Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Finnish Owl Mayhem

I recently returned from a fantastic weekend in Helsinki, birding with fellow young Irish birder Joe Proudfoot and expat Irish birder Owen Foley. The trip materialised back in October, when Owen pointed out on twitter just how cheap flights to the Finnish capital were in midwinter. Myself, Brian McCloskey and Joe quickly decided to go, and the trip was booked. However unfortunately some unexpected Christmas exams were sprung on Brian and he was unable to join us. The trip was thus coined the 'sorry Brian' tour.
Sorry Brian.

Day 1

Upon meeting Owen on Saturday morning we headed straight for a black grouse lek site, in the hopes of being there at first light (9:30 or so). We arrived as the skies began to brighten and found our way quickly to the chilly bog, before waiting for the grouse to emerge and start calling. Unfortunately after some time waiting it seemed like it may just have been a bit too early in the year to see any black grouse at this site, and so we headed off into the woods behind the bog in search of hazel grouse. As soon as we began listening for hazel grouse it became apparent that the black grouse had started calling back on the bog, and so back we headed. After a short wait Owen managed to pick up a stunning cock grouse perched on the top of a spruce. A further two were spotted and reasonable scope views were had. A cracking species to start the trip!
    We continued on and searched further for hazel grouse and grey-headed woodpecker but to no avail. From there we were headed to a nutcracker feeding site in the west near Lohja, and on our way we stopped at a lake where Joe and I had our first ever smew. These handsome pied diving-ducks were to be found in small numbers on the lake, though slightly scattered as a result of a brutish white-tailed eagle flyover! Other birds present were goldeneye and some goosander. We were quickly back on the road in order to make the most of the short day. 
    We travelled through a decent amount of semi-rural Finnish countryside. The landscape was predominantly blanketed in conifers, along with frequent electricity pylons and large open areas. It was on these pylons that we expected to see our first hawk-owl, and it was not too long before Joe picked one up on a roadside wire. We pulled in and whipped out the scopes, getting great views of this dashing owl species. It was clearly perch hunting, and using its exceptional eyesight and exemplary hearing to find prey. At one stage a fairly quiet phone text-tone from one of us was enough to catch its attention, even at a respectable distance. Its head immediately swivelled in our direction as its piercing yellow eyes tried to ascertain the source of this noise. Though having a fairly comical expression, as I find many owls do, this is nonetheless not a bird to be underestimated. Those eyes are the last thing many a rodent will see, and the owls fearsome feather-clad talons a visible reminder of its predatory prowess.
    From the hawk-owl we continued on to the nutcracker feeding station. Upon arrival the table was empty, but after re-stocking it with peanuts the birds soon began to roll in. First in were the tits. We had willow tit here, which was a lifer, as well as decent views of crested tit, and northern treecreeper. It took a while before the nutcrackers became aware of the nuts, however when they did they soon started to arrive en-masse. Their raucous calls echoing over the spruce and hazel woods as they perched on treetops and looked down at us. They seemed to be slightly shier than expected, however nonetheless it was not long before a bold bird hopped down onto the table and started gorging a few nuts, possibly for stowage elsewhere. We got scope filling views of this intriguing species on the table, which would otherwise have proven much more wary and difficult to pin down.
    From there it was a speedy drive back to Helsinki to try and pin down a Great Grey Owl at Viikki (Vanhankaupunginlahti) which had been seen for the last couple of days.
    When booking the trip I imagined we might have had a shot at some other owl species, probably pygmy, maybe ural or the likes. For whatever reason I never really considered Great Grey to be a possibility. When I heard it was not only a possibility, but actually on the cards, I was brimming with anticipation.
    As we arrived at Viikki the day was already starting to get noticeably dull. This was maybe at 2pm or so. We rushed without hesitation out along the fields and boardwalks to the forest in which it had been seen, encountering droves of satisfied birders and photographers on their way home, all confirming that the lapinpöllö was still present. After a bit of searching we eventually got on the right track and discovered a small gathering of birders. Owen gathered crucial information from the snatches of Finnish thrown our way. My heart sank when one of those transpired to be saying 'it just flew' . I needn't have worried.
    The owl had just flown to an exposed dead tree and I struggled to peer through trees to get binocular views. It had clearly just begun hunting for the evening, and was perch hunting. To our great delight the bird flew back up towards us and landed in a tree which allowed for much better observation. The views of this bird in the scope were breath-taking. We were totally lost for words. I was originally worried that the bird was being disturbed by the assembled birders and photographers, but that quickly transpired not to be the case. At one point it flew towards our group and caught a rodent at Owen's feet!
    In retrospect I had really underestimated the size of this species. They're absolutely massive! I spent a long while just admiring the intricacies of the feather patterning, along with the intimidating glare it would give us occasionally. I managed a few phone-scoped shots, and a few on the dslr, however both cameras struggled with the low-light. We watched this bird for some time in the dying light, before making our way back to Viikki. Without a doubt one of the most incredible birds I've ever seen, and by far the best views I've had of any owl in its natural environment. Just incredible!
    We ended the day by attempting to twitch an eastern-black redstart going to roost. While we failed on this evening it would not be long before we got a second chance...

Northern Hawk-Owl being legend

Willow Tit

"Showing well"


So that's how I spent my Saturday...

Day 2 will be posted shortly. If you really want to see more Great Grey Owl insanity (and of course you do) I've posted videos here and here. You can also read Owen's account on his blog 'Hel Hath No Birdies'.

'Til next time

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