Summary and logistics
Late May, early June seems to be the ideal time for a birding visit to northern Scandinavia. Wintering birds like Steller' s Eider are still present, summer birds like Red-flanked Bluetail and Rustic Bunting have arrived (early June), and residents like Gyr Falcon and owls have nestlings while others are defending their territories.
In 2003 the period between Ascension day (Hemelvaartsdag) and Pentecost/Whitsuntide (Pinksteren) fell right in this ideal time slot. In Holland, this 12-day period will cost you only 5 extra vacation days. And so, after having visited Swedish Lapland several times for summer treks in the mountains in the eighties, we were back now in this immense region of taiga, tundra and Barents Sea between 65 and 71 degrees northern latitude. We started at Luleå (northern Sweden) with a rental car from the airport, and we drove along:
- the tundra lowlands of northern Sweden and Norwegian Finnmark
- the Varanger peninsula in the extreme north of Norway
- the taiga forest zone of northern Finland (esp. the Kuusamo region)
- the coastal zone with forests, meadows and lakes around the northern end of the Botnic Gulf (Finland and Sweden).
While preparing this trip, we got help from our acquaintance André van Loon who acts sometimes as a birding trip guide in this region. He mentioned several birding stake-outs and explained the options for accommodation, and we discussed the strategy (like doing the trip clockwise or anti-clockwise). André, thanks a lot! He also explained that both at Varanger and at Kuusamo you are likely to meet several other birders, and how important it is to locally exchange recent information with them.
We often slept in cabins or cottages on campsites where we also prepared simple meals (eateries are not common). The cabins greatly vary in size and luxury but all have cooking facilities. The price varies between 25 and 50 euro per day per cabin or cottage. Reservations are not necessary in this period. There are enough campsites (all with cabins) to plan a flexible itinerary, but a few are open from 1 June only (like at Vardø). We liked these cabins: always some birds nearby (e.g. a Bluethroat), it's your own little house with your car right at your front door, and (in this time of year) no noisy other guests. Should you arrive a bit late and find the reception desk closed, then you will normally find the owner or caretaker in a house or somewhere else on the campsite (or phone the number on the reception door).
Food stores and gas stations (sometimes combined) are not plentiful in this sparsely populated region, so stock up regularly. Prices go up from Finland (which is a bit cheaper than Holland) to Sweden to the expensive Norway. Stocking up your supplies already in Finland (with euros!) before you enter Norway can be very profitable. For obvious reasons, the Finnish supermarkets near the Norwegian border are relatively large (and not only the beer section).
Be prepared for cold weather. During our trip the temperature often was between 0 and 10 degrees Celsius (except the last few warmer days in the South) so we were glad that we had brought our winter wear. This also included thermal underwear, gloves, shawl and fleece cap. We even appreciated the seat heating in our rental car - never thought I would use a thing like that! We also brought rubber boots (wellingtons; rubberlaarzen) and we did need them in some sites although these sites were not absolutely essential. Nearly all the time we wore our trekking shoes (bergwandelschoenen).
Bringing your mobile phone is a good idea. The signal quality is often surprisingly good for this sparsely populated region. You may need it of course in case of a emergency, but more likely you will use it to exchange information with other birders visiting this region at that time.
Buy good road maps or (what we did) a road atlas for Scandinavia. Freytag and Berndt had recently made such an atlas and this was cheaper than buying several country maps. Ideal would be a large detailed map of northern Scandinavia, say 1:500.000, but we did not find one. For Kuusamo, it is best to buy the large 1:100.000 map, for sale (18 euro) at the tourist office in the large new shopping center at the south side of town.
In the site descriptions below I have supposed that you have these maps.
For other trip reports, search via eurobirding.com.
Also check the birders bookshops, to see if there isnt finally a decent birdfinding guide for northern Scandinavia.
A compass may be useful during walks in the taiga forests.
Definitely bring your telescope.
We brought a self-made reference minidisc with the sounds of our target birds, and in a few cases we used play-back to attract the birds (mainly for Little and Rustic Bunting and Hazel Grouse).
Insect repellant may not yet be necessary this early in the season, but bring it anyway.
At this time of year it is 24 hours daylight. Around midnight there is only a vague sort of dusk. Birds are active most of this 24-hours day, but activity is still highest in the morning, like anywhere else. For many birds the morning may start at 02.00 or 03.00 h already but we birded at more normal hours. For owls, see our adventure on the last night. Anyway, don't make the mistake to bird on and on in this perpetual light: you must be awake enough for driving safely. Moreover, if you (inevitably) miss some desired bird species on your trip, then use the phrase that we heard from several visiting birders here: "oh well, a good reason to come back another year" - this also reflects how much all visitors are impressed by the scenery and the birding, despite the often cold weather.
We too found it a great experience. The logistics were not difficult, but you need some patience to find your target birds. We ticked 10 of our 14 possible lifers: Steller's Eider, Gyr Falcon, Hazel Grouse, Brünnich's Guillemot, Ural Owl, Tengmalm's Owl, Red-flanked Bluetail, Arctic Redpoll, Rustic Bunting and Little Bunting (the other 4 being White-billed Diver, Broadbilled Sandpiper, Great Grey Owl and Pine Grosbeak). Other target birds that we saw included a whole array of northern species like Long-tailed Duck, Rough-legged Buzzard, Long-tailed Skua, Hawk Owl, Three-toed Woodpecker, Siberian Tit, Lapland Bunting, etc. In fact, 65 of the 156 species we saw can be regarded as rather typical for northern Europe.
Itinerary and site details
Thursday 29 May
We had arrived late the night before and after picking up the Avis rental car at the airport we quickly were at the (reserved) Park hotel in the centre of Luleå. After breakfast we quietly birded the nearby Gammelstadsviken nature reserve. This forest and marsh area produced a lot of species common to a large part of Sweden, and even Red-necked Grebe and Little Gull. It is located along the bypass road from Luleå centre north to the E4. Leave this bypass road at GPS062 (sign for the reserve) and proceed for a few 100 m to the parking place at GPS061 (with map). The bypass road joins the E4 at GPS063.
We drove on along the rather empty roads traversing the lowlands of Swedish Lapland, picked up Hawk Owl (just past a hamlet, at GPS066), Waxwing and Smew, and ended the day at Karesuando at the Finnish border. The cabin at the campsite here (GPS067) was good.
Friday 30 May
The owner of the Statoil gas station annex food store (open 7.30 a.m.) had advised us to go birding at the sandy esker ridge immediately SE of the village, esp. in the marshy birch woods below the ridge. We had several nice trip ticks here, like the first Ruff (displaying) and Bluethroat. The track leading to this site starts at GPS069, and park at GPS068.
We then crossed the border and traversed the narrow part of Finland between Sweden and Norway. Here we visited our first lintutorni (bird tower, GPS070) at the large lake Sotkajärvi in the birch tundra with the first singing Wood Sandpipers. We bought a lot of food in the KK-supermarket (GPS071) in Enontekiö, and entered Finnmark (Norway) around noon. At the Aidejavre bridge we had our first Willow Grouse, and a bit further on at GPS072 a splendid group of Red-necked Phalaropes. This is at small peat bogs, and the next ones had Lapland Bunting and more phalaropes. The weather got bad (rainy and cold with strong winds) so we mostly used our time to drive on towards the north (towards Varanger). Meanwhile we ticked Rough-legged Buzzard, and quite unexpectedly a group of 4 Glaucous Gulls (drifted inland by the stormy weather). We took a cabin (simple and yet 300 Nkr, but cosy enough) at the campsite of Skipagura, which has a strategic location at the base of the Varanger peninsula.
Saturday 31 May
We knew a stake-out for Gyr Falcon and we stood quite a while at these rock faces above the Tana river, but did not see the falcon between the many gulls, and we could not imagine the falcon being present between the gulls. We then left the wooded Tana river valley (with a few elks!) and drove the high road across the Varanger peninsula, towards Båtsfjord. In this high arctic and still very snowy world we got Long-tailed Skua, Long-tailed Ducks, Ptarmigan, Shore Lark and many other species. Most of these were at the road fork for the directions Båtsfjord and Berlevåg. At the harbour of Båtsfjord were several Black Guillemot and Purple and Temmincks Stints. Night in Skipagura again.
Sunday 1 June
We drove quietly along the Varanger bay where the water surface was as smooth as a mirror! Trip ticks were amongst others Scaup, King Eider, Steller's Eider (both eiders especially near Nesseby), Red-throated Pipit, Great Grey Shrike and many Arctic Skua. The Kittiwake colony at Ekkerøy was nice, drive the tiny road until the very end and just before that take the track (at GPS074) left to the visitors parking place.
We took a room (250 Nkr) at the lodging facility of the Svartness campsite opposite Vardø (in stead of the 990 Nkr room at the only hotel of Vardø; but mind that this campsite is open from 1 June only). After that we did the very scenic road to Hamningberg at the Barentsz Sea, and we ticked Pomarine Skua, Shag, Rock Pipit, Snow Bunting.
Monday 2 June
After having finally identified our first Arctic Redpoll on the campsite, we went by boat to the Hornøya island from one of the quays (GPS075) of Vardø (75 Nkr pp irrespective of the number of passengers). The landing place on the island is right at the foot of the large seabird colony: all auks except Little Auk, and thus including Brünnich's Guillemot, plus Shag and many Kittiakes. These species would not have been possible by scoping from the shore of Vardø town only.
After a hot chocolate with other birders in the local pub of Vardø, we went back along the sunny Varanger bay but the water was not as calm as the day before so we missed White- billed Diver again. We drove on to the Gyr Falcon site along the Tana river (but a bit further south than where we had been searching already) and waited with other birders until the bird would appear but it did not. We went back to our Skipagura campsite for a third night.
Tuesday 3 June
First thing in the morning we drove to the Gyr Falcon site again! We had got new info from a few birders and now it appeared to be the spot where we had been three days before, after all. So it was indeed near the gulls, although there were far fewer gulls now. We had great views of an adult Gyr feeding the young, and flying back and forth a bit with prey remains.
Immensely relieved (Gyr being one of the main target birds of course) we crossed the border into Finland and drove on along the Inari lake etc. Impressive scenery nearly all the way, even the "boring" taiga forest. A small roadside bog at GPS076 looked promising, but now it rained and we detected only Ruff (displaying), Snipe and Wood Sandpiper.
Eventually we ended at the Petkula bog, a stake-out for Broadbilled Sandpiper. There is a large parking place east of the road, and a plank trail across the wet bog on the west side of the road. We got a cabin (25 euro) on the nearby campsite of Vajusuvanto along the old road section. We took it easy, hoping that the rain would have stopped the next morning.
Wednesday 4 June
Still rainy in the morning and we did not get our Broadbilled Sandpiper at the bog. The next stop was the old forest at Luosto, where we found a beautiful track, with Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit. This track can de reached as follows. In Sodankylä, dont take the direct road for the direction of Kuusamo (the 5/E63) but keep the 4/E75 until Aska and then go left onto the 9624 to Luosto. Where this road forks (after c. 21 km) for Luosto and Torvinen, take the latter direction for 2 km, and then go left (at GPS079). Drive on for 300 m until you see an old house (a former tearoom!) at GPS078 and park here. We walked the track going straight uphill from here.
Driving on along the 5/E63 towards Kuusamo, we took the first cottage site available (signposted Atimo, at GPS093) and dit not regret it! It was a very luxurious bungalow above a lake for just 40 euro per day, and we stayed here for the next four nights. We strongly recommend this place. The kind landlady is Marianne Koramo (she speaks English), phone +358 400 323 961, e-mail marianne.koramo [at] koulu.kuusamo.fi. They have four bungalows in a row (but well spaced, at GPS081), we had the most lefthand and most privately situated one called Tiira. See photos at their Finnish website www.atimo.net, at Mökit. Atimo is not the most central location in the region, but from here its only a 20 minutes drive to Ruka and another 15 minutes to Kuusamo, because the 5/E63 is a very fast road.
Thursday 5 June
Today we "sampled" several sites within the Ruka/Kuusamo region. First we drove the track close to our cottage, leading to the beautiful and large watery bog called Ahvenjärvi. Ignore the sign at the start of the track. The track starts at 1 km (GPS092) NE of Atimo back along the main road and goes west for several km. For the bog, go left after 3.8 km (GPS091), and after 700 m you see the bog on your left (at GPS088) and you can walk along the southern edge for about 100 m. This was a reconnaisance stop only, and it was promising enough to come back here another day.
Then we went on to the most famous site in the whole region, the forested Valtavaara ridge, at the pass in the road to Virkkula. No bluetail at the beautiful trail going up left from the parking place in the pass (GPS082), but right at the parking place we had our only Three-toed Woodpecker of the trip.
Then on to a few sites along the 5/E63 south of Kuusamo, for Little Bunting (at an early fork left, at a sign Juntilla) and Rustic Bunting (opposite the Kuusamo Portti lodge c. 15 km S of Kuusamo). At the dump SW of Kuusamo were several gulls but not (as far as we could see) the Heuglin's Gull. To find the dump, take the 20 to Oulu and after maybe 7 km go left at the sign Kaatopaikka. You can drive then to the right around the dump site, along a small pond.
Friday 6 June
The morning was spent on the forested Valtavaara ridge again, but now at the trail that starts c. 50 m southwest of the parking place and goes up and down a few hills, to the south. Several other birders were also present, all in search of the Red-flanked Bluetail. Only one had seen a glimpse of it. Meanwhile we got a tip for a new stake-out for this important species (albeit for an immature) at the Iivaara ridge far to the southeast of Kuusamo.
However, we first drove on towards the area east of the Valtavaara ridge, a lovely area of small shrubby pastures, along Peurolampi and Tahkolampi (GPS083) south to the Antinperä bird tower (parking at GPS084). Here we got our lifer Hazel Grouse in the birch wood at the foot of the tower.
We also tried to find the crazy Capercaillie at the parking places southeast of Ruka, but without success.
In the afternoon the weather finally became warmer, and from 16.00 h we were on the Iivaara forest ridge. We got the bluetail here indeed, even in the scope. It was singing a few 100 m up the trail. This lovely area can be found by taking the 5/E63 south out of Kuusamo, then after c. 7 km go left onto the 866, then after another 7 km right towards Hiltunen. Then after c. 18 km ( a few km past Hiltunen) turn left onto the track to Iivaara and go on for about 2 km to the parking place (GPS085). From here the trail goes first via a bridge through a nice marsh with birches (Little Bunting) and then up in the dense coniferous forest.
In Kuusamo we found a very reasonable hamburger restaurant in the northern part of the big shopping centre at the south end of town.
Saturday 7 June
We did a short pre-breakfast tour to the same Ahvenjärvi bog near our cottage, walked in from GPS088, and saw a displaying Black Grouse, plus Ringed Plover, Spotted Redshank and Ruff. Then we also drove several km on west from GPS091 (so on the main track again), and saw Crossbill, Redstart, Goldeneye, to mention a few.
After breakfast we drove to the Oulanka national park (P at GPS086) where we made the usual walk downstream from the visitor centre, along the rapids and back through the forest. At the rapids we had two Grey Wagtails, a rarity in Finland. In the forest we heard another Hazel Grouse, and saw a Parrot Crossbill (mainly identified on its peculiar sound).
In the evening we paid a short visit to the border of another forest reserve near our cottage, the Sukerji reserve at the north side of the main road, but you need the 1:100.000 map (see above) to find it. We left the car behind at GPS087 and walked the track about 1 km across the small Sukerivaara hill. From there we had a great scenic view over the immense wilderness, and also got Black Woodpecker.
Sunday 8 June
A last short visit to "our" Ahvenjärvi bog and we saw it now from a different angle, and from a higher viewpoint. This time we drove past the GPS088 spot, for another 1.1 km. Park here (GPS090) and walk the track going left through the forest (Waxwing). This track eventually bends back north to a small hill overlooking (c. 100 m past GPS089) the large wet bog. From here we saw nesting Crane and Whooper Swan (scope needed), and we heard Jack Snipe in its display flight. Nearby, two singing Whinchats were competing for our attention as well.
After breakfast we departed from the lovely cottage and left the Kuusamo region. We headed for Oulu, and visited the very nice Hirvisuo bog along this road (the 20) at c. 170 km from Kuusamo, or 45(?) km before the crossing with the 848 near Oulu. At this bog reserve is a large parking place with a kiosk and some nice aerial photographs, at GPS094. From the bird tower here we spotted our only Peregrine, feeding on something on the ground. We also saw more Cranes here than anywhere else on the trip.
After Oulu (the first big town of the whole trip!) we visited the Liminka Bay reserve (WWF), where we enjoyed the view from the bird tower near the sea. The water level was very high as the wind was blowing straight into the bay, so we had very few shore birds. But the presence of several southern birds like Sedge Warbler and Garden Warbler was a delight. The info centre is at GPS095 (no toilet after 16.00 h!). To reach this site, take the 4 from Oulu southward and then the 8 and immediately after that the turn off to Liminka. Keep this road (the 813) for 3.3 km, and turn right onto the side road to the visitor centre which is 6 km further on.
We headed on southward to Pyhäjoki, which had been recommended as a good owling area by other birders a few days before. At Pyhäjoki we found a nice cottage at the campsite (50 euro; they also have cheap small cabins) where we went to bed very early in order to get up at 23.00 h again! We criscrossed the dirt roads east of the nearby village of Parhalati (a few km north of Pyhäjoki, back along the main road) in the next three (daylight!) midnight hours. To our surprise we saw four owl species, all busy for their young: Long-eared (GPS097), Tengmalm's (GPS098), Hawk (GPS099) and Ural Owl (GPS100). For an impression of the areas lay-out, see the map in the photo section. This owling in such good light was an absolutely blissful end of our trip.
Monday 9 June
A lazy day, driving back to the airport of Luleå for the late afternoon flight back to Amsterdam. We added a roadside Woodcock to the trip list and we did some shopping in Luleå.
(waypoints; in WGS84)
GPS061 N65°38'07,70" E022°06'38,13"