On the far reaches of Europe, the Siberian wilderness sneaks over the Russian border and enters Eastern Finland. Here, the wilderness has not been tamed (Finland is one of few under-populated countries in Europe, with plentiful boreal woods, and vast areas of wilderness still in tact). In particular, this means that on this tour, we will have great opportunities to spend time with Europe’s most charismatic wildlife. On this itinerary, we will use a series of perfectly situated, and comfortable, blinds to attempt to photograph both Brown Bears and Wolverine, In addition to these top draw mammas, we also be in the realm of a slew of interesting boreal forest birds. Thus, when the mammals are not on show, we will be off trying to photograph grouse, woodpeckers, or well staked-out owls. An extension to far northern Norway gives photographers chances to photograph a whole different set of Arctic breeding birds along a ruggedly beautiful coastline, within truly, one of the most beautiful corners of the continent.
Day 1: Arrival in Oulu (Arrival). We arrive in Oulu, where we will be greeted by our Finnish team. We spend one night here. For the early arrivers, we’ll do some birding around the hotel in the evening, where we may locate some widespread European species like Great Spotted Woodpecker, Fieldfare, European Pied Flycatcher, and Yellowhammer. If our local guides have located some nesting owls, there might even be an owl encounter on this very first night. .
Day 2: Oulu to Lieksa. This morning we travel to Lieksa, close to a series of animal blinds. In the afternoon, we head to the hides at Kontiovaara for Wolverine, and with luck, Brown Bear photography. Wolves and Lynx have even been seen at this site too, so we must keep a sharp eye out the entire time we are there! The whole evening, and night, and part of the following morning will be spent in pro-hides, before we return to the lodge for a proper breakfast and well-earned rest.
Day 3: Lieksa. After breakfast there will be time to have some rest, following the previous night’s shoot. However, for those who survive on little sleep, there may also be possibilities for some of the northern owls if they are nesting in the Lieksa area during our visit. Later we will return to our hotel for a late lunch before our second departure to pro-hides for Wolverine photography. Once again, the entire evening and night and part of the next morning will be spent in pro-hides, before we return to the lodge for a proper breakfast and much-needed rest.
Day 4: Lieksa to Boreal Wildlife Center. Today we will drive northeast to the Boreal Wildlife Centre in Viiksimo close to the Russian border. After checking in and an early dinner at the Lodge we will make our way to the pro-hides to photograph Giants of the Forest. Just as it gets towards dusk – still with good light here as we are a long way north – the Brown Bears often appear out of the forest. There may well be wandering immatures, large territorial males, and chances for mothers protecting their young cubs too; the full gamut of individuals on which to train our lenses on. The bears can be within yards of the hides for hours on end, offering superb opportunities. With luck, we may even have an encounter with the scarce and elusive Wolves that forage from across the Russian border. White-tailed Eagles and Black Kites also sometimes also visit too.
Day 5: Boreal Wildlife Center. After breakfast, those with the energy and inclination will head off to search to search for Wild Forest Reindeer in Elimyssalo Nature Reserve. The reserve represents the best of forest nature that the Kainuu region has to offer; a true wilderness area, with plentiful boreal wildlife. It is a tapestry of different types of mires, old spruce forests draped with beard lichens, lush stream banks, and small lakes and ponds. There are superb photographic opportunities in the park itself, and in the surrounding forests where Wild Forest Reindeer occur. Calves will be born in late May or early June, meaning our visit is timed at the perfect period for great deer portfolios to be achieved. Bird species in the park include Siberian Jay, Rustic Bunting, and Red-flanked Bluetail, and so may tempt us too. If any of the northern owls are nesting in Viiksimo area during our visit, we shall target them too, as we will be right up to the minute with all the latest bird and animal news. Later, we will drive to Martinselkonen for an early dinner. We will again visit the Brown Bear pro-hides, from 4PM, spending the entire evening and part of the following morning within the hides, before we return to the lodge for a hearty breakfast.
Day 6: Boreal Wildlife Center to Martinselkonen Wilderness Centre. Those who are keen can spend the morning photographing some of the local birds like Common Goldeneye, Bean Goose, Whooper Swan, Common Crane, Three-toed and Black Woodpeckers, European Pied Flycatcher, and the handsome Brambling. In the late morning, a short drive brings us to another Wilderness Centre, which is also excellent for Brown Bears. During the day, we’ll have chances to photograph birds at the center’s feeders. Frequent visitors include the rose-hued Bullfinch, feisty Eurasian Siskin, and, sometimes even the scarce Siberian Jay. In the late afternoon, we head into the bear hides for another full night of photography.
Day 7: Martinselkonen Wilderness Centre to Kuusamo. Today we will make our way to Kuusamo, farther north along the Russian border. This is one of the prime places for owls in Finland. Local rangers have put up multiple nest boxes and nest platforms for owls, offering the best chance to photograph many of these elusive species. In Kuusamo and Oulu, we are concentrating on finding the five most wanted species: Eurasian Pygmy-Owl (one of the World’s smallest owls), Boreal (Tengmalm’s) Owl, Ural Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, and Great Gray Owl. Evening and early morning are the best times to photograph in the forest, since light conditions are best, and so that is when we will shoot. We might even have a chance to photograph lanky Elk browsing the trees on the edge of meadows, while we are “hunting” owl photos.
Day 8: Kuusamo to Oulu. After another session of “owling” in the morning, we head to Oulu, which complements Kuusamo well, often offering of an owl or two which may not be accessible at Kuusamo in a given year. Here, we will hope to go for the notorious Ural Owl. This elusive owl is the most difficult of them all to see – it has better eyes than us, though with careful approach this beautiful pale colored beat can not only be seen, but photographed. Eurasian Three-toed and Black Woodpeckers can also be found in these pristine forests. With luck we might even come across an unusually tame rogue Eurasian Capercaillie! We will stay in the forest landscape and have a final try for the magnificent Great Gray Owl, if needed too. No-one will be left cold in the presence of this large breath-taking bird!
Day 9: Oulu. We have a final morning to go for whatever owls are around, or for general Taiga photography. In the afternoon, we will transfer to Oulu Airport where the tour will end in the early afternoon.
Norwegian Arctic Extension (6 days)
Day 1: Oulu to Ivalo (Finland), to Båtsfjord, Norway. This exciting drive will take us across the Norwegian border, then to the very top of Norway, to the Varanger Peninsula, at over 70 degrees north. This area is famous as one of the most beautiful and wild birding sites in all of Europe. For the next two nights, we’ll be based in the picturesque village of Båtsfjord, with its colorful wooden houses.
Day 2: Båtsfjord. We have a full day to explore the Arctic tundra habitats around this small town. We will try to photograph some of Europe’s best birds on their breeding grounds, namely Eurasian Dotterel, Long-tailed Jaeger, Rock Ptarmigan, and Gyrfalcon. Other shorebirds abound, and will be displaying in their spring finery. We’ll look especially for Temminck’s Stint, Common Redshank, and Red-necked Phalarope, among others.
Day 3: Berlevåg. Today, we make a day trip to the very northern end of the peninsula, to the Berlevåg area. After a drive over tundra dotted with picturesque lakes, we emerge at an incredibly impressive and beautiful rocky coastline, where nesting White-tailed Eagles and Gyrfalcons occur. We also hope to find some smaller songbirds like Hoary Redpoll, Ring Ouzel, and Lapland Longspur. The night will be back in Båtsfjord.
Day 4: Båtsfjord to Vardø. Today we drive to the Varanger fiord, accessed via the little town of Vardø. As we drive along the coast, we hope to find a bounty of subjects like Yellow-billed Loon, breeding-plumage Bar-tailed Godwits and Ruddy Turnstones, singing Red-throated Pipits, and magnificent, Ruffs in their spring finery, at the time of year they come to display. There will also be chances as a variety of ducks, including Long-tailed Duck, Velvet and Common Scoters, Red-breasted and Common Mergansers, and Common Shelduck. With some luck, we’ll locate three species of eiders: Common, King, and perhaps Steller’s too.
Day 5: Hornøya seabird colony. This day may well prove to be the highlight of the entire extension, as we make a boat trip out to the massive seabird colony on the island of Hornøya. There are huge numbers of Black-legged Kittiwakes, plus shags, Thick-billed and Common Murres, Razorbills, Atlantic Puffins, and Black Guillemots. With birds swirling everywhere, it can be hard to know where to point your lens; we will not be short of subjects!
Day 6: Vardø (Norway) to Ivalo (Finland). We’ll retrace our steps back up the peninsula, then head back across the border back to Finland, to catch our flights out of the city of Ivalo.
CLIMATE: Generally comfortable. Can be cool on overcast or rainy days, or at night. During the clear days, might be warm.
DIFFICULTY: Quite easy. We make a few short walks to access various hides. There will also be some walks to explore the boreal forest and do some general bird and landscape photography, but none of these will be strenuous.
ACCOMMODATION: Generally good. We will spend the majority of nights on this tour in hides, in order to photograph elusive mammals. These hides have seats, bunk beds, and a toilet. They are not luxurious, but they have the necessary things to stay comfortable on an exciting night of photography.
PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: There will be quite a lot of setup based photography, either staking out known birds, like owls and grouse localities, or else we will be based in hides/blinds at setups. There will also be a little bit of walking and opportunistic shooting for birds like woodpeckers and passerines.
GEAR: A long lens that can be hand-held (300-500 mm) will be essential; ideally a prime lens that can handle lower light conditions such as an f2.8 or f4. However, a smaller 70-300 or 100-400 zoom lens can also come in very handy. A tripod will be useful at the hides and when waiting for owls.