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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Northern Finland and Arctic Norway

2019 Narrative

Given that we were heading for the Arctic, it was a pleasant surprise to begin the tour with positively warm weather at Oulu, where the visual signs of summer were enhanced by the sound of much birdsong around our hotel. After familiarising ourselves with a few novel ‘garden birds’ such as Scarlet Rosefinch, Pied Flycatcher and Lesser Whitethroat, we strolled down to the water’s edge just 200m behind the hotel where we saw flocks of Ruff, Wood Sandpipers, Goosanders, Cranes, and some Little Ringed and Ringed Plovers foraging on the exposed mudflat. Unseen Spotted Crake and Bittern could be heard ‘singing’ from the extensive reedbed while Common Snipe performed their evocative drumming display flight just over our heads.

We hit the ground running with four species of owl on our first full day – a pair of demonstrative Hawk Owls were particularly impressive, though the intense stare of a magnificent Great Grey Owl was perhaps equally memorable. While trying to see a drumming but elusive Three-toed Woodpecker our attention was diverted to a family party of Parrot Crossbills, a species we see far less often on this tour than we do Common Crossbill. The pesky woodpecker didn’t show itself but its magnificent big cousin, a Black Woodpecker, put on a great performance. Back at our hotel we could see Marsh Harriers and a Hazel Hen from the window! 

It was a little cooler, but mostly calm, dry and pleasant at our next destination, Kuusamo, ideal weather for birding. A couple of cheeky Siberian Jays arrived quietly at the Konttainen carpark, where they have become accustomed to scraps of food left out for them by birders. Just across the road we had brief but good views of a Red-flanked Bluetail, one of the rarest inhabitants of this old forest, which has been steadily increasing its numbers over the years. A Great Grey Shrike took up a commanding position on the tallest spruce-tops, while Golden Plovers in full breeding plumage foraged close to the roadside. It was exciting to hear the song of a Rustic Bunting, a bird that has suffered a drastic decline in numbers over the past decade or two mainly, it is believed, due to large-scale trapping that occurs in their Asian wintering grounds. Even better was to be afforded prolonged, close-range views of a pair of these handsome birds, as usually they do not remain on view for very long. A spectacular gathering of around 400 Little Gulls on the lake, all in full breeding plumage, gave the photographers among us some great chances to capture their beauty as small parties of birds filed past us at close range. The raucous sounds emanating from nearby courting Red-necked Grebes seemed incongruous when compared with the elegant looks of the birds themselves. On an early morning ‘grouse drive’ along the miles of track criss-crossing the vast expanse of forest and bog in this region we had views of amazing-looking male Black Grouse in lekking mode and several female Capercaillies which, despite their large size and conspicuousness when they are standing on the roadside, appear to have considerable confidence in their cryptic ‘invisibility’, often permitting a close approach. Song-flighting Bluethroats, Wood Sandpipers perched in tree-tops, displaying Velvet Scoters, and flocks of Taiga Bean Geese were among the other interesting birds we encountered on our journey eastwards, and then northwards.

If anyone had told me, twenty-odd years ago when we began doing this tour, that in 2019 we would see as many as seven Pine Grosbeaks in a day, on two dates, I wouldn’t have believed it. Up until quite recently, Pine Grosbeak was without doubt THE most difficult of the regular Finnish breeding species to connect with on this tour, and I assure you, it wasn’t for the want of looking! I used to tell participants, as we’d begin to explore yet another bit of prime ‘old forest’ hoping to find a Pine Grosbeak, that we should imagine we are looking for a lost wallet – and it is moss-green in colour – so quiet and unobtrusive are most Pine Grosbeaks at his time of year. Yes, I know, the males are raspberry-red in colour, and they sing, but neither of these facts seemed to have much bearing on the sheer luck involved in actually finding one! Thankfully, this is no longer the case; a very well-stocked collection of feeders at a roadside hostelry north of Inari, where we stop for delicious freshly made salmon soup, usually has a gallery of Pine Grosbeaks in a variety of plumages joining in with the dozens of Bramblings, redpolls and tits (including Siberian), all of which can be viewed a point-blank range outside the large picture window in the restaurant. Yes, it may be cheating a little, but it is better than going home without this iconic bird of the boreal forest!

Alas, not all of the species we want to see have become easier than in the past. It is hard to believe how much more difficult it is nowadays to find both King Eider and Steller’s Eider than it was years ago, because virtually all of them are leaving their Varanger wintering areas several weeks earlier than they used to. This year we got them both by the skin of our teeth, and we were lucky that the only Steller’s we saw was a beautiful adult male, as the laggards at this time of year tend to be the less colourful first-year birds.

The far north was cool, but there was little wind and even less rain. The abundance of seabirds at Varanger was evident all along the coastline, with numerous dense clouds of Kittiwakes and Herring Gulls, with attendant mobs of Arctic Skuas, or even the odd opportunistic White-tailed Eagle ready to grab an unsuspecting gull or duck. Flocks of Long-tailed Ducks gathered offshore, waiting for the inland pools and lakes where they will breed, to thaw. A few pairs of these stunningly beautiful birds had already taken up residence on still half-frozen pools, side-by-side with pairs of Red-throated Divers and Scaup. Red-necked Phalaropes had arrived, and Long-tailed Skuas were arriving; the sight of flocks of the latter, up to 40 birds strong, passing over our heads at Kjølnes Lighthouse indicated a very significant arrival, and this was confirmed by an observation of over 6,000 Long-tailed Skuas in just two hours, at Hamningberg later on the same day!

This period, just as the snowfields are receding and the ice-covered pools are thawing, is when the arctic fjells are at their most exciting. Within a week or so the snow will have largely disappeared and the birds will be dispersed over a very wide area, but now the open patches are full of displaying and singing birds, their appearance enhanced by the reflected light bouncing off the snow. We watched Golden Plovers delivering their mournful song while flying overhead with slow-motion wing-beats; Temminck’s Stints trilled away with fluttering wings held in a steep V shape, while Long-tailed Skuas performed their spectacular aerial displays accompanied by an ecstatic Common Gull-like song. Dunlin sang from lichen-encrusted tussocks in the bog, often in the company of handsome Lapland Buntings. We were constantly on the lookout for Gyrfalcon, and when the first one came, it flashed past so close and so fast, that only the most alert and ready of the photographers managed to capture it! A few minutes later a Pectoral Sandpiper appeared out of nowhere and pitched in beside us, a long way from its normal breeding range, but there is a rumour that a pair nested here in recent years.

A ten-minute boat ride to Hornöya Island took us to a different world, a place where the sight, sound and smell of seabirds en masse was almost overwhelming. It was fun trying to pick out the small number of Brünnich’s Guillemots scattered through the vast raft of equally blackish ‘Northern’ Guillemots swimming just metres offshore. Razorbills, Puffins, Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Shags made up the rest of the numbers. A few pairs of Shags had taken up residence inside and underneath the wooden shelter by the landing stage and clearly weren’t very happy with our making any use of the structure!

Our penultimate venture, on our last full day, took us back to a bog where we had failed to find Broad-billed Sandpiper on the way up, probably because they had not yet arrived. It was a relief to see one, and a displaying Jack Snipe, within a few minutes of reaching the spot. The icing on the cake however was finding a male Three-toed Woodpecker on the walk back to the vehicles through a lovely area of old, untouched forest, thereby rectifying the ‘miss’ on our first day!

- Killian Mullarney

Created: 22 July 2019