Wildlife Holiday News

A Birdwatching Holiday in Arctic Finland

A customer travelled on our 'Finland - Easter on the Arctic Circle' holiday and submitted this entry to our writing competition.

Hawk Owl

The dead of night. A forest near the Russian border. A lone vehicle bumps and skids along a snowy track, its occupants intent on their mission ... the opening lines of a Le Carre novel? No, but a thriller nonetheless - Naturetrekkers on the trail of owls in the Finnish woods.

Suddenly we slew to a stop. Something has flown across the track. Banter abruptly hushed, we pile out into the surprisingly mild night. There’s movement just beyond our vision. A powerful spotlight suddenly rakes the towering firs and there it is, a black-eyed Ural Owl that briefly breaks the beam. A ghost on the fringe of the light it suddenly wheels in and flies over our heads. We almost topple back, so keen are we to track its flight. For 10 minutes this elusive bird gives us outstanding views before disappearing back into the blackness. Already exhilarated about being out in this night-time wilderness this has left us all speechless.

But this was just one incident in a long weekend of such memorable encounters: a huge lek of Black Grouse monochrome against a sun-lit snow field; two primeval Elk threading their way through the shadowy pines; winter-plumaged Willow Grouse looking as soft as snow mounds, and dozens of cranes and hundreds of geese under a sky dotted with raptors. Even common birds were suddenly special with striking borealis Willow Tits and Northern Bullfinches glowing the colour of rose-hips in the snow-light.

At one point we had incredible close-up views of a cock Capercaillie displaying right out in the open until suddenly, taking exception to our presence, it half-flew, half-galloped at us across the snow. Deciding discretion was the better part of valour we all made a hasty and undignified dash for the safety of the bus!

And we racked up all the specials: Siberian Jay, Three-toed and Black Woodpeckers, Parrot Crossbill, Siberian Tit and even outstanding views of the elusive Hazel Grouse. Local rarities too: a Nutcracker shown to us, with evident pride, by some suburban Finns and a vagrant Crested Lark picking unconcernedly on the town’s ice-dump but surely dreaming of deserts ...

But it’s the owls that are burned most brightly into my memory. Pygmy Owls flying in in response to our guide’s whistled call, a Tengmalm’s looking comically shocked as it emerged from its nest hole and a dramatic Hawk Owl standing sentinel on a lone pine. Best of all, our guide calling me over: ‘Look in here,’ he said nonchalantly, peering into his ‘scope. There was a Great Grey Owl filling the view. Seeming as serene and old as the forest itself, the bird turned its great head to stare straight back at me. Unforgettable!

Like many independent birders I saw a guided trip as, at best, a necessary evil to see ‘difficult’ birds, but in reality the company of other enthusiasts, the expertise of the guides and the stress-free travelling added so much to the experience. And where else could you sit between a cardiac surgeon, a DJ and a school caretaker all united by a single passion?

On the last day we walked out on to an ice-bound bay, the sea frozen in semi-opaque slabs under a brilliant blue sky. A White-tailed Eagle drifted over us, then a distant movement resolved itself into the poignant sight of butterflies fluttering over the icy sea. As they swept closer the sun picked out their colours of chocolate and yellow, my first Camberwell Beauties! A perfect finish to an extraordinary few days.

Read more about our 'Finland - Easter on the Arctic Circle' holiday.