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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
BIRDS AND MUSIC - FINLAND, RUSSIA, ARCTIC NORWAY AND ESTONIA,
Bryan Bland, Norfolk, and Patty Briggs, Hertfordshire, Leaders
by Ann Barker, Lostcreek1@aol.com
We were 17 in all, including our leaders, a bit more than half of us British, and the rest Americans. I honestly don't believe I could have hand picked a more congenial, spirited and fun loving group for my 'family' for two weeks. We had a million laughs, and a few tears as well, as the music we heard took us through the gamut of emotions.
From London, we flew to Savonlinna, in southeast Finland. The Savonlinna Opera Festival venue is the 15th century Olavinlinna Castle, on an island accessible only by a footbridge from the city. For three nights, in a nearly perfect acoustic and atmospheric environment, we enjoyed Gounod's "Faust", Verdi's "La Forza del Destino", and Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci." Our front row seats at Cav & Pag put the singers nearly in our laps! A truly outstanding chorus for all three nights was composed of mostly local singers, and nearly stole the thunder from the principals.
Finland's extensive pine and birch forests were dominant even here in the south, though here the habitat was more varied than what we were to see farther north. Lakes laced their way among the forests, giving one the impression that it might be possible to get from one place to nearly any other either by boat or auto. This was in fact the case for at least one destination, as we traveled to a wilderness camp by boat, but returned later by coach. The water in the lakes was wonderfully refreshing, as we discovered while enjoying a swim after a Finnish smoke sauna. At the wilderness camp, we were delighted and moved by a lovely solo cello concert in the woods as we sipped tea.
Birds of the lakes and forests included Black-throated Diver, Red-necked and Great Crested Grebes, Goldeneye, Goosander, Osprey, Common Tern, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Nutcracker, Spotted Flycatcher, Sedge, Willow and Wood Warblers, Blackcap, Crested, Great and Blue Tits, Tree Pipit, and Siskin. A visit to the wetland reserve at Siikalahti added, among others: Little and Slavonian Grebes, Wigeon, Teal, Mallard, Shoveler, Pintail, Pochard, Tufted Duck, Smew, Grey Heron, Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Wood Sandpiper, Ruff, Lapwing, Fieldfare and Reed Bunting. We didn't find Blyth's Reed Warbler, Thrush Nightingale, or Scarlet Rosefinch, all of which were distinct possibilities here.
Before heading north, we took a two-day diversion into Russia to see St Petersburg. Most unfortunately, we were not able to do any birding, having been significantly delayed by -- what else -- red tape -- at the border crossing! St. Petersburg was fascinating, disturbing and disheartening all at once. It was extensively bombed during World War II, and still bears visible scars more than 50 years later. Its magnificent palaces and classical buildings -- we visited Peterhof and the Hermitage -- bore stark contrast to the dismal and decaying city all around them. Dingy 4 or 5-story Communist style block buildings predominated, and most seemed to be crumbling visibly. Years of poverty without hope had worn deep furrows into the brows of the beggars who approached us on the street. So rich, the glitzy baroque heritage of this city; so poor, the common people.
Russian ballet, of course, was on our agenda for the one night here. We were treated to a light-hearted "La Sylphide" at the Mariinsky Theatre.
Back in Finland, listening to Sibelius' "Finlandia" and "Karelia Suite", we found ourselves above the Arctic Circle near Ivalo in Lapland, the land of the midnight sun. For the next three days and nights, we would see no darkness. The endless taiga forest is so extensive, and bird populations spread so thinly through it, that it can seem surprisingly birdless. Nonetheless, with patience, we added Raven, Siberian Jay (6 total, with excellent views), Siberian Tit, Brambling (in summer finery), Greenfinch, Redpoll and Bullfinch. At the lakes and with a trip to the inevitable sewage ponds (yes, even here in the pristine north!), we found Arctic and Little Terns, Golden Plover, Spotted Redshank, Little and Temminck's Stints, Red-necked Phalarope, Willow Grouse, Yellow Wagtail, and Little Bunting. We climbed Mt. Kilopaa, near Saariselka, and, thanks to their distinctive croaking call, found three Ptarmigan. Peering through the early morning mist, our eyes worked very hard to separate these well camouflaged birds from the surrounding rocks of identical color. Farther down on the same scree slope, we realised that four of the rocks were moving - Dotterel!
How do I possibly do justice to one of the most magical evenings I can remember? We drove up a private gated road to a small exhibition center at the top of a forested mountain overlooking Lake Inari, with a view overlooking the lake and its 3000+ islets and the boreal forest to the north. Here, at around 11 p.m, as we gazed toward the sun settling just above the north horizon, Martti Salo began to play his Kantele for us. The Kantele is a Finnish stringed instrument with anywhere from 5 to 36 strings, played on the lap. Martti's gentle style was magical, ethereal. Entranced, we heard Karelian folksongs, Kalevala melodies, and music of Oskar Merikato, as well as, I believe, some of Martti's own compositions. After an hour, we took an interval to toast the midnight sun with champagne, and to chat with Martti, and then he played again. Later, back in our hotel at 1:30 a.m., the delicate melodies lingered in my mind, and with the light streaming through the window, I found it difficult to sleep.
We pressed on, ever northward. As we crossed into Norway, the forest gradually gave way to a more rugged, barren landscape, as Edvard Grieg's "Peer Gynt" began to fill our ears. I was in involuntary hum-along mode; sadly, I have never been able to cure myself of that affliction. We followed Varangerfjord, which opens northeastward into the Barents Sea, an arm of the Arctic Ocean. Wild, remote and beautiful, this land at the northern end of Europe is the home of the Gyrfalcon and the White-tailed Eagle. We were fortunate enough to spot a White-tailed Eagle nest on a cliff ledge, with two yet-to-fledge young. We watched as both parents hunted over the nearby sea and attended to the formidable feeding chores. Both Arctic and Long-tailed Skuas became commonplace, and occasional Rough-legged Buzzards. A Gyrfalcon eyed us warily from his cliff-top perch hundreds of feet above, sending chills up my spine. Even at a great distance, he is the most magnificent of birds. Velvet Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks appeared along the coast with thousands of Eider. We scanned the huge flocks and found two King Eider, but alas, no Steller's. The presence of a flock of prim and natty Kittiwakes suggested we were near sea cliffs, where they nest. Gannets floated by offshore. We searched in vain for White-billed Diver, supposedly more common than Great Northern here. Little Ringed Plover was found with the more numerous Ringed Plover, and Bar-tailed Godwits abounded. Snow Buntings, Lapland Bunting, Rock Pipit, Twite, and Arctic Redpoll were present in small numbers; passerine species become relatively scarce this far north.
We boarded a small boat to Horneroy Island. Stiff winds, swell and spray effectively prevented much sea watching on the way, but once on the island, we found hundreds of Guillemot, a few Brunnich's Guillemot and Razorbill, Black Guillemots, thousands of Puffins, Kittiwakes, Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls.
Vardo, situated on an offshore island at the mouth of the fjord, is reached by - believe it or not - a tunnel. It takes a deep breath and bit of pluck to drive boldly into the gaping black hole in the ground at the end of the peninsula, heading out to sea. Our hotel was simple, even stark, as one might expect here. No frills. A Saami shaman in costume sang folk songs for us, incorporating the calls of many birds and sounds of other arctic wildlife.
It was time to leave the land of the midnight sun. Enroute south to Estonia, we stopped for two nights in Oulu, on Finland's west coast, about halfway to Helsinki. Here, at Liminganlahti wetland reserve, spectacular flocks of Cranes were feeding in fields or flying over, with about 100 seen during the day. We added Greylag Goose, Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Mistle Thrush, Whinchat, and Ortolan Bunting to our trip list. One of the highlights of the entire trip was the private evening spent having an elegant dinner at a snail farm. While we dined on escargot, we were treated to a chamber concert by Harmony Strings, a quartet of professional musicians, featuring mostly Finnish music with many of their own arrangements and compositions. We found ourselves deeply moved.
Estonia, though it has only been free of communist control since 1991, shows an incredible amount of spirit and pride when compared with what we saw in Russia. Private enterprise is making significant headway here, and there is a systematic scheme to restore old buildings. Fresh coats of paint adorn houses, construction crews hammer away, and street repair crews' work diligently to catch up on years of infrastructure neglect. People here may not be wealthy, but they are smiling. They have hope.
We spent a warm summer day on Muhu Island in the Baltic Sea, picking up several new species: White Stork, Red-backed Shrike, Pied Flycatcher, Nuthatch, Goldcrest, Icterine Warbler, and Whitethroat. We enjoyed Estonian folk dancing and song by brightly costumed locals, who indeed had so much fun performing that the spirit was contagious.
Tallin's old town is a haven of history, with its narrow winding cobblestone streets, storybook houses and cathedrals. It was here, in the historic Dome Church, with its newly restored Sauer Organ, and in the nearby St. Nicholas Church, nearly entirely rebuilt after being devastated by bombs in World War II, that we heard three stirring organ concerts by performers from all over Europe, and the Gregorian chant ensemble, Vox Clamantis.
It would have been difficult indeed to improve on this trip, though had I been in charge, we would have spent much more time birding and done less sightseeing in both Russia and Estonia. Notable species missed: White-billed Diver, Bean Goose, Steller's Eider, Black Stork, Honey Buzzard, Spotted Eagle, Purple Sandpiper, Broad-billed Sandpiper, Snipe, Eagle Owl, Black Woodpecker, Thrush Nightingale, Waxwing, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Shore Lark, Scarlet Rosefinch, Pine Grosbeak, Crossbill, Parrot Crossbill, Two-barred Crossbill, and Rustic Bunting. All reasons to return!
A final word about Finland and its people: this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been; clean, unspoiled, and sparsely populated. Despite the fact that we didn't speak their language, the Finns almost all spoke English very well, and were wonderfully warm and friendly. They are educated, intelligent, kind and caring. I felt completely at home, and very welcome at all times. I'd return in a heartbeat. A very special place, with very special people.
Oh! I nearly forgot! You're a nobody as a birder in Finland if you haven't got a Finnstick. Have you got yours?
list for Sunbird's "Birds and Music" journey to Finland, Russia, arctic
Norway and Estonia
7/19/1999 to 8/2/1999
Great Crested Grebe
Little Ringed Plover
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Northern Diver
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Ann Barker (August '99)