FLY TALLINN, TRAVEL TO HAAPSALU
Our autumn birdwatching tour to Estonia begins with an early afternoon flight from London Gatwick nonstop to Tallinn, where our local guide Kaarel Võhandu will be waiting to meet us. We head southwest from the capital, about 70 miles to our hotel in Haapsalu, on the Baltic shore. Evening arrival at the Promenaadi Hotel, where we stay for three nights. Night Haapsalu
Days 2 - 3
CAPE PÕÕSASPEA, SILMA, PUISE PENINSULA, HAESKA TOWER AT MATSALU, HAAPSALU BAY
The coastal promenade at Haapsalu affords views over Haapsalu Bay, where thousands of wildfowl gather in autumn. Dabbling duck such as Wigeon, Teal and Pintail are the most numerous, but we are also likely to see Tufted Duck, Goldeneye and Goosander - with chances of White-tailed Eagle and parties of Barnacle, Bean and White-fronted Geese flying by.
An hour's drive to the north of our hotel, Cape Põõsaspea is a northward pointing spit situated at the mouth of the Gulf of Finland. In autumn, the narrows here form a bottleneck for large numbers of birds following the southwesterly Siberian/East-Atlantic Flyway, funnelling divers, geese, swans, dabbling duck, diving duck, sea duck and many other birds along the north coast of Estonia and out into the Baltic Sea - making Põõsaspea one of the best places to watch the spectacular return migration of Arctic waterfowl.
Silma Nature Reserve lies between our hotel and the Cape. Its patchwork of shallow bays, coastal lagoons, marshes and reedbeds are recognised as a wetland of international importance, providing a stopover for tens of thousands of migrating waterbirds, especially in autumn. A number of viewing platforms and towers - such as that near Tahu, which overlooks a large lake favoured by Bewick’s and Whooper Swans on migration - afford good views over the wetlands.
In autumn, passing passerines may also be concentrated around the lakeshore at Tahu, while the nearby fields set between tall shelter belts provide good feeding for flocks of geese - and we may find lingering Common Cranes, too.
Thirty minutes southwest of Haapsalu, the Puise Peninsula is a great spot in late September to watch for movements of finches, tits and other small birds - as well as to check the shore for waders and fresh arrivals of wildfowl. Flocks of enchanting 'Northern' Long-tailed Tits with their snow-white heads, ‘trumpet calling’ Northern Bullfinches, and the paler northern races of Willow Tit and especially Nuthatch can feature strongly at this season - bringing with them the chance of more unusual species such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Nutcracker and Hawfinch.
To the east of Puise, the 10-metre tall Haeska birdwatching tower offers excellent views over coastal meadows and much of the northern shore of Matsalu Bay - an immense shallow bay, no more than four metres deep. This is perhaps the most famous bird area in Estonia and one of the most important breeding and autumn stopover areas for waterfowl and shorebirds in the whole of Northern Europe. Well worth a visit in autumn, the record for the highest day list of bird species in Northern Europe was achieved here. Two further nights Promenaadi Hotel, Haapsalu
MATSALU BAY TO SAAREMAA ISLAND
We leave Haapsalu this morning on our way to Saaremaa Island. We’ll stop along the way to enjoy some further birding at Matsalu Bay.
Covering 400km2 of land and coast, Matsalu's mosaic of coastal meadows, riparian and coastal woodlands, river delta and marshlands combine to create a wonderful migratory stopover for coastal and wetland birds. We may be greeted by the sight of returning Whooper and Bewick’s Swans along with Barnacle, Bean and White-fronted Geese, whilst the throngs of duck and waders provide rich pickings for birds of prey, including several pairs of White-tailed Eagles.
After lunch, having skirted south around the bay to Virtsu, we take a 25-minute ferry ride over to Muhu Island. We take the causeway linking Muhu with the much larger island of Saaremaa and continue south to our next hotel, where we stay for two nights. Night Saaremaa Hotel, Saaremaa Island
SAAREMAA: SÕRVE, SÄÄRE & LOODE
Saaremaa Island is joined to Muhu by a long causeway that crosses the Väika Strait. Although separated from the mainland by just 5km of sea, Saaremaa's ‘fingers’ stretch for 100 km or so, westwards into the Baltic. The island’s west coast is particularly well placed to attract southbound migrants in autumn, with a pulling power comparable to the more famous Swedish islands of Oland and Gotland, just across the sea. In fact, with further study it’s likely that Saaremaa could turn out to be one of the best 'undiscovered’ hotspots for autumn migration in Europe...
In the morning we'll target the Sõrve peninsula and Sääre spit. This narrow peninsula forms the jutting southwestern tip of Saaremaa Island and in autumn is attractive to large numbers of migrant landbirds as well as being a focus for flocks of departing geese and Cranes. The surrounding area of open sea and islets also offer excellent feeding and resting spots for passing wildfowl and waders. Raptors can sometimes be seen in good numbers on migration and species to watch for in late September include buzzards, Sparrowhawk and harriers.
At the height of season, enormous numbers of passerine migrants also pass this way. Flocks of Chaffinches, Bramblings, Northern Bullfinches and Siskins stream overhead and are visible from the watchpoint adjacent to an old Soviet military fortification - it’s an area that during the Cold War years was strictly out of bounds to visitors. How times have changed! There is now a museum here, offering an insight into the fascinating history of the area - as well as teas and coffees!
Later, we'll head up the west coast for lunch in a fine rural restaurant. The forest nearby provides an excellent opportunity for a short walk and we can hope for a woodpecker or two amongst the commoner woodland birds.
If time permits, we may round off our day with a walk through the lovely and very different oak woodland at Loode. Birds to watch for include resident Hawfinches and perhaps a few migrants such as Common Redstart. Night Saaremaa Hotel, Saaremaa Island
SAAREMAA ISLAND TO PÄRNU
We have an opportunity to enjoy some further birdwatching on Saaremaa Island this morning - perhaps with a return visit to the Sõrve peninsula, if conditions for migration are right - before heading back north.
After a lunch stop on Muhu Island, we return by ferry to mainland Estonia and follow the general track of the autumn's bird migration towards our final destination - the small town of Pärnu, in the southwestern corner of the country.
Time permitting, we may pause along the way - perhaps to take the boardwalk out across part of the vast Tuhu Bog, allowing us to experience this unique boreal habitat; or to look for birds in the wooded meadows around Nedrema. Although late September is not the optimum time of year to find woodpeckers, resident species here include Black, Grey-headed, White-backed and Lesser Spotted, so it's always worth a look!
Evening arrival at Pärnu, where we spend our last two nights of the tour. Night Rannahotell, Pärnu
KABLI BIRD STATION & SOOMETSA
Making an early start from our hotel this morning, we travel 30 miles south to visit the famous Kabli Bird Station, which lies close to the border with Latvia. Estonia’s oldest bird observatory, Kabli is equipped with an immense Heligoland trap – reputed to be 18m high! Here we should have chances to see birds in the hand, enjoying good close looks at species such as the northern races of Long-tailed and Willow Tits, Nuthatch and other boreal forest passerines. Occasionally, migrating owls are trapped as well, so an early morning visit is best!
The coastal strip running south from Pärnu to Häädameeste village - where we take lunch today - forms part of the natural avian flyway and a walk out to the tower hide could reveal a wide selection of resident and migrant species.
After lunch, we pay a visit to nearby Soometsa Forest for further chances of resident woodland birds such as Crested and Marsh Tits, Eurasian Treecreeper and White-backed, Black and Grey-headed Woodpeckers. Night Rannahotell, Pärnu
RETURN TO TALLINN, FLY LONDON
There may be time for a little local birding near Pärnu this morning before we make the two-hour drive back north to Tallinn. If flight schedules permit, a short guided walk around this beautiful medieval city followed by lunch at a traditional restaurant in town should provide a fitting finale to our time in Estonia.
Afternoon check-in at Tallinn Airport for our return flight to London Gatwick, where our autumn birdwatching tour to Estonia concludes.