7 days away in a motor home with Laurence Pitcher and Graham Gordon, driving anti clockwise around Estonia from Tallinn, taking in what we could. Laurence and I had been pretty poor at sorting out gen before the trip but with the use of Dave Gosney’s 8 year old map book and Graham’s additional research we did pretty well. Even just pulling the RV over at random places proved decent more often than not.
The dates were chosen with the aim of catching the tail end of the geese and sea ducks and the arrival of the more interesting passerines towards the end of the week. This pretty much worked out as planned and we had good numbers of migrating wildfowl and Cranes too throughout the trip, as well as almost all of the eastern migrants I’d been hoping for. The weather was bizarre for the Baltic coast in May and we had 5 days in a row of the hottest May temperatures in Estonia on record!
We initially headed west hoping to witness the sea blackened by Long-tailed ducks, Scoter, Scaup, and divers. The good weather must have given a lot of them the option to head north and the first site held only Arctic terns, Thunbergi Yellow Wagtails and a White Tailed Eagle. However, at Spithami in the very north west of the country, the sea was alive with the yodelling calls of thousands of Long-tailed ducks with smaller parties of Scaup, Eiders, Common and Velvet Scoter, 2’s and 3’s of Black- throated divers moving North, as well as a number of Herring and Caspian Gulls lurking around the shore under the regular noisy skeins of Banacle Geese moving over head.
Our first evening yielded many Roding Woodcock and first morning gave us a taste of what was to come with several singing Thrush Nightingale, Rose Finches, Whinchats, Wood Warblers, Hawfinches, Redstart, Tree pipits, Pied Flycatchers, Wrynecks and Golden Oriel, as well as Black Grouse heard in the distance and an Adult Male Montague’s Harrier over our heads in between ranks of Barnacle and European White fronted Geese, all within slipper footed walking distance of our mobile home and the single track road.
Spithami also held our first Red breasted Flycatchers, including one dropping out of the sky just metres in front of me upon its apparent realisation that the next stop was Finland. Evenings were spent eating and drinking, watching over clearings in mixed woodland with more Woodcock and the appearance of a Moose.
Thick forest is abundant in Estonia, both mixed deciduous and vast expanses of coniferous, and it was in this habitat that a couple of highlights for me occurred. Pulling off the road on spec and walking into the forest randomly produced a few lucky moments; whilst listening to a Red-breasted Flycatcher singing in a small clearing, the whistling call of a Hazel Hen was heard a few times before we saw the bird.
I was taken aback at how incredible it was! I hadn’t really expected to see them without a guide and the perfectly cryptic plumage in the setting it was designed for was fucking excellent. On the way back to the car we heard a Nightjar churring and spent 20 or so minutes trying to locate it, which we did.
A few days in, we left the coast and headed inland. There were a few sites that appealed, all in close proximity to Tartu, so we headed to the general area intending to move between them over the following days. The wooded marshland, freshwater lakes and open countryside near Aardla as well as Ilmatsulu fish ponds became our regular sites. It was in these bird-abundant habitats that something really stuck out: the amount of Mimicry involved in the songs of so many bird. The Sprossers and Marsh Warblers of course, but also things like Red Backed shrikes imitating Whitethroats, insane Icterine Warblers and an Incredible 2cy Whinchat that almost sounded like a Sedge Warbler in terms of phrasing and constant singing. Graham is very good with calls and very interested in song and even he was slightly baffled by a couple of things singing outside of their usual repertoire.
These areas were brilliant, and yielded new additions to the trip list in the form of many Black terns, Little gulls, White–winged terns, more Rose finches, Great Reed Warblers, Marsh and Icterine Warblers, River, Savi’s and Grasshopper Warblers…
…Penduline tits, Citrine Wagtails the males of which were completely astonishing. Having only seen autumn birds before, I was blown away; I really like wagtails anyway but these are really almost the perfect bird, I guess it’s things with yellow on them that make you go ‘oh fucking hell!’ when you see them.
This area also proved interesting for Both Lesser-Spotted Eagle (an individual we saw a couple of times, below)
and one or two ‘Middle’ Spotted Eagles. A broad winged bird with long p4 (Greater Spotted feature) also showed a pale iris and more Lesser Spotted-like barring to the secondaries, confirmed by consultation with my keen-eyed raptor enthusiast friend young Dante. We did hear that the chicks from a pair of what were thought to be Great Spotted Eagles in the area had been DNA tested, and there were mixed genes at play.
Gulls were a little disappointing, but what else can you expect in hot weather? Our first encounter with any Large Gulls were a smallish flock distantly loafing in a field made up of mostly Caspian and one or two Herring Gulls. It was bizarrely in this same field, next to the gulls, that I came across my first ever Black Grouse!
At the Coast, the Gulls were a little closer. The Caspian Gulls I saw were very reminiscent of birds I saw in Cyprus, winter 2016/17, in both structure and also a propensity for many softly patterned grey replaced 2nd generation wing coverts in first cycle birds. Above is one that came close(ish). Some of the Herrings were what might be described as a Baltic type Herring Gull, with Yellowish legs, a red/orange orbital ring and limited black in the primaries.
I saw one or two small, dark, long-winged lesser black-backs, which I took to be Fuscus, and a large, paler mantled 3cy bird with many replaced adult grey wing coverts, replaced in rectangular blocks, that I recognised from my time in Abu Dhabi as a Hueglins – alas it was not seen on the deck.
Our final day was a very successful one and began with Graham and I seeing our First Black Woodpecker (we also had Middle Spotted that day and I think Graham had a White–Backed). Graham also found a Ural Owl right out in the open being mobbed by Chaffinches and Song Thrushes. By the time we got there a pair of Jays had moved in, and the bird was forced to move, however we all saw it well. It’s attention was split between us and the Jays mobbing it, in turning its head back and forth it gave a shaggy impression and almost looked like a man in an Owl suit, much bigger than I had originally thought. Another ‘FUCK-ING HELL!’ moment.
Another thing that occurred to me on the trip, was that pretty much all of the passerines we were seeing would have been migrants. The Flycatchers and Warblers of course, but the small numbers of Wrens, Dunnocks and Robins too, which gave them an elevated presence. A Robin singing on the top of a spruce became as vital to watch and listen to as the Wood Warblers, Pied and Red–Breasted Flys.
We saw a few Caudatus Long Tailed Tits as well as Northern Bullfinch and Familiaris Treecreeper too
The final night was spent just off an unmade track near Aardla. We’d had a walk taking in an Osprey, Spotted Crake, very close Citrine Wagtail, Red- Backed Shrikes, Marsh Warbler and a showy River Warbler (below). It did actually show very well, walking along branches and across the ground only to appear metres away for another minute of reeling.
As the evening drew on, and the long sun set began, Graham and I heard the electrical trickling sound of Lekking Great Snipe! We then enjoyed much closer views than we had previously at a well known site; wing flicking and bill clapping whilst 3 Spotted crakes sang behind us, squadrons of Wood Sandpipers came and went, the big beers were good and LP and I broke out some Neil Young on the car stereo as the mozzies licked their lips.
Different styles…Graham (above) and Laurence (Below)
We missed a few things during the trip, this was expected and we were prepared to. I would have liked to have seen rather than just heard the Barred warblers, having only seen 1st winters in UK. I was surprised there were no Bramblings, no sign of any Greenish or Blythe’s Reed (although I think Graham had one or two after we left). We accepted that without a guide we weren’t going to see all the owls, and that the Wood peckers would be harder given the date, but overall it was a brilliant trip. I’d recommend travelling around in a motorhome too, we must have turned up a few bits that other birders wouldn’t have just by getting out and walking around on spec so often. Below ‘The Map’ butterfly…
I’d also recommend buying Dave Gosney’s ‘Finding Birds in Estonia’ map book if you’re thinking of going. And also recommend doing endless impressions of him whilst driving a ridiculous vehicle, fridge stocked with giant cans of beer, cupboards full of cracker breads and bogroll, vehicle full of hiding mozzies, down unmade gravel roads to the soundtrack of Estonia’s incredible bird life.