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FINLAND AND NORWAY 2006

Another highly successful and hugely enjoyable Birdfinders tour to Finland and Norway began on the 26th May in Oulu, on Finland's west coast, where we were greeted by our Finnature guide Toni Uusimaki. We set off in two comfortable minibuses and, on our first evening, we received a warm welcome at a wonderful traditional farmhouse dinner complete with Finnish folk song.

We stayed in the Oulu area for three nights and were treated to an orgy of owls: a showy Northern Hawk-owl, an imperious Great Grey Owl at the nest with it two small young and with its mate nearby, a close-range fledged juvenile Ural Owl which had clearly not yet learned the shyness of the three adults we glimpsed, a surprised-looking Boreal Owl which peered down at us from its nest-box, a hyperactive Eurasian Pygmy-owl and an impressive dump-dwelling Eurasian Eagle-owl. The area's woods, farmland and marshes also produced terrific views of a Greater Spotted Eagle, a heard-only Corn Crake, the first of the tour's 60 Cranes and 23 Temminck's Stints, two Eurasian Wrynecks, an amazingly close Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, the first of the three Black Woodpeckers, 46 Bohemian Waxwings and 12 Common Rosefinches we were to see, a male Citrine Wagtail, five Red-backed Shrikes and an Ortolan Bunting. At the coast the highlights were 17 Caspian Terns and an early migrant European Honey-buzzard flying north.

Our second base, again for three nights, was to the northeast, near Kuusamo, which is situated close to Finland's border with Russia in a forested region studded with lakes. We started well, locating three Siberian Gulls at a local landfill site and enjoying wonderful views of a noisy Siberian Tit before we had even reached our ski-resort hotel. Despite poor weather during our stay in the area, we saw two Northern Goshawks, a Golden Eagle, five Eurasian Capercaillies, six Black Grouse and two Hazel Grouse as well as the first of the tour's 30 Rough-legged Hawks, three Willow Grouse, 238 Red-necked Phalaropes and two Pine Grosbeaks. Siberian Jays, six in total, were seen in three spots, and we found them to be opportunistic feeders with a liking for biscuits. Mist, drizzle and time of day combined to reduce somewhat the impact of the adult male Red-flanked Bluetail, which we saw in both May and June (two views, a quarter of an hour apart, either side of midnight!).

Shortly after leaving the Kuusamo area for the long drive north to Ivalo, we stopped the minibuses, took a few paces to the north and, in traditional Finnish style, toasted crossing the Arctic Circle. The drivers, it should be noted, celebrated a little less than the rest of the party. A Broad-billed Sandpiper in display-flight and good looks at two Parrot Crossbills were the day's other highlights in Lapland.

After an overnight stay in Ivalo we continued to head north, noticing the rapid thinning of the trees and seeing the first of our total of fifteen Bluethroats before crossing an unseen border and discovering that we were in Norway. We spent three nights in Vardo, our base for visiting a nearby island to see seabirds and for birding along the north side of the famous Varangerfjord and on around the wild, treeless coast to remote Hamningberg. In spite of generally cold, overcast, windy conditions, with a little rain and the odd flurry of snow, our stay in Norway was an exciting one with an abundance of quality birds: two first-year White-billed Divers, 34 King Eiders, more than 150 Steller's Eiders, the first of the tour's 16 magnificent White-tailed Eagles and 23 beautiful Long-tailed Jaegers, a Glaucous Gull, at least 120 Thick-billed Murres, seven Red-throated Pipits, a Great Grey Shrike and six stunning Hoary Redpolls.

The two-day return trip to the Oulu area, which included another overnight stay in Ivalo, gave us the dubious pleasure of seeing, from the outside only, the official home of Santa Claus, an unbelievably successful tourist trap near Rovaniemi. More enjoyable highlights were nine European Dotterels and a smart, confiding Little Bunting.

A late afternoon arrival in the Oulu area for an overnight stay and a flight home the next day meant limited birding time, but we certainly made the most of it! We found two Crested Tits before getting to the hotel, then, at midnight, we were well to the south of Oulu using telescopes to study the structural and plumage characters of a Blyth's Reed-warbler, after which we enjoyed the songs of three Thrush Nightingales nearby. Finally, in the harbour area at Oulu the following morning, we found the bird which had eluded us at the start of the tour: a splendid Terek Sandpiper.

We drove 4285km during the tour and recorded 193 bird species. Some of those not yet mentioned are Arctic Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Bean and Barnacle Geese, Long-tailed Duck, Velvet Scoter, Smew, Purple Sandpiper, Black Guillemot, Horned Lark, Hooded Crow, Twite and Lapland and Snow Buntings. Mammals observed included Mountain Hare, Red Squirrel, Otter, Reindeer and Elk. Special thanks go to Toni Uusimaki, for guiding the tour so expertly and with such persistence and good humour, and to the participants, each of whom contributed greatly: John Boulcott, Fiona Butler, Geoff Cope, Martin Peers, Dave and Kay Ryves, Mike Shrubb, Ian Taylor, Mike Walton and Brian and Pat Wetton.

Siberian Jay

Siberian Jay