The voles, Leena’s email says, are numerous.
It’s what we’ve been waiting to hear all through the Northern winter. Her earlier reports on Finland’s vole population contained a map of the country, colour-coded to indicate the vole density. We are happy for the voles (small mouse-like rodents), but what we’re really interested in is their predator: Owls.
Over 20 years ago, an encounter with the Mountain Gorillas in Africa’s Virunga Mountains turned us into ardent amateur naturalists. Our initial interest was in charismatic mammals — lions, tigers, and bears. Over time, the sheer variety and beauty of avian life forms turned us into avid bird watchers. Raptors, birds of prey, are special to us. The love of birds that hunt for food primarily on the wing using their keen senses fits the DNA of my career: A trader in financial markets, where you eat what you kill.
Over the years, we have seen around 1,500 species of birds (there are over 9,000) and about 20 percent of the world’s 340 major raptors. We have been lucky enough to see many hallmark species of owls, perhaps the most specialised and magnificent of all raptor — Eagle Owls, Spectacled Owls, Burrowing Owls, Scops Owls and Barn Owls. Finland with its concentration of difficult-to-see owls has always been on our “bucket list”.
In a good year, Finland provides the opportunity to see many species of owls. In spring, the owls gather in the forests and woodlands around Oulu, to mate and breed. A high population of voles provides the essential food supply for young chicks, and so, more chances of seeing owls.
Finnature (where Leena works), the eco-tourism company who have arranged our trip, are optimistic; with Finnish reticence, they write that they hope it will be a “good year” for owls.
In early spring, guides search out nests, relying on owl calls and sightings, generally at night. They can then take tourists, mainly bird-watchers and amateur nature photographers, to known nest sites. Toni, our Finnish guide, jokes that in Finland you know where there is an owl nest by the number of assembled photographer’s bird hides nearby.
In May 2011, when we made our trip, we didn’t know it, but there was a Eurasian Eagle Owl nesting a few hundred metres from our hotel in downtown Helsinki. The chicks had just about fledged and frequently fell out of their nests, bringing traffic to a standstill. Wildlife rangers had to intervene, picking up the chicks and placing them back in their nests each time. Eagle Owls are the largest of European owls, 60–70 centimetres in height, with a wingspan of 1.3–1.7 metres in flight. Their appearance in an urban setting is the result of easy prey: A large population of rabbits, pets which had been released or escaped and colonised city parks. Unfortunately, we never got to see this species.
Our owl sightings around Oulu, a mid-sized town on the Gulf of Bothnia, in the West of Finland, are more in keeping with the traditional etiquette of bird watching. Within a few hours of landing there, we see a magnificent Great Grey Owl female on her nest, incubating her eggs. In profile, the large bird, some 60 centimetres high, looks like a steamship funnel because of her flat, square head. She looks stately, staring at us through yellow eyes framed by white crescent moon shaped ‘eyebrows’ and a black chin. Generally, you can see the male owl, usually resting on a branch near the nest. He brings food to the female; once the chicks have hatched, he may need to catch around 10 voles a day to keep his mate and the brood fed, until the chicks are ready to leave the nest. But though we visit the site twice, we never see the male, except for a distant glimpse of pale feathers. Later groups are luckier.
We visit nest sites for Northern Hawk Owls, Ural Owls, and Tengmalm’s Owls and see the females. The view depends on the nest. One Ural Owl nest is high in the tree, all we are afforded is a glimpse of mottled brown tail feathers through a spotting scope set at 60 times magnification. We wait, but she does not move, limiting our view. Nor does the male appear.
At dusk one day, our guides use a different method: Owl calls. We travel along a forest road and at selected spots, we play an MP3 player with pre-recorded birdcalls. A Pygmy Owl’s high pitched “chuuk, chuuk, chuuck” issues from the speakers, audible for up to a kilometre. At the second location, we are immediately successful: A male Pygmy Owl, all of 15 centimetres high and perhaps 40–50 grams, flies in to check out the challenger to his territorial claims. The owl has a brown breast and white belly thinly streaked with brown. The owl’s head is grey brown with tiny white spots signalling that it is an adult. Bold in spite of its size, the owls are capable of killing voles and small birds larger than themselves.
He lands a few feet from us and sings, duelling with his electronic rival. For about half-an-hour, we see him perfectly. When we switch off the pre-recorded call, the tiny Pygmy Owl, triumphant in victory, flies to the top of a tree to sing in full voice affording us great views of this tiniest of Northern European owls.
The viewing is sometimes enlivened by action. Ural Owls are rare visitors to Finland, only appearing when voles are plentiful. At a box in tree, placed to encourage owls to nest, Toni imitates the noises that a Pine Marten would make on the tree. Martens are weasel-like mammals, about the size of a small cat that feed on eggs and chicks. The noise usually causes the owl, if it is in residence, to poke its head out to assess the source of the sound. The technique has risks. Ural Owls, with their beautiful pale buff colours, straw coloured beak and black eyes, look deceptively gentle, but they can be very aggressive, especially in the vicinity of a nest. In an apocryphal story, a guide asked his group to wait while he went to check out a known Ural Owl nest. Shortly, the waiting birders heard the sounds of someone running through the scrub. It was the guide, pursued by an enraged Ural Owl, which repeatedly buzzed his head. With characteristic understatement, one British birder noted that they had a good view of the Ural Owl “in flight”.
Toni asks us to stand well clear as he checks out this artificial nest box. Detecting sounds, he signals that there is an owl inside. A large Ural Owl flies out of the box and perches briefly on a nearby branch. Then, without warning, it takes off, diving toward Toni, passing within a few inches of his head on her way to another tree.
Toni needs no further warning — he has scars from previous encounters — and retreats. We leave the area taking a circular route, always maintaining a safe distance from the owl and the nest. Like the Brit in the story, thanks to our guide, we had a wonderful view of a flying Ural Owl.
Sometimes, owls can be seen in a more natural setting. We are fortunate to see a Short-Eared Owl hunting in a field near where we are staying. While it is a small bird — around 30–40 centimetres high — its wingspan is very large, around 1 metre. Easier to see, as they hunt in daylight, this owl flies silently and effortlessly a few feet over the surface, changing direction rapidly looking for prey. In the pale sunlight, we watched its slow deliberate wing-beats as it glided over the field, looking for a meal. We are lucky enough to see the Short-Eared Owl make a kill as it takes a vole from the field.
Our joy is tempered with sadness. I fear that this sublime beauty will soon be lost. Even in Finland, where conservation is taken seriously, this natural world is under serious and constant threat. Around Oulu, agriculture and logging mean that the original Boreal Forest, the natural habitat of the owls, remains only in disconnected pockets, which do not respect the needs and inter-connectedness of nature.
The destruction of habitat works in unexpected ways. Owls nest in holes in trees, either natural from dying trees or woodpecker nest holes, or they use abandoned hawk or eagle nests or the tops of broken tree trunks. Artificial tree plantations and the loss of specific trees have destroyed the population of woodpeckers, affecting the owls’ nesting habits. It is sad to see such magnificent creatures have to nest in an undignified pine board nest box.
What will we say to future generation that will not get the chance to see these ancient rhythms of life and death play out? How will we explain to those who come after us that we were responsible for the destruction of this natural world and it’s wonders for a few dollars more?
One image of the owls of Oulu stays with me. On our second visit to the Northern Hawk Owl nest early in the morning, we set up our spotting scope about 100 metres from the nest. The female was clearly visible within it. In the cold (around 0°C), we waited hoping for a sight of the male.
Northern Hawk Owls are medium-sized, 30–40 centimetres in height with short, stubby wings, around 60–80 centimetres fully extended. From vantage points, usually the tops of dead trees, they perch looking for prey such as voles or small birds, which they take with a fast direct silent aerial attack.
After an hour or so, our vigil was rewarded. With rapid wing-beats interspersed with brief glides, the male flew in and perched very near us, carrying a dead vole in its beak, the limp grey shape of the rodent clearly visible. The male had hunted successfully and was bringing food to his mate. The view was clear and unobstructed. It stayed for a few minutes before flying off.
We had witnessed a scene that has been played out in Finland’s Boreal Forest since before human beings had walked the earth. It was a privilege to have witnessed it.
Part of the order Strigiformes, owls are primarily nocturnal raptors, birds of prey, found in all regions of the Earth except Antarctica.
The owl’s large eyes contribute to its extraordinary night vision. They are fixed in their sockets, because their eyes are elongated rather than round. To compensate they can turn their heads 270 degrees, giving the appearance of being able to spin their heads around completely like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. They also have very sensitive hearing, about 10 times more sensitive than human ears. Their ears have two openings, one higher than the other, which enables them to pinpoint the source of sound. Even the flat facial disk in some owls is part of the design of the night hunter, collecting and channelling sounds to the owl’s ears. These owls have special muscles that allow them to change their facial shape to help them hear better.
Owl’s wings are baffled along the front edge, which reduces air disturbance. The primary wing feathers at the leading edge have serrations, comb-like protrusions, which minimise turbulence. And their feathers are soft and fluffy. Together, these evolutionary gifts make their flight almost soundless.
They are efficient hunters, with strong talons and curved beaks for tearing. They mostly prey on small mammals, insects and birds; a few species specialise in hunting fish.
There are over 200 species of owls in the world including a number of them in India. In Finland, you can see species such as Eurasian Eagle Owls, Great Grey Owls, Ural Owls, Northern Hawk Owls, Tengmalm’s Owls, Pygmy Owls, Long Eared Owls, Short Eared Owls, Tawny Owls and (possibly) Snowy Owls. The Ural Owl is a rare sight in Finland and visits only when voles are plentiful
In mythology, owls were once feared harbingers of death. The Aztecs, Mayans, American Indians, ancient Romans and Africans all viewed owls as bad omens, synonymous with bad luck, ill health or evil. In modern Western mythology, owls are associated with wisdom, art and scholarship. For the Japanese the birds are symbols of longevity and knowledge.Trip planner
Straddling the Arctic Circle, Finland (or Suomi in Finnish) is a Nordic nation, bordered by Sweden to the west, Norway to the north and Russia to the east. With 5.4 million people, roughly a fourth the population of Mumbai, it is the most sparsely populated country in the European Union.
Until recently an agrarian society, Finland underwent rapid industrialisation in the 20th century. North Finland is still the home of the nomadic Sami people.
Despite its physical beauty, Finland, variously famous as the home of Nokia and Santa Claus (Lapland), is not a well known tourist destination, unless of course you are interested, like us, in owls.
We travelled to Finland with Finnature (a ground tour operator specialised in the wildlife of Finland owned by world renowned wildlife photographer Jari Peltomäki). Best time for owls is April or May. A variety of itineraries ranging from 4 days to 14 days can be tailored to individual preference. We did an 11-day tour covering the forests and coastal area in Oulu region.
Finland is expensive — around $1,000/ per day on a twin share basis for accommodation (bed and breakfast), guides and transport. Food and alcohol are expensive and a meal averages $30/ head.
Finnair (finnature.fi), the national carrier, SAS and a range of other airlines fly to Helsinki. Travel within Finland can be on Finnair or budget carriers. Flights are expensive.© 2011 Satyajit Das All Rights Reserved. Satyajit Das is a financier and author of Extreme Money: The Masters of the Universe and the Cult of Risk (due to be published in India in early 2012). He is also the co-author with his partner Jade Novakovic of In Search of the Pangolin: The Accidental Eco-Tourist
(This story appears in the 12 August, 2011 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)