FLY HELSINKI & OULU
Our birdwatching tour to Finland and Arctic Norway begins with a morning flight from London Heathrow to Helsinki and onward afternoon connection north to Oulu. We'll be met by our local guide and transfer the short distance to our hotel for the first three nights.
Oulu is a port on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, barely 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Flight times permitting, we have a first opportunity this evening to check the shore near the hotel for the 'whiplash' call of Spotted Crake and 'drumming' Common Snipe as the evening draws out into the night – even at 10.30pm it is light enough here to watch birds!
We might also try for our first owl of the trip - the diminutive but fearless Eurasian Pygmy Owl - if one is available nearby. Night Oulu
Days 2 - 3
OULU & LIMINGANLAHTI
A pre-breakfast walk might produce Common Rosefinch or Pied Flycatcher in the birches by the hotel. Nearby, the coastal marshes and bays can hold dapper Black-throated Divers and Slavonian Grebes, Wheatears, Whinchats - and possibly Bluethroat, with its cerulean gorget.
We will spend these two days birding in the vicinity of Oulu, where we will make a special effort to find some of northern Europe’s rarest breeding birds. There are only few pairs of Terek Sandpiper in Finland but, with the help of our local guide and contacts, our chances of seeing one are considerably enhanced. The superb Pallid Harrier sometimes nests here, too.
Oulu is also a great place to look for owls. In the extensive forests around town, we will focus our attention on finding the widespread but elusive trio of Tengmalm’s, Ural and Eurasian Pygmy Owls. We also have a first opportunity to try for that sought-after ‘monarch of the boreal forest’, the magnificent Great Grey Owl. Owl numbers vary year on year and, as we explore the tractless forests, it will soon become apparent why expert local knowledge is a prerequisite to enjoying any success in finding Scandinavia's special birds!
Nearby, Liminganlahti is an internationally important wetland reserve that harbours thousands of waders and ducks. Whooper Swan, Garganey, Smew, Western Marsh Harrier and Little Gull are all regularly present in spring along with a few pairs of Black-tailed Godwit, the latter a very scarce bird up here. After watching for Common Cranes, Greylag Geese and White-tailed Eagles at the bay, we will head back into the forests in search of Black and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, with Fieldfares chortling and Bramblings wheezing away in the treetops. Two further nights Oulu
Days 4 - 5
From Oulu, we head northeast to Kuusamo, stopping along the way to scan some of the region’s extensive forest bogs and lakes -amazingly, there are 187,000 of the latter in Finland alone! Birds to watch out for include Velvet Scoter and Black-throated Diver.
Lying close to the border with Russia, Kuusamo is one of the most exciting birding areas in all Finland. The birch scrub here is one of the first places that Little and Rustic Buntings reappear having wintered in southern Asia. Goldeneye, Wood Sandpiper, Arctic Tern, Redwing and Brambling frequent the hill woodlands, lakes and bogs around Valtavaara, where less numerous breeding species include Red-necked Grebe, Golden Eagle, Northern Goshawk, Tengmalm's Owl and Great Grey Shrike.
However, the real draw at Kuusamo is the quite unparalleled list of northern 'exotics'. From Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay to Waxwing and Parrot Crossbill, there’s more than enough here to keep our pulses racing all day! Rarest of all, the dazzling Red-flanked Bluetail is expanding its range in the forests, occurring here at the extreme western edge of its range. Although it may not be within grasp every year, our forays into the hills in search of this shy taiga jewel are invariably one of the most memorable aspects of the tour. Two nights Kuusamo
KUUSAMO, ACROSS THE ARCTIC CIRCLE TO LUOSTO
We have time this morning to drive the roads into the forest near Kuusamo, exploring the area for four species of grouse. Early morning is the best time to get out for these as they can often be found close to the road. Black Grouse are usually the most common, but Capercaillie can also appear - even on the road! We will visit a spot in hopes of witnessing their remarkable strutting, cork-popping display. Hazel Grouse are much more secretive, but local knowledge helps – not least of their high-pitched 'dog whistle' call. The attractive Willow Grouse (now just changing out of their white winter garb) completes the set, and can even appear about the outskirts of town itself.
Bidding a reluctant farewell to Kuusamo after breakfast, we head further north today, taking in some of the finest bogs in all Finland as we go. These are home to an impressive list of breeding waders, including the notoriously tricky Jack Snipe with its astonishing ‘galloping horse’ song.
Pausing for the customary group photos as we cross the Arctic Circle, we continue deeper into Finnish Lapland with Smew, Merlin and the fuscus race of Lesser Black-backed Gull (often called ‘Baltic Gull’) to look for along the way.
Our destination this evening is Luosto. Nestled below a granite outcrop amidst remote taiga woodlands, this is another good area to see the impressive Capercaillie - sometimes a little too close for comfort! We might also be lucky to spot a Northern Hawk Owl hunting from a snag. Night Luosto
ARCTIC LAPLAND: LUOSTO TO IVALO
We push on north through Arctic Lapland today, bound for Ivalo, where the relentless expanses of pines gradually begin to thin. We’ll check bogs en route for Broad-billed Sandpiper, and also explore the woodlands for some of the region’s trickier forest species such as Siberian Tit and the undemonstrative Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker. Time allowing, we may also check some of the higher hills for Rock Ptarmigan and Dotterel before arriving at our hotel in Ivalo.
An optional after-dinner outing at Ivalo could produce... well just about anything, from Jack Snipe and Broad-billed Sandpiper to Siberian Jay and Little Bunting! Night Ivalo
IVALO, NORTH TO ARCTIC NORWAY
As we travel deeper into Arctic Lapland, periodically, the forests give way to open expanses of impenetrable boggy lakelands. Snazzy Lapland Buntings, song-flighting ‘red-spotted’ Bluethroats and patrolling Rough-legged Buzzards frequent this habitat and our wader list should continue to grow with the likes of Eurasian Golden Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit and Spotted Redshank - all in glorious summer dress, of course. Black-throated Divers and Common Scoters also nest, while at promising sites along the way, we may stop to try for what is perhaps the most difficult of all boreal birds to find - the quiet and retiring Pine Grosbeak.
The urge to reach the Arctic coast is irresistible now, as our route follows the Utsjoki River north to the Finnish border. Crossing into northern Norway (where confusingly the clocks go back one hour!), our destination this evening is Tana, close to the westernmost extremity of Varangerfjord. Night Tana
Days 9 - 11
ARCTIC NORWAY: VARANGERFJORD & BOAT TRIP TO HORNOYA
We have three full days to enjoy the exciting Arctic birdlife found around the shores of the remote Varanger peninsula, dividing our time between two nights at Vardö in the east (at the mouth of Varangerfjord), and one further night back at Tana in the west.
Leaving Tana, we cross the river and travel east to Varangerbotn, at the westernmost point of Varangerfjord. We'll spend the rest of this 'first' day driving slowly along the northern shore of the fjord, picking up many of the Arctic breeders that are found throughout this region, including Common Eider, Arctic Skua, Red-throated Pipit and Snow Bunting. Here we may also thrill to the incredible ‘butterfly display’ of Temminck’s Stints as they hover right before our eyes; witness the extraordinary antics of Ruffs at the lek; watch brightly-coloured Turnstones and summer-plumaged Purple Sandpipers foraging along the Arctic shoreline; and marvel at the incredible tameness of Red-necked Phalaropes spinning this way and that at our feet. Perhaps we'll find a White-tailed Eagle or a summering Glaucous Gull picking at a fish on the shore, while at Vadsö we will pause by the bay where eiders gather: amongst the many Common Eider this is a great place to check for the smaller but equally smart Steller’s Eider.
To the north and east, the scenery beyond the colourful fishing port of Vardö (where we stay) is even more dramatic. Accessed only by one, narrow coastal road, we’ll traverse a landscape dominated by stark seacliffs, barren stony fjelds and jutting rocky pinnacles that give this wonderful place a distinctly lunar appearance. The road north literally runs out at Hamningberg - the 'end of Europe'! Red-throated and White-billed Divers, and sensational King and Steller’s Eiders are but a few of the Arctic delights awaiting our discovery here as we gaze out from the shore of the Barents Sea.
As a fitting climax to our stay in the High Arctic, this morning we’ll take a boat trip out from Vardö to visit the spectacular seabird colony on Hornöya, watching for 'blue' Fulmar as we go. We should enjoy fine close views of the island’s five nesting auks: Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin and Black, Common and Brünnich’s Guillemots, while thousands of pairs of cacophonous Black-legged Kittiwakes scream above our heads. Hörnoya also offers a good chance of seeing the impressive Gyr Falcon, which regularly hunts for seabirds over the island, as our travels in this 'Land of the Midnight Sun' draws towards a close. Two nights Vardö, and one night Tana
TANA, SOUTH TO IVALO
We have time this morning to drive a little way northeast of Tana, on the road to Batsfjord. On the high snowy fjelds we have chances to try for some special birds including Rock Ptarmigan, Long-tailed Duck, Greater Scaup, Eurasian Dotterel, 'singing' Dunlin and Long-tailed Skua. Breeding-plumaged Horned Lark, Red-throated Pipit and Snow and Lapland Buntings are well worth watching out for along the road, along with the uncommon Ring Ouzel and Common and Arctic Redpolls.
Heading south again, we cross the border back into Finland, where the scenic mixed forests and bogs beyond the Utsjoki River provide a last opportunity to look for some of the more elusive northern specialities, such as Waxwing, Siberian Jay and the raspberry red Pine Grosbeak.
Retracing our route through the taiga of Finnish Lapland, we spend the last night of our tour once more at Ivalo. Night Ivalo
IVALO, FLY HELSINKI & LONDON
Flight schedules permitting, there may be time to enjoy some final birding in the forests around Ivalo this morning before we must board our flight south from Ivalo to Helsinki.
Onward connection from Helsinki to London Heathrow, where our Northern Owls & Arctic tour sadly concludes.