Independence day rally time

In the beginning of December it was already real winter – all lakes were completely frozen and about 30 cm snow everywhere. Still there were some big flocks of Fieldfares and in Satumäki I saw 200 birds on my lunch-hours.

The 4th day was extremely cold but anyway we went to put up a feeder for woodpeckers to Siikalahti-area. On the way in Kaukola fields we found a flock of 500 Yellowhammers. We of course checked if there were something else but with only binoculars it seemed difficult. But then some birds started to land in front of us to the road and the third closest bird was a Lapland Bunting! It was the first ever in winter in Parikkala and only about sixth in South Karelia – the last one we had found in Joutseno in February 2018. It was my 100th winter-species ever in Parikkala.

In the evening I drove to Kouvola where I got accommodation from Teo Ylätalo again. We still went to search for snipes with headlights but we had no luck.

On the 5th day we left birding around 8 a.m. and same time also Antti Vänskä went to other places to prepare for the next day’s Independence Day bird-race. It was really cold – about -20 degrees and freezing northern wind.

First we saw almost nothing, just a couple of Pheasants and a flock of 40 Goldfinches. In Mustila arboretum we found 2 Nuthatches, Willow and Coal Tits and Treecreepers but nothing else. Then we headed to Elimäki fields where we drove around quite a lot and finally found a flock of 500 Yellowhammers and one single Linnet. But then from the same field we flushed a flock of 20 Grey Partridges! It was my 251st spontaneous species this year which is my record.

A known Hawk Owl was seen easily and then in Ratula we first saw a White-tailed Eagle and then found a green field with of course some snow but it was absolutely full of birds! We estimated about 250 Gold Finches, 100 Chaffinches, 5 Linnets and 10 Brambling before a Sparrowhawk came and chased the flock around. But anyway it was clear that we had to come back on the next day and check the flock more carefully.
We didn’t find anything else but calls to Antti told us that he had managed even better and it started to look very promising for the next day. In the evening we still checked one ditch for snipes before went to eat to a Chinese restaurant together and planned the next day’s schedule.

On the 6th of December we woke up early and before 6 a.m. we left with Teo to search for owls. It was snowing heavily so once again weather forecasts were completely wrong. We didn’t find owls and before 8 we went to pick up Antti and continued to Saksanaho. There we walked to a wet forest to wait. And after some waiting we heard the first Fieldfares, a Blackbird, a Blue Tit, a White-backed Woodpecker, a Siskin, a Treecreeper and then 2 Wrens too. But only Antti heard a Robin and it was not enough as more than half of the team has to identify a species to get a tick in a bird-race. After some waiting I left to drive the car to the other side of the forest where Antti and Teo would walk. But on the way I heard a Robin. I ran back and also Antti had heard a Robin in the same time but from different direction! So we couldn’t count it as we had heard different birds. But luckily Antti and Teo had got a Grey-headed Woodpecker. After we had tried my Robin for some time too, we all walked back toward the car but checked a couple of feeders on the way – and got some common species to our list. Next we continued to one forest-feeder nearby where we saw another White-backed Woodpecker and after some waiting we saw a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. We had really started well!

And next we continued to a place that Antti had found on the previous day. Surprisingly the weather had cleared and sun was shining now. Se we had hopes very high! The place was a small open pool which was full of Mallards. But there were also a family of whooper Swans and when the Mallards flushed we saw also a Teal and a Pintail! And then after some walking also a Grey Heron was seen in flight. And this was not all! In a forest nearby we immediately heard a Pine Grosbeak and after checking some flocks of Common Crossbills, we found 5 Two-barred Crossbills! We also had the first Great Grey Shrike of the day. Unfortunately we missed a Sparrowhawk that only Antti saw but luckily we soon saw a couple of them.

A Velvet Scoter that Antti had seen on the previous day was gone, but a Collared Dove was found quickly. We were even too quickly as we forgot to search for House Sparrows in the same place. Hawfinch was also missing but then in a forest nearby we were lucky again as we found always very difficult Three-toed Woodpecker, a Goldcrest and the second Grey-headed Woodpecker of the day. Soon we ticked Goldeneyes and Goosanders on the river and then headed towards our yesterday’s birds.

In Mustila we heard a Nuthatch immediately and saw a Willow Tit. Soon we found also Coal Tits and surprisingly also a Crested Tit. Next we continued to Elimäki fields and surprisingly a Pheasant was in the same spot in the middle of the field again. Also the Grey Partridges were found again – this time there were 18 birds on the other corner of the field than on the previous day.

We tried two different known Hawk Owls but without luck. So we had to hope that we could find a new one somewhere. Next we went to our green field and saw Gold Finches, at least 250 Chaffinches, 50 Linnets, 10 Bramblings and after some searching we found also a Twite. It was my 252nd spontaneous year-tick. As we still hadn’t seen Hawk Owl, Black Woodpecker or Black Grouse, we decided to drive along a longer road towards our next destination and it was good as Teo found a Hawk Owl perched on a wire on one field.

Next we headed to a rubbish tip where we found Starlings and finally also House Sparrows. Then we continued to Dipper place and after a long wait and search we finally found one.

It was already getting late when we went back to forest-feeder to see if Long-tailed Tits were feeding before they go to sleep. And there they were!

Last hour or so we still tried to find an Eagle Owl but at 4:30 p.m. the rally ended and we drove to a service nearby where the results were given after pizzas. There were 4 teams and after the 25 most ordinary-species we were in second place. Of course some sea-birds like Mute Swans and gulls had been seen on the coast. But soon it was clear that we had seen more species than other teams. And after all we won with our 54 species quite clearly, as the rest of the teams had seen 43 to 45 species. We had been in Kouvola all the time but the race area was whole Kymenlaakso. Our result was the second best in Kouvola ever and it had been real winter now! Antti told that this had been his best Independence race ever. And still we had missed species like Robin, Hawfinch, Black Woodpecker, Black Grouse, Hazel Hen, Redwing, almost all raptors and owls, all gulls and so on. So maybe one day we can get 60 species?

Finally it was time to say goodbye to everyone. Teo dropped me to my car and I had a long drive back to Parikkala. It had been a great visit in Kouvola again! Next serious birding is probably on the 1st of January 2022..

Well I visited the woodpecker-feeder on the next day but it was quiet. A Long-tailed Tit visited trees next to it and on the parking place I saw and heard a Pine Grosbeak when it flew over me.

J.A.