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So, let us see if it is possible to view my Vimeo-videos here on Safaritalk. Yes! Here I present red-throated loon, grey-headed woodpecker, green woodpecker, black woodpecker, white-throated dipper, grey wagtail, pied wagtail and common sandpiper. All from Dalarna in almost middle Sweden.
The first time we ever went to Africa, I packed a number of t-shirts; many of them featured animals, one with a zebra, another had a picture of elephants with the logo “ivory looks best – on elephants”, and one had a wonderful picture of a bear standing up on its back legs. On one of the road trips between parks we pulled into a rest stop, and proceeded to create absolute chaos. “What is that creature on your t-shirt?” “Does it really exist?” “Where does it live?” “Why don’t we have them in Africa?” “Are you sure they are real?” “What does it eat?” “Have you seen a live one?” “Can I buy your t-shirt?” I stood surrounded by the local wood carvers who couldn’t believe that there was a huge predator that they did not have in Africa. At the time I declined to sell my t-shirt but I often wonder if I had handed it over, whether, among the carvings of elephants, impalas and giraffes, there would be woodcarvings of bears available for sale along the road from Nairobi. Now more years later that I care to think about we are finally heading off to somewhere where we hope to see bears in the wild. We are heading off to Finland. So on 20 April at 10.20am we board a plane flying from Heathrow to Helsinki hoping we have packed enough warm weather gear. The flight is around three hours long and at Helsinki we make a swift transfer (there is only 45 minutes and we are coached to and from both planes) onto a turbo-prop plane to Kajaani. The flight to Kajaani is just over an hour long, and it barely seems like we have taken off before we are arriving. Kajaani is a tiny little airport, which gets two flights a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We arrived at around 17.30. A taxi was waiting to take us to Wild Brown Bear – a car journey of around an hour and a quarter, further North and East and right next to the Russian border. The main roads were clear of snow but all around us was deep snow, frozen lakes and trees – bare leafed silver birches and green covered firs – dusted with snow. It looked so beautiful – we felt like we had stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia and were looking for the White Queen to come through on her sleigh. As we drove along a light dusting of snowflakes fell. After about an hour we turned off the main road East onto an untarmacked road for about ten minutes before arriving at Wild Brown Bear. There is a big main building which has the dining room, toilets and a big auditorium and a separate building which has accommodation. We were in room 4, which has three single beds and an en-suite bathroom (not all of the rooms have en-suite bathrooms). The rooms are basic, but clean and warm. Although you spend all night in the hides, you need a room for the days, so you can snooze to catch up on sleep, to shower (and for me to get my hair dry), and generally to rebuild your energy. (From talking to some of the other guests who had been there previously this is even more important in the summer, when the daylight is long and you sit up virtually all night – and sleep all day.) Due to our late arrival we would be unable to spend this first night in a hide, but some dinner had been held for us, so we had dinner and an early night; the last one in our cosy bedroom for a while. The following day we had a good walk, stretching our legs and getting our bearings. We found the bird hide but there were people in there so we walked back to the main road looking at the wonderful scenery. At about 15:50 we headed over for dinner, layered up and with all of our gear. Nearly everyone else was already there and most of the way through dinner (so much for 16.00 dinner), so we ate rapidly – soup, main and pudding before picking up our snack pack and heading off on the trek down to our first hide. The First Night in the Hide. The hides – well they are kind of like modified garden sheds. They are around six to six and a half feet long, and have some insulation on the inside. All of them have ventilation pipes/ holes. There are generally two narrow-ish bunks along the back wall, with comfortable foam mattresses. There was either one very heavy weigh sleeping bag or two light weight ones, and usually a blanket as well. Across the front there was a narrow glass panel which you could peer through to see outside, and below that were the canvas apertures for cameras. This was a square of canvas with a kind of open ended sock to point the lens out of which could then be tightened around the lens (helping to keep some of the cold out). The unused ones were rolled up to keep the wind out. The sock effect meant that you could move the lens almost 180 degrees. The wooden bench below the canvas had bolts to attach tripod heads to. Above the narrow window was a shelf (about eight inches) upon which you could put all sorts of stuff – drinks, food, extra bits of clothing. Two chairs were then in the gap between the bunks and the window. Just by the door was a bucket loo (this is basically a tall-ish bucket with a loo seat) – you are not allowed out of the hide overnight, there is no privacy, so if you are sharing a hide make sure you know the other person reasonably well. Down at your feet there is a small paraffin heater (J says it was a solid paraffin heater) which you can light – although I suspect it would have created moisture issues. Even using the hot water to make tea/coffee tended to steam the window up. So here we are – our first night in the bear hides – will they come at all. Having spoken to one of the other guests, he has been here four nights already and not seen a single bear. It is early in the season (J wanted bears in snow), and they have not been arriving in the light. Shoes are off (we were already wearing two pairs of socks and took a really heavy think pair of long thermal socks which effectively became slippers and this worked well) we sat in all our heavy gear, and the sleeping bags peering out the narrow window and waited….. and waited….. and waited. The hooded crows came……. the ravens came…… and we waited. And then as the light was fading at 20.30ish the bear came. This is a big old bear – he has taken a hell of a strike to his nose but it is clearly healed (despite looking ugly), and he is using it to sniff so he obviously has full use of it. He comes onto the lake from the Russian side and strolls around, sniffing out the snacks left for him. He wanders along the edge of the lake, mooching in and out of the trees, shooing the hooded crows out of his way before heading towards a small copse which is just off to the side of our hide. He is probably around twenty meters away and now you really realise how big this old male is. After a while he moves off back round the lake before heading off towards the North. It is really dark by now and you can barely see any way at all. We strip off our coats but leave on everything else and clamber onto the bunks. With all of our clothing including thermal hats and fingerless gloves, the sleeping bags, blankets and our coats draped over we are warm enough and pretty much sleep through until 4.40am when it is light enough to go back to watching out the hide. However other than the scenery, which is beautiful in the morning light, nothing further is seen. At 8.00am we gather all the gear back together and head back to the main building for breakfast – buffet style which includes juice, cereal, sausage, eggs, beans, toast as well as tea and coffee. Durng breakfast we had a chat with some of the other guest (the Scottish guy who we spoke to earlier had now spent five nights in hides, but had been in a different area and had still not seen any bears and was heading home today ). After breakfast we headed to our room to doze (particularly J) before having showers. Once my hair was dry (you really, really don’t want to go out here with wet hair) we went down to the bird watching hide. The Scottish guy had advised that the red squirrels were frequent visitors, so we watched and waited. The bird hide is much more open than the bear hides, although it has same kind of apertures for cameras. There are some lovely logs and settings for creatures to sit in – should they deign to come. After a while some blue tits and great tits turned up, then some chaffinch (and sitting right at the back and totally refusing to come forward was a bullfinch – this was the only time we saw it despite keeping our eyes peeled. Then a lovely great spotted woodpecker turned up, bobbing in among the small birds. We saw a couple of squirrels bouncing through the wood in the distance. And then…… a lovely little red squirrel arrived. During the winter red squirrels often have a grey coat (J says they are like the Guards at Buckingham Palace with their grey winter coat and red coats in the summer). With it coming towards the end of their winter the red coat was starting to come through this individual’s winter coat – giving him lovely and rather interesting marbled pattern. Although the squirrel was clearly aware of the cameras he was totally unconcerned. When the squirrel ran off into the woods, and we were thoroughly frozen we headed back to our nice toasty room to warm up before getting ready for our next evening in the hides. The Second Night in the Hide As we headed over to dinner tonight it was snowing, then it started snowing harder. This evening we had quite a heavy snowfall. We walked down to the hides through fresh crispy show. The boardwalks which are narrow in any case were caked with snow and ice, and were more than a bit slippy. (One of the other guests was an older French guy, who had been several times before. He was less stable on his feet but had bought hiking poles which assisted in keeping his balance on the narrow boardwalks). But it was oh so beautiful. We tucked ourselves into our hide for the night and started the waiting game…. And we waited and waited and waited, watching the snow falling – but tonight there were no bears – at least not until long after it had gone dark. The following morning we could see a lovely sunrise, and bear prints around the hide. Ah well that’s wildlife. Walking back to the main buildings for breakfast we saw a rather nice black woodpecker. The day followed pretty much the same as yesterday – breakfast, snoozing, shower – a bit of reading, then down to the bird hide. This time we had barely arrived when first birds appeared including a woodpecker and then a different squirrel decided to come and pose in the afternoon light. What a lovely dilemma for photographers – woodpecker or red squirrel? Our Third Night in the Hide So after dinner we once again headed down for our third night in the hide. Today we were back around the lake where most of the bear activity seemed to be at this time of year. So we settle in to our standard waiting….. and waiting …. and here, whilst the light is still good (it’s only 18.15) is our big, battered old friend. Once again he comes from the Russian side of the lake, making his way around the edge, weaving among the trees before heading for the copse a short distance away from our hide. Today he comes even closer to the hide, filling the lens with his head and shoulders. It’s clear he can hear cameras but it is also clear that he is used to these sounds and although he looks up to check on us occasionally he is unbothered by the clicking. Something however does disturb him and he lurches into a gallop for about twenty meters, before calming down and strolling along the lake off into the forest. We see him a couple more times tonight at a distance. At one point there is a red fox up on the bank, and we watch as he clambers swiftly up the bank chasing the fox into the woods. We finally stop watching for him as the light fades away entirely. Tonight is bitterly, bitterly cold so we snuggle as deeply as possible in our covers, with only noses showing to get some sleep. There is another wonderful sunrise this morning – with the hot sunlight pouring through the trees onto the icy ground. The walk back this morning is particularly beautiful, the cold night means that the snow is extra crispy and there is a bright blue sky to contrast with the snow. Once again at 8.00 we head back for some breakfast, warming up and snoozing. This is our last full day at Wild Brown Bear, so this afternoon we head back to the bird hide. The two Dutch guys that we have been talking to, join us in the hide and we sit watching the tits and finches hopping around in the snow. After a short while the male great spotted woodpecker turns up. He clambers around in the trees, and then pops down to the ground looking lovely in the snow. Then to our delight the female turns up and for a while we have both the male and female, in the warm afternoon sun. After about an hour, a red squirrel turns up. This is another different squirrel, this one looks smaller and is a lovely silver colour with almost no red coming through. It is very willing to pose – sitting in all the right spots, clinging from the tree and peering from the branches beautifully. We did not expect the squirrels at all – but they have been a joy. Our Last Night in the Hide So our last night in the hide – this hide is a little less windproof but it is warmer tonight so it is not really a problem. We start settling into our hide – moving slowly and quietly. Sorting out the sleeping bags and getting everything organised takes quite a while. In this case we both have two lightweight sleeping bags which takes longer to sort out, as you have to get into one and then pull the other one over that one. So finally we sit down – all sorted and arranged and look out the window and J says “bear”. Its 17:15, the light is wonderful and here is our big, battered, old friend. This time he is not coming from Russia but from the other side of the lake, and he is marching straight across to where we are sitting. We watch as he wanders round to the Russian side of the lake, going behind the trees. Anyway as he goes out of sight we relax waiting to see if he will come back and he does, moving around the lake before heading off into the forest. While we are waitng we notice of the hooded crows has found something interesting. A close look shows it a kind of pine cone, which it takes out into the middle of the frozen lake where it proceeds to jump, and pounce on it, more like a cat than a bird. We’ve no idea what it was doing but it was interesting to watch. We watch as the light fades and then suddenly we can see another bear shape in among the trees. This is a much smaller bear; it’s younger and a lot more nervous. I’m not sure if it was nervous of us or of the older and much bigger bear. It is absolutely beautiful, especially when it stands in the last bit of the evening light. It stays back among the trees – darting out to see if there is anything to eat, often standing like a pointer dog with its foreleg held in the air. Finally it got dark and we bedded down for the night. The morning bought no animals but another amazing sunrise. The hot sunlight reflected off of the ice of the lake, creating an almost molten look. It was definitely warmer tonight and on the walk back from the hides the snow was beginning to melt, and more greenery was appearing from beneath the snow. Back at our room, and after breakfast, we stripped of the thermals, woolly hats, gloves, scarfs and all the rest of the apparel. We packed the bags and got ready for our return trip to Kajaani airport. Driving along the road west we suddenly had to slow to almost a stop as a large reindeer type creature crossed the road just ahead of the car. It trotted off to join its herd which were gathered at the side of a frozen lake. These were forest deer – apparently they are rare and difficult to see. It was a nice treat to see them before our return to the UK. Check in and security at Kajaani were quick and efficient, and we caught the early afternoon flight to Helsinki, before another fairly swift transfer onto the flight back to Heathrow. It was a fun trip – bitterly cold most of the time, but oh so very beautiful. It was lovely to see the bears in the snow. I would like to go back and see them (possibly in the Autumn when the leafs are all turning), although I am not sure I fancy it quite so cold again. I really did love seeing the bears though – so maybe I could even be persuaded to go in April again. Who knows!
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