Take a number 6, 6T or 8 tram from the centre of town and get off at Arabia – a suburb of Helsinki to the north-north-east. Take any right turn (from the direction of travel) and walk half a kilometre down to the water. Turn left along the waterside path and then turn right over the pedestrian suspension bridge. Turn immediately right again, over or around the rock mound, and find the boardwalk sign-posted ‘Lammassaari’.
I supply these directions so that, should you wish to visit Lammassaari, you won’t get as lost as I did.
I had a free day so thought I’d do a bit of birdwatching. Lammassaari looked like the nearest interesting place to go – a wooded island surrounded by reed-beds and open water, all part of a conservation area called Viikinlahti Park, or Viiki for short.
I was helped to find a route to the waterside path by a kind lady who got off the tram when I did on her way to work at the nearby university. We went via her office where she gave me a copy of a report she’d recently produced on emergency housing construction for natural disasters. I used to work in relief and development, so it was relevant. Then she pointed me on my way. Afterwards, I e-mailed to thank her for the report and for her directions. She replied to thank me for my thanks : ‘How polite you British people are, that was nothing’. I am now concerned that I may have conveyed a false impression. ‘We’ British have recently voted to brexit.
There was a stiff wind blowing from the north and directly onto my face – grey water to my right, mown grass and occasional trees, with flats beyond, to my left. Beyond the grey water were the reed-beds. Between the path and the water was a strip of grey pebbles and the occasional larger rock, on one of which a pair of arctic terns (Sterna paradisaea) were hunkered down together, facing into the wind, with long wings and tail trailing. Red bills, no black tip as in the Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). They were hardly ten meters away and, as far as I recall, the first arctic terns I had ever for certain seen. I watched for some while. They stayed hunkered. This was in June, by the way. Shouldn’t they have been busy breeding in the Arctic ? Or at least breeding ? They do breed in Finland apparently. Or did they have an egg or two perched on the top of the rock ? Probably not. Perhaps they had not yet started ?
Swifts (Apus apus) arced over the water and the reed-beds. Summer visitors. A great-crested grebe (Podiceps cristatus) cruised by in summer whiskers-and-crest. The odd fieldfare (Turdus pilaris) occurred noisily on the grass and in the trees. Fieldfares. In June. North enough for them to breed it seems. They are a winter visitor in England.
A pair of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and a pair barnacle geese (Branta leucopsis), both with a number of young goslings, occupied the side of the path while their little ones grazed on the short grass. They took only minor notice of people passing by. A lone Hoodie (Hooded Crow – Corvus cornix) hung around nearby considering his chances . . .
Canada geese, since their introduction, seem to be ubiquitous throughout northern Europe. Apparently some have also introduced themselves, though from which direction I’m unable to discover. Barnacle geese, meanwhile, are complicated. There used to be three different populations in northern Europe, breeding in one place, wintering in another. Of late there is a fourth which now breed in the Baltic (instead of further North) and winter in the Netherlands. In Britain they mostly come either from Greenland to the west side of Scotland for the winter, or from Svalbard to the east side of Scotland. So the odd ones we have down South in winter must either be lost, adventurous or escapees I suppose.
I turned right over the pedestrian suspension bridge and then failed to turn right around the rock mound. I went straight on, looking for a sign to Lammassaari. There were woods on either side, not water or reed-beds. After some time I came upon a map board which suggested I’d come the wrong way. I turned around and retraced my steps. I happened to glimpse a bird in the undergrowth. It was a uniform brown. Very much like a nightingale, I thought. By which time it had already disappeared. I am not a great pursuer so I let it go and walked on. I found the sign to Lammassaari. I soon came to the edge of the woods and the beginning of a boardwalk heading out through the reed-beds – at which point I was stopped by the unmistakeable vocal mucking-about of a nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos). It was surely not more than ten meters away in the tangled bushes and trees. But where ? It was typically nightingale ventriloquil. I searched in vain.
However, I also thought, this isn’t right. There’s lots of mucking-about of a clacking, churring and clattering kind, but where are the pure and wonderful whistles which earn the nightingale its fame ? They weren’t there. I consulted my bird book. It was an imposter. Not a nightingale, but a thrush nightingale (Luscinia luscinia). Nightingales proper do not summer so far North. However, apparently L. luscinia does whistle, and even flute – but lacks the nightingale’s mad, whistling crescendos. Mine failed even to whistle. On my return, by the same path, when I had a good look for it again, I still failed to get even a glimpse, and it still failed to whistle, it just kept clattering and clacking. Still, a new species is always a treat.
The boardwalk was narrow with head-high reeds on either side. There was not much to be seen. A few other users came along, including a party of schoolchildren out for a nature walk and a couple of workmen out to do some repairs. They carried tools and wire. In both cases I had to step aside, hanging on to a boardwalk post, in order to let them past. After perhaps twenty minutes I arrived at Lammassaari – a rocky, wooded island surrounded by the reed beds and patches of open water. There were wooden shacks scattered here and there – weekend or summer houses by the look of them, not permanent habitations. Lots of fieldfares. A few crows and gulls along the shore, and the swifts out over the reeds and open water. I followed a path along the shore until I reached the further end of the island – and another boardwalk. This took me to a smaller island, similarly wooded and shacked.
Thus far, my visit to Lammassaari had been pleasant but – since I left the thrush nightingale – unexciting. On my way back thing became more interesting. A cacophony occurred in the reeds to my right. All kinds of noises delivered rapidly, loudly and at length. I knew this one. A sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus). It is usually said that it mimics other birds among its various alarums. I peered for it and was eventually rewarded with a glimpse – small and streaked on body, face and head.
Only a little further on I was stopped by twittering on both sides of the boardwalk. These I did not recognise. Nor could I spot the twitterers. The density of the reeds blocked all view beyond a couple of yards. I therefore thought about it : reeds, twittering . . . Bearded tits (Panurus biarmicus). I consulted my bird book. ‘Song twittering’ it said. But not actually tits (Paridae) of course. Parrotbills then (Paradoxornithidae), usually more southern reed-dwellers of very similar appearance. Nope. DNA analysis says the bearded tit, or bearded reedling, is unique – the only member of its family, the Panuridae. Be that as it may, having seen them at home on a few rare occasions I can report that they are a delight : moustachioed, long tailed, tiny, clinging to the sway of the reeds while they twitter.