Where to go birdwatching in the Helsinki region? Here’s a short guide to some of the best spots.
A recent conversation in Suomen linnut (”Finnish Birds”) Facebook group alerted me to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of practical online guides to birding in Helsinki for the English-speaking readership. This is my attempt at writing a beginner’s guide to birdwatching here in my home town. To keep things simple, I will only introduce some key locations and let you know how to reach them.
The emphasis is on spring and early summer, but most of the locations are top notch throughout the year. I am an amateur birdwatcher and nature enthusiast, and this article does not delve into ecology or any hard core-birding peculiarities of the areas in question. I believe this brief guide also serves non-birders wanting to get to know Greater Helsinki region’s nature. The locations mentioned are easy to reach by bike or public transport.
For each spot, I have provided a map link to Paikkatietoikkuna, an online geographical information system, and placed some map markers to locations mentioned in the text. You might have to zoom in a bit on the map to read them. Instructions on finding your way around Helsinki are provided at the end of the article.
Vanhankaupunginlahti bay area, including the fields in nearby Viikki, is probably the most important and easily accessible birding place in Helsinki. It boasts half a dozen birdwatching towers overlooking bird-rich mudflats, somewhat diverse forests, and log paths that traverse endless reed beds.
Starting from the west side of the bay, Pornaistenniemi features a small deciduous forest apt for spotting species such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. The eastward path takes you to a high birdwatching tower that offers a great view over Vanhankaupunginlahti. Western Marsh Harriers are a common sighting. Some hundred meters from the tower there’s a sizable hide suited for an up close look on waterfowl such as ducks, coots, and gulls – even a Citrine Wagtail might show up among the reeds! A spotting scope isn’t necessary in the hide. It is a great place for nighttime listening as well (see below). You might catch a glimpse, or hear a call, of a Bearded Reedling on the log path.
Birdwatching towers at Keinumäki and Hakalanniemi are highly recommended, although the latter (and better one, I think) tends to be very populous in April and May. Opposite Hakalanniemi, on the other side of the bay, is another great tower, Lammassaari, which is especially enjoyable in evening light. Both of these towers have mud flats in front of them (size dependent on water level), which is great for spotting waders/shorebirds. There’s also a nice petite tower east from Hakalanniemi, at Purolahti, which allows you to observe waders and other birds fairly close by, should the time of the year (and water level) be right.
On the east side of the bay, Fastholma has a tower that, relatively speaking, might not be that interesting – but the surrounding forest areas might prove worth a walk. The Majavakallio rocks close to Herttoniemi, reachable via an exhausting flight of stairs, offer an open view for observing migration. In the southeastern corner of the bay, you should definitely visit Kivinokka. It is a beautiful small forest that allows you to see and hear passerines such as Red-breasted Flycatcher and Wood Warbler, alongside Northern Goshawks and the odd White-backed Woodpecker (at least during the winter). There is a platform overlooking the Vanhankaupunginlahti bay as well.
The fields in Viikki are wonderful for spring birdwatching. The open view is great for observing migration, and the fields serve as a resting place for thousands of migrators from several species of geese to waders, thrushes and all sorts of small passerines. You can get by on binoculars alone, although a spotting scope does help in, well, spotting some of the interesting birds hiding further away.
A summery suggestion: Start your trip from Pornaistenniemi around sunset (or even later). Stop and listen at the birdwatching tower or the hide. Follow the log path to Lammassaari and Kuusiluoto. Depending on luck and time of the year, you might hear grasshopper and marsh warbler species, Eurasian Bitterns, Water Rails, Spotted Crakes, and even the wailing of Long-eared Owl young! The best time is a clear, non-windy night in early summer. Even if you don’t know any of these birds, it is a wonderful walk among the reed beds.
Pretty much the number one birding place in Espoo, a half an hour trip from central Helsinki. Not unlike Vanhankaupunginlahti, Laajalahti is also a bay area with reed beds, mud flats and the occasional forest. There are two key locations on opposite sides of the bay, Maarin torni and Villa Elfvik, which are connected by a circa two-kilometer-long route.
Maarin torni is a birdwatching tower overlooking a clearing consisting of wader-friendly mud, reeds, and low vegetation fit for ground nesting birds. An abundance of species of ducks, gulls, terns, geese and other waterfowl are present – alongside waders, which are the main attraction for many. Ospreys are frequently seen fishing on the bay, and an egret might find its way among the Grey Herons. It is also a wonderful place for observing the spring migration, and in its newly renovated form, is able to accommodate more birders than any tower I know. A spotting scope is a huge help, since a lot of the action is going to be far away. The conditions in front of Maari vary according to water levels, not to mention time of the year.
Taking the route towards Villa Elfvik is highly recommended, and you can spot several sorts of warblers, thrushes and, say, a Common Rosefinch on the way. (Note: Due to changes and construction work along the way, part of the route is fairly boring at the moment.) During nighttime in early summer, the bay area as a whole is great for hearing species such as Thrush Nightingales, marsh and grasshopper warblers, Water Rails and Spotted Crakes.
Villa Elfvik, as the name suggests, does have a villa (serving as a café and a “nature house”), but the name generally refers to the whole surrounding area. The forest area around the villa is charming and filled with bird song come spring. An abundance of dead trees, both standing and long-since fallen, makes it a great spot for woodpeckers. There’s even a chance of encountering a Three-toed Woodpecker. A circular path along the reed beds is generally a good place for spotting the Bearded Reedling (at least in the winter), as well as some reed-loving warblers. Elfvik’s birdwatching tower pales somewhat in comparison to Maarin torni but is a fine birdwatching spot nonetheless.
After leaving Laajalahti, you might also want to check out Iso-Huopalahti bay a few kilometers northwest. A fine place for nighttime listening in early summer, as well as for observing waterfowl and waders (at least when water level is low). There’s no tower and it might take a bit of searching to get the best view on the bay. Somewhere around here’s a good spot.
Vuosaaren täyttömäki, Mustavuori, Kasaberget
So much for bays, then. Perhaps the best birding location in eastern Helsinki (or, according to some, even the best overall, especially in autumn) is Vuosaaren täyttömäki – a old landfill turned into a beautiful hill! It features some of the best views in Helsinki and is thus well-suited for observing migration. The hill itself does attract birds, too, as do the surrounding forests.
Speaking of forests, the nearby Mustavuori grove is particularly lush when it comes to woodlands in Helsinki. This means Red-breasted Flycatchers, Greenish Warblers, and Wood Warblers among others. A great place to visit in late spring or early summer. Finding your way along the paths might not be particularly easy, but in this age of smartphone GPS maps you should be able to manage. You might, for example, start going north from here and just wander around the paths and gravel roads, eventually finding your way southward. If Google maps doesn’t cut it, Maastokartat app is one choice for tracing your steps on a topographic map.
From Mustavuori or Vuosaaren täyttömäki I’d recommend a walk via Porvarinlahti bay – itself worth a visit – all the way to another great landscape spot: Kasaberget. Surrounded by beautiful forest, Kasaberget is a hill with a great view – also to Porvoo’s flaming oil refineries if you’re into that sort of thing. A rather secluded and atmospheric place for observing migration. European Nightjars can sometimes be heard in the area.
A partially man-made wonder, Suomenoja is practically a pond next to a water treatment plant. Should that sound bad, it’s actually quite a scenic location. One of the best things about Suomenoja is that you can see waterfowl up close. And there’s a lot to see. You are able to effectively scan the whole area using binoculars alone, but a spotting scope can be put to use, too. With a bit of luck, it boasts almost every duck species found in Finland, such as Gadwall, Common Pochard, and even Garganey. It is home to over 3500 (!) breeding pairs of Black-headed Gulls, which help protect local populations of species such as Slavonian Grebes, Common Coots and Common Moorhens. This place is as easy as it gets: just walk around the path circling the pond, and perhaps take a look at Nuottalahti bay if you can find a good spot near the marina.
This concludes the first part. Should this blog post attract interest, I might consider writing a second part including, say, Haltiala, Matalajärvi, Kallahdenniemi, Uutela, Southern Helsinki, Lauttasaari – or even places further away such as Porkkalanniemi, Nuuksio or Meiko. I encourage others to chime in as well!
After some confusion over the correct English names of some of the species, I learned about the IOC convention on capitalization of bird names. Hence, capitalized names refer to a species (e.g. Marsh Warbler) and non-capitalized to a more general description, including higher taxonomic groups such as families (e.g. tree warblers). Should you find anything dubious about the species or their names, please let me know! I have so far chosen not to burden the text with scientific names, but I’m tempted to add them. Finnish birders tend to know them pretty well.
The Practical Part
A convenient means of finding your way to any of these places is to use the public transport journey planning tool Reittiopas and its version for cycling and walking. This requires placing the map marker on the desired location or, for less map-oriented folk, just typing in the nearest address of the place you’re going to. The system is able to recognize more than just addresses; it knows, for example, ”Hakalan lintutorni” as a search term, and thus guides you to one of the best birdwatching towers in Helsinki. The Paikkatietoikkuna map service I’ve been linking to has a tool for obtaining the nearest address for any location selected on a map.
The best way to find out what’s going on in Finnish birdlife is to check Finnish BirdLife’s bird sighting information system called Tiira. As far as I can tell, it is unfortunately not available in English. If you do manage to register in Finnish, you should be able to switch the Finnish bird names to scientific ones. A sizable part of the system’s functionalities are only available to BirdLife Finland’s members, though (around 40 €/year).
NOTE Please use common sense, especially in delicate areas. If you encounter information signs, please check them for any restrictions. It is imperative not to jump any fences in protected areas such as Laajalahti or Vanhankaupunginlahti. During breeding season even minor disturbances might prove fatal to nesting. Even if an area is not strictly off-limits, birds and other animals should be given the chance to feed and nest without being disturbed.
At the time of writing, on March 6, weather conditions are remarkably wintry. Most of the species mentioned in the article will not be reaching Helsinki for a while. Bodies of water are frozen solid. Waiting and searching for the first sightings of spring-bearing birds is, however, one of the most exciting things when it comes to birding. It is also a wonderful excuse to get out of the house during cold spring days.
To find out what I’m up to during the coming spring, you can follow me on Instagram!