Tuesday, 17 March 2015

BTO Estonia Birding weekend

Over the weekend of 13-16th March, along with fellow BTO birders Sarah Harris, Nick Moran and John Marchant, I went to Estonia for a few days birding hoping for Steller's Eider, Owls, Woodpeckers and anything else we could find.

The birding crew left to right - Sarah, John, Nick and my good self (photo by John Marchant)

13th March

Armed with the "Gosney Guide"- 'Finding birds in Estonia', several internet trip reports and a lot of enthusiasm, we met up in the early hours at Stansted Airport and after a couple of hour flight, arrived in Estonia's capital city, Tallinn.  After picking up the hire car, we headed west towards Spithami, stopping near Nova where the first good bird of the trip, a Black Woodpecker was eventually seen briefly along with a couple of White-tailed Eagles, and more unusually, a flock of 31 Snow Buntings flying across a marsh.  With very little on the nearby sea other than a few distant Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goldeneye, we headed to Vonnu, a site Gosney suggests for woodpeckers.  We weren't to be disappointed, although we didn't see any of the hoped for White-backed there, we did have superb views of a flyover Black and a female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.

flyover Black Woodpecker

female Lesser Spotted Woodpecker

The evening was spent searching the forest near Haapsalu in the hope of locating an owl of some sort but we only saw a group of Moose, which were nice in themselves, but no chance of photographs in the gloom of dusk.

14th March

After a very comfortable and cheap night in the Baltic Hotel Promenadii in Haapsalu, we were again up and out early to drive to Virtsu to catch the ferry across to the island of Saaremaa, making the 6.15am ferry with minutes to spare.  The crossing provided our first taste of the abundant seaducks in the area with well over 400 Long-tailed Ducks and fewer Velvet and Common Scoter, Goosander and a single female Tufted Duck.  As we headed across the island, we stopped to admire a small flock of trumpeting 'Northern' Bullfinch, a couple of Cranes and a Taiga Bean Goose on a flooded field and large flocks of Whooper Swan, Goldeneye, Smew along with more White-tailed Eagles and a ringtail Hen Harrier on the causeway that links Saaremaa with it's much smaller neighbour, Muhu.

Following a tip off, we we fortunate to locate a pair of Pygmy Owls on the west side of the island that gave superb prolonged views perched on the top of fir trees, much to the annoyance of various smaller birds that mobbed them, including some 'Northern' Bullfinches.

Pygmy Owl giving us the stare

'Northern' Bullfinch

Next stop was Uudepanga Bay on the northwest corner of Saaremaa, the winter home to large groups of wintering seaduck, most notably Steller's Eider.  The only problem is, Uudepanga Bay is huge and with no definite location of the ducks within the bay, we headed to the south side and after a short scan located the Steller's Eider very distantly in the north side of the bay!  Quickly hatching a plan, Sarah and I jumped back in the car whilst Nick and John walked along the beach around the bay and a while later we met up on the north side, with Nick and John covering the distance before we could drive it!  As we approached Nick and John, the 200+ strong Steller's flock was clearly visible offshore, much closer than previously and then Nick pointed out a single drake Steller's Eider just 30m away asleep on rocks, giving much better views than any of us had imagined getting of these birds.

Stunning views of a drake Steller's Eider

 The main Steller's Eider flock

This area is an amazing place, not just for the eider, but along the surrounding tracks we saw Black Woodpecker, Waxwings, Great Grey Shrikes, White-tailed Eagles and had a Pine Marten trot across the track.

Great Grey Shrike singing from telephone wires

sub adult White-tailed Eagle

Having had our fill of the eider, the rest of the day was spent driving back to the mainland, enjoying thousands of Long-tailed Ducks from the ferry and headed south of Parnu to the forests around Haademeeste.  Despite a failed search of the roads around the Nigula area for Ural Owl, with just a calling Tawny Owl for compensation it was still a day to last long in the memory.

15th March

Another of Gosney's key sites is the 'Magic Corner', a few miles east of Haademeeste.  Arriving shortly after dawn on another glorious sunny morning, woodpeckers were clearly in evidence, though a Hazel Grouse was heard only by Nick and Sarah.  Before we had walked far from the car, we located a couple of Grey-headed and Black Woodpeckers, the former giving superb prolonged views on some trees in a clearing, though I was only able to get poor phonescoped record shots.

Poor record shots of Grey-headed Woodpecker

Walking around the area, a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers were eventually located on the east side of the block along with more Grey-headed, Great Spotted and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but no confirmed Three-toed, though Nick possibly saw one briefly chase off a Great Spot.  Whilst searching along the southernmost track where I had seen Hazelhen a couple of years ago (though this track has now been thinned of trees bordering the track and possibly making it less suitable and as a result no Hazelhen were seen), a group of about 7 Nutcrackers did give stunning views.


These woods at night are clearly very popular with mammals of various descriptions, their footprints cover the muddy tracks, including Moose, Fox, Badger and some possible Wolf tracks, though they could just be dog footprints.  Next time I go there I'm going to take a trail camera to put out!!

Wolf, or perhaps dog footprints (next to a size 5 footprint for scale)

Badger prints

Just to the east of the Magic Corner lies Nigula Bog, and again the Gosney guide was spot on as Nick located a Middle Spotted Woodpecker by the reserve centre, our sixth woodpecker species of the day!

Middle Spotted Woodpecker - woodpecker number 6 of the day

After a fantastic morning around the Magic Corner and Nigula area, we went north to Soomaa National Park, an extensive area of forest and bogs where several bloggers had seen Ural Owl, our last chance of finding this enigmatic bird.  As dusk fell we drove slowly around the tracks and a mother and calf Moose stopped us in our tracks, pausing to look at us before heading into the trees.

Dusk soon became darkness as we carried on along the forest tracks, frantically waving spotlights in trees in the hope of catching a glimpse of an owl out hunting.  As we drove along one track which had nice wide edges, the first doubts began to set in and as we came upon a small tree, Sarah said "Why can't an owl just be in that tree there", and almost as soon as thew words had left her lips, Nick and Sarah who were on that side of the car saw a Ural Owl fly over the car, possibly coming out of that very same tree!!  As we stopped and searched in the hope the owl would reappear, a Ural Owl called from the other side of the block of trees we were by.  Fortunately, a small track ran off the one we were on and after a short drive I noticed the distinctive pale shape of a Ural Owl in the trees on the edge of the track which then sat there as spotlights shone on it.  We watched the bird for several minutes as it sat on small trees along the track, occasionally flying further down the track to another tree to look out for prey.

16th March

A last morning on the way to the airport was spent along forest tracks around Soometsa where we again saw several Black and single White-backed and Great Spotted Woodpeckers but despite much searching, couldn't find those elusive Three-toeds, oh well, maybe next time....

It was a fantastic few days with 87 bird species recorded between us, though we were very lucky with the weather with more woodpeckers seen than clouds! With cheap flights which only take a couple of hours from the UK and cheap accommodation and food, Estonia is definitely a country I highly recommend visiting and I will be going back to before too long!