Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Finland Fantasia

Friday, 9 Feb 2007

Finland has been on my must-see list for some time now and this year, with so many good birds supposedly pinned down, including several examples of the almost mythical Azure Tit, seemed like as good a time as any. I quickly assembled a crack team of euro-twitchers, which just as quickly fell apart. After one postponement and more personnel changes than a failing government department Martin Coates, Richard Allison, Joe Cockram and I met up with Justin Lansdell, Andrew Wilkinson and Mike Edgecombe at Stansted for the pre-dawn Ryanair departure for Tampere.

Accelerated sunrise from the climbing 737

The flight was packed to gunwales, with folk sharing the cockpit and even a few clinging to the wings, because the previous day's flight was cancelled due to temperatures dipping fractionally below zero and a light dusting of snow at Stansted. As we approached Tampere it dawned on us how ridiculous this was. The dark islands in a sea of white gradually resolved into blocks of woodland in a landscape of snow-covered frozen lakes. We landed at an airport surrounded by snow at -20C and everything was working perfectly.

Forest islands in a snow sea

Driving on the solid ice and snow proved another eye-opener. Finns belted about in cars sporting studded tyres and, as our confidence grew, we were soon doing our best to keep up. We only saw one car off the road the whole time in conditions that would have every British road in carnage.

The drive to Uurainen took about 2.5 hours and although everything looked very pretty covered in snow and ice under the brilliant blue sky and sunshine, there were few birds to speak of. Magpie, Hooded Crow, nordic Jackdaw and one or two fly-over finches occasionally broke the monotony. At one point Richard noticed the arse-end of an Elk sticking out of a bit of forest. No-one else got onto it but there were 'beware of the Elk' signs everywhere so we were sure we would see another. Did we bollocks!

Snowy scenes at Uurainen

So fully togged up we prepared to view this top-class Western Palearctic bird. Over the next three hours temperatures fell steadily to an extremity-numbing -25C. The steady stream of Blue, Great, Coal, Crested and borealis Willow Tits, Mealy Redpolls and even a northern Treecreeper soon failed to have any effect on our flagging spirits as we made attempts to restart circulation by moving between the feeders at numbers 93 and 85.

Number 93 - where the Azure Tit used to be

Number 85 - it wasn't here either (note the Capercaillie on the wind vane)

Mealy Redpolls

We could no more see the Azure Tit than we could feel our feet, then came the news that the party that were watching it the day before had seen a Sparrowhawk carrying off something whitish as they left the previous day!!!

Dejected Dippers

So with dusk gathering Mike headed back to Tampere to collect the rest of his party while the six of us started the long drive north to Oulu where in theory there were three more Azure Tits along with more goodies.

The five hour drive north in the dark was even more mind-numbing than the daylight drive earlier in the day but at least the company was good and there was an excellent, multi-course, eat-all-you-like buffet for a give-away €10.50 at a little roadside place just south of the crossroads at Pihtipudas.

It was about 22:00 when we rode into Oulu town. Justin and Andrew sloped off to the Holiday Inn, while the rest of us took our pleasant 4 bedded room overlooking the main railway station in the Hotelli Turisti for a mere €90 (about £15 each) including a good breakfast. A quick stroll around the centre and a wave to loved ones on the webcam finished off the day.

Oulu at night

Saturday, 10 Feb 2007

A good breakfast got Saturday underway and our Finnature guide, Aappo, was waiting for us early with bad news about Azure Tits in the Oulu area. The mainland one had not been seen for some days and the two on Hailuto island would take hours of searching with no guarantee of success. Arse! But this was a bunch of hardened twitchers used to dipping and the weeping was kept to a low wimper for most of the time as we decided to make the most of the other excellent birds in the area.

Kevin Du Rose recommended using the guide and it was one of the best bits of advice as some of the birds and places would have taken ages to find and we fitted far more into the day than would otherwise have been possible.

We began by heading for a feeding station well hidden in the woodland of one of the city parks. After a few moments throwing things at the frosty-grey Red Squirrels to keep them off the feeder and getting stunning close-up views of borealis Willow Tits our guide picked up a Siberian Tit nearby. It's first visit to the feeder was lightning fast and not everyone got good enough views but fortunately it wasn't long before it made another fleeting visit and took the piece of food to a nearby branch in full view where it spent a few minutes eating.

Red Squirrel

Some northern Bullfinches, tooting away in the treetops, a party of Jays and a cracking close pass by a huge old female Goshawk in glorious sunshine made this an excellent start. Loud Sibe Tit calls from nearby then heralded the arrival of birders with a mighty getto-blaster of a lure and we beat our retreat.

In the meantime we had had two phonecalls. The first to Aappo told him where the Pine Grosbeak flock was and the second was from Mike saying they were watching the Azure Tit at number 93 in Uurainen! What! So it wasn't eaten and was back on the agenda. We still had Sunday and it was just possible with a bit of reorganising of itineraries we could still connect with all our targets.

Spirits were now very high; Sibe Tit under the belt, Azure Tit alive and kicking and, as we pulled up alongside some housing in the city, cracking point-blank views of a party of 10 Pine Grosbeaks.

Pine Grosbeak

Waxwings were dotted around the suburbs as Aappo took us on a search for an adult male Pine Grossbeak. We failed to find one but came across one more immature female, a Fieldfare, a couple of northern Bullfinches and a small party of Mealy Redpolls with one nice snowball of a male Arctic Redpoll which unfortunately failed to stick around for everyone to see. Interestingly the flock included one bird that would easily pass for a Lesser Redpoll at home - a major rarity in Oulu.

It was time to bid farewell to Aappo and head off to rendezvous with Eero Kemila for the Hawk Owl and Siberian Jays. A brief stop for essential supplies on the way to Vaala nearly proved disastrous when the throttle cable froze on the Focus. Fortunately it freed up while the replacement car was being organised and we weren't too late meeting Eero, who proceded to hand us two dead voles and gave us directions to meet the owner of the place where the Hawk Owl was wintering.

His greeting was not very encouraging; apparently as we were a little late the owl had gone off hunting on its own. However as we pulled up at the small farmstead there was the Hawk Owl sat on the topmost branches of a tall tree. Dubbed Emily by brits, an anglisization of Elmeri, the name it was given by the people feeding it, this bird provided some top quality entertainment. After some photos at its perch we were instructed to focus on a stick placed in the snow. The stick was then replaced by one of the voles and the Hawk Owl shot down to take the rodent in flight. It was all over in a fraction of a second.

I make no apologies for including six shots of this amazing bird. But for the ultimate shot see here.

Hawk Owl

A large flock of redpolls here simply refused to stick around to be scrutinised but a few more northern Bullfinches and borealis Willow Tits were nice.

Soon we were back with Eero desperately trying to keep up with his landrover as he hared along the compacted snow and ice at speeds that would have most Brits off the road if it had a light film of dew on it. He then led us walking through dense, pristine, snowy forest to the quietest place in the world; it might have been Little Red Riding Hood's grannie's place, not sure. The feeders there were unfortunately not visited by anything while we were there but there were two Great Spotted Woodpeckers around all the time and it was so quiet you could hear them fart.

Woodland north of Vaala

Well we had another site for Siberian Jay near the Azure Tit site so it was time to call it a day. Justin and Andrew decided to stay another night in Oulu but we were going to head south and stay closer to Uurainen. We arranged to meet at number 93 at dawn and headed off south. Another excellent meal at the same place on the road near Pihtipudas and a lot more driving saw us checking in to the Hotel Pihkuri at Viitasaari where we got a 4 bedded room for €100.00 (about £16.50 each) without breakfast.

Sunday, 11 Feb 2007

Our final day. We simply had to connect with the Azure Tit, now the only twitchable one in the world, today. But that wouldn't be a problem; it had been showing all day yesterday. We'd fill our boots with it before heading off to the Sibe Jay feeding station and finish off with the Great Grey Owl at Hyvinkää. Yeh, right!

Considering we set off more than 250km apart it was amazing when Justin and Andrew pulled up behind us at number 93 only a matter of a few minutes after we arrived. We set up near the feeders to wait. Surely it was only a matter of time. A long time. Three hours later we were frozen and only had the hoards of birders arriving to distract us. This couldn't be. Everyone else had seen this damn bird here within 15 minutes at most. Well we were going to stick it out for the day if necessary but as luck would have it the owner of number 93 took his dog off for a walk, and as much to try to warm up a bit as anything Justin, Andrew, Richard and Martin followed. Then all hell broke loose!

First a mobile went off next to us, then mine rang, then Joe set off like Lynford bloody Christie. I was not far behind and wasn't about to stop to answer my phone; it was obvious the bird had been relocated. How Joe moved so fast down a hill on a road of sheet ice I don't know but he had seen Richard, who had selflessly abandoned the bird to come and wave from the road, and was off.

Eventually everyone was gathered watching the feeders at number 69! Now why didn't anyone mention there were some there? We all got good views of the bird that had given us such a run around as it came and went with a flock of 53 Blue Tits. Azure Tit. It's just one of those magical birds and this was the only practically accessible one in the world. Wow!

Azure Tit

What was really irritating was that as we got in the car to leave there was the Azure Tit at the feeders of number 93! We wouldn't even have had to get out of the car. Why couldn't it have turned up there earlier, or even Friday?

Of course the little bleeder had now cost us even more time and we were faced with the choice of either staying relatively local and seeing the Siberian Jays plus perhaps having a chance of connecting with one or more of the Woodpeckers or spending most of the rest of the day driving to the south for a chance of connecting with the Great Grey Owl and maybe even Ural Owl.

I can't say I always thought we made the right choice. My instinct in these situations is to travel less and give yourself more time with the birds. Although the owl had been seen that morning there was no sign of it when we got there, despite a search of the likely areas. A couple of Goldcrests, some Crossbills of one form or another, 7 Waxwings, a small flock of Mealy Redpoll and a corking white-headed Long-tailed Tit (caudatus) were about but nothing any larger.

As dusk started to fall we positioned ourselves on the rise next to the road overlooking the clearing the bird was favouring and it was Joe that finally picked out the bird in flight. Joined by one Finn we moved around to where the bird was lingering and we enjoyed some sensational views. It was getting too dark for digiscoping but this digiscoped video isn't too bad.

Great Grey Owl

A last look around for Ural Owl in the failing light was fruitless so we headed back to Tampere. And that was Finland. Or was it? Ryanair had one last trick to pull on us. It was a late departure anyway but as we sat on the tarmac with the clock ticking it dawned on us that we probably wouldn't be going anywhere tonight. Sure enough the 'technical fault' mentioned earlier meant they had to cancel the flight. It was rescheduled for 13:30 the following day, or in other words when most of us were supposed to be back at work!

Passport control and baggage reclaim again, then dumped outside the airport at midnight with nowhere to stay and no transport. Great! Well it wasn't that bad. A shared taxi with some locals (gosh the Finns are nice people; everyone we met was friendly and spoke english - thanks guys!) and a smart hotel were found and later we were celebrating in a bar into the early hours.

Monday, 12 Feb 2007

Day four of our three day trip.

We'd worked out that Ryanair's revised schedule didn't quite leave us enough time to do anything meaningful with the day so after a very hearty breakfast we took a stroll around Tampere. Not the most inspiring prospect perhaps but others had seen Golden Eagle, Hawk Owl, Ural Owl and even a Gyrfalcon in the city area. Of course our morning meander produced no such goodies but we did turn up a few Waxwings, a Great Spotted Woodpecker or two and even found some feeders with a selection of common birds (Blue & Great Tits, Greenfinch, House Sparrow, etc.) including a couple of Mealy Redpolls.

Later that morning we learned that a chap with the right screwdriver had arrived to reattach whatever bit of the plane had fallen off and we would be leaving as planned. Before long we were back in blighty, quite a few quid and a day's leave worse off but otherwise very happy with the trip.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Spring Usher

A more conventional offering today attracted to my MV light. It may be more expected at this time of year but it's still only the third I've recorded in the garden.

Spring Usher Agriopis leucophaearia

Nikon Coolpix P4