TO TALLINN, TRANSFER TO MATSALU
Our spring birdwatching tour to Estonia begins with a morning flight from London Gatwick to Tallinn, where we arrive in the afternoon. Our resident Estonian guide Margus will be waiting to welcome us at the airport. From here, we drive to our hotel at Tuuru, where we spend the first three nights.
Tuuru is situated beside the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea, on the west coast of Estonia and at the edge of Matsalu National Park. Night Tuuru
PÕÕSASPEA & SUTLEPA, MATSALU NATIONAL PARK & HAAPSALU
Tuuru makes an excellent base from which to explore Western Estonia, with its wealth of sites rich in birds and wildlife. From the national park at Matsalu Bay with its bogs, forests and coastal marshes, to the rocky promontory at Põõsaspea that marks the northwestern tip of the country, which is so attractive to migrants and plays host to a great passage of waterfowl every spring and autumn.
One morning we will head north to the coast at Põõsaspea to check if arctic migration is still underway. This small, northward pointing spit lies at a migratory crossroads, where masses of waterbirds come from the Bothnian and the Finnish Bays. If conditions are good, the northward migration of geese and ducks returning to their arctic breeding grounds can still be spectacular even in late May. We have good chances of seeing Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Long-tailed Ducks and Common and Velvet Scoters. The sight of hundreds of birds streaming along the coast and flying past the point is unforgettable!
Closer to Tuuru is Haapsalu Bay, set in a picturesque landscape, where Caspian and Little Terns lounge on islands offshore and Slavonian Grebes feed their stripy chicks on reed-fringed pools. Over a picnic lunch we’ll look for migrant waders, which are likely to include Dunlin, Curlew Sandpiper and Little Stint, plus the Avocets which breed here.
Nearby, Sutlepa is a beautiful inland bay surrounded by extensive reedbeds that are home to a wealth of wetland birds. Bittern, Red-necked Grebe, Little Gull and Black Tern nest and the reedbeds and bushes here can be alive with small birds. Penduline and Bearded Tits occur, while Grasshopper, Savi’s, Reed and Great Reed Warblers sing from deep within the reeds. Overhead, Hobby, Osprey and White-tailed Eagle (a relatively common bird in these parts!) are all likely to appear and we have a further opportunity to see Caspian Terns, too.
For our second full day here, we head out in the early morning to enjoy the wetlands, heath and forest, where we hope to be entertained by the bubbling display calls of lekking Black Grouse. Other avian attractions in this area include Capercaillie, Hazel Grouse, Wryneck and woodpeckers, including Black.
Later, we will visit the southern shore of Matsalu Bay, a vast shallow inlet no more than four metres deep and one of Europe’s great wetland reserves. Several observation towers rise above the landscape - great viewpoints from which to scan the marshes and to see if any of the several pairs of White-tailed Eagle that breed here are on view. The fantastic variety of habitats at Matsalu includes reedbeds, flooded meadows and scattered islands, while behind the coastal pastures are deciduous and mixed forests. We hope to see White Stork, Barnacle Goose, Garganey, Marsh and Montagu’s Harriers, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Ruff, Penduline Tit and Hawfinch, with Barred, Marsh, Blyth’s Reed and River among many species of warbler to listen out for.
We round off an exciting day with a late evening boat ride through Matsalu's vast reed-beds - the largest expanse on the Baltic coast, to listen to the night sounds of the wetlands. Dusk is the time that European Beavers leave their lodges to spend an industrious night felling riverside trees and saplings. By staying quiet and with a little patience we are likely to see several of these impressive rodents going about their nightly construction work and swimming about. We will eat our picnic dinner on the boat. Two further nights Tuuru
TO PÄRNU - FOREST, BOG & MARSH
After breakfast we leave Tuuru and drive south, calling in at Matsalu for one last look. More than just an 'avian motorway service station', amongst the 170 breeding birds recorded from the reserve are species such as Red-necked Grebe, Bittern, Osprey, White-tailed Eagle and Caspian Tern.
We’ll be sure to spend some time searching for migrating waders as they pause en route to their breeding grounds in Scandinavia and northern Russia. The end of May is the best time to see gorgeous arctic waders in their rich and varied breeding plumages. Familiar ‘British’ species such as Red Knot, Curlew Sandpiper and Bar-tailed Godwit now sport rich red and orange underparts (colours which help to camouflage them when backlit by the low arctic sun). Others such as Little Stint, Dunlin, Grey Plover and Red-necked Phalarope are less gaudy, but always a delight to watch. One shorebird we will be particularly hoping to see during our time in Estonia is the engaging Broad-billed Sandpiper, which passes through this region on its way to the forest-bogs of northern Finland, where it spends the summer. This subtly cryptic species is a scarce bird in Europe and rarely seen in groups or more than two or three on migration.
Moving on, we’ll enjoy a fine picnic lunch at a farm before continuing on to the Pärnu region by late afternoon. In local fields we hope to find a male Ortolan Bunting giving its simple yet distinctive song. If the fields are in good condition, they can also be excellent for migrating shorebirds such as Spotted Redshank, Greenshank, Wood and Green Sandpipers, Ruff and Black-tailed Godwit - all looking at their very best now in splendid nuptial dress.
Our hotel for these two nights lies close to the seafront and sandy beach at Parnu.
We begin next day with an early morning start to Nigula Bog, near the Latvian border, where we'll search for some of the region's more tricky to find species. Pygmy and Ural Owls breed here but are notoriously elusive, while Capercaillie should be a little easier if the males are still attending their lek. This whole area is superb for woodpeckers, including Three-toed, White-backed Woodpeckers and Grey-headed. We can listen out for the calls of the shy Hazel Grouse, while the older forests attract breeding Red-breasted Flycatchers and Greenish Warblers - two late arriving summer visitors best looked for towards the end of May. Handsome Black-tailed Godwits and a few pairs of Common Crane breed in nearby marshland and mighty Eurasian Elk browse along the edges.
After another most enjoyable picnic lunch, we will return via the Häädemeeste coastal dune system and nearby Kabli bird station. This is Estonia’s oldest bird station, equipped with huge 18m high Heligoland-type bird traps. It's one of the finest spots for bird migration in Europe. At the bird station we may have chances to enjoy a close look at the white-headed race of Long-tailed Tit, Willow and Crested Tit, Nuthatch and other woodland passerines. Two nights Parnu
SOOMAA NATIONAL PARK, MOOSTE, JÄRVSELJA FOREST & RÄPINA
Today’s drive from Pärnu to our final hotel at Mooste - in the east of the country and close to the Russian border - will take most of the day. The distance isn’t that great (around 100 miles), but we’ll be making several stops along the way.
The first of these will be at the Soomaa Nature Reserve, where we have an opportunity to catch up with any woodpeckers and birds of prey we may be 'missing'. Later, we’ll enjoy a picnic lunch at Tõramaa, which is a good area for Lesser Spotted Eagle, Montagu’s Harrier, Corncrake and River Warbler.
In the afternoon, our itinerary takes us through the vast expanses of Aardla wetlands near Tartu - an area dotted with lakes and ponds that usually hold a good selection of water birds. We will be hoping for a few surprises, perhaps including Black Stork, both Greater Spotted and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Ruff, Penduline Tit and Citrine Wagtail.
After dinner this evening (and weather permitting), we are in for a real treat when we visit a Great Snipe lek. Great Snipe are notoriously difficult birds to find but attending a lek at dusk is by far the best way to see one. Here in Estonia dusk falls late, so it is likely to be well after ten before the males begin to perform their strange dance while uttering their bizarre clicking, ticking and popping song - which has been likened to a symphony of icicles! Hopefully the birds will perform well tonight, making this one of the highlights of our tour.
As we wait, we’ll be listening out for Estonia’s remarkable chorus of “night singers”, including River, Blyth’s Reed and Marsh Warblers, and the loud-voiced Thrush Nightingale - a bird whose song is audible over several kilometres on still nights. We may also hear the ‘squeaky gate’ begging of young Long-eared Owls as they call to their parents, or the low whooping moan of a Ural Owl. With any luck, one of these ghostly forms will drift silently over the bog as we wait for the Great Snipe to begin their nightly ritual.
After such a late finish last night, we may be glad to enjoy a bit of a lie-in this morning! After breakfast we will travel out to one of the oldest protected areas in Estonia - Järvselja Forest, to search for another fine selection of owls, woodpeckers and other forest birds. Although the size of the primaeval forest area of Järvselja is not remarkable it still has significant value. In 1924 it was decided to maintain a part of the intact forest area as a sample of virgin forest. Within a small area the diversity of the woodland is very high. In the southeastern part the most impressive trees grow. They include giant spruces up to 40m high and more than 200 years old as well as some huge birches, aspens, limes, ashes and maples. Moving about the ancient woodland can be difficult due to debris and fallen tree trunks, so a special boardwalk has been constructed in the primeval forest quarter.
In the afternoon we visit Räpina, a huge wetland to the southeast of Tartu, where dancing Black Terns regularly breed, with luck accompanied by some White-winged Black Terns. Watching both species feeding together, gently dipping to pick insects from the water’s surface makes a memorable sight. Räpina is also an excellent spot for crakes, which we should hear ‘singing’ - the whiplash call of Spotted and perhaps the harsh, frog-like bark of Little. As both species are mainly nocturnal, it is extremely difficult to see them during the day, but we will try our best and hope to be lucky. The marshy fringes are also home to the Blue-headed race of Yellow Wagtail, and the stunning Citrine Wagtail sometimes occurs here.
In this part of the world, spring bird song is truly outstanding. With an abundance of birds we can only dream of in Western Europe, we’ll delight in the songs of Grasshopper Warbler and Thrush Nightingale - but few better the fluty, soporific song of Golden Oriole which drifts across from nearby poplars. Our final spot this afternoon will be a beautiful park in Räpina, where we’ll look for Middle Spotted and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. But if for any reason we missed Great Snipe the previous evening, we can try again tonight for this intriguing bird.
Our hotel for these two nights was formerly a vodka distillery! Two nights Mooste
RETURN TO TALLINN, FLY LONDON
Leaving Mooste after breakfast this morning, we travel back across country to the airport at Tallinn. We bid a reluctant farewell to our local guide and check-in for our afternoon flight back to London Gatwick, where the tour concludes.