Day 4 – Curlews in North Karelia
It makes sense when you see curlews in vast peatlands. A large brown bird doesn’t look so big or stand out so much in the vast mires of North Karelia, in fact it looks small, and it blends into the background, camouflaged against the browns, whites, and greys of these watery lands overtopped by endless sky. The call is not lost in the vastness of it all - it is still heart-stopping as it fills the air. The bubbling call is taken by the wind and carried outwards and upwards; it was all so right. This was where we went today, to a more remote part of Finland just a stone’s throw from the Russian border.
The first trip was by boat down the River Syvaysjoki, fringed by a corridor of pristine wet bog that incised through the conifer forest. A crane flew past, an osprey floated above, and curlews called. We saw several pairs along the relatively inaccessible river edges, and we are very grateful to Tarja and Martti Kettunen for providing us with boats, food and drink - such warm hospitality. We then drove to an extensive wilderness area, and no one was quite expecting what we saw.
Looking out from the tall hide in the protected Kesonsuo peatland (it was great to get an elevated view for a change), some of us were very moved, even to tears. Whooper swans called as they flew across the water and a singing whimbrel soared past, which added to the sense of being somewhere far away and very different. This is a land of pools and peat and lone trees. It is wet, and vast. There is nothing comparable in the UK – it is utterly magical.
Curlews are generally more thinly spread here than in some of the farmland further south, but their productivity is thought to be higher. I say ‘thought to be’ because the data are very sparse. It makes sense, though, when you see it. These remote bogs are covered in snow for up to six months of the year, and it is often extremely cold from November to May. And when the snow melts it is so wet underfoot that the main mammalian predators of curlews, namely foxes and racoon dogs, can’t access them; this is no place for non-aquatic mammals. No doubt some eggs and chicks are taken by corvids and raptors (although we have seen surprisingly few during our visit), but curlews will certainly have a greater chance of survival than on ploughed, seeded fields where access is easy for predators - and the birds stand out like a sore thumb.
We ended the day meeting a group of local naturalists - thank you to them for such a warm welcome. One of them, Lisa, said her family had farmed the area for 270 years and the call of the curlew always made her heart feel full of joy as the herald of spring. We spoke of how one of our colleagues on the trip, Barry O’Donoghue, is from Co Kerry in Ireland. His home is about as far west as the curlew breeds, and we were sitting almost as far east as you can go in the European Union. There is a vast area of land and sea in between. The curlew binds us together. It nests on the grasslands and bogs of Ireland, on the meadows of the Netherlands, and on the bogs and fields of Finland - it will breed where it has space and peace to thrive. Does that mean we can learn lessons about curlews and forests and predators from Finland? I’m not sure we can, but Russ and I will be writing a summary blog which we will post soon once we’ve had time to think and reflect.
Thank you, Finland, and to Tero Mustonen and Snowchange for giving us all an unforgettable experience.