Easter on the Arctic Circle

by Russell Boyman

 

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'Don't go looking for Antarctica without this book.' - Susan Solomon

 

 

 

It might sound daft to leave the UK at the end of March, just as Spring has sprung, to travel to the Arctic Circle in Finland where winter still has its icy grip - but then birders do some strange things in pursuit of their feathered quarry.

More used to trekking across tropical climes at this time of year, my trip to the far North of Finland was designed to take advantage of the longer daylight hours to visit key sites for several archetypal Arctic species that were hard to find elsewhere in Europe.

We flew in over the lake-studded south of Sweden, which looked balmy and idyllic from the safety of our plane, a fantasy only betrayed by the frosted ice still covering some of the smaller lakes. Then into Helsinki, a curiously soulless town, before the hop north to the near Arctic town of Olau.

Olau is an outpost in the far north of Finland, near to both the Russian border and the Arctic Circle. Its main birding interest is in the fact that its very remoteness is a guarantee of some pretty unique species, especially owls and woodpeckers - as you might expect in a country that initially seems to have every inch covered in conifers.

That is the parts, of course, that were not covered by ice and snow. This area of Scandinavia has snow for six months of the year and only a few hours daylight in the winter. The result is a curiously surreal experience, with all sounds muffled by the snowdrifts that are everywhere and most of the population seemingly in hibernation waiting for the thaw and the returning daylight.

It amazed me that this far north there could be such a thriving town, whose population lived in virtual darkness for half the year. And yet Olau had all the trappings of a prosperous Western city, except, for most of the day at least, the people.

Our big affable guide, Jari, explained that most Finns this far north lived largely indoors during the long dark winter, and mostly outdoors during the short warm summers - a strangely two-dimensional existence, it seemed to us.

The Finns we met were nonetheless hospitable for their lopsided lifestyle. We had our first dinner in a country farmhouse, fortified by huge helpings of rib-sticking hearty cuisine designed to keep out the cold as darkness fell with swift inevitability.

It was unthinkable to go out birding without two layers of just about everything, and three of socks. It was difficult to walk very far in this terrain and we relied on our trusty guides - relentlessly cheerful and perfectly in tune with their odd environment - to keep our spirits up and tease out the local specialities we had come so far to see. But once out in the freezing darkness, there at first didn't seem to be any birds at all.

There was certainly something magical, however, to be amongst a huddled group of freezing tourists, fortified with wheat beer and creamy salmon, standing in the pitch dark, surrounded by clouds of our breath through which we could see the dark cathedrals of the conifer forest and above that the shimmering constellations of stars we never saw this bright at home. And then, far away, on a distant tree top, after hours of waiting, we eventually saw our quarry for this area - a humongous Eagle Owl, looking like a toy from Harry Potter in the telescopes, but unmistakable as its call echoed around the forbidding arctic forest.

Over the next day we quickly adapted to our odd new surroundings, careering through the snowy lanes around Olau and spilling out with clouds of hot air and expectation to see other species of owls, this time in broad daylight; a Tengmalm's in a purpose-built nest box, watching us even more intently than we were watching him. Then a diminutive Pygmy Owl, defying all attempts to give us a good view by insisting on perching on the very summit of the tree we were all sheltering under.

Our woodpecker search was going equally well. A gigantic Black Woodpecker treated us to superb views as it fed on a telegraph pole, seemingly a favoured haunt for Finnish woodpeckers in general, whilst on one visit close to the Arctic Circle itself we managed to track down, with the help of a tape lure, an elusive Three-Toed Woodpecker, hard to spot in the forest with its piebald zigzag plumage (never mind count its toes).

Although birds were good they were thin on the ground in this starkly beautiful landscape and we had plenty of time to savour Arctic Finland's other delights. On one visit to the Russian border, the security towers now unmanned and snowbound, we had an excellent lunch in a traditional Lapp reindeer-skin tent. As we huddled around a very welcome fire in the centre, our red-clad hostesses cooked a pungently rich Reindeer stew, served on a flat piece of wood along with unbelievably creamy mashed potatoes and fresh cranberries.

Two helpings of that, and you could barely move. This made us easy victims for the Lapp folk-singing that was our after-dinner entertainment. I was left to ruminate over whether Lapp dancing was as popular here north of the Arctic Circle as it had become amongst inebriated bankers in the City of London - a bit too chilly for that in a reindeer tent, unfortunately.

On another occasion we drove to the coast and saw the curious ice-scapes made by the entire Baltic Sea having been frozen, complete with swells, eddies and even waves, as if it had been instantaneously frozen through some divine act. The low salinity here ensured that throughout winter the Finns could drive across the Baltic Sea for many miles, as was testified by the myriad of road signs sticking up from the ice right out to the horizon.

Mid-way through the trip we took a long drive right up to the Arctic Circle itself, commemorated by a wooden sign by the roadside and a small museum. Looking up into the impossibly blue sky, and looking at the fir-clad hills that stretched as far as the eyes could see, you really did feel on top of the world here.

Deep in the forest, we came across mountain streams that would have babbled happily after the impending thaw, but here held rigid by the dead hand of winter.

We were in search of Siberian Jays, a bird of the high Arctic forest, and improbably gaudy in its grey and cinnamon plumage. This was a bird that you heard before you saw it, screaming curiously unseen in the conifers before descending like a group of staving harpies to feast on the fat from a fox carcass, grisly gutted and displayed from a tree bough for that very purpose.

Perhaps the most memorable bird experience, however, was saved for the local country park. Jari had heard of a rogue Capercallie, the world's largest grouse and noted for the aggressive defence of its territory against other males.

The problem with this bird was that it was the only Caper still in the park, the others scared off to quieter corners of the countryside by human incursion and the local ski resort. This poor confused bird had instead taken to venting its testosterone-fuelled anger towards any human that came within reach.

We drove to the park hoping to see this monster in action, and sure enough within half an hour a strangled exclamation from Jari signalled to us that he had found our rogue Caper.

I arrived at the spot at a jog, determined to not miss this experience, and was confronted by an extraordinary site - a dozen thermal clad British birders, held at bay by what looked like a turkey on steroids.

Not fazed by being outnumbered, the Caper was on the rise above the group on the path, its neck feathers ruffled, its huge fan-like tail splayed, its head cocked back and emitting the most unearthly series of clicks, pops and rattles that constituted its alarm call.

Seeing that its human adversaries would not back off, it then proceeded to charge the group in a shuffling foxtrot, only stopping when it came to within a yard or less of the startled group. Mesmerized by its audacity, and depressed by its futility, I was left to wonder how long our rogue Caper could persist in harassing the human populance of Olau before a Finnish hunter ensured it would never again impress a female Caper with its fine display.

In this way we had tracked down almost all our target species, with one important exception. The signature bird of this trip was the Great Grey Owl, one of the most impressive animals on any expedition. A huge flat face with piercing yet knowing yellow eyes, surrounded by a magisterial ruff of grey and black feathers, a noble plumage that covered its immense body right down to its enormous talons. This was the stuff of legend.

Which is why we got up at dawn to travel to Kuusamo to see it, despite the thermometer reading -16 °C. Actually, given that minus-anything feels cold at home in the UK, it could have been a lot more uncomfortable - you just had to wrap up to absurd levels and keep moving.

We had already missed out once at the site for this bird, and hopes were not high as a meagre sun struggled to illuminate the Christmas-box landscape. After an hour of searching it looked like another blown assignment, until our guide led me off on a trek to view the forest edge from a different angle. This was a good theory, except that the snow had billowed here into hidden drifts of some 10 feet high, and walking was slow progress as we both periodically disappeared up to our armpits in snow and had to be helped out by the other.

But if ever a sacrifice was worth it, it was this. Scanning the forest edge again from this ridge through the telescope finally revealed our prey, half-hidden in a snowy conifer, seemingly looking straight at us even though she was 400 yards away, blinking those gigantic haunting yellow eyes as if to show how nonplussed she was that we had ruined her morning lie-in.

We returned excitedly to the group, who then sped off back along the ridge from where we had come. My lasting memory from this trip to the Arctic Circle was watching this line of birders, all kitted out with enough padding to treble their real size, waddle along the ridge to the viewing point, with one after another regularly disappearing into the snow amid guffaws of laughter and clouds of hot breath.

It was a very happy and satisfied band of birders that bordered the bus to the airport, rosy of cheek, thicker of waist, and eternally grateful to Jari for showing us the hidden delights of his country. For all the snow and ice, the Arctic Forests of Finland were a secret treasure-trove of birding wonders that made all the layers of clothing and shivering amidst the conifers worthwhile.

© Russell Boyman 2004. Russell is an advertising executive who's avid interest in bird watching has taken him all over the world during the past twenty years or so. He has had a number of articles published in wildlife magazines and travel journals and is the author of Around the World with 1000 Birds (TravellersEye, 2002).

 

 

 

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