ESTONIA

22nd - 27th MAY 2015
 

                                                                                             Sunset over the Baltic

First ever trip to Eastern Europe.

Possibly not the optimum time of year for a visit. The main passage of wildfowl, divers, etc has already gone through the Baltic Sea by the end of May, owls and woodpeckers were liable to be more difficult to find, but on the plus side it would coincide with the appearance of a few of the later arriving summer migrants.

Focus was as much targeted on the mammals as birds. Potential species, all of which would be lifers, included Brown Bear, Elk/Moose, Beaver, Wolf, Lynx, Wild Boar, Raccoon Dog and Flying Squirrel - with luck I should connect with a couple of them.

Resident owls include Pygmy, Tengmalm's and Ural - only the latter was considered a possibility. As for woodpeckers, I was hoping for Black, Grey-headed and White-backed - Three-toed and Middle Spotted were outside chances.

Most of the UK tour companies tend to follow a similar circuit, with a typical week including a few days in north-west Estonia, then a few days in the south-west of the country, before heading to the Tartu area. I'd considered various options, before at a late stage deciding on accommodation near Häärdemeeste, and if I was covering any places further afield, then I'd just commute.

In the tight schedule I had, I probably wasn't going to visit the Tartu area, which meant missing out on the wetlands of Aardla and Ilmatsalu, as well as the Great Snipe lekking site at Kärevere.
                                                                                              Lahemaa National Park

Birding was likely to be possible from 4.00am to 10.30pm, and if the weather was good enough and I had the energy, then I'd try to make the most of it.


Logistics

Booked a flight with Ryanair from Stanstead (daily service from this airport), with a 6.45am departure, arriving at Tallinn at 11.35am after the two hour time difference. The return journey was scheduled for 12.00pm, with an arrival time back at Stanstead of 12.55pm. Shame about the return flight leaving so early, as the final day was effectively a write off. A weight limit for hand luggage with Ryanair was 10kg, which is a problem with a Canon 500mm lens and other camera kit.

Car hire was via Thrifty, at a cost of around £140 for six days hire of a VW Golf.  Accommodation was through the booking.com website, and was around £40 per night for a self contained twin bed, en suite chalet with coastal views over the Baltic.


Itinerary

After arriving at Tallinn Airport Friday morning, I had to get to the Brown Bear hide meeting point near Tudu in the far north-east of Estonia for 5.30pm - only 30 miles or so from the Russian border here.

With an overnight stay in the hide, Saturday morning would be spent traveling over to the south-west coast, and my accommodation near Häärdemeeste. The rest of the trip would concentrate on the areas around Nigula to Parnu, possibly with sorties to Matsalu Bay and Soomaa.

Another night was planned in a Lynx hide on the south side of Matsalu Bay for the last evening - no idea how good the chances of success were with this one, as it was a new venture only starting this month.


Day 1 - 22nd May 2015
 

Lahemaa National ParkLahemaa National Park                                                                                                Lahemaa National Park

A smooth journey, car sorted easily enough, then on the road heading east. Busy in the Tallinn area, but once through the main urban areas, fairly light traffic on decent quality roads. Had some time to kill, so decided to detour via the Lahemaa National Park area en route to Tudu. Once off the beaten track, a gentle drive through forest and meadows, with beautiful wooden houses - definitely a step back in time.

Didn't see a huge amount bird wise in the heat of the afternoon, Wood Warbler was ubiquitous, Red-backed Shrike was the first of many, Fieldfare and Whinchat widespread, and plenty of signs of Beaver activity at different locations.

The bear hide was booked through Natourest, the link for which is at the bottom of the report. Made it to the meeting point at the agreed time to pick up a key for the hide - surprisingly the only person there tonight. Then it was a twenty minute or so walk through the forest, seemed longer carrying lots of kit and with a fair bit of harassment from the local mosquitoes. Three hides are available, a large one, a two person de-lux photographers hide, then my one, a tiny one person photographers hide.
Bear hidesBear hidesNorth-east Estonia - May 2015

                                                               Bear hides - North-east Estonia - small middle one was mine

Set up the camera, then it was a case of a long stake out of the clearing to see what unfolded. Omens weren't great, as the bears had been very sporadic and infrequent in their appearances recently, not helped by NATO doing military exercises in the area and as always as far as wildlife is concerned nothing was guaranteed. Didn't take long for Raccoon Dog to appear (an introduced species from Asia), with up to three seen on and off over the next couple of hours, almost Badger like as they scuttle around the forest floor - brief views also of a Red Fox. Despite being a bright day, as soon as the sun began to drop, in the forest very quickly the light started to go, and by 8.30pm it was fairly dark. Nightjar called briefly, and Cuckoo had been a constant presence since arrival. 
Brown bearBrown bearNorth-east Estonia - May 2015 Thought my chances had probably gone for this evening, when out of nowhere a female Brown Bear appeared, with a single youngster in tow - she sniffed the air just to check that it was all clear, then came right out into the clearing. Didn't appreciate just how big these animals are - huge bulk. Great views over the next 20 minutes or so, and after a brief phone call home, the family back in the UK were able to watch the bears at the same time from the webcam website. Very difficult getting any useable images in the given light conditions - high ISO, slow shutter speeds, and still plenty of images binned.
 

                                                                                        Brown Bear - North-east Estonia

This link is worth looking at re the bear hide - http://www.looduskalender.ee/forum/viewtopic.php?f=50&t=751.

Basic facilities (ie: non-existent) in the hide, no bed, and just your own sleeping bag on the floor wasn't what you would call comfortable - it wasn't warm either. Not sure how much sleep I got, but it wasn't a lot.


Day 2 - 23rd May 2015

Some kind of daylight from 4.00am onwards, so started to scan the clearing. Gave it a few hours, but was just getting Raccoon Dog, plus a new addition in the form of a Red Squirrel. Difficult light this morning, as the rising sun shone directly into the hide. With the long drive to the south-west of the country to do, and as I'd probably used up my luck with last nights Brown Bear sighting, packed up and headed back to the car.

With hindsight I wouldn't book the single photographers hide again - just too uncomfortable, with not enough room to even stand up. Very difficult being in there for 14 hours or so, definitely get cabin fever. Anyone fancies giving it a go, select one of the alternative hides - in the largest hide you have to view through glass, so if photography is your interest, the two person de-lux photographers is the best option.

It was a risk deciding to try for Brown Bear given how short the duration of the trip was, and how far out of the way it was to travel to the north-east of Estonia, when I was going to be based in the south-west, but fortunately it had paid off.
Raccoon dogRaccoon dogNorth-east Estonia - May 2015

                                                                                       Raccoon Dog - North-east Estonia

Weather wise it had been great yesterday, around 18°C, with blue skies and little by way of wind. Another cracking start this morning, and with rain forecast for later, decided I may as well bird around the north-east before setting off on the expected three and a half hour drive for Häärdemeeste.

A singing male Common Rosefinch next to the car was new, and I'd hear this song all over Estonia in the next few days. Drove around various tracks to see what I could find, which included Cuckoo, Green Sandpiper and Common Crane, before parking up near to a meadow that had calling Corncrake. This was a species I'd heard before in Yorkshire, though never actually seen. Very frustrating over the next hour and a half, as no matter how patient I was, and despite being at really close range, the best I could manage was a couple of seconds of one out in the open, and no chance of any photos. The first spots of rain arrived at this point, and this was the spur to finally set off.

Driving towards Rakvere, a ploughed field held three Baltic Gull amongst the Herring Gulls, which turned out to be the only ones of the trip. Stopped off at the supermarket here to stock up on supplies, before continuing in what was by now heavy rain. Didn't see much on the drive itself, not helped by the conditions, but Common Crane was regular, always in ones and twos, single Black Kite, a few White Stork, and the roadside pools around Selja & Multi just off Route 5 held breeding Red-necked Grebe.
Black woodpeckerBlack woodpeckerNigula, Estonia - May 2015

                                                                                    Black Woodpecker - Nigula Forest

With various stops on the journey, didn't arrive on the west coast until 4.30pm, then booked into the accommodation at the Kosmonautika Holiday Centre, which was in Penu, located between Kabli and Häärdemeeste. A quick unloading of the car, before setting off for Nigula Forest. Turned into a pretty good evening with brilliant views of very vocal Black Woodpeckers, huge birds, a species I'd always wanted to see, and one that I'd missed on the trip last August to the Picos de Europa in Spain. Amazing sound when they drum, so loud. The dense forest looked difficult to cover, but the easier option was to concentrate on the forest clearings - all of the clearings typically had a few tall trees left standing, and these were attractive to nesting woodpeckers.

                                                                                   Nigula Forest - typical clearing

Other birds included a very smart adult Hobby overhead, roding Woodcock, calling Nightjar, Red-backed Shrike and Common Rosefinch. One of the main targets of the trip was Ural Owl and while staking out a potential area, a couple of birders from Burnley turned up. After a while with no sign, and the light starting to go, one of them split off to check some other clearings, and dropped lucky with a hunting bird over a meadow. It was still there by the time we arrived, some flight views and then perched up giving great scope views.

                                                                                            Ural Owl - Nigula Forest

A nightmare trying to get images of any kind of quality, with the light by now very poor (it had gone 10.00pm), so just record shots. Also had a singing River Warbler, but elusive in thick scrub, so couldn't see it. An interesting drive back to the accommodation, with a number of Nightjars being picked up on the forest track by the cars headlights - good enough views to attempt some photography.

All in a very good day, I now had a base, the bulk of the driving was over, and lifers so far included Corncrake, Black Woodpecker and Ural Owl.


Day 3 - 24th May 2015

Original plan had been to get up early and out into the forest for first light, but managed to sleep in until 7.00am, not really surprising considering the zero hours sleep I'd had the previous evening.

Another beautiful day with clear blue skies, so headed back up to Nigula Forest, seeing similar to yesterday but no Ural Owl this time.

                                                                                                Nigula Bog boardwalk 

Decided to have a look at Nigula Bog, accessed via the carpark on the eastern border - took a slow 30 minutes from the forest tracks on the west side of the reserve. A short walk to the lake, with just Goldeneye and Goosander seen on it. The path then winds along the edge of the lake, before coming to the bog itself - unfortunately the path across the bog was being repaired, so without any waterproof footwear I didn't go any further. Green Hairstreak seen here on bilberry.
White-backed woodpeckerWhite-backed woodpeckerNigula Bog, Estonia - May 2015

      White-backed Woodpecker - Nigula Bog
 

Back towards the carpark, and managed to locate a White-backed Woodpecker. Again really good views as it ranged around the woodland, with the nest also located nearby, and viewable from the path. Had my first Nuthatch here as well, very different looking compared to the UK ones.

Drove along the road adjacent to the eastern side of the reserve, stopping occasionally to scan specifically for any large raptors, as this was a good area for Lesser Spotted Eagle, but managed to draw a blank. Did have Thrush Nightingale singing from a copse nearby.

                                                                    Nigula - meadow just to the south of the reserve HQ

Fancied doing something different, so took the opportunity of having good weather to head up the coast to a site near Parnu for Citrine Wagtail, one of the Estonian specialities. Normally they are present nearby in the coastal meadows at Häärdemeeste, but they weren't getting reported from there this spring.

A good run up to Parnu on excellent roads, took about 45 minutes, and managed to find the site OK with the help of Sat Nav. Very breezy on the coast, with most birds keeping low - found Blue-headed Wagtail and White Wagtail, but no sign of any Citrine. Was passing this site again in a couple of days time, so decided to give it another go then, hopefully in better, ie: less windy, conditions.

Back south along the coast, a new reserve for me was Pikla Pools, a mixture of reedbeds and open water, as well as meadow. A few viewing platforms here, giving good but mostly distant views, so wasn't ideally suited for photography. Great Reed Warbler and Savi's Warbler singing, Bittern booming, and four Great White Egret present.

                                                                Common Crane - Nigula - a widespread bird around Estonia

Drifted back towards Nigula Forest, as I was going to stake out the meadow where yesterdays Ural Owl was seen. Arrived in plenty of time around 7.30pm, set up the camera kit, then waited for the owl to appear, in the expectation of getting good quality images. You kind of hope birds are creatures of habit, but no point second guessing this one - I stayed until dusk, and it didn't show at all, obviously hunting elsewhere this evening.

River Warbler was still here, as was Corncrake, neither of which were seen, and a Roe Deer showed well.


Day 4 - 25th May 2015

Half way through the trip now. Set the alarm for 5.00am, and actually managed to get up this time. Another great day ahead, blue skies again with hardly a cloud - temperatures were going to peak at 21°C this afternoon.

Set off exploring the forest tracks on the western side of Nigula, usual birds such as Hobby, Common Crane, Red-backed Shrike, Wryneck, Black Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Common Rosefinch, River Warbler, Corncrake, Hawfinch, Willow Tit, Pied Flycatcher and Turtle Dove. Also had a Goosander flying around one of the clearings, as well as a Red Fox early on, and another Hobby en route.

                                                                                              Wryneck - Nigula Forest

Moved over the north-east side of Nigula, very different on this side, much more of an agricultural feel to it, and a popular area for White Stork, with numerous nesting birds on most farmsteads, villages and posts alongside the road. Common Crane and the odd passage Whimbrel on the fields also.

                                                                                                    White Stork - Nigula

Had another look at the Nigula Bog carpark area for the White-backed Woodpecker, but no sign in the brief search, and no luck either with Lesser Spotted Eagle, in what you would think were excellent conditions. With hindsight probably didn't give it a long or thorough enough search, as there's always something else to move onto. A smart red male Common Rosefinch in the gardens of the Nigula Reserve HQ, which gave decent views was some compensation.

                                                                                           Baltic Sea at Häärdemeeste 

Lunch as usual at the petrol station at Häärdemeeste (picking up Golden Oriole on the way), an excellent stop off for a hot meal and coffee whilst out and about, and great value. I still hadn't seen Citrine Wagtail, so decided to give the coastal fields at Häärdemeeste a bash - wasn't great expectation wise, as I knew a couple of birders who'd tried and failed to see this species here. Parked by the manor house, a really pretty spot - had Icterine Warbler singing. Not surprisingly drew a blank with the wagtail, but still worth visiting.

Back to the forest tracks on the western side of Nigula in another attempt to see Ural Owl - a slight change in tactics this time around, basically alternating between doing half an hour at the clearing, followed by the same amount of time at the meadow area, then repeating the process. Didn't make any difference, still dipped.

Great backdrop of sound with Common Crane (my favourite call, just epitomises wilderness), Corncrake, River Warbler, Nightjar and Woodcock all audible.

                                                                                             Nigula Forest at dusk
 

Day 5 - 26th May 2015

Another excellent start to the morning, with blue skies again. Changeover day, and time to leave the accommodation. Basic facilities, but on the plus side a huge advantage in being able to come and go as you please without disturbing anyone else, a great location for exploring the south-west of Estonia - was also clean and warm.

                                                                                         Kosmonautika Holiday Centre

Car loaded up, so I wasn't going to be able to leave it unattended today, then back to Nigula Forest. Parked where I normally scanned for Ural Owl, then walked north along the track for 40 metres or so, before coming across a bear print. It had walked into a muddy rut on the track, then placed its wet pad onto the dry track - that print was still wet, so at most it was only a few hours old. A bit ironic really, if I'd stayed in the car at this location last night, I definitely would have seen it - a more comfortable option compared to the mini bear hide.

                                                         Brown Bear print - mobile phone for size comparison - Nigula Forest

So far I'd struggled for mammals, and thought at some point I would have already bumped into Elk. Plenty of tracks near to the Brown Bear one, and a random drive along a few forest tracks changed my luck, as I managed to drop on one - a relief, as with a flight home tomorrow, I was starting to run out of time. Fairly strange looking creature, almost horse like head wise, especially without antlers, and reasonably confiding - just carried on feeding whilst I photographed it from the car.

                                                                                                   Elk - Nigula Forest

By this stage I was just trying to clear up on target species that I'd missed - Grey-headed Woodpecker continued to frustrate, heard it on numerous occasions, but just couldn't get it pinned down. Decided to head over to Nigula Bog to try and pick up Lesser Spotted Eagle, but the early morning blue skies had been replaced by heavy cloud, and it was now starting to rain, so that idea was a write off. Better luck with the White-backed Woodpecker, which gave very good views near to the carpark, but always up against getting decent photos in poor light and rain.

                                                                              White-backed Woodpecker - Nigula Bog

Had lunch at Häärdemeeste, bumping into two of Yorkshires finest whilst there, FXM and JMT, who'd just arrived after having had a wader fest in the Tartu area - a thousand miles from home, but almost like days gone by at Jack's café.

Still lashing down with rain, and time to make the move north towards tonights stay in the Lynx hide on the south side of Matsalu Bay. Stopped off en route at the Citrine Wagtail site at Parnu, and the first check along the access road gave the same result as a couple of days previous, just Blue-headed Wagtail - didn't hold out a great deal of hope by now. Second check, and there it was sat on a post right next to the road, a stunning male Citrine Wagtail - never seen a full adult before, real quality, can't believe I'd missed it first time around when I had great light for photography. Also here a female Citrine Wagtail, as well as three Garganey.
 

                                                                                              Citrine Wagtail - Parnu

Met a birder from Finland, who'd earlier had a Middle Spotted Woodpecker just a few miles along the coast at Audru, so decided to try for that, and if the weather improved I could always pop back to try and get better photos of Citrine Wagtail.

Audru Park was a lovely spot, but always going to find it tough going in the rain - I was starting to get wet now, including my feet, with my boots the sole item of footwear I had. Brief calling woodpecker sp. a couple of times, but had to settle for views of a Nuthatch. Further down towards the coast, just before the entrance to the golf course, there's a small reedbed next to a pond, and Great Reed Warbler gave great close range views, but again the weather was thwarting attempts to get good quality images.
 

No let up in the rain, and with time running out, didn't get the chance to return to Parnu. Moved on to the Lynx hide for an overnight stay - good facilities, a big spacious hide, and I was the only person there. No luck with Lynx, good views instead of another Elk. Kept looking until the light was too poor at 10.45pm, and didn't use any spotlighting during the hours of darkness - maybe with hindsight I should have.


Day 6 - 27th May 2015

Last day, flight was due out at midday, and to be safe needed be get to the airport a couple of hours earlier than that.

Missed dawn, just too tired to get up, so didn't start looking for Lynx until gone 5.00am - would have benefited having someone else in the hide to share with the searching. Staying in hides for two nights out of five on the trip was one night too many, especially considering I'd set off at midnight for the Stanstead departure - wouldn't do more than one night in the future.

Had Elk again, before deciding to take in a few of the sites on the south side of Matsalu Bay that I'd missed. Originally when I'd planned the trip I was going to be based on the north side of the bay, so it was interesting to see what I would have experienced.

                                                                                                  River Tuudi, Matsalu

First stop was near the Suitsu viewing platform, adjacent to the River Tuudi. I had a Beaver boat trip booked for here with Natourest, but cancelled when I decided to be based in the south-west. A beautiful and tranquil location in the very early morning sunshine, not a soul around, large open vistas, a flat calm river, wooden boats, and thatched fishermen huts with drying fishing nets hanging outside, all very photogenic. Birds here included Common Crane, booming Bittern, Kingfisher, Thrush Nightingale, Red-backed Shrike and Common Rosefinch.

Having seen the location, regretted not having taken the boat trip - should have done it rather than the night in the Lynx hide.

                                                                                                             Matsalu

Next stop was Kloostri Tower - climbed up it, absolutely brilliant views over the Kasari meadow, all 4,000 hectares of it, you can literally see for miles, must be superb when the main migration season is on - one of these would be fantastic at Wykeham Forest for raptor watching. After numerous singles and pairs of Common Crane over the trip, finally found a flock, with maybe 19 individuals (they were very distant), also like buses, found another Elk.

And that was it, next stop Tallin Airport to offload the hire car and check in - love the smaller airports were you just walk up to the counter, with no queuing whatsoever - the exact opposite to the stress of trying to get through one of the major UK airports. 


Summary

The trip was over in a flash - six days including travel, especially with losing a day on the journey up to the north-east for Brown Bear, just wasn't long enough, and I really only scratched the surface of what was on offer.

Very aware whilst I was there of what I hadn't seen, and in truth birding on my own, especially in the forested areas, with just one set of eyes I missed as much as I saw, but looking back some great encounters with wildlife. On a real positive, there's plenty to go back for, and I'll probably return in the spring of 2017, to cover the sites and species I missed this time around.

Estonia itself is a beautiful country - doesn't sound like much, a very flat terrain covered mostly in forest, but with it's rivers, lakes, meadows, bogs and colourful wooden houses, it adds up to more than the sum of its parts - all very, very pretty.

                                                                                                      Red-necked Grebe

Weather was great, usually around 18°C, peaked at 21°C, and dipped to 13°C when the two weather fronts came through - it was actually warmer than the UK during this week. Lots of blue sky and sunshine, managed to coincide the long drive to the south-west with the first belt of rain, so was really just hit by the second one - not bad considering how far north in Europe I was.

The sunsets over the Baltic were something we just don't get on the east coast of Yorkshire.

Insects weren't a problem, they were plentiful, but high content Deet repellent worked fine, and I hadn't had a single bite until the last day, when possibly a Horse-fly got me (which was probably due to complacency).

English is widely spoken, so language wasn't a problem.

Another plus, it's very cheap, petrol was about 30% less than the UK, car hire and accommodation rates were excellent, and admittedly I mostly ate at the service station at Häärdemeeste, but you could get a hot meal and drink for maybe £3 or £4, which was very welcome after hours in the field.

Also great to experience a new country.

Realise that there's a lot of scenic photographs in the trip report, hopefully they help to give a feel for the place, and at some point the wildlife photos I took will end up in this album - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p713356630.


Maps

Michelin – Estonia – 1:350,000
Reise Know How - Estonia – 1:275,000

The latter with its more detailed scale, was a significant improvement on the Michelin, and contained numerous additional locations. Also downloaded various detailed maps from Google and Visit Estonia for areas I was going to cover. Sat Nav was a huge help.


Reference Books

Finding Birds in Estonia (including the DVD) - Dave Gosney
Birding in Eastern Europe - Gerard Gorman


Links

NaTourEst - http://natourest.ee/ - used these for the Brown Bear hide & almost did a Beaver boat trip with them as well.
Visit Estonia - http://visitestonia.com/en/ - interactive map including a high quality aerial photo option.
Kosmonautika Holiday Centre - http://kosmonautika.ee/index.php?lang=en - accommodation used.