Many years ago I read Richard Vaughan's timeless Arctic Summer: Birds in North Norway and was totally enchanted by the landscapes and species portrayed in the book. I subsequently made a promise to myself that I would one day visit Lapland and Varanger. It's a region that holds taiga forest stretching as far as the eye can see, rolling, snow-capped tundra, towering seabird cliffs, impenetrable, expansive bogs and an endless peppering of exquisite lakes … huge areas are in totally pristine condition, making Lapland unique in a European context. The appeal of this marvellous scenery alone was huge, and that's before the spectacular cast of birds found amid these picture-perfect places.
After COVID-19 delayed my plans by two years, I finally made it to the great north in May and was fizzing with excitement at the thought of the 12-day trip that lay ahead. Our first port of call was Kuusamo, a medium-sized town at the top of Northern Ostrobothnia. Although not quite in Lapland, the Lappish landscapes were indisputable here, and the most dominant habitat of the region was particularly prevalent: boreal forest. As we slowly made our way to our accommodation the flames of early excitement were fanned roadside: Western Capercaillies and Black Grouse taking grit every few hundred metres, Short-eared Owls quartering silent meadows, Black-throated Divers wailing from picture-perfect lakes. The birding had begun.
Siberian Jay is a relatively common bird of old spruce and pine forest in Lapland and can prove remarkably bold, even coming to take food from humans (Ed Stubbs).
We had the best part of three days in Kuusamo, where the sun 'set' (gloomy half-darkness) for only three hours each night. This meant plenty of time in the field, albeit with rather grim alarms being set. The forests held a few target species but the standard of the supporting cast was quite brilliant – something that would be a theme throughout this trip. The aforementioned grouse species were almost like Common Pheasants in England (at certain times of the day at least), frequenting the roadside with regularity. Most lakes either had Black-throated Diver or Red-necked Grebe pairs in full breeding regalia, Smew and Common Goldeneye were readily encountered, Wood Sandpipers sang incongruously from the tops of trees and some of the chief passerine songsters were smart male Bramblings and trilling Waxwings. It was clear that species that might make a winter day in Britain – and even then, they'd probably be shy and in drab plumage – were standard, showy fare out here.
In terms of finding target species, the boreal forests proved the hardest to work, but persistence eventually paid off. Konttainen Hill was a particularly fruitful area, with the spruce-covered slopes holding singing Red-flanked Bluetails and tame Siberian Jays, as well as our best views of Hazel Grouse and a drumming Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. My only previous encounter with a bluetail was an elusive, dull autumn bird on Shetland several autumns ago; to see a bright male giving it welly from atop a pine almost gave the impression of an entirely new species – again a theme that would run throughout the trip for different birds.
Western Capercaillie were fairly routine roadside birds in forested areas late at night and in the early hours, though males were far scarcer than females (Ed Stubbs).
I was surprised with how readily Rustic Bunting was encountered in the Kuusamo area. Over two days we enjoyed six observations at four different sites, though birds were generally quite elusive. The males looked wonderful though. Other highlights from our time here included a brief Siberian Tit, Parrot Crossbill, intimate encounters with Eurasian Woodcock (a mating pair) and Bohemian Waxwing (a bonding pair) and numerous close-range views of Willow Ptarmigan (a possible full species in the future).
It felt a shame to pull ourselves away from Kuusamo after a mere three days but a long journey north beckoned. The next destination was Ivalo, with a few stops en route, including a snowy hike up the first summit of Kiilopää mountain, where two Ptarmigan greeted us at the top. We recharged in a little village near Ivalo that evening, but even while catching up with work emails the occasional gaze outside the window would produce a singing Pied Flycatcher, roving groups of Willow Tits or displaying Wood Sandpipers.
Finland is famous for its owls and no fewer than seven different species were seen on the trip, including Northern Hawk-Owl (Ed Stubbs).
The next morning we again moved on, with the first port of call the famous Neljän Tuulen Tupa café at Kaamanen. The car brakes slammed on during our approach due to the presence of a displaying male Western Capercaillie on the road. We were treated to bumper views of this monster bird as it clicked, hissed and wing-fluttered, despite seemingly limited interest from two nearby females. A trip highlight for sure.
The famous cafe
Neljän Tuulen Tupa is a 'must-see' on the Lapland and Varanger route for it's the most reliable site for Pine Grosbeak in Europe. These chunky finches of the taiga visit the impressive and well-stocked feeding station round the back of the café and, almost as soon as we rocked up, a second-year male was in song in a birch. We spent a couple of hours here enjoying great views of a fine selection of species, including another two Pine Grosbeaks, as well as two Siberian Tits and heaps of Bramblings and Common Redpolls.
The reluctance to pull ourselves away was again felt, but Varanger was calling and we had the first of four nights in Arctic Norway coming up. We drove north once more, with the landscape of pine forest and mires slowly falling by to that of open fell, flowing rivers and the sea. The first Rough-legged Buzzards of the trip were a sign of things to come – the avian cast would shift once more by the time we arrived on the peninsula.
Thousands of Steller's Eider winter in Varanger but numbers drop away in the spring and summer, with a handful remaining. This drake was part of a group of nine present in Vadsø Bay (Ed Stubbs).
Varanger is the most north-eastern part of Norway (and sits in part further east than Istanbul). It's a famous birding location – perhaps the world's most accessible Arctic destination – and is home to a long list of iconic species. The regular cast of birds here included White-tailed Eagles, Arctic Skuas and a wide range of waders (we saw 20 species in Varanger). It had been a late spring by all accounts and there was still a lot of snow on the ground, but we were blessed with warm, sunny weather and, by the end of our stay, most snow had melted and birds had arrived en masse. It was also light for 24-hours – something a lover of spring and summer such as myself would relish.
After a few stops on the E75, the road that skirts the southern end of Varangerfjord, we headed to Vadsø – both our home for the next few nights and the site of perhaps the key trip target. It didn't take too long to 'scope our quarry either: a group of nine Steller's Eider. This gorgeous duck has long been high on my world bird wish list so I was delighted to score so early on. Thousands of Steller's Eider winter in Varanger but numbers whittle down by the summer; our trip was timed a touch on the early side for most breeding birds here, such was the desire to connect with this High Arctic duck.
This little group would remain in the bay at Vadsø throughout our trip and inevitably we made the daily pilgrimage to see them. I'm a big fan of ducks in general but drake Steller's Eider really is in the elite category; the Iñupiat people of Alaska call them 'the bird that sat in the campfire', in reference to the burned orange tones of the male's underparts. We spent the rest of the first day getting to know the local area, slowly seeing our first Lapland Bunting and Snow Buntings, Red-throated Pipits and myriad wildfowl, waders and seabirds.
The surprise of the trip was to come on this first afternoon in Varanger as well. When I saw a harrier glide into view near Kiby I was astonished to see the chestnut belly streaks and black secondary bands of a male Montagu's Harrier. What this bird was doing in the Arctic I don't know, but I was pleased I got photos – I later learned 'monty's' is a Norwegian national rarity and this would be the first record for the northern region of Finnmark. It also seems to be the second northernmost occurrence of the species anywhere in the world – crazy stuff!
This male Montagu's Harrier was most unexpected as it flew over the snow-capped landscapes of Varanger (Ed Stubbs).
We spent the next few days exploring the various tracks, fells, bays and cliffs of this dramatically stunning peninsula, with a long-list of awesome birds noted. Singing Red-spotted Bluethroats and Arctic Redpolls were encountered, five alcid species included Brünnich's Guillemot, displaying Long-tailed Skuas were seen at close-range and summer-plumage White-billed Divers were enjoyed. Drake King Eider was another highlight, along with a visit to Norway's largest Kittiwake colony and twitching a Ross's Gull found at Vardø.
The waders stood out on Varanger with many birds in summer plumage and often showy. Lekking Ruff were fairly regular and, on Vadsøya, I had a brilliant half-hour with a newly arrived female Red-necked Phalarope. Sifting through feeding flocks in little bays or rafts of seaweed would invariably produce a few Little Stints, Purple Sandpipers or Red Knot, all looking spectacular. Temminck's Stint was commonly seen as well with several displaying birds noted to boot.
Temminck's Stint was commonly encountered in Varanger, either displaying over vegetation-fringed pools or amid mixed wader flocks (Ed Stubbs).
On top of the world
It was simply breath-taking. Here, at the very top of Europe, was birding to rival any other on the continent, and I can only think of Israel and Spain in spring migration as trips that conjured up such feelings of enthrallment and wonder. Unfortunately, the time to head back south eventually came, though not without a special parting encounter: a breeding pair of Northern Hawk-Owls.
Many of the breeding waders were wonderfully showy, including Red-necked Phalarope (Ed Stubbs).
A long drive to Oulu saw us pit-stop at a few spots, adding Little Bunting to the trip list near Ivalo but missing Broad-billed Sandpiper at the wonderful Ilmakkiaapa bog. We were only in Oulu for an evening and a morning but we were able to enjoy some different species here, including Caspian Terns and Common Rosefinches. Sadly, we dipped Great Grey Owl (twice), which would prove to be the only significant miss of the trip, albeit rather a notable omission.
The Lapland and Varanger route is a fairly well-travelled path, but we had opted for a south-eastern extension to the Parikkala area near the Russian border – something the flexibility of a DIY trip allows. Once more the regular line-up of species shifted, this time to something with a more Eastern European flavour; Thrush Nightingale, Icterine Warbler and Golden Oriole were commonly heard, for example, while most lakes held plentiful Sedge Warblers and Eurasian Bitterns. Parikkala is renowned for its night-singers and owls, so an entire night in the field felt like the right thing to do.
Rhythms of the night
Given the birds never stopped, then there was no reason for us to – throughout the night (which never got properly dark, but was much more like night-time than in the far north) birds were in song, including Blyth's Reed Warbler and three crake species (Little and Spotted Crakes and Corncrake).
No fewer than six owl species were also enjoyed, including a pair of Ural Owls feeding young, nesting Tengmalm's Owl and a wonderful encounter with a hunting Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, which we watched stoop and fail to catch a Crested Tit. There were plenty of other memorable moments in the Parikkala area, including singing Ortolan Buntings, Red-necked Grebes on the nest and a family group of White-backed Woodpeckers.
The peace and quiet – and raw beauty – of many of the places we visited hit home by the time we landed at a noisy and grey London Gatwick. There's no doubt Lapland and Varanger offer some of the most extraordinary and intimate birding encounters in Europe. It was high on my wish list for some time – and it should be on yours, too.
Three classic habitats encountered on the trip: (top to bottom) bog, tundra and boreal forest (Ed Stubbs).