Trip report - north and east Finland and north Norway

13th June 2009
Dates: 24th May to 9th June 2009

Destination: north and east Finland and north Norway

Purpose of trip:

The purpose of my trip was to see the northern species of birds and mammals typical of Fennoscandia, in particular those species with a southern limit to their range around and above the Arctic Circle and those species with a western limit to their range around the border with Russia.

Primary target areas:

The primary target areas for wildlife watching were:

Varanger (Norway)
Lapland (Finland)
Kuusamo area (Finland)
Oulu area (Finland)
South Karelia (Finland).

Getting there:

I flew from London Gatwick to Helsinki Vaanta with Easyjet. By booking flights several months before my trip, I was able to take advantage of lower fares although additional costs were incurred nearer the time of my departure as I decided to extend my trip by 2 days to allow for a visit to south Karelia from Helsinki.

Both the outward and return flights departed on time and arrived on time. The flight time was 2 hours 50 minutes.

The outward flight was particularly memorable as it was a very clear day and some of my regular birdwatching locations in East Anglia (Hanningfield Reservoir, Abberton Reservoir and the north Norfolk coast) were clearly recognisable.

Even more memorable was flying over the hundreds of islands of the Finnish archipelago on the descent in to Helsinki and the views of the forests and lakes opening up in all directions.

Getting around:

On arrival at Helsinki Vaanta airport, there is a regular Finnair bus which took 35 minutes to reach Helsinki train station in the city centre.

I purchased a “3 days in 1 month” Inter Rail train pass for Finland which enabled me to travel on Finnish railways between Helsinki and Rovaniemi on the Arctic Circle (overnight trip of 13 hours) and between Helsinki and Lappeenranta in south Karelia (2.5 hours trip).

In Rovaniemi, I hired a motorhome for 13 days from Touring Cars Finland to travel around central and north Finland and north Norway.

In Lappeenranta, I hired a car for 2 days from Scandic Rent via Atlas Choice to travel around south Karelia.

The majority of my travel was independent following thorough research and preparing an itinerary before leaving the UK but I did take advantage of 3 organised and guided trips:

Finnature – birdwatching trips around Kuusamo and Oulu in central and northern Finland.

Martinselkosen Eräkeskus – bear watching trip south of Kuusamo in the municipality of Suomussalmi adjacent to the Russian border.

My trip involved around 4000 km (2400 miles) of driving and therefore fuel costs were significant.

However, even with the poor exchange rate between the pound and the euro, the cost of diesel in Finland ranged between an equivalent 83p to 87p per litre compared with around £1 per litre in the UK.

The cost of diesel in Norway was either about the same or more than in the UK although I did not need to refuel the motorhome whilst in Norway.

Other than around the towns, the roads in both Finland and Norway were quiet with very little traffic. The primary routes were well surfaced but the minor roads, particularly the gravel forest tracks, required a lot more care.

Be aware of the speed limits (lower than the UK) and the speed cameras on the primary routes!

Impressions, experiences and memories:

Finland – a country with 70% forest coverage, over 180,000 lakes, low intensity farming, a long border with Russia and relict paraphernalia from the Cold War with the former Soviet Union.

Norway – the mighty Varangerfjord, the Arctic Ocean and the “top of Europe”.

Both countries – significantly larger than the UK in geographical area but with populations of around 7% to 8% of that in the UK .... space!

24 hour daylight and the midnight sun!

The wildlife .... especially the Arctic and Siberian species.

3 wildlife experiences especially stand out:

Watching and photographing Brown Bears at very close range on an overnight stay in a hide deep in the forest in eastern Finland by the Russian border. At least 6 or 7 different animals were seen, including a large male and a female with 2 cubs. What an amazing animal!

Tracking down Red-flanked Bluetail (courtesy of Finnature) on the Ivaara ridge south east of Kuusamo. This beautiful Robin-sized bird winters in south east Asia and breeds in its summer range of the taiga forests of Russia. In Finland, there are only a few breeding pairs and the species is at its western limit of its range here and can be found nowhere else in Europe other than as a very rare vagrant. On the Finnature trip from Kuusamo, 4 males were seen in the middle of a very quiet and windless “night” singing from the tops of spruce trees as the sun shone over the distant forested hills of Russia. Magic!

Visiting the Siikalahti wetland reserve in south Karelia. This huge area of open water, reedbeds, swamp and mire, forest, etc. was teeming with birds. The “symphony of nature”, as it is described locally, was particularly memorable i.e. the number and volume of birds singing during the “night”. A truly incredible wildlife experience!

Weather:

The majority of days were bright and sunny with only one day of persistent rain whilst in north Norway.

Daytime temperatures varied from around 2 degrees to 26 degrees but typically they were in the range of 8 degrees to 15 degrees.

Light snow was experienced on the morning of 6th June!

Culture and history:

During my trip, I visited 2 very interesting and informative centres focusing on northern Finnish culture and history:

Siida - the Sámi Museum and Northern Lapland Nature Centre in Inari

Arktikum - the Arctic Centre and Museum of Lapland in Rovaniemi

Both are highly recommended.

Wildlife highlights:

During my trip, I was able to record 168 species of birds (just 3 short of the total number of species seen in the UK for 2009 prior to my trip).

Trip list - Finland and Norway

Of these, I saw 21 species that I had not seen before, 6 where I had only seen the species once before in the UK as a vagrant or rare resident and 25 where I had seen the species on more than one occasion in the UK but not on an annual basis.

The 21 “lifers” were:

Hazel Grouse
Willow Grouse
Black Kite
Gyr Falcon
Terek Sandpiper
Long-tailed Skua
Hawk Owl
Pygmy Owl
Ural Owl
Great Grey Owl
Black Woodpecker
Three-toed Woodpecker
Grey-headed Yellow Wagtail
Thrush Nightingale
Red-flanked Bluetail
Blyth’s Reed Warbler
Siberian Tit
Siberian Jay
Common Rosefinch
Pine Grosbeak
Ortolan Bunting

The 6 species that I had only seen once before in the UK were:

Capercaillie
Corncrake
Red-throated Pipit
Bluethroat
Arctic Redpoll
Lapland Bunting

During my trip, I also able to record 9 species of mammal:

Brown Bear
Elk
Muskrat
Racoon Dog
Arctic Hare
Brown Hare
Red Squirrel
Reindeer
Roe Deer

Disappointments:

Although I was able to record a large number of bird species, I was disappointed not to have been able to track down a further 9 species which would have been “lifers”.

Stellers Eider (Varanger)
King Eider (Varanger)
Brunnichs Guillemot (Varanger)
White-billed Diver (Varanger)
Broad-billed Sandpiper (Lapland)
Rustic Bunting (Kuusamo area)
Little Bunting (Kuusamo area)
Tengmalms Owl (Kuusamo and Oulu areas)
White-backed Woodpecker (South Karelia)

In addition, I was unable to see Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Peregrine, Dotterel, Ptarmigan, Gannet or Fulmar.

I guess another visit is required!

Strange and bizarre:

I can recall a few strange and bizarre things from my trip:

24 hour daylight and the midnight sun: during my trip I did not experience a dark night sky for over 2 weeks enabling wildlife watching in full sunshine during the “night”.

Birds: the strange experience of seeing winter visitors to the UK (Fieldfare, Redwing, Brambling, Whooper Swan, etc.) and summer visitors to the UK (Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Pied Flycatcher, Wheatear, Whinchat, Common Redstart, Swallow, Swift, House Martin, Sand Martin, etc.) all in their breeding range together.

Roads: completely empty roads with “keep your distance” signs!

“Do’s” and “don’t’s”:

Do use the “night” hours for wildlife watching. It is light and there is a lot more activity than during the “day”.

Do book trips with Finnature. The excellent guides are very knowledgeable and will track down birds that you would have very little chance of finding independently. Many thanks to Olli Lamminsalo and Pirita Latja who led my trips in Kuusamo and Oulu respectively.

Don’t underestimate the distances involved in travelling. Finland and Norway are large countries and it can take a long time to travel between one location and another. In addition, the landscape in Finland, whilst beautiful and peaceful, can be extremely monotonous on long journeys (tree after tree after tree …. lake …. trees …. more trees …. and another tree). Don’t drive tired!

Don’t underestimate the hard work required, particularly in Finland, to track down wildlife. Very often the lakes and forests seem devoid of wildlife and most species occur at very low densities.

Don’t underestimate the weather and plan accordingly. During my trip, temperatures ranged from 2 degrees to 26 degrees and I had snow and hot sunshine.

Photos

Photos from trip can be found in the European trips gallery

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