Kuusamo, Finland

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The municipality of Kuusamo in the Northern Ostrobothnia region of northeast Finland covers an area of almost 5,000 sq km (2,000 sq miles), of which nearly 20% is water. The region edges into the Arctic Circle, bordering Lapland to the north and the Russian Republic of Karelia to the east. The general area is on the western fringe of the Eurasian taiga, set deep in the boreal forest roughly midway between the northern waters of the Gulf of Bothnia to the west and the Russian White Sea. It is a well-known winter sports area, which has one of the highest snow falls in Finland with an average ground coverage thickness of 80-90cm (31-35 inches) that lasts around 200 days of the year from late October through to mid-May.

We made a short 5-day trip to the region at the end of March 2017. At this time of year the daily mean average temperature is usually around -8°C, with an average high of -3°C and average low of -12°C. During the week we were there, the best day temperature was around +5°C and the coldest mornings were -21°C. However, whilst it was pretty cold at times, we enjoyed mostly bright sunny days with little or no wind.

Whooper Swan on the icy cold Kuusinkijoki river
Whooper Swan on the icy cold Kuusinkijoki river
 

Kuusamo town is around 800km (500 miles) north of the capital city Helsinki and only 60km (37 miles) or so south of the Arctic Circle. We were based in the town, but drove out each morning, often 50km or more, to get to the various locations on our itinerary. The main attraction for going to this area of Finland was to have an opportunity of photographing both Golden Eagles and White-tailed Eagles in the snow, coupled with the outside chance of seeing either a Great Grey Owl or a Hawk Owl. The itinerary also included a couple of early morning sessions at a Black Grouse lek, and the possibility of seeing Whooper Swans and White-throated Dippers. It was a standard package photography trip organised by Finnature led by the locally-based Finnish wildlife photographer Olli Lamminsalo.

We visited six locations during the week. The first was Kuntivaara, which is a raised fell area, some 400m or so above sea level, situated northeast of the town on the edge of the subarctic forest. We had three very early, and very cold, morning sessions here at a Black Grouse lekking site. The timing of our trip was good as the birds had only just started this annual, early season ritual the week before. The males arrive at this traditional display area, known as a lek, at dawn to strut around, and to challenge and fight other competing males in order to impress the females. The event is regarded as one of the most interesting bird courtship routines, but unfortunately one that can only be seen at a few locations in northern England and Scotland, so it was really good for us to be able to experience the event in the snow in Finland. We had to be in one of the small portable hides by just after 6am ready for the birds’ arrival, which could be anything from 6.45am just as the sun was starting to rise, to shortly after 7am as they did on the last morning when the temperature was down at about -16°C. On each occasion we had between five and eight birds at the lek, that stayed little more than an hour. The conditions were quite challenging due to the cold and the confines of being in a tiny hide with limited space and vision. Notwithstanding any issues associated with clothing and personal comfort, there were also some considerations and certain associated problems in taking photos in these difficult conditions, particularly in respect of trying to use the D810 to capture low-light ‘action’ - see footnote.

Black Grouse lekking at Kuntivaara
Black Grouse lekking at Kuntivaara
 

Further north, we visited the famous Oulanka National Park, which straddles the border between Northern Ostrobothnia and Lapland. This was the site of the Golden Eagle hide, which we visited on two consecutive mornings. It was set on the edge of an elevated natural clearing deep in the forest, accessible only by ski-mobile or a long walk. We also had a session at a White-tailed Eagle hide to the east of Kuusamo in an area called Lämsänkylä overlooking the Russian border. Neither of these two specialist hide locations were particularly successful from a photography point of view, albeit the local male Golden Eagle did make a brief appearance both days, but late in the afternoon when the sun was behind it; and four White-tailed Eagles (one adult and three juveniles) were reasonably active for the last hour or so of the day at the other hide, but they were generally at distance and never came down to the ground. I’m not sure what I expected and perhaps in hindsight it’s unfair to say that our time in these hides wasn’t that successful. How often do you get an opportunity of seeing a Golden Eagle, let alone seeing one on the ground? They have large territories and with the female being on the nest at this time of year we were only ever going to see the male, so I shouldn’t be complaining since it did visit the site both days. I just wish it had arrived earlier when the light was better! Similarly, with the White-tailed Eagles where, again in hindsight, I thought that we would have some on-the-ground activity as we enjoyed last year in Romania, rather than birds that seemed content trying to steal food scraps off Ravens rather than risking coming down onto the bait (road kill) that had been put out to attract them.

White-tailed Eagle flying through the forest at Lämsänkylä
White-tailed Eagle flying through the forest at Lämsänkylä

The forest hide in Oulanka also gave us the opportunity of photographing three different woodpeckers (Black, Grey-headed and Great Spotted), the Siberian Jay and some smaller woodland birds including a couple of brief sightings of a Crested Tit.

Black Woodpecker - Oulanka National Park
Black Woodpecker - Oulanka National Park
Great Spotted Woodpecker - Oulanka National Park
Great Spotted Woodpecker - Oulanka National Park

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We then travelled just over 60km southwest to Taivalkoski to photograph a Northern Hawk Owl that had been spotted in a remote forest clearing on a private estate. If my understanding is correct, this was only the second bird that had been seen within the wider Kuusamo area this year, so we were very lucky indeed. It’s also worth noting, that no Great Great Owls had been seen at all, or were expected to be seen, in the region due to there being very little in the way of natural prey such as mice and voles. This particular Hawk Owl was being enticed down from the top of the pine trees with offerings from a local conservationist who would continue to ensure the bird’s survival over the coming weeks until either the snow cleared or the bird vacated the area. This relatively short session, out in the open rather than in a hide, where we were laying in the snow to photograph a beautiful and relatively rare species in its natural woodland habitat was the highlght of the whole trip for me - it was a special and very memorable experience.

Northern Hawk Owl at Taivalkoski
Northern Hawk Owl at Taivalkoski
 

Our fifth location was in the east at Koskenkylä, where there was a small open-water bay on the edge of a vast frozen lake. Here we found a territorial breeding pair of Whooper Swans and a small flock of Snow Buntings. And then to finish off, on the last morning we made a brief stop alongside the Kuusinkijoki river, after our final Black Grouse session, in an attempt to photograph Black-bellied Dippers (the Scandinavian race of the White-throated Dipper). This was the most challenging of the six sessions by far, as we had to make our way down and along the bank of the fast-flowing icy river through knee-depth snow, and then try to operate the camera (which I can’t do with gloves!) in a temperature of around -16°C.

Snow Bunting at Koskenkylä
Snow Bunting at Koskenkylä
White-throated Dipper on the Kuusinkijoki river
White-throated Dipper on the Kuusinkijoki river

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I thoroughly enjoyed this trip despite my general disappointment with the eagles - it was different, and personally I’d return. However, all though she suffered in silence (most of the time) and came back with some pretty good photos of her own, Tris was just pleased to get the ‘ordeal’ out of the way and get back to the relative warmth of the UK. So, I guess that it will be a one-off experience. A return trip to Iceland though hasn’t been ruled out (yet), so that needs to be thought about sooner than later before she changes her mind!



Footnote : I’ve had odd situations before when I’ve been frustrated with my camera, but never to the degree that I experienced on this particular trip. The D810 is a superb camera that, in my opinion, is great for wildlife photography in certain situations. The dynamic range, high resolution and 36MP sensor that allows you to crop in are great features, but it certainly can’t be regarded as a performance ‘action’ camera. The large file sizes and associated mediocre frame rate are normally of no great consequence. In fact, my two biggest issues prior to this trip have been initial focus acquisition on moving subjects in certain situations, and its inconsistency with even moderately high ISO settings, particularly with birds. However, on this trip these issues were far more noticeable, and not helped by comparing results with the D5 that was being used by one of the other photographers who accompanied us. I’d list the four biggest issues as follows :-

1) Initial focus acquisition for the eagle flight shots when working in the relatively restricted space of a hide when your line of sight along the top of the lens is obscured. Normally I have no problem with flight shots, but on this trip I was constantly frustrated by not being able to align my shots. The camera constantly failed to pick up the birds and lock-on, whereas the chap with the D5 was just pointing in the general direction and, most of the time, acquiring and holding focus, whereas the D810 always wanted a couple of seconds to think about it by which time the bird had moved off the focus point.

2) Holding focus on the very fast incoming Hawk Owl. This didn’t surprise me as much the initial focus acquisition problem, as it’s quite normal to get the odd sequence shot out of focus, but when you’re faced with a rare and special opportunity it’s surprising how much more you notice this problem. And, of course, when you only have a frame rate of 5 or 6 fps at best compared with double that rate with the D5 you end up capturing about a third of the number of shots as the chap laying (in the snow) alongside you. It was another very frustrating situation particularly when you’re trying to capture specific shots just as the owl is swooping down on its prey.

3) The next problem was that, despite the pedestrian frame rate of the D810, the buffer was filling up far too quickly and taking an age to clear. I guess that part of this problem was caused by the very cold conditions, but again when you’re sitting there waiting for the camera to respond and the chap with the D5 is still rattling off 11 fps as the eagle makes a turn, you realise that another opportunity has passed you by.

4) We then have the ISO problem and the inability to get get the frame rate or depth-of-field that you would really like. I was often trying to work with a far too large aperture for the Black Grouse and for the smaller birds in the woodland hide, and similarly for the Hawk Owl where you ideally needed 4000th of a second or faster ideally at f/7.1 or more. I pushed sensitivity to ISO1100 and even ISO1600 on occasions but didn’t like going higher, whereas the D5 in manual mode and auto-ISO was happily producing great results at ISO3200 or even at ISO6400 or higher.

I’ll carry these notes and thoughts forward as this is an issue that needs addressing - I’m still hoping that a D900 might come later this year but, if not, I may well have to consider purchasing a D5 or the next generation thereof.