Helsinki                                                                                  Photo by F. Widding


When Heikki Eriksson emailed me the start time of 0300 for my birding adventure in Helsinki I thought it must be a misprint.  I know we birders like to start early, but 3:00 AM?  No misprint.  I forgot we were in the land of the “white nights”, latitude 60 degrees North, about the same as Anchorage, Alaska.  Heikki was gifted by his ability to bird-by-ear so the dim, predawn light was no problem for us, or at least for him.  The bird calls for me were all foreign, but interesting, none-the-less.

Heikki Eriksson

We arrived in Helsinki by train from Saint Petersburg on May 22, traveling along the northern shore of the Gulf of Finland, through low, boggy terrain, passing Vyborg near the border.  I’ve come to learn of the historic significance of this frontier south of Lake Ladoga, separating the great bear of Russia from Finland.

“Before the Storm” by H Munsterhjelm, 1870                         (at the Ateneum)

From the 13th until the early 19th century present day Finland was part of the powerful Swedish Empire.  Russia replaced Sweden as “empire-in-charge” in 1809, initially granting the Finns considerable local autonomy.  They, in turn, gave their women the right to vote in 1906, I believe the first people to do this.  The Bolsheviks granted Finland its complete independence after the Russian Revolution of 1917, but the subsequent first half of the 20th century was anything but tranquil for the Finns.

Mew Gulls, Larus canus

The nonaggression pact between Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 allowed Russia to annex the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, while Germany was busy fighting further to the west.  Finland however, also a Baltic state, resisted this Russian intrusion, preferring to fight to maintain their recent independence.  Russia invaded Finland on November 30, 1939, and for over 5 months the Finns heroically fought before succumbing to their superior foe.  They refer to this struggle as the “Winter War”, differentiating it from later events of WWII.

Finland’s eventual defeat by Russia and the reluctance of other western democracies to come to their aid in 1939, partly explains their uneasy alliance with Hitler from 1941 to 1944.  This period is referred to by the Finns as the “Continuation War”.  Caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place” they had few choices, ultimately distrusting the Stalin more than Hitler.  The Finn’s battlefield support for Germany however, was decidedly lukewarm, until they finally changed sides against a defeated Germany in 1945.  This turbulent and controversial chapter of Finnish history is well chronicled in “Finland’s War of Choice, The Troubled German-Finnish Coalition in World War II” by  Henrik O. Lunde, published in 2011.

A Birder’s Balance Beam somewhere near Helsinki

The weather in Helsinki was exactly the opposite of what we experienced in Russia.  The clear blue skies and unseasonable Russian heat were replaced by a cool, cloudy, drizzle, clearly not a good test for my new mirror-less camera and lens (Panasonic Lumix G9 camera and Leica F2.8-4.0 50-200mm lens).  Heikki picked me up at 3:00 AM sharp and we headed west along the coast to the nearby principalities of Espoo and Kirkkonummi where we birded several fields, tidal wetlands, and scattered woodlots.

Eurasian Blue Tit, Cyanistes caeruleus

Much of the serious birding in Finland is done further north than Helsinki, even above the Arctic Circle.  Visit the website of Finnature, a guiding company, at to fully appreciate what this land has to offer.  They are the people that connected me with my guide.  I only had one birding day to spare during this initial visit, but Heikki certainly made the most of it, even close to the city.  I especially liked seeing the Goldcrest and Eurasian Blue Tit.  Spotting a Ruff in the wetlands and a flyover by an Arctic Tern were also notable.  We saw 76 different species in 9 damp hours, 28 of which were lifers for me.

Common Golden Eye, Bucephala clangula

Soon after sunrise the cold rains began.  The new equipment is weather sealed but even they must have their limits.  As the rain increased I reluctantly retired them to the car after only a few good shots, continuing the outing with just binos, visual memories, and eBird documentation of the sightings.

Yours truly

Every time I hire a guide I’m reminded of how much I have yet to learn.  Heikki displayed exceptional knowledge of birdsong and many of the early birds were “heard but not seen”.  I had no problem ticking them however, since most were seen later after sunrise.  His other skill was long distant ID by GISS (general impression, size, and shape), so helpful on the viewing platform.

Northern Goshawk and Cooper’s Hawks by J.J. Audubon

A memorable surprise for us both was a sudden, swooping, stealth attack by a Northern Goshawk, just feet away, taking a poor unsuspecting dove in broad daylight.  I liken it to the team of pick pockets who surprised me the prior week on Nevsky Prospect in Saint Petersburg.  The only difference was they just got my wallet; the dove lost much more.

When we were not birding or strolling Helsinki we discovered the fabulous Ateneum Art Museum.  Rainy day–not a problem, just head to the gallery resplendent with the works of Finnish artists and other masters.  Or you can relish the great seaside cuisine and take pictures of your plate as my “foodie” companions were apt to do.

Tallinn Estonia

We also took the ferry across the Gulf of Finland 50 miles, to the ancient and historic city of Tallinn, Estonia.  Near the city wall I finally ID’ed that common American Robin-like bird hunting for worms on seemingly all the European lawns.  It’s a Fieldfare; no big deal to the locals, but a life bird for me.

Fieldfare, Turdus pilaris

After 3 short nights in Helsinki it was off to Bergen, Norway by plane.  Just scratching the surface of fascinating Finland has enticed me to return; perhaps to the area above the Arctic Circle.  I knew I was leaving a “birdy” country when I visited the airport toilet before boarding the flight and they were playing birdsong on the public address system.  Heikki would have known the exact bird.


“The Rooks Have Come” by A.K. Savrasov


I’ve been trying to figure out a way to chronicle our recent trip to Russia in this birding and photography blog.  Is it absurd for me to liken birding to strolling through the famous Tretyakov Gallery of Moscow and The Hermitage of St. Petersburg, observing the works of the masters?  One does note the frequent depiction of birds in the various art forms; that, along with the typical European urban birds comprised the totality of my Russian birding.  Even so, it was a trip for the ages.

You’ve heard all the cliches.  Travel breaks down barriers and biases; it broadens one’s horizons, it dispels misconceptions; it makes the world smaller.  All are true.  My preconceptions of Russia could not have been more wrong.  “You’ll find it cold and bleak” they said.  The food will be barely edible and the people rude.  The streets will be littered and the gardens unkept.  Instead we found exactly the opposite, at least in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Hooded Crow, Corvus cornix

Warm sunshine and blue skies graced our entire 10 days in Russia.  I’ve not seen more immaculate cities than these, with numerous green spaces and gardens in perfect springtime bloom.  The old palaces and churches sparkled and spoke to their rich history, now more unabashedly celebrated in post-Soviet Russia.  I sampled beef stroganoff to die for and feasted daily on exquisite cuisine to rival any in the West, from an intimate dinner with a friend at the Moldavian Embassy to the extensive morning brunch at our Metropol Hotel.

“Hunters at Rest” by V. Perov

I’m well aware of our significant geo-political differences with Russia and vividly remember with you, hiding under our school desks in the 1950’s, drilling for the unthinkable.  Winston Churchill described the country as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  Today’s Russia is a definite improvement over that, but significant opportunities for progress still exist.  Global politics and current events, although interesting, are thankfully beyond the scope of this post.

“Boy With A Crow” by A. Gallen-Kallela

We hired two delightful guides, one in each city, to shepherd us around the cities and surrounding countryside.  These were young, impressive, Russian women, proficient in multiple languages, and highly knowledgeable and proud of their city’s history, architecture, culture, and artwork.  Both Inam Khasanova and Eugenie Cantor are highly recommended if you ever venture to these cities.

“The Fighting Capercaillies” by F. von Wright

The vastness of this country, the largest on the planet, is difficult to grasp.  While standing in Moscow at Red Square one is equidistant from the country’s east coast city of Vladivostok and Chicago, USA to the west.  Our visit obviously sampled only the two great cities and only viewed the rural landscape between them from a train’s window.  Moscow (Muscovy, MOCKBA), the ancient kremlin, dates back to 1147, while St. Petersburg (Leningrad, Petrograd) on the wide Neva was more recently founded by Peter the Great when he captured the Swedish fortress near the Gulf of Finland in 1703.


Birds figure prominently in the artwork of the countless galleries and palaces.  The gilded two headed eagle is ubiquitous, supposedly symbolizing a multicultural country that geographically and politically straddles both Europe and Asia and their numerous ethnic groups and histories.  My favorite picture is “The Rooks Have Come”.  It depicts returning rooks heralding an early spring thaw on the frigid steppe.  “Boy With A Crow” and “Hunters At Rest” were actually seen at the Finnish Gallery in Helsinki, but continue the birds-in-art theme.  One depicts a budding bird watcher while the other may explain the paucity of game birds on the steppe.  So, tak, I believe one can bird while in museums.

My actual outdoors birding in Russia was informal and meagre, primarily occurring while walking from church to palace, through the great formal parks and gardens.  I was forewarned about wandering through the city in early morning with binoculars and telephoto lens.  That advice was probably an unnecessary caution and limited me to shots of the usual urban birds with the walk-around camera and lens.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

Still I did notice a flock of swifts flying among the colorful domes of Saint Basil’s Cathedral at Red Square.  Since the only Russian swift is the Common, I was able to claim a new life bird, the first of many eventually seen later in this trip in Finland, Estonia, and Norway.  I also stole a few private moments birding the informal, tranquil gardens of Tolstoy’s modest home and in the small park just across the street from the Metropol Hotel and Bolshoy Theatre.

I asked our guides if there was a book they would recommend to a visitor to more fully understand their country and people.  They recommended “And Quiet Flows the Don”, written by Mikhail Sholokhov in 1934.  This Tolstoyesque novel of rural Russia depicts the lives of Cossacks in the early 20th century as they pass through relative peace, into WWI, the Russian Revolution, and finally the White vs. Red Civil War.  It’s a wonderful story of mixed loyalties and torn families, struggling through the global geopolitical upheavals of their day.  Add to that the later Great Depression, Stalin’s purges, and the horrors of the Eastern Front of WWII, and one gets a more complete picture of these people.

A trip like this does not just happen without considerable planning and research.  We did not take the common path of joining a tour group, but actively made each hotel and dinner reservation, hired guides and drivers, and bought every train, plane, boat, museum, and concert ticket.  More accurately, Fred and Mary, our intrepid travel companions did all this work, and we went along for the ride–and what a sublime ride it was.