Finland Winter wolves diary

Early February is my first trip of 2014 and it’s to Finland. I will be spending a week near the Russian border, between Kajaani and Kuusamo. The first 2 days will be spent in  No-man's-land in Kuikka, hoping to photograph wolves.

The rest of the trip will be spend photographing the Boreal bird species such as the Pygmy owl, Dipper, Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit and, hopefully, the one species that has eluded me so far - The Great Grey Owl.

It is also prime Northern Lights time, so I hope to be able to capture those as well as the snowy landscapes.

As long as the internet is up and running, I will be updating my diary every day. I hope you will stop by from time to time to see where this journey is taking me.

Dark bellied dipper

Wednesday 5th of February

Early morning and i am getting ready for my 1 1/2 week tour to Finland. The evening before spent most of my time making sure that my camera bag gets as close as possible to the Finnair hand luggage weight limit of 8kg! I didn't make it. Got to 11kg. Smaller stuff like chargers, converters, hard drives and leads ended up in my snow parka. I looked like a Michelin man!

Taxi picks me up and before i know it i arrive at Terminal 3. Kevin and Sarah have already checked in. I make my way to the Finnair check in desk. Will they check my hand luggage? Amazingly they didn't! I went through without any issues and after my security check, my camera bag "all of a sudden" was a bit heavier and my snow parka a lot lighter!

I met up with Kevin and Sarah, went to to the gate and the Finnair flight left on-time for Helsinki. take-off a bit bumpy but other then that: an easy flight.

In Helsinki we had a 2 hour wait for our flight to Kajaani. Not very cold in Helsinki and also not a lot of snow for the time of the year. Sarah decides to leave us on our own, while she helps herself to Champagne in the V.I.P. lounge!  We leave on a FlyBE flight to Kajaani and we arrive an hour later. A bit colder and more snow. Lassi has arranged for a taxi to take us to Hotel Kajaani, where we drop our stuff in our rooms and sit down for a beer and diner.

Lassi will pick us up tomorrow morning for a day in 2 hides for Roedeer near Kajaani. Would be nice to have some nice images of Roedeer in the snow. 

Hotel Kajaani

Thursday 6th of February

A relaxed start. Breakfast, a stroll to the local supermarket to stock up with Lapin Kulta and shaving foam. The weather is grey and it will not get  any better during the day!

later that morning Lassi Rautianen picks us up for a 30 minute drive to the Roe deer hides. These hides are built along the edge of a forest where Roe deer regularly feed.

We make ourselves comfortable in our hides and the waiting game starts. After 2 hours we see some movement in the forest and before we know it a female Roe deer with 2 youngsters appear and start to feed along the forest edge.

They make for some lovely images and they look great in their winter coats. They disappear again in the forest and a bit later a young buck appears.

The hides are suitable for 600 mm lenses but a 200-400 mm with or without converter would even be better. Later that afternoon we call it a day. Amazingly we see 5 male Capercaillies along the road! Unfortunately too dark to take any decent images but still great to see.

We have an early diner and after that Lassi drops us off at the hotel. Tomorrow we will start the long journey east, towards Base camp and then later in the evening we will go to the Wolf hide, where we will stay for 2 nights. In winter wolves are mainly active during the night but sometimes they stick around till after dawn. We can only hope and pray!

Roe deer

Roe deer hide

Friday 7th of February

Lassi picks us up around 10.00 for the long drive east to our base camp for the following 2 nights; Kuikka. The weather is actually the same as yesterday: grey and a bit colder. Lassi tells us that a hawk owl has been seen regularly 20 minutes east of Kajaani near a farm.

So driving along the road we scan the trees for this fantastic owl. Lady luck is with us; we spot the owl in a small field in a tree. The tree is quite low making it a bit easier to photograph th owl.

We park up the car, mount the camera's and lenses and make our way to the owl. This time it is actually a blessing that there isn't a lot of snow on the ground. It makes it easier to move around. We take many images and i think it is fair to say that we were all pleased with the results.

Soon we are back on the road again. We try for Black grouse but the birds do not want to play . By late afternoon we arrive in Kuikka. We are truly in No-mansland, meeting the border guards. There are some feeders with various Tit species at Kuikka but the light is fading, so we call it a day.

We will have an early diner. Then we will drive 10 kilometers to the Wolf hide around 22.00 hours tonight where we will spend the night and the morning. Wolves are mainly active in the night during the winter but at times they might stick around the carcass till after dawn. Let's hope we get lucky!

Hawk owl

Border patrol

Saturday 8th of February

Let me start with the end of the story: we didn't photograph a single bird or wolf! So with that out of the way i tell you a bit how the day unfolded.

It actually started yesterday afternoon. We had a very early diner, so we could prepare for the overnight stay in the Wolf hide. By 20.00 hours we left for the hide. A 20 minutes drive across the Finnish/Russian border. Once we arrived at the hide, we set up our camera's and lenses. Wolves, as stated before, are mainly active at night in the winter but at times, they still hang around the carcass till after daylight.

There were a couple of bunk beds. We went to bed by 20.30 hours! i don't think i slept at all and i can't recall checkng my watch so often!. Very uncomfortable bunk bed, narrow and fear of falling off. (not too mention the snoring!)

Around 07.00 it started to get light and half an hour later we were sitting behind the camera's. We instantly spotted a Golden eagle perched next to the Moose carcass and a second Eagle was perched a bit further away. Ravens were around in abundance and in the distance we heard a Tengmalm's owl.

That's as good as it got! The Eagles flew off, briefly returning in the afternoon, the Ravens remained perched in the trees and the wolves had other plans for the day.

By 15.00 hours back in base camp. I have decided NOT to spend another night in the Wolf hide. Instead i will try my luck with the feeders. 

Tomorrow we will leave Kuikka around noon for a 4 hours drive to Kuusamo. Here we will have a go at Golden eagles, Black Woodpecker, Dippers, landscapes and hopefully the Great Grey owl. To end this somewhat disappointing day, i will use a sentence from a Rolling Stones song: You can't always get what you want!

Rene checking if Kevin's settings are right

The Wolf hide

Sunday 9th of February

After a 5 hour drive we have arrived the Oulanka biological research center. Here we will stay till Friday. As can be expected: we have the whole research center for ourselves!

Today was unfortunately another day with no highlights. Kevin and Sarah decided yesterday evening that they would like to spend another night in the Wolf hide. I decided to stay in base camp, and it was the right decision. No wolves showed and 2 Golden eagles and ravens visited the carcass.

Too far out to photograph properly, and above all the light was worse then yesterday. I didn't do much better. I spent sometime at the feeder, saw a few squirrels and tried to photograph them with 1 Zillion ISO....still unsharp!

We left Base camp around 13.00. Before that we were interviewed by a journalist for an article in some Finnish newspaper. Some German movie makers arrived and they intended to stay for 10 days in the Wolf hide. I can only wish them luck!

The further we drove north, the more scenic the landscape became. The fir trees were snow laden and we actually managed to see some blue sky. Forecast is not great but we will have snow from time to time.

When we arrived in Kuusamo, we stopped at a hotel where Lassi met up with a local contact. More bad news; A goshawk had managed to eat 1 possible 3 Great Grey owl's! They suspect that the one that was photographed the last few days was one of the victims. Nature can be cruel. (also for nature photographers)

Tomorrow we will split in 2 groups. Kevin and Sarah will try their luck with the Black Woodpecker hide and i will be spending the day in one of the Golden eagle hides, which can also be good for Siberian jay and Siberian tit.

We really need to get some images now before we shoot each other!. Out of the first 4 days, we only managed to get some images the first 2 days! We keep on laughing!

Golden eagle and something blurred (Courtesy Kevin Lunham)

Monday 10th of February

A sleepless night. Would the psycho Goshawk of Kuusamo kill the complete Great Gray owl population? Or would there be a couple of survivors. We were about to find out!

By 07.30 we were in the car, camera's at the ready! Lassi decided to scan the fields not too far from the research center, as Great Grays were spotted there before. Thanks to the good eye sight of our pilot/nature photographer Sarah, we found a far distant Great Grey. We parked the car up. Everyone put snow shoes on except me! They don't come in size 11 apparently.

We made our way through knee deep snow and for me it was a real struggle but luck struck. The owl had moved closer by and we managed to get some really nice images of the owl perched in a lovely fir tree covered in snow. We were joined by a smallFinnature group. Among them the young Will Nichols,a promising young English photographer! (as long as he mingles with the right crowd)

So after 12 visits to Finland, i finally managed to get some decent Great Grey owl images. My wife will be very pleased. No reason for me to go on these kind of expensive trips anymore. Do you believe it?

But it was not all the day had in stock for us. The Finnature group left before us, as the owl had moved away. A few minutes later Lassi received a call. Another Great Grey owl was seen just a mile up the road. We jumped in the car and within no-time had we located the owl. Sitting by the sight of the road, scanning a small meadow and actually hunting from time to time.

In fact we didn't get that far today. We found a third owl, further down the road. Unfortunately this owl was a bit too far out and was sitting on a telephone wire. Not the best kind of picture to take!  We moved on as we also wanted to spend some time with the Dippers. By the time we found them, the light has faded and we slowly made our way back to the research center.

So after a slow start of this trip, we finally managed to get some nice images. Tomorrow we will try again for the Great Grey owl and the dippers. A 12 year wait has come to an end! Or has it? 

Great Grey owl flyby Kuusamo

Preparation is the key to success

Tuesday 11th of February

The day started as all the others. Early! Sarah was to spent the day in one of the Golden eagle hides while Kevin and myself would be going to the Black Woodpecker hide, a good 1 1/2 hour drive from Oulanka.

Th weather was again the same as all previous days; grey but this time with a steady flow of snow!

We dropped Sarah off and we even managed to spot a Moose. Rare in winter as they are very stationary and thus difficult to view. We left Oulanka and after a 2 hour drive we reached our destination: Hannu Hautala's Black Woodpecker hide. Hannu Hautala is the "father" of Finnish nature photography and his book " a winter in Kuusamo" inspired me time and time again to come back to this beautiful part of Europe.

We had to follow a Snow scooter track for 1km before we arrived at the hide. Lassi transported all the optical gear on a snow scooter which made the journey for us so much easier. can i say as this stage that he is a wonderful host! He really goes all the way to try and get you to the right locations and he is very patient!

It was steadily snowing when we made ourselves comfortable in the hide. The hide is situated right on the edge of a ridge, surrounded by pine trees, a beautiful location. There are a few feeders as well which attract small birds.

To cut a long story short; we didn't see the Black Woodpecker but managed really nice images of Crested tit, Willow tit and Siberian jay. Typical birds for the Finnish forests. 

By 16.00 hours we commenced on the long journey back. Sarah had already texted us that she had 2 golden eagles aroun the hide in the afternoon. So it looked like a good day for all of us.

Tonight we will be doing some landscape photography with a torch. That will be an interesting experience. Tomorroe we do the same as today but Sarah will be in the Black Woodpecker hide and kevin and myself in the Golden eagle hide.

Siberian jay

Hannu's hide

Wednesday 12th of February

Today Kevin and myself would stay at Lassi's Golden eagle hide. I had been there a number of years ago and i vividly remembered how good it was! Not only for Golden eagle but also for a raft of other boreal bird species like Siberian tit and Siberian jay. Sarah was heading in westerly direction, with Lassi, to spend the day in Hannu's hide. See previous day for details.

We went up the mountain with the Snow scooter. It wasn't very cold but there was a pretty deep fresh layer of snow. When we arrived at the hide, the first Willow tits were already visiting the feeder. We positioned ourselves in the hide, waiting for things to come.

The weather was less overcast then previous days, which was an added bonus. The feeders were visited by a constant stream of Willow tits, Siberian tits, Great Spotted woodpecker and Siberian jays. Camera's were clicking non-stop. No sign of any eagle, although we twice had a flyby from one of the birds. February is mating season for the eagles, so it is not always a given they will visit the feeding station. Romance goes before a full stomach in the world of the Golden eagle and who can blame them!

The hide is beautifully situated. From inside the hide you look away to the endless pine forests of Oulanka national park. The hide is built on a small hill top. Pine trees left and right and an uncluttered view ahead. What a setting!

All sounds good doesn't it? But we are now well into the afternoon, still no eagle and the light really starts to fade by 15.30 hours.  Again we have a flyby but no "landing" It must have been around 14.30 hours that we spot one of the eagles in a tree. Sits there for a little while, flies into the forest and then all of a sudden it is there in front of us on top of the road kill fox. Finally!

The eagle starts to feed. Before releasing the shutters (my oh my, those Nikon's are noisy buggers) we let the bird settle down. Photographing them needs to be done with outmost care as the smallest movement might spook them. After eating away from the fox, the bird decides to fly off and lands on top of a small tree stump. We couldn't wish for a better position. After another 5 minutes the eagle calls it a day and disappears.

Soon we are packing up and make our way down the hill. A fine day has come to an end. After a little while we see the distant lights of Lassi's car. We head back to the research center. Sarah didn't have a great day in the Black woodpecker hide but hopefully tomorrow will be better as she will be in the eagle hide. Kevin and myself will go for Great Gray owl and dippers.

All in all we are having a fine second week. Not much to complain about, except for Kevin's constant need for bird noises!

Willow tit, a bit different

The superb golden eagle hide in Oulanka national park

Thursday 13th of February

Today Kevin and myself would be going on a Great Grey owl hunt, while Sarah would spend another day in the Golden eagle hide. We set off around 09.00 hours and started to scan the fields were we found the owls earlier in the week. The weather was (again) overcast and it was snowing. Tt wasn't very cold either.

This is one of the reasons why the Great Gray owls are a bit unpredictable. If anyone of you, after reading my diary, would like to go to Finland to photograph them: the best for Great Gray owl photography is a  prolonged cold period. The voles will be deep down in the snow, difficult for the owls to get to and thus will they appear in more open terrain to hunt for prey. Best is to keep a close look at what Finnature and Lassi Rautianen have to say about it on Facebook.

We tried several fields but no owls. We did get a call that a Great gray was spotted a good 30 minutes drive away, but by the time we arrived, the owl had disappeared. In retrospective; we had been lucky to get images earlier in the week of the Great Gray owls!

We decided to head back and stop at the "Dipper river". The weather had improved somewhat and we even had some sun for 30 minutes. It was lovely to trial our camera's on these lovely birds and we managed to get some good images.

When we returned at the research center, Sarah told us that she had a good day in the Golden eagle hide. Tomorrow is our last day in Oulanka. We will try again for the owls in the morning and return to Kajaani late afternoon, a good 3 hours drive. Our flight leaves for Helsinki very early on Saturday.

Checking for owls with the locals

Photographing Dippers: the lower the better!

Friday 14th of February

The last day of the trip. This morning we were up a bit earlier. We had to pack and get ready for the long trip back to Kajaani. We left the research center around 07.30 hours. Lassi suggested we would give it one more shot at the Great Gray owls, in between another small session with the Dippers, and then REALLY the final Great Gray owl attempt.

We scanned millions of trees, endless meadows, electricity poles, chimneys, you name it! But no owl to be seen. I suppose we have been very lucky with our encounter earlier in the week.

We really tried every road around Kuusamo for the owls but we do not get any further then Black grouse and Willow grouse perched along the forest roads. Nice to see, but not enough light to photograph them.

Along a fast floating stream we spot a couple of dippers. We decide to have a break from the owl hunting and set up our gear. The birds are a little far off but we try something different: as in flight shots. Not easy and we really need to crank up the ISO to get anything half decent. Whether it is any good; we have to wait till we put them on a computer screen i suppose.

We leave the dippers and give the owls one more shot. No luck. We head back to Kuusamo, pick up the trailer and head back to Kajaani. A trip that will take approximately 3 hours.

We arrive at the hotel ,where it all started, around 18.00 hours.We have diner with Lassi and thank him for all the fantastic work he has put in this week. I can recommend him anytime!

So what are my thoughts about this trip? I think overall it was a good trip. We photographed all the "typical winter birds" and of course the highlight (for me) was photographing the Great Gray owl. If i would do it again, i would skip the 2 days in the Wolf hide. Yes there is a chance you will see them but a very slim one! For wolves: go to Lassi in the summer; they are almost guaranteed in that time of the year. The weather was not great. Mainly overcast, snow and only today we saw something that looked like the sun.

Well that's it from me. I hope you enjoyed the diary. I will add a fact sheet and a few more images later on. If you are tempted to go to Finland one day in winter, feel free to email me in case you have any questions. After all: i have been here 12 times and i believe it is one of the best locations for a wildlife and landscape photographer in Europe! Next stop Romania!

Photographing dippers

Oulanka National park research center

Factsheet Finland Winter wolves trip

The trip was organized through Lassi Rautianen. (www.arcticmedia.fi). The itinerary was discussed with Lassi beforehand but we allowed for a lot of flexibility. Wildlife and birds ,especially Great Gray owls, might pop up randomly.

The cost for this 9 day trip was approximately £ 2500. This was all inclusive, excluding flights and the hotel for the first and last night. . Hotel cost £ 75 per night.

We flew with Finnair from London Heathrow to Helsinki and onwards to Kajaani. Cost for return flight £ 325. I might have stated this before but be aware about the stingy onboard luggage allowance. 8KG! Hardly enough if you want to take most of your camera gear with you.

We did not encounter any issues on the way in but on the way out i was asked to weigh my camera bag! Of course it was too heavy but with a bit of gentle flirting i got away with it. Please take this into account if you want to go to Finland. Better to fly to Helsinki with British airways (No onboard weight restrictions) and THEN a connecting flight with Fly BE to Kajaani.

Weather is generally cold to very cold around this time of the year in Kuusamo. In our case it was just below freezing for most of the week. Clothing should be warm and layers are recommended. Arctic boots a must, especially if you have to make your way through knee deep snow in search for Great Gray owls.

Equipment used on this trip: Canon EOS1DX bodies, 600mm, 70-300L, 24-70mm, 21mm. i had no issues with the batteries of the camera's.

I would like to thank my fellow companions Sarah and Kevin and big thank you to Lassi Rautianen for all his hard work.

For mum, thinking of you all the time