Monday, 17 November 2014

Estonia In Spring - A Naturetrek Tour

Booking holidays is always an important and exciting time during the course of any year. And having faced a few changes in personal circumstance at the start of the year; having a bloody good holiday was a must for me in 2014. A trip of a lifetime was what I had in mind, and rather than flying solo it didn’t take me long to talk my sister into accompanying me wherever we chose to go. Estonia might not tick all the boxes for most when you describe a trip of a lifetime, but don’t forget I am just a lowly graphic designer. The luxury Safaris on the African Plains and mountainous retreats in the Canadian Rockies will have to wait that little bit longer. 

So we decided upon a wildlife trip, with my keen interest in birds and photography and Kath’s interest in anything flora or fauna dead or alive, we both had a good peruse of the Naturetrek Brochure, having seen their advertisements in pretty much all of the magazines we had read recently. ‘Spring in Estonia’ was a trip we had both circled with interest, scheduled during the spring migration it promised great things with enough distance from the UK to tempt us both into believing we were on a real adventure. Estonia for those that do not know is a small country in the Baltic Region of Northern Europe, bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland and to the west by the Baltic Sea. About 50% of Estonia is covered with forest, which instantly gave a lot of potential for some great birding, couple that with the fact they have Bears, Wolves, Elks and Lynx all living in the Estonian Wilderness and we were hooked, eager for our May departure date to arrive.

We flew to Helsinki then made the short 20-minute flight onto Tallinn to meet up with the rest of the group and our tour guides. Having never done any kind of organised trip like this since school we were both a little apprehensive about what to expect from the trip and our fellow participants. First impressions of Estonia were good; arriving in a very modern clean and quiet Tallinn airport we made our way out to find a small group of nature looking enthusiasts before us. The khaki green clothing was the biggest hint, we milled around on the edge of the group as several spoke to what looked like our guide. No one paid us both too much attention at first, the reason for which soon became apparent when we said we were part of the Naturetrek group. Our tour guide to be, Mati introduced himself and quickly informed us that we were the youngest participants he had ever had on one of his tours by a good 30 years. As you might have already guessed the rest of our tour party were of the older generation and all a little surprised to find two youngsters alongside them.

Barnacle Geese

We quickly left the hustle of the Estonian capital and headed out on rural roads towards our first 3 night stop in the coastal town of Haapsalu. The road and flat nature of the Estonian countryside offered lots of White Stork, Common Crane and Hooded Crow before we made a roadside pit stop next to some freshly cultivated fields adding Golden Plover, Lapwing and some freshly arrived Wheatear and Whinchat. A quick shout from our English guide David had us scrabbling for our packed optics as the first raptor of the trip made an appearance in the form of an adult Lesser Spotted Eagle. Early evening saw us checked into our first hotel, positioned perfectly for birdwatchers on a tiny peninsula sticking out into Haapsalu Bay. It’s the first time I have had the pleasure of watching a pair of enormous White-tailed Eagles from the dining table, hunting around the open bay and surrounding wetland habitat. This trip was delivering already and we hadn’t even started properly yet!

Seawatching at Spithami
More Barnacle Geese
White-fronted Geese
Day 2 saw an early start as we headed back northwards for a spot of sea watching along the Poosapea Peninusla, after ticking a couple of male Montagu’s Harriers on route we were greeted by clear crisp blue skies at Spithami, thousands and thousands of migrating sea ducks blurred the horizon as huge numbers of Long-tailed Ducks took centre stage with smaller groups of Eider & Common Scoter also passing by. I made my first contribution to the group with a Red-backed Shrike spot as we left the shoreline and passed through some scrub. We headed back south along the forest roads stopping off for a walk at the wetland habitat of Sutlepa Meri, where an unbelievable 11 White-tailed Eagles soared low overhead. Red-necked Grebes in full breeding plumage called and shot off in every direction. A short section of boardwalk headed out into the reed bed itself where we were instantly surrounded by the booming of Bittern, a phenomenon neither of us had experienced before. Great Reed Warblers and reeling Savi’s Warblers called from every direction. After a fantastic rustic lunch on the shoreline of Matsalu Bay we headed straight up the adjoining observation tower, which offered fantastic views across the bay and its surrounding meadows. All teaming with water birds as thousands upon thousands of Barnacle Geese, along with a few Bean and good numbers of White-fronted Geese all paused from their northern migration. The marshland below the tower teamed with waders and large groups of Ruff in varying breeding finery trying to attract the attention of the accompanying Reeves.

Montagu's Harrier
Another early start found us out searching for Black Grouse and after a long drive down farm tracks and woodland roads we come out onto a large area of arable land where at least 30-40 males bubbled around in several different leks. Whooper Swan, Common Crane and Montagu’s Harrier were also seen on the fields. One of the more exciting lifers of the trip for both Kath and I came in the form of 6 unexpected Waxwings feeding in the pines on the edge of Lake Veskijarv, we also got a glimpse of our first Elk here too. After an afternoon of heavy winds and rain the evening brought clear skies and one of the most stunning sunsets I have ever seen, giving a great opportunity to photograph Haapsalu’s resident breeding Slavonian Grebes that were extremely tame, a real highlight for me.

Common Crane in a Snow storm
Haapsalu Sunset
Day 4 brought clear and sunny weather with some early morning excitement as Ortolan Bunting and Tree Sparrow were spotted outside of the breakfast room. Thrush Nightingale soon followed as we watched good flocks of passage Scaup out on the calm bay. We left Haapsalu and headed south towards Parnu ticking Greater & Lesser Spotted Eagle through some meadows on route, an abrupt end to lunch saw us another few kilometres down the road to the woodland meadows of Nedrema where Mati our guide had received a tip off of an Ural Owl. As soon as we pulled over this majestic Owl glided between the trees in perfect afternoon sunlight, one of my most memorable bird sightings ever. We continued on the last leg of our trip driving through the coastal marshes near Audru. The flooded marshes sit on the edge of Parnu Bay and were alive with breeding and migrant waterfowl, as far as the eye could see waders, gulls, hirundines and terns fed, flew and swam. Good numbers of Garganey, Pintail and Shoveler were found with Red-necked Grebe, Ruff, Spotted Redshank and Wood SandpiperSwallows clung to every stork of reed, and at least 2,500 Little Gulls joined them hawking around for insects.

Slavonian Grebe

Ural Owl
The next day an early morning start saw us head towards the Latvian border and with a crisp frost on the ground we found ourselves walking through the pre-dawn light inside a large area of clear fell woodland. Drumming Snipe perched on nearly every stump ending the silence with their ‘tick-tock’ calls. We added Wryneck to the list here, a species we had heard a lot during the week but a sighting, which kept eluding us until then. Kath and I both got a glimpse of Hazel Hen as its arse disappeared into the dense scrub. We soon got great views of a stunning Grey-headed Woodpecker as it called from the top of a nearby Aspen. After a superb lunch back in Parnu, Mati took us to some coastal grazing marsh on the edge of the city where in seconds we had five or more stunning male Citrine Wagtails perching all around us on the reeds and fence posts. I had a little wander on my own before everyone was calling for me to turn around really slowly, as I turned to find one of these bright yellow beauties less than 10 feet away on a post. A further jaunt down the coast took us to Pikla Pools one of my real highlights of the trip, these series of reed fringed pools and coastal meadows had a couple of great tower hides as we got good views of Penduline & Bearded Tit, Savi’s & Great Reed Warbler, Marsh Harrier, Peregrine, Great White Egret, White tailed Eagle and Red Fox. We also added Serin before the day came to the close with an unsuccessful owl trip in some nearby forestry.

Citrine Wagtail

After a long and tiring evening the day before, we were up early and off to our final destination of Tartu. Ticking our first and only Great Grey Shrike of the trip, a lifer Kath had to fling herself from the rear of the mini bus over 2 rows of seats ending up in the foot-well of the bus before getting a glimpse of. This was probably our quietest day of the trip and as our planned evening excursion to view lekking Great Snipe was cancelled due to an unusually dry spring we headed to the wetlands near Aardla. Watching a huge number of Ruff in all their finery feeding on the edge of a freshly drilled field. After climbing the rickety observation tower we were soon watching freshly arrived Black Terns hawking on the pools, large numbers of Bean and White-fronted Geese started to stream across the sky in front of the stunning setting sun. As the light started to vanish we watched 3 or 4 Beavers swimming across the open channels.

Tower at Aardla Wetlands
Our final full day of the trip saw another early start as we headed north to explore the bogs of 
Alam-Pedja. The woodlands were full of the song of Wood Warblers and we managed a brief glimpse of Golden Oriole. I thought I got a sighting of female Capercaillie in flight but we couldn’t re-find it so I was pretty disappointed, still a bird I’ve yet to see in the wild. A pair of photogenic White Stork greeted us at the mornings coffee stop. We headed back to Aardla in the afternoon for our final birding trip, finding even more Black Tern, Little Gull, Goldeneye and Red-necked Grebe. As we departed a pair of Marsh Harriers quartered the meadow low next to the road.

Crested Tit
Wood Warbler
White Stork

With an early afternoon flight back to the UK we headed back to Tallinn early in the morning concluding a thoroughly enjoyable break for all. On a personal level it was an awesome trip, I encountered 35 new lifers, and I know Kath managed more than me. The country of Estonia beat all expectations easily, it is a vibrant modern country with very few people, the road networks are immaculate, the hotels clean and comfortable and the people friendly. Its one of the few places I have been abroad were I have felt completely safe. And the food was to die for, not expecting too much as we were out and about a lot we had some fantastic meals. Simple well-cooked food takes some beating and I don’t recall having a bad meal at any of the hotels, restaurants or cafes we ate in.

 Our local guide Mati was full of great knowledge and made sure we all got to see a lot of what was spotted. David the ‘Naturetrek’ guide was equally as helpful if not more so and seemed to be able to tell any bird from even the slightest note of its call. As in any group of different people from mixed backgrounds you have some you like and get on with and there are often a few that you don’t and after taking at least till midweek to make sure everyone knew we were brother and sister not a married couple, this trip was no exception.  Mainly because a lot of guests wanted a lie-in in the morning and a nice break mid morning for Coffee. Maybe I was being selfish but having paid a small fortune to go on this trip I wanted to get the most out of it as possible and see all I could, but I think Mati and David did a pretty good job of keeping both camps happy. All in all Estonia in Spring was an awesome experience and I hope to go back one day to see the species we missed. 

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  1. Hello Martin, Your account of the trip to Estonia has been a joy to read. I am one of the oldies you refer to and my main interests are art and architecture but the beauties of Nature were always my first love and you should have heard me exclaim as I met your superb photos on the NatureTrek site. The citrine warbler, the tiny crested warbler, the URAL OWL (I am mad about owls) the stork...all so so beautiful. Tell me, do you have to be up very early for departures to see these glories? I have yet to travel with NatureTrek but I should love to see some of these creatures, flowers as well. You presumably have a massive lens for such superb photos. I have about a million photos in my house so I shall have to wind down my activities but thank you for such divine photos. MJones

    1. Many thanks for the kind words, and yes on some days we were up pretty early, but the guides managed this pretty well as other days had a more respectable meet time. All worth it though as we saw some fantastic species.