Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Suomi - Out of season

Obviously, to have any chance of seeing lots of birds in Finland you need to go in June and hire a guide. I was aware of this but when my wife found fairly cheap ticket to Helsinki at the end of April I decided to go.

Being a regular visitor to Scotland, it was interesting that the Finnish couple next to me on the plane were just returning from there, it being their favourite country. I told them I intended firstly to go to the Aland Islands and they thought it was rather an exotic location for me to be traveling and then I said I will visit Parikkala and they made some remark about they may have noticed it on the train, but didn't seem very impressed with the place.

Arriving at Helsinki airport at 11:30 at night I then caught a bus to Turku, grabbing some sleep on the way and arrived there at 3 in the morning, of course at this time of the year it was dark in the middle of the night here. Turku is a pleasant enough town, very quiet, in fact at night time pretty desolate, especially as I walked the miles of industrial sites along the railroad towards my intended location,  Ruissalo Island. There was the sound of Fieldfares everywhere singing and alarm calling in the dark and huge Brown Hares feeding on the grass in front of buildings, they looked bigger in the artificial lighting cast from the street lights. After crossing the bridge that leads out of the docklands and industrial centre and onto Ruissalo, the air was full of singing Redwings, incredible sound at 4am when it was just about to get light. Then walking away from the artifical  lights of the industrial area into darkness on the island, a nice experience. I liked this place. I got some sleep on a bench in the woods and woke later to the sound of many woodland birds, including a flyover Hawfinch. I walked to a nearby bay with the air full of the sound of Barnacle Geese, a calling Wryneck next to a calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Tree Pipits singing nearby. I walked back to the docklands later in the morning, catching Whinchat, Ringed and Little Ringed Plovers, Goosanders, a nice male Pied Flycatcher on the way.

I then spent the night in an expensive but pleasant hotel near the ferry port and the next day I was off to Mariehamn on the Aland Islands, in the Baltic and edge of Gulf of Bothnia between Finland and Sweden. There were a good number of sea duck on the trip, including several thousand Eider, hundreds of Long-tailed Duck, small numbers of Velvet Scoter and a few Razorbill and Black Guillemots. Also, strangely my only sighting of Black throated Diver and Arctic Skua on the trip. A pair of Common Cranes over the ferry and a distant White-tailed Eagle.

As I waited to get off the ferry there were a gathering of extremely drunk teenagers falling about near the exit, ah, brings back memories, they seemed to be having a great time. Once off the ship I looked back and noticed I was the only one who got off at Mariehamn, all the other passengers had either gone on to Stockholm or done the round trip, duty free booze cruise back to Turku. When I entered the town it seemed as though I was in Sweden, all the signs were in Swedish and it looked very stylish, like an episode of Wallander - well without the nasty bits. Apparently it is still part of Finland but it is a kind of Swedish speaking, autonomous state.

My next idea was to walk over to the other side of the bay, because there looked as though there were some nice rocky areas with forest. On the way there was a small park full of singing Bramblings with a few other migrants including Willow Warblers and an unidentified Bunting type singer, I was convinced of Ortolan at first, but now not so sure and I forgot to record it. I walked a few miles until I found a turning and walked down hoping it would lead to the amazing looking place I could see from the town, unfortunately it turned out to be a cul-de-sac, but Scandinavian style, basically new homes carved out of the forest. So I returned back to Mariehamn, noticed even more Bramblings in the same area - but only in that area.  Not feeling to well, a nasty cold coming on and a mysteriously painful ankle which would plague me the whole trip I decided to spend the night at an even more expensive hotel, which then turned in to 2 nights at an even more expensive hotel. I had about 20 euros left when I limped to Jarso south of Mariehamn and finally got out the tent and put it up at a paradise beach where I saw no one, well that is until 9pm when I heard shooting and a couple of wildfowlers came by on a speedboat then got off at an island, but then it was quiet and what a lovely place!

The weather this whole time was amazing, warmer than I'd felt in England and I was getting browner and browner! In fact, apart from the first morning and the ferry trip where it was literally 'Baltic' I had had sunny weather, if a little windy. Cool at night though, where I needed my 3 season sleeping bag. I had a nice close encounter with a Grey-headed Woodpecker near the tent, a few Wheatears, Redstart and Pied Fly's and 4 male Blackcap feeding on invertebrates above the beach as though they had just arrived. Plus some nice butterflies including Camberwell Beauty.

There were quite a few duck on the sea, Long-tailed, Velvet Scoter, Common Eider, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders I also had a flyby Caspian Tern, a few Arctic Terns, 3 White-tailed Eagles and a nice Red-necked Grebe. I spent a very pleasant night in the tent here and in the morning walked back via the track around a small lake through the forest where I saw my first ever Beech Martin, which I later found out was actually a North American Mink, doh! On the road on the way back I saw a flyover Nutcracker and at least 5 singing  Wryneck.

Of course, if the weather is good and the sun is out and you're a snake, the best place to soak up the sun is in the middle of the road and in spite of there only being about 6 cars every half hour I found first a dead Grass Snake then about 200 metres further down the road a squashed Adder, I found a dead Common Frog too but didn't take a pic of that as I was too hot, it was a baking 17 degrees C!

That evening I took a long walk to Gottby, spending most of the time taking the wrong road, but a pleasant enough walk through some very stylish Farmland (sounds odd, but that's what it was), there were some Common Cranes in the fields and a territorial Green Sandpiper at the edge of a small field between a plantation. On a small lake outside Mariehamn I had some extremely close views of a pair of flying Caspian Terns. As it got later I had trouble finding the beach until I bumped into a nice guy called Bjorn who told me to follow the track behind his house and gave me some firelighters which came in very handy later on.

Now, the ferry back was packed - holiday season had started it seemed and as I walked in there were a couple of very scary looking, absolutely pissed up, meatheads standing near the deck drinking Finlandia vodka - I spent most of the time on the deck until I met a French traveller called Phillippe who had hitched his way from North Sweden and was now heading to Helsinki then into Russia and was planning on hitching to Mongolia - well that's a much more exciting story I'm sure!

I didn't go to this gig
Once back at Turku I headed back to Ruissalo where I camped in the woods. During the night there I was startled by a close barking Roe deer and I could hear on several occasions the calls of some small owls, Pygmy or Tengmalm's but couldn't tell which but certainly some strange sounds! I awoke to the sounds of Hawfinch above the tent - this was the life.

I travelled the next day back to Helsinki where I asked about the price of trains to Oulu, which were expensive, so I decided to go to Parikkala and leave Oulu for another time. The return fares turn out to be exactly the same as paying for two singles and you can't buy an open return here, but to be honest, I don't think the trains are much more expensive than in the UK. On the journey, I noticed how much of the countryside was similar, forest, lakes, bogs, small curiously smoothed rocky hillocks, more forest, plantations, man against tree, tree trying to take over from man, man defending himself against tree to make garden and more plantations where man controls tree. But I really got to like this quiet, peaceful place.

At Parikkala, a sleepy town with 3 supermarkets, a medical centre, a railway cafe/bar and a huge lake I quickly made my way to the Siikalahti nature reserve down a quiet road. When I got there I found you were allowed to camp there - bonus! There was a toilet, great! There was an excellent visitor centre and a boardwalk with two tower hides.

I spent about 5 nights here and met some great people including a group who cooked me breakfast one morning and when I came back from birding they had left the leftover sausages in the front of my tent wrapped nicely in paper knapkins - that was part of my dinner of the next few days - there was a a fantastic, sheltered wood stove on the site.

Even at this time of year the place really came alive during the evening and at night. Even in early May there was a short period of darkness, more of a dusk than dark really. The air was full of the sound of calling Spotted Crakes, Water Rails, Bitterns, Common Snipe and one Jack Snipe displaying, Whooper Swans, Cranes, displaying Red-necked and Slavonian Grebes. During the day Ospreys, Marsh Harriers, Wood Sandpipers, Ruff, Spotted Redshank, Little Gulls, Whinchat, Pied Flycatchers etc and then the arrival of Thrush Nightingales and an incredibly early Savi's Warbler that attracted a few local birders one evening.
Also this is a known breeding site for White-backed Woodpecker. In the summer the place is very good for Blyth's Reed Warblers, however no hope of an early one of those.

I took a couple of trips, still limping along on my bad ankle for miles - one where I got lost and found myself next to the frontier zone by the Russian border, wandering along tracks through vast areas of plantations trying to find another nature reserve with no success - enjoyable walk though - got back in the early hours of the morning, thinking back this was a fantastic walk, not many other birds but plenty of roding Woodcock, a few Crossbills and I can claim Osprey and Marsh Harrier on the Russian side of the border I think.

I also took a long walk to Oronmylly forest and was given a lift some of the way by a really nice old man who spoke no English at all but we got on just fine grinning at each other and I said things like 'nice place' and he nodded his head, then he suddenly said 'Oronmoolooo' and dropped me off at the car park and we waved at each other as he drove off.

A birder I had met on the reserve said there is a slim chance of Siberian Jay here - he knew a birder who was 'friends' with the Jays and they knew when he was coming and would come out - whereas if anyone else came along they would hide, and that's obviously exactly what happened, even when I took out some biscuits and began crunching them as loudly as possible, there was nothing. However, I was startled by two male Capercaillie 'bursting' into flight from near the path and I kept getting glimpses of mysterious grouse sized birds or bird flitting across the path which turned out to be Hazel Grouse, I also found the remains of a dead one on one of the paths. The forest consisted mostly of plantation, which was relatively quiet. There were about 5 Waxwings in the pines near a lean-to shelter I was planning on staying at for the night, however this started filling with mosquitoes and I decided to walk back to Siikalahti which took all night, but a really nice walk it was.

After this I went back to Helsinki and stayed at an even more expensive hotel, Hotel Arthur, it was called. However whilst there I had a great morning walk the following day around the parks in Helsinki, passing the famous Sibelius academy on the way. The previous evening I had flushed a Nightjar from one of the stately houses near one of the parks and there were a few warblers coming in. On this morning I counted 12 Thrush Nightingales, with 3 birds in a dispute out on one of the paths a few feet from me. There were a few common things comming in, Spotted Flycatchers, Lesser Whitethroats, Garden Warblers etc.

Something wicked this way comes!

On the day before I left I went and camped near the airport in Vantaa. This turned out to be a great place too, even by the airport - the morning before I left I heard a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing in a cargo area and climbed a fence to go and see it only to find it was an immature male. I had a Black Woodpecker over the tent which had flown off by the time I got out to see it, plenty of common stuff, Wryneck calling, a Wood Warbler singing - a nice way to end a great trip!

I didn't drink this beer

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