Trip reports

Estonia - by Neil Bew

Estonia - by Neil Bew

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

29th April to 6th May 2009

Participants : David and Mary Braddock, Dave Campbell, Neil Bew, Michael Cooper, Ron Jackson, Peter Hambrook, Simon Lumsden, Frank Clark, Alan and Marion Sharps, Hannah lane, Shirley Johnson, Barbara Pearce
Tour Leader: Margus Ellermaa

What do you know about Estonia? Well, just to give a little background to this years trip, Estonia is the northernmost of the three Baltic States bordered to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the south by Latvia and to the east by a combination of Lake Piepsi and Russia. This position means that birds on migration to Scandinavia in particular can get funnelled through Estonia and evidence of migration was certainly strong during the week. The country itself, to my eyes, is a mixture of seemingly endless pine and birch forest, inland wetlands, agricultural land and a special coastline with coastal meadows and wetlands providing any number of places for birds and indeed birdwatchers.
As usual, the beginning of the trip was marked at the airport, Stansted in this case, where we all met. The unusual feature this time being that everyone wound up sitting outside in the airport equivalent of a pavement café, tea/coffee in hand and enjoying the sunshine. The flight itself was uneventful and we arrived in Tallinn after a couple of hours to be met by our guide. Margus proved to be a young (to me anyway) looking guy with waist length hair any 70's rock star would have been proud of. Dave had suggested before the trip that Margus didn't really know what 'rest' meant and that, together with a different appreciation of what 'short walk' meant, proved to be true. Margus was born in Estonia, left for Finland at 16 but clearly had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the country of his birth and its birds from which we were to benefit during the week.
As ever, what follows is a personal record and it wasn't possible to cover every bird we saw as a group or even every place we went to.
Having arrived well into the afternoon, there was no opportunity for any real birding on this day, but the drive to Roosta was marked by one particular half hour stop which yielded black grouse and woodlark having also collected black woodpecker on the drive, not a bad start! Roosta, situated in the North West of the country proved to be a section of coastal pine forest with a number of wooden chalets which were to be our home for the next three nights.

30th April

The early risers, not including me in must be said, had got up pre breakfast and wandered down through the forest to the west facing beach. They came back for breakfast with tails of red necked grebe, long tailed duck, divers, scoter and a single sea eagle. Jealousy led me to join Frank at the beach just after breakfast and whilst the eagle had gone, everything else was there.
First official stop of the day was Poosaspea, a spit of land poking out into the sea and therefore good for seawatching, which appears to be Margus' passion. The wind was exceptionally strong and some of us found our way into a small hut complete with settee, table, fire (out) and a strong smell of fish. The point yielded eider, black throated diver, common sandpiper, arctic tern and a repeat of the birds seen from Roosta beach that morning. The drive away from this site also gave us good views of a beautiful male montegus harrier, a very special, slim and elegant raptor that is very rare indeed in the UK.
This was followed by a slow drive on dirt tracks between a number of farm fields looking (unsuccessfully) for lesser white fronted geese. What we did see was a breeding plumaged lapland bunting. This is where I urge you to look up the bird in your fieldguide; black head and chest with a pale streak from the eye and red/brown nape. The last one I had seen was some years ago in mid winter Norfolk, not a patch on this bird believe me.
Haapsalu Bay next and a first sighting, for me, of sea eagle (white tailed eagle if you prefer although I like the admittedly less than entirely accurate sea eagle name); two huge, menacing raptors that dwarf everything else and inevitably attract the attention of gulls in a bid to drive them away. The first of the trips 'wild swans', bewicks swan, is always a special sight for me. This coast proved to hold both bewicks and whoopers on their way north and east. Another drive through the fields at Purksi (still no lesser white front) took us to Silma Nature Reserve, part of the bay complex around Haapsalu and boasting the first of the birdwatching platforms that are a feature around the reserves of Estonia. Silma gave us our first marsh harrier, a beautiful male and by way of contrast, willow and crested tits. The former is very difficult indeed to find in the UK and these are in any case paler than our birds but with a nice clear pale wing panel that is one of the differentiators from marsh tit. The reserve also resounded to the sound of booming bittern and the more delicate reeling of savi's warbler (or 'wobbler' as Frank would have it). We never did see a savi's but heard them at several places.
Food has always been (and remains) a key element for the North West Surrey travellers (notably if your name is Alan) and lunches on this trip were always an experience in themselves. Today's lunch was in a restored manor house and began with a nice piece of salmon; not the normal sandwiches that tend to accompany me on UK birdwatching trips.
Suitably refreshed, we set off for another part of the Haapsalu bay complex, known to us at least as Inner Haapsalu Bay and this is where the sea eagle took the lead in a big way with a total of, I believe, nine eagles counted spread across the far side of the bay. Another favourite raptor gave us good views in the shape of an osprey. Other highlights included, garganey, always stunning with that lovely eye stripe on the males, whooper swan, goldeneye and red necked grebe. Star of the waterbird parade were the smew, notably the males (sorry ladies) with that amazing soap powder white plumage acting as the base for the jet black markings. Even these were topped by caspian tern, monster sized (alright gull sized) terns with an enormous, powerful red bill.
Driving round to a different part of Haapsalu, this time much more in the town itself, added a male goosander and most welcome of all, breeding plumaged slavonian grebe with those amazing golden 'ear' tufts. Following dinner at Roosta, we had a go for owls in a local forest and here I had my first doubts as to Margus' ability to convert kilometres to miles. The stroll turned out to be a good bit longer than I had originally thought and after a few days, I managed to work out that the easiest thing to do was double the distance/time that Margus gave us for a particular walk and that worked out fine! The stroll gave us woodcock but on a somewhat breezy, cool evening, no owls. End of our first full day!

1st May

A very, very early start the next morning saw us take breakfast with us. However, at somewhere around 7.00, we were munching happily on the excellent portable breakfast whilst simultaneously watching black grouse at a lek at a place called Variku. Now this is a good swap for the early start; a sunny drive through the forest, spaced with very large clearings (one of which held a rather wary family of wild boar) rounded off by coffee, breakfast and black grouse. We continued the drive and actually managed to get very close to a larger group of grouse who seemed largely unworried by our presence.
Next stop proved to be a seemingly unnamed stretch of woodland and small fields (near Palivere apparently) and this was the sort of place where Margus' local knowledge stood out. Having struggled through some thick undergrowth and out into one of the small fields, out went the call 'nutcracker!' A great big crow (essentially) with amazingly white spotted brown plumage and a dagger bill. This was one bird several of our party were particularly keen to catch up with and all had decent views through telescopes, views that were bettered later in the week.
A brief stop in the village if Liivi added hawfinch and tree sparrow. Further on, Udruma Fields presented the group with our first lesser spotted eagles, small by eagle standards and as you would expect, difficult to tell apart from greater spotted eagles neither species being notably spotted unless the bird is a juvenile.
The afternoon saw us exploring different parts of Matsalu Bay, a little further south from yesterdays Haapsalu Bay but a similarly varied, and big, bay area with coastal meadow, reed beds and marsh. Rannajoe must be amazing in winter from a wildfowl point of view being a huge area of goose friendly marsh. Today still held another montegu's harrier and on the way back from the usual bird tower, a pied flycatcher. The next stop at Haeska (all still part of Matsalu Bay) had yet another tower (bit breezy at this point and I didn't fancy the climb) which nonetheless gave excellent views of white fronted geese on the meadow with a few familiar waders out on the muddy margins: redshank, greenshank, black tailed godwit and a single avocet. Little tern (another favourite), yellow wagtail and more garganey added to the atmosphere. I don't think I have mentioned sea eagle for a while but we had another one here.
Puise peninsula is, as the name suggests, a narrow snake of land at the north western point of Matsalu Bay and this was to be the venue for the evening meal, again cooked and presented by a local family in somewhat agricultural but very atmospheric surroundings. The venue proved a favourite of many of the group and both the food and the welcome were wonderful.
The drive back to Roosta was enlivened by Margus spotting a perched hobby (good going from a moving bus on a main road) which at one point, was joined by a waxwing, not an everyday combination!

2nd May

The next morning saw us leave Roosta for good as we were to move further south to stay in the town of Parnu for two nights, using this as our base to further explore the coast and particularly the forests of this region.
Our first stop en route was for a boat trip on the Kasari River. This was the first time Margus had done this trip I think and I am not sure how hopeful he was. However, the trip turned into one of the trip's highlights. Boat trips have bad memories for Hannah (a cold, wet and unproductive trip on the Medway for which Hannah will always blame me) and first sight of the traditional wooden boat (bit like a very large rowing boat in general outline) can't have filled Hannah with optimism. However, a gentle chugging out through the reeds on either side of what proved to be a side channel brought us to the main channel which took us out to the edge of Matsalu Bay. On the way, we were overflown by an osprey which then treated us to a fishing plunge (a cheer for Neil at this point who had never seen a plunging osprey!). more excellent views of sea eagle and marsh harrier, wood sandpiper, green sandpiper, breeding plumaged ruff (of which more later) and a seemingly endless supply of reeling savi's wobblers (try saying 'warbler' to yourself in a broad Scottish accent). That said, my enduring memory is of reaching the end of the channel, turning the engine off and then having what seemed like the whole of the bay laid out before us. It was a beautiful sunny day; wide blue sky and wide blue bay teeming with wildfowl including bewicks swans and white fronted geese.
A group photo , resplendent in bright orange life jackets, was followed by another of those lunches at a local farm. In this instance, we were directed to the rear of the farm where we found a large pond (small lake really) with lunch laid out and waiting. An idyllic setting with the addition, discreetly placed of course, of a convenience in a shed (not promising so far) but decorated like something out a show home; pink suite, net curtains, matching carpet and of course, liquid soap. Extraordinary but welcome.
A relatively brief stop at another spot on Matsalu Bay preceded a slightly longer drive south towards the site of our next hotel in the town of Parnu. Before arriving in Parnu, Margus stopped at a coastal meadow and reedbed hoping for citrine wagtail. I say hoping because Margus was careful not to over promise but in this case, we found them quite easily and had excellent view of at least three males; grey backed but everything else is bright yellow, breast belly and particularly the head which is unmarked, no eye stripes or other head markings to get in the way of that amazing yellow. Something of a stunner and on a personal note, my first 'lifer' of the trip.
The day ended in traditional fashion, glass in hand on the terrace of the hotel bar although to be fair, some of our number did venture into the local park, returning with tales of tree sparrow and fieldfare.

3rd May

An even earlier start! This time we were at the coach for about 05.30 before heading into Soometsa Forest. What's more, we were going to do two hours birding, including a longish walk, before breakfast! Was it all worth it I here you ask?
The initial drive through the forest gave us our one and only elk (or moose; same thing in these parts), stood in a clearing looking our way and managing to appear both gentle and very, very big at the same time. The walk proved to be brilliant with the early highlight being three toed woodpecker. Now this is a bird I had been particularly keen to see (Estonia has the only two European woodpeckers I had not seen) but to see this bird, Margus first played a recording of the woodpeckers call and drumming out into the forest. I have to say I have mixed feelings about using tape (or these days MP3) lures in this way; Is it 'proper' birdwatching? Does it disturb the birds? I would make two points (and keep in view these are very much my own views rather than that of any other group member) 1) My misgivings did not prevent me wanting to see this bird and being very happy indeed to do so and 2) Estonia is not so overrun with birdwatchers that this kind of disturbance happens frequently and at the present occasional level, I believe this is acceptable. Problems might occur in the future if the country becomes more popular as a birding destination (as it should) but I have no doubt that Margus and his colleagues will consider all this in the future. That said, this bird, remained deep in the woods so the group abandoned a few thousand quid's worth of telescopes on the trackside and plunged into the forest, pain, dodgy legs, backs and knees forgotten, in order to get stunning views of a stunning bird.
Soometsa Forest also gave us crossbill, bullfinch, lots of siskin and memorably, particularly for Margus, a single black stork in a county full of white storks. Both are stunning birds but there is something almost regal about a black stork. Further into the forest and we had our second and better views of black woodpecker together with grey headed woodpecker; these look a lot like green woodpeckers (which are not present in Estonia) but are noticeably smaller and of course, with a beautifully marked grey head. All in all, Soometsa Forest proved to be a bit special.
Further down the coast, we stopped at Kabli, another coastal site, still bordered by the forest, with meadow and reedbed plus the inevitable birdwatching tower. Another woodpecker, middle spotted this time, performed wonderfully for the group seemingly unworried by the close presence of the group. This was therefore the fifth species of woodpecker seen that morning! The quicker members of the group (not me therefore) had hoopoe on the coastal fields before we settled into watching the beach and sea - sandwich tern, scaup, goosander, velvet scoter and our daily sea eagle duly followed.
Lunch back at the hotel, followed by a rest for some of us, notably the ever patient driver, was followed at about 4.30 by a drive through Uulu Fields (first stock doves of the trip) before stopping at another of the seemingly endless string of small coastal reserves at Pikla. Another decent sized reedbed resounding to the boom of bittern and the reel of savi's warbler. This time however, we had large numbers of little gull, small delicate gulls who fly more like terns with the adults having the wonderful black underwing and the immature birds with the characteristic 'w' pattern across the top of the wing.
One more coastal stop still further south at Haademeeste completed our daylight birding and I have to say that at this place, I became less interested in the birds and more taken in by the sheer beauty of the surroundings; wide open sky, wide coastal meadows split by a small river leading into a kind of mini estuary backlit by a low sun. It worked for me anyway.
Another fabulous local dinner followed by a return to Soometsa Forest looking for owls, this time with a little more luck. Margus played a bit of pygmy owl call out into the woodland and after some hesitation, the owl, no bigger than a starling at most, came and had a good look at us. Our only owl of the trip, in spite of Margus doing his best eagle owl impression at massive volume, but a very special little bird indeed.

4th May

This morning, we checked out of the hotel in Parnu and for the first time, headed inland; east in fact for our last two nights stay at the Trophee Guest House Tammamae, of which more shortly.
The journey was broken by one of the most memorable stops of the whole week at a place called Sangla. The site essentially consists of two largish lakes with, on the face of it, nothing remarkable to recommend it. However, the lakes contained every kind of dabbling ducks you could wish for; garganey, teal, wigeon, shoveler, pintail; diving ducks in the shape of tufted duck, pochard and goldeneye. Geese were represented by white fronted, barnacle and bean, swans by mute, whooper and bewicks. Best of all, arguably, were two breeding plumaged red necked grebes close in and giving excellent views. Waders were not to be outdone and we had spotted redshank, greenshank, wood sandpiper and ruff. The ruff were extraordinary, breeding males in a massive range of plumages from white headed to dark browns and blacks and all points between, many at close range when we drove around the far side of one of the lakes, close to the shore. Keep in view that before that drive around the lakes, everything else could basically be seen standing in one spot between the two lakes, a spot where we could also enjoy the sunshine whilst getting close views of little gull. The highlight however was indirectly provided by our daily sea eagle, a single bird flying over the lakes spooked everything and we had the unforgettable sight, and sound, of thousands of geese taking to the air at the same time and in due course, flying back right over our heads as they began to settle back on the lakes. There is really no other experience quite like being overflown by thousands of geese and this proved to be a special moment for the whole group.
However, we had to move on in search of our next and final hotel. It was clear that Margus had not been to the hotel before (the maps and occasional puzzled exchange with our driver being the giveaway) and it must be said, that we did begin to wonder what we were letting ourselves in for as we drove down a succession of dirt tracks, past a few ramshackle buildings and seemingly further into an agricultural wilderness. It should also be said that were absolutely dumbfounded when we did reach our four story, immaculately presented hotel (converted mill house?) right on the river, next to a weir. The guesthouse turned out be decorated with hunting 'trophees', mostly African antelope heads, that sort of thing, and whilst that did add a bizarre touch, we were well looked after in what must be a hunting lodge for most of the year.
A number of us took a stroll across the river and into broken forest and open land and came back with excellent views of another lesser spotted eagle, singing redwing, fieldfare and a goosander on the river. This was a prelude to going out again and heading towards Ilmatsalu Fish Ponds, collecting another osprey on the way. The ponds, a series of man made (to my eyes) lakes yielded another two sea eagles seemingly doing a bit of airborne courtship and the trips only great white egret. Most excitingly, we all had a good look at a complete penduline tit nest (a truly amazing piece of engineering) complete with male penduline tit.
A move to Karavere Floods, and now we are in part of the massive inland wetlands that dominate much of this part of the country, to add great reed warbler preceded a longer stop in the same area for our picnic dinner. We were in search of great snipe at a long known site which was seemingly now under water; it was obvious to all of us that water levels were indeed very high. However, a quick phone call to a local contact and we shifted a little further down the road to a dryer area where I think Margus believed the birds would be anyway. Great snipe are a little large than common snipe but very rare and a bit mysterious. They also have an extraordinary idea of courtship and the grassy field we were now looking over is a lek site for these birds. Margus' advice for finding them was to scan through this field very slowly because they are very difficult to pick out. As luck would have it, I did see a little movement and eventually we were all looking at great snipe doing strange neck stretching exercises, occasionally jumping up as if surprised by a rival and of course, posturing with the other males. They also had a remarkable ability to fade from sight behind seemingly tiny tufts of grass and whilst you might be looking at say six birds in one small area one minute, they would vanish the next.
A terrific ending to another remarkable day.

5th May

Our last full days birding began with an early drive to Alam Pedja which proved to be a magnificent, and presumably ancient, long stretch of damp forest with a river running through it. That description does not do the place justice by any means but you kind of had to be there. Beaver sign was plentiful in the shape of fallen trees and shorter logs that had clearly been felled with powerful teeth. The birds of course were equally magnificent, notably the woodpeckers with black (heard), great spotted, lesser spotted, middle spotted and in particular, white backed. This latter bird completed a set for me in that it was the only European woodpecker I had not seen; a lot like a great spotted but much chunkier, with a more open face, heavier streaking on the flanks and a pinkish rather than red vent. Still, if that wasn't enough, we had amazing views of two more nutcrackers, pied and spotted flycatchers and the local race of long tailed tit with a completely white head. The sound of common crane calls echoing through the woodland clearings just added to the atmosphere. This was one of those places where Margus had mentioned a short walk which turned out to be about three (or more?) miles. I had by this time figured out that I needed to double all Margus' estimates and in any case, the walk was worth every last minute.
What the walk had done was tire out my old bones and I wasn't that active for the rest of the day! However, we headed into more of the inland wetlands at Aardla and just to prove that the water levels were indeed high, one of the birdwatching towers had its feet dipped in the water and the only way of reaching it was via a very narrow plank with a precarious little jump at the end to reach the base of the tower. Declining to actually try this route, I nonetheless made sure I was out of the bus and watching the others have a go at reaching the promised land. Most peoples favourite to fall in was Mick, and only Mary thought to use her tripod as support for the crossing. Fun to watch but no one actually fell in.
These wetlands produced more citrine wagtails, garganey, sea eagles and our one and only peregrine. This one spent some time trying to hunt down a wader involving stoops and swoops accompanied by cheers and groans from the group (bit like an unruly football crown really). The wader got away.
Our last stop in these wetlands produced a few more thousand geese and perhaps most amazingly, a hundred plus raven in and around the local rubbish tip.
From the birding point of view, that was just about it. We finished with a leisurely dinner back at the guesthouse, taking the time to properly thank Margus for his knowledge, guidance and seemingly endless energy. A proper thank you also for our endlessly patient driver who drove down whatever dodgy looking dirt track Margus pointed out and was ever ready to slam on the brakes when Margus spotted something from the bus. A quick phone call home (although getting a signal at the guesthouse proved a challenge with Ron resorting to standing on a large boulder at one point) and we were finished.

6th May

A steady drive north in drizzly conditions saw us arrive in Tallinn in good time. We finished the week with guided tour around the old city (bit of culture for NW Surrey RSPB!) which was both fascinating and enjoyable.
In all, the group saw some 160 species of birds (not to mention elk, wild boar, fox and something called a racoon dog; no bear, beaver or wolf although they are present) and as ever with these trips, met lots of friendly and welcoming local people. Thanks again to Margus (who headed off back to the north west coast to spend a couple of weeks bird counting), Dave for doing all the organising and Marika who runs the Estonian Tours office and had to put up with Dave whilst all this was being set up. Thanks to also to Frank for his 'wobblers', Shirley for putting up with Essex jokes (even from Margus!) and Hannah for being Hannah. Until next time.

Neil Bew