Trip Report to Estonia and Latvia by Sue Bryan
This was a birding holiday organised Lee Evans LGREUK400@aol.com . As we have been on several trips with Lee before, he sends round an email of his trips to potential participants and now also advertises his trips to birders on Twitter. Paul and I had a look at his schedule and as I had a few days holiday allowance to use up before the end of March, I contacted Lee saying that we wished to go on his proposed trip to Estonia and Latvia. There was only one potential tick in it for me and two for Paul so we just regarded it as a few days away with like-minded birders.
The trip cost £333 plus £150 for accommodation plus about £40 for food.
Guide and Driver Karlis Millers
7th March Flight Stansted to Riga (Latvia) - Drive to Kuressaare Saaremaa (Estonia) via ferry crossing Virtsu to Kuivastu
8th March Saaremaa (Estonia) – Ezernieki (Latvia)
9th March Ezernieki area
10th March Rajons forest area
11th March Silmaci area
12th March Lake Lubans – Riga - Stansted
As both Estonia and Latvia are in the EU I took enough Euros with me to cover accommodation and food expenses.
The weather bitterly was cold throughout. Sunny days only occurred on our first and last day. Thick cloud dominated our trip with 10 inch deep snow on the ground at all sites in Latvia.
International flights to Riga, Latvia were booked by Lee with Ryanair www.ryanair.com
Karlis Millers email@example.com was sub-contracted to guide and drive us with his borrowed VW minibus.
Once in Estonia we crossed over to Saaremaa Island to the Baltic Coastline. We passed open fields and Pine Forest en-route. In Latvia we were based in the forest consisting mainly of Scots Pine or Norway Spruce. Abandoned farms have allowed scrubby areas of Alder to grow but most forest had relatively little understory. We saw some evidence of agriculture on open fields but as these were mainly under snow it was difficult to see. Cattle were kept inside dilapidated buildings.
Paul and I left home at 2.30am and drove to Stansted where we met with Lee and the other members of our group. We had a 6am flight to Riga where we were met after a two hour flight, with Karlis who bundled us into a minibus and took us to a small wood in the suburbs of Riga.
We soon noticed how cold it was and there was lying snow on the ground but the birds delighted us as Hooded Crow and small groups of northern Bullfinch surrounded us. We weren’t too sure where to look next as Hawfinch, Goshawk, Siskin, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Tree Sparrow, Kingfisher were all called out by group members. We made our way down to a small stream in the snow and crossed it locating a Middle Spotted Woodpecker as we did so.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
I had only taken my bridge camera on this trip and was frustrated at how slow it was. I missed many opportunities that my SLR would not have done! The Goshawk gave us the run around and I was too slow at getting a photo even though I had it perched up in front of me as I was still trying to get the others on to it.
After we had noted a few northern Treecreeper, Karlis said it was time to drive on as we had a long way to go to get to our destination in Estonia. We noted two Goosander and a few Goldeneye as we crossed over a river before crossing the border into Estonia.
Now in Estonia I had to start my list again and so more Hooded Crow, Raven, Jackdaw, Lapwing, Mealy Redpoll and a Black Woodpecker were written in my notebook.
After a good few hours driving on the A1 –E67 north route and then A60 –A10 west we arrived at Virtsu where we immediately boarded the ferry to Kuivastu on Muhu Island. It was a 25 minute crossing and afforded us good views of Goosander, Long-tailed Duck, Herring Gull and Great Black-backed Gull.
Virtsu Ferry Paul and Lee
After leaving the ferry we drove across Muhu Island and across the Isthmus to Saaremaa Island where we headed southwest to Kuressaar. We had an evening meal in a local pizza cafe before making ourselves comfortable in the Johan Spa Hotel. Here I enjoyed a swim, sauna and hot-tub! Very upmarket for one of Lee’s trips!!!!
A good breakfast was eaten before we headed north along forest tracks to Tagaranna. As soon as we hit the coastline we stopped to scan. Common Buzzard, Mallard, Red-breasted Merganser, Shelduck, Whooper Swan, Smew, Goldeneye, Cormorant were all seen as well as an Otter. A migrating Skylark flew over as we got back into the minibus. Paul spotted some Snow Bunting that we pursued along the shoreline but they failed to stop anywhere near our vehicle.
Tagaranna Darrel, Ray, Rob and Lee
Karlis took us to the spot that he had intended to show us. We bundled out of the bus and were all soon delighted at the flock of Steller’s Eiders that were present. It was a shame that they were distant as we all struggled to take photos. Some of the group decided to try and get closer and a few smiles were had as this attempt was made! (I’ll just say wellies were involved!!!)
Karlis, Ray, Lee, Rob and Darrel Paul
Tagaranna Steller’s Eider
We logged a small group of Scaup in flight as well as some distant Velvet Scoter. A Greylag Goose was seen as well as several Mute Swan. Paul and I searched the forest edge in vain but besides a lone Yellowhammer there was nothing to be seen.
After a few hours when I spent some time walking to join the others it was time to leave. Paul spotted a tree full of Waxwing as well as a Great Grey Shrike. Little did we know that these were the only Waxwing we were to see on the trip! A few Roe deer were spotted in the fields as we travelled onwards.
Great Grey Shrike Long-tailed Duck
Not far from the Steller’s Eider Karlis stopped the minibus in a small harbour. Here thousands of Long-tailed Duck were sheltering. As soon as they spotted us they took flight but after a short wait they started drifting and flying back in. How I wished I had my SLR camera! The calls they were making were delightful and we were all mesmerised with them.
We now had a seven hour drive ahead of us and Paul and I settled into the back of the minibus as we headed back to the ferry. We had only just missed the last ferry so we had some time to sit in the cafe and have some refreshments and warm up. Once the ferry had arrived we boarded it and drove to the border with Latvia and after stopping for Paul to obtain some Euros from an ATM machine we made our way to Ezernieki for the night. By the time we arrived we were all too tired for anything and went straight to bed.
Our Accommodation in Ezernieki Views over the frozen lake
It was to be another very long day driving around the icy tracks of the forest; we were keen to see our target birds. The birds were thin on the ground but whilst still travelling we saw Raven and stopped to admire a few Black Grouse displaying on a snowy field with another one sat up a tree. A Nuthatch called as we added Yellowhammer, Stock Dove and a distant Grey-headed Woodpecker to our list.
Black Grouse Pygmy Owl
We motored on, soon reaching the forest where we spent most of the day but it was hard work, as birds were difficult to locate. We heard a Pygmy Owl and walked through deep snow until it was finally located. It was not keen to have its photo taken and I struggled with my little bridge camera with all the branches constantly in the way. Whilst here we added Willow Tit and Blue Tit as well as a few Crested Tit which sadly never came close enough to get a photo.
We carried on up the snowy tracks trying desperately to find Hazel Hen. All of a sudden one flushed out and some of us saw it fly up and into a tree. It didn’t stay long and was never seen again despite all of our best efforts. Not long after a Nutcracker was heard in the Lubana area and I was elsewhere whilst the others were watching it. Luckily it was relocated and we all had good views of it. An Elk was spotted down the end of one of the forest tracks as we made our way back to the minibus.
Nutcracker Middle Spotted Woodpecker
We had more views of Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Black Woodpecker before moving on to try and find Capercaillie. The area that Karlis first took us to drew a blank and one trackway was too bad to drive along. We kept up the search and luckily Darrel spotted a male Capercaillie from the minibus whilst travelling. We all saw it before leaping out the minibus to see several Capercaillie in flight.
Rajons Forest near Lubana
We returned to the lodge for a late evening meal before setting out to pick up a friend of Karlis’s who was studying Ural Owls. He had a loud speaker and in the dark we set out with high hopes that he knew where they were. We heard at least five birds but despite our best efforts and hours of searching we never saw one. We know we had one very close bird but it was not to be. As we were driving we noticed a mammal slithering down into one of the ditches by the side of the vehicle. We soon realised that it was a beaver. We watched it slither along the ditch. We returned to the lodge very late after also hearing a Tengmalm’s Owl.
We were up early but it soon became apparent that we could have had a bit longer in bed as we had a flat tyre and no wheel brace to take off the wheel. We needed assistance and it soon became clear that it would take a while from the remote location that we were in. I returned to our room to write up notes and sort out photos before we finally set off for the day. We still had Karlis’s friend with us and we were dropped in a village where he knew Three-toed Woodpeckers were normally seen in the Spring. However despite his best attempts we failed to locate them. We watched Grey-headed Woodpecker and Tree Sparrow whilst Karlis returned to the nearest town to try to sort out our tyre problem.
Tree Sparrow Grey-headed Woodpecker
We dropped off Karlis’s friend and made our way to Druviena. The road was too icy for the minibus and Karlis had made arrangements for Gaidis Grandans to pick us up in his Subaru. We were treated to some rally driving in shifts as we were taken to an area where Gaidis had seen Three-toed Woodpecker the day before. Unfortunately for us it failed to show. Around his log cabin the forest produced the northern Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Gaidis and his wife produced a lovely lunch snack for us and it was good to see inside one of the many forest cabins that we had seen in Latvia.
Karlis Gaidis Darrel Lee Rob Paul at Druviena
Druviena Brown Long-eared Bat
After lunch Gaidis took us into his store cabin where two Brown Long-eared Bats were hibernating. We thanked Gaidis’s wife and we repeated the rally drive in the Subaru back to the minibus. We tried in vain for the owls again without success.
Darrel, Lee and Paul
After a good cooked breakfast, we drove to a school where Karlis had seen White-backed Woodpecker a few days before. We walked through deep snow and watched a Nuthatch calling but failed to find any other birds. We tried another area for White-backed Woodpecker.
Ray called out a three-toed Woodpecker in flight and we followed it through the snow seeing a small flock of birds consisting of Willow Tit, Long-tailed Tit and Crested Tit. Woodpeckers were drumming distantly as we trudged through the snow. Now feeling hungry Paul and I returned to the minibus for some lunch. We had only been five minutes when Ray came running to tell us that they had all seen White-backed Woodpecker. With a quick leap out of the van I was just in time to see the woodpecker fly but Paul missed it. We could not believe it! Everyone tried their best to relocate it for us.
In the end the others wanted to find better views of Three-toed Woodpecker but Karlis agreed to stay with us in the hope that the White-backed Woodpecker would reappear. Paul heard a chipping noise and after shouting to me to bring the scope I saw what he was looking at perched high up in one of the trees. The bird took flight and flew right over our heads calling as it went. Victory!
Karlis celebrates with Paul Sue and Karlis celebrating
Paul could not believe his luck!
With all the excitement I located another Nutcracker sitting at the top of a nearby tree.
The others rejoined us having had good views of Three-toed Woodpecker. We didn’t mind as we had seen this species well in Finland a few years ago and were pleased for those who needed it for a tick.
A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker kept us all amused for a while whilst we searched for Hazel Hen in another part of the forest.
We returned to the lodge a happy bunch but were a bit surprised at how hard we had had to work for our ticks! The evening meal and beers went down well before we retired to our rooms for the night.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
After breakfast we loaded the van, thanked our hosts and set off for the nearby Lake Lubans. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky. Why could it have not done this all week? Very soon we were watching White-tailed Eagles. One flew close by and landed in the reed bed with its talons down. We counted twenty-seven Snow Bunting running on the frozen lake gleaming in the sun. Several Mallard swam in a small area of unfrozen water as Greylag Geese joined them. Karlis recounted all the birds that would be there in the summer. It was a mouth-watering list. We soon had to leave and watched Rough-legged Buzzard and Common Buzzard quartering the fields.
We had very little fuel in the minibus, so we set off for the nearest garage where we were told that the pumps were not working. Some panic set in as we did not know if we had enough fuel to reach the next petrol station and so we set of in completely the wrong direction for Riga as this would be the next nearest petrol station. It is always exciting on Lee’s trips! (Enough fuel on the last day is always a nail-biting experience!!!!) I wish I had taken a photo of the petrol station we found. The pumps were caged, as was the pay-booth. We were now on the main road to the nearby Russian border. (I half-expected the KGB to be hiding in the bushes!) Luckily they had fuel and we made our way to Riga. On the outskirts of Riga the oil light set off an alarm and the engine was inspected. We were out of oil! Karlis hopped his way across a duel-carriage way to a garage and bought some oil which seemed to solve the problem once poured into the engine.
We stopped in a wooded area where I added Goldcrest to the Latvian list as well as seeing Blue Tit and Crested Tit. A walk a bit further brought a few Great Tit. We motored on and Karlis stopped in a forest 5kms before the airport. We needed to wait for dusk. It was getting cold and we walked over a small bridge whilst Karlis played the tape for Eagle Owl. Ray saw a bird fly into the back of the trees and I went off in search of it down the track. I soon had an European Eagle Owl in my sight. I called for the others and we soon all had it in view. High fives all round!
Our time was up and we headed for the airport. We all thanked Karlis who had been a good guide with some patience and good humour!
Our flight back to Stansted was uneventful as we all said good bye once we had landed, thanking Lee once again for his organisation and determination but I had a nightmare of a drive back home to Norfolk through thick fog arriving in the early hours of Sunday morning.
1. Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo carbo 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
2. Mute Swan Cygnus olor 03/08/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
3. Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia 12/13/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
4. Taiga Bean Goose Anser fabalis 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
5. Greylag Goose Anser anser 12/03/2016 Riga Latvia 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
6. Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
7. Mallard Anas platyrhynchos platyrhynchos 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
8. Greater Scaup Aythya marila 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
9. Steller's Eider Polysticta stelleri 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
10. Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis 03/07/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia
11. Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca fusca 03/08/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
12. Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
13. Smew Mergellus albellus 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema I Estonia
14. Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
15. Goosander Mergus merganser 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia 07/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia
16. White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
17. Northern Goshawk Accipiter gentilis 07/03/2016 Riga
18. Common Buzzard Buteo buteo 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema I Estonia
19. Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
20. Black Grouse Tetrao tetrix 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
21. Eurasian Capercaillie Tetrao urogallus 03/09/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
22. Hazel Grouse Bonasa bonasia 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
23. Common Crane Grus grus 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
24. Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus 07/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
25. Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus 07/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia
26. Herring Gull Larus argentatus argentatus 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
27. Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus 03/08/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
28. Feral Pigeon Columba livia 'feral' 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
29. Stock Dove Columba oenas 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
30. Eurasian Eagle-owl Bubo bubo 12/03/2016 Riga
31. Eurasian Pygmy-owl Glaucidium passerinum 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
32. Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
33. Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos minor 10/03/2016 Rajons Forest Area Latvia
34. Middle Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos medius 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
35. White-backed Woodpecker Dendrocopos leucotos 11/03/2016 Silmaci Latvia
36. Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
37. Three-toed Woodpecker Picoides tridactylus 11/03/2016 Silmaci Latvia
38. Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius 03/07/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia 11/03/2016 Silmaci Latvia
39. Grey-headed Woodpecker Picus canus 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
40. Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
41. Bohemian Waxwing Bombycilla garrulus 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia
42. Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula 08/03/2016 Riga Latvia
43. Goldcrest Regulus regulus 12/03/2016 Riga Latvia
44. Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus 10/03/2016 Rajons Forest Area Latvia
45. Willow Tit Parus montanus 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
46. Coal Tit Parus ater 10/03/2016 Rajons Forest Area Latvia
47. Crested Tit Parus cristatus 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
48. Great Tit Parus major major 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
49. Blue Tit Parus caeruleus 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
50. Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
51. Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
52. Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor excubitor 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia 11/03/2016 Silmaci Latvia
53. Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
54. Black-billed Magpie Pica pica 03/07/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
55. Spotted Nutcracker Nucifraga caryocatactes 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
56. Eurasian Jackdaw Corvus monedula 09/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia 10/03/2016 Rajons Forest Area Latvia
57. Rook Corvus frugilegus 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
58. Hooded Crow Corvus corone cornix 03/07/2016 Riga Latvia 07/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia
59. Common Raven Corvus corax 07/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
60. House Sparrow Passer domesticus 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
61. Eurasian Tree Sparrow Passer montanus 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
62. European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
63. Eurasian Siskin Carduelis spinus 03/07/2016 Riga Latvia
64. European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis carduelis 12/03/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
65. Mealy Redpoll Carduelis flammea flammea 07/03/2016 Route A1 - E67 Estonia
66. Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
67. Hawfinch Coccothraustes coccothraustes 07/03/2016 Riga Latvia
68. Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
69. Snow Bunting Plectrophenax nivalis 08/03/2016 Tagaranna Kudema Bay Saarema Island Estonia 03/12/2016 Lake Lubans Latvia
1. Beaver Castor fiber 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
2. Elk Alces alces 09/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
3. Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus 11/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia
4. Brown Long-eared Bat Plecotus auritus 10/03/2016 Ezernieki Latvia