Friday, 10 August 2018

Estonia in early May - 2

The second instalment from the Avian Adventures tour in Estonia:

After staying out late the previous night we had a delayed start on the morning of Day 5 with breakfast in the hotel at 7.00 a.m. and departure an hour later.  Today we were moving from Pärnu to Tartu, the second largest city of Estonia.

Before long we entered Soomaa National Park where one of the first birds seen was a Lesser Spotted Eagle and this was quickly followed by another.  Both birds were perched and seen well from the minibus.  Next was a White-backed Woodpecker, seen briefly by those of us who had a view out to the right of the vehicle.  Unfortunately, it didn’t stay to be admired and although we got out of the minibus to look for it, it wasn’t seen again.  We walked along the road and did see a Great Spotted Woodpecker and we heard the drumming of a Lesser Spotted (Woodpecker) but these were hardly consolation.  We heard a Cuckoo calling, a Redwing was singing and a Green Sandpiper passed over.

Lesser Spotted Eagle

Eventually, we set out on the Hüpassaare hiking trail that winds first through forest and then on a boardwalk to the Kuresoo bog.  Thick layers of peat have formed here, preventing the vegetation from reaching nutrients in the ground below. The soil is poor and acid and the trees, even the very old ones, look like small miniatures.  It was interesting even if the bog itself wasn’t particularly bird-rich.  Species seen in the wooded area included Wood Warbler, Marsh Tit, Common Rosefinch and Pied Flycatcher, while the bog held Teal, White Wagtail, Tree Pipit, Lapwing, Common Gull and a distant Great Grey Shrike.  A Common (Viviparous) Lizard was seen very briefly.

Kuresoo bog

After dinner at the rather quirky Hansa Hotel we drove out of Tartu to Kärevere to see Great Snipes lekking.  It has to be admitted that this was not a great spectacle!  Although the Great Snipes did indeed jump into the air they were too far away for their sounds to be well-heard (if at all) and by the time there was any action the light was really poor.   In fact the Great Snipe were totally eclipsed by a Hobby that put on a wonderful flying display while we were waiting for the waders to perform.  Also seen were Lapwings, Wood Sandpipers, roding Woodcock, a Common Buzzard, a Red Fox and several geese, (probably Greater White-fronts) that arrived late.  The soundtrack to all this, as so often during the week, was the song of Thrush Nightingale and Cuckoo.  It was 10.30 p.m. when we arrived back at the hotel. 

Next morning, we left the hotel at 6.00 a.m. taking breakfast with us.  We travelled east from Tartu to the Järvselja Primeval Forest, protected as a nature reserve since 1924.  Once there, we set off on a boardwalk through the forest and either saw or heard a good selection of bird species most of which were familiar from back home.  These included Cuckoo, Wren, Chiffchaff, Wood Warbler, Blue, Great, Willow & Long-tailed Tits, although the last of these was a bird of the white-headed caudatus race.  A Woodcock was flushed from beside the trail and quickly flew off out of sight.

Once again our particular targets here were the woodpeckers and three species were recorded in fairly quick succession.  These were Great Spotted, White-backed and Grey-headed.  A Grey-headed sat motionless and we had great views of it through a telescope.  Sadly, the White-backed wasn’t as obliging.  Soon after this flurry of woodpeckers, a Spotted Nutcracker made its presence known (at least to Tarvo!) and it was soon located perched at the top of a tree close to the trail.  As we raised our binoculars it flew and that was the last we saw of it.

Later we drove to what was obviously a huge lake; it proved to be Lake Peipus, the fifth largest lake in Europe and across the other side we could see Russia.  We had just a short walk here but it was notable for giving us our best view of the week of a Thrush Nightingale, a species heard everywhere but usually from deep cover.  There were good views of Garganey and Great Crested Grebes and several Common Whitethroats were seen.  A flock of more than 50 Cormorants flew over and after circling for a while landed on the water.
 
Thrush Nightingale

For an early lunch we went to Mooste Viinavabrik, a former vodka distillery and now a guesthouse and restaurant, quite an impressive location next to scenic Lake Mooste.  Afterwards we had a short walk nearby without finding many birds, although again we saw a Nuthatch that was clearly different from those we see further west in Europe having a white breast.

Mooste Viinavabrik

Later we went to the Aardla wetlands visiting two separate areas.  At the first there were thousands of Great White-fronted Geese, two Common Cranes, about 10 Goldeneyes, a pair of Great Crested Grebes, at least one pair of Marsh Harriers, a Common Raven plus Whinchat and Reed Bunting.  A dragonfly here was identified as a Downy Emerald.

 Common Raven

Greater White-fronted Geese

The second area had many more birds, including many thousands of geese, mostly Greater White-fronts.  At one point, presumably spooked by a White-tailed Eagle, each and every one of these geese took to the air creating a noise reminiscent of a passing freight train!  It was quite a sight and sound!  There was a nice selection of ducks that once again included Garganeys and there were at least three Red-necked Grebes.  Two Black Terns here were the first we had seen.

Breakfast on Day 7 was at 7.00 a.m. and departure from the Hansa Hotel just an hour later.  Today was our last full day in Estonia and a day when we had to travel back to Tallinn, a distance of only about 190 km.  This meant that there was plenty of time for birding on the way and we began at Ilmatsalu where the fishponds proved to be quite productive.

The most memorable birds at Ilmatsalu were those that required some effort and persistence to see.  Savi’s Warblers reeled from the reed beds and Great Reed Warblers croaked; eventually there were reasonably good views of both species.  A Marsh Warbler sang from cover but finally gave us a glimpse; most difficult to see was Penduline Tit but we did after a while get one to show itself.  A Red-breasted Flycatcher was unexpected in this habitat and was presumably a newly arrived migrant.  It was a relief to see this bird having heard several during the previous two days.  Other notable birds here were a Common Rosefinch, about 20 Little Gulls, a pair of nesting Whooper Swans, a Red-necked Grebe, an Osprey, a Marsh Harrier and a flock of Black Terns.

Whooper Swan

Next we went to the village of Puurmani where a walk by the lake in Puurmani Mõisa Park resulted in us having a good view of a singing Icterine Warbler as well as both Spotted & Pied Flycatchers.  A pair of White Storks were on a nest and obliged with a bout of bill-clapping.  A Wryneck was heard briefly but failed to reveal itself.

Icterine Warbler

White Storks

We completed our jorney to Tallinn with lunch on the way at  Põhjaka Mõis where we also saw a Lesser Spotted Eagle.  In Tallinn we checked in at the Hestia Euroopa Hotel and at this point we had to say good-bye to Tarvo who had been an excellent guide and good company throughout our trip. 
Those of us who used a period of down time before dinner to take a walk outside and explore the city a little were rewarded by finding a spiffy male red-spotted Bluethroat in a fairly unlikely-looking city centre setting.  Unfortunately, it could not be found again when we returned later.  It was presumed to be a recent arrival that after feeding had quickly moved on in search of a more suitable location. 
Our last morning was spent on a ‘proper’ guided tour of Tallinn Old Town.  Said to be the best preserved medieval city in Northern Europe boasting Gothic spires, winding cobblestone streets and enchanting architecture, the Old Town was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.
After lunch at Kuldse Notsu Kõrts (The Golden Piglet Inn), we walked back to the hotel to await our taxi to the airport. 



Estonia in early May - 1

This was an Avian Adventures tour from 4th to 11th May 2018.

A morning flight from Gatwick took us to Lennart Meri Tallinn Airport where we were met by Tarvo Valker who was to be our guide for the week.  Our first aim then was to reach Rohuküla Harbour in time to catch the 7.00 p.m. ferry to the island of Hiiumaa.  On the way, there was time for a short stop at a lake in the town of Haapsalu where two or three pairs of Slavonian Grebes were present and we were able to get reasonably close views.

Common Scoters

The ferry crossing of the Väinamere Sea from Rohuküla to Heltermaa is scheduled to take one hour and forty minutes and it presented a good opportunity for us to see some sea ducks and other birds.  Unfortunately, it was much too cold and windy for us to stay out on deck for very long but watching through a window proved to be just fine and we saw hundreds of Greater Scaup and smaller numbers of Common Eiders, Common Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks.  Perhaps most memorable were 37 Bewick’s Swans flying strung out in a long line.  Least memorable was probably a distant Ringed Seal, which would have gone unnoticed had Tarvo not pointed it out as it was virtually indistinguishable from the rocks on an offshore island.

The following morning we set off to Ristna Cape.  Ristna is the most western point of Hiiumaa Island and well known as somewhere from which to observe wildfowl migration through the Baltic Sea.  In our first hour there, we saw thousands of Common Scoters, hundreds of Long-tailed Ducks and numerous but smaller numbers of Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers.  As these birds passed by, from left to right as we looked out to sea, it was necessary to maintain concentration in order to pick out the less common species: a flock of 12 Steller’s Eiders, just two Velvet Scoters, a Razorbill, a Red-throated Diver and two Black-throated Divers, a pair of Shelducks, a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls of the less familiar fuscus race known as ‘Baltic Gull’ and a single Arctic Skua.  A Rough-legged Buzzard was also identified and a few common passerines noted including Lesser Whitethroat, Chiffchaff and Chaffinch.

By 8.00 a.m. the number of birds passing by had reduced quite substantially and so we next turned our attention to the nearby trees and bushes to look for passerine migrants.  A Sparrowhawk here presumably had the same object in mind.  We saw Black Redstart, Northern Wheatear, Willow Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat and ‘Northern’ Bullfinches but the highlights were undoubtedly two Red-backed Shrikes, a male and a female. 

Red-backed Shrike

At the nearby harbour at Kalana we found Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers, Common & Black-headed Gulls, Northern Wheatear, White Wagtail and Woodlark, Siskins and Redpolls and a Common Buzzard.

We had an early lunch at the Kõpu Lighthouse Café.  The lighthouse is one of the oldest in the world, having been in continuous use since its completion in 1531 and is apparently a popular tourist attraction.

Kõpu Lighthouse

An hour or so birding around coastal meadows and reed beds produced Lapwing, Greenshank, Redshank, Common Sandpiper and Ringed Plover, Mute Swan, Gadwall, Shelduck and Shoveler, Greylag & Barnacle Geese, Little Tern, Marsh Harrier, Whinchat, Reed Bunting, Skylark and Common Whitethroat.  There was also our first White-tailed Eagle but just a distant view of a bird flying away. 

White-tailed Eagle

Later, at Käina Bay, we visited a tower hide from where we could see maybe as many as 15,000 geese, mostly Barnacles and Greylags but also some Tundra Beans.  Also from the tower there were distant views of about ten Smew, a few Common Pochards and 50 Avocets.

Käina Bay

Soon there were further opportunities to look at geese with thousands of Greater White-fronts, Barnacles & Tundra Beans.  The search was now on for a rare Red-breasted Goose or Lesser White-front, a search that was to go on without success throughout the week whenever we encountered these large flocks.  The improvement in the conservation status of many European goose populations since the 1940s is one of the major success stories of European bird conservation but these large numbers of geese are clearly not universally popular and can cause severe problems for farmers.  On one occasion the geese that we were watching were deliberately flushed by a presumed farmer, something that must go on routinely in an attempt to protect crops and grazing land.

Greater White-fronted Geese

On the morning of Day 3 we went first to Tahkuna Cape at the northern tip of Hiiumaa.  A sea watch from the lighthouse here produced Common Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks but nowhere near the numbers seen yesterday at Ristna.  Passerines in the same area included Red Crossbills, a Common Redstart, Yellow Wagtails, Chiffchaffs and Lesser Whitethroats.  This time there were two Sparrowhawks in attendance.  We saw just a small number of Yellow Wagtails during the week, some flava but mostly thunbergi.

Next we went to Suuresadama and a somewhat derelict industrial harbour notable mainly for a distinctive old barn but also for the occurrence here in April 2014 of an Alpine Accentor that was only the second record for Estonia.  Here there were seven Great Crested Grebes on the sea, a singing Woodlark, Black & Common Redstarts, Common Sandpiper and Greenshank.

We were heading for Heltermaa and the ferry to take us back to the mainland but there were further stops on the way.  At one of these Tarvo found two Pink-footed Geese in amongst a flock of Bean Geese, the only time during the week that we saw this species.  At another, we had a short walk in an attractive woodland area where Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Tree Pipit, Bullfinches and Fieldfares were seen and Hawfinch heard.

Pied Flycatcher

The weather, which at the start of the tour had been better than most of us expected, improved further today and the ferry crossing was a much more pleasant experience.  Again it featured a flock of Bewick’s Swans.

We enjoyed a very nice lunch at Tuulingu Farm at the edge of the village of Haeska and Matsalu National Park.  The coastal meadows surrounding the farm are grazed by Highland cattle and birds here included both Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit in very smart breeding dress.  There were thousands of Barnacle Geese to search through and we saw Caspian Tern and Yellow Wagtail.

Barnacle Geese

Next Tarvo headed to a site where in previous years he had seen Ortolan Buntings.  On this occasion we were unlucky and maybe we were too early to see them but we did find there a pair of Red-backed Shrikes and we had our first sighting of a Lesser Spotted Eagle.  The surrounding farmland had Yellowhammers and Skylarks.  Further on when we stopped to photograph a pair of Common Cranes we also saw the only Honey-buzzard of the week.

Common Crane

We continued our journey to Pärnu, the fourth-largest city in Estonia and a popular summer holiday resort.  Here, the Rannahotell proved to be a good choice for our two-night stay. 


The next morning, we left the hotel at 5.30 a.m. to spend several hours at two forest sites near Soometsa, a village to the south of Pärnu.  Here we were looking for woodpeckers but had only limited success.  There were brief views of Three-toed & Black Woodpeckers but only Great Spotted really co-operated and stayed in place for proper scrutiny.  Robin, Blackcap, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, Cuckoo and Green Sandpiper were amongst the other species seen.  The Green Sandpiper, a species that typically uses an old Fieldfares’ nest in which to lay its eggs, was displaying above the forest.  It was here that we saw a Green Hairstreak but it wasn’t a particularly good week for butterflies with Brimstone the most frequently seen of just a handful of species.

On the way back to the hotel for breakfast we stopped at a wooded park where Nuthatch, Fieldfare, Spotted Flycatcher and Marsh Tit were seen.

Eurasian Nuthatch

Later we went to the Nätsi-Võlla Nature Reserve, a wetland area near Audru, comprising extensive reed beds, some open water and grazing meadows.  The star birds here were Citrine Wagtails and we watched them for quite a while.  It was difficult to be sure how many there were but probably at least three pairs.  Also seen were three Garganeys, seven Spotted Redshanks, two Hobbys, a ‘ringtail’ Montagu’s Harrier, a Common Buzzard, Greenshank, Great Crested Grebes and lots of Greater White-fronts & Barnacle Geese.

Nearby, we had a walk in Audru Park where a Middle Spotted Woodpecker was seen very well and there was a nice selection of other woodland species including Eurasian Treecreeper and Hawfinch.  After dinner there was an excursion to the local forest in search of night birds but, a little disappointingly, it produced only Woodcock, Nightjar and Tawny Owl. 

Middle Spotted Woodpecker

To be continued...


Saturday, 21 July 2018

Avian Adventures in Tanzania

This year’s Avian Adventures tour in Tanzania was Peter’s seventh visit to that country.  Although minor changes to the tour itinerary have been made from year to year each one, including this latest, has included Tarangire, Lake Manyara and Serengeti National Parks and Ngorongoro Crater. 

Ngorongoro Crater

In some years, depending on the length of the tour, Arusha National Park has also been included and in recent times there has been a two-night stay in the Ndutu area, in the northern part of the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.  Ndutu is adjacent to the Serengeti and forms part of the annual migratory route of hundreds of thousands of Wildebeest and Zebra as well as being good for birds. 

Wildebeest

Opportunities have also arisen over the years for short excursions to Eluanata Dam, a recognised Important Bird Area near Arusha and to Olduvai Gorge, an important site for the study of human evolution, located in the Great Rift Valley.

For this year’s tour, we changed things around a little so as to make time for a visit to the Asogati Plain situated to the north of Arusha, the only known location in the world where Beesley's Lark occurs.  Previously regarded as a race of Spike-heeled Lark, a species mostly confined to southern Africa, Beesley’s Lark is now widely recognised to be a separate species.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, although larks have in the past inspired poets including Wordsworth and Shelley they are regarded by many birders as simply exasperating LBJs and their identification treated as something of a chore.  In the case of Beesley’s Lark, its status as well as identification has also been the subject of debate.

To help us find these birds and several other lark species that occur in the same area we engaged with the Beesley’s Lark Conservation Program of Engikaret.  Engikaret is the nearby village that is using income from ecotourism to generate a community development fund and to provide motivation for villagers to help conserve the Beesley's Lark.  On a very limited scale, these birds are tourist attractions!  It’s fair to say, however, that the quest for Beesley’s Lark wasn’t met with universal enthusiasm from tour participants, probably because it came early in the tour when we hadn’t yet seen Lion or Leopard or many of the other ‘must see’ species that people were impatient for.  Never mind that Beesley’s Lark was quite likely to be the rarest bird some of us would see…ever!

Over two weeks we did eventually get to see most of the bird and mammal species that were expected and, as always, one or two that came as a surprise.  Inevitably, there were also one or two minor disappointments – how did we manage NOT to see a Verreaux’s Eagle Owl?

Cheetah

In spite of all the wonderful bird sightings, the one memory that we will all retain involved watching a Cheetah make a kill.  When we first saw it, the Cheetah was lying down but we could see that it clearly wasn’t asleep.  With just its head visible above the vegetation it was keeping a lookout for a meal.  As we watched, we soon realised that it actually had one in view.  It seemed to have a particular interest in a young Thomson’s Gazelle that was gradually coming closer, oblivious to any danger.  The gazelle, which was probably no more than a month old, had strayed away from its mother.  We knew that if we could be patient it wouldn’t be long before the Cheetah would make its move and it took only a few minutes before the gazelle was within chasing distance. At this point the Cheetah stood up and went off like a rocket in pursuit of the hapless creature, which was no match for the cat.  The young gazelle’s short life was over in a matter of a few seconds and a cloud of dust!

Cheetah with gazelle carcass

It was the sort of action that we always hope to see on African tours but which certainly can’t be guaranteed.  As a spectacle it left Beesley’s Lark in the shade!

Although we take every opportunity to look at the mammals, expecting to see around 40 different species, these are always very much birdwatching tours with more than 300 species recorded.  Brief details and some photographs from previous tours can also be found hereherehereherehere and here.  Below are some photographs from this year; next year's tour is scheduled for 4th to 18th April 2019. 

 Superb Starling

 Grey-breasted Francolin

Black-winged Kite

Black Rhinoceros

Lion 

Red-and-yellow Barbet

Rosy-breasted Longclaw

Long-crested Eagle

Another Lion

Eland

Chestnut-banded Plover

Gabar Goshawk

Saddle-billed Stork

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

Rüppell’s Griffon

Yellow-billed Stork

Black-headed Heron

Grey-headed Kingfisher

Silverbird

European Roller

Tawny Eagle

Hildebrandt's Starling

Grey Crowned Crane

Lesser Masked Weaver