Birdwatching in Finland is high on the wishlist of many a global birder. Particularily for European birders that want to grow their Western Palaearctic (WP) list a trip to this Northern European country is a must. The most sought-after species in Finland is probably the Red-flanked Bluetail, and this eastern jewel can nowadays be found with relative ease in the Kuusamo area. The Finnish population, which is steadily increasing (and might be numbered in the thousands!), is slowly expanding further west and south.
Another eastern speciality is the Terek Sandpiper; although this species is seriously declining in Finland it can still often be seen just outside the city of Oulu in western-central Finland. Oulu was also the best place to see Yellow-breasted Bunting in Europe outside of Russia, but this population has undergone a catastrophic decline and the species is since 2004 no more annual in Finland! (The reason is apparently persecution for human consumption in the South-East Asian wintering grounds...)
Other eastern specialities, some of which are quite common, include Blyth's Reed Warbler, Arctic Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Rustic and Little Buntings.
Other important birds for most visiting birdwatchers are the northern taiga species, most of which are hard to see in Europe, at least outside of Scandinavia. This include several species of Owl, and particularily the Great Grey Owl, Ural Owl and Northern Hawk-Owl are on many birders 'most wanted' list. Other boreal, taiga specialities are Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Siberian Jay, Grey-headed Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak and Parrot and Two-barred Crossbills. Also Willow Ptarmigan, Rock Ptarmigan, Western Capercaillie, Black and Hazel Grouses, Eurasian Pygmy Owl, Boreal Owl, Eurasian Eagle-Owl and Bohemian Waxwing are of interest.
A large part of the birders that travel to Finland extend their visit into the Varanger Peninsula in northernmost Norway, as this makes logistical sense and by adding an arctic coast to the trip the list of potential arctic specialities is vastly expanded. The site info for Varanger is included here (later this information will be moved to a forthcoming GlobalBirder/Norway site). Good birds that you might expect in Varanger, which you will not see in Finland, at least not in the summer, include Steller's and King Eiders, Red Phalarope and alcids (like Thick-billed Murre).
The site information do focus on the above-mentioned specialities, but I do try to also include information that might be of interest also to the more casual visitor (like the businessman/woman that has a spare day in Helsinki) and to the non-European birdwatcher (to whom the priorities will probably be different than for the avid WP lister).
The Helsinki area is the only metropolitan area of any size in Finland and consists of several towns and urban areas in addition to the urban core of Helsinki. Even so the Helsinki area has some splendid birdwatching to offer, both with
regard to breeding birds as well as migrants. All sites here are easy to access from Helsinki and you can easily spend a couple of days exploring this area with something new every day.
By far the most significant birdwatching site in Helsinki is Viikki, just to the east of the city centre. There are several access point to this reserve (to the west, north and east) and most seasons have something good to offer. The migration seasons are the most birdritch and during the migration Viikki should definitely not be missed as the reserve offers good opportunities for watching resting wildfowl, shorebirds and gulls and terns, as well as migrating or hunting raptors. This same is true for Laajalahti bay to the west of Helsinki (in Espoo); this site almost matches Viikki in the quality of the birdlife and should not be missed either. The Suomenoja lake, also in Espoo, can also be good during migration, with interesting waders and ducks resting here.
Another site that can be quite rewarding is the Haltiala meadows, just to the south of the airport. This site is of most interest during the migration seasons and can be good for migrant raptors and shorebirds and flocks of migrant passerines can also be seen here.
These areas should not be neglected in summer, though, as there are several interesting breeding species here as well. Interesting breeding birds in the Helsinki area include Greenish Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher; two very good sites for these are the primeaval forest at Haltiala, or (maybe even better) the forest reserve in Mustavuori. Another breeding warbler of interest is the Blyth's Reed Warbler, which is rather easy to find in Helsinki and Espoo in suitable habitat, see for instance Laajalahti for details. Viikki has the last few years also been a reliable site for breeding Citrine Wagtail, and other interesting members of the local avifauna are Thrush Nightingale, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Great Reed Warbler, Common Rosefinch and Ortolan Bunting. The Nightingale and the Rosefinch are in fact very common here.
Some of the sites described here (mainly some parts of Haltiala, but also Mustavuori) have some old forest that does hold breeding owls, grouse and woodpeckers. The chances of finding these are not that great without specific information and if you really want to try you should consider visiting Nuuksio NP described in the Finland, South Coast section.
Some of the Helsinki parks are also describe shortly as they can be good for vagrant passerines, mainly in the fall migration season.
The South Coast
The southern coast of Finland is the most densily populated and most heavily cultivated part of the country. Nonetheless the region has some prime birdwatching sites and several interesting bird species for the visiting birder. Good breeding birds include Eurasian Eagle-Owl, Boreal Owl, Eurasian Pygmy Owl, Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, Greenish Warbler, Red-breasted Flycatcher and Parrot Crossbill in the forested areas. In more open and cultivated areas you can find species with a more southerly and easterly distribution like European Turtle Dove, Grey-headed Woodpecker, River Warbler, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Greenish Warbler and Ortolan Bunting.
An excellent place to look for owls and woodpeckers is Nuuksio National Park, only some 35 km northwest of Helsinki. This beautiful national park is also good for Greenish Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher and another major attraction for the animal lover is Russian Flying Squirrel, which has a very dense population here.
Porkkalanniemi, some 35 km west of Helsinki, and Virolahti, close to the Russian border, are probably the best places in Finland for watching the spring migration of ducks, geese and other waterbirds (Porkkalanniemi and the cultivated area between the peninsula and the town of Kirkkonummi does also hold several interesting breeding birds). Virolahti is also terrific for migrating raptors and good numbers of raptors can be seen migrating along the coast or heading north over land from Virolahti. The best place to watch the regular raptor migration is the birdwatching tower at Kurkela. Another site near Virolahti that is very good for raptors is Lake Väkeväjärvi. This used to be a very good site for Greater Spotted Eagle, as they bred just on the other side of the border. Nowadays the Greater Spotted Eagle is less regular around the lake, but is still the best place in Finland for this species. It is also one of the best places in Finland for other rare birds of prey that are fairly frequently seen here.
Another great locality for watching migrants is the Hanko peninsula, the southernmost tip of Finland. Here the first migrants arrive already in February, when most of the rest of the country is still in the middle of the winter, and interesting birds can be seen throughout the spring. Still the best time of the year at Hanko is the autumn, when good numbers of raptors and shorebirds in particular can be seen migrating south.
The southwestern region of Finland, around Finlands second largest city, Turku, is not so interesting with regard to eastern specialities as Helsinki and eastern Finland. There are however some interesting sites that can be worth a visit if you happen to be in this region, some as breeding sites for more southerly species and other sites can be good for migration wathcing.
The last site described here is Kurjenrahka national park, which hold some interesting forest species more common further north. You should consider going here if you are not venturing further east or north in Finland.
This section covers the lake region of eastern Finland, an area with great
natural beauty and some outstanding birding. Several of the best sites covered here are all within short
distance of the Russian border and the best known is Siikalahti near Parikkala. This wetland is considered the
most important birdlake in Finland and has impressive numbers of breeding birds of many interesting species.
Breeders here include Horned Grebe, Spotted Crake, White-backed Woodpecker, Great Reed Warbler and Blyth's Reed Warbler.
Other wetlands covered in this section are Päätyenlahti near Kitee, lake Tohmajärvi and Sääperinjärvi near Värtsilä. Värtsilä is above all famous for the regular occurence of rare, eastern warblers; Booted Warbler is increasingly common here in June and has bred and there are also frequent observations of singing Lanceolated Warblers here. The area just north of Sääperinjärvi has proven to be the best for these exciting warblers. Less known to foreign birders is that the Värtsilä area can also be very good for watching the migration of geese and raptors and there is an interesting fall migration of passerines through this area with good numbers of Red-throated Pipits and Rustic Buntings.
Linnansaari NP is covered because of interesting birds and this lake national park also has a great mammalian speciality in the form of an endemic subspecies of Ringed Seal. Nearby Punkaharju is world famous for its scenery and is very popular for people on the tourist trail, but does also hold some interesting birds.
This section does also cover Pyhä-Häkki NP more to the west. This is a tiny national park, with some very old forest holding a number of taiga species normally not encountered this far south. This includes four species of grouse and several species of owl. Even Great Grey Owl breed here some years. More southerly species here include Greenish Warbler and Red-breasted Flycatcher.
Patvinsuo National Park lies in northern Karelia. This region is very important for mammals, particularily the large carnivores of Finland, all of which can be seen here with some effort. Trekking through these wilderness areas you should encounter several species of grouse and raptors and in spring/early summer you will see or hear numerous breeding waders. By walking the short Autiovaara trail you also stand a chance of seeing several interesting birds, including Red-flanked Bluetail and Red-breasted Flycatcher. Two-barred Crossbill also belongs to the possibilities.
This section deals with two separate regions in central Finland. The first is the birdrich area around the city of Oulu at the coast of the Gulf of Bothnia. The main site here is Liminganlahti just south of Oulu; this area is recognized as the most important wetland in the country and justifiably famous far outside of Finland. Liminganlahti and Oulu used to have the largest breeding populations of Terek Sandpiper and Yellow-breasted Bunting in Europe outside of Russia. The Bunting has unfortunately disappeared completely from Oulu and the rest of Finland the last 10-15 years, and also the sandpiper is undergoing a serious decline, but does still breed here in small numbers. The best places to see it are on the Hietasaari island, just outside the Oulu oil terminal, or an industrial area just to the south of the city center. If these two species are declining there are also some interesting newcomers here in recent years; both Pallid Harrier and Citrine Wagtail have colonized this area and are a fairly regular sight around Liminganlahti.
Also included is some information about Hailuoto, a large island to the west of Oulu, and finally some information about Tauvo, a site south of Oulu and Liminganlahti, that can be good for migration watching.
The visiting birdwatcher should also be aware of the fact that the forested areas around Oulu can be very good for boreal species, particularily owls are very well represented. In fact you might see up to seven species of owl here in one day, including sought-after species as Ural Owl and Great Grey Owl! Unfortunately finding these birds without the assistance of a professional guide is nearly impossible, but many guides based in Oulu are available.
Another site further inland that is briefly covered here is the Hirvisuo bog, handily situated next to the main road between Oulu and Kuusamo. Hirvisuo holds some interesting breeding marsh birds and is well worth a stop when driving between Oulu and Kuusamo.
The second area covered here is the forests and wooded hills around Kuusamo in the east, close to the Russian border. The one eastern gem most people will be looking for here is the Red-flanked Bluetail, which is actually relatively easy to find near the hills of Valtavaara or Iivaara.
There are also numerous forest species that might be found around Kuusamo, including Northern Hawk-Owl, Siberian Jay, Grey-headed Chickadee, Two-barred Crossbill, Pine Grosbeak and Little and Rustic Buntings. Valtavaara and Iivaara are again among the best places to find these birds, although some species are erratic by nature and there are no sites where they a consistently seen. If you want to do some serious work on these forest birds, you should consider to do some trekking in Oulanka NP. Particularily the southern part of this beautiful national park can be good.
The lakes and bogs should also be checked for breeding ducks and waders and some of the most productive sites around Kuusamo are described here in some detail.
It should be noted that Kuusamo is very popular among Finnish birders and every year in June there is a national bird race here. These birders will be just too happy to share their information and if visiting in June it is thus easy to get the latest tips about interesting birds. Almost every year exciting rarities are found somewhere in this area and the parking at the foot of Konttainen hill (Valtavaara) is usually a very good place to get the latest news.
A last site covered in this section is Elimyssalo Nature Reserve, which is particularily well-known for its mammalian fauna. All Finnish large carnivores can be seen in this nature reserve, as well as other interesting mammals, like the Forest Reindeer. The usual range of birds typical of the taiga forest can be found here, but also interesting eastern species as Red-flanked Bluetail and Two-barred Crossbill.
The vast expanses of forests, bogs and mountains of Lapland aren't exactly the birdiest places on the planet. Nonetheless there are some good species to be found, and several of these are easier to find here than further south,
either by pure chance walking through the forests, or by visiting some of the sites described here. Most of these are easily reached if you are driving north towards the Varanger peninsula in northern Norway. Some of the birds
breeding on the northern fjells you will certainly not see at all south of Lapland, at least not in the breeding season, and these include Rock Ptarmigan, Long-tailed Skua, Eurasian Dotterel, Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur. Some of the forest species are also rather common here, and thus easier to see than further south.
Acknowledging that many birders are only passing through Lapland on their way to Varanger, the site descriptions are organized accordingly; the sites that can easily be reached driving north to Utsjoki and Varanger are described first: this includes the national parks of Pyhä-Luosto and Urho Kekkonen NP. Both can be good for a variety of taiga species and Urho Kekkonen NP is also superb for some mountain birds (probably easiest site for Rock Ptarmigan).
Just north of Sodankylä you have the Ilmakkiaapa bog, very good for some arctic waders and ducks, most notably breeding Broad-billed Sandpiper. Just park your car next to the main road and start exploring!
Further north, around the towns of Ivalo and Inari, some minor sites are described briefly. The most interesting birds you might find here are probably Grey-headed Chickadee, Pine Grosbeak and Little Bunting.
One site that can be very rewarding, although it is a slight detour from the main road to Varanger is Ailigastunturi. Here you have a number of interesting high altitude species that are relatively easy to find and at Piesjänkä bog nearby a number of arctic waders breed.
In western Lapland one interesting national park has been included: Pallas-Yllästunturi NP. This national park is certainly worth a visit for the forest birds, but also for the beautiful scenery.
Far off the main road to Varanger, near the three-border point between Finland, Norway and Sweden, you have the village of Kilpisjärvi. Near Kilpisjärvi you have all the highest mountain peaks in Finland and this site has been included as you have the chance of seeing some high-altitude species here, but also for the almost endless opportunities for mountain trekking.
This section covers most of the large game reserves from Masai Mara in the west to Tsavo West NP and Tsavo East NP in the east (Amboseli??). These reserves should be visited in their own right, with the large game of course the main attraction, but with prime birding possible on these safari's (dedicated to birdwatching or not). Longonot road and Loita plains are also described as they are on the main gateway to Masai Mara, coming from Nairobi. Nairobi, by the way, boasts its own national park just outside the city (next to the airport) and should not be missed!