Finland, Lapland & Norway: Land of the Midnight Sun

This varied tour starts in the south of Finland, where dense forests are home to a veritable feast of owls and woodpeckers, including Ural and Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, and Black and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpeckers. As we continue north up the Finnish Peninsula high-end songbirds like red-spotted male Bluethroats, and dashing Red-flanked Bluetails may feature too. While Colorado is viewed as the grouse capital of North America, Finland can lay claim to that title in Europe; on this tour we shall seek Black and Hazel Grouse, Willow and Rock Ptarmigans, and the mighty capercaillie too. The tour works its way steadily north, crossing the spectacular mountainous region of northern Finland, eventually moving north of the Arctic Circle into the Lapland region of Norway, where the forests give way to tundra and moorland at these latitudes, and nighttime gives way to permanent 24-hour daylight at this time of year. The differences in peoples and landscapes are striking from the southern tip of the Finnish peninsula to the extremities of northern Norway. And the birds reflect the shift too; once within the Arctic Circle, forest birds give way to waterbirds, like immaculate King Eiders and splendid Steller’s Eiders. Seabird colonies here also offer up Thick-billed Murres, Black Guillemots, Razorbills within the backdrop of the phenomenal Varanger Fjord, one of the most scenically stunning parts of the itinerary.


Day 1: Helsinki, Finland (Arrival). After arrival in Finland’s capital, known as the “daughter of the Baltic”, we shall transfer you to a local hotel for the night. Any early arrivers can enjoy some birding close to Helsinki, where the Finnish owl quest can begin, with Ural Owls often nesting close to this city.

While some of the owls on this tour may be familiar to North Americans; the Ural Owl will not be
While some of the owls on this tour may be familiar to North Americans; the Ural Owl will not be (The Biggest Twitch)

Day 2: The forests of Hauho. The tour will start in earnest today with a venture north into the municipality of Hauho, a town which is within easy reach of vast swathes of dense boreal forests. These forests are home to some of the finest woodpeckers, owls and grouse in all of Europe, and today we will set about seeing some of these. Some of the standout woodpeckers in the area include the giant Black Woodpecker, Europe’s largest species, which outsizes even North America’s Pileated; and also Gray-headed and Eurasian Three-toed. These forests ate this time are ringing with the sounds of spring; birdsong fills the air, and we’ll keep our ears open for the rich stanzas of Thrush Nightingale or the jangling phrases of a Greenish Warbler, among the varied chorus flowing through the woods at that time. Outside of the woods, the more staccato song of the Blyth’s Reed-Warbler may also feature too. This night will be spent in Hauho.

Day 3: To Oulu. Today we’ll continue our journey north, moving to the city of Oulu, situated on the west coast of the Finnish peninsula, overlooking the northern part of the Gulf of Bothnia, which cuts between Sweden and Finland. Our drive will not be unbroken though, as we expect it to be punctuated by species like immaculate white Whooper Swans or even majestic Common Cranes, among a host of other avian potentials. At the end of the day we’ll settle into our comfortable lodging in Oulu, for a single nights stay.

Displaying male Eurasian Capercaillies are hard to beat for dramatic effect!
Displaying male Eurasian Capercaillies are hard to beat for dramatic effect! (The Biggest Twitch)

Day 4: Oulu to Kuusamo. A morning will be spent around Oulu, where a combination of both forests and wetlands should yield an exciting bird list. Oulu harbor is especially known for its breeding Terek Sandpipers; although breeding plumage male Ruff can also occur in three figure numbers at times, and are sure to give the Terek a run for its money for title of bird of the day. The supporting cast of waterbirds may also include Eurasian Woodcock, Black-tailed Godwits (which will be gorgeously reddish-toned in this season), and the dainty Little Gull. In the surrounding forests Eurasian Siskins, the nomadic Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit, and Red-backed Shrike may be found too. As we make our way north towards the border with Russia, we will also be on the lookout for Taiga Bean Geese and Broad-billed Sandpipers in roadside bogs. Three nights will be spent in Kuusamo, in northeastern Finland, a city that butts with the border with Russia. It is a lively city, famed among the Fins for some of the best skiing in the country, and is therefore adorned with plentiful ski resorts.

Days 5-6: Southern Lapland. We will have three full days in the Kuusamo area, which is part of the cultural region of Finnish Lapland, where the Sami people (formerly the Lapp peoples) still reside, and the sun never sets at this time of year. The city itself sits on a plateau, where much of the surrounding area is dominated by Taiga forest, interspersed with hills and bogs. This area is particularly rich in grouse, and a number of “chicken runs” will be made in this area to track down Hazel Grouse, Black Grouse, Willow Ptarmigan, and the colossal capercaillie, the males of which are usually in display mode at this time of year. The Taiga forests are also home to Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Bohemian Waxwing, Common Redstart, and Brambling. However, it is likely to be the handsome Red-flanked Bluetail that we shall yearn for most, as it is one of the most attractive of all European songbirds, with its royal blue upperside, and scarlet-tinged flanks. Woodpeckers and owls seem to be anywhere, where forests are found in Finland, and here too we have further chances, if needed, for Eurasian Pygmy-Owl, the most fearsome pound-for-pound predator of the owl kingdom; the gentlemanly Great Gray Owl, and the burly Black Woodpecker.

There are few finer sights than a Bluethroat in springtime
There are few finer sights than a Bluethroat in springtime (The Biggest Twitch)

In between the large swathes of forest bogs dot the landscape, which can host handsome birds of their own, including breeding plumage Spotted Redshank, Red-necked Grebe, Arctic Loon, and the smashing Smew. Its namesake bird the Lapland Longspur is also present in these damp fenlands. This is also reindeer country, where the numbers of these beasts are even said to outnumber their human co-habitants! These two nights will also be spent in Kuusamo.

Day 7: Kuusamo to Pyhä-Luosto National Park. Today, after some restful, though bird-filled, days in southern Lapland, we will continue our journey north, moving ever deeper into Lapland, and ever-closer to the beckoning border with Norway. We will bird our way north before arriving in time to search for some of the local breeding birds, like Little and Rustic Buntings, Rough-legged Hawk, or the gigantic White-tailed Eagle. The night will be spent close to the park.

Day 8: To Ivalo. After another morning around the Pyhä-Luosto National Park, our northern journey continues, as we head to the northern city of Ivalo, close to the frontier with Norway, and north of the Arctic Circle. Our progress into the heart of Lapland, will be evident from the changing landscape; at these latitudes the dense boreal forests have been left behind, replaced by sparser pine and bird woods, and open moorland. A shift in the birds is quickly evident too. These more open woodlands host breeding Eurasian Wrynecks and rose-colored Pine Grosbeaks; and the surrounding tundra is home to brilliantly colored Bluethroats, plus nesting waders like Jack Snipe, Wood Sandpiper, and Common Crane. Two nights will be spent in the Lapp city of Ivalo.

King Eiders look spectacular at this time
King Eiders look spectacular at this time (Cameron Cox)

Day 9: Northern Lapland. The entire day will be spent birding the open forests, and open moorlands close to the town of Ivalo, which offer species like Whooper Swan, and two owls of more open country: Short-eared and Northern Hawk, while shorebirds like Common Greenshank, Dunlin, and Common Snipe breed. At this time the shorebirds are highly conspicuous, making regular display flights and calling often, making what can be familiar birds feel quite different from their “normal” selves, away from these beautiful breeding areas. Another night will be spent in Ivalo.

Day 10: Ivalo (Finland) to Norway. This day will be spent traversing the northern, mountainous region of Finland, before descending into the fjords of Norway, for the final leg of the tour. By the end of the day the northern forests will have been left behind, with little left this far north of the Arctic Circle besides arctic tundra. The hills that need to be crossed to enter into Norway play host to breeding species like Eurasian Dotterel, looking at their very brightest at this time, along with the cryptic Rock Ptarmigan, which hides extremely well among the rock slopes. If we are lucky too, we could find some of the most feared aerial predators in the region, the mighty Gyrfalcon.

Quality encounters with owls are but one feature of this tour
Quality encounters with owls are but one feature of this tour (Keith Barnes)

Day 11: Norwegian Lapland.The day will be spent birding two varied areas; the high fells of Norway, and the coast too, where the area around Batsfjord is particularly notable for sea ducks, with Steller’s, King and Common Eiders all available here, along with Long-tailed Ducks and breeding plumage loons too. You will be seeing these birds in their very best breeding refinery. Other birds on this day may include graceful Long-tailed Jaegers and hardy Hoary Redpolls. The night will be spent near Batsfjord.

Days 12-13: Varanger Peninsula. We will have two full days in this area within the Arctic Circle. While the birdlife is sparser in this region, compared with the forested areas visited further south previously, there will still be plenty on the agenda. Birding in this land of the midnight sun, we will also have to be disciplined to be careful not to spend too long out in the field, which can be all too easy when there is endless daylight hours at our disposal. Up at these chilly climes are two immaculate duck species: King and Steller’s Eiders; this region offers arguably the best chance to find these species in all of Europe. Other waterfowl in the area includes Velvet Scoter (the European form of White-winged Scoter, which some mark as a future split) and Common Goldeneye; and the well-built Yellow-billed Loon. During our days here we’ll also take a boat trips out to some neighboring islets, to visit their bustling seabird colonies, where Black Guillemot, Common and Thick-billed Murres, and Razorbills, nest side by side. Just offshore jaegers roam, plotting aerial attacks on the colonies, or on the Arctic Terns foraging over the water; both Pomarine and Long-tailed can be found here. The peninsula just into the Barents Sea, where, just offshore, pelagic species like Northern Fulmar and Northern Gannet can make an appearance too. On the surrounding tundra shorebirds like Eurasian Golden Plover, Temminck’s Stint and Purple Sandpiper breed, and are prey items for the local marauding Gyrfalcons or skuas. There are very few songbirds in this region where waterbirds dominate, although the hardy Hoary Redpoll does occur, along with Red-throated, Rock and Meadow Pipits, and both Lapland Longspur and Snow Bunting. These two nights will be spent in Vardø.

New family anyone? Snow Bunting sits within a small family with the longspurs
New family anyone? Snow Bunting sits within a small family with the longspurs (Keith Barnes)

Day 14: Vardø (Norway) to Ivalo (Finland). We’ll spend the day backtracking to the Finnish city of Ivalo, where we’ll spend the final night of the tour. As we once again climb up and over the mountains of northern Finland, we’ll have further chances at Gyrfalcon, Eurasian Dotterel, and could also find a Ring Ouzel or two, too. The night will be spent in Ivalo.

Day 15: Ivalo to Helsinki (departure). In the morning a domestic flight will be taken back to Helsinki, in order to connect with flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: As we cover a range of latitudes, this is quite variable through the tour; it is likely to be warm and sunny in southern Finland, although can be cold and overcast once we are north of the Arctic Circle, where good cold weather clothing is essential.

DIFFICULTY: For the most part the tour is easy-going, with only a few moderately difficult hikes. Most of the walking is easy, although there are some longer walks on uneven terrain. There are some long drives, although these are almost entirely on roads in very good condition.

ACCOMMODATION: The accommodations are good to excellent throughout, with en-suite facilities, and full-time electricity everywhere.