Finland: 2nd-6th February 2007


Azure Tit: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

The arrival of an Azure Tit at Oulu, in addition to regular sightings of Great Grey, Ural and Hawk Owls in southern Finland, tempted Kev DuRose, David Jenkins and myself into a long weekend break in Finland in early February 2007. With flights booked, it was a little disappointing when the Tampere Hawk Owl disappeared and Great Grey and Ural Owl sightings seemed to die off in the week before our departure, but at least the sometimes-elusive tit had been showing in the same garden for four consecutive days.

Snow scene: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Day 1

Day 1 saw us driving the 330 miles north from Tampere to Valla, 90km east of Oulu. The seven-hour drive on winter roads produced a total of nine roadside species, the best of which was a fly-over Golden Eagle, our first bird on leaving the airport.

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Day 2

Pine Grosbeak: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Pine Grosbeak: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Saturday saw us joining a mixed band of birders in search of the Azure Tit under the guidance of Harri the Finnature man. The news was less than promising as it had not been seen for two days. The feeders produced nice sightings of two asiatica Nuthatches, lots of Northern Bullfinches, some grey-plumaged Red Squirrels - but no white-headed tit. A flock of Waxwings dropped in and provided a nice diversion but by late morning everyone was keen to study something other than Great Tits and we moved on in search of the flock of Pine Grosbeaks that had been devouring Rowan berries in the town. The flock, quickly located, was up in the top of a spruce tree but they soon descended into some garden rowans and provided an amazing spectacle as they gorged themselves on the wizened berries. The total of 45 birds included at least three good carmine males amongst the equally dazzling orange females and immatures. With flash cards rapidly filling up on grosbeak images, it was decided to take in the nearby Siberian Tits which were coming to a woodland feeder on the edge of a housing estate. The walk to the feeders produced a mixed flock of Mealy and Arctic Redpolls with the fluffy brown tit showing well on the feeders and in the scrub around the site. Some nice borealis Willow Tits and a Crested Tit, plus more Northern Bullies, making all sorts of calls, completed the day's haul.

Arctic Redpoll: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Day 3

Hawk Owl: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Hawk Owl: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Day 3 and we came across our only Hazelhen of the trip, a dead bird on the road, before we met up with our guide for the day Eero Kemilä and headed off to see Emily the Hawk Owl. The lady who lived on the farm had been offering dead mice to her adopted owl for a few weeks, and it had become accustomed to being fed to such an extent that it clearly recognised her voice as soon as she walked out of the house. On sensing feeding time was nigh, the owl moved into the top of some very tall aspens by the house. A mouse was then placed out on the snow in the adjacent field and the effect was instantaneous; on seeing the mouse the Hawk Owl set off from its perch, dropping, and powering, down at breakneck speed to pick up the mouse as it passed with outstretched feet before disappearing back into the top of the aspen. The action was all over in a couple of seconds and photography was not easy given the poor light, but we managed a few shots. For a rather superior photo of this bird in action, see the birdphoto.fi website! A brief afternoon excursion took us to a feeding site for Siberian Jay, where the birds were briefly co-operative before disappearing into the woods. Great Spotted Woodpecker and Northern Treecreeper were the only other birds seen. Having got hold of the details on another Azure Tit at Uurien, on our way back to Tampere we set off back south on the Sunday evening only to run into ever-worsening weather with persistent heavy snow and strong driving winds. Five hours later, after surviving an attack from a snow plough and a large lorry, we bottled out and found a hotel about 60 miles north of the tit site.

Day 4

Red Squirrel: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Day 4 dawned with just light snow falling and this quickly gave way to brighter conditions with some hazy sunshine. Arriving at the Azure Tit site we found the feeders it was frequenting to be in permanent shade, making for rather slow shutter speeds on any photographic attempts. Fortunately the bird was quite obliging inasmuch as it made fairly regular appearances at 45-minute intervals, but its visits were quite short and jumpy. We did manage some record shots, but you always had the feeling that you could have done so much better. Also using the feeder were Crested Tits, borealis Willow Tits, grey Red Squirrels and a mixture of Arctic and Mealy Redpolls, plus a nice Northern Treecreeper that landed in a tree right next to me and provided one of my best photos of the trip! Late afternoon we set off to look for any grouse on the roadsides nearby, but found nothing other than a flock of Waxwings in the nearby village. It had become steadily colder during the afternoon with the car temperature gauge showing -22°C by the time we found a hotel at 23:00hrs.

'Northern' Treecreeper: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Day 5

Waxwing: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Day 5, and it was cold! The hire car felt it was not a good idea to have left it out in the open all night, but it did eventually crank up and quickly showed us that it was -25°C - but the light was amazing, with bright sunshine accompanied by showers of falling ice crystals making surreal rainbows in the cloudless sky. Our early search for Ural and Great Grey Owl produced a Goldcrest, Common Crossbills and eight Yellowhammers but no owls. With such amazing light we decided to try and photograph some Waxwings and thus we drove back into the nearest town, where we quickly found a flock feeding on low berries along with a few Fieldfares. A party of Arctic and a few Mealy Redpolls passed through as we concluded our Waxwing photography and headed back to the owl site for a last-ditch attempt at locating our quarry. Another group of Waxwings greeted us on arrival, along with Common Crossbills in the spruce trees, and then we just bumped into a roosting Great Grey. What a bird! They never fail to impress but the severe cold was taking its toll and although we managed to hold out until it eventually left its roost at 17:30hrs, we could not manage to follow it in the hope of seeing it hunting; frozen toes and fingers needed heat.

Great Grey Owl: Finland (photo: Graham Catley).

Winter trips to Scandinavia are great value if you like special birds and snow but both species variety and abundance are very limited. However, four days' birding with Azure Tit (once-in-a-lifetime bird), 45 Pine Grosbeaks at 3m range, Siberian Tits, Siberian Jays, Arctic Redpolls in the snow, Great Grey and Hawk Owls and Waxwings in their rightful setting certainly beats a weekend around Barton pits.

Written by: Graham Catley