Monday, 7 January 2013

Review of Finland: Aug - Dec 2012.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog would find it hard not to know that I spent the last four months of 2012 in Rovaniemi, Southern Lapland, Finland from August 30th to December 21st. The main purpose of the trip was as an exchange student and I would be carrying out the first semester of my degree year at The Rovaniemi University of Applied Sciences (RAMK) and the University of Lapland (uLapland).

Of course as someone interested in birds this was a whole new world to explore. I've always had a fascination with the North and it was great to finally get to experience it first hand. Straight away I thought of the Owls, Woodpeckers and Waxwings and hope I would get the chance to see a few. I also knew that the forests of Finland are vast, the birds are elusive and local knowledge would be my greatest tool. I did as much research as I could but most of the information on the internet of course was for birding in the Springtime at well known bird hotspots such as around Inari, Kuusamo and Oulu. Not so much information for Rovaniemi in the Winter time as it seems Northern Finland is regarded as "birdless" during these months. And yes it is true the majority of the birds migrate away at this time of the year but I found out that there is still plenty to see especially in a Northern city that draws the remaining birds in and the encounters I had were superb. During my time there my birding was restricted to the city itself and outer city limits as the only transport I had was my bike or walking. My time was also limited as I was taking courses at three different institutions and of course the weather and diminishing day light hours was also a factor.

So how did I do? Well I managed 51 species (see HERE) during my time there, 9 new species for me and a couple of new races not found in Britain of species that are found in Britain. It looks like a fairly minimal list but I arrived after the majority of migration had taken place (a lot sooner than Britain as it is a lot further North), I was there in the Winter months with November and December being particularly harsh and the majority of my birding was restricted to the city. But as I said before some of encounters I did have were excellent with some cracking views!

Also as I mentioned information on birding locations were limited and I relied on information from helpful members on BirdForum, in particular wolfbirder, piecing together small bits of information I found myself from tourism and nature websites ( and from a very helpful contact called Antti who works for the Lapland Ornithological Society and Birdlife Finland. Another great resource that I used over there which helped me a lot was the website Tiira. Tiira (Finnish for Tern) is Birdlife Finland's bird recording system similar to BirdTrack in Britain. The website is in Finnish but found it easy to use if it is loaded on the Google Chrome browers with it's ability to translate automatically. I then had no problem registering and using the site. If you click on Basic Search select the relevant birding association, in this case the Lapland Ornithological Society and then enter the municipality you require which for me was Rovaniemi. You are then provided with a list of records sorted by date with location maps and extra details.

So where is Rovaniemi compared to home in the Highlands? Rovaniemi is located in the Southern part of Lapland a region that covers the whole of Northern Finland. Finland as a whole is dominated by forest (approximately 75% cover) made up of Pine, Spruce and Birch and forms part of the Northern Boreal forest biome. Rovaniemi is the second largest city in the whole of Northern Finland after Oulu but is the largest city in Lapland itself. See map below.

Rovaniemi located a few km below Arctic Circle
I have also created this rough map using google maps and added locations that I will mention throughout.

Locations in Rovaniemi
So to the review. I will keep it similar to the 2012 Review I posted a couple days ago and try and work methodically through each month. Again all the pictures are mine are from the actual encounters and locations I am describing.

I arrived on Thursday August 30th taking the plane from Manchester to Helsinki then another plane North on to Rovaniemi. The first birds I saw in Finland were White Wagtails hopping around the airport carpark. The following two days were spent settling in and familarising myself with my new home for the next 4 months (and of course old friends and the local pub). The student accomodation didn't have internet access so I bought an internet dongle from the local supermarket and started checking Tiira for what had been seen around the city and when. Nutcrackers were being reported from all over the city. On Saturday morning I headed into the city to do some shopping and there were 3 Nutcrackers my first new species in Finland, just metres from me, no camera with me so I would come back.

In the afternoon a friend of ours took us to Ounasvaara. Ounasvaara is a hill on the East side of the city and was close to my accomodation. It is about 200 metres high and covered in conifer forest. It is a very popular winter sports area with plenty of tracks and a ski slope but the further East you go away from the city the more quiet it gets. A short walk through produced Spotted Flycatchers, Goldcrest and Raven with Red Squirrels easily seen.

View of Rovaniemi from Ounasvaara
In the afternoon our friend drove us to Jängislahti, a site I had read about before coming and wanted to see where it was. Jängislahti is pretty much a wasteland with plenty of scrub and surrounding woodland close to the banks of one of the main rivers running through the city. The area is actually used as a snow dumping site in the winter months. I only saw Reed Buntings on this brief visit but I would be back.

Jängislahti looking back towards the city.

The next day I headed back down into the city to catch up with the Nutcrackers. On the way I saw Great and Blue Tit, Fieldfare, Redwing and Siskin. The Nutcrackers were still there, 5 this time and I got some great views down to a few metres. More info HERE. A walk around the city before coming home produced Tree Sparrow, Willow Warbler, Feral Pigeons, Black-headed Gull, Scaup, Goldeneye and Magpie.

Spotted Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes)
September by far was my most productive month over as many birds were still hanging around and it was pretty mild and sunny mostly. At the start of the second week of September, there weather was pretty good I headed back to Jängislahti, this time on my bike which I had purchased from a second hand shop in the city. Jängislahti is a site of a lot of ringing activity and by far one of the most productive areas in the city. Bluethroats, Rustic Buntings and Red-throated Pipits had all been reported in the previous days. On my trip there I saw plenty of Reed Bunting, Meadow Pipits and a few Willow Warblers. I got a cracking view of male Hen Harrier but was too slow for a picture. The highlight of the day was up to 11 Bluethroats, a new species for me, in the surrounding scrub another most wanted bird for me. I saw Whooper Swans on the water, a late Sedge Warbler and a Northern Wheatear on it's own in the very middle of the field.

View from Jängislahti of Ounasvaara
Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica)
Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)
A few days later I visited another site called Koivusaari on the other side of the river. It is actually an island in the river estuary and there is a circular boardwalk around the island and a bird hide apparently but I never found it. More sightings of Bluethroat and my first ever Lesser Whitethroat were the highlights, but there were also loads of Black Darter dragonflies basking on the boardwalk.

Male Black Darter (Sympetrum danae)
In the third week of September came one of the main highlights of my whole time in Finland. We learned that for one of our forestry courses we would be going on a tour of Northern Forests in Finland. We would be going to Northernmost Finland and touring around various sites seeing all aspects of natural resource management. I won't go into too much detail, if you really want to you can read all about it HERE. In terms of wildlife I saw Hoodie Crows, Goldeneye, Reindeer and Red Squirrel. On Day.2 we had an excursion to a forest near Ivalo. When having a forest lunch we had 2 visitors, Siberian jays! My very first and the number 1 bird I wanted to see in Finland. Unforunately didn't have too much time to enjoy it. However on Day.4 it was the highlight of the trip. A 20km boat journey up river into the heart of Lemmenjoki National Park. Again whilst having lunch around the fire we were joined by 6 Siberian Jays this time! They stayed for as long as we were eating lunch and picked up crumbs from around the fire, a superb experience (also where the blog banner picture originates from). On boat ride back I saw Dipper and Little Grebe. The last day was spent at Levi where I saw another Siberian Jay, Whooper Swan, Raven and my first European Elk on the roadside.

Siberian Jay (Perisoreus infaustus)

I ended the month with another trip to Jängislahti and managed to add Willow Tit, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Brambling, Swallow and Shoveler. The Swallows seemed to be rather late migrants and repeatedly flew over the reedbeds there. On the 27th September I also attended a presentation at the Artikum here in Rovaniemi for the publication of the new Rovaniemi Breeding Bird Atlas. At the end there was a table with several copies of the atlas (a really top quality publication) and when I asked how much they were I was greeted with the answer "Just take one, they are free". So I did! All September posts HERE.

Into October now then and University was in full swing now so time for birding became limited. I did most of my birdwatching walking or cycling to places I needed to go but I had some time to visit a few places. In the first week of October a Hoopoe had been sighted for most of the time. Didn't expect to have a chance to see this bird and the location was not far from Jängislahti so I decided to have a look. I didn't find the Hoopoe (surprise, surprise) did a few other birders looking around for it but I didn't want to ask due to the language barrier. On the way back from the area I cycled through a narrow lane where I saw my very first Waxwings! Another new bird and one I hadn't expected to see that day. Close by was a small garden with a very busy feeding station also. Willow Tit, Greenfinch, Great Tit, Blue Tit, really close views of Great Spotted Woodpecker and 2 fighting squirrels!

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
During October the forest exchange students were invited by a private company to take part in an Elk hunt acting as beaters. It was a very wet day, managed to see an Elk only 20 metres away in the forest and luckily the shooters were hopeless so no Elk were killed that day which I was secretly pleased about. But the highlight was two Hazel Grouse that I saw whilst walking through some Birch swamp forest.

Mid October and it was starting to feel like winter already. The first snow had fallen and so had the temperature. We decided to take a trip with the Czech forestry students to a cabin out in woods about 30km from Rovaniemi. The cabins are free to stay in and are maintained by the state forestry agency. Luckily there was no-one else staying when we were there, so we had it to ourselves. I saw another lone Siberian Jay on the walk up to the cabin. It was a great night, plenty of drinks and laughs and temperatures now at -4c.

During the next week was the start of the Waxwing invasion to the city which would last until I left. Flocks of up to 1200 had been reported from locations within the city. The courtyard outside my accomodation had up to 10 Rowan trees loaded with bright red berries and I was hoping it wouldn't be too long before some Waxwings showed up. And it wasn't long, up to 120 Waxwings arrived working their way around the trees and all the berries. It was great to stand on my balcony and see so many birds not 10 metres away. They resemble Starlings in alot of ways. Their flight is similar, they fly in large groups and are quite noisy all "trilling away".

Bohemian Waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus)

I also started to put some food out on the tree outside, started off with some half coconuts and they were visited by plenty of Great and Blue Tits.

I also decided to explore Ounasvaara some more. On one day the temperature had dropped to -15c but it was clear and sunny and decided to take a walk to a part of the hill called Isorakka. Within the forest I saw Waxwings, Willow, Great and Blue Tit and added Bullfinch to my Finnish list.

Towards the end of October we had a class trip to Pilke, a forestry science centre and headquarters for the state forestry agency. This building is also next to the Arktikum a museum about the Arctic. Before the trip a group of 30 Pine Grosbeak and been reported from the Arktikum gardens, so after our trip I went round for a look. No Pine Grosbeaks but I did see a flock of c20 Common Redpolls, a new bird for me, and another bird I was hoping to see, Long-Tailed Tit. But these were no ordinary LTTs, these were the Northern Race which look quite different from our own (see picture below) so I was still glad I checked. I took photos but it was snowing and almost dark already by 3 o'clock so they weren't great.

Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea)
Northern Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus caudatus)
The overall highlight for October came right at the end of the month and again it was right on my doorstep. There was plenty of snow on the ground now, almost half a foot, and temperatures had stayed around -10c. We were defrosting our bikes and getting ready to head down to University, this was about half 8 in the morning. As I was checking my bike something caught my eye in a Rowan tree about 20 metres away. It looked quite big but when I saw a flash of red I knew exactly what it was, Pine Grosbeak! 3 of them, one stunning red male and two female / juvs. I rushed for the camera and got some pictures and ended up being a bit late for Uni, but I hoped they would be there when I got home, but then it was dark.

Male Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator)

So by the end of October I had seen, Nutcracker, Siberian Jay, Bluethroat, Waxwing and Pine Grosbeak all really close, superb. All posts from October can be found HERE.

By November, University had become very intense and busy and the weather too extreme for travelling very far by bike. Snow remained on the ground and temperatures low but there was a thaw for a few days where the snow completely disappeared. I brought a proper bird feeder now and was filling it regularly. The courtyard at Kuntotie became my main area for birding for the next 2-3 weeks. The feeder was visited by plenty of Great and Blue Tits and the odd Greenfinch and once by a male Bullfinch. Regular sightings of groups of Waxwings of various sizes were a daily occurence.

Great Tit on new feeder.
On the 9th of November, Pine Grosbeaks had returned to the courtyard, two this time, a male and a female. There was plenty of snow and frost but this time it was a clear day with plenty of sunshine, time to try and get some more photos. The birds were not fussed at all, allowing me to approach very near. Watching them feeding in the sun, especially the red male, was one of my birding highlights in Finland.

Over the next week the bird feeder was visited by a single Willow Tit briefly on one occasion and by now the resident Red Squirrel was in on the act.There was also regular Mountain Hare in the courtyard during my whole time in Finland and I finally managed to get a picture one night. I will also quickly mention here that I saw a stoat in full winter pelage. It ran across the road in front of me as I was walking home one day.

Mountain Hare (Lepus timidus)
I had an interesting record on the 15th of November. Snow and freezing temperatures were the norm now and the main rivers running through the city had started to freeze over. It was another clear, sunny day and we were making our way through the city. I noticed a small bird hopping about on the low branches of a Birch by the roadside. I was quite surprised to see it was a female/juv Blackcap. An unusual record I would think this far North in mid-November.

Frozen river.
Female/ juv Eurasian Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla)
Throughout the rest of the month groups of Waxwings, Pine Grosbeaks and Nutcrackers were seen throughout the city at various locations. There were also a few mobile flocks of Redpolls around and I examined them as much as I could but couldn't find an Arctic, althought they had been reported. I was also waiting to hear some reports of another bird I had hoped to see over in Finland, the Siberian Tit, no reports so far. All posts from November can be found HERE.

Into December now and it was starting to get properly cold, temperatures of -20c were becoming more common with one morning at -22c. The days were extremely short now, maybe 2-3 hours of daylight a day. But, if it was cloudy and snowing, which is was a lot, then it was pretty much dark all day.

I had been looking online for some more information on some good areas to visit on Ounasvaara hill and I came across a comment on a photo on Flickr. It was a photo of a Nutcracker and it was taken at a feeding station near to the main road going to the top. I asked the owner of the photo and he kindly replied with some directions. The next day I decided to visit as it was clear and sunny so I had a couple hours of daylight to play with. It was also -21c up on the hill. I made it to the feeding station no problem due to the excellent directions. I had actually walked past it a couple times before without realising as it was tucked away under a large Spruce tree near to one of the visitor carparks.

There was birds everywhere and I found a spot to sit down in the snow a couple metres away from the feeders to watch and get some pictures. The birds weren't bothered at all and they all kept feeding. There was 4 x Nutcracker, Great Tits, Blue Tits, up to 8 Willow Tits and 3 Bullfinch + the obligatory Red Squirrel. Then after a 20mins a new bird arrived, a Crested Tit! Feeding not 2 metres away, definately my best views of some of these species ever and my 50th species in Finland.

Crested Tit (Lophophanes cristatus)
Red Squirrel
Willow Tit (Poecile montanus "borealis")
The Sunday after visiting the feeder a few of us decided to go to a different part of Ounasvaara one last time to light a fire, have some tea / coffee and experience this wonderful place one last time. Whilst up there I saw two Siberian Jays. By far my favourite bird of the North and it was nice to see them one last time.

I did however end up going back to Ounasvaara one last time on my own. On the 19th December two days before I had to leave I went back to the feeder at Ounasvaara and took a walk along one of the nature trails up there. It was bitterly cold again around -20c. On my way up the road to the feeder a Sparrowhawk flew out of the forest on the left across the road and disappeared into the forest on the otherside, bird number 51. There were the same species at the feeder but this time there were 3 Crested Tit. During the walk along the nature trail I saw a Great Spotted Woodpecker, Great Tit and what I think was probably two Capercaillie but I didn't count them as I was unsure. One last check at the feeder on the way back and that was the end of my birding experience in Finland. All posts from December can be found HERE.

And what an experience it was, one I will never forget. As I said earlier I didn't see a lot of species but the ones I did were pretty special. Anyone searching for birding information for Rovaniemi that happens to come across this blog, please, feel free to contact me if you want to know more and I will try my best.

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