Friday, 10 August 2018

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...