excellent views of their ripening orange coloration. They then moved to a hanging feeder alongside Brambling, Siskin, and a stonking northern Bullfinch.
Today we hit the long and lonely road north, bound for the coast of Norway. Within just a few miles of Inari we clocked up Reindeer, Mountain Hare and an Elk, feeding beside the road, long enough for us all to get out of the vehicle for a better look at this massive horse-sized deer. All this before 9am! A little further we made an emergency stop for a hen Capercaillie, sensibly standing at the roadside before crossing behind our vehicle. At our next scheduled stop, a roadside café with feeders outside, we had really close views of more Bramblings, Siskins, another Siberian Jay, Red Squirrel and stunning Waxwings feasting on breaking willow buds, with Bluethroat, Greenshank and Wood Sandpiper on the nearby bog and all close enough to fill the scope. Further north, beyond the range of the pine forest, the partially frozen lakes gave us Common and Velvet Scoters, Red-breasted Merganser and an elegant fly past by our first Long-tailed Skuas. We were now on the tundra, and time for the ten layer challenge, in a bid to keep out the arctic breeze. Following a track to the Skalluvaara Reindeer round up village, our route was eventually cut off by ravines eaten into the dirt track, by fast flowing melt water, so we covered the last mile or so on foot. This gave us the chance to warm up and enjoy unbeatable views of numerous singing Bluethroats, a very white Arctic Redpoll, and the unusual sight of a Willow Warbler searching for food on snow! Equally memorable was the pale body of a Rough-legged Buzzard drifting across the snow covered fell.
Contrary to the norm when heading east, we traveled back in time by one hour on entering Norway. We were now at the legendary Varanger Fjord, where our first stop netted five smart drake Steller’s Eiders, real peaches, dabbling alongside their much larger Common cousins. Golden Plovers and both light and dark phase Arctic Skuas became commonplace from now on as we followed this fabulously productive coastline, where the arching slate grey back of a Minke Whale, barely three hundred yards out added further excitement to our day.
We were woken by brilliant sunshine streaming into our north facing room around 4am making it hard to resist some birding from the window, where top ticks included Steller’s Eider, Red-necked Phalarope, Arctic Skua, Arctic Tern, Raven and Mountain Hare! After a smorgasbord breakfast including pickled herrings and smoked salmon at our hotel on Vadsø Island, we explored the adjacent nature reserve with Redwing in full song. We soon pinpointed one of our target species for this site, the Red-throated Pipit, which gave plum views of its rosy apple throat and breast at very close range, while at least twenty dainty little Red-necked Phalaropes were busy twirling on the pool. Bluish Mountain Hares also showed well, as did numerous Purple Sandpipers and a reddening Curlew Sandpiper alongside some very approachable Dunlin. Further east along the coast at Saltjern, two Ruff in full breeding regalia were a nice appetizer to a feast of waders totaling eleven different species in breeding plumage, including Temminck’s Stint, Dunlin, Red-necked Phalarope, Ringed Plover, Curlew and Purple Sandpipers, Turnstone, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Bar-tailed Godwit and an impressive flock of about one hundred salmon red Knot. Onward to the cliffs of Ekkerøy with twenty thousand pairs of Kittiwakes, minus one unfortunate individual seen with only its yellow beak and white head poking out of the beak of a marauding Raven! It was here we saw our first White-tailed Eagle fly past while Lapland Buntings performed parachuting song flights. Along the low rocky shore we spotted not only drake Steller’s Eider, but also the King with its superb psychedelic face painting pattern of red, orange, green, black, white and powder blue. Feeling very pleased with our day, we had barely gone half a mile back to Vadsø, when a large standing ‘stone’ down by the shore, not far from the road turned out to be an adult White-tailed Eagle, so we all piled out to scope this bulky but majestic bird with its blonde head feathers and powerful yellow bill. Eventually it flew low along the shore followed by an entourage of Hooded Crow mobsters. Try picking one star bird out of that lot! Back at the hotel it was still bright and sunny well after midnight.
Still heading east along the fjord, we had to stop for a family of four White-tailed Eagles, just hanging around, followed by another adult, perched on a low rock overlooking a pool with a Pintail and six Whoopers practising their synchronized swimming routine. Nearby we knew of an eyrie, and pulled off the road for a closer look. There was an adult tending a small downy white youngster. As we watched through the scope, the other parent set a flight path for the nest with food in its talons, and landed right on cue. A breath taking sight, with a huge wow factor.
Beyond Vardø, the narrow road twists between pinnacles of bare grey rock. It was here we spotted the pale grey dashing Gyr Falcon, in aerial combat with a pair of Hooded Crows. Finding a bundle of twigs tucked into an inaccessible crevice, we staked out the nest hoping for another view of the charismatic falcon. But then we realized it was the crows’ nest and we had been had. In this inhospitable northern landscape of bare rock bar a few stunted birches still in winter’s grip, Ring Ouzel and even Willow Warbler were singing. We had good views of Redstart and the now daily Bluethroat was always a delight to watch, singing here from rocky points. A stiff wind and heavy swell thwarted our search for White-billed Diver, but we did find a couple more magnificently dressed King Eiders among small rafts of queens and first summer princes, while a pair of exquisite Black-throated Divers showed very well in one of the few sheltered bays. At Hamningberg, a remote little cluster of weather-beaten wooden buildings, with gleaming white Gannets out to sea, snazzy black and white Snow Buntings fluttered about unflustered by our presence.
Vardø, the easternmost town in Norway, and further east even than Istanbul, is approached via a long tunnel under the sea, giving it an end of the world feel. Over dinner, several short but fierce driving blizzards and a heavy grey sky added to the sense of desolation enjoyed by this outpost of civilization, but an Otter swimming across the harbour helped to brighten the gloom. An Otter at dinner time and then Long-tailed Duck, Red-necked Phalarope, Purple Sandpiper and a King Eider drake over breakfast. This really was wildlife watching in style.
It was now the first of June and looking miserable as we boarded the boat for the short but bouncy ride to Hornøya Island. By the time we arrived the weather had brightened considerably and become much milder. We stood at the foot of the cliffs, overwhelmed by the sheer bustle of activity as thousands of seabirds conducted their daily business of flapping, squawking and squabbling. Beside the Kittiwakes and glossy bottle green Shags, there were five species of Auks; Puffin, Razorbill, Common, Black and Brünnich’s Guillemots, and all close enough to smell them.
Returning westward along the shore of Varanger, we stopped again at ‘eagle city’, with at least eight sightings, including an immature bird standing right beside the road before flapping just a few yards and landing again. What a wingspan. Absolutely fabulous. That afternoon, we explored the Komagnes nature reserve. Along the track we found Whimbrel, Rough-legged Buzzard, a dust bathing Shore Lark and several male Lapland Buntings, giving great views of their black faces, rich russet napes and yellow beaks, in between parachuting song flights. Then we flushed a startled Mountain Hare, still wearing its white winter coat. As it bounded away across the tundra its ears made perfect targets for a pair of dive bombing Arctic Skuas. This was just a side show to the forthcoming main event. At the end of the track, we parked beside a small lake to look at a Long-tailed Duck and a pair of Red-throated Divers. What followed was like watching an award winning wildlife documentary, only this was the real thing. Just yards from the vehicle, we counted at least eight male Ruff, frantically performing to the smaller females, by crouching to face each other and quivering their ruffs which fanned out into circular manes below crests puffed up like bushy eye brows. Each male had its own particular pattern to the ruff and ear tufts including different combinations of black, white, white with black barring and ginger, but all had bright orange legs and mustard bare wattled faces. Alongside this remarkable frenzy of activity numerous Red-necked Phalaropes, and singing Bluethroats and Lapland Buntings tried to get in on the act so that we literally didn’t know which way to look next. Time flew and so we had to tear ourselves away from this truly amazing magical experience.
Our last full day in Norway. North of Tana Bru we waited below a line of cliffs, hoping for Gyr Falcon. Looking straight up, the unmistakable anchor shape of this buzzard sized falcon cut across the sky without a single flap before landing out of sight on the cliff top. Moving on to Hoyholmen, we were entertained by the bat-like, display flight of lightweight Temminck’ Stints, which seemed to glide by without a single wing flap while trilling like crickets. It was so calm here as we scoped the black and tan summer plumage of drake Long-tailed Ducks, before driving high onto the snow clad tundra where we soon had slimline Long-tailed Skuas in the scope, showing a delicate pale yellow colour on the neck. As well as another showy Shore Lark, more Lapland and Snow Buntings really close and a trio of Bean Geese, we had our best views here of Willow Grouse, standing motionless on the snow in the belief that they were invisible thanks to their all white bodies except for a deep rufous head and neck. Despite the snow it was pleasantly warm up here as it was both calm and sunny. On the return to Tana Bru, we just had to stop to watch a pair of Elk grazing right beside the road, just a few yards away from our vehicle. That evening at our hotel, Redwing and Willow Warbler were still singing way after midnight!
Returning to Finland by a different route to the outward journey, we called at the quaint little church at Neiden, where the garden birds were Fieldfare, Brambling, Bullfinch, a nice little Arctic Redpoll, clearly showing an unstreaked white rump and a pair of Pied Flycatchers, which apparently use the same nestbox every year. At the nearby Munkfjord nature reserve, we added Scaup to our list and even here heard a Cuckoo. After lunch in the sun on a sandy beach at Sevettijärvi, we saw more Waxwings and a well named Wood Sandpiper perched at the top of a pine tree!
Our final full day in the field was in Urho Kekkonen National Park, where a long walk by a scenic route took us to higher ground near the summit of Kiilopää. The panorama was covered in pine forest as far as the horizon in every direction. By now we were saying “just another Bluethroat”, and yet they were always so lovely to see singing so prominently, either from tree tops or even in flight. Once on the top of the ridge we soon had a male Ptarmigan in the scope. It was pure white except for the diagnostic black lores and a hint of grey on the head. It sat frozen to the spot, relying on its camouflage for safety, allowing us to approach quite close and see its thickly feathered legs. Soon after, we found our other upland quarry, not one but two Dotterel. As one appeared to be sitting on eggs we kept our distance, but the partner approached us to within twenty paces, to give us all a really close look.
With just over one hundred species now seen, it was time for the long drive south to the Arctic Circle and a group shot before our return flight from Rovaniemi. But first we had one last trick up our sleeves, at a site just outside Ivalo, on the Murmansk road. Soon after we got out of the vehicle we heard a new melody ringing clearly from the woods. Then David spotted something small in a birch tree. As we trained our bins in that direction, it flew but then alighted on the top of a small pine nearby and sang away while we trained the scopes on this lovely Little Bunting. What a great little ‘Finnish’!