Saturday, June 14, 2014

The search for Owls - A trip to Finland

My credit card lies flat on the table.  Two symmetrically charred holes like piercing eyes, melted by the cost of an owling trip to Finland stare apologetically back at me.  It was not cheap, but it was something very special.

Booked back in January, a relatively cheap flight from Gatwick routed via Helsinki arriving into Oulu in the evening.  The weather had been hot and humid that day, not something I had expected for Oulu, but dark storm clouds over the city looked threatening.  Deciding not to hire a car, I took a cab costing a wallet busting €50 to the Liminganlahti Wetland Centre where I had booked a four night stay.

At the Centre, a 600m boardwalk leads to a wooden tower that overlooks a lagoon covering a large area of shallow water with good areas of exposed mud.  The area isn't tidal as such but water levels are determined by the direction of the wind.

An initial scan across the bay produced a good selection of waders and wildfowl.  Of note were decent numbers of Mallard, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, and Eurasian Teal.  In amongst the selection of duck in smaller numbers were four drake Smew, a dozen Pintail, three drake Garganey, and a couple of pairs of Red-Breasted Merganser.

Waders were a significant feature with numerous pairs of Black-Tailed Godwit on territory, around ten stunning male Ruff gilded in fine costume, drumming Common Snipe, a few Wood Sandpiper, and good numbers of charcoal-ed adult summer plumaged Spotted Redshank already returning from their breeding grounds.

Black-Tailed Godwit

Slightly higher up the food chain were raptors of which three sub-adult White-Tailed Eagles patrolled the bay with Marsh Harriers common around the marshes causing havoc among the breeding waders.

The first evening also saw a couple of summer plumaged Dunlin, sizable flocks of Ringed Plover, Greenshank, breeding Greylag Goose with young, and eleven Whooper Swan.

There are positives about staying in one place, I just wasn't thrilled about it at the time, but it really was a blessing, particularly here at the wetland centre.  This was my first experience of spending time in a part of the world with perpetual light.  Technically, there was night-time.  Sunset was at 23:54 and sunrise was at 02:47 punctuated by a couple of hours of twilight.  The next morning I arose early and was on 'deck' at 04:45 to experience a Finnish dawn.  Birds were active - displaying, attending to young, feeding.  Whatever the activity, this was perfect nature taking it's course.

A male Pied Flycatcher sang from just outside of the visitor centre, as did a  Common Rosefinch along the boardwalk, and a single Corncrake called from the fields beyond.  Two male Whinchat picked off insects from their vantage points.  A Short-eared Owl hunted the open areas and were active well into the morning.

Continuing the search for more birds from the viewing tower, a flock of calling adult Little Gull drifted into the bay that were present throughout my stay, and a single Honey Buzzard soared over.  A Hobby hunted dragonflies over the marsh, and four Crane flew low at tree level to their feeding areas.  The sudden clatter of noise from breeding waders was the alarm call for a trespassing raptor.  With the elevated position, birds were easy to see.  An Osprey flew through carrying its fish supper, but the real treat was a male Pallid Harrier that despite the harassment gave superb views as it flew round behind the viewing area.

Having been tipped off earlier in the day, it took a while to catch up with an elusive singing male CITRINE WAGTAIL that showed reasonably well for just over a minute but enough to have been satisfied with a new bird.

A male Citrine Wagtail sang from the reedbed

More highlights from the bay included three Caspian Tern, and surprisingly an adult Gull-Billed Tern - an individual that at the time was only the third record for Finland that had now returned to the area for its fifth consecutive year.

A pair of Red-Backed Shrike were discovered distantly from the watch-tower and a male Montagu's Harrier flew through providing once again great views of another stunning Circus.

Then there was the midnight sunset.  Just awesome.

The weather had been reasonably warm, but more rain had moved in as the trip went on.  In the hope that the weather system had passed, it was disappointing to awake at 02:15 for the Finnature Owl tour to hear heavy rain pounding off the wooden decking outside.  The group of five (that included an indifferent top world lister) headed off promptly at 03:00 in search for owls and local specialties.

The first stop targetted Wryneck (that continues elude me), Black Grouse, and Pallid Harrier, but none obliged us with their presence, put off by the unfortunate weather.

Heading off to the first Owl site was rewarded with an initial sighting of a GREAT GREY OWL, an adult male perched commandingly in a pine tree.  The first sighting of such an inspiring bird is simply breath-taking particularly when it took flight through the forest, looking monstrous in the morning light.

We continued our progress to the nest site.  It was damp, and wet but it is the Mosquitoes that get you.  Hard to describe the relentless pursuit of these creatures that bay for your blood, experts in blood extraction, they are also adept at sucking out your sanity.  They get everywhere.  I had them setting up home in my hair, my scalp was ridden with bites, and running my hand over the bumps felt incongruously like bubble-wrap.  My mind was about to pop.  The birds however ensure your sobriety.

The nest was an untidy ensemble of branches.  Contained within it were two fluffy owlets.  To the right keeping watch was a female Great Grey Owl, holding station while the male made sorties for voles.  The male did return just on one occasion but again, seeing this bird in flight is something to behold.  Also at this site, a Black Woodpecker called high up in the trees, and I was lucky to see a Three-Toed Woodpecker feeding close to the nest-site.

Moving onto the next target bird as the rain continued to fall, the weather had no intention of abating.  The forest floor was sodden but our valiant attempts to connect with Ural Owl were in vain.

The next bird was Hazel Grouse, found with the assistance of the 'Grouse Whistle' much to the delight of a certain individual in our group in the pursuit of reaching an impressive target of 9000 world species.

Continuing on to the next site, it took a while to see PYGMY OWL but this was only possible by intruding into the nest box where a female sat with her young.  A great experience, a lovely bird, but unsatisfying considering the circumstances.  At this site, a GREENISH WARBLER was in a full song providing great views before flying into the trees.

One of the helpful things about the Finnature tours is that the guide is determined to help group members out in seeing different birds.  I was therefore grateful to see my first ORTOLAN BUNTING singing in a tree alongside typical farmland habitat.

The last site was that of TENGMALM'S OWL.  With a very slim chance of seeing the adults during daylight hours, it was another visit to a nest box where a single chick remained that was close to fledging as it's two older siblings had already done.

Tengmalm's Owl chick sadly with a deseased sibling that was later removed by the guide

On our return back to base, we dropped by a site that had seen Terek Sandpiper in recent days.  Unfortunately the bird failed to show while we there.

An eight hour tour culminated in twelve hours of solid birding in difficult conditions, but we felt satisfied having made the best of the inclement weather.

After a brief hiatus from birding, we were back on it after dinner.  The rain had stopped and the sun shone.  Accompanying a few really great birders from the centre, we headed back to the Terek Sandpiper site in search of our prize.  The small pond (puddle) that was reported to have had the bird drew another blank.  The other site was curiously a disused car park with an impressive selection of breeding birds.  Temminck's Stint according to the sign at the entrance to the site breed here, but again, no sign of these diminutive waders.  There were however breeding Arctic Tern, Little Ringed Plover, Redshank, Skylark, and Common Snipe.

Two flyover Woodcock ended a great day.

June was a bit late to visit but still within range of catching up with breeding Owls.  The Ural Owl chicks had already fledged, hence our failed attempts to catch up with this species.  There were no nest sites found of Hawk Owl but the other species did have young.  There was absolutely no way of seeing them without a guide.

The tour was pricey, but well worth the expense.

Video showing clips of singing Citrine Wagtail and Great Grey Owl.

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