Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
20 - 25 May 2010
By Stephen Burch, England
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!
Owling excursion (22 May)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Visitor Centre and
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
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.
Oulu Port Area
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
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.
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch