Wednesday 30 May 2012

Finland's Owls

Finland is a wonderful country, with a small population and fantastic natural resources, including plenty of owl species! Owls were the focus of this latest Ornitholidays tour, and here are a few of our sightings. We saw 6 species, and I managed to photograph 5. The Short-eared Owl was the one that escaped, but at least that can be seen in Britain. The first (right) is a Great Grey Owl, here seen on its man-made nest in a spruce forest. (Yes - the nest was constructed just in the hope of attracting this owl).

Next is a Hawk Owl (left). This was the hardest to find, as there have been no nesting records this year. Voles were abundant last year in Northern Finland, but (just our luck) they are very scarce this year. However, it made our discovery of this bird all the more satisfactory. We concluded after watching it for nearly an hour that it wasn't nesting, just living a solitary life trying to survive. 
Smallest of all is the Pygmy Owl (right) - not surprisingly the photos are not to scale. This is smaller than a thrush, but a fierce predator on small birds. Our local guide Ari found it for us (just as he found most of the others) thanks to his great knowledge of the local area, and thanks to a network of other birders who all share their sightings by text messages or mobile phone calls. 

Next comes a Tengmalm's Owl - this is a juvenile waiting patiently in the nest box for the next vole. This is the only one of the 5 photos which was not taken through the telescope. It is about a month old, on the point of fledging. Its older siblings had already left the nest - so at least one area had a good vole year.

Finally, one of the most beautiful owls is this Ural Owl (right). It's a larger, paler relative of our Tawny Owl. This one had recently-hatched young in a nest-box nearby. These owls can be aggressive near the nest, so Ari had to move very slowly to avoid its displeasure. It watched us carefully, giving a quiet woof! - rather like a dachshund. We soon left it in peace. In mid-summer there's little chance for these northern owls to be nocturnal - it's light all round the clock. 

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Preparing for Finland

Not long back from Belarus, but now I'm getting ready to head off again! This time it's Finland, with another Ornitholidays group. This is another 9 day tour, concentrating mostly just south of the Arctic Circle at about 65 degrees North. Our first centre will be Oulo - regarded by birders as the owl capital of Finland. We will also be visiting the Oulanka National Park, on the Russian border north of Kuusamo. There are seven possible owl species - including this Pygmy Owl, taken in Belarus two weeks ago. It's only six inches long, the length of a Chaffinch, and weighs 60 grams. It is a fierce predator on small birds. Another hoped-for owl is at the other end of the size scale: the Great Grey. There's a photo of this fine owl on the nest, below, on my Belarus blog.

Monday 14 May 2012


I'm recently back from a nine-day Ornitholidays tour to Belarus, concentrating on two excellent habitats and their wildlife. After the flight to Minsk, we started in the Belovezkaja Forest, on the Polish border. This huge forest continues on the Poland side too, (where it is called Bialowieza). Many trees are 500+ years old; and the forest is hugely varied, much of it mixed broadleaf-evergreen. Much of it is damp bog-forest (as in the photo top left - click to enlarge). It is home to all the European woodpeckers, Hazel Grouse, Black Stork, many raptor species, and owls such as this nesting Great Grey Owl (top right). This owl is often photographed in the snow in Arctic Russia or Canada, but we saw it at the southern edge of its range - on the same latitude as Birmingham. We had a spring heat-wave for our visit, and watched it 'gular-fluttering:' losing heat by panting. Here these magnificent owls eat squirrels and birds (including other owls). 
The other main habitat we explored was marshes and flooded meadows, along the Pripyat River (left). The Pripyat is a tributary of the Dnieper, which flows south through Ukraine into the Black Sea. The marshes are a breeding ground for Terek Sandpiper, Great Snipe and masses of Black-tailed Godwit, Lapwing, Common Snipe and Common Redshank. Other waders in superb breeding plumage, such as Ruff and Spotted Redshank, call in here for a few weeks in spring on their migration to the Arctic. Near Turov, we watched a young European Beaver (above right) practising building a lodge, and observed the biologists at a ringing station as they ringed and released a number of waders. They gave me a Common Redshank to release (below left).

One of the major highlights of the trip was watching an impressive male European Bison (right) as it came out of a forest at dusk to graze in a meadow. In some villages horses and carts outnumbered tractors, and the gardens of every wooden house had cherry trees in full blossom. But is it paradise? We also heard of illegal hunting and logging in national parks, and read of a terrible lack of human rights or democracy in the government. And after the heat-wave, the mosquitoes were starting to bite....