A new trip to Estonia
Our new trip to Estonia took place between 29 April and 6 May 2012 and it was a great success. We were pleasantly surprised by how much this little country has to offer, and the most abiding memories taken from our visit include: great food, bright weather, great hospitality of people, low population density, quality of habitats, profusion of birds and handy public toilets with a view!
Altogether, 161 birds were recorded on the trip. There was not an obvious winner in terms of popularity. However, the Red-breasted Goose was voted the best bird of the trip, with just one score ahead of Wryneck, Bean Goose, Hazel Grouse, Three-toed Woodpecker and Great Snipe. Thirty-three species were recorded only once.
Sixty thousand of geese pass throught Estonia every year on their migration to the breeding grounds in Russia and our visit coincided with the last leg of the migration. Although most of the geese had left, the coast, coastal meadows and inland wetlands still held thousands of Whitefront, Barnacle and Bean Geese. Sea-watching is one of the main birding activities in Estonia and strategically positioned towers allowed good views of the coast. Here, apart from geese, we encountered big flocks of Long-tailed Ducks, Common Scoters, Wigeons and smaller numbers of Mergansers, Goosanders, Velvet Scoters, Tufted Ducks, Goldeneyes and Pochards. Most of the waders had already passed through, but some Ruffs and Wood Sandpipers were still present and the delicate trills of the latter species could still be heard frequently.
Birds of prey were well represented with ten species recorded in all. The Hen and Montagu’s Harriers, Rough-legged Buzzard and Lesser Spotted and White-tailed Eagles were the most exciting. We were astounded by the number of the latter species seen on the trip, but with a population of 150 pairs, Estonia must claim to have the highest density of these eagles in Europe!
Birdwatching in the forest was a real pleasure with choirs of small passerines filling up the air. Here, woodpeckers were abundant and altogether seven species were seen on the trip.
One of the most interesting habitats in Estonia are the bogs. We visited a few of them, but perhaps the most memorable visit was to the Soomaa National Park, Estonia’s second largest national park. We took a boardwalk through an incredible expanse of the bog, where continuous trills of Wood Sandpipers and acrobatic song flights of Tree Pipits accompanied us throught the walk. Eighteen Black Grouse flew in front of us, topping up the experince and putting the walk in a category of one of the most memorable moments of the trip.
The early morning viewing of a Black Grouse lek in an open meadow which was teeminig with wildlife, was another highlight for some of us. We were overwhelmed by the variety and quality of birds we encountered that morning. Flocks of Whooper Swans and Common Cranes were foraging in a nearby field and their calls carried a long way. Great-spotted and Black Woodpeckers were calling and drumming in the nearby forest. Lapwings, Curlew, Black-tailed Godwits and at least four Golden Plovers were all calling and flying around. Then, about 40 migrating Bewick’s Swans flew above us heading for their breeding grounds in Russia. Kestrel, Honey Buzzard and Montagu’s Harrier appeared briefly during the course of the morning and, althogether, we encountered at least four Rough-legged Buzzards. Some of us had never had such a good view of these birds before. It was a magical place and remained the most memorable moment of the trip for some of us.
A visit to a Great Snipe lek was another trully spectacular event. As soon as we reached the lekking site and got out of the minibus, we could hear the gentile bubbling sounds made by the birds. We tried in vain to see the birds, but to no avail. As the day came to a close, between up to 2,000 Bean and Whitefront Geese took off from a nearby flooded meadow. We also heard Common Snipe dumming, Wood Sandpiper, Redshank and Greenshank singing, and saw Little Ringed Plover foraging. The weather deteriorated further, with the sky being completely overcast. This created low lighting conditions and visibility was very poor and when we almost lost hope to see the birds, we immediately wintessed a spectacle! Two Great Snipe suddenly became visible on the ground and one of them started to fluff its tail (exposing the white outer feathers), puff its breast and spread its wings while making delicate bubbling sounds, in the attempt to enhance its conspicuousness. And then, the bird ran up and down along a path of about 50 cm. Soon, two new invididuals landed in the grass and another one followed. Altogether, there were at least five Great Snipe at the lek. Unfortunately, daylight was almost gone and with heavy rain pouring down, further observations became impossible. For some of us though, this was spectacular sight which will stay with us for a long time.
As on all our tours, birdwatching is not the only focus of our activities and we also explore other aspects of nature and wildlife. Altogether, three amphibians and reptiles, and 11 species of mammals were recorded, with the majestic Elk being the best mammal of the trip, followed closely by the Beaver. The latter species was viewed on a memorable evening boat trip in the Matsalu National Park. As the boat moved slowly on a calm and windless evening, we were able to get close views of some other birds, such as Ruffs, Wood Sandpipers, Greylag Geese, Yellow Wagtail, Common Snipe, Reed Buntings and Savi’s Warblers. Bitterns were calling and White-tailed Eagle and Marsh Harrier appeared in the distance. As we reached the sea, we anchored at the mouth of the river, from where we could see hundreds of Whooper and Mute Swans and wildfowl in the distance. As the sun was setting, we could hear them calling, creating a trully magnificant atmosphere. We had a picnic meal on the boat washed down with coffee and lovely traditional Estonian liquor, enjoyed by everyone. As we later moved slowly along the river, our first Beaver was seen briefly in between the reeds, followed shortly by five others. It was an excellent ride, which was finished off with a Spotted Crake calling across the marshes.
Our visit to Estonia coincided with the blooming of spring flowers providing multicolour carpets of Hepatica, Snowdrop Windflower, Bulbous Corydalis, Lesser Celandine, Yellow Anemone and Wood Anemone. Altogether, 173 plants were recorded, with Hepatica being the best flower of the trip, followed shortly by the attractive Pasque Flower. In addition, 50 mosses, 51 lichens, 19 fungi and 5 liverworts were recorded. With good weather, we were not short of insects and 22 were identified, including 11 butterflies. A Camberwell Beauty was the best butterfly of the trip.
We all agreed that food in Estonia was outstanding. A combination of picnic lunches, gourmet dinners and private meals prepared by the locals, gave us a good introduction to Estonian cuisine. We even managed to have a dinner in a manorhouse, where classical music accompanied our feast and created a memorable atmosphere.
We rounded up the trip with a sightseeing in Tallin, the capitol of Estonia. We had a guided walk through the streets of old Tallin, admiring the colouful buildings and old cobble streets, which blended well with gleaming shops and stylish restaurants. The 13th century walls, totalling 1.9 km, and roughly half of the original 46 towers, still loom over the old Tallin, divided into two distinct parts: Lower Town and Toompea Hills. We finished off our visit with a lovely lunch in the heart of the old town.
Sadly, the one-week birding experience in Estonia came to an end...