30 May 2016

30 May 16 - A Short Trip To The Northern Owl-lands

The combination of not having a lot of time to get out Birding & a daily long commute to work, has meant the cameras haven't had a lot of use this year: hence the lack of Blog posts this year. But finally the opportunity arose to get the cameras out, for a short trip to the Northern Owl-lands, AKA Finland. It was a chance to get the majority of the Israel 2014 trip Birders back together with Mark Edgeller, Simon Ingram & myself, but with Andy Rhodes standing in for Nigel Jones. Think the others wished that Nigel had been joining us, as collecting Nigel could have been very exciting for the Hampshire based members of the team. Having picked up the other three from the Southampton area, I was half way up the M3, when Simon had a text from Nigel about a bird singing in his garden. Here is a clue photographed a few days later in Finland.
The number plate RBF is the not very subtle clue: Nigel had found the first twitchable RBF for Hants (unless you had a plane to catch)
We arrived in time for an early lunch at Heathrow. Simon regretted picking up a copy of an in flight mag at the departure gate.
Simon at Heathrow: Simon is a passionate Hants Lister, but as far as the RBF goes he is Mr Short List
The afternoon flights to Oulu, via Helsinki went smoothly & we arrived mid evening at Oulu airport. The pre-booked Ford Focus with Sixt was waiting for us to collect & we were soon off to the accommodation at the Virkkula visitors centre about 25 kms South of the airport. It was still light about 23:00 when we finally got to bed to grab about three hours kip, before the alarm went off just after 02:00 to tell us in it was morning. Actually, it had been morning for a couple of hours already as despite the sun setting about 22:30, it remains light enough to keep Birding through to sun up again.
It is nearly sunset at Virkkula at 22:30: There is a tower hide overlooking the bay in the right of the clearing
After a small breakfast & some drinks, we went out into the car park to meet the other 4 punters who were joining us for our morning Finnature tour in the Oulu area with our local guide, Taru. The drawback of the 24 hours light is the Bird activity is greatest in early morning, hence our 03:00 departure. We were soon in Taru's minibus & off to look for our first Owl. On the way, we passeda couple of Short-eared Owls perched on roadside posts. A trip in late May/early June is about the best time to be going to Finland as the Finnature guides try to locate all the breeding Owls & by this date, they should all be feeding chicks. Thus, they should have sites for these low density breeding species in the huge tracks of forests. They should either be still at the nest or not too far from their nest sites. The first Owl was nesting in this nest box put up by Finnature.
I was surprised how low the nest box was
A few whistles from Taru & the male came in very low just over my head, before sitting & watching us from a nearby tree.
Pygmy Owl: The first of my 3 Owl World Ticks for the trip
Pygmy Owl: We weren't the only ones tired by the early sunrise
After about 15 minutes, we left the Pygmy Owl in peace & headed off to look for the next goodie: Three-toed Woodpecker. A quick blast of a recording of drumming by Taru & there was an immediate response. Soon afterwards we saw it fly in to the trees near us, where after a bit of looking we ended up getting some nice views. I've only seen one before in a Tibetan forest & so it was good to catch up with this tricky to see Western Palearctic Tick. Taru ran another trip the next day, but they failed to see or hear the Woodpecker, but they did see Hazelhen which, unfortunately, we only heard.
Three-toed Woodpecker: Male. The initial views were in dense Conifers. The yellow cap indicates this is a male
Fortunately, it soon left the dense Conifers for some more open trees on the edge of the wood. With the low light levels soon after dawn, then having dense forest was not helping the photography. Many of the photos had to be taken with very high ISO settings.
Three-toed Woodpecker: Male. Fortunately, it moved to some more open trees on the edge of the wood
Three-toed Woodpecker: Male
Three-toed Woodpecker: Male
Three-toed Woodpecker: Male. Most Woodpeckers have 4 toes with two facing forward & 2 facing back, but this is one of the Woodpecker species that only have 3 toes (just about visable in this photo)
Next stop was to look for the much larger Black Woodpecker. There was an active nest, but the despite hearing the parents calling as we walked to the nest, all we saw here was one of the chicks.
The opening scene to "Once Upon a Time in the West (Boreal Forests)": It won't be as memorable as the Sergio Leone classic. Taru had the sense to have a coat with a hood which reduced the impact of the significant numbers of mozzies. Think the rest of us were quietly wishing we had a mozzie hat like the lady on the left, despite Simon & Edge trying to look like the mozzies weren't there
Black Woodpecker: It was a large nest hole
Black Woodpecker: Junior waiting for some food. Glad it wasn't a Tick for me
It was back to the minibus to try the Ural Owl site.
The now empty Ural Owl nest box is at the edge of this clearing
We arrived to find the Ural Owl chicks had fledged in the previous few days. Taru left us in the open & went into the wood to see if she could locate the chicks. After a few minutes, she returned to confirm one of the chicks was on view & she carefully led us into the wood, where one of the chicks was patiently sitting on a low branch, waiting for some more food. Nobody was going to get too close to the chick: partially as we didn't want to upset it, but mainly as the Ural Owl parents can be very defensive.
Ural Owl: This half grown chick was still trying to get its head around all the strange things in the world
At least one of the parents was nearby & after a while, we saw an adult fly & land in one of the nearby trees. Unfortunately, all the views we had were obscured by a mass of branches.
Ural Owl: Adult. I was pleased to get this photo as I had to switch to manual zooming due to the number of branches obscuring the Owl
A typical Finnish rural house: Dark red-brown & white painted wooden houses are the norm. Note, the ladder to the roof which is presumably to help clear snow off the roof in the winter. This house was just across the road from the Ural Owl clearing
Pied Flycatcher: Male. We were looking for the key species so there wasn't time to grab more than a record photo of this Pied Flycatcher before having to head back to the minibus to move onto the next stakeout
I had hoped to see one or two new European Butterflies in Finland. But we saw very few on the trip.
Green Hairstreak: There are five Hairstreaks in Finland: the same five that we have in the UK
Edge & Andy (right) catching up one some much needed sleep as we headed off to the Great Grey Owl site
The Great Grey Owl was our fourth Owl for the morning with an adult seen sitting on the large nest.
Great Grey Owl: Another Western Palearctic Tick, unless the proposed Sound Approach split gets accepted by Clements (as the only one I've seen before was in California)
Great Grey Owl: Shame the nest site was obscured, but we didn't want to get closer to try & get a clearer view
Taru heard a Greenish Warbler singing near the Great Grey Owl site. It remained at the tops of the tallest trees & only occasionally gave some views.
Greenish Warbler
It was only lunchtime, but that was our trip over. However, we had been out for an hour longer than expected & had spent 9 hours birding or driving: the joys of starting at 03:00. Taru dropped us back at the accommodation, where there was time for a quick cuppa, before heading off to catch up on lost sleep. The Finnature trips aren't cheap, at 250 Euros per person per trip. But the guides we had were both excellent & without their exact knowledge of Owl territories, then you could spend a lot of time looking without success. I would certainly recommend any independent Birders plan to combine these guided trips into a more general self organised trip. Note, you need to be booking them the previous Autumn to stand a good chance of getting suitable dates.

After a couple of hours kip, it was time to get up again, head off to find a supermarket & do some Birding of our own. About 10 days earlier, I had seen a pager message about an Oriental Cuckoo in Finland. When there was a second message a few days later, I started getting interested. After a bit of searching on line, I discovered it was a male that had returning for its second year to the same location & had just been accepted a few days earlier as the first Finnish record. There were a handful of earlier unaccepted records. A search of Xeno-Canto produced a few recordings from Russia, as well as, the Finnish individual (from 2015). However, I was struggling to figure out the exact location, but fortunately, Taru was able to provide me with a detailed location on google maps. So mid afternoon, we decided to give it a go. It was a three hour drive: initially through a fairly arable & rural area, but finally the forests became commoner as we got closer. Taru had said it was calling the most in the evening & so an arrival about 19:30 seemed fine to us.
There was a nice fallow crop field at the main site for the Oriental Cuckoo: We had Red-backed Shrike, Whitethroat & a pair of Whinchats in this field
Whinchat: This was one of a pair of Whinchats that had a territiory in the fallow field
Whinchat: One kept coming back to this dead plant, before dropping into the field
Whinchat: I think this was just a good vantage point, rather than a nest site, as I never saw it arriving with food
We were the only Birders there, but soon after a couple of Finnish Birders arrived. They gave us the good news that it had been heard or seen that morning, but the bad news that this was at two locations: the one we were at & a second one maybe about a mile away on another road. After chatting for about 15 minutes, they decided to give the latter road a try.
While we were looking, we thought it would be good to get a team photo: me, Edge, Andy & Simon
About 20 minutes later, the driver returned with the statement "You might want to consider looking in a different location to the one you are currently trying". Translation, "we have heard it on the next road". We quickly followed him back to the other road to see his mate on the roadside with a pair of headphones on. We got handed these headphones, to realise there were small mics by the earpieces. With the headphones, we could quietly hear the Oriental Cuckoo calling from distant trees. Unfortunately, there seemed to be a lot of trees in a sunken valley between the bird & us & closer tall trees was obscuring our view. I assume it changed it posture as we could finally hear its ooo-ooo-ooo call without the headphones. But it didn't seem close, especially knowing how far a regular Cuckoo call can travel. The Finns decided to call it a day. Well it had been there for over 2 months in the previous Summer & I guess they had seen it at least once. But as we weren't going to get another chance, we had to persist. We tried our Xeno-Canto recordings, but no joy. Then we tried to get a better viewpoint on the road & eventually settled on a point about 50 metres further along the road from where we had originally heard it. It seemed a little louder & the view was a bit more open, as there were a few missing trees in the foreground. It seemed to be calling from the same distant area. It wasn't possible to consider going into the trees, as the view would have been totally obscured as the Conifers were still pretty dense. So it was a case of waiting to see if it would come closer. About 21:45, I decided to give the recordings another go & suddenly one of the lads saw a Cuckoo sp. flying towards us. It had come from where the Oriental Cuckoo was calling, but there had been a regular Cuckoo calling earlier as well. To our relief, our bird gave a couple of ooo-ooo-ooo calls in flight as it passed overhead & disappeared in the direction of our original site. I must admit when I left the UK, I didn't think we had much of a chance of hearing it, let alone seeing it, so I was very happy. We were all relieved it called in flight, as it wouldn't have been possible to identify it in flight otherwise. It would have been great to see it perched up, but a calling Oriental Cuckoo in flight is still pretty good in Western Europe.
Oriental Cuckoo: I blasted away with the camera as it came into view over the road, having already watched it with the bins as it was coming towards us. This was a World Tick for me. I had seen Oriental Cuckoos in Malaysia & heard them in Sichuan in 1990, but these have now been split as Sunda Cuckoo & Himalayan Cuckoo, respectively
We did return to our original site, but couldn't hear it & suspected in had stopped well before that location. It was 22:00 & a three hour drive back to the accommodation, so it was time to leave.
But first there was the ritual to add the Oriental Cuckoo to the car list
The sunset about 22:30, but there was still enough light to see to drive home, without needing the lights (but they were on anyway). A fairly uneventful drive, with a few Woodcocks flying over the road. I had hoped we might have seen a Moose or two in a roadside clearing, but no joy. Still I can't complain, it had been an excellent day with 2 new Owls (Pygmy Owl & Ural Owl) & an Oriental Cuckoo. The Three-toed Woodpecker & Great Grey Owls were Western Palearctic Ticks. We were sitting on the accommodation verandah, enjoying a final cuppa & hearing distant Cranes calling at 01:00.