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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
Estonia, May 25th - June 3rd, 2012 ,
I was encouraged to go to Estonia after winning a free bearwatching excursion in an ‘Estonian Nature Tours’ competition, but also because I’d always wondered why every birder who’s been to this country raves about it. In fact it exceeded our expectations.
On the face of it, Estonia might seem very similar to Poland, with a similar list of species minus aquatic warblers, collared flycatchers and some others. But, having been to both countries, I think Estonia is better. It’s just chock full of birds!
Surviving in Estonia
Estonia is surely one of the most relaxing foreign excursions a UK birder could take: English is universally spoken (fluently!), everyone is helpful, it’s very safe and crime-free, the roads are almost empty and there is a general cleanness and efficiency about the place.
In a change from my normal practice, this year I asked Estonian Nature Tours (www.naturetours.ee) to book hotels and car hire plus guided birding for two days. ENT have a good reputation and things worked out pretty well, but to be honest, guided birding is probably unnecessary in Estonia, it’s an easy country to bird yourself. Our 1½ days’ guided time resulted in better views of Grey-headed and Black Woodpecker, finding Lady’s Slipper Orchids, plus being taken to a superb wetland at Valguta which we’d never have found otherwise.
Pests and Hazards
Don’t even THINK of going into an Estonian forest in May without spraying all your clothing in 100% DEET, and your exposed skin in 40% DEET. The off-the-shelf repellents I’d brought didn’t deter the mozzies: they’ll bite through shirts, trousers and thin sweaters. We even came under mozzie attack in the bar of the Villa Wesset hotel, in Parnu city centre! Midges were a lesser problem. On ‘Hollywood Hill’ we were plagued by strange swarms of ‘blackflies’ when we foolishly arrived without any repellent. The ‘blackflies’, though non-biting, were so intent on getting into our clothing that we eventually ran for it!
Two of our group were bitten by deer ticks. It is essential that you check yourself thoroughly at the end of each day and carry a tick-removing tool in your luggage.
The weather was a major problem. In May it ranges from one extreme to the other, and continuous heavy rain can last for up to 48 hours, a problem that is compounded by the appalling lack of birdwatching hides in the country (see below).
We visited in the last week of May for three reasons: firstly I’d hoped the weather would be better in late spring (not always the case), secondly there were a number of late-arriving breeding species we wanted (notably Blyth’s Reed Warbler) and thirdly there was a chance of some nice late-migrating waders such as Red-necked Phalarope, and Broad-billed and Marsh Sandpipers, although these are always very hit-and-miss. May-June is also peak time for bearwatching.
We planned to divide our week between Parnu and Tartu, birding the surrounding areas. However this then left an interval before our bear-watching excursion at the end of the week, so we decided to also make a quick dash to west coast, taking in the famous sites of Haapsalu and Matsalu (even though the mass migration here declines to a trickle by late May).
Strategic planning needs to take full account of the weather. In Estonia it’s not unusual for an entire day’s birding to be lost to rain, perhaps one reason why all the birders we met were staying for a fortnight or longer. Being lodged close to good birding sites helps, so you can take advantage of breaks in the weather; unfortunately our hotels were in the middle of cities! Obviously the forests are poor on rainy days, but the wetlands should hold some migrants.
I thought it might be useful to list the (very few) sites in Estonia where you might birdwatch with some shelter on a rainy day:
- the metal bird tower at Kabli - should be possible to seawatch through the windows here;
- the Hotel Promenaadi, which has sheltered balconies overlooking Haapsalu bay (there is also a covered pier behind the Spa Hotel Laine over the road, overlooking the Väike viik);
- apparently the Keemu and Kloostri bird towers on the south side of Matsalu bay are completely enclosed;
…and that’s about it, please email me if I’ve missed any!
Many birders insist that you must be out in the field at the crack of dawn to appreciate Estonian birdlife, but I found the opposite to be the case. Firstly, in an under-populated country like Estonia, walking down a woodland track at 9am you may well be the first visitor of the day; secondly, at this time of year many breeding birds are singing all day. For example we had our Blyth’s Reed Warblers at 10am and 1pm, Marsh Warbler at noon, and pinpointed our first Red-breasted Flycatchers at 2pm - the woods were too noisy in the morning to pick out their song!! As for woodpeckers, most were feeding young in the nest and therefore flying back and forth all day long, so finding them was a case of walking and searching, listening for soft drumming or calling young. (*It would be remiss of me not to remind all visiting birders to please use a lot of discretion when observing breeding birds – many birds here are nesting right by the paths, clearly not suffering to the same level of disturbance from people and dogs that they do in the UK.)
In the woods, we had our most success at the forest clearings; easier than trying to scan through the deep woods in full leaf. Woodpeckers often nest around clearings, to spot approaching pine martens.
Where to Stay / Where to Eat
The Estonian tourist season runs from mid-June to mid-August, so in late May you’ll find plenty of empty rooms in hotels, and booking ahead is not essential. The holiday town of Parnu is a sleepy place at this time of year. Tartu by contrast is a bustling modern city; I can’t fault our hotel, but getting in and out of the city centre wasted a lot of time each day. The tourist board website: www.visitestonia.com/en/holiday-accommodation has loads of rural accommodation.
We used three hotels: the Hansa in Tartu had fine rooms and an expansive, good value menu (recommend the Russian soup). The Villa Wesset in Parnu had more basic rooms but another cracking restaurant. The Baltic Hotel Promenaadi in Haapsalu had a more pricey restaurant with less impressive food (you might try the Laine across the road) but the location of the Promenaadi is unparalleled for birders. Make sure you get a room number between 9 to 20 or 24 to 35 and you should have an uninterrupted view from your balcony down Haapsalu Bay; we had White-tailed Eagle at dinner and Caspian Tern at breakfast!
Outside of the major towns there are food stores (‘Pood’) in every large village, but virtually nowhere that does a hot lunch; however, this is one country where you can get away with loitering for breakfast.
Information and Maps
Dave Gosney’s ‘Finding Birds in Estonia’ is an essential. We made less use of Gerard Gorman’s ‘Birding in Eastern Europe’, except for the section on Soomaa NP which is strangely absent from Gosney. I also read several reports off the Travellingbirder website, particularly useful were: J.Dawson’s report from May 2007; J.Spencer’s from June 2005; and H.van den Brink’s from May 2009.
I was unimpressed with the red ‘EOMAPS’ on sale at most garages. We’d brought the Michelin 782 ‘Estonia’ map, £6 (ISBN 782067 128439) and managed to muddle through with this and the Dave Gosney site maps, but in retrospect we really should have invested €20 in the detailed ‘Atlas Esti Teed’ (ISBN 978-9949-416-71-4), very helpful in a country with so many newly-discovered bird sites.
There is a website for Estonian bird news: www.estbirding.ee/home.
We did meet other visiting birders to exchange information with, including Debi Shearwater who had been in-country for a month. The only park centre we visited was at Soomaa, in the hamlet of Tõramaa. This is apparently a good source of gen, unfortunately the ranger we met had limited English, but luckily Debi had got loads of info from the warden here previously, which she shared with us. The only other warden we met was on duty on Kabli, who had some useful local info.
Fri 25th May – fly to Tallinn; drive to Parnu.
Sat 26th May – Nigula ‘magic corner’, Pikla Pools, Kabli
Sun 27th May – Soomaa NP
Mon 28th May – Nigula ‘magic corner’; drive to Tartu; Käravere Slid snipe lek
Tues 29th May – Ilmatsalu fish ponds; Aardla wetlands
Weds 30th May – Guided day with Rein: Järvselja woods , Valguta polder
Thurs 31st May – Ilmatsalu fish ponds, ‘Hollywood Hill’, Valguta polder
Fri 1st June – to Tallinn (two of our party fly back); Sutlepa Meri, Matsalu Bay
Sat 2nd June – Dirhami woods, Paldiski headland; go to bear hide at Tudu
Sun 3rd June – birding Tudu area with guide; back to Tallin & fly home
SITE GUIDE -
The only area we visited at Nigula was the ‘magic corner’ described in Gosney, p.25, which we visited on 26th and 28th May, seeing different birds each time. On our first visit we were savaged by the mozzies, but on our second visit the wind had picked up, and they were only a mild annoyance. The tracks beyond Pikksaare Ringtee had been recently ‘re-graded’ making them rather rough to drive.
The area marked for ‘grey-headed woodpecker’ (Gosney site 7, p.25) is now a clearing, and as we walked towards it, a Black Woodpecker appeared and began mobbing a Ural Owl! The presence of the owl was apparently widely known, as it was feeding young nearby.
We later learned that a Grey-headed Woodpecker was nesting near the clearing and on our return visit we saw the ’pecker and also walked the southerly rectangle of the ‘magic corner’ getting brief views of 2 Hazelhen, a nice singing Greenish Warbler and lots of Red-breasted Flycatchers between 10:00 and 14:00.
We’d heard many uncomplimentary comments about this site, from trip reports and from birders we met, but for us this was definitely one of our favourite sites!
On the entrance track we stopped to scan the fields and found a Blyth’s Reed Warbler singing in a ditch, our first of the trip. Golden Oriole and Wryneck sang from the trees. The flooded polder had bags of waders including displaying Ruff, male Garganey chasing females overhead. The reedbeds had booming Bittern and some very confiding Great Reed Warblers. It was a shame that several sections of paths were closed off at the beach; only the viewing platform was accessible. (Strangely the one thing we missed here was Pikla’s most famous breeder, the savi’s warbler that is supposed to nest near the tower every year).
Heading south, we tried to locate the way to the Häärdemeeste bird tower opposite the church (Gosney p.23), but failed to find the turning. We had also planned to visit the Audru meadows west of Parnu, where Citrine Wagtails were present in 2012, but never got around to it.
Kabli is one of the most southerly birding sites in the country, and this is reflected in the local breeding species, which include Hoopoe, Tawny Pipit and Serin (we did hear one snatch of Serin song). A White-backed Woodpecker visits in the mornings, according to the warden.
The site is very easy to find by following the coast road south from Häärdemeeste village, passing through Penu and Kuri villages until, just north of Kabli village itself, you see the large Heligoland trap on the right with the warden’s hut next to it. The coastal woodland north of here forms an ever-narrowing strip which funnels autumn migrants down into this trap (but not much good in the spring!)
Parking by the trap, we walked through the dunes and woods which were pretty dead in the late afternoon heat. However there was plenty of bird activity in the gardens over the road, which held Redstart, several Flycatcher species and common warblers.
Soomaa National Park
We spent a day exploring this huge park, but it deserves longer. We began early with a slow drive along the main west-east road at 6am to look for capercaillie and hazel grouse, soon realising we should have started from the east because the sun was shining in our eyes the whole time. The road is marked by kilometre posts in descending order from the visitor centre at Töramaa. By Kilometre post 10 was a promising looking clearing, and we stopped here around 7am. Sue, having wandered some way down the road, spotted a “black jay-sized bird with a white rump making a strange ‘knoorrrr, knorrr ’ call”. Immediately I whipped out my iPod and speakers and managed to lure the Nutcracker which posed brilliantly on top of a tree.
Stopping further on at Kilometre post 8, we heard a Grey-headed Woodpecker calling, which was then answered by two others, though unfortunately none would show themselves. Then a Greenish Warbler appeared and parachuted into a lone tree, singing. A fantastic start to the day.
Deciding it was too far to head back to Parnu for breakfast, we made the mistake of looking for a friendly local café (there isn’t one). On the plus side, our wanderings took us to Selja village, where at a lake just south of the village we watched up to 8 Red-necked Grebes calling and courting, with one trying to swallow an oversized fish. Also Wryneck and Golden Oriole here.
Returning to Soomaa, we parked at the start of the 2km Töramaa Bird Tower Trail and met several birders just returning. They had seen golden eagle and elk from the tower at the end, but none of us had any luck trying to spy the corncrakes calling in the grass below. The mozzies were out in force again, but the meadow was very pleasant, with some nice views of Red-breasted Flycatchers on the way through the woods.
We finished the day on the Beaver Trail, a short forest walk which starts from the Töramaa centre. Not much new here, some nice examples of beaver dams.
At the famous Great Snipe lek, we found the posts and information boards had been removed, ostensibly because they contravene European wildlife protection legislation. However the directions in Gosney are still basically correct: just before the Emmajogi river bridge, 14km out of Tartu on Route 2, is a lone farmstead with a stork’s nest; turn right into the farm, continue on this track for ½ km and park somewhere before the track forks and heads downhill (curiously there is a sign at the bottom of the left fork, but no parking bay here). At this time of year the lek is supposed to start (quietly) at 18:00, and continue to last light at 10:30pm. The Great Snipes’ bill clicking was audible from the track, and we ’scoped them leaping at the lek 200m to the northwest; however they were not visible on the ground – arriving earlier in the season might have been better. This was an atmospheric spot with Corncrake calling, a Nightjar in the distance and a Spotted Crake joining in briefly.
Ilmatsalu Fish Ponds
A very special site; Ilmatsalu village is signed off Routes 2 and 92 out of Tartu. Even by the parking bay there were Marsh Warblers around the scrubby ponds. This site had more people around then elsewhere – anglers, hikers and birdwatchers – but birds seem to have got used to this and we got excellent views of Thrush Nightingales, Penduline Tits and our second Blyth’s Reed Warbler singing in willow scrub by the reedbed. Our target species here was the White-backed Woodpecker which had eluded us so far, although it is relatively common in Estonia compared to the rest of Europe. In Gosney their favourite area is shown as the canalside woods beyond the bird tower (actually a strip of elderly willows immediately alongside the path), and here we found ♀♂ White-backed Woodpeckers on both our visits. Carrying on to the end of the canalside path RJD found an Elk feeding in the meadow. It should be possible to complete a circular walk around Ilmatsalu by crossing the canal bridge north-eastwards from the woodpecker area, but we found the immediate area after this flooded, and wellies would have been essential to continue.
We visited here on the afternoon of 29th, travelling round sites 1,2,3 and 4 in Gosney. We were impressed with this place, getting superb views of four Citrine Wagtails, our only Grasshopper Warbler, River Warbler and Lesser-spotted Woodpecker among other birds. The riverside road (site 1) has expansive views over the flood meadows and deserved more time than we could spare to explore it.
Starting at 7am with our guide Rein, we spent a long time in the various woods near this village, 40km south-east of Tartu. It was dismally rainy and this was easily our most disappointing morning despite the early start, the only thing of interest being a group of Wild Boar. Nearby lies the well-watched marsh of Rapina Polder; however we heard from some visiting birders that it was bone dry and birdless this year, following the dry winter.
Valguta Polder, Lake Vörtsjärv
This proved a real ‘honeypot’ site for us. We had planned to visit the Sangla Pools on Lake Vörtsjärv (Gosney p.26) but our guide Rein informed us these had very low water levels after a cold but dry winter, and he took us instead to Valguta Polder, a fairly new site which was created after drainage pumps broke down and fields reflooded.
We arrived in the early afternoon, following a period of heavy, continuous rain lasting from 11pm to 11am. This had clearly halted migration completely and Valguta held dozens of Knot, Grey Plover and Godwits along with some rarities in the form of 10 Red-necked Phalaropes, an all-too-brief visit from a Marsh Sandpiper and best of all a breeding plumage Broad-billed Sandpiper, a species I’d not expected to see, given its population decline in Scandinavia.
We returned on the following day to find the waters had risen noticeably, many waders had departed but there were now 3 Broad-billed Sandpipers, and about 100 Little Gulls. A Spotted Crake called briefly from the polder. On our departure we flushed a White-tailed Eagle, and while pursuing it encountered an Osprey.
To find this site, travel 30km southwest from Tartu on Route 3 towards Rongu. At the Rongu junction, turn right onto Route 47 for 10km to Valguta; in Valguta village take a left turn, signed to Rannaküla. Follow this road for a few miles, ignoring a right turn to Vollipollu, then take a left at a small green sign to ‘Keskkonnapunkt’. This track will take you to the lake: there is a good vantage point by the ‘monument stone’ as you reach the lake, but the best views of the shallows are obtained by continuing beyond this, bearing left, and continuing as far as water levels will allow.
After being eaten alive by mosquitos in Järvselja woods, our guide Rein had informed us that Alam-Pedja was far, far worse. For this reason, we decided not to go into the famous Alam-Pedja reserve, but we did drop in at nearby ‘Hollywood Hill’ which is easily located by its ‘Hollywood’ sign above a cafe, about 24km northwest of Tartu along Route 2. (The obvious path up from the cafe is a bit treacherous and it may be better to circle round the back of the hill).
I was very impressed with this viewpoint. Something new seemed to be passing every five minutes, the highlight being a pair of Lesser Spotted Eagles which drifted for several miles along Route 2. A black stork was seen by a Finnish/US group just before our arrival.
The most famous local residents are a pair of greater spotted eagles, which occasionally wander close enough to the hill to be properly identified. We were told that one of this pair has now been trapped and DNA tested, revealing it to be a hybrid Lesser/Greater. However, many Estonian birders seem to have a relaxed attitude, and count an eagle if it looks exactly like a Greater Spotted!
THE WEST COAST
This well-known site for Black Guillemot is one of the first birding sites along the coast west from Tallinn and proved well worth the stop. Approach Paldiski town on route 8, and continue straight through the town on the road which eventually ends at a parking area. The grassy areas near the car park had several noisy Corncrakes, and from the cliffs we watched the Tysties and a summer-plumaged Long-tailed Duck (possibly the last one in Estonia?!).
We visited these woods on the off-chance of finding parrot crossbills. Parking near the dock, we walked back through the village about 300 yds and turned left onto a track leading north through gorgeous mossy pinewoods. There were a couple of singing Redstarts and Woodlarks and some Common Crossbill overhead. The sea seemed extremely quiet, and so we decided to skip Spithami head and continue to Paldiski.
A very pleasant spot with a good boardwalk through the reeds (Gosney p.5). The most northerly bird tower overlooks an excellent reedbed and lake with Black and Caspian Tern and 100 Little Gulls. This was the only place where we had Savi’s Warbler; at least 4 birds were viewable from the tower but we also got excellent views by following the boardwalk trail partway through the reedbed. Nearby there were Barred Warblers singing from the scrub but these proved unbelievably elusive!
As already mentioned, the optimum spot for viewing the Western part of the bay is probably the Baltic Hotel Promenaadi, from where we watched gulls, terns and other waterbirds while waiting for the rain to abate, with Black Redstart singing nearby. As the rain cleared, we crossed the road from the hotel to view the Väike viik lake with its Slavonian Grebes, then walked north along the peninsula to look for grounded migrants. This took us through a fairly unattractive industrial estate, but beyond was a scrubby area at the end of the headland. Not much migration was in evidence with just a few Wheatears and Red-backed Shrikes, but 3 Barred Warblers were showing superbly, singing and fighting over territory.
We spent a while exploring the Eastern side end of the bay; older maps show 6 bird-towers (Linnutorn) in this area, but some have been declared unsafe, and closed. We found two good towers: the first is the Kirimäe Vaateplatvorm, definitely worth a stop, lying just a short distance off Route 9 east of Haapsalu. Shortly after turning off Route 9 onto Route 17 towards Linnamae, take the third track on the left which has a reserve map notice board. Drive to the parking bay at the end of this track and the tower is a short walk further on. From the car park we had 3 Caspian Terns fishing and Great White Egret.
Another good tower is reached by continuing along Route 17 in the direction of Linnamae, then turning left before the town onto a minor road signed to Silma. Drive down this road for 2½ km (en route passing an obvious tower which appears to be derelict) until you find a parking bay with a notice board on the right. Ignore this, and continue 200m to another parking bay on the right directly opposite the start of the trail. The trail leads through the woods for 1km to the Silma Loodustrada tower, superbly located overlooking the bay with an amphitheatre of pinewoods behind. Unfortunately the weather turned on us, so we only saw a distant White-tailed Eagle on a rock, a Hobby and lots of Cranes.
The famous slavonian grebe pond, just west of Vonnü village, south of Haapsalu, did not have any grebes on our visit but did provide a ‘trip tick’ in the form of Moorhen!
We spent one very wet evening on the north side of the bay. We chose to start by heading about 5 miles south of Haapsalu on Route 31, and taking the turning to Puise and Kildeva as directed in Gosney, to site 6 (p.11) the Põgari-Sassi Bay. In the rain it was possible to bird from the car, with Barnacle Goose providing some interest. Returning to Route 31*, we continued another 10km south and then turned right towards Haeska village and the famous Haeska Bird Tower. This has an excellent panorama over the marsh, though in the pouring rain we saw little apart from Goosander.
A birder informed us that he’d seen 6 Elk on view at the same time from Kloostri tower on the south side of the bay.
*Please note that in the Gosney guide, there is an error on page 11: the road shown leading to the Haeska bird tower from near Põgari-Sassi Bay is actually a road leading to the ‘Kildeva Tower’, which seemed virtually bird-free. To find the Haeska tower, continue on the Route 31 past the Puise/Kildeva turning for 10km then take a right turning towards Haeska village and continue right to the end of this road. The inset map in Gosney showing the tower and buildings is correct.
THE NORTHEAST: TUDU AREA
We travelled to the forested area around Tudu during the last couple of days, principally because we had a night booked in the bear hide here. We also had a morning’s guided birding , driving the many forest tracks in the area (apologies but I didn’t note down directions for all these places!)
The area was rich in woodland birds and our guide found us Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers, before stumbling across a Three-toed Woodpecker at its nest hole. We spent some time looking for capercaillie, without any luck but got some nice views of Black Grouse. [Note that some of these tracks really are rocky and need a 4x4 to travel them.]
At the bear hide, we were the only visitors, since the bears were known to have deserted the area during the previous week (they returned a couple of days after our visit). The forest was deathly silent as we waited; a Red Fox paced the boundary, then vanished. Then at 10pm to our amazement a Great Grey Owl appeared and began hunting right in front of the hide! This Estonian rarity was presumably hunting rats attracted by the carcasses left out for the bears, and after watching it for nearly an hour, it pounced on something and flew off. Two Raccoon Dogs also came to feed in front of the hide, and the owl reappeared for a time in the early hours of the morning. So, despite the lack of bears, a very good night’s work!
Combined Trip List, 174 species:
Slavonian Grebe (Podiceps auritus): 6 on the Väike viik, Haapsalu, viewable from behind the Spa Hotel Laine. (No birds present at the well-known site at Vonnü village).
Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps christatus): Present at most wetland sites.
Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena): 8 at a lake just south of Selja village (21km NE of Parnu); 3 at Valguta Polder; 1 at Aardla wetlands; 6 at Sutlepa Meri.
Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo): Common at all wetlands; c70 at Valguta Polder, 30th.
Bittern (Botaurus stellaris): Heard booming at Pikla Pools, Valguta Polder and Sutlepa Meri.
Great White Egret (Egretta alba): 3 at Pikla Pools; 1 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds; 4 near the Kirimäe Vaateplatvorm, Haapsalu; max. count of 5 at Valguta Polder, where there is now an established breeding colony.
Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea): Very common. Max count =20 near the Kirimäe Vaateplatvorm, Haapsalu.
White Stork (Ciconia ciconia): Common, nesting everywhere.
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor): Common.
Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus): Several breeding pairs: 1 pair at Selja; 2 pairs at Aardla.
Greylag Goose (Anser anser): 2 at Pikla Pools; 14 at Põgari-Sassi Bay, Matsalu; 6 with goslings on the Väike viik, Haapsalu.
Barnacle Goose (Branta leucopsis): 1 at Valguta Polder, 29th; 1 at Põgari-Sassi Bay, Matsalu, 1st June.
Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna): 2 at Pikla Pools; 1 at Põgari-Sassi Bay, Matsalu.
Mallard (Anas platyrynchos): Very common.
Gadwall (Anas strepera): 4 at Pikla Pools; 2 at Valguta Polder; Aardla wetlands.
Pintail (Anas acuta): 2 from the Silma Loodustrada bird tower, Haapsalu.
Shoveler (Anas clypeata): 2 at Pikla Pools; 1 west of Viljandi; 12 flying over Valguta Polder, on 31st.
Wigeon (Anas Penelope): 3 at Valguta Polder on 30th and 4 there on 31st.
Teal (Anas crecca): 2 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds; 2 at Valguta Polder on 30th and on 31st.
Garganey (Anas querquedela): At least 2 pairs at Pikla Pools; 1 at Aardla wetlands; 2 at Valguta Polder; 1 at Sutlepa Meri; 1 at Haeska bird tower, Matsalu.
Pochard (Aythya ferina): 4 at Aardla wetlands; 6 at Valguta Polder; flock in Haapsalu Bay.
Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula): Present on most large water bodies, including 5 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds.
Long-tailed Duck (Clangula hyemalis): 1 summer-plumage ♂ off Paldiski headland.
Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula): 10 heading north, offshore from Kabli; 7 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds; 2 at Valguta Polder; flock in Haapsalu Bay.
Goosander (Mergus merganser): Only seen along the northwest coast: 2♀ near the Kirimäe Vaateplatvorm, Haapsalu; ♂♀ at Haeska bird tower, Matsalu; 3 passing offshore at Paldiski headland.
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator): 7 overhead, early morning in Parnu city; 1 on the river at Joesuu near Soomaa; 2 off Paldiski headland.
White-tailed Eagle(Haliaeetus albicilla): 1 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds; 1 at Valguta Polder, 30th and 31st; 1 seen from ‘Hollywood Hill’; 1 from the Silma Loodustrada bird tower, Haapsalu; 1 from the Baltic Hotel Promenaadi, 1st June.
Osprey (Pandion haliaetus): 1 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds; 1 at Valguta Polder.
Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina): A pair seen around noon on 31st from ‘Hollywood Hill’, one of which was displaying. Also two ‘probables’, seen from the car between Tartu and Tallinn. Not as easy as expected.
(Greater) Spotted Eagle (Aquila clanga): 1 adult was seen from the car at Joeck, west of Ridakula, on the Viljandi – Tartu road, on 28th May. We pulled over and had prolonged views of the bird as it slowly circled and ascended, picking up all the main features including the evenly-blackish plumage, broad wingtips, single pale underwing crescent, heavy bill, broad, fan-shaped tail and pale crescent on the uppertail coverts. Unfortunately we failed to get any photos of this individual. Remarkably, this was the first eagle species we saw, on the third day of the trip!
Black Kite (Milvus migrans): 1 along the Töramaa - Kildu road in Soomaa; 1 from the car, between Tartu and Tallinn.
Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus): Commonly encountered near any wetland.
Montagu’s Harrier (Circus pygargus):1 ♂ from the road between Selja and Töramaa in Soomaa NP; 1 ringtail seen from ‘Hollywood Hill’; 1 ♂ from the road near Tudu.
Common Buzzard (Buteo buteo): Common.
Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivorus): Singles seen most days; displaying at Nigula.
Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus): 1 en route between Tallinn and Parnu; 1 en route between Tartu and Tallinn.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus): An uncommon species: 1 en route to Nigula; 1 at Paldiski headland; 1 en route Tallinn – Tudu.
Hobby (Falco subbuteo): 1 in Soomaa NP; 1 at Sutlepa Meri; 1 from the Silma Loodustrada bird tower, Haapsalu.
Black Grouse (Tetrao tetrix): 1 ♂ lekking at the roadside near Tudu; another seen flying nearby.
Hazel Grouse (Bonasa bonasia): 3 individuals on the south track at ‘magic corner’, Nigula, one of them flushed and the others walking across the track. Exactly where described in the Gosney guide!
Corncrake (Crex crex): Heard at many sites, including: 3 calling at the Töramaa bird tower, Soomaa; 3 calling at Karavere Slid; and at least 3 calling at Paldiski headland, near the car park. Reported to be much easier at the beginning of the month
Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana): 1 calling briefly at Karavere Slid, 10.30pm on 28th; 1 calling briefly at Valguta Polder, 3pm on 31st.
Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus): One pair with nest and young, on the ‘slavonian grebe’ pond near Vonnü, were the only ones seen.
Coot (Fulica atra): Present on most freshwater sites.
Crane (Grus grus): Widespread; the most notable flocks were 46 ‘dancing’ in fields near Valguta village, and 50 at Sutlepa Meri.
Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus): 2 at Kabli; 2 at Põgari-Sassi Bay, Matsalu; 1 from Haeska bird tower, Matsalu.
Little Ringed Plover (Charadrius dubius): 1 dropped in briefly at Valguta Polder, on 31st.
Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula): 2 on the beach at Pikla Pools; 2 at Valguta Polder on 30th; 12 there on 31st.
Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola): c50 at Valguta Polder, 30th; 6 there on 31st.
Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria): c10 at Valguta Polder, 30th; 2 there on 31st.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus): Common in most parts of the country.
Red Knot (Calidris canutus): c150 at Valguta Polder, 30th; 20 seen heading north at Põgari-Sassi Bay, Matsalu on 1st June.
Dunlin (Calidris alpina): 12 at Valguta Polder, 30th, and 10 there on 31st; 1 at Haeska bird tower, Matsalu.
Broad-billed Sandpiper (Limicola falcinellus): 1 at Valguta Polder on 30th; 3 at Valguta Polder on 31st. Only the second time this species has been recorded at this site (although it’s a fairly new site). The ID was confirmed by our guide, Rein Kurasoo.
Little Stint (Calidris minuta): 3 at Valguta Polder on 31st (not seen on 30th).
Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola): 9 at Valguta Polder, on 30th; 2 there on 31st.
Green Sandpiper (Tringa ochropus): Regularly encountered in swampy woodland, where highly vocal!
Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos): Only seen at Ilmatsalu: 2 there on 29th and 1 on 31st.
Redshank (Tringa totanus): 2 at Pikla Pools; 1 at Põgari-Sassi Bay, Matsalu.
Spotted Redshank (Tringa erythropus): 1 superb summer-plumaged bird at Valguta Polder, on 30th.
Marsh Sandpiper (Tringa stagnatilis): 1 seen briefly at Valguta Polder on 30th.
Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa): 6 at Pikla Pools; 1 at Valguta Polder, 30th.
Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica): c30 at Valguta Polder, 30th.
Curlew (Numenius arquata): 1 heard at Pikla Pools; pair near Haardemeeste; 1 seen en route Tartu – Valguta; 1 seen en route Haapsalu – Matsalu.
Woodcock (Scolopax rusticola): 1 flushed at Nigula; 1 flushed at Järvselja.
Great Snipe (Gallinago media): At least 6 lekking at the famous Karavere Slid site, 10pm on 28th May.
Snipe (Gallinago gallinago): Quite common, seen drumming at Pikla Pools, Ilmatsalu and Valguta Polder.
Red-necked Phalarope (Phalaropus lobatus): 2 at Valguta Polder, 30th; 10 there on 31st.
Ruff (Philomachus pugnax): Several displaying ♂ in flooded polder at Pikla Pools, 26th; 1 summer-plumaged ♂ at Valguta Polder, 30th.
Black-headed Gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus): Common. c100 at Valguta Polder, 30th.
Common Gull (Larus canus): Common; nesting at Pikla Pools.
Little Gull (Chroicocephalus minutus): 4 at Aardla wetlands; 2 in field near Valguta village; 12 at Valguta Polder on 30th; c100 at Valguta Polder on 31st; c100 at Sutlepa Meri on 1st June.
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): Common.
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus): Regular at coastal sites.
Sandwich Tern (Sterna sandvicensis): 1 offshore at Kabli; 2 at Haeska bird tower, Matsalu.
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo): Regular along the coast, also: 1 west of Viljandi; 3 at Aardla; 1 at Valguta Polder on 30th; c40 at Valguta Polder on 31st; 1 at Haeska bird tower, Matsalu.
Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisaea): Only 1 positively identified, sitting offshore at Pikla Pools.
Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia): 1 briefly at Sutlepa Meri; 3 fishing near the Kirimäe Vaateplatvorm, Haapsalu; 1 from Baltic Hotel Promenaadi, Haapsalu.
Black Tern (Chlidonias niger): 7 at Aardla wetlands; 1 at Valguta Polder on 31st; 8 at Sutlepa Meri.
Black Guillemot (Cepphus grylle): 8 on the sea off Paldiski headland.
Feral Pigeon (Columba livia): Common around towns.
Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus): Common.
Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur): 1 in field near Mõisanurme village, 15km west of Tartu.
Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus): Common and highly vocal at this time of year.
Great Grey Owl (Strix nebulosa): Surprise bird of the trip! – 1 adult hunting in front of the bear watching hides near Tudu on 2nd – 3rd June. This was presumably one of the birds driven into Estonia from Russia, during the extremely harsh winter of 2011/12.
Ural Owl (Strix uralensis): Adult at ‘magic corner’, Nigula, 26th and 28th, loitering until 9:30am. Late May is a good time to spot this species, when adults are still working hard to feed young.
Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus): 1 heard churring distantly, near Karavere Slid on 28th.
Swift (Apus apus): Common.
Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius): 1 seen at ‘magic corner’, Nigula; 1 heard drumming in the woods briefly, near Valguta Polder; 2 seen near Tudu in the Alataguese. A fairly common forest bird in Estonia, but very quiet at this time of year.
Grey-headed Woodpecker (Picus canus): 1 seen at ‘magic corner’, Nigula, close to the site indicated on p.25 of Gosney; 1 seen in flight near Tudu in the Alataguese. In addition, 3 were heard calling to each other near km post 8 in Soomaa, but these proved impossible to see!
Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus major): Fairly common in the woods, seen at Nigula, Soomaa, Järvselja, Ilmatsalu, Tudu.
White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopus leucotos): A pair at Ilmatsalu, seen very well on 29th and again on 31st. This was the only place we saw this species, despite a lot of hours in many different woods.
Three-toed Woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus): After much fruitless searching at staked-out sites at Järvselja and Tudu, we chanced across a ♀ at a nest hole near Tudu.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopus minor): Female collecting food at Aardla wetlands.
Wryneck (Jynx torquilla): Only 1 seen, tape-lured near Selja. Quite frequently heard singing, including one opposite the Villa Wesset in Parnu, early morning.
Skylark (Alauda arvensis): Common.
Woodlark (Lullula arborea): Pair at the ‘black grouse lek’ near Pikksaare Ringtee, Nigula; at least 2 singing in the woods at Dirhami.
Sand Martin (Riparia riparia): Fairly common; an old colony was by the quarry at Aardla.
Barn Swalow (Hirundo rustica): Common.
House Martin (Delichon urbica): Fairly common.
Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis): Fairly common.
Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis): Several encountered at Nigula, Soomaa and Järvselja.
White Wagtail (Motacilla alba): Abundant.
Yellow Wagtail (flava race) (Motacilla flava): Very common.
Citrine Wagtail (Motacilla citreola): At least 4 individuals at Aardla wetlands, near the bird tower. Reported to be also present in 2012 at Audru and near the ‘Häärdemeeste Rannaniit’ bird tower, though we didn’t have time to visit these areas.
Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes): Common.
Dunnock (Prunella modularis): Fairly common.
Robin (Erithacus rubecula): A relatively uncommon forest species only 4 sightings during the week.
Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia): A common, but usually difficult to see species. Our best views were obtained at Ilmatsalu fish ponds, where they seem more accustomed to human visitors.
Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus): Surprisingly uncommon, considering there’s so much suitable habitat; 1 in gardens at Kabli; 2 singing at Dirhami woods.
Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros): 1♂ by the Tõramaa visitor centre in Soomaa; 1♂ singing at Sutlepa Meri; 2♀♂ on the port buildings at Dirhami; 1♂ singing in Tudu village.
Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe): Single birds encountered at many sites; most appeared to be migrating through, though they do also breed.
Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra): Widespread, seen most days; max. count of 6 at Aardla.
Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos): Singing in most woodlands; adult feeding 3 young at ‘magic corner’, Nigula, 28th.
Redwing (Turdus iliacus): 1 singing at Ilmatsalu fish ponds was the only one encountered.
Mistle Thrush (Turdus viscivorus): Occasional in woodlands, Nigula, Soomaa; pair feeding at the bear hide, Tudu.
Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris): Common.
Blackbird (Turdus merula): Common.
Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin): Common.
Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria): 3 singing and showing well on Haapsalu headland, 9am on 2nd June. Also 4 singing at Sutlepa Meri, and 1 at Kirimäe Vaateplatvorm, but incredibly elusive at these sites.
Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla): 1 ♀ seen at Nigula, occasionally heard in various woodlands but distinctly outnumbered by Garden and Icterine Warblers.
Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca): Fairly common in woodland.
Whitethroat (Sylvia communis): Very common.
Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus): At least 4 singing at Valguta polder; also at Pikla Pools, Aardla, and Ilmatsalu.
Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia): 1 reeling near the bird tower at Aardla wetlands.
River Warbler (Locustella fluviatilis):Heard only: 1 at Nigula; 1 at Pikla Pools, 2 heard at Aardla wetlands; 1 at Järvselja.
Savi’s Warbler (Locustella luscinioides): Only encountered at Sutlepa Meri, where at least 4 singing birds present.
Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus): Present at most reedbed sites; at least 5 singing birds at Sutlepa Meri.
Marsh Warbler (Acrocephalus palustris): Just one pair found, in willows close to the car park at Ilmatsalu fish ponds, on 26th. Unfortunately, two days later, we watched these willows being strimmed!
Blyth’s Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus dumetorum): 1 singing along the entrance track to Pikla Pools; 1 singing near the bird tower at Ilmatsalu. Good views were eventually obtained, confirming the species’ longer, darker-tipped bill, more pronounced supercilium, and lack of buffy underpart tones compared with Reed Warbler.
Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus): Common in all reedy habitat; we had particularly good views from the car, driving up to the first bird tower at Pikla Pools.
Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina): Common in woodlands.
Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus): Abundant.
Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix): Common and vocal. Proved tricky to see well, our best views were on the Beaver Trail at Soomaa.
Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita): Common, including one of the ‘abietinus’ race seen well.
Greenish Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiloides): 1 singing near km post 8, on the Töramaa - Kildu road in Soomaa; 1 singing at ‘magic corner’ in Nigula.
Goldcrest (Regulus regulus): 1 seen in Nigula forest, heard in many different forests.
Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata): Common.
Red-breasted Flycatcher (Ficedula parva): Common in most woodland; continued to sing through the afternoon. Top sites were Töramaa bird tower trail at Soomaa NP (at least 3 singing here) and many at ‘magic corner’, Nigula, and at Järvselja.
Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca): Regularly encountered in the woods, at Nigula, Kabli,
Great Tit (Parus major): Common.
Blue Tit (Parus caruleus): A widespread but relatively uncommon woodland species.
Willow Tit (Parus montanus): 2 pairs seen well around ‘magic corner’, Nigula; 1 pair at Ilmatsalu fish ponds.
Marsh Tit (Parus palustris): Pair at ‘magic corner’, Nigula.
Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus): 2 in Soomaa NP; 2 at ‘magic corner’, Nigula; 8 near the Silma Loodustrada bird tower, Haapsalu;
Bearded Reedling (Panurus biarmicus):None seen, but heard at Pikla Pools and Ilmatsalu fish ponds.
Penduline Tit (Remiz pendulinus): At least 4 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds, very audible and visible near the bird tower; also at Aardla wetlands.
Nuthatch (Sitta europaea): 1 in Nigula forest; 1 from the Töramaa trail, Soomaa NP; 1 at Ilmatsalu fish ponds.
Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris): 1 on the Beaver Trail, Soomaa; 1 at Järvselja;
Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio):1 near km post 10, Soomaa NP; 1 on the Töramaa trail, Soomaa NP; 2♀♂ at Ilmatsalu fish ponds; 1 at Järvselja; 2♀♂ at Haapsalu headland; 1♀ at Paldiski headland.
Magpie (Pica pica): Common.
Jay (Garrulus glandarius): Occasional.
Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes): 1 near kilometre post 8 on the Töramaa - Kildu road, at around 7am on 27th.
Jackdaw (Corvus monedula): Very common.
Rook (Corvus frugilegus): 1 near Mõisanurme village, en route Parnu to Tartu; flock of c50 encountered near Valguta Polder; 3 near Ilmatsalu.
Hooded Crow (Corvus cornix): Abundant.
Raven (Corvus corax): 2 Pikla Pools; 7 together (roosting?) at Aardla wetlands; 1 near Valguta village; 2 seen from ‘Hollywood Hill’; 1 feeding at the bear-watching site.
Starling (Sternus vulgaris): Very common.
Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus): Quite common but elusive, heard in most habitat. 1 ♀ seen in flight at Ilmatsalu fishponds.
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): Common.
Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus): Common.
Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs): Abundant
Linnet (Carduelis cannabina): Scattered sightings.
Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis): Common.
Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris): Quite common.
Siskin (Carduelis spinus): Small flock at Nigula; 1 at Ilmatsalu; 2 at Järvselja; 2♂♀ at Paldiski headland, several heard in the Tudu area.
Serin (Serinus serinus): 1 heard at Kabli.
Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula): Pair in clearing at Järvselja woods; pair at Dirhami woods; pair at Paldiski headland.
Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes): Present in most woods, generally brief views and flypasts, but good views of one from the river bridge at Joesuu near Soomaa. Max. counts were a flock of 3 at Nigula; a flock of 4 in Järvselja.
Common Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra): 1 heard at Nigula; 2 seen at Järvselja; 1 heard at Dirhami woods.
Common Rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus): Very common and vocal.
Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus): Very common in any wet habitat.
Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella): Very common.
Brown Hare: 1 at the ‘black grouse lek’ field near Pikksaare Ringtee, Nigula.
Mountain Hare: 1 seen briefly near Tudu.
Raccoon Dog: 2 individuals at the bear-watching site near Tudu. One seen at 22:30pm was joined by another around midnight.
Red Fox: 1 at the bear-watching site near Tudu, 20:30pm.
American Mink: 1 brazen individual was watched from the Töramaa bird tower at Soomaa.
Wild Boar: Family party of 6 crossing a forest track near Järvselja.
Elk: 1 grazing in the marsh at the far end of the Ilmsatsalu reserve, 11:00am.
Roe Deer: About a dozen seen during the week.
Reptiles & Amphibians
Common Lizard: 1 found under a rock, on a brief stop en route Tartu – Tallinn.
Pool Frog: At least 3 seen in coastal pools at Kabli.
Marsh Frog: Heard or seen around most marshes.
Common Frog: Very common and widespread.
Camberwell Beauty: 1 along the Tõramaa Trail; 1 Nigula.
Scarce Fritillary: 2 seen sunning on the track near the Grey-headed Woodpecker clearing at ‘magic corner’, Nigula.
Chequered Skipper: At least 2 in a grassy ditch near the Grey-headed Woodpecker clearing at ‘magic corner’, Nigula.
White-faced Darter: At several sites including Sutlepa Meri and Kabli.
Four-spotted Chaser: An abundant species throughout the country, but especially at Sutlepa Meri where incredible swarms were brought down by the rain.
Downy Emerald: Several at Sutelpa Meri.
*in addition to the above, there was an abundant fritillary species (possibly Niobe’s) flying in Nigula woods, but it refused to land for us!
Lady’s Slipper Orchid is quite common and flowering at this time of year, seen on the roadside verge of a forest track near Tudu. Military Orchid is widespread and common around the coastal sites.
Bird species not seen:
Great White Pelican: We did consider diverting for this long-staying Estonian rarity, reported on ‘estbirding’, but no directions were forthcoming except that it was “near Karksi”.
Capercaillie: We spent much time and effort trying for this species, including driving the gravel tracks around Tudu and Soomaa NP in the early morning, but a very difficult bird at this time of year.
Black Stork: One had been seen soaring from ‘Hollywood Hill’ shortly before our arrival, and two reported from Valguta Polder the previous week. A rare breeder in Estonia.
Golden Eagle: Not easy anywhere..
Lesser Black-backed Gull: Somewhat surprisingly, no sign of any ‘Baltic’ or Hueglin’s Gulls at any sites we visited.
Pygymy and Tengmalm’s Owls: Both species are best looked for in March and April; by May they are almost impossible. Our guide assured us that visiting the known breeding areas in late May would be an utter waste of time.
Collared Dove: Surprised not to encounter these..
Green Woodpecker: Declining In Estonia and now almost completely confined to the islands.
Middle-spotted Woodpecker: We did not really try for this species, but learned of a few possible sites in the Tartu area, as follows. 1) Heading on Route 3 towards Rongu, you pass under a bridge junction signed Route 160 to Rannu; turn off to the right and check the woods around here. 2) Continuing from here on the 160 towards Rannu, there is a left turning onto Route 161 towards Ervu, and the woods near this junction may hold middle-spotted. 3) Earlier in the spring, middle-spotted had been reported in the centre of Tartu city at ‘Toomemägi’, the hill by the old town, and at Raadi Cemetery northeast of the river. They may well be resident in the city parks.
Booted Warbler: An extremely late migrant, only arriving at its sites in the south of the country in June.
Crested Tit/Coal Tit: We were surprised not to see either of these species, considering the time we spent in pinewoods; may have suffered in the recent cold winters.
Great Grey Shrike: We did not visit the blanket bogs (eg at Nigula, Soomaa) so didn’t get this species.
© Copyright PMCallagher, 2012