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Finland Owls, Taiga & South

A 9-day, small group birdwatching tour to Finland
at the best time of year to see owls

Our May tour to Finland visits at the best time of year to see Scandinavia's sought-after owls and taiga specialities - and has been extended to include two extra days around Helsinki in search of late arriving southern breeders such as Blyth's Reed Warbler and Thrush Nightingale. Highlights from our last tour included stunning views of Pallid Harrier, Terek Sandpiper, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk and Eurasian Pygmy Owls, Black and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, Siberian Jay, Citrine Wagtail, Siberian Tit, Greenish Warbler… and many more! Our 26th visit to Finland.

Tour Dates

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Leaders
David Fairhurst
local guides

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 9 Days

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Cost: £3695

inc flights from London Heathrow-Oulu/Kuusamo or Oulu to Helsinki/Helsinki-London Heathrow

Deposit: £500

Single Supp: £365
Land Only: £3395

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Hawk Owl 3 Finland 2014 Peter Kennerley MG 6940

The nomadic Hawk Owl is one of five sought-after 'northern' owls to look for on our May tour to Finland - this male putting on a great show for our group in the Russian border forests near Kuusamo © Peter Kennerley, Limosa Holidays

Blessed with an astonishing array of boreal birds, there's nowhere quite like Finland in spring! But in a land where wilderness is vast and birds are thinly spread, up-to-date local knowledge coupled with expert guidance are essential if one is to enjoy any chance of success finding the region's many special birds. On this compact three-centre tour, we have again been lucky enough to secure both! We travel in late May, when both the weather and the birding in Northern Europe is at its best - the majority of Finland's summer visitors will have arrived and Scandinavia's owls will be busy feeding young.

The most sought-after specialities and a major tour highlight in spring are the "northern" owls. Our adventure begins at Oulu, a port on the northeastern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia and the best place in Finland to see breeding owls. Pride of place goes to the majestic Great Grey Owl, but Tengmalm’s, Pygmy, Ural and Eagle Owls also breed in these sub-Arctic pinewoods - and most years there are Hawk Owls to look for, too! We shall spend some time exploring Oulu’s tranquil forests and meadows, where we have an excellent chance of seeing most (if not all) of these species - often at close range!

Away from the forests, the coastal bays and rivers around Oulu hold dainty Little Gulls, displaying Temminck’s Stints and, with luck, the exceedingly rare Terek Sandpiper. We will visit Liminka Bay, Finland's most important wetland and a superb spot in spring, especially for waterfowl and shorebirds. Ruff will be lekking in the meadows, and sporting their colourful collars and tufts. Numerous migratory birds stop off here on their way to the Arctic, and young Common Cranes and Whooper Swans pass the summer here. The ghostly Pallid Harrier and gorgeous Citrine Wagtail are two rarities that may be breeding in this area - both were seen on our last May tour - and if they return again in 2018, we will devote some time to looking for them.

After three nights near Oulu, we head northeast towards the hills and forests that straddle the border with Russia. At Kuusamo, we can expect to encounter a feast of eastern boreal specialities. The untouched Siberian taiga with its bearded, moss-laden spruce forests, lichen-clad upland pine forests, wild river valleys and miry bogs, preserves a rich wild flora and fauna including innumerable rarities. Hazel and Willow Grouse, Capercaillie, Red-necked Grebe, Black and Three-toed Woodpeckers, Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Waxwing, and Little and Rustic Buntings breed. Over the years, we've also had an unrivalled track record for finding the exquisite but extremely localised Red-flanked Bluetail.

Our itinerary again has the benefit of two extra days in the south and we will spend these exploring the excellent forests, lakes and marshes around Helsinki. Our main focus here will be to find Finland's late arriving specialist southern breeders - such as Blyth's Reed, Greenish and River Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Thrush Nightingale and Common Rosefinch. Finland's southern forests also hold many woodpeckers and, if conditions are right at the coast, we may see large numbers of divers, geese and other waterfowl streaming north towards their Arctic breeding grounds.

Limosa has been operating birdwatching tours to Finland since 1993 and this May 2018 tour will be our 26th visit there. Guide David Fairhurst led our May 2016 tour to Finland.

Red flanked Bluetail m singing Finland Jari Peltomaki 8765

We have an excellent track record over the last 25 years finding the rare Red-flanked Bluetail in the wild hills and forests that straddle Finland's border with Russia © Jari Peltomaki

Day 1                                    
FLY LONDON TO OULU

Our May birdwatching tour to Finland begins with a Finnair morning flight from London Heathrow to Helsinki, and onward afternoon connection to Oulu, where our local guide will be waiting to welcome us. We transfer the short distance to our hotel in nearby Kempele, which will be our base for a three-night stay.

Oulu is a port on the northeast shore of the Gulf of Bothnia, barely 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. With almost round-the-clock daylight here in May (the sunrises at around 3.30am and sets again at 11.00pm), this evening we have an opportunity to try for our first owl of the trip: the diminutive but fearless Pygmy Owl. With luck, the calls of Crested Tits and other small birds may lead us to find a male perched in a nearby tree. Night Kempele (Oulu)

Days 2 - 3                 
OULU WETLANDS & FORESTS

We spend these two days birding around Oulu, making a special effort to find some of Northern Europe’s rarest breeding birds. Nowadays, there are only few pairs of Terek Sandpiper left in Finland; Oulu is a reliable spot for them and with the help of our local guide and contacts our chances of seeing one here are considerably enhanced. Pallid Harrier and Citrine Wagtail are two even rarer possibilities that occasionally nest in the area and if either or both is about again this year we will try for them, too.

More than anything, Oulu is a fantastic place to look for owls. In the extensive forests around town we will concentrate our efforts on finding the widespread but elusive trio of Tengmalm’s, Ural and Eurasian Eagle Owls. We also have a first opportunity to try for that ‘monarch of the boreal forest’, the magnificent Great Grey Owl. Short-eared Owls quarter the meadows and most years there are breeding Long-eared and Hawk Owls to look for, too. However, owl numbers can vary enormously year on year and in these vast forests it will soon become apparent why expert local knowledge is a prerequisite to enjoying any degree of success in finding Scandinavia's special birds here.

Nearby, Liminganlahti is an internationally important wetland reserve that harbours thousands of waders and ducks. Whooper Swan, Garganey, Smew, Marsh Harrier and Little Gull are all regularly present in spring, along with a few pairs of Black-tailed Godwit, a scarce breeding bird up here. After watching for Common Cranes, Greylag Geese and White-tailed Eagles in the bay, we will head out into the forests in search of Black and Three-toed Woodpeckers. Two further nights Kempele

Days 4 - 6
KUUSAMO & THE RUSSIAN BORDER FORESTS

From Oulu, we head northeast to Kuusamo, where we spend the next three nights. Along the way, we’ll stop to scan some of the country's extensive forest bogs and innumerable lakes - amazingly, there are 187,000 of the latter in Finland alone! Lying close to the border with Russia and less than 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Kuusamo has a deserved reputation as the most exciting birding area in all Finland.

Goldeneye, Wood Sandpiper and Brambling are relatively common in the mixed hill woodlands and bogs around Valtavaara, where scarcer breeding species can include Red-necked Grebe, Great Grey Shrike and Parrot Crossbill. But the real draw here is the quite unparalleled list of boreal 'exotics'. From Waxwing and Siberian Tit to Little and Rustic Buntings, and the inquisitive Siberian Jay, there’s more than enough here to keep our pulses racing all day! Rarest of all, the dazzling Red-flanked Bluetail occurs here at the extreme western edge of its range. Although it may not be within our grasp every year, our forays into the hills in search of this shy Siberian jewel are invariably one of the most memorable and exciting aspects of the tour.

On one day at Kuusamo we will make an early morning excursion to look for grouse, heading into the immense forests that extend around town to look for the magnificent Capercaillie as well as Black and Willow Grouse. A moderate walk in the beautiful old forests could also reward us with sightings of the elusive Hazel Grouse, along with the energetic Dipper and perhaps Grey Wagtail. Golden Eagles breed and are well worth scanning for as they soar above the trees, and that wild northern nomad, the Hawk Owl, also breeds at Kuusamo most years. Again, with the assistance of our local guide and a network of contacts, we have the best possible chances of finding this scarce, unpredictable and and elusive bird. Three nights Kuusamo

Days 7 - 8                                                           
THE HELSINKI AREA: FINLAND'S SOUTHERN FORESTS, LAKES & COAST

We fly from either Kuusamo or Oulu (according to flights) to Helsinki, in the south of Finland, where we stay for two nights. We swap local guides here and head directly out of town with our 'southern specialist' to enjoy the beautiful mixed forests, innumerable lakes and bird-rich coasts that surround Finland’s capital.

While the likes of Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes, Goshawk, Fieldfare and Crested Tit are widespread across much of Finland, around Helsinki we also have chances to see species with a more southerly distribution such as Honey Buzzard, Great Reed and Barred Warblers and Red-backed Shrike. In late May, quiet coastal inlets hold nesting Turnstones, Common Eider, Velvet Scoter and vociferous Arctic Terns, and visible migration can sometimes be dramatic with large numbers of divers, geese and other waterfowl streaming north and east towards their Arctic breeding grounds.  

However, the main reason for travelling to the south will be to search for Finland's late arriving specialist southern breeders. Corncrake, Blyth's Reed, Marsh, Greenish and River Warblers, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Thrush Nightingale and the gorgeous male Common Rosefinch... all arrive late to their breeding grounds in Northern Europe and so our late May visit is purposely timed to maximise the chances of seeing and hearing them. A number of these species are what the Finns call ‘night singers’, so some of our most exciting birding may well be done after dinner! Two nights near Helsinki

Day 9
VIIKKI WETLANDS, FLY LONDON

We have an opportunity this morning to enjoy some final birding around Helsinki, perhaps with a visit to the boardwalk through the reedbeds and wooded islands at "Viikki" - which is somewhat easier to pronounce than its proper name, Vanhankaupunginlahti! In late May, we can expect to find a good selection of waterbirds and warblers, including Great Reed Warbler, and have a further opportunity to hear the loud and far-carrying song of Thrush Nightingale. We might also be lucky to see two recent colonists at the reserve: Bearded Tit and Citrine Wagtail.

Our birding over, we return to Helsinki this afternoon for farewells to our local guide and board our flight back to London, where our spring tour to Finland concludes.

Rustic Bunting ad m Lapland Dick Forsman dickforsman.com Jun 2003 IMG 1046

Rustic Bunting is another scarce summer visitor to look for in Kuusamo's taiga woodlands © Dick Forsman, dickforsman.com

What To Expect

Our May tour to Finland visits at the very best time of year to see Scandinavia's breeding owls and taiga specialities - and now includes two extra days around Helsinki in search of late arriving southern breeders such as Blyth's Reed Warbler and Thrush Nightingale.

Highlights from our last tour included stunning views of Pallid Harrier, plus Lesser Spotted Eagle, Terek Sandpiper, Great Grey, Ural, Hawk and Eurasian Pygmy Owls, Black and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers, Siberian Jay, Citrine Wagtail, Siberian Tit, Greenish Warbler… and many more!

In late May, the sunrises in Oulu at 03.30am and sets again at 11.00pm. With all but round-the-clock daylight and a host of boreal owls and other taiga specialities to look for, to enjoy this tour to the full be prepared for early starts and late finishes. Although such excursions are optional, note that these do offer the best chances of seeing the key specialities - especially the owls and grouse, which are at their most active during the 'twilight' hours - and sought-after 'night singers' such as Blyth's Reed Warbler and the incredible Thrush Nightingale in southern Finland.

This is usually an exceptionally good tour for owls, but please be aware that owl numbers fluctuate year on year in response to the relative abundance of their prey (principally voles). In the event owl numbers are low in any given year, however, our expert guides invariably manage to find some and participants will also find there is still much to enjoy on this superb tour!

Cold-warm climate. It seems no two years are ever alike... well, at Kuusamo we are less than 40 miles south of the Arctic Circle! In May, the weather in this part of Finland is generally cool to mild, with daily temperatures at Oulu typically in the range of 3-12C (38-54F), averaging a little warmer in the south around Helsinki (4-15C/39-59F) and one or two degrees cooler at Kuusamo.

Insects  Well, just about everyone travelling to Finland asks about these! By visiting in May, we will be in advance of the main ‘mosquito season’ but their prevalence in any given year much depends on whether spring comes early or late. As a precaution, we do recommend that you pack some effective repellent as ‘mozzies’ can sometimes be a local nuisance in some forest areas - notably around dusk, when we may be looking for owls - if the northern spring has come early or the weather at the time of our visit is warmer than average.

Birds

130-160 species

Mammals

ca. 5 species

Accommodation

8 nights accommodation in Finland on this three-centre tour, staying at comfortable, medium-grade hotels - in Oulu (3 nights), Kuusamo (3 nights) and near Helsinki (2 nights). All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included within our tour price, commencing with dinner on arrival at Oulu on Day 1 and concluding with lunch near Helsinki on Day 9. Food is good throughout.

Walking

Short walks on mainly good tracks and forest trails. The walking effort is mostly easy, although there may be some hills to climb in the Kuusamo region. Occasional forays over uneven ground or uphill away from tracks optional but are sometimes necessary to find some birds (e.g. Red-flanked Bluetail).

Sturdy waterproof walking boots advised. Knee-length wellingtons / rubber boots are sometimes necessary for walking in the wetter forest and boardwalks and we recommend you do take these.

Travel

We fly London Heathrow-Oulu, returning Kuusamo or Oulu-Helsinki, and Helsinki-London Heathrow with Finnair and/or British Airways (who operate a code share on this route).

[Depending on airline schedules, it may be possible to arrange flights with Finnair from Manchester, for those who prefer. Please ask for details and supplement at time of booking.]

Ground Transport  By minibus.

Siberian Jay Kuusamo Finland Dick Forsman 837935

The endearing Siberian Jay can take some finding in Finland's vast taiga woodlands, but it's well worth the effort © Dick Forsman, dickforsman.com

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