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A Report from

Two weeks in Estonia: 9-23 June 2005,

Robert Butlin

Mid June is not quite the favoured time for birders to visit Estonia, the middle two weeks in May seem to be more preferred, the Summer visitors are arriving and the last of the passage migrants are still hanging around before heading North. It’s at these times that the truly committed birder with good quality local knowledge can rack up trip counts nearing 200 and single day counts of not much less. But I went in June, and for one extremely good reason: Earthwatch.

A conservation charity with a very strong scientific bent, Earthwatch have been funding a project on Estonian wetlands and wildlife for four years. Led by Chris Joyce and Niall Burnside (of whom more later) the project looks at the effects of abandonment on wet grasslands in Western Estonia, most notably on Vormsi, a broadly rectangular island some 20 kms wide (East-West) and 10-12 broad (North-South). Like most of Estonia Vormsi is flat, and is a land where a metre’s elevation can mean a great deal. With about 250 permanent inhabitants it is deeply rural, though the population is swelled by incomers over the summer months. A good number are Swedes, reflecting the past history of the region which was Swedish territory for around a couple of hundred years between the 16th and 18th centuries. The Swedish connection also reflects the relative ease of travel by water when compared to land in a country of impenetrable bogs (even now), lakes, wet woodland and mosquitoes.

Vormsi itself is a mix of coniferous, mixed and deciduous woodland, open fields, once used for hay and for grazing animals and what was of interest to the project, areas of wet grassland on the seashore. Seeing the island, and indeed some of the area from the ferry, I realised that at least some of my preconceived ideas about wetlands would need some revision. Based in the South East of England my view of the sea is of something tidal. The Baltic is not tidal, storm surges can and do raise water levels more than the minimal tides. I also see the sea as something salty. The Baltic is salty, but only just, with the water coming in from the North Sea through the Little and Great Belts and the Sound only just cancelling out the effect of melt water from the snow each spring and summer.

There are a number of consequences to the lack of tides, and the lack of salinity. Saltmarsh with its accompanying mud is pretty rare, at least where I was. But perhaps most significantly Phragmites reed beds can march out to sea, instead of being confined to fresh, and mildly brackish waters as in England. In practice the Baltic, or at least the bit close to shore, operates as a huge freshwater lake. With that in mind I slowly got used to my surroundings.

But first some personal context. The ever efficient London night bus network delivered me to the Elephant and Castle dead on time (in a bus that was full) and the first 35 of the day took me to Liverpool St where I had time to eat before an equally efficient Stansted Express took me to the airport and the early morning Easyjet flight. Sleep overcame me for some time, and my befuddled mind managed to leave my guide book on my airport trolley as the taxi took me to my hotel, where I was to spend one night before meeting up with some of my other expedition members at the bus station the next day.

I hope I don’t insult my Estonian readers (there’ll be at least 1) in suggesting that Tallinn is a German city, with Swedish and Russian overtones. This reflects the history of much of the Baltic region, in which a number of powers, such as Denmark, Lithuania, the Teutonic knights, the Swedes and the Russians have fought over and dominated a local peasantry who have nevertheless retained their language and culture. For birding purposes we have to remember that it’s 59 degrees north and nearly 25 east. It’s also on the coast. In between some proper cultural tourism I tried to get an understanding of the birdlife of the centre of the city. This is Willow Warbler land, and their descending trills rang out in the open areas around the old city walls. It’s also Eastern so I can be pretty sure I heard a Thrush Nightingale. Fieldfares in city parks provided a further reality check, a real winter bird in Southern England it somehow feels wrong to see them in the summer. Being quite common I did manage to overcome my initial confusion by the end of the trip.

The most interesting birding was on day two when I explored some rough ground around the passenger port. The city’s Common Swifts, breeding in what looked like ventilation slats in Soviet era apartment blocks where joined by Barn Swallows, House Martins and my first and only Sand Martins of the trip. The open land with scattered trees abounded with nominate subspecies Yellow Wagtails, and there was at least one singing Skylark and a good few Tree Sparrows. Even better, just inside the port fences, but in an area as yet undeveloped was an Arctic Tern colony. Being inside port land the standard counting technique of a walk through was out of the question but a few Herring Gulls did the job. At a guess 40-50 pairs of birds, with a single Little Tern sat, I assume, on eggs.  This was to prove the only one of the trip. The most abundant gull was as expected the Black-headed, but there were also good numbers of Common, with one nesting on top of a lamppost. Herring Gulls also flew about looking for eggs to eat. To sea a number of Commons Eiders and the odd Red-breasted Merganser sat or swam. I do hope the tern colony can be kept in the face of pressure to develop what could seem to be waste land.

But I wasn’t in Estonia to bird the capital, interesting though it might be. I was there to help some proper scientists. This meant some travel, first to Haapsalu the capital of Lanemaa province in West Estonia and then, via ferry to Vormsi. On arrival in Haapsalu the team came together:

Paul Farrugia, (Maltese, HSBC)
Debbie Dwernychuk, (Canadian, via the Ukraine, HSBC – steppes to prairies?)
Fabienne Routier, (French, and proudly southern French, HSBC)
Heather McWalter (Californian, HSBC)
Rayne Motheral, (also Californian, but like me a private Earthwatch volunteer.
Norma Bailey (Michigan USA, private)
Jessy McCumbie, (also Michigan and in Europe as a prize from Norma for High School graduation; nice prize!!!)
Chris Joyce, (Principal Lecturer at Brighton University, and very much a wet grassland specialist, and good birder).
Niall Burnside, PhD, Senior Lecturer at Brighton University (more of a dry grassland man, but still good on the wet stuff and like Chris also a birder.)
Maureen Berg (French/Canadian, PhD student at Brighton University, working on the effects of different management regimes on plant and birdlife in Estonia wet grasslands. She won the PhD competition outgunning 55 other candidates).
Silvia Lotman (our main Estonian host, chief interpreter, and lest it be forgot also a good quality scientist in her own right)
Marko Valker (Estonian, and very much a bird specialist, Vormsi and a couple of days in Silma)
And for 4 days on Vormsi Hanella Lillepruun, a young student at Tallinn University still studying for her first degree.

A nicer bunch of people would be hard to meet.

I’m not going to go into a day to day list of exactly what we did and what I saw (bird list to follow), but rather try to set out the broad themes that informed our days.

These were:

  1. Estonia’s quite a long way north. Summer darkness does not exist. Those from the more Southern climes (including me) found it very strange to be trying to get to sleep in perfectly good light. Fabienne, a committed runner, came back one morning commenting that she’d got up a six, gone for a run and the sun had not been just poking it’s nose over the horizon, it was well and truly up.
  2. Estonia’s got a continental climate and continental climates tend to have warm summers. June 2005 was hot and sunny. We had one day of thunder from about 4:30pm. But after that the expedition woke, and went to bed, blessed by clear blue, cloudless skies.
  3. We were there to work. It would be wrong to suggest that Chris, Niall and Maureen stood over us with whips but they made clear to us that there were certain tasks that needed to be done.
  4. Fun. Each day finished with a beer in the communal spaces, a chat over the day’s work and them lots more chat, on anything and anything, but especially on the joys of the Estonian language. I now know that the Estonia for Elk and porridge are remarkably similar sounding, that Estonian has lots of vowels and that Estonians listening to Finnish wonder how those pesky Finns can possibly pronounce words as they do. I also know that Niall’s claims to fluency are perhaps a little misplaced, but that Silvia could be relied on to get any double entendre that passed my lips, though like most of the team was perhaps a little flummoxed by the outer reaches of English humour and cockney rhyming slang.

What did the work involve?

  1. Bird transects. Each full day bar the first two (training) and the last one (a trip to Matsalu National park) involved a six am start for a team of four to head out onto the coastal grassland to count the number of birds seen on a specific route, from woodland edge to water’s edge. Some transects were quite short, others were over 200 metres long. All started with dry feet, almost all ended with an African Queen style push though a Phragmites reedbed.

Being the one serious birder among the volunteers I got up for all of the bird transects bar one (and that was not directly part of our project). My job was to identify the birds, thankfully not too difficult a task. Sedge Warblers, Reed Warblers, Reed Buntings, and Skylarks were virtually ever-present on the passerine front, Redshanks and Oystercatchers were the commonest waders. But we did see and hear some other birds. Each transect began with a minute’s silence to digest the bird life in the area, but not on the transect itself. Taking both together the non passerine highlights included Bittern and Corncrake, both in Silma, the clear passerine highlight a singing Savi’s Warbler on Vormsi’s Rumpo peninsular, identified by Marko on listening to the digital recording taken by Heather with her rather good digital camera and video-recorder.

  1. Vegetation surveys. Maureen’s PhD thesis was (apologies for any simplification) to look at the effects of different management regimes on biodiversity. First we had to identify the plants themselves. None of us volunteers were plant specialists, so we had to be taught the plant species we were likely to find. So I now know rather more about different types of wetland grasses, Tall Fescue and Purple Moor-grass grow in tussocks, Couch Grass does not. Sedges have edges, and rushes can look like sedges to the uninitiated, and both sedges and rushes can do grass impressions. The non grasses were reasonably easy to place as not being grasses, sedges or rushes, but not always clearly named by the English taxonomists. Sea Arrow Grass, for example is a flower, not a grass; Ladies bed straw is not a grass and to extend the issue a little Adder’s tongue is a fern.

We could not cover the whole area, so work was concentrated on 80 quadrats, which first had to have their plants identified. We then spent a good few hours changing the habitats. Some were left as controls, some had the dead litter removed, some were cut short, some were given a workover, and finally some had a serious workover that a Wild Boar would have been proud of. Vegetation surveys are not easy, requiring concentration and plenty of bending down. I did my best but they are not my forte, thankfully the other team members were rather better than me, and more prepared to do some serious bending.

  1. My relative youth (and maleness) saw me diverted on more than one occasion to the third task, fencing building. Deliberate habitat disturbance is fine so long as there isn’t any other disturbance. Both sites (Vormsi and Silma) are also grazed so they had to be fenced off to prevent livestock entering and ruining the experiments. On Vormsi that meant building a fence from new, at Silma fence repair. So I spent a good deal of time with a great big sledgehammer battering fence posts into the ground. Not especially intellectual, but satisfying nevertheless.
  1. Fourthly we had to take environmental variables in a series of different habitat types, from scrub, open pioneer (ie open mud), though upper shore grassland, lower shore grassland down to reed bed. Work here involved taking an earth sample, inserting it in distilled water, then taking a PH reading, plus a conductivity reading (as a proxy for salinity). We also took soil moisture levels and temperature. We took readings in the broad area of the vegetation sampling, but also in the north east of the island in the area north of Diby, a fairly remote area with for the geologists among us a huge erratic boulder left by the glaciation process. Huge in this context means about the size of an average semi-detached house.

I’ll be providing a list of the bird species I saw, plus those seen by other team members but not me, but in the meantime some broad birding context to allow people to get a feel of that avian environment in which we were working. Being outside there were plenty of opportunities for casual birding, my first two sightings of White Tailed Sea Eagles (the second an adult bird soaring higher and higher) came from looking up from my proper work to see a rather huge shape at some considerable distance (getting the distance completely wrong I thought the second was actually a Marsh Harrier). My single Sparrowhawk and the two Honey Buzzard sightings (same bird I suspect) were also made in passing. Working in a relatively small area between woodland (juniper, pine or deciduous) and the Baltic itself meant that we heard a good number of smaller birds and saw other waders. Chiffchaffs and Cuckoos serenaded us (and got top marks from the volunteers from ease of identification by song). Willow Warblers were as expected common, that Barred Warblers and Red-Backed Shrikes were as well in the Juniper woodland was more of a surprise. Common Rosefinches were also often heard.

Out to sea Arctic Terns screeched, Black-headed and Common Gulls squawked. Mallards were the commonest duck, though Goosanders (the former breeding in next boxes) and Red-breasted Mergansers were reasonably frequent. Further out were the Goldeneyes, almost entirely composed of flocks of males I assume preparing for their moult. Mute Swans were common, though cygnet numbers were quite low, for reasons explained within the species account.

Our accommodation on Vormsi was a group of buildings broadly centred on a circular garden some 25-30 metres in diameter, with a large field on one side (backed by woodland) and deciduous trees; broadly free standing rather than a wood, on the other. There were some gardens and what looked like an abandoned orchard nearby. My accommodation had breeding Swifts, House Martins, Starlings and White Wagtails, the area Linnets, Swallows, Common Rosefinches, at least one Icterine Warbler, Garden Warblers, Common and Lesser Whitethroats, Spotted Flycatchers and nesting Goosanders (in boxes). Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs sang in the trees and Skylarks over the open field.

On the mainland we were in among the pines, with Chaffinches and Siskins being the common finches. A Common Redstart fed and a Crested Tit gleaned food from the trees. At our second site a Nightjar churred as the light faded (ie after about midnight) and in the early morning a Black Woodpecker could be heard drumming. There was also a fairly distant Corncrake.

An aside on accommodation. In Tallinn I had booked a hotel over the internet, in Haapsalu for the last two days Marko phoned up and booked me into a hotel somewhat outside the town itself, the others were booked up. On Vormsi we were in new accommodation for the Earthwatch team. We slept in two separate buildings, four men in one room, Chris and Niall had a room each and three women shared the other room. The other block held the remaining women. My accommodation had a toilet and wash-basin, though the main shower and toilet block was in a third building, which also held a sauna, used on a couple of occasions in proper Estonian style, ie sexes separated with women first and as people got used to each other properly naked.

On the mainland we stayed at two separate places in Tuksi (or for the Swedes Bergsby) to the north of Silma. The first two nights were in what might be termed secondary accommodation. We all slept in a huge barn of a place that had been built by a pharmaceutical company to provide its employees with a country place for holidays. It was very much a Soviet relic. Sleeping 12 it had but one shower, and two toilets, both of which had long tubes down to the cesspit rather than any flushing mechanism. The public side of the building consisted of a small entrance hall a much larger dinning hall/sitting area and a kitchen. Most curious was the mezzanine above the kitchen accessed from I know not where. Best of all was the main hall’s lighting which consisted of white wall mounted spherical lights from which a slice had been cut out for a bulb to be inserted. They did provide some light, though the overall effect was of a building that was desperately trying to be fashionable in a kind of space age manner. With a great big high ceiling, and just a single central boiler heating it would have been very hard indeed.

The second Tuksi accommodation was rather plusher, with the men getting a double room and a triple (we were down to five blokes by now) and the women I think two separate bedrooms. All food was provided, on Vormsi we retuned for lunch and dinner, on the mainland we breakfasted at the accommodation, dined at a nearby woodland/beach resort (Swedish owned) and lunched by buying food at the local shops, though on the final day we had a great alfresco lunch on the north side of Matsalu bay, cooked by at least three generations of an Estonian family, with the fourth running around attracting all the attention.

Despite the concept of nature being best served in perfectly unmanaged habitats the reality is that there very little absolutely natural about much of the European landscape. Sea cliffs and salt marsh come to mind, as do some of the more northern forests, arctic and sub arctic areas. But we must be clear that the bird life that we have has adapted to the habitat formation of man, if not on the breeding grounds themselves then on passage sites or wintering grounds. Estonia is no different, and the key scientific reason for our work was to research the effects of abandonment on coastal wet grasslands.

Traditional agricultural practice in Western Estonia was to graze cattle on the wet grasslands of the coast in the summer, with the animals being fed on hay crops from the drier meadows for the rest of the year. The grazing of these habitats has kept the landscape open, preventing regeneration from the landside by invasive woody shrubs such as Juniper and Scot’s Pine, and from conversion to reedbed from the water. Reed beds are not the rare habitat in Estonia that they are in Britain. They are an invasive species that takes over from other less dominant species, a process helped by the significant eutrophication of the Baltic, something significantly aided by the excess fertiliser put on much of the land during the Soviet era. For example at Matsalu the reedbeds were expanding by 125 metres a year, thereby swamping the club-rush beds that have been used by ducks to nest. A curtain of reed is good for little more than Mute Swans, in Estonia an aggressive species that does not tolerate breeding by other waterfowl in its territory.

Some management is now taking place in parts of Vormsi and at Silma, with significant positive results both for animal and plant diversity. New to the area as we were we could see the difference in Skylark, and Meadow Pipit numbers between grazed and ungrazed sites. The level of plant diversity was also significantly higher. Lack of management in Estonia is bad. I’m clearly not suggesting that monocultures of Couch Grass are automatically a good thing, but the light maintenance that cattle in particular bring is much better for wildlife than uninterrupted reed-bed. There’s plenty of that anyway in the country.

The abandonment process is not a new one; collectivisation under Soviet rule began the process with the increased fertiliser use bringing its own problems. But more recently the opening up to the west of Estonia has resulted in much marginal farmland being abandoned, unable to cope with the cheaper prices of imported food. There is though some hope that access to EU funds will allow such relatively marginal areas to be farmed as part of environmental stewardship schemes. It’s not an absolute given, there’ll always be a tension between growing as much food as possible irrespective of the environmental costs and growing a little less but caring for the environment.

So why was this such a great trip? As a birdwatcher I’d have to put the birdlife near the top of the list, and it was certainly the prime reason why I went. But I didn’t simply travel to Estonia to spend a couple of weeks birdwatching on my own. I went to be part of a team, to whom I could talk, work with and relax over a ten day period. I also went to learn something about Estonia as a country. Having spent some time in Albania I was interested to see how a Northern European country is adapting to life after communism.

Estonia works. Buses turn up when they’re supposed to, roads are signposted. When the map says they’re metalled they are. The roads are broadly smooth, very much unlike the average Albanian one. There’s a tourist infrastructure of maps, hotels and museums. There certainly seems to be a civil society, of summer festivals, concerts and other entertainment. Estonia has embraced the internet, to the extent that I could have bought my bus tickets by e-mail before I even left the UK. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why Estonia works, and reasons that passed me by. But one thought come to mind. Estonia is very close, geographically and linguistically to Finland. As such it has a model to try to emulate, and a successful model at that. Albania hasn’t really made up its mind quite what its model ought to be, perhaps the 40 years of autarchy has proved too difficult to overcome. In its good bits it’s Greek, or perhaps Italian, but the civil society just isn’t there yet. The general quality of the infrastructure is also significantly worse.

But why was the social side of things so great? It started from the top. Chris and Niall were quite unlike any academics that I’d ever come across. Wearing their knowledge lightly they were not overburdened with a sense of their own importance. They remembered that this was also a holiday, and not just work. They enjoyed music and were able to joke about almost anything. We finished every day with a beer. Woodcocks became Tonys, Yellowhammers MCs. The mimed descriptions for Crested, Great, Bearded and best of all Penduline Tit will stay with me for ever. Finch Chaffs and Ladies Bed Chamber will as well.

The fun tone was embraced by everyone else. Maureen accepted our ribbing about French accents and ribbed us anglos back about our inability to hear the difference between porridge and elk. She also kept her humour as the questions rained in as we surveyed the vegetation quadrats. “Maureen can you just have a look at this” became a constant refrain. Silvia was our window on Estonia. Ever willing to answer question after question she retained a giggly good humour throughout the trip. She also did invaluable service negotiating us through the byways of Estonian life, from ferry crossings to the ubiquity of Dill. Marko was our bird man, when presented with my list of hoped for Estonian birds took a deep breath and said that some would be rather hard. He was right. And Hanella brought the joys of youth to the team, including the Estonian summer dress sense.

Of the volunteers I brought a decent knowledge of birds, so allowing Niall, Maureen and Chris to have a morning or two off. With Marko we managed to get the volunteers trip list to a new record of 128. And as in other areas of multi-national birding a decent knowledge of Latin names does matter. Norma brought organisation and the self-confidence to tell over-exuberant birdwatchers to be clear in what they shouted out. Watching birds is one thing; science requires recording them, something Norma was expert at. She also brought a games playing spirit to the team, something embraced by me, Paul, Jessy and especially the ultra-competitive Niall, whose ability to catch foxtails, score baskets and keep volleyballs off the ground amazed.

Jessy brought the blue eyed joys of youth to us all. First time in Europe, first ever passport, first ever taxi (in Tallinn) and she kept going right to the end, enduring ribbing from Niall on the merits of Allen, her chosen one. Heather accepted that birds moved around too quickly. But plants don’t and Heather knew her plants. Paul brought a very wry Maltese humour to the proceedings and a willingness to be reminded again and again of Liverpool’s triumph over his beloved AC Milan. Fabienne was French, but with only the positive images that that brings up. A real long distance athlete who ate up the kilometres as if they were nothing and went for 40 minute runs just for fun she had a great sense of humour and willingness to put up with speaking English most of the time. Rayne was good fun to talk to, and is perhaps one of the few people still around to have considered the Watts riots in 65 to have been fun (he was a fire captain at the time). Having read one of his discarded novels and explained cricketing analogies in Royal Flash to him he sure does have a good taste in novels. And Debbie showed us that it’s possible to subsist on five hours of sleep at night and still come up smiling every morning. She’d also got herself at ticket for the U2 concert in Dublin making green-eyed monsters of us all. Perhaps the best way of showing how much I missed the camaraderie of the team was that after being dropped off at my hotel on the last day I lay on my bed, looking at the ceiling and thinking how much I missed everyone. 

So here’s the bird list:

* = Seen/heard by Earthwatch expedition members in period between first ferry crossing and final drop off.

+ = Seen/heard by me while in Estonia.

1.   Black-throated Diver (Gavia artica). At least four seen flying on Vormsi on 11 June 1, late migrants. * +

2.   Red-throated Diver (Gavia stellata). Seen by Marko and Niall on an early morning bird transect on Vormsi. *

3.   Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus). One seen from the boat as we arrived on Vormsi, 30-40 just off the reedbeds in Haapsalu, and a few others on water elsewhere. * +

4.   Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegna). One close in to the reeds seen from Haapsalu bird tower on 21 June. Breeding plumage. +

5.   Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo). Breeding colony on an islet in the Baltic seen from the ferry. Occasional birds elsewhere. * +

6.   Bittern (Botaurus stellaris). One bird heard booming on Vormsi, Presumably the same bird heard later from a bird tower overlooking Prastviigi (a reed fringed lake on Vormsi. One also heard in Silma reserve one morning. * +

7.   Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea). Common. The largest heronry in Estonia is just north of Haapsalu. * +

8.   White Stork (Ciconia ciconia). Not exactly common, and none seen on Vormsi. At least three nests seen on artificial towers and hunting birds seen in fields as well. * +

9.   Whooper Swan (Cygnus cygnus). Two seen by Marko and Maureen on a Silma bird transect. *

10.   Mute Swan (Cygnus olor). Very common. Nice to see them in a wild habitat, though apparently have become so common as to make a nuisance of themselves. Only breeding in Estonia for last 40 years. Not a good season this year as another storm, this year in April had destroyed many nests. * +

11.   Greylag Goose (Anser anser). A few small flocks seen on Vormsi and Silma. * +

12.   Brent Goose (Branta bernicla). One rather lost looking bird at Spithami, the most north-easterly part of mainland Estonia. * +

13.   Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna). A few birds seen on Vormsi. * +

14.   Wigeon (Anas Penelope). A few male birds on Vormsi, one 20 bird flock and what looked like about 100 in the distance at Haapsalu. * +

15.   Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos). Quite common on Vormsi and in the Baltic in general. Max flock size about 30. * +

16.   Gadwall (Anas strepera). Less common than Mallard, though still quite widespread. Mostly males identified. * +

17.   Shovellers (Anas clypeata). Not common, though a few birds seen off the Rumpo peninsula on Vormsi. * +

18.   Teal (Anas creca). A few seen at Silma, including one flock of c30. * +

19.   Garganey (Anas querquedula). One seen in a Teal flock at Silma. * +

20.   Pochard (Aythya farina). None on Vormsi, a few in the “lake” at Haapsalu; also seen at reed edge at Matsalu. * +

21.   Tufted Duck (Aythya fuligula). Common. Seen at most wetland habitats. Loose aggregations of c50 near coast. * +

22.   Eider (Somateria mollissima). Seen on rocky habitats. A few young at Spithami. * +

23.   Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) Single up to 50 males seen on Baltic, generally further offshore than Tufted Ducks. * +

24.   Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator). Seen off the coast in Tallinn, on Vormsi and in Haapsalu. * +

25.   Goosander (Mergus merganser). Bred in nestboxes on Vormsi. 4-5 flew out of woodlands at Hosby on Vormsi. Silvia told a tale of a female leading its young to water being caught by a domestic cat, which was then followed inside by the chicks, imprinted on the adult in the cat’s jaws. * +

26.   Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosis). Quite common, and rather unusually only circus harrier seen. Mostly males, but the odd female as well. * +

27.   Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus). Single bird over woodland on Vormsi. * +

28.   Honey Buzzard (Pernis apivoris). Twice seen soaring over woodland near vegetation survey site on Vormsi (same bird?). * +

29.   Buzzard (Buteo buteo). A few seen on mainland and Vormsi. Seen hovering, as in contrast to much of Western Britain no wind, or hills to create updrafts in Estonia. * +

30.   White-tailed (Fish) Eagle (Haliaetus albicilla). A couple of birds seen on Vormsi, including one adult. Two distant bird together on mainland. * +

Lesser Spotted Eagle (Aquila pomarina). Not a definite ID, but a brown bird a good bit larger than a Buzzard flew over our minibus as we returned, late (puncture) from Matsalu.

31.   Osprey (Pandion haliaetus). One bird seen on Vormsi. *

Black Grouse (Tertrao tetrix). Not seen, but included here in recognition of Chris’s overexcited identification of calves lying down in long grass swishing their tails as this species.

32.   Grey Partridge (Perdix perdix). A couple of birds seen on the spit at the North end of Matsalu bay.  * +

33.   Corncrake (Crex crex). Heard in three places, Vormsi near Saxby, in Silma reserve (at c7am, and at Tuksi) * +

34.   Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus). Heard calling, but not full pig squeal at Lake Prästviigi. * +

35.   Coot (Fulica atra). Common, particularly in the Haapsalu area. * +

36.   Crane (Grus grus). Heard bugling on Vormsi and the odd bird seen. One flock of nearly 50 in the Silma reserve. * +

37.   Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus). Widespread, though still broadly paired up.

38.   Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta). At least 6 birds and 4 chicks at Silma. A couple of birds seen at Matsalu.

39.   Ringed Plover (Chaudrius hiaticula). A few birds on the shoreline at Vormsi. At least three birds seen on waste ground in Haapsalu itself, among c50 roosting Black-headed Gulls. * +

40.   Little Ringed Plover (Chaudrius dubius). One seen on recently cleared (reclaimed) land at Haapsalu on Eastern side of lake. +

41.   Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola). Seen on the shoreline near our accommodation on the mainland. *

42.   Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus). Widespread but not especially common. At least one on dry field near our Vormsi accommodation.

43.   Dunlin (Calidris alpina schinzii). A couple of breeding plumage birds on Vormsi, at least three at Silma. No sign of breeding. * +

44.   Ruff (Philomachus pugnax). Seen at Silma, including breeding plumage males. * +

45.   Curlew (Numenius arquata). One seen and heard at Diby on Vormsi. Also seen near mainland accommodation at Tuksi. * +

46.   Black-tailed Godwit. (Limosa limosa). 16 at the end of a bird transect on day 1 at Silma.

47.   Redshank (Tringa totanus). Pairs seen on wetlands at Vormsi and Silma. Commoner on managed grasslands. * +

48.   Spotted Redshank (Tringa elytrous). About 8 seen distantly on Vormsi near vegetation survey site. Distant, but noticeably black. * +

49.   Greenshank (Tringa nebularia). A couple seen at Diby. * +

50.   Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola) Seen near Tuksi. *

51.   Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypeleucos). Seen near Tuksi. *

52.   Woodcock. (Scolopax rusticola). Heard and seen roding on Vormsi with squeaking call but not the deeper call.

53.   Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). At least one bird on Vormsi and two at Silma. * +

54.   Black-headed Gull (Larus ridibundus). Abundant. Breeding colony on an island just off Haapsalu. * +

55.   Common Gull (Larus canus). Very common everywhere.  * +

56.   Herring Gull (Larus argentatus). Widespread but much less common than smaller gulls. * +

57.   Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marines). One bird seen on Vormsi * +

58.   Lesser Black-backed Gull (Larus fuscous). A few birds seen in Baltic. * +

59.   Common Tern (Sterna hirundo). Not common. Definitely seen at Sviby harbour on Vormsi and one by me alone in Haapsalu after expedition had ended. * +

60.   Arctic Tern (Sterna paradisea). By contrast common. Breeding colony at Tallinn, others assumed to be on islets off coast of main islands.

61.   Little Tern (Sterna albifrons). One seen in Arctic Tern colony at Tallinn harbour.

62.   Caspian Tern (Sterna caspia). Seen occasionally, mainly at Vormsi and in area between island and mainland. At least one seen with c 10 com fish moustached over bill. Mistaken for herring Gull at first glance on one occasion. * +

63.   Black Tern (Chilidonias niger). Seen by Maureen at Silma, and by me at Matsalu. * +

64.   Woodpigeon (Columba palumbus). Seen and heard both on Vormsi and on mainland. * +

65.   Stock Dove (Columba oenas). Two bird seen flying out of woodland at Hosby on Vormsi. * +

66.   Rock Dove/Feral Pigeon (Columba livia). First seen in Haapsalu, then in other towns. None on Vormsi, except perhaps one at the old collective farm at Hullo. * +

67.   Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur). One perhaps heard on Vormsi.

68.   Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus). Heard frequently and seen at least once at Silma. A nice easy one for the non-birders. * +

69.   Nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus) Heard around midnight at Tuksi. * +

70.   Swift (Apus apus). Bred in our Vormsi accommodation. Widespread elsewhere where habitation allowed breeding. Flock of 50 + birds in Haapsalu. * +

71.   Wryneck (Jynx torquilla). Heard on Vormsi. * +

72.   Black Woodpecker (Dryocopus martius). Seen and heard by Niall; heard drumming by me. * +

73.   Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). Seen at the Vormsi accommodation. * +

74.   Skylark (Alauda arvensis). Very common on all types of grassland, both wet and dry. * +

75.   Woodlark (Luella arboreal). One seen bird the church in Vormsi, I think I heard birds at Tuksi as well. * +

76.   Sand Martin (Riparia riparia). Seen at Tallinn Harbour, and perhaps in the distance at c22:30 at Lake Prästviigi. +

77.   Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica). Common over all open habitats. * +

78.   House Martin (Delichon urbica). Common in suburban habitats and in villages. Bred in Vormsi accommodation, above front porch. * +

79.   Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis). A few birds seen and heard in pines on edge of wet grassland on Vormsi. * +

80.   Meadow Pipit (Anthus pratensis). Not uncommon, especially on wet grassland. * +

81.   White Wagtail (Motacilla alba alba). Abundant. * +

82.   Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava flava). Perhaps better know as Port Wagtail on my trip, as most birds were either at Tallinn port or in the rather disused land on the spit at Haapsalu. One also seen at Hosby on Vormsi. * +

83.   Dunnock (Prunella modularis). Seen and heard on Vormsi, with one bird trying to confuse by singing on top of a juniper tree. * +

84.   Robin (Erithacus rubeculla). Seen and heard on Vormsi. Not especially common. * +

85.   Thrush Nightingale (Luscina luscina). Seen fleetingly and heard on Vormsi, at least two heard singing in a small wood in the Silma reserve. * +

86.   Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). One male seen hunting insects at our second Tuksi accommodation site.* +

87.   Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). Seen singing in Haapsalu and in a village north of Silma. * +

88.   Whinchat. (Saxicola ruberta). Quite common at Silma on rough ground with trees. First seen by Maureen. * +

89.   Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). Common around rocky areas and in other built up but abandoned areas, eg old collective farms. * +

90.   Blackbird (Turdus merula). Seen and heard on Vormsi and mainland, but, at least vocally, less common than Song Thrush. * +

91.   Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). Widely distributed, but generally singles. * +

92.   Redwing (Turdus iliacus). Heard on Vormsi. * +

93.   Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos). As evenings drew on most commonly heard songbird in woodland (not that we spent lots of time in woodland as it was Mosquito heaven). * +

94.   Savi’s Warbler (Locustella lusciniodes). Heard in a very small patch of reeds on Vormsi. * +

95.   Sedge Warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus). Very common, much more so than Reed Warbler except in the most mature reedbeds or freshwater ones. * +

96.   Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus). Tended to require older reeds, as opposed to new and low clumps of phragmites. * +

97.   Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina). One heard and seen in old orchard on Vormsi, one perhaps heard on a walk in Matsalu. * +

98.   Garden Warbler (Sylvia borin). Common in woodland. * +

99.   Lesser Whitethroat (Sylvia curruca). Common in and wooded or hedged areas. * +

100.   Whitethroat (Sylvia communis). Common as well, though more of a scrub bird. * +

101.   Blackcap (Sylvia atracapilla). Seen and heard on Vormsi, but not common. * +

102.   Barred Warbler (Sylvia nisoria). Quite common in juniper woodland, not seen or heard otherwise, though I may not have looked). * +

103.   Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix). Seen once though heard regularly in woodland on Vormsi. Mozzie count meant identification by sound was easiest as we strode through as quickly as possible. * +

104.   Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) Very common, with song a regular feature of all our work. * +

105.   Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita). Another easy one for the birding novice. Also common. * +

106.   Goldcrest (Regulus regulus). Some family parties in pine woods. * +

107.   Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca). Seen on Vormsi, though not by me. I saw one male in a small woodland by the side of the Tallinn-Haapsalu road on the outskirts of Haapsalu. * +

108.   Spotted Flycatcher (Musicapa striata). Seen round our accommodation and in Haapsalu Castle and parks in the town. * +

109.   Willow Tit (Parus montanus). Identified for me by call in pine woodland on Vormsi. I’m reasonably sure I saw a couple, also in pine woodland near Haapsalu. * +

110.   Crested Tit (Parus cristatus). Seen a couple of times at the second Tuksi accommodation site. * +

111.   Blue Tit (Parus caeruleus). Seen at Haapsalu Castle.* +

112.   Great Tit (Parus major). Not seen that often, but was breeding at our Vormsi accommodation. * +

113.   Coal Tit (Parus ater). Seen in pine woodland on Vormsi. * +

114.   Red-backed Shrike (Lanius collurio). Quite common on Vormsi, and certainly visible. A particular liking for Junipers. * +

115.   Starling (Sternus vulgaris). Common, and some juveniles already with adults in small flocks (c 30-50 birds). * +

116.   Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus). Heard in the distance on Vormsi. * +

117.   Jay. (Garrulus glandarius) Seen at the Tuksi accommodation. * +

118.   Magpie (Pica pica). Widespread. * +

119.   Jackdaw. (Corvus monedula). First seen at Haapsalu Castle. None seen on Vormsi. * +

120.   Raven (Corvus corax). Heard and seen on Vormsi. * +

121.   Hooded Crow (Corvus corone cornix). Common. * +

122.   Rook (Corvus frugilegus). Flock seen at Haapsalu. * +

123.   Tree Sparrow (Passer montanus). Common suburban bird in Haapsalu. The bird feeding off crumbs in cafes was the House Sparrow. * +

124.   House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The city/town centre sparrow. * +

125.   Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs). Very common. * +

126.   Siskin (Carduelis spinus). A couple of birds at Vormsi, and then rather more in the pine woods of the mainland. * +

127.   Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris). Seen around the Vormsi accommodation and elsewhere. * +

128.   Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis). A few heard and seen. * +

129.   Bullfinch (Pyrrula pyrrula). One male seen at Tuksi. * +

130.   Linnet (Carduelis cannabina). Often seen around the Vormsi accommodation. * +

131.   (Scarlet/Common) Rosefinch (Corpodacus erythrinus). Common. * +

132.   Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella). Very common. * +

133.   Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus). Common in reedbeds. * +


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