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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.finnature.com 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.