Northern Scandinavia June 1999
Northern Scandinavia June 1999
IntroductionIn June 1999, Pieter van der Luit and I set out for a trip through Northern Sweden, Finland and Norway. In this report I have summarised our findings, mostly regarding to the birds (and mammals) we observed.
Our goal was to find as many of the 'Northern speciality birds' as possible. Any birder will know what I mean with this: the (North-)Scandinavian forests and tundra's host a number of bird species that are difficult, or even impossible, to see elsewhere. For me, only one 'lifer' (a species I hadn't seen before in my life, in this case Brünnich's Guillemot Uria lomvia) seemed possible, but I returned home having seen one more (see the species list....).
On the whole, I guess we did pretty well. As is generally the rule in birding trips, one cannot expect to see everything in one trip, and this was no exception to that But we did see most of the wanted species, though, and the incredible sight of >100 Beluga Whales in the Varanger Fjord just made me forget everything about counting numbers of species.
Thanks to :Our trip could never have been such a succesful one without the help of so many people that were eager to provide us with tips, suggestions, maps, site descriptions, etc., etc.
So (in alphabetical order) : Hans Ackered, Håkan Delin, Kari Engelbarth, Håkan Engström, Annika Forsten, Jussi Heikkilä, Hannu Jännes, Curt Johnsson, Pentti Kalliö, Olli Karhu, H-J Roland, Heiki Seppänen:
thank you !
GeneralNorway is expensive, Sweden and Finland aren't (anymore). Filling up your gas tank before you enter Norway can be worthwhile. Shopping in Norway will cost you considerably more, too (although I'm told that e.g., rice is much cheaper than in Sweden - 'thanks' to EU price agreements).
People are generally very friendly everywhere in Scandinavia. They usually speak english, although this every now and then may prove to be a bit of a problem in Finland. Finnish is - unlike swedish or norwegian - a very difficult language, so don't expect to understand a single word of it. At camping sites, however, there is usually no problem.
Important for birders is perhaps the "allemänsrätt" in Sweden (I think something similar exists in Norway and Finland): as long as you clean up after you and do not damage or disturb anything, you're allowed to walk through forests and fields. You're also allowed to pick berries and mushrooms wherever you like (as long as it's not in someone's back yard of course....).
Up in the North, gas stations may be few and far apart. Consider in advance where you're going to fill up the tank the next time: most real towns have one or two gas stations, but remember that a lot of places on your road map may turn out to be nothing more than just one barn or an old shed.
The midnight sun is something special, but as you're heading north, it's bound to be dead ahead of you. Considering the usually pure air in Scandinavia, this may produce a lethal combination: you'll be blinded if you don't wear decent sunglasses.
WeatherI guess we were very lucky: Scandinavia (especially Finland) experienced one of the best summers of the century: we just had sunny weather for most of the time, with temperatures around 23°C, sometimes (Värtsilä, central Finland, Ivalo) 27°C or more. Only in the Varanger area it was somewhat cooler (but still manageable without a winter coat), only to be really worsening just before and during midsummer's day. Other people have had snow and really cold weather some years before, so beware!
Of course it's 24 h light during a summer's day in Northern Scandinavia. This makes 'round-the-clock-birding possible. Best is to enjoy as much as possible of the 'night' time, as bird life is particularly more active then. This may pose some problems, however (especially when it's 28°C outside): it can be hard to get some sleep in the middle of the day.
GearWe brought (apart from the usual stuff):
full camping gear
In most of Scandinavia, if you're not too close to an inhabited house, you can camp out in the forest if you like. It's advisable to break up camp after one night. Camping out keeps the costs low and is usually quite comfortable. A camper would be perfect in Scandinavia: you can put it almost anywhere without having to bother with a tent, the risk of rain, etc. Alternatively, there is a range of facilities you can choose from. We every now and then took a simple cabin (stuga in swedish) at a camping site for a bit more comfort.
a lot of pre-cooked, freeze-dried meals
Saves a lot of time! Besides, it was pretty tasty, too. Keep in mind that a hamburger with a coke in Norway will easily cost you GBP 12. You can prepare your own at any nice parking place along the road, allowing birding during (the cooking of) your meal. Some parkings seem to have their own pair of Siberian Jays....
lots of warm clothing.
This turned out to be absolutely unnecessary, but of course, as you never know in advance, it's better to be well-prepared. I brought the clothing I usually wear in Holland in winter, including a down jacket and rain trousers.
This year there weren't many mozzies in Scandinavia (I'm not kidding!). Only hundreds, instead of millions. Bring long-sleeved shirts and effective repellent: don't mess with citronella oil or other alternative stuff, but use something that contains DEET. In any supermarket in Scandinavia you can choose from a variety of sprays, oils, cremes, etc. Another useful thing may be a little net to pull over your head while birding (you can buy these in outdoor shops in Scandinavia). But even if you have taken all these precautions you will still be stung by them. Beware that being stung many times may result in allergic reactions like nausea, dizzyness, or even fainting. I personally hate the little blackflies (knot) more than mosquitoes, since their stings do tend to itch for a much longer time. Though strictly speaking not belonging to the class of insects, also beware of ticks! I don't know exactly what the present day range is, but especially in the Stockholm archipelago and probably also further east into Finland, a nasty virus can be transfected by them, resulting in a meningo-encephalitis which is hard to treat. Lyme disease also occurs here; always check for large red skin reactions if you have a tick. If so, it's time to get some antibiotics!
Bins, a telescope with tripod, a Sony professional walkman with a (video model) directional microphone and a few (Ferro) cassette tapes. However, we didn't play any of the recordings to lure out birds. Most will sing anyway (or they will show themselves without any trouble). I was unpleasantly surprised by the number of dudes that thought a tape was necessary to obtain views of e.g., Red-flanked Bluetails Tarsiger cyanurus. This is obviously causing unnecessary disturbance.
AccommodationAlthough we had brought our tent, we every now and then took a small cabin at a camping site to be a bit more comfortable. These cabins can actually be quite cheap, prices are usually between GBP 8 and 16. In Parikkala we took a room at the B & B near the main entrance of the area. This was really a very pleasant place to stay for only approx. GBP 12 for the 2 of us. In Kuusamo we did check some hotels, but as these were considerably more expensive, we thought we were better off with a cabin at one of the camping sites (there are several to choose from). In the Varanger area, I cannot but recommend the camping site at Vestre Jakobselv: nice cabins, hot showers & sauna, all for a very reasonable price. If you wish to visit Hamningberg, however, you will need a tent: it's a kind of special to camp out overthere, at the 'edge of Europe'
We flew from Amsterdam to Luleå (Nb), in Northern Sweden, via Arlanda (Stockholm) airport. We arrived late in the evening but as I had made an internet reservation for a hotel room downtown, this was no real problem.
The next morning we walked to the Avis centre where we had made a reservation for a rental car (cheap!: we paid something like NLG 700 (=GBP 210) for the whole period - they must have made a mistake somewhere) and did some birding on the way (nice Little Gull Larus minutus and Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea colony just opposite the garage!). We drove off and started birding at a site near Alvik where I had seen Great Grey Owl Strix nebulosa 3 years before, but saw only very little there. We then rang Håkan Engström, who lives near Skellefteå, to help us with some owl sites. He is a very friendly guy willing to help visiting birders in getting views of owls. We were supplied with a treasure map (yes: a detailed map with a ´
on it!) and drove off. A little later we had splendid views of a Tengmalm's Owl popping out of its nest box, but the only Great Greys we saw were two chicks on the nest, with the adults just not showing themselves, so we left this site rather soon, as not to disturb them further. In the evening we were led to a place where Håkan and a friend of his had just been ringing Ural Owl chicks (and got attacked by one of the parents - the Swedish name is not without reason "Charging Owl"), but as we arrived near the nest box there was no sign of owls anymore. So we looked for and found a place to put up our tent instead and decided to try again the next morning.
Now everything went more or less smoothly: a Ural Owl sat perched in a tree close to that carrying the next box, on which also one of the chicks was visible. A little later, we had gripping views of an adult Great Grey Owl near the nest site where we had been the day before. We then drove north through the lush green landscape, every now and then stopping for Ortolan Buntings or Scarlet Rosefinches. We soon crossed the border and drove to Oulu, where we walked down the shore north of the oil refinery, in the hope of finding Terek Sandpiper (which we didn't). In the afternoon/early evening we drove off and put up our tent next to the Liminganlahti visitor centre (Liminganlahden Opastuskeskus; it's OK to camp here!). Birded a bit in that area but were warned by other birders that no Yellow-breasted Buntings had been seen (yet).
The next morning we did some more birding in Liminganlahti and it was through some Finnish birders here that we heard that the Terek Sandpipers often are away from their 'regular' site during the afternoon so that it is best to try in the (late) morning. Besides, a Corn Bunting was supposed to be present nearby. We were further presented with the news of a singing Booted Warbler near Värtsilä (SE Finland). 'Mmm, perhaps that is possible to be included in our plan' we thought. We drove back to Oulu, saw the bunting well (quite regular breeding bird in Holland - though very scarce - but a real mega here) and ticked the Terek, too: it was even displaying, singing loudly. Some Broad-billed Sandpipers here as well.13 June
Now it was time for some mileage: we drove SE the rest of the day, only to stop for a visit to Kortteisen Tekojärvi along the road no. 19. This is a lake just east of Piipola (between Oulu and Kajaani), which holds one of Finland's few breeding colonies of Black Tern Chlidonias niger. It also hosts good numbers of Little Gull Larus minutus.
We arrived around midnight near Lieksa, one of the (three) sites where this summer an Oriental Cuckoo had taken residence.
Sometime around 02:00 a.m. we heard the Oriental Cuckoo booming near Savijärvi, but every time we tried to get closer to try and obtain some views, the bird flew off and started calling several 100s of m further away. After some time, we heard it really way off and gave up any further pursuit. We spent the rest of the night sleeping nearby.14 June
Drove via Joensuu to Värtsilä, where we almost immediately found the Booted Warbler, singing in its characteristic biotope of low bushes. Drove back to Joensuu, where we now took a road to Outokumpu, where we heard a Yellow-breasted Bunting was present. Quickly located (and enjoyed) this bird from a safe distance, after which we drove to Parikkala.
Very good night birding at Parikkala Siikalahti, where particularly many (Blyth's Reed) warblers were singing along the southern road (Kannas-Tiviå-Parikkala). Spent the rest of the night in a very pleasant place: a B&B house near the main entrance of the Siikalahti area. In the morning some more birding in the area after which we drove off north. Since Pieter wasn't really feeling very well, we refrained from camping out somewhere and checked in in a cottage park/camping site just outside Kuusamo instead.
Went up Valtavaara early a.m. Heard the Bluetail singing but couldn't get any views. We may have arrived at the site perhaps a bit too early (best is somewhere between 6 and 8 a.m.). Some splendid Siberian Jays, Pine Grosbeaks and a Tengmalm's Owl, though. Drove back to Kuusamo since Pieter really got ill now. While he rested during the remainder of the day, I drove to Oulanka where I walked the 19 km from Kiutaköngäs to the Taivalköngäs waterfall and back. Although this offered a nice impression of the northern pine forests, it didn't produce much bird life. It is an extensive forest supposed to hold good numbers of Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia, Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus, Siberian Jay Perisoreus infaustus, Siberian Tit Parus cinctus, Two-barred Crossbill Loxia leucoptera , Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica and Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla, to name a few. However (as I experienced), beware that in such a big area the birds are low in numbers and far between.
With Pieter not really recovered I set out again for Valtavaara, but in first instance didn't get far: Pentti Kalliö, a birder we had met before in Oulu was standing next to the road somewhere north of Kuusamo town indicating that he had found something strange. Indeed, a very peculiar - Turnstone-like - call came from the little marsh here. I remembered something about Paddyfield Warblers presumably giving such a call and when I finally saw the skulking Acrocephalus warbler, showing a very strong head pattern I (presumably too quickly) concluded that this actually must be a Paddyfield. News was spread through the pager system and within no time around 35 birders had arrived at the site. With just Sedge Warblers present I became more and more embarrassed. The call can be heard on this site (see the species list under Sedge Warbler). Although some people said they had heard this call before, given by a Sedge Warbler, it was totally new for me and I haven't heard of anyone since who was familiar with it (which may be considered peculiar for birders in a country where this species is particularly abundant - perhaps some regional voice differences?).17 June
Anyway, some time later I continued to Valtavaara and saw (and sound-recorded) one Red-flanked Bluetail very well, as well as a singing male Pine Grosbeak, not far from the nesting site we had found the day before.
In the afternoon, we drove up to Ivalo, in Northern Finland. Here we rang Olli Karhu, a very keen birder, who had offered to help us with some other species. Before we knew we were in the territory of a loudly screaming Hawk Owl, which was obviously alarming for its (at the time not visible) youngsters. On a nearby bog we were treated with Broad-billed Sandpipers and Jack Snipe in display flight and in the area around we saw the first Rough-legged Buzzards and Whimbrel. It was really quite warm up here at Ivalo, with a record-breaking 29°C.
We left Ivalo in the morning, just to discover (along the road out of town) another Hawk Owl! This bird was present in the trees just near the sign 'Ylm moottoristadion'.18 June
On driving north, the pine and spruce trees became scarce and slowly made way for birch. The sea influence also became visible through the appearance of more clouds. A short drive to Pulmankijärvi, near the Norwegian border, proved fruitless. We just continued into Norway (after filling the tank still in Finland - it pays off!), checked out the area north of Tana Bru, birded a bit on Kongsfjordfjellet (really worth the ride!) and drove on to the Varanger Fjord, where we took a room at Jakobselv Camping (run by a Christian Evangelical organisation) in Vestre Jakobselv. This proved to be really OK, with hot showers (with floor heating!) and sauna. As Pieter still felt quite miserable, I set out birding in this area mostly for myself.
Birding along the Varanger coast, mainly between Nesseby and Store Ekkerøy.
Birding along the Varanger coast, between Store Ekkerøy and Vardø. Continued to Hamningberg, where I spent some time seawatching. Ticked my first-ever Brünnich's Guillemot here (actually plenty of them fly by at this site, but most are too far off to allow a 100% certain identification). During a strong and sudden midnight gale my tent, which I had put up on the northern side of the peninsula, was blown down and damaged, but I managed to fix it, improvising a little with some extra rope and stones.
Birding at Hamningberg and during the way back to Vardø, after which I returned to Vestre Jakobselv. The weather now deteriorated for the first time during our trip, but it still was manageable.
Apparently, midsummer in Scandinavia and I do not get along, for it was quite terrible weather once again (like in 1996): a steady drizzle that made all birding gear wet. And this was the day we had arranged for a boat tour from Vardø to Hornøya. You really should not miss this! The sight of a seabird colony you just walk through is really unforgettable. It is - I guess - comparable to a trip to the Farne Islands or the cliffs on the Atlantic shores, but where in Europe do you get to see (and compare) five species of alcids within a few yards? In the days before I had already seen Brünnich's Guillemot quite well (e.g., in Hamningberg), but to see them almost within touching distance, that was really something special!22 June
A bonus was found in a large shoal of Beluga's, slowly swimming around at the eastern side of the island. Despite the lousy weather conditions, this was a very impressive experience.
After returning to Vardø, we drove back to N Finland, where we took a cabin at Kaamasen Kievari.
Today we had to drive back to N Sweden, as our plane back to Holland was to leave the next morning. We had already entered good old Sverige, as we received news of a White-winged Lark that was present at Holmanperä near Kalajoki in NW Finland! This was something! Continuing our drive south, we had to figure out what the time schedule would be, were we to go there to see this Kazach specialty. We calculated we would have 4 h of sleep and 2½ h to see the bird, that is, if we arrived near Kalajoki at midnight. We decided to give it a try and drove the 400 km, just to arrive at Holmanperä at exactly midnight! We put up our tent at the Holmanperä parking lot and slept for 4 h, only to be disturbed by a calling Willow Grouse Lagopus lagopus. The next morning we walked to the meadow where we understood it had been seen. Here some 25 finnish birders were already waiting, not very eager to give any details of the bird's whereabouts (I probably asked the wrong guy, for an extra attempt to get some more information only resulted in him leaving and taking position somewhere else… - so much for the always-so-friendly-finnish-people! Obviously the single-person exception to the rule!).
It took some eager waiting of about 40 minutes, but then something happened: voices raising and some nervous gesturing in the group! I quickly took a look thorugh my telescope again in the part of the meadow where I somehow expected the bird to appear and there it was! After some time it even started preening and stretching its wings so we really got a show. We didn't see it fly, though.
After having watched it for about 45 minutes we left and arrived well in time back in Luleå for our flight home. It was at the airport that we heard of the White-winged flying off some 20 minutes after we had left, never to be seen again. Now that's a twitch....
Some birding tips
Check out our trip list.
Some birds we didn't see, can in fact be quite easy: e.g., a Rustic Bunting Emberiza rustica was more or less continuously present along the South side of Torankijärvi (Kuusamo), but we dipped it. Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus? We just didn't find it. Again: never expect to see everything! Snowy Owls Nyctea scandiaca are scarce, but regularly seen in the Varanger area (and then particularly at Store Ekkerøy, at the hill called Domen and near the Svartnes camping site). Try the darkest time of the day (between 2 and 4 a.m.), we didn't manage to do this and may therefore have missed it (although I think you also need a considerable amount of luck).
Copyright ©Teus Luijendijk 1999