Thursday 20 June 2013

Owling in Oulu

The whole point of going to Finland was to see Owls, but it would be remiss of me to not mention a certain Swift that all but three UK birders have now seen. It was bound to happen, in fact I predicted it at Heathrow before we left, and sure enough it did, adding insult to injury by remaining for two solid days and being reported at regular enough intervals to make the Prof cry. I was relatively sanguine about it, as was young Bradders, but the Prof? Oh dear. I've missed more than enough now to not care if I miss another, but I guess when you've seen as many birds as he has, they all matter. Upon arrival home, and despite being dead on his feet, he immediately twitched the Holt Roller for his Norfolk list, but this was only a consolation prize really. A shame, but there you go, if you didn't want to miss anything you would never go away anywhere and never have any of these amazing experiences, and even Prof W would agree that the Owls were amazing.

The only way to see Owls is to perform a small quasi-religious ritual involving Euro banknotes. You all sit around a small pot at midnight holding hands and going "OMG OMG OMG", and wantonly throw Euros into it until you are completely and utterly broke. After that you give the pot to a representative from Finnature, and then Owls immediately start to appear. Simple. We saw Great Grey Owl about fifteen minutes after setting off, and it was magnificent. Enormously magnificent. My photos were less than magnificent, so you will just to imagine its magnificence. Over the course of the next ten hours we were taken from one site to another to enjoy the secretive birds of the region, the guides having staked out multiple nest sites for all the species. Three-toed Woodpecker fell pretty quickly, but Ural Owl took two attempts at different sites. On the plus side it didn't kill or maim us. Pygmy Owl (my fave bird of the trip, so much attitude) was at the first nest hole we tried, but Tengmalm's Owl took three different locations before a nearly fledged chick was found having a look around.

Surely the inspiration behind Gonzo
We couldn't find Hazel Grouse, but we peaked at over 100 species in the course of our trip out with Antti, including extra treats like Black Woodpecker. Was it expensive? Yes. Is it a captive market? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. You stand practically no chance of finding these owls yourself if you go up, days and days of searching and you might jam in on one if you were spectacularly lucky. Pay up though, and you get to see all of them in half a day, though I understand we were perhaps the first group to manage it this year as GG Owl was far from guaranteed. Time, as they say, is money, and so I forked out and I'm glad I did. I thoroughly recommend it.

I could not in good conscience fail to mention a considerable downside to our owl mission, and that is that the insect life within Finnish forests at this time of year can only be described as voracious. Finland is basically one large boggy forest with a shed load of lakes thrown in. This is mosquito heaven. It doesn't matter what counter measures you take - repellents are just a garnish, clothing a slight challenge, and we were eaten alive. To the point where tick and run (literally, run) became the order of the day. It is difficult to choose the worst point, to single out the hungriest. The Three-toed Woodpecker nest hole site probably takes the prize, but the first Ural Owl site (the one without the owl....) was relentless. Almost no part of me was safe, I lost pints. My wrists and hairline were particularly singled out, and by the end of the day they were biting through the previous bites, to the point where when I ran my hand over the back of my neck it felt a bit like bubble-wrap. I've no idea who they liked best, who was especially favoured/savoured, but I'd like to think that the Prof was the tenderest of the three of us and thus the most enjoyed. My bites have mostly declined now, but it was hellish out there. Next time I go I intend to take one of two items - either a full bee-keepers outfit, or a hat with a dozen Pied Flycatchers attached to it with small pieces of string.

The Prof enjoying a cup of DEET

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