Searching for Wildlife in Subarctic Finland
Watching Large Carnivores and Boreal Birds During Two Holidays in Subarctic Finland
We flew into Helsinki in June of 2018 and 2019 to search for wildlife in the subarctic regions of Finland. For the majority of our time we were based at Wild Brown Bear on the Russian border, where three large carnivores can be found. Trips were made to Oulu in the west to hunt for the five sought after northern owl species and a foray further north was made to the Kuusamo area in 2019 where rarities such as the Red-flanked Bluetail can be found.
I was diagnosed with a rare cancer in May of 2018, the day before I left Gatwick Airport for Helsinki with Helen and my friend Dan Keightley. The trip was formulated between the three of us at the Rutland Water Birdfair the year before when Wild Brown Bear were offering discounted trips to stay with them in an old Finnish border station near Kuhmo, where they have 25 hides set around several hidden lakes on the edge of the Russian border.
This initial holiday was planned for 10 days with the main objective of finding and filming Brown Bears in the wild. Anything else was a bonus, although we were hoping to see Wolverines as well as bears.
Unfortunately on the first day of the holiday as we were heading north I became quite ill and spent three days in an excellent hospital at Savonlinna in the heart of the Saimaa lakes which unfortunately I didn't get to see.
I spent most of my time trying to persuade the doctors I was well enough to leave the hospital once I began to feel better and they eventually let me leave around midday on the third day of the trip.
Having been released we rushed to Wild Brown Bear arriving just as the guides were taking people to the hides.
Early June 2018
After a quick safety session we joined the eager participants and headed off to the hides.
We spent our first night in freezing conditions with ice cold winds blowing directly into our faces.
We were expecting the bears to appear at the far end of a large lake, however I first noticed movement in the woods to the right of our hide whilst Helen was sleeping and as I woke her with a hoarse whisper a huge male Brown Bear wandered out of the woods and across the near shore of the lake only 20 feet in front of the hide.
A second bear, this time a golden coloured female, appeared later in the dark of the night and walked along the shore of the lake before returning to the woods.
If this was all we were to see I would have thought the money and time had been worth it. However, there was much more to come including a trip over to Oulu where we saw five species of northern owls plus Black Woodpecker at the nest.
On the 6th June we headed over to Oulu to meet Satu our Guide from Finnature who took us to the nest sites of the five northern Owl species that would be virtually impossible to find on your own.
Satu showed us a male Pygmy Owl for a kick off by using a tape to call it in to defend its territory. Secondly we visited the nest site of a Hawk Owl that was in a broken birch tree beside the road. Here we saw an adult bird stashing a lemming in a pine tree and two young owls climbing out of the top of the nest.
The next owl was quite shy and only popped its head out of its nest hole when Satu approached the nest tree. It was a huge eyed Tengmalm's Owl.
Up next was a walk through some lightly wooded landscape where Satu managed to spot a Ural Owl flying towards its nest. It landed in a tree and luckily I saw it land so we could all see it through scopes.
Following on from the Ural Owl we headed to an outcrop of woodland in the midst of some clear fell where the huge nest of a Great Grey Owl could be seen in the centre of the wood. However, if you looked between the trees the massive female owl and two fluffy chicks could be seen.
Our final visit, after discussion of what the group would like to see, was Oulu golf club where a pair of Black Woodpeckers had nested in a Poplar tree next to the club house.
The next few days were spent sitting in the hides for 14 hours overnight each night, taking it in turns to obtain some broken sleep in the bunks provided in the hides. Most of the hides had bunk beds, a toilet and two office type chairs to sit on and watch the scene outside. It was a good job there were a few things to watch each night as you can go a bit stir crazy watching the exact same scene for 14 hours.
During the 5 nights at Wild Brown Bear we had excellent hot meals for breakfast and our evening meals plus a nice little packed lunch with tea or coffee for our visits to the hides. The hides were spacious and comfortable and we also had rooms back at the reception to catch up on sleep during the day. All in all a great place to spend a week watching the local wildlife or to use as a base camp to range further afield.
Whilst we were there we managed to see two large adult bears, a dark coloured enormous male and a beautiful golden / blonde female bear. The male spent most of his time following her around.
We saw a total of four Brown Bears, the two adults and two very blonde colored youngsters that were probably only in their third year and would have recently been separated from their mother who was ready to find a new mate. There were other predators as well as the bears and these included Hooded Crows and several species of gulls. The main culprits however, were Herring Gulls.
The other predator we really wanted to see was the Wolverine and one evening at around 8 o clock a dark shape lurked through the bushes over behind the pond as we were sat in hide 1. Helen initially saw it and thought it was a young bear but as it appeared from behind the bushes there was no mistaking the Wolverine as it ran then stopped then changed direction and ran again. It eventually made its way over to the food, it looked around to ensure there were no bears in the area, before it grabbed the food and ran off into the woods with it.
There were plenty of other things to watch and keep us occupied whilst waiting for the bears or Wolverines to appear as they were only there for short periods of time up to around 20 minutes. A female Goldeneye with 8 ducklings and various gulls plus Greenshanks fed around the lakes.
Late June 2019
Due to my ill health affecting the initial trip we decided on a return visit at the end of June 2019 where Jeanette Ferguson joined us. We began in a similar manner to the previous year with an initial stop at Parikkala and Siikalahti Lakes but had an additional stop around Patvinsuo National Park where our guide Esa Muikka showed us a Flying Squirrel, two bears eating flowers in a meadow, my first Moose and several million mosquitos.
This year we managed to spend an entire week at Wild Brown Bear where we again managed to see four different bears, this time an older dark brown female bear which we saw nearly every night. Another regular visitor was a young ginger / brown male who was extremely inquisitive. There were rare sightings of a young blonde coloured bear that was possibly one of the youngsters we saw in 2018. The final bear was a large fit looking male bear that was only seen in the early hours of the morning on our last visit to the hides on our last day at Wild Brown Bear.
The better viewing was from hide 25 in 2019 where we saw plenty of birds along with a female wolverine running across the bog with two kits. A different Wolverine was also seen on two occasions from this hide.
Many of the birds we saw during our shortened trip in 2018 were also seen around the lakes in 2019 including a female Goldeneye, this time with no ducklings. Greenshanks were obvious with there loud calls and on one occasion from hide 25 we had some great views of an immature White-tailed Sea Eagle that landed in a tree some distance away from our hide.
On a couple of occasions during the daytime we drove along the road to Niva village where the flowers along the roadside had attracted various butterflies and dragonflies.
We found a female Brilliant Emerald and a female Northern Whiteface plus a Four Spotted Chaser beside the village lake. Butterflies on the flowers included numerous Pearl-bordered Fritillaries, Swallowtails, a Green Hairstreak, a Heath Fritillary, Brimstone, Large Skipper, Geranium Argus and Moorland Clouded Yellows. On the gravel beside the road we found Cranberry Blues and Northern Wall Browns but my favourite find was a male Northern Chequered Skipper.
We left Wild Brown Bear on the 20th and headed south to Lassi Rautiainens Wildlife Safaris Finland, where we spent 15 hours in a hide situated in the border zone looking out towards the Russian border. We managed to find one of the very secretive wild Forest Reindeer as it crossed the road as we were driving one of the forest tracks to Lassi's base camp.
We sat in a fairly small hide completely insulated with foam panels even on the floor which made filming from a tripod impossible. I had to fit the camera and tripod head onto one of the window shelves in the hide which was awkward. Approximately 100 metres away was a very large carcass which attracted four bears whilst we watched, a large female with a cub plus two younger bears.
The first predator to visit the carcass was however, a beautiful white male Wolf, that wandered along the forest edge marking his territory before feeding on the carcass two or three times, wandering into the woods in between bouts of feeding. This was the alpha male of the local pack. He eventually wandered across a large boggy expanse into the forest in the Russian side of the border zone.
After visiting Wild Brown Bear for a week with a night in the Russian border zone with Wildlife Safaris Finland, we left the Kuhmo area and headed further north to the Kuusamo area.
We stayed in a wooden lodge at Viipus Campsite close to the famous Kontainen Hill. The area around Kuusamo is a favourite birding spot for many birders visiting Finland as most of the Boreal species can be found nearby.
We visited the area around Iivaara including the bog and the hill. At the top of Iivaara Hill the views were absolutely marvellous but the birding wasn't as brilliant as I'd hoped with only singing Bramblings and a pair of breeding Waxwings. We didn't find Red-flanked Bluetail, Pine Grosbeak, Capercaillie, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay or Hazelhen which are all supposed to visit the area. We did find Hazelhen poop and then nearly pooped ourselves on the way back down the hill as a very large animal rushed through the bushes infront of us close to where I'd noticed some bear poop on the way up the hill.
To be fair on a second visit we spooked 3 or 4 Hazelhens from the side of the path at the edge of the woods but they didn't settle again.
The bog at the bottom of the hill was more interesting with singing Rustic Bunting in the trees beside the bog. Try as I might I couldn't get any photos or film of this bird and only saw it on one occasion, a beautiful bird but extremely elusive. We also watched a Beaver swimming across the lake in the middle of the bog as it went to and fro from its lodge.
By driving the forest tracks I managed to find a female Capercaillie picking up grit from the road surface and as we watched it from the car a small flock of Siberian Jays visited us to check us out for a free meal. Unfortunately I didn't have anything to tempt them down from the trees. The only other thing along the deeply gravelled forest tracks were Reindeer.
After spending many hours trying and failing miserably to catch the Rustic Bunting on film we decided to have a look around Lake Kuusamo where we found Whooper Swans and a very confiding Red-necked Grebe. We checked out the places supposedly good for Rustic and Little Bunting but neither were found in the area.
We visited the famous Valtavaara Ridge at around 1 o clock in the morning and heard 7 Red-flanked Bluetails singing, five of which we saw. The sunrise over Kontainen Hill was amazing.
We managed to find many of the local rare birds such as singing Little Bunting and Red-flanked Bluetails out in the open plus Pine Grosbeak and more Siberian Jays at the top of Valtavaara Ridge. I think my favourite find was a Hawk Owl sitting in the top of a conifer at the back of Kontainen Hill.
On our last day in the Kuusamo area we visited Oulanka National Park, hoping to see some of the species of the mature forest found there including Siberian Tits and Three-toed Woodpeckers. Dan and Jeanette managed to find a pair of Three-toed Woodpeckers but Siberian Tits eluded us throughout the holiday.
We enjoyed the walk and the beautiful scenery even though we did get drenched in a rain storm. We headed south and to Lieksa where we headed for Era Eero wildlife camp in the woods.
Era Eero is spot renowned for viewing Wolverines and we headed for the hides just at the back of the camp with high expectations. However, as the night dragged on we saw most of the meat put out to attract the Wolverines being devoured by Gulls, then Jays and even Woodpeckers and a Great Tit.
Eventually a dark shape was seen in the trees. Unfortunately it turned out to be a small bear which may have been scaring the Wolverines away. This bear and a pack of wolves that were in the area were reducing our chances of any Wolverines turning up.
As the gloom began to gather under the trees another shape appeared and this time it was a Wolverine. It wandered around infront of the hides finding some of the few pieces of meat that had been left by the gulls.
We left Era Eero for the drive back to Siikalahti Lakes and Parikkala and area where we stopped over on the northbound journey.
We stayed in a motel just south of Parikkala which was a five minute drive from Siikalahti Lakes. These lakes are supposedly the best birding area in the whole of Finland, probably more so during migration ealier in the year.
We spent an evening and the final morning around the lakes before heading south to Helsinki and our flight home.
We managed to see a few birds but the local White-backed Woodpeckers managed to elude us for the fourth time of visiting the site.
Its a good site for dragonflies and butterflies as well as birds. In 2019 we saw Amanda's Blue, Chestnut Heath, Lesser Marbled Fritillary and Northern Grizzled Skipper amongst other butterflies and Northern Blue Damselflies, Variable Damselflies and Yellow-winged Darters.
The previous year at the beginning of June the species were different with numerous White-faced Darters of three species. The Northern Whitefaces were the commonest, with fewer Common Whitefaces and possibly two Dainty Whitefaces seen. Other odonata included Northern Blue and Variable Damselflies, several Four Spotted Chasers and a single Female Downy Emerald found warming up in the early morning.
The fritillaries in early June were all Pearl-bordered and there were less butterflies altogether. Large Skippers were also seen.
We took our last looks around Siikalahti lake before heading south again this time to Helsinki airport for our flight home.
I would highly recommend Finland for its beautiful scenery quiet countryside with very few people to disturb you and the ones that you do meet are all very friendly.
I managed to capture much of what we saw on film and have produced a twin disc DVD of this memorable search for wildlife in subarctic Finland. Further informaton and how to purchase this DVD can be found at Wildlife-films.com and some of the footage can be seen in the video below. The actual DVD set has a full narrative and can be operated from your DVD or computer's remote control.
The DVD production was filmed in broadcast quality digital format using a Canon XL-H1 High Definition video camera. The footage has been captured onto DVD and shows approximately 2 hours and 25 minutes of high quality uncompressed digital video with complete menu accessed using your DVD player's remote. Please take a look at the trailer above. The discs include a full narrative not shown on the trailer. The set can be purchased using PayPal with an account or credit card see below
This twin DVD film set "Searching for Wildlife in Subarctic Finland" is available for purchase from only £17.00 including postage and packing.
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