Saturday, 27 April 2013

'Estonia in Early Spring'

with Naturetrek.co.uk

Weather: Very, very cold. Snow drifts with localised blizzards.


Wildlife seen:

70+ species seen, including the target bird, the Steller's Eiders.

Places visited:

Nova, Leidissoo, Soometsa and Viidumae Forests; Variku Fields; Poosaspea Peninsula; Saaremaa Island; Undva Cape.

Highlights:

The birds; the scenery and Tallinn.


'Estonians will never be great in number, but we can be great through our spirit.'

Jakob Hurt, Estonian folklorist.

'Silence is sometimes the answer.' Estonian proverb.


'In every port of the world there is one drunk Estonian.' Hemingway



The beautiful scenic Republic of Estonia is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia, and to the east by Russia. Across the Baltic Sea lies Sweden in the west and Finland in the north. The capital is Tallinn, meaning 'Danish Castle'. Almost half of the country is covered by Siberian-like forests, Scandinavian peat-bogs, water-meadows and fascinating coastlines. Mainly quite a flat country, the highest point in Estonia is Suur Munam├Ągi - 'Great Egg Hill'. There are more than 1450 lakes and 1500 islands. Lake Peipsi, is the fifth largest lake in Europe. Estonia is a natural stepping stone for migration, with internationally important numbers of Red and Black-throated Divers; Bewick's and Whooper Swans; Geese, Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks moving along the coasts. Eight different species of Woodpecker can be found here, together with Europe's most endangered seaduck, the Steller's Eider. Reasons enough to visit this stunning country.


Tallinn
It was very cold. It was very dark. And we were up to our thighs in deep snow. Uku Paal, our Tour Guide Leader, had led us into one of Estonia's many forests, looking for a Pygmy Owl. Despite his best efforts we couldn't even hear it, let alone see it. However, Uku heard the distant call of a Tengmalm's Owl high in the trees. We made the collective decision to try and locate it. After about 40 minutes of blundering around in the dark, trying to stay as quiet as possible - not easy when you can't see where you are going and almost being buried in the snow - we managed to pinpoint it high in a tree above us. We all readied ourselves and looked up. Uku turned on his torch and for a few fleeting seconds we saw the owl fly off to another, nearby, tree. We again tried to get closer, silently. And again, the owl gave us another fleeting view as it flew off. Feeling frost bitten in places I didn't think could get frost bitten and with my back breaking from constantly looking up, it was about now that I was questioning my decision to go on this trip.




A few days earlier, I had foregone a night's sleep to catch a taxi at 3am, to take me to Heathrow Airport, via a Stansted coach connection. Departing Terminal 3 at 7.30 we arrived in Tallinn, via Helsinki, early afternoon to be met by Uku. There were only two other guys on the trip, David Todd and Roger Noddings. We all made our introductions and, being Birders, became firm friends by the end of the trip.

Uku drove us to our first hotel, the Roosta Holiday Village, where we were to spend the first two nights of our trip. We dumped our bags and, being Birders and with daylight still around, immediately headed off for our first birding foray. Our first stops were the Nova and Leidissoo Forests. And a very good start to the trip it was too. My first ever sighting of a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker! We also saw a Three-toed Woodpecker; Great Grey Shrike; Greater Scaup; Velvet Scoter and some white-faced Long-tailed Tits, amongst others. A superb beginning.


The Roosta Holiday Village
Although it was April and it was 'Estonia in Early Spring' the weather prompted us to rename it 'Estonia in Mid-Winter'. Snow was everywhere and still falling, quite hard in places. However, with several layers on and no wind or rain, birding was still possible. The expected Geese migration hadn't started and so we only spotted two Greylag Geese during the whole trip. Indeed, migration was non-existent for practically everything, meaning the totals were going to be quite low, not only for birds in general but species count too. However, what we lacked in quantity we more than made up for in quality.


Middle-spotted Woodpecker
Back at the Roosta we managed to catch a beer or two. One of which was called 'The taste of Manchester', a beer from the Saku Brewery. A very palatable 4.2 abv. We reflected on a very good start, despite the snow and then I casually asked if anyone else had ants in their Lodge. I was met with negative responses. Just me, then. They must be trying to shelter from the cold weather. I knew how they felt. Earlier, Uku had to help me get into my Lodge, despite having a key. A shoulder charge proved most effective. Welcome to Estonia.


My alarm woke the ants and I up around 5.20 for a 6am start. Today's itinerary took in visits to Nova Forest; Variku Fields and the Poosaspea Peninsula. On the way we spotted a family group of Wild Boar, two adults with two youngsters, casually walking across the road in front of us. We also saw a Brown Hare and a couple of Elk.

At the peninsula we saw some more quality birds including Scaup; Eider; Long-tailed Duck; Scoter (Common and Velvet); Goldeneye; Merganser and Goosander. There was a small hut by the spit where we broke for breakfast, Roger delighted to discover a delicious chocolatey sticky bun. Hot coffee warmed us up and, despite a cool breeze coming in off the water, we stepped back outside to continue our birding before moving on.




When we arrived at the forest we found the tracks deeply covered in snow. However, Uku skilfully managed to drive us to where we could see some Black Grouse. A short walk down the trail eventually rewarded us with a view of 13 males. There were probably females there as well but they were very well camouflaged. After that we saw 3 Black and 1 Grey-headed Woodpecker.

Amongst the various other stops we saw White-tailed Eagle; Treecreeper; Yellowhammer and Crested Tit. An exhausting, back-breaking but satisfying, walk in the forests presented us with views of Goldcrest; Marsh and Willow Tit; Great Grey Shrike; Nutcracker and Crossbill.


They're here somewhere!
We broke for lunch back at the hotel. Uku gave us a few hours off for RandR and so Roger and I took the opportunity to try another Estonian beer. Back at the Lodge the ants were running around trying to keep warm, as I had turned down the thermostat. Dinner was at 7.30. I found the food here to be excellent and took the opportunity to taste some of the local dishes. The locals were also very warm and friendly and I was enjoying my time here immensely.


After dinner Uku drove us out to try and find the Pygmy Owl. He had only ever failed to see one on one other trip and was determined to succeed on this one. This was the moment where we discovered the Tengmalm's Owl.

It was around now that I had wished I'd had a light dinner with no beer. It would have been difficult enough despite the dark, the cold and the blundering into various branches. However, the snow made it all the harder. A wrong step and our feet sank deep into the drift. After leaving the car and being in the middle of the forest I was glad that Uku knew where he was going. And, just as I was starting to struggle, we heard, then spotted, the owl.

A surge of adrenalin surged through me and, despite the obstacles, brought a big, stupid grin to my face. Yep, it was definitely the right decision to come out here. And on the drive back, during another - failed - stop for the Pygmy Owl, we had the opportunity to view a very clear night sky, bereft of light pollution. The constellation Orion was quite visible, low down in the sky and Jupiter and its' moons were a delight to see through Uku's scope. Spectacular!




Breakfast next morning was at 6.30 and, warmed up by Green Tea and several layers of clothing, I packed everything up and, bidding farewell to the ants, we headed off to Virtsu for the ferry to Saaremaa Island to see our target bird, the Steller's Eider.

On the way there we saw a Red Fox, another mammal addition to our list. It was a fairly long drive and when we got there, although it was sunny, there was a biting wind. The ferry took about 30 minutes, having to break through the ice on the way. It all reminded me of Antarctica, but that's another story. Uku told us that normally, on the ferry crossing, we would have seen lots of seabirds but due to the ice we only saw the odd Gull flying by. We were reduced to trying to see if they were Herring Gulls, Uku's target bird!




We eventually arrived at Undva Cape and all four of us scanned the sea for the Eider. Shelduck; Wigeon; Long-tailed Duck; Common Scoter; Goldeneye and Goosander were all seen before Uku spotted a group of Steller's. They were tightly packed about 450 yards out, bobbing about in the sea. Now you see them, now you don't.

We moved further down the bay seeing 3 more, much closer, although they were asleep. They must have been juveniles! We also saw 3 Oystercatchers and a flock of Snow Buntings. We spent a while here taking in the birds and the views. The scenery here and elsewhere were quite spectacular.


Snow Buntings
So, mission accomplished and with a sense of satisfaction, we drove to the Loona Manorhouse for lunch. Although Roger had to make do with spuds and veg as there was no vegetarian meal on offer. More Green Tea thawed me out again. Afterwards we visited the nearby natural history museum.


On the drive back to the ferry we made a few more stops seeing more LTTs and Woodpeckers. The corvids on show in Estonia were Ravens; Rooks and Hooded Crows; Carrion Crows not reaching this far east. It made a nice change.




The ferry made its' way back to the mainland, again breaking through the ice-covered sea. Although the snowy weather did restrict the wildlife, the unseasonal drifts did allow us to try and spot animal tracks. None of us were experts but the suspiciously looking bear tracks were probably dog tracks!


Back on the mainland, by the dock, we encountered close-up views of Long-tailed Ducks; Tufted Ducks and then some more White-tailed Eagles flew over. Earlier we had spotted a lost, lone Lapwing in a field. Unfortunately, in my eagerness to get a photograph of it, I inadvertently lost my woolly hat. I did have a back up baseball cap, but my ears suffered the loss cruelly.

There were also Skylarks about and, amongst all the Finches and Tits, a pair of Bullfinches made an appearance. After a few more birding stops we arrived at Parnu and Uku skilfully negotiated the one-way system and found our second hotel, the Villa Wesset. Dinner followed at 8.30, followed by a beer, followed by bed. My room was spacious and comfortable, but I noted the distinct absence of ants in the room. Cross off one star.


Lapwing. Wot, no hat!
The next morning was another early start, at 6.30, with breakfast again on the road. It seemed to be even colder today and we noticed the temperature gauge in the car reaching -10.5. Mercifully, there was no accompanying wind to take it down even further.

Today we visited Soometsa Forest, primarily to search for that elusive Pygmy Owl. It again remained elusive, much to Uku's annoyance. It was starting to get personal. However, we did see plenty of Woodpeckers, including a mating pair of Middle-spotted and a White-backed. Other birds seen today, of note, were 5 Whooper Swans; the Greylags; 6 Teal; 1 Common Snipe and more Nutcrackers and Shrikes.

And then, somehow, we managed to find ourselves crossing the border over to Latvia. It felt even colder here, with less birds so, after a 20 minute visit, we returned to Estonia.




Lunch was at the Cafe Supelsaksad, which provided a very nice pasta dish. Uku gave us the rest of the afternoon off and so we again took the opportunity to partake of a few more beers. In fact all these meals and beers were more than I was used to and so I gave the evening meal a miss.


After dinner we headed out again in another vain attempt to see the Pygmy Owl. The weather got even worse, with the snow showers nearly making driving impossible. I was reminded of 'Ski Sunday' on the TV.

We only saw about 50+ Lapwing in the adjacent fields; 5 Roe deer and the sound of a Common Crane in the distance. However, the snow made it quite impossible to continue, so reluctantly, we made our way back to the hotel for tea and medals.




Breakfast was in-house at 7 and, with bags packed up in the car, we started the drive back to Tallinn. We almost immediately encountered heavy snow-storms on the way, making any birding stops impossible. After an hour or so the snow finally stopped and gave way to blue skies.

On one of the stops we had a close-up view of a lovely Nuthatch, a much paler version of our own. Although there weren't too many photo opportunities on the trip I did manage to get some lovely snowy, scenic shots. And, with all this snow, we had to keep reminding ourselves that this was Spring and not Winter.


Nuthatch
We arrived in Tallinn around 9-ish and met up with a delightful lady who took us on a guided tour of the city, primarily the old, walled town. With around half-a-million people, Tallinn is situated on the northern coast of the country, on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. Tallinn's Old Town is in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. And, despite the usual Irish Bar and McDonald's, provides the visitor with a delightful walking tour, taking in some wonderful historic sites.




All too soon, it was time to return to the airport for the flights home. We bade a heartfelt farewell to Uku, who had gone above and beyond the call of duty, in the bad weather and, despite the absence of the Pygmy Owl, provided us with some truly memorable moments of our stay in Estonia. Yet another Estonian beer was had in the departures lounge and, after a few hours we were back in England. Bags were retrieved, farewells were said and I arrived home just before 9 that evening.


A fantastic trip, despite - or maybe because of - the weather and is highly recommended. Ants are optional.