Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Postcard from Finland and Norway...Crossing the Circle

Time is a ship that never drops anchor.
Sámi proverb

The journey to Kuusamo was a long adventure and included our first Reindeer sighting, Taiga Bean Geese, Common Crane  and an exciting encounter with a black Adder,  We’d begun the day with a sighting of a pair of Slavonian Grebes and towards the end of it we had sighting of at least seven nesting Red Necked Grebes, an evening that brought us many Whooper Swans, flypast Common Cranes and Muskrats in the water beneath our feet,  That evening we had almost taken over a viewing platform and I remember the look of astonishment on an elderly  local man’s face, as he was clearly more used to having this spot to himself.  Dick confirmed a distant long winged harrier as a Hen Harrier and no one was going to dispute it!  The next few days involved early mornings, great habitat, exciting species and a crossing of the Arctic Circle.

Black throated Diver and Red throated Diver sightings began to grow and how different these breeding plumaged birds appeared to our usual sightings off the Northumberland coast in winter.  Raptors included a pair of displaying Osprey, a pair of tree nesting Merlin and after a walk into the forest led by a Finnature guide, a pair of Goshawk, the female sitting on the nest.  It is the calling of the Goshawks I shall remember most of all.  It became very apparent that without the assistance of expert guides a number of species would not be found.  These guys must put in a great deal of effort and work over many years.

Tengmalm's Owl
Owls were very much still our target and after a very long drive along roads that we imagined Finnish rally drivers practicing on, we were watching Tengmalm’s Owl at the nest.  I was surprised at how small this species is.  Dick had earlier made us aware that it had been a good year for Hawk Owls and it wasn’t long before we were watching our first Hawk Owl close to the Russian border.  It was in typical habitat that we found the female first and then the male bird.  We were able to get close to the birds, but Sam and I backed off as soon as we found the male becoming agitated.  It was in this area that we searched with out success for Rustic Bunting.  Then as we drove off with me in the front of the van I caught sight of a bird fly onto the ground right in front of the vehicle and within seconds fly off.  No one else saw it and I’m not aufait with Rustic Buntings, but on reflection I am positive that is what it was as the head marking was unmistakeable, so it went on my list if not the group’ list.  Little Bunting gave a rather better and longer sighting later and a few in the group managed to find Rustic Bunting on another day.  Our second sighting of Hawk Owl was made whilst watching Siberian Jays and in fact the owl was mobbed by a jay.  The Siberian Jays were seen in close up as they flew to the ground to feed from handouts, but I preferred watching them in the trees.  I can confirm however that they liked the apple put down for them by Sam.  Siberian Tit was seen on another occasion.

Hawk Owl

Hawk Owl 

Siberian Jay

A special highlight was watching a Hawk Owl in the tree just above our heads, with Waxwings, Brambling and Wood Sandpiper in the adjacent trees.  This was indeed a memorable sighting.  The Waxwings occasionally mobbing the Hawk Owl which was one of seven that we saw during the tour.  A less successful evening was spent in a field waiting for a great Grey Owl which didn’t arrive as two bewildered Reindeer looked on.  The time was not wasted however as the light that evening was wonderful and changing patterns of light across the scene reminded me of an impressionist painting.  It was a light perhaps seen only in the UK after a thunderstorm.  It was another late evening when the sun blazed in a clear sky and I was too enchanted by the sight to close my tired eyes.

Smew, drakes so rarely seen in Northumberland, is a favourite species of mine and drakes were much in evidence on some of the pools and lakes we visited and on one occasion they were joined by seven Velvet Scoters.  I could have happily spent a whole day at any one of the many lakes we visited.  The wellingtons were on again for a late afternoon to a bog where we stood shin deep in water.  The open bog land previously visited by Killian (and it was clear he had something special in store for us) suddenly appeared as we walked through forest with the sun at our backs, and we watched the likes of Common Snipe, Ruff and a jet black Spotted Redshank as we listened to the calling Cuckoo.  This time Broad Billed Sandpiper did go on the list, as we watched them displaying over our heads and I realised what all the fuss had been about! 

Sam with Dick Forsman watching Broad Billed Sandpipers

At yet more pools I remember having Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper lined up in front of me, but it was at the sewage works where a close up Temmincks Stint stole the show and where the likes of Yellow Wagtail (thunbergi) and Rough Legged Buzzard showed so well.

Wood Sandpiper preparing to fly from top of trees 

Temminck's Stint

  I would not have visited Finland in expectation of watching a Stone Curlew, but that is exactly what happened.  It did take a bit of concentrated group concentration and some guidance from the farm owner to find this unexpected species in the large area of grassland, but find it we did.  Only one Stone Curlew in maybe 10’s to have ever been recorded in Finland and found as the farmland aromas cleared the nostrils.  Very different habitat on higher ground give us an idea of what to expect in coming days as we  found at least two pairs of Dotterel.  I understand the name Dotterel stems from the fact that this species allowed hunters of the past to approach closely, hence the name Dotterel from ‘dotty enough to allow capture’.  Our first pair certainly allowed close contact and therefore the chance of some half decent images.  Those in our group who were confused as to the sexes of the pair were soon offered clarification when the male mounted the female.  (See here for a blog at least partially inspired by these Dotterel and written by fellow participant on the tour). 



 Sam and I were rewarded with some fine sightings of Green Hairstreak Butterflies and Holly Blue Butterflies.  I also had a glimpse of in flight of an orange flash which I assumed to be a skipper type species and was later informed that it was Northern Chequered Skipper.  I hadn’t seen it well enough to really claim a sighting.  Moose was added to our growing mammal list.

Green Hairstreak Butterfly
In my opinion without doubt it is the circumstances and atmosphere that a species is found in that remains in the mind more so even than the species itself and that was very much the case with Red-flanked Bluetail.  After a rather steep climb up a well defined route we found ourselves at the foot of higher ground and pine trees as the mist dropped down over the tops of the trees.  Red-flanked Bluetail eventually appeared and so one of the really desired species had been found, and in breeding plumage so different from the one I had seen in Northumberland in winter.  I now had my top two wished for birds of the trip on the list in the form of this species and Great Grey Owl.  On our descent we came across a rogue Capercaillie which performed wonderfully for the camera.  Will the meeting of Dick and the Capercaillie appear on U Tube I wonder?  The bird certainly took a dislike to him for some reason!  Sam too can also claim now to have been chased by a Capercaillie.  We learnt later that a member of another group had been bitten (should that be pecked) by this bird…ooowww.  The female of the species was not to be out done (are they ever?) and on another day I was very impressed by a close up sighting of the female Capercaillie’s plumage.  Willow Grouse performed well for the camera and Black Grouse were also seen.  A little more effort was required before we tracked down Hazel Grouse on the morning that we passed by border guards around an open fire in the forest.


Willow Grouse

The crossing of the Arctic Circle on a clear warm day had the cameras out in force.  I was beginning to think all these extra layers of clothing in the bag weren’t necessary, but I was to be shown that they were at a later stage of the tour.  Our two night stopover at Ivalo was enjoyed and just north of here we had sighting of Pine Grosbeak and Siberian Tit at the lunch stop.  Sam and I weren’t too keen on the thoughts of fish soup (by now I was wondering if survival was possible in Finland if you didn’t like salad and fish!  Only joking as I enjoyed my food) so were given a large plate full of sausage and chips (and I swear I saw some envious looks from fellow travellers).  Now that’s more like it…luvvly jubbly.  Our next long journey was to be northwards and across the border into Norway and eventually distant sightings of the Norwegian mountains give a hint as to what was to come.  We enjoyed a short visit to the Siida Museum, the Sámi National Museum.  Sadly we only had a short time here as I would have like to have taken more time to consider this wonderful and well laid out display concerning Sámi culture where much attention was given to the natural history of the area.  If you visit this area do not miss this modern site.    It had become apparent to Sam and I that natural history and the environment is taken seriously in Finland.   Whilst the focus of the trip was of course wildlife and birds in particular I believe one should always focus some attention on wider issues, although I have to admit I was so taken with the birding that many other things passed me by.  In part I am now putting that right by making my August reading A Social and Cultural History of the Sámi Peoples of the North by Neil Kent and Poyser’s Lapland.

Two great birders, Sam and Brian at the Arctic Circle

Two 'great birders' joined by Dick Forsman (L) and Killian Mullarney (R) :-)
So onward we go towards Norway and the Varanger Fjord and Peninsular where it really does gets exciting!

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning
Running rings around the moon
Lyrics…Bergman and Bergman


  1. Wow, that was an excellent trip! Such variety of species, many which I'd not heard of before (some include butterflies, i.e. the Green Hairstreak). I'll also never look at Capercaillie's the same again, hehe. A suit of armour comes to mind, if they ever come close!

  2. We are only half way through the trip Mark. Yes I know I write at length.:-)

  3. Lol, I look forward a lot to the other half of this! It certainly makes me wish I had been there too.

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