Finland’s biggest bird competition

The Ahvenanmaan linturalli, or Åland Bird Rally, organised by biology students from the University of Helsinki, has become Finland’s biggest bird competition by a substantial margin. Despite the thick fog, the winning team boasted more than 90 different species of birds last weekend.

Friday, 16.50

 “I have butterflies in my stomach now. It’s about to start!”

Organised for the thirtieth time, the annual bird competition held by Symbioosi ry brings together students of different ages. Most of them are biology students ranging from geneticists to botanists, but some of the teams hail from the University of Jyväskylä and Aalto University. Of course, there are also some “senior teams” such as ours, which are made up of alumni.

Friday, 17.45

– South-western peak of Åland (Eckerö, Styrsingudden): fog

During the rally, the more experienced teams help the juniors: when we are seawatching – surveying the sea with a telescope – we tell the first-years which species of birds are flying past. However, we do our best to hide our best observations from our direct competitors.

Saturday, 06.10

– (From the window of the Nåtö Biological Station): fog (back to bed for one more hour)

While we sip our morning coffee, we notice that the other team that spent the night on the Nåtö Station hasn’t even woken up yet. They later told us they had headed out closer to noon.

 “The best part is the good food we bring along and the excellent company,” say Pauliina Hyttinen, student of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Laura Mattila, student of environmental sciences, of this year’s rally. It was the third time at the rally for both of them.

Their teammate Mikko Aulio, student of environmental sciences, also enjoyed the rally, which was his fifth. On previous years, his teams may have been a little too competitive.

A fundamental difference between the teams seems to relate to their competitiveness. Some are still seawatching on the deck of the boat ride back, competing over who can spot a king eider – the glorified rubber duckie of the eider family – among the gaggles of eiders.

Saturday, 10.25

– Bomarsund: fog

We go off the beaten path, pushing east to the ruins of the Bomarsund fortress to collect a sample of a rare variety of rowan for the Botanic Garden.

Over the years, we have dotted the Åland archipelago with our familiar spots: should we go to our white-throated dipper spot or the hawfinch feeding spot? We counted that all together, our three-person team had competed in the Symbioosi rally approximately 30 times. At the debriefing we found out that some of the teams were even more senior than that.  

Saturday, 12.15

– On the road somewhere (sudden stop): Curlew! Where? Over there, standing proudly in the foggy field.

Together with her team, Miia Mannerla, graduate student of ecology and evolutionary biology, participated in the rally for the first time. On the way back, the trilingual team eagerly praise the experience, which even the poor weather could not ruin.

 “It felt good to work together, even though we weren’t particularly competitive. For example, I had never seen as many cranes as I did on this trip. I’ve got the bug now, I have to go birdwatching in Helsinki as well,” Mannerla enthuses.

In addition to ornithology, participants and teams find themselves learning patient observation, precise descriptions and the critical evaluation of observations. All of these are crucial skills both in studies and the later career.

Saturday, 19.10

The Sport Centre of Åland (Godby): stars twinkle on a clear sky

After the rally, all teams gather for the debriefing to go through the results. Mari Tolonen, one of the organisers, runs the meeting in two languages, as one of the teams consists entirely of international students. Despite the large crowd, the debriefing goes smoothly, thanks to Tolonen.

During the debriefing, each team takes turns calling out a bird species that has not been previously named. It has been over three hours when the winning team calls out their last species, the Caspian gull, which is also the 300th bird species personally spotted by the team’s captain, Aki Aintila.

To make sure the competition doesn’t become too serious and to encourage those with scant ornithological knowledge to participate, the teams also make pseudo-observations of anything remarkable, from a teddy bear left on top of a gas pump at a fuel station to a local senior who moved in a suspicious fashion.  Gales of laughter erupt from the audience as the teams present their pseudo-observations.

My team found 70 species, which brought us to the 13th position. I feel some regret, as we could have realistically spotted five or six more species.

There’s always next year!


In the bird rally, teams move around in cars or on bikes and compete over who can spot the most species of birds in 24 hours.

Organised by Symbioosi, the organisation for students in the biological sciences, the bird rally runs on the Åland islands from Friday 17.00 to Saturday 17.00. The bird rally boat departs from Turku at 8.00 on Friday morning and comes back on Sunday just before midnight.

This year’s rally had a record-breaking number of teams, 45 in total, with three to five members in each.

Good rally etiquette requires that competitors don’t wait until the debriefing to call out rare finds, but announce them during the competition. One of this year’s rarities was the long-legged pied avocet, which looks like an avian harlequin with its black-and-white plumage and comically upturned beak.

Birdwatchers place special importance on the first time a species is observed during a particular year, as well as on the first time the species is observed in a birdwatcher’s lifetime.

Symbioosi ry, the organisation for all students of biology, organises both informal and formal parties as well as birdwatching competitions such as the Åland Bird Rally, nature hikes and even an organism rally, in which points are awarded for observations of any organisms, be it a bird, beetle or buttercup.

Symbioosi funds its operations by organising the Vappushokkelo, an all-ages event on May Day. Part of the proceeds from the event is donated to environmental charities.