The Kvarken area has an extremely rich bird life, with both nesting birds and birds that are passing through and taking a break during their spring or fall migration. Of course there are natural reasons for this rich bird life, including the fact that Kvarken's geographic location and natural environment provide excellent conditions. There are relatively large areas of shallow sea beds, inlets, rock outcroppings and islands. The widely varied topography of the area offers many possible breeding grounds and plentiful food.

Nesting birds

Sweden and Finland share the same bird population with respect to coastal birds. The birds know no national boundaries and fly freely above the islands and the wide open sea. Several coastal bird species nest in plentiful numbers in the Kvarken area.

Coastal bird species Number of nesting pairs
Tufted duck (Aythya fuligula) 4200
Velvet scoter (Melanitta fusca) 7100
Eider (Somateria mollissima) 3800
Red-breasted merganser (Mergus serrator) 3400
Turnstone (Arenaria interpres) 1300
Redshank (Tringa totanus) 1000
Common gull (Larus canus) 10600
Black-headed gull (Larus ridibundus) 7100
Herring gull (Larus argentatus) 1800
Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) 16300
Common tern (Sterna hirundo) 1700
Black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) 10400
Razorbill (Alca torda) 4300

Some interesting nesting birds:

The red-throated diver (Gavia stellata) is one of western Kvarken's typical birds. During late spring and summer when the red-throated diver nests you can hear its cackle along the parts of the coast where the spruce forests by the small lakes and marshes meet the sea. The red-throated diver is an extremely beautiful bird and is incredibly shy in its breeding grounds.

Bild: Smålom, Kvarkens natur sid 84 (Jörgen Wiklund)
Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/N
Red-throated diver

The flat coastal spruce forests of the western Kvarken are the home of the red-throated diver. They nest here in small lakes, sometimes in small pools of water out in the bogs. A survey of Umeå municipality showed that the red-throated diver never nests farther than 12 kilometres from the sea, since they only fish in the sea. The combination of many suitable lakes for breeding and good access to fish in the sea contributes to this being one of Sweden's densest populations of red throated divers. In 1992, 21 pairs of red-throated divers nested on the Holmöarna islands.

Bild: Kvarkens natur sid 85 (T Pahtamaa)
Photo: Tuukka Pahtamaa
Greater Scaup

The greater scaup (Aythya marila) is a small sea duck that breeds in Kvarken's outer archipelago. Most of Kvarken's approximately 850 pairs of greater scaups are on the Finnish side, where they mainly nest around Molpegrunden and Rönnskär. Eastern Kvarken's greater scaups actually account for about 70% of Finland's population. On the Swedish side, greater scaups can mainly be found in Snöanskärgården.

The white-tailed eagle (Haliaetus albicilla) is a characteristic species of Kvarken. If you are alert while walking in the area, you may very well see this giant among birds, with its broad, long wings, patrolling the air along the coasts. Eagles can be found in the Kvarken area year round.

Bild: Havsörn
The white-tailed eagle is a characteristic species of Kvarken.

When the white-tailed eagle almost became extinct in Sweden because of environmental toxins and hunting in the early 1970s, a few pairs could still be found in the Vasa archipelago. In the middle of the 1980s the population slowly began to make a comeback, and when eagle pairs once again began to nest on the Swedish side of Kvarken, they were birds from the Finnish side that had moved across the strait. Most of Kvarken's approximately 35 nesting eagle pairs are still on the eastern side. The Finnish Kvarken eagles account for a considerable portion of Finland's entire white-tailed eagle population.

Bild: Tobisgrissla
Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/N
The black guillemot is one of Kvarken's most numerous coastal birds

The black guillemot (Cepphus grylle) is one of the most common coastal birds in Kvarken. This little guillemot is easily overlooked by the uninformed, but can be seen essentially everywhere above the surface of the sea as it flits about with its low, swift flight above the waves and with the white spots on its wings showing clearly against its otherwise black body.

There are about 6,500 pairs of black guillemot in Kvarken; on the Swedish side, the population is a large part of the entire Swedish population. This bird usually nests in colonies and one of the biggest can be found on Malgrundet, east of Holmögadd, with over 1,000 pairs. The Valsörarna islands also have a huge black guillemot population.

Migratory birds

Bild: Sträckande prutgäss (J Wiklund)
Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/N
Brent geese in flight

The area's geography offers a particularly good migratory path for birds through the Kvarken area. Since the Kvarken strait is the waistline of the Gulf of Bothnia, the north-south path of birds narrows here with just 23 kilometres between Valsörarna and Holmögadd. A natural southeast-northwest migratory route also passes right over Kvarken. With two major migratory routes passing overhead, Kvarken is a wonderful place for birdwatchers.

Bild Sönnerstgrundet (J Wiklund, VF sid 164)
Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/N
Sönnerstgrundet at Ivarsboda is one of the best places to watch migrating birds in the western part of Kvarken

The migrating birds passing through Kvarken is often not apparent to non-specialists. This is because so many bird fly over the sea, often in high winds, and in general they are flying in the early mornings or even at night. Even so, their migrations are fascinating. Imagine common scoters that will nest in the far Siberian tundra flying past our waters or the loons prefer this route to their mating sites while preferring to fly over Russia to reach their winter nesting grounds by the Black Sea. These birds are world-travellers. Here there are no national borders. It's the northern hemisphere's water and land masses that have precedence.

Photo: Seppo Lammi
Stretching rough-legged buzzard

The rough-legged buzzard (Buteo lagopus) is one of the species that first received attention for having a migratory path to the southeast over the Kvarken strait. The species mainly winters in southeast Europe and a large part of the population finds its way over the Kvarken area while travelling to the Scandinavian mountains. Migration takes place throughout April and the beginning of May, usually peaking right after April 20. Rough-legged buzzards do not travel in flocks; they fly above the Kvarken archipelago one by one. They fly in most types of weather, but take advantage of clear warm days with good updrafts over the moors of the Finnish islands to gain altitude and speed out over the sea. About 2,000 rough-legged buzzards are usually counted each spring, though large variations occur. The biggest daily figures are impressive. On 24 April 1984, as many as 1,200 rough-legged buzzards were seen leaving the Valsörarna islands on the same day and on 20 April 1975, 1,181 birds were counted flying above Grossgrunden, Holmöarna.

Convenient locations for rough-legged buzzard watching in late April on the Swedish side include Lövöudden outside Holmsund and Vitskärsudden outside Obbola. The best location for rough-legged buzzard watching on the Finnish side is the Valsörarna island group and Klobskat.

Bild: Flyttande tranor (J Wiklund)
Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/N
Cranes on the move

The crane (Grus grus) is one of the species that even non-experts can easily recognise. The crane is also a fascinating bird. It has two different migratory paths. Part of the northern Swedish population migrates to the south and follows southern Swedish cranes to Spain, while another group of the northern Swedish cranes migrate to winter quarters in south-eastern Europe and by the Black Sea. These particular cranes come by the thousands each year and cross Kvarken.

The loons (Gavia sp.) are one of the most fascinating groups with respect to their migration through the Kvarken region. They are not easy to see when they fly past in small flocks, often in nasty, windy weather, grazing the waves far out to sea. Imagine - before the day is over, these fast flyers may land all the way up at the White Sea and eventually they will continue to their breeding lakes on the Russian tundra. The highest number of loons migrating past in spring is impressive. Almost 30,000 were counted from the Valsörarna islands during a single spring, though more normal numbers for spring are 3,000 in western Kvarken and 9,000 in eastern Kvarken.

The skua (Stercorarius sp.) is another interesting migratory group. Both the common skua and a few pomarine skuas pass by each spring on their way to the Siberian tundra. Some skuas travel via the Gulf of Finland, but many fly through the Kvarken area. The best migration is usually on the Swedish side. A total of about 100 pomarine and 450 common skuas are estimated to pass over Kvarken each spring.

Bild: Sträckande sjöorrar (J Wiklund)
Photo: Jörgen Wiklund/N
Migrating common scoters

The common scoter (Melanitta nigra) is the species that dominates the migration in terms of numbers. In spring it is on its way to the Siberian tundra, where it will breed in small lakes and in May during some years vast numbers fly over the Kvarken archipelago. Although the numbers appear to have declined in recent years, a few tens of thousands still fly over Kvarken every year. One amazing peak day in modern times was 17 May 1993, when over 57,000 common scoters and velvet scoters flew past the Valsörarna islands in mixed flocks during a single day.

Links, with the latest totals of migratory birds flying through Kvarken (in Swedish), Sweden's Ornithological Association with links to sites such as the Västerbotten Ornithological Association, Stora Fjäderägg's birding station and Svalan (general reporting system for birds). (in Swedish), Birds in Umeå. (in Swedish)

Texts: Anders Enetjärn, Lise-Lotte Molander.
Translation: Accent Språkservice AB.
Layout & illustrations: Päivi Anttila.
Webbdesign: Fredrik Smeds, Freddi Com Oy Ab.
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