The extremely popular Naturetrek tour to northern Finland each Easter, which we have run for many years now, visits this beautiful country at a time when the frozen Arctic wilderness is waking from a long winter slumber and greeting the beginning of a new spring. Six weeks later, the transition into summer has precipitated one of the great European natural history spectacles as a myriad of plants, insects, birds and mammals seek to take advantage of the lengthening days and milder weather to reproduce and raise progeny. With an urgency engendered by the shortness of the Arctic summer, newly arrived migrant birds waste no time in establishing territories and laying eggs, whilst each day new plants burst into flower to add colour to the northern spring. It is with great pleasure therefore that we return, during this late spring to early summer period, to savour the sights and sounds of this vibrant season with an exciting tour which embraces the very best birdwatching locations in Arctic Finland and Norway.
Our holiday begins with a flight from London to Oulu (via Helsinki), a town on the north-eastern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia. Oulu is surrounded by extensive boreal forest in which live many of the high Arctic birds most sought after by British birdwatchers, in particular the owls. Whilst owl numbers fluctuate from year to year, the breeding species here include Eagle, Ural, Great Grey, Tengmalm’s, Hawk, Short-eared and Pygmy Owl, offering plenty of scope for our ‘owling’ activities. Black Grouse, Capercaillie and both Three-toed and Black Woodpeckers feature among the other residents of the Oulu area and we will also visit Liminka Bay, Finland’s most important wetland area, where a host of waders and waterbirds may harbour a few surprise migrants whilst local attractions include Common Crane, Terek Sandpiper and Citrine Wagtail.
Next, we drive eastwards from Oulu, through a picturesque landscape blanketed with forests and studded with lakes, to the small town of Kuusamo where we stay for two nights. Situated close to both the Russian border and the Arctic Circle, Kuusamo’s wild taiga forests offer some superlative birdwatching, with Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Pine Grosbeak, Two-barred Crossbill and Rustic Bunting being amongst the eastern specialities to look for. With luck we may also find a Redflanked Bluetail, a veritable gem of a bird well worth the effort entailed to reach the hillside forests where the electric blue males proclaim their arrival with bursts of melodious song. Not far from the town is the magnificent wilderness of Oulanka National Park. Lying close to the Arctic Circle, Oulanka contains a wonderfully diverse range of habitats that includes vast expanses of ancient taiga forest, deep valleys, bogs and meadows extending over 270 square kilometres of land along the Oulankajoki River. A day spent in this pristine national park will be filled with many exciting bird observations and we hope to also glimpse some of the park’s mammals which include Reindeer, Elk, Beaver, Red Squirrel and Pine Marten.
From here we drive north to Ivalo, in Finland, where we stay for a night before continuing to Varanger Fjord. Leaving the forests behind, we enter the great ‘fell country’ of Arctic Norway, an undulating terrain of bare hills which overlooks bogs and lakes where the exquisite Blackthroated Diver breeds. Fringed by thickets of Mountain Birch, the blue waters of Varanger Fjord and the surrounding tundra represent one of the most accessible examples of Arctic habitat on the mainland of Europe. This is the haunt of divers, Steller’s and King Eiders, White-tailed Eagle, Rough-legged Buzzard, Snowy Owl, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, Longtailed Skua, Bluethroat, Redthroated Pipit, Shorelark and Snow Bunting whilst exploration of the surrounding tundra and the salmon-rich Teno River should produce colonies of Arctic Terns, various breeding waders, and maybe a glimpse of the local pair of Gyr Falcons. Weather permitting, we will take a boat trip to visit one of the offshore seabird islands which contain great colonies of Kittiwakes, Shags, and auks, including numbers of Brunnich’s Guillemots and Puffins.
The spectacle of these noisy, bustling seabird islets is matched the following day by the wildness of the scenery as we follow the peninsula from Vardo to Hamninberg, the furthest point of the European mainland where pristine beaches and sheltered bays contrast with stretches of dark bogs and tundra, populated by song-flighting waders.
The frenetic pace of the Arctic summer will continue for several more months but after drinking our fill of this annual spectacle it will sadly be time to retrace our steps to Ivalo where we catch a return flight to London.