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Where do they keep the pigs? A father and son’s bird watching trip to Scandinavia, 4 - 26 June 2007,
“Where do they keep the pigs?” I asked my son Nick just as we were passing Copenhagen to cross into Sweden via the impressive (and incredibly expensive!) Öresund Bridge. “What are you talking about?” he said. “The pigs, Denmark supposed to be full of them. Look at all that bacon. We’ve spent the past 4 hours crossing Denmark and I haven’t seen a bloody one”. There then followed a highly detailed appraisal of the possibilities. They ranged from them being kept indoors (or underground!) to them all having been sold to the UK and perhaps there were none left in Denmark. Will we ever know?
In the spring of 2002, Nick, myself and 2 friends took the ferry from Newcastle to Bergen in Norway and over the course of the following 8 days, drove to Varanger Fjord and back. We loved it. The birdlife was great and it was wonderful to experience the huge wilderness that is Northern Scandinavia. The only problem was the time available in relation to the distance covered (over 4,000 miles). Lee Nixon’s excellent report of this trip, entitled “More Beans Anyone” (you have to read it to find out why) is accessible on the net.
On this trip, we saw enough of the region and its wildlife to realise that we wanted to come back and perhaps be able to travel at a more sedate pace. Oh yes, and see more birds. The 2002 trip was certainly an exercise in extreme birding if not extreme driving, doing several hundred miles at a stretch. My subsequent early retirement and Nick’s latest work contract finishing in May offered the opportunity, at least for 2 of us. The plan - drive from Esbjerg in Denmark to Varanger and back via Öland, Central Sweden, Oulu and Kuusamo in Finland and various other out of the way places in Lappland. To some extent, our itinerary was influenced by the ferry companies who, this year had ceased direct journeys from the UK to Gothenberg. Harwich to Esbjerg seemed to be the only viable alternative if we wanted to use our own transport and avoid the horribly narrow and winding Norwegian roads through the mountains we experienced in 2002. Another factor that influenced the timing of the trip was my wife’s imminent retirement, planned for July. I knew that if I didn’t do it pretty damn quick, I didn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of slipping my leash for over 3 weeks wall to wall bird watching (Jo is not a birder).
Some 15 months earlier, I had bought a campervan as my retirement toy. Over the subsequent months this had been invaluable as a means of transport, and sometimes accommodation for bird watching trips to the East Coast, Norfolk and other birding hotspots. It had even been to Shetland. It had also proved its worth for family holidays. The campervan is badged as a Ford Freda. These vehicles are built for the Japanese domestic market but an increasing number of them are being imported second-hand into the UK where they compare favourably to their European equivalents (the Japanese drive on the same side of the road as us). More astute readers will have noticed that Ford Freda is a bit of a silly name. Luckily, this isn’t the name that these vehicles are usually known by. Their real name is a Bongo Friendee! Could we manage to live in it for over 3 weeks? Earlier Scandinavian trip reports we had referred to suggested that to do the journey in one’s own campervan was perhaps the best, and most economical option for such a trip. In the main, it was successful, both as a means of transport and accommodation. It has one of those roofs that can pop up to provide additional space when stationary. “Auto Free Top” as the vehicle itself proudly proclaims. Nick slept upstairs and me down below. Also, it proved totally reliable throughout the whole trip that involved some 5,800 miles. These vehicles have a reputation for reliability which was the main reason I bought it in the first place.
Day 1 - Esbjerg to Kristianstad (Sweden)
The day started well. Woke up early on board the ferry with a bit of a headache (a hangover might be nearer the mark). Cut myself shaving which didn’t improve matters. For a few minutes, the shower cubicle resembled that famous scene from Psycho! The previous night, I had sampled a Danish spirit that I think was called Gammel Dansk. Don’t think I’d ever tried it before. Don’t think I’ll be trying it again, ever. I should have stuck to tasteless Danish lager.
Went on deck to look for birds and kick off the trip list. There weren’t any. Too far from land I suppose. As we neared land however, there were several Gannets, Eider and Shelduck about along with Common, Arctic and Sandwich Terns.
The ferry was full of sports car owners with plummy accents. There must have been in excess of 30 of these vehicles called AC Cobras. Don’t see many of these where I live. Not every passenger had one of these however. All of the others (apart from me) had a vintage Saab and were apparently off on an owners club jaunt to the factory.
As mentioned above, it took us about 4 hours to cross Denmark and get into Sweden over the Öresund Bridge which is over 10 kilometers long and cost about £22 to use. Earlier, we crossed a similar bridge to get from one Danish Island to another that was just as long and equally expensive. It was late afternoon and our first proper bird watching was in the Krankesjön area in South West Sweden. This is a lake, large by English standards, not by Swedish, with extensive reedbeds. Surely we’d get Penduline Tit here. We didn’t but it was pretty good all the same. On the approach to the lake, we saw a number of Red Kites one of which was trying to swipe a tasty morsel (actually a rat) that a White Stork was about to tuck into. Needless to say, the Stork was less than delighted with the Kite’s behaviour and for a few minutes there was quite a commotion involving the stork retaining ownership of the rat.
The lake itself has bird towers (a feature of wetland sites throughout Scandinavia) and hides. We saw several Black Terns, a couple of Icterine Warblers, Cuckoo, Blue Headed Wagtails, Avocets, Tree Sparrows, Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Reed Warblers and Marsh Harriers in addition to several duck species. There was a Bittern booming nearby and a Thrush Nightingale that we couldn‘t actually see. Also picked up my first mosquito bite. Wasn’t expecting this until at least Central Sweden
After a couple of hours here, we decided to move on to the Kristianstad area, about 35 miles to the northeast. This was where we would stay overnight. There are a number of recommended birding sites here, either side of the River Helge. The one we went to was a carpark at the end of a dirt road near the village of Skänes Viby. The actual bird reserve is called Håslövsängar. It had 2 welcome surprises for us, a toilet (a bit basic but needs must) and a singing Marsh Warbler a few yards from where we parked that actually sang throughout the night. We also bagged Snipe, Curlew, Curlew Sandpiper, Redshank Blue Headed Wagtail Thrush Nightingale and Grasshopper Warbler here before it went dark. The last real darkness we would experience for 3 weeks.
Day 2 - Kristianstad to Ottenby
For much of the morning, we wandered around the Håslövsängar reserve and some other spots on the river south of Kristianstad (which apparently is pronounced something like “Krishwansta”). Although I call it a river, it is so wide here you would think it was a large lake if you didn’t know differently. The Marsh Warbler was still singing and, again, there were several Blue headed Wagtails, Marsh Harriers, Snipe, Black tailed Godwits, Redshank and an Osprey that we saw land on its nest. We saw our last Red Kite for 3 weeks on the west side of the river together with lots of Grey Lag Geese. Also Great Spotted Woodpeckers were quite common around here.
Late morning and we were on our way to the Island of Öland off Sweden’s south east coast. This involved a couple of hours driving on generally good roads, initially going east and then north to Kalmar. We crossed yet another impressive bridge to get onto Öland. This one was even more impressive because it was free! Öland is quite a picturesque area with lots of windmills and brightly painted houses. We were heading for Ottenby at the southern tip of the Island but stopped off at a reserve called Beijershamn on the West Coast, some miles south of the big bridge. No joy with the hoped for Barred Warbler but we saw Red Backed Shrike, Icterine Warbler, Scaup, Barnacle Goose, Brent Goose and Curlew Sandpiper in addition to many common duck and wader species.
Moved on to Ottenby where Nick had pre-booked us on the local campsite for a couple of nights by telephone (he speaks Swedish bless him). There were Corncrakes “rasping” in fields next the campsite. Nick, who had never seen a Corncrake, along with some other birders (most campers on this site seemed to be birders) was going crazy trying to see them without success. Also on or around the campsite were Thrush Nightingale, Common Rosefinch, Whinchat, Wheatear, Yellowhammers, Fieldfares and a bird that we would see practically every time we got out of the van over the next 20 days, White Wagtails. Also a Hobby flew over being “chased” by the many Swifts in the air. Rooks also in evidence here unlike much of Scandinavia and crows were always Hooded Crows.
Nick obtained some good gen for the following day from a Swedish lady in the caravan next to our pitch. She spoke good English but was probably so gob smacked at meeting a Brit who actually spoke Swedish, she spoke to Nick in Swedish and me in English. Also picked up another mosquito bite. I was learning the hard way not to indulge in unprotected birding but after this evening, I had pretty well come to terms with the need to use an effective repellent each time we went out (I used some stuff containing Deet) and also to wear a hat. The little buggers in Scandinavia will bite you through your hair if you don‘t.
Day 3 - The Ottenby area
Each morning now, a pattern of activities was emerging, mainly involving all the stuff in the van being moved from “overnight” mode to “travelling“ mode. This mainly involved getting things down from upstairs so we could retract the roof and about a half hour search for whatever one of us had managed to lose overnight (there was always something). Not that we would be doing much travelling today. Just the 4 or so miles between the campsite and Ottenby Point via Ottenby Lund (the woods).
In the morning, around the campsite, we saw or heard the same variety of birds as yesterday plus Golden Oriole that was presumably fresh in. Certainly, our Swedish neighbours hadn’t seen any around the place and they had been there for 10 days. In fact, the Swedish Lady had never seen one. I got the impression that Orioles are about as uncommon in Sweden as they are in the UK although in reality, there are a number of sites for them in southernmost Sweden (predominately in Skåne).
Went off to the Ottenby Lund area with information about likely Barred Warbler sites. We checked them out without success. Walked through the woods which were very nice providing you were sufficiently mosquito-proof. A Swedish birder gave us information about nest boxes occupied by Collared Flycatchers (which was nice!). He also gave us the actual box numbers which helped considerably. After a good deal of walking we got excellent views of the Collared Flycatchers (at least 2 occupied nest boxes found). Also seen on this walk were Spotted and Pied Flycatchers, dozens of Wood Warblers, Tree and Meadow Pipits Great Spotted Woodpeckers, a Robin (not a common bird anywhere we went) Thrush Nightingale, Redstart, Wheatear, Whinchat, Marsh, Garden and Icterine Warbler, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, Blackcaps, Nuthatches and Red Backed Shrikes. Also, many of the by now ubiquitous Fieldfares, Yellowhammers and White Wagtails. Needless to say, we were well impressed with this area even though we couldn‘t find Red Breasted Flycatchers that were supposed to be here in small numbers .
Towards lunchtime and with the knowledge that there was a restaurant there, we went to Ottenby Point, a small settlement with gift shops a lighthouse and a bird observatory. Serin had been seen that morning and we got Black Throated Diver, Brent Goose and a variety of waders including Oystercatcher, Ringed Plover, Dunlin, Knot and Redshank. There were also Common and Little Terns. Had a nice lunch at the restaurant comprising bacon, a kind of potato cake and lingonberries. Lingonberries in Sweden are like tomato ketchup in the UK. They are on everything.
Before returning to the campsite after lunch, we tried another Barred Warbler site that Nick had been told about by someone at the observatory. Again, no luck. Driving back to the campsite however, we noticed an interesting thicket on the side of the road with parking. We got out to have a look and heard a song like an excited Whitethroat. However, in the middle of the thicket was an adult Barred Warbler. After a bit of patience, we got good views including seeing it singing in flight. The Collins Guide is spot on as far as the song is concerned. Öland does seem to be the Swedish stronghold of this bird although it is found on the mainland. Also here were Thrush Nightingale, Marsh and Reed Warblers (there were reed-lined ditches nearby). Just before entering the campsite, we noticed a small group of birders showing some interest in something over some fields. They turned out to be Swiss and the bird they were watching turned out to be a Montagu’s Harrier, another bird about as rare in Sweden as in England. The Swiss had actually gone into the field to look for Corncrakes, still calling round and about but, much to Nick’s frustration, not showing. A few Cranes were also flying over. Finally, back at the campsite, Nick saw a White-Tailed Eagle fly over whilst I was in the loo!
After an evening walk near the campsite, during which we again saw some of the birds seen earlier (though not the Barred Warbler), the increasing mosquito presence told us it was time for bed.
Day 4 - Ottenby to Örebro
We were going north today but first of all we revisited some of the sites we were at yesterday to look for Red Breasted Flycatcher and the Serin that we heard was still in the Point area. No luck with the Flycatcher but we did find the Serin, initially through its song (if you can call it that!) very close to the lighthouse. Also paid a last visit to the Barred Warbler which was good enough to serenade our departure. There were lots of mosquitos around today but the repellant I was using (and the hat I was wearing) really worked so that even though they were all around my head, they didn’t bite. The downside was that I was totally overdressed for the weather which was really hot. If anything, Swedes are worse than Brits for their determination to burn as much of their bodies as possible each time the sun comes out and so we observed many semi-naked Scandinavians throughout our 250 mile journey today.
En route, we stopped to shop at a small town in Småland. I think it was called Hultsfred. We were lucky enough (although my wife wouldn’t agree) to stumble across the local Systembolaget. In effect, these are state-run booze shops that you have to go to in order to buy anything over 3.5% alcohol if it is to be consumed off the premises. Probably my favourite Scandinavian shops (in Finland, they are called Alkos!). Also on this journey we passed through Vimmerby, the birthplace of Astrid Lindgrens, the creator of Pippi Longstocking, much loved by Swedish kids and quite a few in the UK I understand. We resisted the temptation to visit the Astrid Lindgrens World where actresses dressed as Pippi sing and dance their way around the place.
Stopped for lunch at a really good picnic site with shaded benches and tables (it was still hot) and Spotted and Pied Flycatchers flying around. Also, a pair of Black Throated Divers on the adjacent lake.
Stopped at a reserve called Svartåmynningen on the edge of a lake near the town of Linkoping (pronounced Linsherping). Initially, it looked promising, but apart from an Osprey, the only birds seen were Cormorants, and Sedge and Reed Warblers. There again, it was so hot we probably weren’t looking properly.
We intended staying overnight at a large campsite in the city of Örebro but on the way did a recce of Kvismaren, a large wetland area that we wanted to do tomorrow. We didn’t spend long there this evening but we did see many Greylags, 7 duck species (no showstoppers) Marsh Harrier, Hobby, Crane,Ruff, Little Gull, Black Tern, Blue Headed Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Thrush Nightingale Wheatear, Whinchat and 9 warbler species.
Went on to Orebro where we eventually found the jawdroppingly expensive campsite (amazing facilities but wasted on us as purely an overnight stopping place). Fleeting glimpse there of a Tawny Owl before going to bed. It wasn’t getting dark any more.
Day 5 Örebro to Färnebofjärden
Returned to Kvismaren and although we were there by 8.30, it was already hot. Kvismaren is a an area of several lakes, sizeable reedbeds with sufficient woodland around them to offer up opportunities for seeing a wide range of species. We had hopes of River Warbler, Blyth’s Reed Warbler and Penduline Tit (again). We didn’t see any of them and local birders told us that the first 2 were barely in evidence in the region this year whilst we may have been a bit late in the season for Penduline Tit.
By lunchtime, we had notched up Red necked Grebe, Bittern (heard), and Gadwall, together with 7 other (common) duck species, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Crane, Redshank and Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Snipe, Common Tern, Black Tern, Lesser and Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Headed Wagtail, Meadow and Tree Pipit, Thrush Nightingale, Redstart, Whinchat, only our second Redwing of the trip, Grasshopper Warbler, Reed and Great Reed Warbler, Marsh, Sedge, Icterine and Willow Warbler, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Spotted Flycatcher, Raven and Linnet. By lunchtime, we appeared to have exhausted possibilities and also, it was very hot. We did have a cursory look at the snake reserve that forms part of the Kvismaren Reserve but no snakes (adders one presumes) were showing themselves. By early afternoon we were on our way north again, about 100 miles to the Färnebofjärden area. We stopped to shop in a small town called Heby. I was rather hoping for another town or village called Jeby to show itself nearby but regrettably, there wasn’t one.
Considered the possibility of a cabin at the campsite at Färnebofjärden but at 900 kroner a night (about £75), I didn’t fancy paying French villa prices for something that looked like a garden shed. It was a good campsite all the same in a great spot (the mosquitos thought so too) next to a lake where an Osprey was fishing. There were Redwing, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers and Wood Warblers in the trees around the site and Woodcock roding as the evening wore on.
Day 6 - Färnebofjärden area
Up at 5.00 and promptly went walkabout in the woodland bordering the campsite and the lake. Promptly legged it back to the campervan 5 minutes and 3 or 4 mosquito bites later when I realized I had forgotten my hat!. Good views of Black Woodpecker drumming that I was close enough to film. There were also Common Sandpiper, Goosander, Blue Headed Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Icterine and Wood Warblers, Blackcap, Redwing, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Crested Tit and Siskin and I heard a Grey Headed Woodpecker,
After some breakfast, we drove off to find an area of Färnebofjärden we believed to be good for Woodpecker species. After driving for miles on quiet roads and several more miles on unmetalled roads, we started walking in what we believed to be the area in question. Probably walked about 8 miles in searing heat and saw very few birds for our troubles. Luckily, one of the few was a Capercaillie that was a lifer for both of us, never having been lucky enough to see them on infrequent visits to Scotland. So drained were we by this gruelling walk, we were both in need of an urgent calorific intake when we reach the nearest town. Nick had a Margherita and I had a Marinara.
Spent much of the afternoon catching up on our laundry because our dirty washing bag was beginning to take on a personality of its own, like something out of one of those cheapo 1950s sci-fi films. “The Blob” springs to mind.
Had a walk around the surrounding woods again in the evening and tried a Grey Headed Woodpecker lure. It attracted both Great Spotted and Lesser Spotted Pecker but no Grey Headed. Partial success I suppose.
A Swedish chap camping nearby with his daughter gave us some “illegal” (his words) mosquito repellant that he gets from the Lapps on his fishing trips up north. He also told us that the best way to reach the area we tried to find that morning was by canoe from the campsite. This way, he said, we would see nesting eagles that he thought were Golden Eagles. Not much chance of this happening. Last time Nick and me teamed up in a canoe, the ensuing blame culture when things went wrong almost lead to us trying to drown each other.
It remained hot into the night. We were looking forward to getting further north into Lappland if only to experience some “real” weather.
Day 7 Färnebofjärden to Hornslandet
Before we set off to move further north, our Swedish friend from yesterday told us of 2 things we should see before leaving the Färnebofjärden area. One was an artesian spring close to the campsite and the other, an area containing some of the region’s oldest trees just south of a village called Gysinge that we intended to visit anyway.
The artesian spring was just as he described it. Crystal clear water bubbling up into a sizeable pool that out flowed into a stream. There were a few northern Long Tailed Tits nearby as well as Tree Sparrows and Spotted Flycatchers. At the mature tree sight, I was pretty sure that we could hear (but couldn’t find) a Ural Owl. They are believed to be in this area in reasonable numbers. Also here were Redstart, Woodlark and Wryneck.
Afterwards, we visited Gysinge and surrounding woodland. There were Redwing, Redstarts, Spotted and Pied Flycatchers and Wood Warblers and Goosander on the river. In the village, being a summer Sunday, there was a fete. There was bric a brac, hotdogs and the ubiquitous south American duo playing the pipes. Could have been anywhere in Europe.
We travelled about 100 miles north to the Hornslandet Peninsula on the Baltic, bagging Wryneck at a service station on the way, north of Gävle. The campsite at Hölick was in good woodland habitat. Again considered taking a cabin for the night but they were dear here also - about £70 a night. Swedes must earn a lot of money if they are happy to pay such amounts for basic if comfortable accommodation. There were Great Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipits, Blackcaps, Goldcrests, Crossbills (sp) and 2 Flycatchers around our “pitch” and Wheatear at the nearby jetty. This is a site for 3 Toed and Grey Headed Woodpeckers and so we had hopes for the morning. A woodpecker nest site with calling young inside we dismissed as a Great Spot’s nest.
Spoke to a Dutch couple who were pitched near us. They too had a campervan with a pop-up top (a VW in their case) and were going to the far north, to Nordkapp in fact. They weren’t birdwatchers. She was a photographer and he just liked driving. Fair enough!
Late in the evening, a see fret moved in and it became noticeably cooler which was a welcome relief.
Day 8 Hornslandet to Piteå
Got up at 5.00am and walked around the woods next to the campsite. Nothing much doing so I checked out the woodpecker nest we found yesterday. Immediately saw one of the parents come in and it was a Three Toed Woodpecker. Watched and filmed for a bit as both parents were constantly bringing in food. Then went to tell Nick. Never seen him move so fast at such an unearthly time in the morning! It was a lifer for both of us.
After some breakfast, and after bagging Woodlark in sandy areas near the campsite, we went to a nearby nature reserve we had briefly looked at yesterday. This area was just off the road running up the east side of the peninsula and had many mature aspen trees, particularly favoured by Grey Headed Woodpeckers. Tried the lure again and this time it worked beyond expectations in that a Black Woodpecker as well as a Grey headed Woodpecker came to have a look! The Grey Head was flying around the van and running up nearby branches furiously. It then went off to do some emergency drumming for a few minutes before returning to ensure the cheeky intruder had scarpered. Well of course it had in that the CD was back in the box! Also near this reserve we almost ran over a Hazel Hen. Red Backed Shrike, Tree Pipit, Redstart, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Common Rosefinch, Icterine and Wood Warbler also seen here.
Before heading north, we went into the nearby town of Hudiksvall for some provisions and, after locating the local Systembolaget, some decent beer (i.e. above 3.5 %). Continued the journey north along the infamous E4 (too many lorries, at least as far as Sundsvall). We were now getting into Northern Sweden and decided to stop for the night at a stopping place near the town of Piteå. Again the (free) facilities were excellent. Toilets with hot and cold water and hand dryers, a water hose and picnic tables on the side of a lake. Many tourists this far north are Germans and Dutch in mobile homes (along with quite a few Swedes). The high quality of the roadside facilities is probably a recognition of the importance of such visitors to the local economy. OK so there were mosquitos but they go with the territory around here.
Before turning in, we saw Cranes (in flight), Teal and Goldeneye on the lake, Little Ringed Plover, Curlew and Woodcock around or above the lake and a Green Woodpecker to make it 5 woodpecker species for the day (we also saw Great Spotted earlier).
On the journey, we (or rather Nick) saw Common and Honey Buzzard and Hobby at various places. It was a long journey today!
Day 9 Piteå to Liminka (Finland)
Up at 6.30 and drove further north to Gammelstadsviken, a reserve I remember from 5 years ago when we failed to see anything particularly interesting but were eaten alive by mosquitos. I was ready for the little bleeders this time with my floppy hat and industrial strength repellant and so I didn’t get bitten within 5 seconds of opening the van door. Didn’t get a great deal by way of birdlife neither with perhaps a drake Smew, Red Necked Grebe and lot of Little Gulls being the most interesting. Also, only our second Whooper Swan sighting of the trip. No Slavonian Grebes or Rustic Buntings that we thought were a possibility. One of the bird towers had been badly vandalized and wasn’t open. Just goes to show that we Brits don’t have a monopoly on drunken yobs.
Headed towards the Finnish border and had breakfast at a roadside café. Eggs bacon, fried potatoes and gherkins! No Lingonberries on this occasion although they were available on the free salad bar. By now, the weather had changed and it was barely 10 degrees at 9.30am
Celebrated crossing the Finnish border with a visit to a supermarket at Tornio. Quite like ours really except that this one had some cages outside the main entrance for customers to deposit their pooch while they shopped. I think this could catch on in England where perhaps some parents might be tempted to deposit their kids. The more I thought about it the more I liked it.
Drove on to Liminka where we booked a cabin for 3 nights. Dracula would have felt at home here because the cabin was just about coffin-sized. Still, it had 2 beds, a cooker and a fridge. Also it was well heated which was a blessing because the weather was quite cold, not that it inhibited the mosquitos!
Later in the afternoon, we went via the Liminganlahti Nature Reserve centre (closed) to one of the bird towers overlooking the Liminganlahti wetland area. There was a Great White Egret here that was way out of its normal range and Montagu’s Harrier, a rare bird in Finland but apparently regular at Linginlahti. Also seen from the tower were Pintail and Pochard, duck we hadn’t seen many of on the trip, Cranes, Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Black Tailed Godwits, Curlew and Snipe. Nothing much by way of little birds apart from Sedge and Willow Warblers. It looks as though Yellow Breasted Buntings are a thing of the past in this area these days although we did hear of one that was singing some miles to the south. Whilst here, we met a party of British birders who introduced us to their guide, Matti who was also to be our guide some 30 hours later. Matti is an English teacher with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of Finnish birdlife. He also knew a lot about British birdlife and seemed up to date on recent rarities in Britain. The British birders spoke extremely highly of him.
The temperature warmed up a bit in the evening although the mosquitos ensured we didn’t sit outside for too long. There were Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Redwing and Redstarts around the campsite along with the ubiquitous White Wagtails and constantly quarrelsome Fieldfares.
Day 10 The Oulu Area
Met a French birder and his wife on the campsite. They were very well organized considering that their transport was a quite small Berlingo can. They not only had a very functional tent but also a mosquito-proof netting extension for the back of the van. Each time we had a conversation, I tried to speak French and him English. However, when it came to the actual names of birds we had to include Nick who knew them in both languages. These modern language graduates have their uses. The French couple, like us were heading for Varanger although they had 5 weeks to do it in.
Visited Hirvisuo Bog, about 25 miles east of Oulu. It includes a few miles of boardwalk and is worth a hour or two’s exploration. We got Black Grouse, Wood Sandpiper, Grey Headed Wagtails, Hobby, Cuckoo, Whinchat and, surprisingly, a pair of Mistle Thrushes, our first of the trip!
Returning to Oulu, we went to a bird tower near an industrial area to the north of the port. Matti had told us that there was one pair of Terek Sandpipers nesting in this area that was closed to the public. Sometimes, they were visible from this tower. Alas, not whilst we were there. Just a few gulls, Redshank, Ringed Plover, Dunlin and Arctic Terns.
Before returning to the campsite, we visited another of the bird towers overlooking the Liminganlahti area. It involved a 2 mile walk along tracks and boardwalks to get there. We saw Cranes, Marsh Harriers, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Ruff, Common and Wood Sandpiper, Redstart, Wheatear, Sedge Warblers and Common Rosefinch. Went to bed about 7.00pm because we were due to go off on our much anticipated owling trip at 2.00am the following morning.
Day 11 The Oulu and Kemi areas
A bit deflated by the weather conditions when we got up soon after 1,00am. It was raining steadily. Surely this day of all days, when we hoped to see birds we would never have found for ourselves in a month of Sundays wasn’t going to be spoiled by the weather. After all, we had paid good money for this (well, Nick had - my Fathers Day present).
Our guide Matti, who had spent the night in the cabin next door, was also a little apprehensive but felt that the weather should improve. He said that we would be travelling a considerable distance to look for Great Grey Owls. This was because all 7 of the known breeding attempts in the Oulu area had failed due to a shortage of voles this year. Apparently, it’s a 5-year cyclical thing and he wasn’t unduly worried about any long term trends. He believed the vole population would recover next year as in previous years. Apparently, Ural and Hawk Owls are not similarly affected because they will also take birds.
Initially, we stopped off a the Finnature offices to pick up refreshments and a young lady called Pirita whose father was one of their guides and she herself was a trainee.
During the course of the day, we became increasingly impressed by Matti and Pirita and not just for their knowledge and awareness of wildlife issues. They were extremely good company and Matti in particular has a wicked sense of humour. He is fluent in at least 4 languages and swears in German! He also knows the literal translation of the Welsh village, in Anglesey, with the longest name, Llanfairpwll…etc etc). Being a Welshman who is about to move to Anglesey, I became a fan for life. Birders who have used or know about Finnature will know that their services do not come cheap. This is hardly surprising given that Finland is a high cost of living country and several hours of guide time will be necessary to see what you want to see (for most us, these will invariably be owls). These people, who are themselves real enthusiasts, have to put in many hours of watching and searching so that they are aware of the nest sites by the time the British or other Western European birders come to Northern Scandinavia in the spring. To make the best of such trips, which for most of us are going to be one-offs, an investment in a guide is really an essential expense if you want to see a good range of owls without relying on pure luck. Certainly, as the morning wore on, we increasingly felt that we were getting value for our money (OK, Nick’s money!).
We travelled in Finnature‘s own Landrover and I wasn’t really aware of how far we went because I kept falling asleep. I did notice however that it stopped raining. What I didn’t know at the time was that we had crossed into Lappland and probably weren’t far from the Swedish border. At about 3.00am, after doing several miles on dirt roads, we stopped and started walking. Crossing some open ground towards a wood, we were “mobbed” by a pair of Rough Legged Buzzards who had a nest nearby. Finally, well into the wood, there was a Great Grey Owl nest with 2 chicks showing prominently and the mother bird in a tree about 25 yards away. Nick and I were warned not to stand out in the open but always have a tree immediately behind us. A few minutes later, we knew why when Matti climbed to a hide overlooking the nest to photograph the chicks. The mother made 4 swoops and he really had to take evasive action. She also made clicking noises with her beak when perched. She was less than delighted with our presence. After taking several photos (in my case, not very good ones) we went back to the van and had something to eat and drink. At the same time, Matti lured a Wryneck to within a few yards of us. The Wryneck eventually pecked the CD player! We also saw Brambling at this site (the first of the trip) and Hazel Hen as we were driving away. Absolutely no idea where this site was apart from being somewhere in the Kemi area.
We now travelled a bit further south to look for Hawk Owls. No success here despite a good long search for the Adult bird with 6 young that had been seen just 2 days earlier. Best bird we found here was a Red Backed Shrike.
We now moved back to the Oulu area where we had superb views of a Pygmy Owl guarding her nest box. Apparently, Pygmy Owls are doing OK in Finland where there has been a programme of providing suitable nest boxes for some years now. At a nearby lake, Matti “lured” a male Black Throated Diver by imitating its call. The bird travelled mainly underwater to within a few yards of us and put on a bit of a display, presumably to encourage the interloper to go elsewhere. After taking some photographs, we duly obliged.
Now back in the Liminka area and at our request, Matti took us to a site for Blyth’s Reeds Warbler. The was no sign but Matti said that if we came back, perhaps at about 9.00pm, we might be lucky.
Finally, we went in search of Ural Owl. Same scenario as earlier in that we travelled a good distance on dirt roads and into a wood. This wood was the most difficult to date to walk (or rather scramble) though. There were no paths, you couldn’t predict what was underfoot and every 50 yards or so there was a stream with a muddy, steep-sided bank. Also, the mosquito infestation here was the worst we had experienced. We wore netting hats for much of the time. Initially, we couldn’t find the bird but Matti wasn’t for giving up. He dragged us the length and breadth of this infernal wood until we saw the Ural Owl giving us dirty looks from about 30 feet up. I whispered to Matti, “why doesn’t she fly away?”. He said she was watching her chick. “Where is it?” I inquired. “Here,” he said, pointing to an owl chick on a low branch about 5 yards to his left! Can’t remember exactly what I said next but “oh shit,” sounds about right. He said that she probably wouldn‘t attack if we stayed together! I think that camera shake was a strong feature of my attempts at photography on this occasion.
She didn’t actually attack but attempted to draw us away from the chick. We duly obliged. There were also Wood and Green Sandpipers in this wood
Later that evening, Nick and I returned to the Blyth’s Reed Warbler site and it was singing and showing well. This rounded off an unforgettable day. Matti and Pirita had given us several hours of expert guidance, considerably more than we paid for. They had also been good company. On returning to the campsite we were still exhilarated but sheer exhaustion and a glass of beer ensured we slept well.
Day 12 Liminka to Ruka
After the highs of yesterday, this wasn’t one of our better days. My camcorder had packed in as had my watch (wearing it in the shower probably didn’t help). We drove from Liminka to Kuusamo, about 170 miles. On the way, we stopped at a site on the roadside Matti had told us about for Little Bunting but we didn’t find one. At Kuusamo, I visited 2 photographic shops and a Canon dealer to see if anyone could diagnose my camcorder problem. I don’t think anyone I spoke to was exactly an expert. At each place, after looking at the wavy lines I was getting instead of an image, they shrugged and said “not good” or words to that effect. Ah well, at least I had my stills camera but I was still feeling sorry for myself. Why the hell did it have to break down now for the first time in 3 years?
Visited a lake to the east of the town that various books and trip reports suggested “shouldn’t be ignored”. Nothing much there apart from a few Whooper Swans, Goldeneye, Wigeon, Tufted Duck and a Wood Sandpiper that was nesting near the bird tower. We decided to drive on to Ruka which was 20 or so miles north and close to the Valtavara Ridge area we would be doing tomorrow morning. We stopped for petrol near Ruka where, as is often the case in northern Scandinavia, you had to put either a credit card or some money into a machine to get any. I couldn’t see anywhere that looked like a pay station. Of course, the machine wouldn’t accept our credit cards (they never do) and, on this occasion, it was also rejecting our money. I had a somewhat surreal conversation with a chap who had just come out of a nearby shop. It went something like this:
Stranger - Ah, I see you are English. My name is Matti, I live near here.
Me - Hello, I’m Dave. Do you think this machine is working?
Matti - I am a big fan of English music. Do you know Eric Burdon and the Animals?
Me - Yes, I remember them, they are very good. Do you think I am putting the money in incorrectly?
Matti - I only listen to English music on the radio, never Finnish. Do you know Genesis?
Me - Not personally but they are very good. Do you know if this petrol station belongs to the shop?
Matti - Do you know that Genesis played in Helsinki just last week?
Me - Really? Are there any other petrol stations around here?
Matti - I also like Duran Duran, Simple Minds and Tears for Fears. Yes, Genesis played in Helsinki last week. I saw them.
Me - Well goodbye and thanks for your help Matti. Have to go and buy some petrol.
Well, he got me on a bad day. I was still smarting about my camcorder. We did find another petrol station nearby and this one had an office with a person in it you could give money to after filling up. Marvellous.
Booked a cabin for the night at a campsite to the north of the town. It was good value at 25 kroner, about £20. It was early evening and birds weren’t much in evidence despite the campsite being in some interesting habitat on the side of a lake. We did get Whooper Swans, Goosander, Arctic Terns, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Redstart, Redwing, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher and Brambling. I also got a fleeting glimpse of a couple of birds I didn’t recognise there and then but later realized must have been Siberian Jays.
Day 13 Ruka to Peurasuvanto
Taking Matti’s (the first one) advice, we got up early, about 1.00am to give ourselves the best chance of finding Red Flanked Bluetails. When we arrived at the parking place on Valtavara Ridge, a prime site for these birds, 3 Siberian Jays appeared immediately, a nice surprise particularly as we had earlier been advised that we might have difficulty finding this bird. Also, there were already a few birders wandering about. It was the weekend of the Kuusamo bird race, held at this time each year. We were told that there were over 30 teams involved and that some had come big distances to take part. We noticed 2 vehicles from Latvia and Holland. One of the local birders participating told us that a score of about 130 over the weekend could win it.
Neither Nick nor myself could remember whether Matti had advised us to take the track to the south or to the north from the road. Some birders were taking the south track however so we did too. We walked past the bird race participants who had stopped to listen just a few hundred yards along the track. After reaching the top of a steep hill and going on a bit further along the ridge, Nick heard a Red Flanked Bluetail in the distance. He is good on birdsong whereas I am hopeless in spite of listening to a Bluetail’s song on the CD immediately before we left the van. We went off piste through thick woodland to where we thought the song was coming from. We lost each other but each of us saw the Bluetail, singing on top of a bare tree. At 2.00am in the middle of a Finnish forest with no other sounds around, it was bizarre but it felt good.
On getting back to the car (separately) there was even more bird race activity. Quite a lot of birds in evidence also including Redstart, Cuckoo, Redwing, Goldcrest, Brambling, Spotted Flycatcher, Greenfinch, Siskin, Common Crossbill and our first Wren of the whole trip!
We started driving north at about 3.30am, intending to do some birding in Lappland at a couple of sites we visited 5 years earlier. After about 30 minutes driving, we stopped near some interesting habitat and played a Greenish Warbler lure. It attracted 3 Siberian Jays! Not the outcome we expected or hoped for but interesting nonetheless. We also got Northern Bullfinch in this area, again, from the van. A little further on and we crossed the Arctic Circle where we stopped to take the obligatory photographs.
At about 6.00am, we reached a reserve called Pyhatunturi, between Kemijarvi and Sodankyla. Five years earlier, we had Siberian Jay and Hazel Hen here and it was somewhere we always intended to return to if we had the opportunity. On arrival, Nick was so tired that he just fell asleep (again). I didn’t feel too bad so I got out and had a cursory walk around. For the first time in days, I didn’t actually have my camera around my neck so it was inevitable that I would get to within about 6 yards of a Three Toed Woodpecker that was ripping bits of bark from a dead tree and appeared totally unconcerned by my presence.
When Nick returned to the land of the living we walked a few miles around the reserve. We got Wood Sandpiper, Curlew, Cuckoo, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Pipit, Redstart, Whinchat, Redwing, Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Brambling and Siskin. No further sightings of a Three Toed Woodpecker but, there again, I did have my camera at the ready!
We went into the town of Sodankyla to buy some provisions. Happily, we found the Finnish version of a state owned booze shop which are called Alkos. In the supermarket next door to the Alko were at least 3 men who appeard to be the worse for wear through drink. One of them was visibly shaking. Why were they not in the Alko where they could buy stronger drink than in the supermarket? One can only assume that they were barred. We were not however so we did buy some stronger drink than we could have bought in the supermarket. Not quite as cheap as Sweden where the prices compared with UK prices for beer and wines (but not spirits which tend to have a fairly prohibitive price tag).
About 30 miles north of Sodankyla is Petkula Bog, another reserve we visited 5 years earlier and where we got Broad billed Sandpiper. No such luck on this occasion however. We were beginning to realise that waders were just not displaying to the extent they were on our last visit which was at the end of May. Presumably, the birds no longer felt the need to advertise their presence and were more concerned about raising families. Birds we did see at this site were: Whooper Swan, Wigeon, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Common Scoter, Goosander, White Tailed Eagle, Osprey, Wood Sandpiper, Snipe, Jack Snipe, Red Necked Phalarope, Sand Martin, Grey Headed Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Brambling and Reed Bunting.
About 10 miles north of Petkula is Peurasuvanto where there is a campsite run by a birder who also does guided trips. We took a cabin (quite a posh one for us) for the night and caught up on our laundry which was becoming “Blob“ sized again. The owner pointed out an Osprey’s nest across the river and told me about a Capercaillie he saw yesterday just a few yards from the campsite. A birder from Yorkshire gave us some good information for further north, told us about the Waxwing he saw earlier, near the campsite, on the same log as a Sedge Warbler and also that he got Broad Billed Sandpiper at Petkula Bog both yesterday evening and this morning (couldn’t you just spit!). He was also wearing a short sleaved shirt in spite of heightened mosquito activity and it wasn’t even warm! Must be made of sterner stuff in Yorkshire.
Dined on Finnish black puddings that night. British black pudding manufacturers need have no fear of a challenge to their traditional territory from the east. They were pretty bad, like black hot dogs. Probably the worst gastronomic experience of the trip closely followed by Norwegian meatballs and fiskebolle (fishballs). If its gastronomy you want, Scandinavia will not be high on your priority list. It could even feature in the alternative travelogue entitled “1000 places not to see before you die”. I do like the herrings though.
Day 14 Peurasuvanto to Tanabru (Norway)
By now, my body clock was a shambles and probably accounted for my waking up at 2.30am. Thought I’d seize the moment and find the recently seen Waxwings and Capercaillie. Wandered around in heavy rain for about 40 minutes with just Sedge Warbler and Brambling to show for it. Luckily, the laundry room, with drying cabinets was open when I returned so I was able to get my clothes dry whilst I went back to bed.
Got up again at 7.30 to a beautifully clear sky. The site owner told us that our next intended stop north, Tankavaara, was a bit of a letdown for the Crossbills that are supposed to be numerous there, probably to do with the time of year. He did however mention a site for Pine Grosbeak a few miles north of Inari. Before moving north, we paid a final visit to Petkula Bog in the hope of seeing displaying Broad Billed Sandpipers. Yet again no luck. I never have much luck with this bird even when they turn up in the UK. They have a habit of departing about 10 minutes before I get there.
The campsite owner was spot on about Tankavaara. We walked around for 30-40 minutes and saw little other than Brambling.
We went on to find the Pine Grosbeak site that was near a café just north of where the road to Karigasniemi splits off from the road north to Utsjoki and the Norwegian border. Found the café (Nejlaantuna or something like that) and, around the back, on a feeder, were at least 3 Pine Grosbeak along with Brambling, Greenfinches and a Red Squirrel! Had a chat with a couple of English birders in the café who were travelling south. They gave us some information about where to see Hawk Owl and Gyrfalcon in the Varanger area that subsequently proved to be sound.
Initially though, we travelled into Norway via a minor road to the village of Neiden where the Yorkshire birder told us we could find Arctic Warbler near the churchyard. We played a lure when we got there and immediately an Arctic Warbler started flying around us. The clicking noises he was making suggested he was none too pleased. He and another bird continued calling for a while after we turned the tape off.
We drove on towards Tanabru where we would get some sleep. We were now in the Varanger area and the birdlife we encountered en route confirmed this. It included Red Throated Diver, Whooper Swan, Red Breasted Merganser, Goosander,Rough Legged Buzzard, Greenshank, Wood Sandpiper and Long Tailed Skua.
Day 15 Tanabru to Vestre Jacobselv via the road to Båtsfjord
Up at about 1.00am. This was getting to become a habit. Five years ago, one of our enduring memories was experiencing the birdlife singing and displaying in the middle of the night on the tundra between Tanabru and Båtsfjord. There was quite a bit of snow on the ground and bright sunlight, even in the early hours. The only other living things we observed in addition to ourselves and the birds were the reindeer flocks that roamed the hillsides. On the way however was a site for Hawk Owl, given to us by the 2 British birders we met the previous day. Sure enough, after a short search, we found 3 juvenile Hawk Owls perching on the telephone wires crossing the road. They studied us as intently as we did them.
A little further on was the huge rock face where, 5 years earlier we had good views of Gyrfalcon. Not so today however although we had been told that the male bird of the pair continued to patrol the cliff face even though egg thieves had robbed the nest.
And so on to the tundra region which is about 35 miles north of Tana Bru. It didn’t disappoint and was just as we remembered it with perhaps a little less snow. Given that the norm for these northern climes is a relatively low density of birds, this area, given the right conditions, is very much an exception to the rule. In about 3 hours from 2.30 to 5.30, we had the following:
Red Throated Diver, Bean Goose, Mallard, Teal, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye, Long Tailed Duck, Scaup, Goosander, Rough Legged Buzzard, Kestrel, Willow Grouse, Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, Temmincks Stint, Redshank, Spotted Redshank, Ruff (lecking), Bar Tailed Godwit, Curlew, Snipe, Red necked Phalarope (dozens), Arctic Skua, Long Tailed Skua, Short Eared Owl, Shore Lark, White Wagtail, Red Throated Pipit, Wheatear, Bluethroat, Redwing, Fieldfare, Willow Warbler, Brambling, Redpoll, Arctic Redpoll and Lapland Bunting. Also saw a few Lemmings scurrying about, suggesting that perhaps there were good numbers of them this year. Many of these birds we identified from the van window. They were so numerous that we were tempted to stop every few yards. Of course, we never hear much of this birdsong in the UK. A good job Nick was there to identify it!
After a sleep, we drove back to Tana Bru to shop. This is a Sami settlement although I didn’t see anyone here in traditional dress (I had 3 such sightings all trip and on no occasion did I have my camera ready). We were on Norwegian food now so it would have been a good time to diet if we didn’t need the calories for all the walking we were doing. On the north side of Varanger Fiord is the village of Nesseby with its handsome church and famous “Phalarope” pond. The pond can’t be more than 100 yards long but it had at least 7 pairs of Red necked Phalarope. Also several leking Ruff that flew to the opposite side of the pool each time I tried to photograph them. A couple of local photographers weren’t having the same trouble, mainly because they had lenses like blunderbuses. A few White Tailed Eagles were flying over the fiord here sometimes being harassed by the local Shelducks. “Where were the Steller’s Eider?” we asked ourselves.
We booked in at the good value Christian Fellowship campsite we stayed at 5 years ago at Vestre Jakobselv. The receptionist spoke to Nick in Norwegian and he replied in Swedish. They seemed to understand each other perfectly. Hardly seems worth having separate languages around here.
Treated ourselves to a 3 course meal:
1st course Herring - pretty good
2nd course Meatballs - pretty bad
3rd course Scandinavian Cheese - pretty tasteless.
To bed at 8.00pm.
Day 16 Vestre Jakobselv to Hamningberg and back
The road along the north shore of Varanger Fiord holds most of the best birding sites in Finnmark. Over the preceding days, some birders had given us information about the best places for Varanger specialities and we intended to concentate on these. You could spend a week going up and down this road to really do it justice.
We started off by stopping at Store Ekkeroy but the wind and rain had really moved in by the time we got there, so we hardly moved from the van. The rain started to ease after this and we stopped at a few coastal spots between Vadso and Vardo. I got mobbed by an Arctic Skua at one of them and was glad I had my telescope over my head! We also saw Glaucous Gull (2), Knot and the first Turnstone and Purple Sandpipers of the trip. In with the many Eiders t Skallelv we found one King Eider, just a few yards off shore.
Drove under the tunnel into Vardo. After doing a bit of sea watching over the water between Vardo and Hornoy (where the Brünnichs Guillemots breed) we eventually identified a couple of Brünnichs Guillemots fishing in the harbour area. Also here were ordinary Guillemots, Black Guillemots, Razorbills Puffins and another Glaucous Gull.
We drove on towards Hamninberg. The English birders who told us about the Gyrfalcon nest a couple of days ago had given us very specific directions involving the specific kilometer post and the name of the cottage next to the layby. It would have taken sheer genius to mess this one up but you never know! We spotted the nest with hungry chicks almost straight away and the mother perched some 30 yards away. Even though it was quite high up on a huge rock face, we could see that this was one big falcon. Nearby were Black Throated Diver, Velvet Scoter, Long Tailed Duck, lots of Eider, Red Breasted Merganser, White Tailed Eagle and Arctic Terns, and I managed to get myself mobbed by another Arctic Skua. Still no Steller’s Eider.
On the return journey, stopped at various interesting looking sites again and this time we did get out of the van at Store Ekkeroy. The Kittiwake colony is worth a look here and on the boggy area inland from the cliffs the views of Lapland Buntings were good enough even for me to take half decent photos. Also managed to get mobbed by yet another Arctic Skua. Pleased to report that the Long Tailed Skuas here were far more benign. Had given up on Steller’s Eider by this time. They are after all a wintering bird and from what I can gather , the time you are least likely to see them here is mid to late June after the last winter stragglers have moved on and before they start returning in July.
Another 3 course meal on our return. You can’t beat the highlife!
1st course - meatballs left over from yesterday - still crap
2nd course - smoked herring - far too salty
3rd course - Scandinavian cheese - still tasteless.
During the course of this trip, I think I may have stumbled upon some contributing factors to the well publicized high suicide rates up here. I’m not convinced it’s the long dark winters but more likely the food and the licensing laws. Just don’t know how they can put up with it.
That evening, we met the French couple we spoke to a few days earlier in Finland. I actually told them about this campsite so I guess they were paying attention. We told them about our sightings so far and I encouraged them to do the tundra road in the middle of the night. Well, I would wouldn’t I. I’d already done it!
Day 17 Vestre Jacobselv to Gällivare
Up at 3.00am for my now habitual (and probably addictive) stint of early morning bird watching. I went to an area of heathland between the village and the sea. One of the birds that had so far escaped my camera lense was Red Throated Pipit and I hoped to see one there. Most other birds of interest I had managed to obtain blurred images of which I defensively refer to as “record shots”. No look with the Pipit. Did see our first Whimbrel of the trip and White Tailed Eagle. Also surprised to see Sedge Warbler this far north. Changed direction when I saw nesting Arctic Skua because I didn’t fancy being mobbed at such an uncivilized hour.
Started our journey south and had a final look at Nesseby on the way. Just the Red necked Phalaropes and Ruff there again. Had a hopeful but fruitless look for Steller’s Eider.
Question - how can you come to Varanger and not see Steller’s Eider?
Answer - because they are not there.
Took a diversion at Karasjok and popped into Finland (as one does) to visit the reserve at Karagisniemi. We saw very little here apart from Wood Sandpiper, Wheatear and Grey Headed Wagtail because we didn’t actually walk very far. There were opportunities for a protracted walk up a hillside with the possibility of Dotterel and Ptarmigan but, with a long journey behind us and an even longer one in front of us that day, we didn’t bother.
Drove throughout the afternoon and evening along a route we came north on 5 years ago. About 40 miles into Sweden, we stopped at a site where we saw several wader species on that occasion. This time, we saw precisely 1 Wood Sandpiper, a Whinchat and a Grey Headed Wagtail. Yet again, being about 3 weeks later seems to have made all the difference. Spent the night just north of Gallivare at one of those excellently equipped roadside stopping places.
Day 18 Gällivare to Sorsele
After driving through and south of Gallivare we went to Muddus National Park. This involved an 11 kilometer drive along a dirt road just to get to what we understood was the most accessible park entrance. Muddus covers a huge area and probably a number of days would be required to explore the whole area. I was a bit skeptical about it when I read that it had a mosquito museum!! We did about a 5 mile walk on well marked tracks and found, as with many of these northern forests (we were still inside the Arctic Circle) the density of birdlife is quite thin. Luckily and surprisingly, so was the mosquito density. We did get Hazel Hen, Three Toed Woodpecker, Redstart, Siskin, Crossbill (sp) and Brambling and heard Hawk Owl and Cuckoo. I wonder if there is a Muddus bird race. If there is, something approaching double figures would probably win it! It is however a beautiful area and I would recommend it to anyone who likes walking through remote virgin forest.
Stopped at Jokkmokk, the Sami capital to buy provisions. It was quite an attractive town with brightly coloured wooden buildings and a busy town centre. The following 2 days were to be the Swedish midsummer celebration which is important in these parts. Also, if the quantities of booze being purchased at the local Systembolaget is anything to go by (yes, we found another one), they certainly don’t go thirsty during these celebrations.
Following another long drive throughout the afternoon, (seeing 2 Siberian Jays flying in front of the van) we arrived at the small town of Sorsele where we booked into a pleasant campsite. I had a walk around the well maintained and prosperous looking town and what struck me was the amount of space they have for, well, everything. This as much as anything brought home to me just what an overcrowded little island it is we live on.
Hadn’t seen many birds today. In fact, it was our lowest daily total of the trip. I felt smug in the knowledge that our triplist of 202 was larger than any of the totals recorded in the various trip reports we brought with us. This was until Nick helpfully pointed out that one F Jeremy Roberts of Carlisle notched up 204 in 1996. Damn! Well, at least we still had a target to go for. It would have to be met further south however because neither Broad Billed Sandpiper nor Siberian Tit wanted us to see them!
Day 19 Sorsele to Åre
The day started well. I was actually under the shower when I realized I had left my towel back in the campervan. What the hell I thought. I’ll have to put my clothes on wet and then change again when I get back to the van. Just as I was putting them on, an elderly Swedish man came into the shower block and engaged me in conversation, mainly about the weather. I was doing my best to contribute to the conversation, despite the rivulets of water running down my face from my wet hair. I could tell by the look on his face that he felt things just weren’t quite right. I can imagine the subsequent discussion back at his caravan.
“You know Astrid, these British do things differently to us. They actually put their clothes on after a shower before they dry themselves”. “Ah Olaf, I expect its one of the things they have to do to in order to become eccentric”.
Anyway, back to the serious stuff, We set off south again towards Ånnsjön which, although a little out of our way, might offer opportunities to see a Great Snipe lek. We drove about 300 miles with the odd stop for toilets and food. Not all shops were closed in spite of the mid-summer celebrations. From time to time, we saw some of the celebratory activities that included cartloads of people with branches of some sort being pulled around by tractors. Not sure if this activity is replicated throughout Sweden. Some how I can’t visualise the carts and tractors in the centre of Stockholm.
At Ånnsjön, there were enough birds to keep us engaged for a few hours. We had our first Slavonian Grebes of the trip (at least 5), Red Necked Phalarope, Whimbrel, Arctic Tern, Redpoll, Siskin and Brambling along with our first Blackbirds and Woodpigeons for several days. Also saw a Camberwell Beauty.
We went to the bird observatory at nearby Handöl to ask about the Great Snipe lek at Storlien. The young lady there said that she had heard about the lek at Storlien but there was one much closer at somewhere called Storulvån. It involved an 11 kilometer drive on a dirt road and then a walk. Later that evening, we drove up the road to find a large hotel complex full of midsummer revellers. The subsequent walk to the hillside bog, where the lek was supposed to be, was about 3 miles. On arrival, after considerable hanging around and listening, we detected a really weird noise , a bit like trickling water, only repetitive. Nick, who knew his birdcalls, identified it as Great Snipe. Eventually, at about 11.30pm, we could make out at least 4 of them through the gloom. Didn’t actually see any doing that little leap into the air but they were puffing their chests out and displaying their feathers. It was fascinating stuff. Also seen in this area were several Woodcock, Short Eared Owl and, as we were driving away, a Black Grouse. By the time we rejoined the main road and eventually found somewhere to park up for the night, it was 2.00am and we were knackered.
Day 20 Åre to Vadstena
Woke up to rain and discovered ours was the only vehicle on the parking ground. Not even a German motor home! We spent much of the day driving the 400 or so miles through the rain to Vadstena on Lake Vattern. We were now back in Central Sweden. This is a popular camping area, within easy reach of Sweden’ 2 largest cities, Stockholm and Gothenberg. Being both weekend and midsummer the huge campsite we stayed on was full of Swedish caravans with huge awnings. Lots of very polite children who say hello (or “hay” to use the proper lingo). Also a high proportion of overweight people, more even than in the UK to my mind (not that I‘ve got much room to talk!). Is it a reflection of the Swedish diet?
What a difference 24 hours can make. Yesterday evening, we were toiling on a remote hillside in Northern Sweden looking for Great Snipe. Tonight we were amongst hundreds of holidaymakers on a campsite that looks as if it could be at a seaside resort in England. Even the rain had stopped.
Day 21 Vadstena to Falsterbo
After going into the town of Vadstena (very picturesque and photogenic), we went to the north side of Lake Takern. The bird watching facilities around the lake are good with boardwarks and good bird towers. Yet again, we didn’t get our hoped for Penduline Tits. We did get Osprey, booming Bitterns, Great Reed Warbler, Bearded Tits, Icterine Warbler, Pied Flycatchers, Ruff and Wood Sandpipers.
Also visited the nearby woods at Omberg hoping for Nutcracker. Again, no luck on that score but did see Wryneck and Hawfinch. With hindsight, these woods cover a big area and a greater commitment in time would probably be needed to do them justice.
We then had a fairly uneventful journey to Falsterbo apart from a thunderstorm. Falsterbo is best known for migration watching, particularly in the autumn. However, it was practically on our route back to Denmark and we thought it might be interesting to explore for a day or so before it was time to catch our ferry.
Day 22 Falsterbo area
Fasterbo is known as being the only breeding site for Kentish Plover on the Scandinavian Peninsula. Went first thing in the morning to the area where some bird guides suggested was the main breeding site but no luck. Also looked for them around various other sites during the day including the lighthouse area. Birds we did see included Avocet, Grey Plover, Black Tailed Godwit, Wood Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank, Ringed Plover, Arctic, Common and Little Terns, Blue Headed Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Redstart (on the campsite), Reed, Sedge and Icterine Warbler, Whitethroat, Blackcap, Chiffchaff, Nuthatch, Redpoll and Crossbill. We didn’t actually have any recent information about recent Kentish Plover records and we couldn’t find the bird observatory. It could be that this bird has disappeared from here as it has from many other north European sites
I expected Fasterbo to be a bit like Spurn, with a few settlements but otherwise sparcely populated. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It is a well populated affluent area with really smart houses where everyone seems to play golf. Every other car was a BMW and I presume that the great and the good from nearby Malmö will live here or hereabouts. Even the local ICA supermarket appeared a bit upmarket, selling many continental (i.e. southern European) foods. I had to smile when I saw a beer in the ICA called Odin. One‘s first reaction is to think that this is a beer with a kick, not to be treated lightly, a beer with horns! However, being on sale in a supermarket meant that it was no more than 3.5% alcohol. Perhaps they could have called it “Pippi Longstocking“ (there again, perhaps not. Wasn‘t she supposed to be the world‘s strongest girl?).
The Roughguide informed us of a seafood restaurant at nearby Skanör that is supposed to be one of the best in the area. When we checked it out, the prices would have suggested at least a couple of Michelin stars elsewhere in Europe. However, they also have a delicatessen where you can buy their smoked and pickled fish. We bought a selection for our meal that evening and a good bottle of wine to go with it (yes, we found the Systembolaget again). It was the best eating experience of the whole trip. The restaurant is called the Skanör Fiskrogeri (smokehouse).
Nick asked what the plan for tomorrow was. My answer was concise, “go home”. I qualified this by saying that I wanted to do some shopping to buy the things that one might want to take home from Sweden such as herring, rye bread, lingonberries, Aquavit and more herring. I also said I would draw out another shedload of money so that we could afford to cross the Öresund Bridge. He suggested I do this today to give ourselves time to take in a Danish nature reserve about 30 miles south of Esbjerg tomorrow where there would be a chance of Gull Billed tern and Kentish Plover. This surprised me because I thought that he had become even more burnt out than I was but instead, he seemed to have got a second wind. Anyway, I duly obliged and bought some herring, more herring, ryebread and Lingonberries from a Co-op supermarket. Decided to pass on the aquavit at least until we were in Denmark where it would be half the price.
Day 23 Falsterbo to Esbjerg
Did the boring and expensive 4 hour drive across Denmark, but, as Nick suggested, we went to the island of Romo, south of Esbjerg which is reached via a 5k causeway. Just before the causeway however there was a moment of excitement and high drama. Unmistakable as it flew in front of the van. Yes, it was a Dunnock, the only one we saw on the entire trip1 On reaching the island, we walked about 2k through heavy, horizontal rain and through a boggy wetland area to where we understood the Terns and Plovers might be. Needless to say, we were absolutely soaked when we got there only to find that we could have driven there, along the beach. Oh how we laughed! No Gull Billed Terns but we did find Kentish Plover along with Sanderling (a trip tick), and a good selection of other waders. Also had a Bittern flying around over the bog we crossed and Natterjack Toads. We subsequently discovered that in recent years the Gull Billed Tern population of Denmark is barely in double figures so perhaps its not too surprising that we didn’t get them.
With still a few hours to pass in the afternoon, we visited the historic town of Ribe which was on our way from Romo to Esbjerg. On this journey we got Osprey and also Spotted Flycatcher and Lesser Whitethroat in Ribe.
Waiting for the ferry on the quayside at Esbjerg, we reflected on the journey we had just completed. 5,800 miles, 209 bird species, god knows how many mosquito bites and a credit card that was screaming for mercy. Just then Nick said “whats that?” “Whats what?” I said. “That bird singing from a radio mast”. It was a Black Redstart - 210
Even so, in spite of all of the sights, sounds and other experiences of the past 23 days during which we both had 8 lifers and saw more Great Grey Owls than Dunnocks, I still don’t know where they keep the bloody pigs!.
The following publications and trip reports were helpful to us in planning and undertaking our journey
Where to Watch Birds in Britain and Europe - John Gooders
Where to Watch Birds in Scandinavia - Gustav Aulen
Birding Southern Sweden - published by Sveriges Ornitologiska Förening
The Rough Guide to Scandinavia
The Lonely Planet Guide to Sweden
Goteborg to Vardo - Scandinavia, 2 June to 4 July 1996 - F. Jeremy Roberts
Northern Scandinavia, 28 May - 9 June 2003 - John van der Woude
Norway, Sweden and Finland, 27 June - 20 July 1992 - Greg Baker
Northern Finland, Varanger and a little bit of Sweden, May - June 2000 - Simon Woolley and Julia Casson
Seen any Pygmy Owls?. A report on a trip to Finland in June 1994 - Chris Bradshaw
Northern Scandinavia, June 1998 - Gruff Dodd
And last but not least!
More Beans Anyone” - Lee Nixon
We would also like to thank Matti Sillampaa and Pirita Latja of Finnature for their efforts on our behalf on 14th June which was one of our most memorable days of birding.