WINTER BIRDING AND PHOTOGRAPHY IN FINLAND
Winter is the season when the most tourists visit Finland. Main reason is to visit Santa Claus or ski resorts. Fairly recently birders and photographers have discovered possibilities that Finland has to offer in winter. One reason is the improved and updated information on recent bird situation in Internet. For example winter 2006/2007 many mouth watering bird species were possible to see in Finland during a weekend trip; Pine Grosbeaks and Waxwings were numerous and rarities like Azure Tit, Dusky Thrush and Black-throated Thrush were possible to see, but also resident species like Hawk and Great Grey Owls were fairly easily seen in certain places. Winter 2008/2009 was again very good for Hawk and Great Grey Owl photography in Oulu region.
During winter birding trip it is not possible to see all the special species of Finland, but experience is certainly something unique with landscape covered with snow, icy roads and – 20 Centigrade! With good luck even Aurora borealis is possible to see in winter months. Yet the best period to visit Finland for bird watching is in May and June.
Same applies for winter photography. You will not get photos of many species, but those what you get will be more unique because of the snowy conditions and special light!
Berry eating birds
In winter when there are plenty of rowan berries there are also lot of berry eating birds, like Pine Grosbeaks and Waxwings staying the whole winter in Finland. They might be seen even in downtown of Helsinki by the busy roads. In most winters Pine Grosbeaks stay further north and e.g. in Oulu region there are usually some wintering Pine Grosbeaks. Even in good berry winters they migrate back to their northern coniferous breeding grounds from February onwards and in March they are rarely/ seldom seen outside of their breeding range. Southernmost breeding pairs are just south of Kuusamo, but in forest they are usually quite elusive and difficult to find. Pine Grosbeak is considered as one of the very first migrants to arrive back to Lapland.
Plentiful berries attract also many Fieldfares and some Redwings to stay in Finland over winter. Rare winter visitors from Siberia are Black-throated Thrush (15 winter records) and Dusky Thrush (5 winter records). Bullfinches, Common Crossbills and Two-barred Crossbills occasionally use rowan berries as food source.
However, in some winters (like this one 2009/2010) there are virtually no rowan berries in Finland. Therefore Waxwings cross Finland quickly and most certainly some of them will fly all the way to Middle Europe and UK. As to Pine Grosbeaks we do not know what they do or where they stay in winter time when there are no berries. On the west coast of Finland usually small numbers of Pine Grosbeaks have been seen migrating south in autumn. Some exceptionally good migrations have been recorded e.g. in Pyhäjoki (south of Oulu) on 20th October 2007 when 927 Pine Grosbeaks were seen migrating south along the coastline in 95 flocks. Another good migration was on 27th October in Kalajoki where 1038 birds were seen migrating in 76 flocks to south.
Forest owls in fields
Some of the resident Owls of Finland are moving sometimes fairly long distances in autumn. They are searching good areas for voles. When they find a promising area, they will settle there for winter. If vole situation is still good in spring, they might breed in the same area. Especially Hawk Owls stay in fairly small area in winter and often breed not too far from wintering sites.
Great Grey Owls are in some winters hunting in open fields as well. But they only hunt out in open fields in daylight when they are starving. When there are plentiful voles Great Grey Owls are usually hunting actively only in night time and are not easily found. The best way to find hunting area of Great Grey Owl is to look for tracks in snow. They leave very characteristic “angle” sign in snow when they hunt voles under the snow. They locate voles by hearing and they are able to hit through ½ meter snow cover! Sometimes snow cover freezes hard and then Great Grey Owls struggle to hunt enough voles.
Pygmy Owl is one of the most common owl species in Finland and their numbers do not vary so much compared with some other owl species. In good vole years they stay in forest hunting voles and are not easily seen. However, quite often, especially in bad vole years Pygmy Owls visit passerine feeding sites to hunt small rodents but also small birds! Then they can be easily seen and are also very approachable.
Snowy Owl is the rarest owl in Finland, but it is still nearly annual winter visitor on the west coast of Finland in large cultivated field areas. Usually Lapua and Oulu areas are good places to search for Snowy Owls in winter. They often perch on the roofs of barns and can be seen from long distance. Normally these young owls are found around New Year and they might stay in the area until mid April, before they migrate back to arctic areas. However, it seems that Canada is much more reliable place to see and photograph Snowy Owls!
Finns are very keen to feed small birds during the long winter. Regular feeding can attract good concentration of birds in otherwise quiet forest surroundings. Feeders can be very productive for birders and especially for photographers. Birds are often quite used to human beings, so they can be observed within close range.
Siberian Jays and Siberian Tits are regular visitors to bird tables north of Oulu. Grey-headed Woodpecker is more regular feeder visitor south of Oulu. White-backed Woodpecker is rare in the whole country, but may visit feeders especially in Southeastern Finland. Black Woodpecker normally does not come to feeders regularly, but occasionally they learn to feed on fat which is put in small thrilled holes in trees. Crested Tit is a regular visitor at feeders south of Kuusamo and it is usually very tame. Willow Tit, Yellowhammer, Bullfinches, Mealy Redpolls and Jays are common feeder visitors. Siberian Nuthatch and Arctic Redpolls are less frequent visitors. Rarities found at Finnish bird feeders include Pine Bunting, Azure Tit, Black-throated Accentor and Oriental Turtle Dove! Red Squirrel is the most common mammal visiting passerine feeders. Also Arctic Hare and Brown Hare come to feed on grain, but they are often on the move during night time.
In winter there are sites where wildlife photographers feed Golden Eagles, White-tailed Eagles and Goshawks in Finland. Hides are normally heated and some of them can be rented by foreign photographers as well. Ravens and other Corvids are normally numerous and occasional visitors are Common Buzzard or even Gyrfalcon! With good luck also rare carnivores, Wolverine and Wolf, can be visiting carcasses! It is possible to find information about the hides at www.finnature.com.
In most winters the sea area and all the lakes and most rivers will freeze over. Some rapidly flowing rivers will stay open and some of those attract plenty of Dippers. Dipper is actually one of the very few species which migrates to Finland for winter. We get lot of Dippers from Norwegian mountains for winter. Other common species which can winter in Finland in open water are Mallard and Goosander. Otter and Mink can also be often seen and they can be photographable in some places.
Climate and conditions
Finland is one the northernmost countries in the world. Summers are fairly warm for about three months (from mid May- until August) and winters are fairly cold for three months (from mid December until mid March). Because of warming effect of the Gulf Stream our winters are nowadays relatively mild and not quite so cold than in middle of Siberia. However, there can be few weeks period in middle of winter when temperature doesn´t rise above – 20 Centigrade at all. Occasionally it can be as cold as – 40 Centigrade in northern parts of the country. In southern parts it doesn´t usually get much colder than -20 Centigrade.
In northern parts of Finland snow cover is guaranteed from December until April. On south coast snow is not guaranteed and it can be wet and dark even in middle of winter. From January until early March forests especially in hills of northern parts of Finland are beautifully blanketed with heavy snow cover. This is really unique looking landscape with good opportunities for beautiful landscape photos.
Because Finland is situated so north, the length of the day in middle of winter is quite short. But thanks to snow cover it is not so dark than one could expect. In middle parts of Finland at the end of January the length of the day is 6,5 hours and at the end of February already 10 hours.
Driving in winter
Most of the roads are covered with ice and snow in winter. Only the main roads are salted and free of ice. However, all Finnish cars have winter tires and most of them have studded snow tires, which keep them tightly on road. In winter months officials reduce speed limits, but still care should be taken on icy roads and e.g. breaking distance can easily double compared to dry tarmac road!
Finns have a saying; “There is not such a thing as cold weather- there is only bad clothing”. In a way it is true when you wear warm donkey jacket fillet with dawn and warm woolly hat and cloves even – 30 Centigrade doesn´t feel too bad. Maybe most important equipments are actually warm shoes. They should be well insulated and there should be space for woolly socks. Some local tour operators offer warm clothing to their clients in Finland.
It is possible to hire a knowledgeable local birding and photography guides to any parts of Finland.
Local guides are available via www.finnature.com
Besides the national airline company Finnair, there are several other companies flying to Finland. Finnair has the most extensive internal flight coverage, but it is probably the most expensive one as well.
It is worth to have a look at Blue One website www.blue1.fi for cheaper flights, but the cheapest one is Ryanair www.ryanair.com which flies to Tampere. From Tampere it is possible to hire a car or take a night train to Oulu. Air Baltic also flies to Oulu from Riga and there you can fly from many cities of Europe.
Useful websites when planning a trip to Finland:
Snowy Owls in Canada:
Great Grey and Hawk Owl last winter:
Golden Eagles in winter:
Winter in Finland offer some unique photography opportunities: