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Helsinki, Finland - twenty-four hour twitch 24-25 Feb 2016. (1 Viewer)

wolfbirder

Well-known member
Just a brief report attached below, following a stressful but ultimately enjoyable over-night trip to Finland.

No bird photographs to look at or scrutinise, I may be old-fashioned but I prefer just to soak in the views through my optics.

This was my 4th time in Finland, I got married in Rovaniemi in 2008 where I saw 3 Pine Grosbeaks, a few Arctic Redpolls, and hundreds of Waxwings, and twice been to Oulu where I connected with all the owls on Finnature trips. I also managed to see White-backed Woodpecker and Three-toed Woodpecker in Poland last year, but Nutcracker and Hazel Grouse had always evaded me, as they had many others. The bottom line is that for many, both are absolute buggers.

This 4th visit was chiefly fuelled by reports of the Azure Tit near the city of Helsinki, though doubts have subsequently emerged about it possibly having some Blue Tit genes. Nevertheless, it looked an absolutely stunning bird in photographs, and once Owen (aka Pariah) had provided excellent site detail on 'Birdforum' of other boreal species possible to connect with, my thoughts then turned to cost.

And then I also discovered (courtesy of Rosbifs I think), that it was possible to fly from the UK to Helsinki for a little over £100 with www.norwegian.com, albeit from Gatwick, so the possibility of a reasonably priced 'credit card fuelled' trip was on, and duly booked. I managed with a carry-on case only, hence the only optics I took were my binoculars, a factor I had carefully considered based on the information I had regards the species I most wanted to see. But in doing that, I saved on cost and time.

Of course Finland is not cheap, a hotel cost me £80 (there were cheaper options but this was ideally located), which I booked via www.booking.com. I like to use this site as through studying their map you can see which hotels are near the places you are birding at.

Car hire was also around £70 with Hertz. Again, there were cheaper options, but I opted to pay the necessary £20 extra so that I was able to go straight to a car hire desk on arrival. I have learnt previously that using cheaper companies means an hour spent locating them and catching transit vans on arrival. Time was critical to me on this short trip. I also paid Hertz £15 for Wi-Fi, and £24 CDW.

So the cost was all stacking up.

I left home at 5am on 24 February arriving at Gatwick at 8am where I parked the car at Gatwick South Terminal Long-stay car park (another £35 paid on the credit card at the exit barrier gate). My flight departed at 9.40am, and took 2.5 hours, but due to the time difference it was about 3.15pm when I got my Hertz hire car at Helsinki Airport.

Now, being in my 50's (and before you say it, I know many people my age and older are NOT dinosaurs like me), I have no idea how to use SatNav, I had no idea how to use the Wi-Fi pack that I paid extra for (another waste of money). I had Owen's (Pariah's) excellent detail and from that I had made a series of large hand-drawn diagrams that I can read (I don't even have a printer). Being long-sighted, I also wear glasses for reading purposes only, so when driving in a strange country I need a large easy-to-read map that I can quickly and reactively refer to. But it can be a mare if I lose my way, the sense of being truly lost is a constant worry as I drive.

When I buy glasses, I get them for five quid from Primark. Of course when you have a proper eye test, they work out what strength lens you need by asking you to read writing at least a couple of feet away from you, as you would do using a normal computer screen. I do the opposite. I sit at my desk at work with my new £5 Primark glasses on, and drag my computer screen towards me until it is in focus. Hence my screen is virtually at the edge of my table. You may mock, but by saving money on new spectacles, and having a 'clapped out' car means I save money and hence can do trips like this. So everyone's a winner:t:

The hand-drawn maps at the bottom will undoubtedly provide a bit of a laugh for you. Yes, that is how the world revolves for Wolfbirder.

So without SatNav, Wi-Fi etc, I managed with just my hand-drawn maps. I nearly came unstuck because the road signs of course are in Finnish, and town names are often totally different to how they appear on Google maps, which I had previously studied. Hence, Helsinki=Helsingfors (only on some signs), Espoo=Esbo, Lohja=Lojo (only on some signs), Kittila=Virkkala. You get the gist.

So on leaving the airport, signs for the E18 (M25 equivalent for Helsinki) give you two options, to go west of Helsinki follow E18 signs initially for "Turku, Abo", to go east of the city follow E18 for the other towns. Furthermore, mapped road numbers on some key roads off the E18 are not highlighted on road signs, its all a bit hit and miss. So I guess the key thing is to use SatNav or an equivalent.

But I have a good sense of direction, and just about managed. But many wrong turns were taken.

My main targets were Nutcracker, Hazel Grouse, Grey-headed Woodpecker, and the Azure Tit (or"Azurish" Tit).

Leaving Helsinki airport on 24th February at 3.15pm, heading west of the city on the E18, I managed to locate the site where Spotted Nutcrackers had been seen, just off route 25 near Kittila and Gustavsberg, on a track called "Ristenintie" some 40 miles west of Helsinki. I arrived there at about 4.30pm. The weather was quite sunny and around minus-1 degree celcius, so I was quite lucky. A couple of very inconspicuous feeders by the side of the road marked the spot. All was very quiet, with just a few Blue Tits and Great Tits present. A Finnish birder turned up, primed with the knowledge that the previous day 4 Nutcrackers had been seen around one-quarter of a mile along an adjacent forestry track, so off we trudged in the snow, which was often ankle deep. But there was no sign unfortunately. The only birds we saw were 20 Yellowhammers, male Northern Bullfinch, and a male Great Spotted Woodpecker. We heard Black Woodpecker and Raven call, but failed to see either. By 5pm we bid farewell, as the light was really failing, and it was time to locate my hotel for the night. Jackdaws, Hooded Crows, and a few Magpies were the only other birds seen as I made my way to the hotel.

Eventually, I located the hotel, I checked in, freshened up (2 pints of local beer), and feeling a little dejected having failed to see much, retired to bed, watching the Russian Skiing games (having failed miserably to find any Scandinavian porn channels) :-O.

I am often so pumped with adrenalin, I really struggle to sleep. My 24-hour trips are like a race-against-time, and it wasn't until around twelve that I fell to sleep with the TV still on. Even then, that first deep-throat snore that indicates sleep often awakes me from my greatly-desired slumber.

Pleased to at least have got 4-5 hours sleep, I was down for a Finnish breakfast at 6am on 25 February, and I checked out by 7am. Again temperatures were reasonable but it was quite cloudy.

As advised by Owen, I was back at the Nutcracker location by 7.30am, the best time to see the birds. I sprinkled some hazel nuts by the feeder, got back in my car and waited. A 'northern' Willow Tit was the best bird seen initially, though a couple of Crested Tits may have been present high in nearby trees. No sign of the Nutcrackers though. I then got out of my car, and noticed 4 birds perched in treetops one-hundred yards further along the road. I instantly knew they were Nutcrackers. They flew closer to the feeders, where I was sat in my car, sometimes flying from treetop to treetop on either side of the road. It was apparent that up to 10 birds were present offering fine views. Their rasping but nasal calls filled the air, and another 19 birds flew in overhead, and joined those already on site. I was really pleased to have connected with this elusive species. Around 30 were present overall, perhaps more (40 have been reported), and 3 came down to the feeder and table, offering crippling views ten metres away.

So having connected with a top target, I was on my way to the next one by 8am. A great start to the day.

I drove twenty miles back in the direction of Helsinki, the roads being perfectly cleared but the fields were blanket-covered in snow.

Next site was to try to locate Hazel Grouse near the village of "Kitu", in open spruce forest along a narrow lane off the '1130' road, that Owen had frequently located the species at. I did play its call but failed to get any response. This species is notoriously elusive, and as well as wearing Primark glasses, I have also lost 20-30% of my hearing. A wonderful combination when searching for one of Europe's most difficult species.:smoke: Indeed, I was not highly hopeful as I could not find any 'snow-free' areas of ground foilage for the birds to crouch under. I trudged around the areas of spruce forest in ankle-high snow, but there was no response. I suspect that the grouse abandon such areas in favour of other areas, though they must be around somewhere. I gave it an hour, before returning to my car having seen just a few Blue Tits and Great Tits, and a couple of Whooper Swans that flew overhead. I wasn't too disappointed.

The next target was Grey-headed Woodpecker around ten miles away, and again Owen had provided me with precise details of an address with a garden feeder. A Raven and a Buzzard species (probably Common Buzzard) were seen as I travelled along. I have previously only 'glimpsed' Grey-headed Woodpecker, and wanted way better views. I spent an hour trying to find the location, but only when I got home did I realise that I had been a few hundred metres away, having messed up my directions at the last moment. Perhaps Primark wasn't the best choice for buying glasses after all!

The nearby wood yard looked promising but I only gave it ten minutes, and saw no woodies there.

So, half way through my day, after a great start, things had deteriorated a bit. But as I had to be at Helsinki Airport by about 3pm for a 5pm departure, I really had to get a move on, as I wanted to see the 'putative' Azure Tit. It is well-documented that this bird may have some Blue Tit genes, though if that is the case it will only be quarter-cross, as for all intent and purposes it looks very much like a full Azure Tit. Even the experts find it impossible to positively conclude identity visually. The amount of white in the tail is a border-line issue and a 'sometimes-visible' yellow wash on the white breast is also an issue for some.

To hopefully see the bird, I circum-navigated Helsinki via the E18, and managed to locate the very cold area of Fastholma on the opposite side of the city, arriving there by noon. I wrapped up in two layers of everything. A ten-minute walk down into the woods was necessary from where I parked the car, and I joined several other Finnish birders at the main 'roped-off' feeding station. On arrival, one birder present told me "It has not been seen at all today but yesterday it showed very well".

One of those wry-smile, gut-wrenching feelings engrossed me as he showed me the photographs.

It can be freezing cold at Fastholma, and even a slight breeze felt increasingly biting. For an hour at least, a constant procession of 20 Blue Tits and Great Tits came and went in a constant relay. A party of 4-5 Northern Bullfinches passed through, overhead, and a male Great Spotted Woodpecker visited. Then a fine male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker visited the feeders twice. Cameras clicked all around.

By 1.15pm, the birds seemed to stop feeding, and everyone departed. I hung on in there, took a pew on a cold rock to ease the discomfort in my arthritic-ridden back, and simply enjoyed watching the common species that had returned to the feeders. Just behind them, I caught view of a beautiful Pygmy Owl stalking the tits nearby. I was thrilled, my only other sighting of this tiny owl species was in subdued light a few years ago. I could just see it through a gap, facing me head on. Views were good for about a minute, before it flew off, disturbed by two younger Finnish birders who approached the feeding area from the other side, and in doing so inadvertently flushed it. We chatted for a few minutes, they were somewhat bemused (as were several other birders I spoke to) when I suggested that the Azure Tit was possibly a hybrid. One birder told me he had seen three in the past, and he was very surprised, saying "this is the best of the three I have seen".

And just a minute or two later, at 1.30pm, one of the two lads announced "It is here". And indeed, it was there - the Azure Tit, or at worst the "Azurish Tit". But what a stunner, seriously, it took my breath away. The dazzling white, and steely blue and greys stood out even in the grey gloom of the bitter cold winter afternoon. In overcast light there was no sign of the faint 'yellowish' wash on the breast that is visible in bright sunlight. It looked larger and more upright than the Blue Tits sharing the feeder, and there was no interaction between the species. It arrived from the nearby reed-bed by itself, and acted independently of all the other tits present.

But it might indeed have some Blue Tit genes, not that I can tell.

The bird offered views down to five metres for around five minutes, feeding veraciously, before flying away.

And filled with an adrenalin-rush, it was time for me to fly away too. So this happy bunny walked back up the hill to the car, and drove to the airport where I refilled the half-tank of petrol I had used, and dropped the car off.

The Norwegian Airlines flight took off at 5.10pm, and I arrived back at Gatwick at 7pm (it was a near three-hour flight but the time difference accounts for the discrepancy). I got the courtesy bus to the long-stay car park, filled up my car tank with petrol and filled up my own tank with Big mac and fries that was typically already 'luke-warm' at best, by the time I had put £15 petrol in. I arrived home, primed with red bull, at 9.45pm.

A very tiring 24-hour trip, but worth it I think, for the wonderful Nutcrackers, Pygmy Owl, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, and a quite stunning, putative Azure Tit.

The only other species seen were Buzzard, Whooper Swan, Raven, Hooded Crow, Jackdaw, Magpie, Yellowhammer, Northern Bullfinch, Greenfinch, Crested Tit, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Northern Willow Tit, Blackbird, Great Spotted Woodpecker.

Just a poor 20 bird species. But there were vast areas of snow-covered fields with no sign of bird life at all. The only mammal seen was a single Red Squirrel. But this was a speciality trip, not a 'birding for numbers' trip.

I've literally done eff-all at work today, just gone through the motions at a slow pace. I am exhausted. My limbs ache, my feet ache, my eyes ache. And my brain is foggy, caused by sleep deprivation over 2-3 nights (again, its the excitement and adrenalin) and by the effects of over-use of sleeping tablets. My stomach is all over the place and I am wrecked.

Its all worth it though. As I write this, my kids are arguing, my mrs is watching crap on the TV, and I know The Wolves will lose again tomorrow. But no-one can ever take these great memories away.

A few photographs, from my mobile phone, hopefully help set the scene.

1) A typical snowy scene in the areas I visited.
2) Fastholma, Helsinki, a view over the woods and reed-beds bordering the frozen lake.
3) My tea at the hotel - 20 euros worth. And yes that is how they serve pints.
4) Helsinki area hand-drawn map.
5) Nutcracker site hand-drawn map.
 

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Ratal

Well-known member
That's proper mint.

A man after my own heart. Last minute, prep, plan, slam, eyes on, dash home. Nicely done Sir!
 

rosbifs

Well-known tool
France
Mad! But great work and always a good read for us.

Cheers Wolfman

ps like the planning part - two pints of beer....
 

wolfbirder

Well-known member
I really am quite normal honestly Rosbifs.

Just a bit intellectually challenged and caught in a time-warp. Self-depreciation isn't such a bad thing in my eyes o:D.

Thanks mate:t:
 

Paul Chapman

Well-known member
Nice trip. Cracking country. Seeing some of those species in the snow just feels like the real deal for some reason. (I've found Hazel Grouse easiest in some of the areas around Kuusamo but tough things! A reason to go back.)

All the best
 

Tero

Retired
United States
Nice report. I was last there in winter in 2010 or so. My friend digs up always something so we went to see a dipper in a creek. Never had much luck with woodpeckers. Great spotted I have but the black woodpecker never showed even though it was a yard bird at some friends' cabin in summer.

I never had a proper eBird list, but as I had some dates from the photos of scenery, manged to get 40 in. My Europe is less than 100 birds.
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
An interesting and entertaining account, and some good birding in there too. :t:

Only thing I'd pick up on is the glasses issue - I'm afraid that Poundshop also do reading glasses for ... a pound. At that price you can do a 'Professor Branestawm' and have multiple pairs and of as many different strengths as you like.
 

rosbifs

Well-known tool
France
An interesting and entertaining account, and some good birding in there too. :t:

Only thing I'd pick up on is the glasses issue - I'm afraid that Poundshop also do reading glasses for ... a pound. At that price you can do a 'Professor Branestawm' and have multiple pairs and of as many different strengths as you like.

Should've gone to specsavers...
 

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Nice one. For some reason I cannot fathom, Nutcrackers have never utilized my feeders - get them every autuumn near the feeders, even seen them sit and look at the feeders, but venture onto them, still a dream. Did have one flop over my car today though.
 

wolfbirder

Well-known member
I should have clarified Jos, I think they were actually on the bird table immediately adjacent to the feeder. Can't recall them hanging from the feeders themselves.

But whether it was just one bird returning repeatedly, or two or three different birds I couldn't actually say.

Anyway, I should have gone to Poundland or Specsavers!! Cheers Dan, Rosbifs, a further saving to be made.
 
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John-W

Well-known member
Unlike most trip reports I've read, but twice as entertaining...best read I've had for a while. well done !
 
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rosbifs

Well-known tool
France
Why thank you John, my success rate with birds has been on the low side, but I enjoy the journey.

I always giggle when I turn up at a new site thinking 'I'll just tick the x,y or z' only to realise the site is actually huge and I have no idea where to start!

It generally starts with high hopes 'how hard can it be?' and 'hmm left or right" and finally fades to 'heelllppp".

Otajarvi is south west finland blew me away - I quickly realised I hadn't got a hope in hell of finding a Little Crake (it was midday - and the family hadn't eaten yet so time was limited). But I reckon you would need to spend a few days there to get to grips with it! I relaxed, got some birds, and enjoyed the 'journey' - how it should be...
 

wolfbirder

Well-known member
I do agree Rosbifs, but I lurch from abject disappointment to overwhelming delight when I do connect. I love it, it gives such a wonderful feeling to 'twitch' a new species.

But then I should remind myself to put things in perspective.

Finland is a great Country, but it can appear birdless with vast expanses of forest. Without the information provided by Owen, I would have had no chance of connecting with anything, though I should have done better but messed up the GH Woody and Hazel Grouse.

Hazel Grouse are fascinating birds, in snow they apparently hide or roost in snow tunnels, or alternatively in favoured roost trees. So perhaps they were there after all.
 
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McMadd

You should see the other bloke...
Your "wrongly spelt" "Finnish" road signs were in Swedish...there are two languages in use here.
 

KenM

Well-known member
A great read Nick as always! I felt I was there with you...''every snow crunching step of the way.'' Ah-h yes...those last minute decisions taken on an adventure trip, with the adrenalin surge, lack of sleep, dipping and scoring as you go, not to mention the language difference/signage, cost...physical and fiscal... you can't beat it. :t:
 

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