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20 - 25 May 2010

By Stephen Burch, England

This is an illustrated trip report on the birding highlights from a short (5 night) trip to the Oulu area of Finland in May 2010. The main objective was to connect with as many as possible of the northern owls, which has been one of my ambitions for some time now. Getting some reasonable photos would also be a nice bonus!

Many birders spend the odd day/night in this region before rushing on further north. We didn't have the time for a major expedition like this, and opted instead for a more relaxed few days by the coast in the vicinity of Liminka, before heading north east for a couple nights in the remote Iso-Syote region - about half way to the famous Kuusamo area. For this trip I was accompanied by my semi-birder wife, which meant a less than 100% dedication to birding, though in the event it wasn't not too far off at times!

Flights and car hire
We flew Finnair from Heathrow to Helsinki and then onto Oulu. Outwards flights were good, even with free food on the international leg - something of a rarity now! The return trip might have been problematic as the flight to Helsinki was significantly delayed, which resulted in a dash across Helsinki to catch our connecting flight. Avis provided an expensive but good hire car - I could not find anywhere any cheaper.

We bought in advance a couple of the 1:250,000 Tiekartta GT series of maps, which were quite good though rather small scale. A very expensive 1:50,000 map of the Oulu coastal area was a complete waste of money - virtually useless!

Birding information
There are plenty of trip reports on the web for this region but few give much detail as they are written by those intent on heading further on the riches of the extreme north. Finnature provided some useful information in advance of the trip of the region around Liminka with also a mention of Iso Syote, which is where the idea of that part of trip came from.

On arrival at Oulu airport, the weather was stunningly warm and sunny. Thereafter it cooled down, but crucially stayed fine and reasonably sunny for the owling trip. But by the time we reached the more hilly Iso-Syote region it was much cooler and there was plenty of rain, especially at night.

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 50D with EF400mm/f4 DO lens, usually mounted on a tripod - apart from the flight shots. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 3.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Finnature Owling excursion (22 May)
This guided Finnature excursion was the main point of our trip - it provides the opportunity to connect with all five of the key northern owl species (Great Grey, Hawk, Ural, Tengmalm's and Pygmy). Without local knowledge of the nest sites it is quite impossible to see nearly all these species - the chances of bumping into any of them by chance is virtually zero (though some manage Hawk Owl by chance). However, the numbers and distribution of the larger owls in particular vary from year to year with the vole population. Last year (2009) was a brilliant year, but this year there were fewer voles in the immediate Oulu area, although there were good numbers elsewhere in Finland.

These one night/morning Finnature excursions start at 03:00, which meant getting up at a challenging 02:00! The transport was by a comfortable mini-bus, which takes 7 passengers plus the driver. Our group included two English birders, three from France, and our guide Pirita. Before we set off we were given the choice of heading south for a dodgy Ural Owl (really difficult early in the season) and going way up north for Hawk Owl, with the other three species thrown in either way. Fortunately, the northern option was quickly agreed, and off we went.

For this trip, the weather was very good, with quite warm temperatures, light winds, no rain and reasonable amounts of sun (sunrise was at about 03:30). This was quite unlike some of the nights following, when we were further east, which would have been a disaster for owling!

The first stop was quite close by, and we followed Pirita along an indistinct path for about 200m to view a hole in a pine, that apparently contained a female Pygmy Owl. The technique for this species is to call up the male using play-back. This took some time during which the eagle-eyed Pirita spotted a Hazel Hen high up in some nearby dense trees. To my great frustration (as this was a key target of mine), this bird was disturbed and flew off without ever giving a tickable view. Still, to compensate, all the playback eventually produced results and the male Pygmy Owl suddenly appeared very close by on a branch, out in the open. Some frantic efforts to get some respectable photos followed, but although the bird was close, the early morning light was very poor and the bird was silhouetted against a comparatively very bright sky. The pic below was the best I could achieve.

After this productive stop, we proceeded to a nearby Tengmalm's Owl site, but there the hole resident wasn't cooperative, and we were soon back in the bus for the long (about 2hr) drive north, which took us up to Kemi (at the top of Gulf of Bothnia) and beyond.

There was no bird interest on this long drive, but as soon as we got off the tarmaced roads it was clear we were in a very rich area. A female Capercaillie was soon spotted on the track in front of us, but being at the back, I couldn't deploy the lens before it flew off! Shortly afterwards we had three male Black Grouse in a tree rather distant for photography, closely followed by a nearer female.

Female Black Grouse Three distant male Black Grouse in a tree!

A little further on, Pirita managed to call in a superb Black Woodpecker and the same site produced a hunting male Hen Harrier, with a singing but uncooperative Common Rosefinch close by.

Black Woodpecker Mountain Hare at the Hawk Owl site

All these were really just orderves for the main event though - we were told a male Hawk Owl was being territorial and showing well. Sure enough it was soon spotted at the top of a tree in the distance. It then flew off, but fortunately soon returned to land in the top of a tall tree right out in the open, close to a path. It was quite tolerant of a steady approach, and I took masses of photos, which were hampered by the direction of the sun and the elevation of the bird. But in the end, I was quite pleased with the one shown below. A little further on, we were shown the nest hole, and could just make out the eye of the female through a 'scope! A little later, both birds were spotted back in the original dead tree, but I didn't manage a pic of both together - the female seemed more wary.

Hawk Owl (click to enlarge) Pygmy Owl in the gloom.

The final stop in this area was for Great Grey Owl. Again a short walk along a vague track lead to the nest site - in this case a platform of twigs and branches on the side of a tree, in the middle of a dense wood. Unfortunately, the female was sitting low down in the nest, and her eyes could only just be seen from one spot! Side views produced nothing more than the end of the tail, and a hump for the head. The male is sometimes found roosting in the area at this stage of the season, but not for us. So this was a rather unsatisfactory view - but maybe an excuse for a follow-up return visit sometime!

It was shortly time to begin the long drive back to the Oulu area, and a final attempt on Tengmalm's Owl. This site was right by a road, along which we all lined up facing the nest hole, cameras at the ready! Vigorous bark scratching using a branch soon brought the female into view - to investigate the source of the disturbance. She stayed in the hole entrance for sometime, giving good opportunities for photography before retreating back out of view.

The trip ended at around mid day - so quite an endurance test, but very successful and enjoyable. Certainly recommended for others wanting to connect with the northern owls. For serious photographers with more time (and money!) available, Finnature also lay on longer specialised photography tours.

Tengmalm's Owl
Tengmalm's Owl (click to enlarge) Great Grey Owl

Other sites

Liminganlahti Bay
This is a large, shallow coastal bay with extensive reedbeds and marshes. It can be viewed from several bird towers and hides, which generally provide much too distant views for photography. See below for our experiences based on the three nights we stayed at the visitor centre. The hides can be difficult to find, but the visitor centre provides a good free map and leaflet which helps somewhat.

Visitor Centre and Virkkula
Notable birds in the bushes and trees around the visitor centre included Pied Flycatcher, a Common Rosefinch (heard and seen just once, late one evening), and roding Woodcock (again late evening).

From the visitor center there is a boardwalk which leads to the tower and also a hide rather nearer the shore. On our first evening it was warm, still and sunny, and this place was at its best, with plenty of wader activity. There were Snipe drumming round the tower, Black-tailed Godwits dashing around, bubbling Curlew, lekking Ruff, and song flighting Wood Sandpipers over the marsh. Also some very distant Cranes. Unfortunately all these were much too far away for photography, apart from some fly past Whoopers (below left). Somewhat earlier in May there are many passage waders to be seen here, but nearly all had moved through by 20 May.

In the poorer weather later on in our stay, this tower and hide was much quieter, although there were a few reasonable birds around including Greenshank and Garganey.

Whooper Swans at dusk The tower

This tower is on the south shore of the bay, and is reached along a boardwalk from an isolated parking spot up a dirt road (map required!). It was notable for incredibly distant views of my first genuine (i.e. non 'plastic' Scottish) adult White-tailed Eagle. Also seen were a few Crane and a Marsh Harrier in the distance. There were also good numbers of immature Northern White-faced Darters (below left) present along the boardwalk.

Northern White faced Darter (immature) Whooper Swan

This tower was also on the southern shore and even more difficult to find than the other one. We took a wrong turn and ended up somewhere else, but got a bonus in the form of a splendid male Whinchat that came quite close to the car (see below), on my side! Eventually locating the tower (looking for a large sign saying Karin off the main road would help - a smaller one saying the same thing is the wrong one), the highlight was a nice group of four adult Temminck's Stint feeding on the shore in front of the tower. In the distance was an immature White-tailed Eagle, 20+ Cranes. Also a Marsh Harrier flew by.

Temminck's Stint Whinchat

After this tower, we decided to head to the point at Varjakka via a "cross-country" route. This produced our first singing Common Rosefinch in a wood by the road, but it was remarkably drab male - no red at all. At the point itself there was a little harbour with Wheatear, Arctic Terns and Yellow Wagtail.

This tower is in the north east corner of the bay, quite close to the airport. Nearby in fields by the road there were a large number of Whooper Swans with Cranes behind, presumably non-feral Greylag Geese and a glimpse of a Short-eared Owl. The highlight from the tower was a full plumaged singing Common Rosefinch.

Common Rosefinch
Full pumage Common Rosefinch (click to enlarge) Drab singing Common Rosefinch

Oulu Port Area
The Oulu port area is a somewhat unusual site famous for having the western Palearctic's most accessible Terek Sandpipers. Their favoured area is an obscure inlet, opposite a dump where the birds can also be sometimes seen. I'm hesitant in giving detailed directions to this site which has some sensitivity. It also has nesting Arctic Terns and Temminck's Stint. We visited this site briefly on the Finnature tour, but saw only the Stints. It took two further visits to connect with the Terek Sandpipers - it seems you need to spend some time here waiting for them to come in to feed, as both individuals we saw only stayed briefly. Temminck's Stint also showed briefly on our second visit.

Digiscope record shots of Terek Sandpiper, taken in the rain.

Hirvisuo is an example of the vast northern mires and marshes, but convenienty situated by the main Oulu to Kuusamo road (route 20), between Kiiminki and Pudasjarvi. Access is from a layby which can be recognised only by the sign 'Kioski'. Stopping here there is an information board at the start of a now familiar boardwalk, which goes out in a semi-circle before returning to a straighter path that leads to a tower and then heads out over the bog.

On our first visit here, en route to Iso-Syote (see below) on May 23, practically the first bird to be seen was an initially very surprising falcon. It clearly didn't fit with anything to be expected, and it took a few minutes to realise that we could only be looking at a female Red-footed Falcon! Apparently, despite being so far north, these birds are annual in Finland in May. Nevertheless, contacting Finnature about it, we were told this was a 'good find' and our news was broadcast on the Finnish Internet bird information service! This bird was still present on our return on May 25th. Unfortunately it was quite wary and didn't allow a close enough approach for good DSLR pics.

As is typical of these places, birds were not exactly dense on the ground, but our two visits produced displaying Whimbrel, song flighting Greenshank, Whooper Swans, and a very distant soaring raptor (possible Goshawk?).

Female Red-footed Falcon! White Wagtail
Panorama from the Hirvisuo bird tower.

Iso-syote is the most southern Fjell in Finland, and the whole region sounded like a good contrast to the flat coastal region around Oulu. It was quite remote, and still holds some areas of prime, original forest. Most of the trees had however been re-planted and were hence much younger and less varied. There were a few promising reports on the Internet of birders who had called in briefly here en-route to Kuusamo, with specialities such as Hazel Hen and Pine Grosbeak both reported close to the Syote Visitor Centre. A notice in the car park also mentions Red-flanked Bluetail! In the event we didn't see or hear any of these targets.

After we had arrived in the area, and an initial problem with our log cabin had been resolved, we tried a trail from the visitor centre. This was said to be only about 4km long, but it was nearly all on boardwalk and seemed longer. Birds included Pied Flycatcher and Redstart and a drumming Black Woodpecker which came quite close, but was never seen. The car park had a Spotted Flycatcher (now almost extinct back in Oxfordshire it seems). There were also a few Reindeer around, some with collars on!

The next day we had been hoping for a walk in a wilderness area reached by unpaved roads to the north, but after heavy overnight rain, this wasn't considered advisable by the Visitor Centre staff. We instead did a walk much closer by, which was mostly through second (or third?) generation plantations, with some open areas as well. This was pleasant enough, but bird interest was distinctly limited (Pied Flycatchers, Redstart, Tree Pipit, Cuckoo and song flghting Greenshank).

The final morning was a wash out with heavy rain which had been falling most of the night as well, so we departed back towards a drier Oulu and our return to the UK. So all in all a pleasant region, but somewhat disappointing bird-wise.

Cuckoo Pied Flycatcher

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Liminganlahti Visitor Centre The Visitor Centre provides en-suite accommodation which is very convenient for the bird tower and hide nearby. Waders cries and Pied Flycatcher song can all be heard from your room! Ours was on two levels, with a total of 5 beds. We didn't use the upstairs which was reached up a very steep ladder. The room was fine, but the windows were large and the curtains thin and sparse, which meant it was very light at what passes for 'night' at this latitude at this time of year.
The breakfast was ample, and the lunch we had after the Finnature tour, instead of breakfast, was very good. Dinner wasn't available as the place seems to have a thriving business in hosting late night parties for the locals! These resulted in a considerable amount of noise and disturbance until well into the early hours on the two weekend nights we were present. This didn't help getting a bit of sleep before the Saturday Finnature 3am tour! Local restaurants were limited to service areas and a US style diner in the centre of a dug-up Liminka.
Iso-Syote hotel This hill-top hotel is mainly a ski resort in winter, and was actually closed in May when we stayed. However, the self catering log cabins were available, and very comfortable, well equipped and warm. There were good views of the surrounding forest - stretching into the distance. The cabin even had a sauna! Recommended.

© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 


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