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A Report from

Estonia and Latvia, June 2011,

Ernesto G. Occhiato

Ural Owl – Olgas Purvs, Latvia


From June 3 to June 20 I visited Estonia with my wife, covering the most important birding sites, and part of Latvia, looking especially for some breeding birds such as Ural Owl, Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Greenish Warbler and White-backed Woodpecker. I must say that, although I was quite optimistic, having carried out an accurate internet research on the best sites and gathered info from various other birders, the success of this trip went beyond my expectations: I saw/heard Blyth’s Reed Warbler seven times, Greenish Warbler in five occasions, two Ural Owls and a confident pair of White-backed Woodpecker. Estonia and Latvia are really great countries for birding: there are superb and unspoiled wild places where Corncrake, Thrush Nightingale, Common Rosefinch, Marsh, River, Grasshopper and Icterine Warblers are amazingly common; places where Red-breasted Flycatcher is one of the most easily heard bird; and there are gems such as Citrine Wagtail, Great Snipe, and Red-necked Grebes all to be found in a relatively small area. White-tailed Eagle is a frequent sight, and Lesser Spotted Eagle almost the same!!

For preparing this trip, which included also some non-birding days in Tartu, Sigulda, Pärnu, Haapsalu and Tallinn I used:

(a) Dave Gosney’s book “Finding Birds In Estonia”, which I found very useful and with generally accurate maps (just one mistake, which I will mention later)

(b) Gerard Gorman’s “Birding in Eastern Europe”, very good too, but many locations are without a map

and the trip reports by Morten Brendstrup-Hansen (2006), Richard Webb (2007), and Henk van den Brink (2009), about Estonia, all very useful and exciting readings, and the one by Jason Williams and friends (2009) about Latvia with several helpful notes and, above all, the name and e-mail address of Andris Avotins ( ot Teici Nature Reserve – the Ural Owl’s man! Also some Danish reports were useful (e.g. by Thomas W. Johansen, 2007, and by Erik Mølgaard and friends, 1998), in which I learnt that Gaujas National Park is the most reliable site for breeding Greenish Warbler in Latvia (and forced me to learn some Danish, too…).

Finally I must thank some people who in one way or the other helped me: first Henk van der Brink who suggested me to look for Blyth’s Reed Warbler in Estonia in “well-developed, dense lilac bushes near abandoned houses”. Guess where I saw my first Blyth’s in my very first day out? Then I wish to thank Agris Celmins for his great help about Lubana lake and nearby fishponds in Latvia. Agris also sent me very useful and detailed maps of Lubana lake, Nagli and Idena fishponds which are found at  website. I wish to thank also Uku from Tartu, Thomas W. Johansen and Erik Mølgaard for kindly replying to my e-mails.

Three cautionary notes:

(a) Difference between Estonia and Latvia? Well, minor roads in Estonia are often asphalted, in Latvia never! Even yellow and sometimes red roads in our map (Euro Atlas 1:300.000) were  in Latvia gravelled ones, though always in good conditions. The problem was of course the dust raised by our own and others’ vehicles!

(b) Ticks: abundant! Take care and check always your body if you go into the woods. In Estonia and Latvia they could transmit viral encephalite. People who usually work in wooded areas are often inoculated.

(c) Mosquitoes: a plague, but our repeller (30%  DET) was good and we could cope very well with this problem.

Gaujas NP - Latvia


The itinerary was circular, from Tallinn I drove to Tartu, where we stayed 4 days; then crossed the border and went to Latvia, with Česvaine as a base to explore Lubana lake and the fishponds nearby, as well as to look for Ural Owl with Andris; from there I drove to Sigulda, in Gaujas NP, where we stayed a couple of days; then back to Estonia in Pärnu for Soomaa national park and Nigula reserve; then Haapsalu as a base for Matsalu bay and end at Tallinn to visit the capital of Estonia. Having plenty of time, we birded in a relaxed way.

03 June: arrival at Tallinn at about 5:30 pm. I picked-up the car at the airport and drove to Tartu (approximately 190 km). At about 9:30 pm we were in the Park Hotell, in the centre of Tartu.

04 June: relaxed morning spent visiting Alatskivi Castle (about 30 NE of Tartu) and birding along the track around the nearby lake. My first Blyth’s Reed Warbler, one Red-breasted Flycatcher and a White-backed Woodpecker drumming there. Then along the coast of Peipsi lake and afternoon spent at Aardla lake near Tartu (Gosney, page 30) with several good birds among which a Citrine Wagtail’s pair. Late evening (after 9:30 pm) at Kärevere (Gosney, page 26) for Great Snipe

05 June: morning spent along the Ilmatsalu-Kärevere birding trail, starting from the Ilmatsalu fishponds (Gosney, page 28). A pair and a single female of White-backed Woodpecker, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, five Red-necked Grebes, one Blyth’s Reed Warbler and one White-tailed Eagle were the best birds. Afternoon and evening along the Selli-Sillaosta trail, in Alam-Pedja reserve (Gosney, page 26), with another White-tailed Eagle and a Capercaillie heard.

06 June: because of a problem with our car we could not go to the famous Kirna trail, mentioned in various reports (but not in Gosney). Only late afternoon could we go out again, to Aardle lake where, besides Citrine Wagtail, we saw also four Marsh Sandpipers and a White-tailed Eagle.

07 June: morning to Taevaskoja (Gosney, page 32, but not according his direction, see later) for Greenish Warbler, with one bird first heard and then seen well. At least seven Red-breasted Flycatchers along the short track forth and back along the river.

08 June: transfer to Česvaine, in Latvia, where we stayed in Grašu Pils manor house. A Blyth’s Reed Warbler was singing at the border of the wood and a Middle Spotted Woodpecker was in the manor house’s park.

09 June: visit to the Olgas Purvs area, near Lubana, with Andris Avotins for Ural Owl: two birds seen. A Lesser Spotted Eagle between Gulbene and Česvaine in the afternoon. Evening along the Aiviekste river.

10 June: morning around Lubana lake and Nagli fishponds (Gorman, pages 137 and 142). We did not complete the circuit around Lubana lake and so did not visit the Idena fishponds. Best birds: two Greenish Warblers, one Blyth’s Reed Warbler, seven Red-necked Grebes, one Lesser Spotted Eagle, several White-winged Terns, and a male Citrine Wagtail.  Here I saw three Great Egrets, too.

11 June: transfer to Sigulda at the Kakitis Hotel. One Lesser Spotted Eagle just before Sigulda, and there, immediately, a singing Greenish Warbler during a short walk down to the river! At the Turaida Castle, in the afternoon, a Goshawk preying on a Fieldfare . 

12 June: morning walk along the Gaujas river at Sigulda. Best birds a female Goosander with six chicks on her back and two Red-breasted Flycatchers. Afternoon along the river Amata, at the Zvartes rock.

13 June: transfer to Pärnu, at the Inge Villa. Afternoon at Häädemeeste and Pulgoja (Gosney, page 22) and then Nigula (Gosney, page 22); explored all the areas mentioned in Gosney in Nigula but a very strong wind made the places apparently birdless. Strong wind at Häädemeeste, too. Not a single bird near the coast (only a White-tailed Eagle) but many ducks flying north very far from the coast, I just guess Goldeneyes and Wigeons as these were still numerous at Matsalu bay.

14 June: morning at Soomaa National Park (Gorman, page 91). One of the most beautiful places where I have ever been, with meandering rivers surrounded by flower-rich meadows and ancient riverine forests. If I knew I would have spent at least a couple of days here. I walked the Lemmjõgi river spit trail, with two Hazel Grouses, one Greenish Warbler, and one Blyth’s Reed Warbler, plus the array of the usual common birds (Corncrake, Marsh Warbler, River Warbler, etc.). Based on the number of excavated holes into decayed trees I saw along the track I guess this must be a woodpecker-rich place, but June is not the best time to see them…..One Lesser Spotted Eagle was along the road between Jöesuu and Tõramaa and a Red-breasted Flycatcher along the Tõramaa-Kildu road.

15 June: transfer to Haapsalu, at the really overpriced Kongo Hotel.

16 June: morning at Matsalu Bay. Tired and satisfied, we birded only the north side of the bay, at Topu lathPuise and Haeska (Gosney, page 10). Best birds were a Blyth’s Reed Warbler and a Barred Warbler at Puise, five White-tailed Eagles, still six Barnacle Geese and more than 60 Cranes from the tower at Haeska. Several shorebirds and wildfowls.

17-20 June: Tallinn. One hundred points at the Uniquestay Kreutzwald Hotel. 57 euros for a double room and buffet breakfast, with computer and free internet in the room.

Notes about some the places visited

1. Kärevere: both Gorman and Gosney, as in various reports, mention the poles along the track where to stand to see the Great Snipes. Well, I could not find them (the poles, I mean), perhaps they have been removed or well hidden! In any case, I drove as far as the point where the track forks and then walked 20-30 m to the left. Great Snipes (5+) were there but a bit far from the track.

2. Aardla Lake: the area to the north of the lake (Gosney, page 30, site 2) was flooded and we could walk only a short distance. Best access from Aardla (site 3) on the eastern side. The pair of Citrine Wagtail was breeding along the track between the parking place (just before the no entry sign) and the observation tower. Also the Marsh Sandpipers were in this area.

3. Ilmatsalu fishponds and Ilmatsalu-Käverere birding trail: because of the high water level, after reaching the tower we could walk only up to the bridge over the canal. The area on the other side of the canal was flooded and so could not complete the circuit as planned. A pair of White-backed Woodpecker was in the riverside forest, in an old willow tree just before the bridge, so much more ahead than reported by Gosney (site 6). A female White-backed Woodpecker was instead halfway between the observation tower and the bridge.

4. Taevaskoja: instead of following Gosney’s instructions, go further on by car from the “visitor center” mentioned by Gosney (page 21, site 3) until you reach after about 1 km the right turn for the Saesaare car park. From this parking place you reach the river in a minute. Cross the river and go uphill  by the steps. As I reached the ridge I immediately heard a Greenish Warbler and then watched it for more than half an hour. It seemed to linger in that area, was it perhaps breeding? The track follows the river on one side and then comes back along the other side. I saw and heard more than seven Red-breasted Flycatchers along this track.

5. Lubana Lake and Nagli fishponds: we went to the Lubana lake ( and then to the Nagli fishponds ( from the western side of the lake, that is through Barkava. So we followed eastward the track along the south-western lakeshore (where we saw two Greenish Warblers) until reaching the fishponds. Best fishponds were G4, with a lot of White-winged Terns and seven Red-necked Grebes, and A8-A10 ponds. In A10 there was a male of Citrine Wagtail. Watching the ponds from the main roads is not a problem, but if one wishes to walk smaller dike roads, it is better to ask at the Nagli fishpond office, as all ponds and tracks are private property. As Agris (and Andris later, too) warned, “they use to charge some entrance fee, providing some kind of ticket, treating birders like fishermen”. In any case, for me, staying on the main roads was more than sufficient and I think I saw what there was to see in June there. As usual all roads here are graveled or, simply, well passable tracks.

Tha area of Lubana and Madona, with the Teici reserve (a huge bog), the forest of Olgas purvs, Lubana lake and nearby fishponds constitute a great birding area and would deserve 3-4 days to be well explored, as everything you need is there.

6. Gaujas National Park: from the Danish trip reports I found in the web, the wooded slopes along the Gaujas and the Amata rivers in this beautiful park seemed to be the most reliable spots for Greenish Warbler. Indeed, I heard one in Sigulda and a German birder I met on the tower at Aardla, told me he saw one at the Amata river campsite. I walked the initially steep track, down towards the river Gaujas, starting from the south-western end (Kakiši) of Sigulda (57° 08’ 32.88” N, 24° 49’ 24.10” E) not far from Kakitis hotel. This track, before reaching the river, splits in three tracks: the left one goes back to the starting point via a panoramic spot (Keizarskats – the Emperor’s viewpoint) on the valley. The right one follows the river bank toward the Sigulda campsite and continues up to the main bridge to Turaida. The central one first goes through a herbage-covered field (several Marsh warblers here) before reaching and following the river all the way westward to the suspended bridge and further on. The Greenish Warbler was on the slope before reaching the split. If you want to start walking from the campsite, from Sigulda go towards Turaida and just before the bridge turn left and proceeds until you reach the campsite. From there you can walk along the river and the wooded slopes of the valley until meeting the track I mentioned above.

To walk along the Amata river (again wooded slopes with a river, a good habitat for Greenish Warbler) from Sigulda take the main road (A2) eastward and some 9 kms after the turn to Ligatne, turn left toward Karli and from Karli still left towards Ligatne. After 3 km, at Krustkalni, turn left until you reach a parking place. From here you can follow the river northward up to the campsite (one can go to the campsite directly by car, of course, following the road from Karli to Ligatne) or walk instead upriver.

7. Soomaa National Park (Gorman, page 91): this park is not far from Pärnu and it takes a 30 min drive to reach the turn to the park at Joesuu. I walked only the the Lemmjõgi River Spit Forest Trail, but as I said I would have stayed one more day in this true wilderness.

The Lemmjõgi/Raudna river forest is an old riverside forest. The trail starts near the Kuusekäära farmhouse on the Tõramaa-Kildu road and is 4,6 km long. The parking place, where the path starts, is about 5.3 km from the beginning of the Kildu road, and is on the left after the bridge. First the path goes along the floodplain meadow bordering the river; then, always through a magnificent riverine forest, it reaches, after a straight section, the bank of another river and from there the meeting point of the Raudna and the Lemmjõgi rivers. From there the trail takes you back along the bank of the river (Beavers along this section). I heard a Greenish Warbler in the straight section of the track in the forest, a Blyth’s River Warbler near the car park and flushed two Hazel Grouses on the way back. The other track I intended to walk (Kuuraniidu Study Trails) this year was closed. There are many other trails in the parks (through bogs and forests). A map of the park could be obtained at the visitor center or visible in some of the parking places.

8. Matsalu bay: just one note about Gosney’s map (page 11). The Haeska tower is much more on the right than what is depicted and there is no signpost (or at least, I did not see it) to Haeska along the road to Puise. Better way to reach the tower is to follow the main Haapsalu-Lihula road towards Lihula and after about 6 kms from the turn to Puise, Haeska is well signposted on the right.

List of birds (with notes for some birds)

  1. Mute Swan
  2. Whooper Swan: one pair with chicks at Ilmatsalu fishponds on 05 June; one pair at Nagli fishponds on 10 June.
  3. Greylag Goose: 27 birds at Topu lath (Matsalu bay) on 16 June.
  4. Barnacle Goose: six birds from the tower at Haeska on 16 June.
  5. Mallard
  6. Gadwall
  7. Shoveler
  8. Wigeon: together with Goldeneye, the most common duck along the coast at Matsalu bay.
  9. Teal
  10. Garganey
  11. Pochard: 150+ at Haapsalu on 15 June was the highest number.
  12. Tufted Duck
  13. Goldeneye: six were at the Ilmatsalu fishponds on 05 June, one at Aardla on 06 June, 4 at Lubana lake on 10 June, very common at sea from Puise and Haeska on 16 June.
  14. Goosander: 2 females at Sigulda on the Gaujas river on 11 June, on female with six chicks on 12 June in the same area, and one flew along the river Amata on the same day.
  15. Capercaillie: one male heard along the Selli-Sillaosta trail on 5 June
  16. Hazel Grouse: two birds flushed in Soomaa NP on 14 June, along the Lemmjõgi river spit forest trail.
  17. Corncrake: a common bird, heard calling even from meadows inside the town of Sigulda and outskirt of Pärnu. Highest densities in meadows at Soomaa and along the Aiviekste river (Lubana area) were one seen.
  18. Great Crested Grebe
  19. Red-necked Grebe: 5 seen at Ilmatsalu fishponds on 05 June and 7 seen at Nagli fishponds on 10 June.
  20. Cormorant
  21. Bittern: one bird heard at Aaardla on 04 June and one at Lubana lake on 10 June.
  22. Great Egret: three birds along the shore of Lubana lake on 10 June.
  23. Grey Heron
  24. White Stork: a common sight and several pairs seen. Highest concentration 15+ birds together feeding in a wet meadow near the Aiviekste river.
  25. White-tailed Eagle: single birds observed in various locations, but five together from Haeska on 16 June. The others were one immature at Ilmatsalu fishponds on 05 June; one adult the same days in Alam-Pedja (Selli-Sillaosta trail); one adult at Aardla on 06 June; one adult at Häädemeeste on 13 June. Finally on adult flew over Haapsalu on 16 June evening.
  26. Lesser Spotted Eagle: one seen between Česvaine and Gulbene on 09 June, one at Lubana lake on 10 June, one near the Aiviekste river the same day, one near Ligatne on 11 June. In Estonia seen at Soomaa NP on 14 June along the road between Joesuu and Tõramaa.
  27. Marsh Harrier
  28. Montagu’s Harrier: two male near Lubana lake on 10 June; 1 male at Topu lath on 16 June.
  29. Common (Steppe) Buzzard: singles seen daily. Habit of hovering for hunting much more pronounced than in Common Buzzard.
  30. Honey Buzzard
  31. Sparrowhawk
  32. Goshawk: one seen on 11 June at Turaida castle park
  33. Water Rail
  34. Spotted Crake: 1 heard at Aardla on 04 June.
  35. Coot
  36. Crane: the highest number seen was on 16 June, from the tower at Haeska, with more than 60 birds.
  37. Oystercatcher
  38. Avocet: 3 birds seen at Topu lath on 16 June.
  39. Little Ringed Plover
  40. Ringed Plover
  41. Lapwing
  42. Green Sandpiper
  43. Common Sandpiper
  44. Redshank
  45. Spotted Redshank
  46. Greenshank
  47. Marsh Sandpiper: four birds at Aardla lake on 06 June.
  48. Black-tailed Godwit
  49. Curlew
  50. Woodcock: only one seen on late evening between Madona and Česvaine on 10 June.
  51. Great Snipe: 5+ birds at the known spot of Kärevere on 04 June.
  52. Snipe
  53. Ruff: a group of 7-8 males from the tower at Haeska on 16 June.
  54. Black-headed Gull
  55. Common Gull
  56. Herring Gull
  57. Great Black-backed Gull: one bird only, from the tower at Haeska on 16 June.
  58. Little Gull: 10-12 birds at Aardla on 04 and 06 June.
  59. Common Tern
  60. Arctic Tern: 2 seen at Topu lath and then 5+ from Puise on 16 June.
  61. Black Tern
  62. White-winged Tern: 5-6 seen at Aardla on 04 and 06 June, common at Nagli fishponds on 10 June.
  63. Feral Pigeon
  64. Stock Dove: two between Madona and the bridge over the Aiviekste river.
  65. Wood Pigeon
  66. Cuckoo
  67. Ural Owl (LIFER): with Andris Avotins we checked two nests in Olgas Purvs, near Lubana and saw two females. Both very nervous but did not attack, perhaps because we were three, even when Andris climbed up to one of the nest to ring the chicks. I was more nervous than them, anyway…..
  68. Swift
  69. Kingfisher
  70. Black Woodpecker: one heard at Sigulda on 11 June.
  71. Great Spotted Woodpecker
  72. Middle Spotted Woodpecker: this is, as confirmed by Andris, a species which is steadily increasing. I’m sure I heard it in the woods of Alatskivi Castle in Estonia, whereas in Latvia singles were at Garsu pils’ park on 8 June and at Sigulda on 11 June.
  73. White-backed Woodpecker: heard drumming in the woods of Alatskivi Castle on 04 June. Then a pair and a single female seen very well along the Ilmatsalu-Kärevere birding trail on 05 June.
  74. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker: one male along the Ilmatsalu-Kärevere birding trail on 05 June.
  75. Wryneck
  76. Skylark
  77. Sand Martin
  78. Barn Swallow
  79. House Martin
  80. Meadow Pipit
  81. Tree Pipit
  82. White Wagtail
  83. Yellow Wagtail: both flava and thunbergi races.
  84. Citrine Wagtail: one pair at Aardla on 04 and 06 June. One male at Nagli fishponds on 10 June.

Cirine Wagtail – Aardla, Estonia

  1. Robin
  2. Thrush Nightingale
  3. Redstart
  4. Black Redstart
  5. Wheatear
  6. Whinchat
  7. Song Thrush
  8. Redwing
  9. Mistle Thrush
  10. Fieldfare
  11. Blackbird
  12. Garden Warbler
  13. Barred Warbler: 1 at Puise on 16 June.
  14. Blackcap
  15. Whitethroat
  16. Lesser Whitthroat
  17. Sedge Warbler
  18. Grasshopper Warbler

Grasshopper Warbler – Aardla, Estonia

  1. River Warbler
  2. Reed Warbler
  3. Marsh Warbler
  4. Blyth’s Reed Warbler (LIFER): first birds seen near Alatskivi castle on 04 June. Then one just at the beginning of the Ilmatsalu fishponds trail on 05 June. A bird was singing at Grasu pils on 08 and 09 June. One along the south-western shore of Lubana lake on 10 June. One near the parking place of the Lemmjõgi River Spit Forest Trail on 14 June, and finally one bird at Puise on 16 June.
  5. Great Reed Warbler
  6. Icterine Warbler
  7. Willow Warbler
  8. Wood Warbler
  9. Chiffchaff
  10. Greenish Warbler (LIFER): first birds heard and seen at Taevaskoja on 07 June. Then two birds (one seen and one heard) along the south-western shore of Lubana lake on 10 June. One bird heard at Sigulda on 11 June and one along the Lemmjõgi River Spit Forest Trail on 14 June.

Greenish Warbler – Taevaskoja, Estonia

  1. Goldcrest
  2. Wren
  3. Spotted Flycatcher
  4. Red-breasted Flycatcher: one heard in the woods of Alatskivi Castle in Estonia on 04 June. Then 7-8 birds seen or heard at Taevaskoja on 07 June; two were along the track at Sigulda on 12 June, and finally one heard in Soomaa along the Tõramaa-Kildu road on 14 June.
  5. Pied Flycatcher
  6. Great Tit
  7. Blue Tit
  8. Willow Tit
  9. Penduline Tit: seen only at the Ilmatsalu fishponds on 05 June.
  10. Nuthatch
  11. Great Grey Shrike: amazingly, only one bird near Peipsi lake between Varnja and Kolbja on 04 June.
  12. Red-backed Shrike
  13. Magpie
  14. Jay
  15. Nutcracker
  16. Jackdaw (soemmerringii)
  17. Rook
  18. Hooded Crow
  19. Raven
  20. Starling
  21. Golden Oriole
  22. House Sparrow
  23. Tree Sparrow
  24. Chaffinch
  25. Linnet
  26. Goldfinch
  27. Greenfinch
  28. Siskin
  29. Serin
  30. Hawfinch: two birds seen along the Kildu road in Soomaa on 14 June.
  31. Common Rosefinch
  32. Reed Bunting
  33. Yellowhammer

Ernesto Occhiato, Firenze, Italy


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