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Estonia NEW! Baltic Coast Migration

An 8-day, small group birdwatching tour to Estonia in autumn

Sitting astride a major migration route for birds heading to and from the bountiful boreal and Arctic regions of Northern Europe, Estonia is one of this continent's most exciting birding destinations - and a hotspot for bird migration, especially in autumn. Join us there in late September and thrill to the impressive numbers of migrants that concentrate along the shores of the eastern Baltic, as they stream southwards from their breeding grounds across Scandinavia and Russia. As a bonus, there's a fine range of resident specialities - including Black and White-backed Woodpeckers, Great Grey Shrike and Nutcracker - to look for, too!

Tour Dates

2019

Spaces
4

2020

Available

Leaders
Gary Elton
local guides

Max Group Size: 10
Duration: 8 Days

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Cost: £2195

includes return flights from London Gatwick-Tallinn

Deposit: £400

Single Supp: £245
Land Only: £2045

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Long tailed Tit Northern 2 Sweden Judy Rowe Taylor Apr 2012

Amidst the throng of autumn migrants passing through Estonia in September, few are more enchanting than the 'snow-headed' Northern Long-tailed Tit © tour participant Judy Rowe Taylor

Estonia should be on every birdwatcher's list of places to go! For a few short weeks every spring and autumn, this smallest and northernmost of the Baltic countries plays host to one of nature’s great events - mass bird migration.

Set between the Gulf of Finland, the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea and Lake Peipsi on the neighbouring Russian border, Estonia lies in a strategic position midway along the Siberian / East-Atlantic Flyway - making it a natural 'stepping stone' for millions of Arctic and boreal birds that breed between the White Sea and Taimyr in northwestern Russia and migrate to and from their East-Atlantic wintering grounds. It's one of Europe's major migration corridors.

When conditions are right, in late September the places we visit on this tour can provide some of the most spectacular visible migration anywhere in Europe. Huge numbers of waterfowl, waders, cranes, raptors, gulls and passerines pass this way every autumn.

But autumn birdwatching here is not just about nonstop passage overhead. The country’s long and indented coastline, shallow and sheltered bays, coastal meadows, marshes, lagoons and more than a thousand islands - all in good natural condition - provide migrant birds with vital feeding and stopover sites as they stream southwest out of Siberia. Estonia's outstretched peninsulas, spits and narrow straits offer plenty of good seawatching opportunities and also serve to concentrate large numbers of migrant landbirds.  

A late September visit may find late departing summer visitors such as warblers, flycatchers and wheatears rubbing shoulders with the likes of Great Grey Shrike, Brambling and Siskin. With them come the birds of prey: White-tailed Eagles are difficult to miss; Hen Harriers and Merlins hunt over the marshes; and Peregrines and Goshawk are regularly seen. Most numerous though are Eurasian Sparrowhawks, with large numbers of these birds forced to follow their food source as it moves south for the winter!
    
It is not just the prospect of exciting birding that makes this such a brilliant trip. Time has stood still in Estonia, a land seemingly caught in a wonderful time warp, where the farms are rustic and traditional agricultural techniques still favour birds and man. The countryside is beautiful, accommodation and meals are good, and distances travelled relatively small, allowing us plenty of time in the field. Although no two years will ever be alike when it comes to bird migration, our itinerary is designed to maximise our chances of finding the best concentrations of birds and experiencing active visible migration.

Our autumn 2019 and 2020 tours will be guide Gary Elton's second and third visits to Estonia in autumn. He'll be accompanied throughout by our English-speaking Estonian bird guide, Kaarel Võhandu.

Sparrowhawk juv m migrating Finland Dick Forsman dickforsman.com 018145

Huge numbers of passerine migrants attract migratory birds of prey, such as this juvenile male Sparrowhawk © Dick Forsman, dickforsman.com

Day 1                       
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

Day 4    
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

Day 5                                 
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

Day 6                
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

Day 7                    
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

Day 8
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.

2EUR view Estonian forest bog Estonia Sven Zacek per TNs

Picture of tranquillity - view across an Estonian forest bog © kind permission Sven Zacek

What To Expect

An 8-day birdwatching tour to Estonia.

Sitting astride a major migration route for birds heading to and from the bountiful boreal and Arctic regions of Northern Europe, Estonia is one of this continent's most exciting birding destinations - and a hotspot for bird migration, especially in autumn. Join us there in late September and thrill to the impressive numbers of migrants that concentrate along the shores of the eastern Baltic, as they stream southwards from their breeding grounds across Scandinavia and Russia. As a bonus, there's a fine range of resident specialities - including Black and White-backed Woodpeckers, Great Grey Shrike and Nutcracker - to look for, too!

Estonia has a cool-warm climate in autumn. In September, average temperatures in Tallinn range from 9-15C (48-59F). Expect a mix of autumn sunshine and overcast skies with some showers or rain likely - just like at home!

Birds

120-140 species

Mammals

Up to 10 species

Accommodation

7 nights accommodation in Estonia, staying at good quality hotels: the Promenaadi Hotel in Haapsalu; the Saaremaa Hotel on Saaremaa Island; and the Ranahotell, Pärnu. All rooms are en suite.

Meals

All main meals are included in the tour price, commencing with dinner on Day 1 and concluding with lunch in Estonia on Day 8 (flight schedules permitting).

Breakfasts will usually be taken at the hotel, with our dinners at the hotel or restaurants nearby. Lunches will be packed lunches and/or sit-down meals. 

Walking

Easy. Mostly short walks on level ground. Wear comfortable waterproof walking shoes or boots; wellies not normally required on this tour.

Travel

There are few direct flights operating between the UK and Tallinn. On this tour, we fly with Easyjet, nonstop from London Gatwick to Tallinn.

Ground transport is by minibus.

Velvet Scoters pair flying Uto? Finland Dick Forsman 012669

Velvet Scoter are among hundreds of thousands of wildfowl passing south along Estonia's Baltic coast in autumn © Dick Forsman, dickforsman.com

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1 Fiona Smith, Estonia September tour ... The sight of the Pygmy Owl in the Estonian forest in the twilight at Saarema was brilliant. The guides whistled and attracted it and it landed on a tree right above us. It settled there for about 5 minutes. Everyone had a great view in the scope... [empty string]
2 Anne & Brian Hague, Estonia September tour ... Visible migration at Puise Peninsular with hundreds of Jays, Chaffinches and Bramblings passing, mixed with several Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers. A spectacular rosy sunrise over the lake just outside our hotel window on our first morning ... [empty string]
3 Alex Krzyz, Estonia September tour ... It was our first time birding holiday - did not know what to expect - were people goingto be “nerdish” or looking down on us!!!... It was a wonderful experience; the people on the group and the leaders were really excellent, helpful and cooperative, the things we saw were excellent, we learnt a great deal of information... [empty string]
4 Rose Krzyz, Estonia September tour ... This was our first birding holiday and our knowledge was that of complete beginners compared to the leaders and many in the group. However everybody was so helpful and willing to share their knowledge. We learnt a lot in the week... [empty string]
5 Wendy Mattingley, Estonia September tour ... The lunch meals out were all exceptional as was the dinner at the Altmoisa. Estonia came across as a wonderful country, with friendly people all helped along with excellent companions and leaders... [empty string]
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