David's Diaries 2006
Estonia September 23 to 28 2006
with Terry Clark, Colin Carter and John Davies
Saturday, 23 September
It was a horribly early start for everyone to get to Stansted: I was the latest riser at 3am. My first queue was to get to the set-down, as road-building outside the airport building is still disrupting traffic badly. The Easy Jet check in was easy, but the long winding queue for security took at least 40 minutes, as people were forced to hand over their water bottles or whatever. There was even a further check to x-ray shoes. It was a misty morning, so the plane's take-off was delayed by about half an hour, too. The plane, an Airbus, was about 85% full. There were lots of girls (or young women) on the plane. Many, we gathered, from an English running club who were travelling over to Tallinn to take part in a half-marathon.
We arrived in Tallinn at noon on a beautiful early autumn day, with the sun shining warmly from a cloudless sky. Our bags arrived reasonably quickly, and it didn't take too long to pick up our blue Subaru Forester (not, unfortunately, the bigger Outback that I had booked). The first birds were white wagtails at the airport. We then drove south on the main Tartu road, before branching off west. The countryside is rather flat, with farms and fields interspersed with woods of birch, oak and some spruce. We drove first to Paldiski, a former Soviet naval port, now a depressing mixture of derelict factories and hideous tower blocks. Here, from the cliffs north of the town, we enjoyed our first real birding in bright but breezy conditions. There were eiders on the sea, along with herring gulls and a few great crested grebes, while I eventually managed find a single black guillemot. Moving south were flocks of red-breasted mergansers, the drakes all still in eclipse plumage, some sizeable flocks of brent, a scattering of black-throated and red-throated divers, wigeon and scaup.
After half an hour we drove back through the town, pausing once to look out over the bay that at one stage edged the road. Here we found our first whooper swan, a single individual, along with a couple of hundred goldeneyes. A lesser spotted woodpecker flew over, though I was the only one to see it. The usual stop at the ruined monastery was almost birdless, at least compared with the spring. Nuthatch (here of the white-breasted northern race) was the best find, along with several jays.
Our next stop was the harbour at Raanakulla where, in spring last year, I had looked unsuccessfully for an alpine accentor that had been seen there the day before. This time, in the warm sunshine, we enjoyed fine views of a lesser spotted woodpecker which I scoped, followed by a party of half-a-dozen woodlarks, plus a couple of wheatears, lots of white wagtails, greenfinches and our first house sparrow. Two or three flocks of barnacle geese moved south, and John and I saw a juvenile tern that was most likely an arctic. Lots of ducks on the water were mainly mallard.
It was now getting late, so time to drive south to our hotel in Haapsalu. Getting to Haapsalu on a mixture of dirt and surfaced roads was easy, but it took us a little while to find our hotel, the attractive Päeva Villa, which comprises of two modern buildings overlooking the bay. My room is tiny, but is clean and neat and has a large bed, so it's comfortable. It also has a good view out over the bay. A little scouting around before dinner produced a number of birds out in the bay, including a distant perched white-tailed eagle and a flock of 160 cranes moving south against the sunset, a wonderful sight.
Dinner wouldn't have won any prizes from Jamie Oliver, but we enjoyed it and did manage to demolish three bottles of a very pleasant Spanish red. (We had to persuade Terry from choosing the most expensive wine on the list). We were certainly all ready for bed by 10pm.
Sunday 24th September
I was woken at 6am by jackdaws calling outside the room, so got up to write this diary. By 7am it was quite light outside and the hooded crows were cawing away noisily. We met at 7.15, and started our day by walking along the edge of the reed bed, looking out to the bay. There was the usual variety of ducks and swans, but all rather distant.
We then drove south through mist and fog to the bay south of town, where we stopped by the ramp to scope the area. Thousands of barnacles were calling unseen not far away, and eventually a great mass came and landed at the edge of the water. There were also several hundred greylags and a single sleeping white-front. Ducks included many pintail and wigeon, as well as teal. Waders were few: a couple of ruffs, three or four dunlins and a flock of lapwings. I eventually found a perched peregrine on the shore, and we saw a female marsh harrier fly past. Out on the short grass in front of us were numerous white wagtails and meadow pipits, as well as a few wheatears. I found a whinchat, while John cleverly picked up a single bluethroat that was promptly chased off by another, never to be seen again. By now the sun was making its warmth felt, which was welcome. It was also time to go back for breakfast, passing a flock of feeding cranes, back-lit by the low sun. Very pretty.
We didn't get in for breakfast until 9.45. It wasn't exciting, but was quite adequate. The supermarket was open and impressed Colin with its variety and quality of produce. Our next destination was the Matsalu Bay, visiting the northside first. En route we stopped once in a woodland clearing where a great spotted woodpecker briefly raised our hopes of something better by landing on a single dead tree. A cock hen harrier flew over, and we were later able to watch it hunting a nearby field.
We left the car in the parking and walked to the hide. Here we joined some Finns, and enjoyed the lofty view of the bay. Apart from lapwings and a couple of lapwings and ruffs, no waders, but lots of wildfowl. These were mainly teal, wigeon and pintail. Farther up the bay we could see several thousand geese on the water, but we were never able to work out what they were. A couple of skeins flew in our direction, but were directly into the light. One skein was definitely of bean geese, but what sort was impossible to tell. Meanwhile, one of the Finnish ladies had launched into a lengthy explanation of what Finland was up to during the war. She was exceedingly tedious, and poor John had to pretend to be interested. Some distant whooper swans called (at least two pairs), and there was the usual great number of mutes.
We then drove round to the south side of the bay, pausing once for a hovering buzzard that proved to be a common, and stopping for a pleasant lunch in the sun close to the museum. After lunch we continued round to the viewpoint, where our best find was a small covey of five grey partridges. The great flock of geese we had seen from the north side were invisible from here. There were three eagles to be seen, sitting on the rocks. We walked along the track in the warm sunshine and spent some time looking at chiffchaffs, while Colin found a tree pipit.
On our way back we stopped for a flock of several hundred chaffinches, plus a few greenfinches. Here Colin managed to find a brambling, but none came into my line of vision. Terry and I watched a hunting female hen harrier flush a flock of perhaps 500 goldfinches.
We finished the day watching from the high tower in Haapsalu. There were hundreds of mute swans and possibly a 1,000 or more wigeon, plus a dense and extensive raft of coots. Hundreds of swallows were preparing to roost in the reedbeds, accompanied by flocks of starlings. Once a sparrowhawk appeared, causing all the starlings to bunch up and circle around. Another super sunset to end a warm and sunny day.
Monday 25th September
When we left the hotel at 7.15 it was cool, grey and murky, but not foggy. We made our way north to the seawatching point at Növa Maastikukaitseala, but the lack of a good map handicapped us, and we made a number of false starts before finally getting there. The area was shrouded in mist, so no birds were moving. We moved back into the forest, finding a good mixed flock of tits, with willow and crested both showing well. Once a black woodpecker flew over, but only Colin glimpsed it. We heard a high-pitched woodpecker call, which was almost certainly lesser spotted, but didn't manage to see the bird.
By 10.30 the gloom had lifted, so we went back to Növa Maastikukaitseala, pausing on the way to watch a couple of black woodpeckers that clearly wanted to move somewhere, but didn't fancy flying over the sea. Then a wonderful flock of whooper swans came over, calling beautifully. It was clear that there were birds on the move. During the next hour and a half we saw well over 1,000 black-throated divers, all heading south-west. They came over in large, loose flocks, sometimes numbering 50 birds or more, and often making guttural calls. The only two red-throated divers we saw were flying low over the sea. Many of the black-throats came over at reasonable range, showing that they were still in full summer plumage. Presumably they don't moult until they reach their wintering grounds. Where had these birds come from, and where were they going?
Many other species were migrating, too. We saw a couple of parties of long-tailed ducks, the majority of birds already in winter plumage though some still in summer. There was one party of common scoters and two or three of velvet scoters, several big flocks of scaup and wigeon, smaller flocks of brent geese, plus some sizeable flocks of barnacle geese. Around the point we also found several goosanders (all females, unless the drakes were still in full eclipse), a single immature little gull in with the black-heads, an immature tern (probably arctic) and a red-necked grebe, again in summer plumage.
Meanwhile the black woodpeckers continued to entertain. Two birds continued to fly around and call over the last patch of forest before the sea, and they were eventually joined by two more, so we briefly had four in view at once.
By now we were getting hungry, having missed our breakfast, so we started our drive back. We glimpsed a pale-headed raptor setting off south through the forest, and with a bit of speedy driving managed to get ahead of it as it came out of the forest. It was, at first, a little puzzling, but was almost certainly a very pale young honey buzzard. We watched it for some time thermalling away to the south, and while we watched crossbills called unseen from the forest.
Driving back to Haapsalu didn't take as long as we were expecting, as we now knew the way. We called in at the supermarket to buy our lunch, and then stopped briefly at the hotel to collect knife, chopping board, etc, and I put my shorts on. I filled the Forester up for 475 EEK.
The next couple of hours weren't our best as we struggled unsuccessfully to find our next reserve. We did nearly make it, only to lose confidence and turn back. We stopped for a pleasant late lunch on picnic tables by the side of the road, enjoying our smoked salmon rolls as we watched flocks of cranes fly over, and once another black woodpecker. The decision was then made to go back to town to try and get a decent map. I managed to buy one in the bookshop by the supermarket, but I could have bought the same atlas in the excellent tourist information office, where an attractive girl was most helpful.
Armed with the map, we set back up the road to find our reserve, which we did with ease. Alas, the extensive reedbeds failed to produce a bittern, while there was little of note out on the water other than wigeon, goldeneye and a single pochard. We did hear wild swans but failed to see them, while several flocks of cranes came over. However, it was a pleasant afternoon, being both warm and sunny with little or no wind. After we left Colin spotted a black bird at the top of a spruce, silhouetted against the sky. It proved to be a nutcracker which stayed long enough to give excellent views, though the photographs I took weren't great.
To finish the day we drove down to the nearby coast, just across the bay from Haapsalu. Here I found a distant Bewick's swan, and we enjoyed watching an adult white-tailed eagle fly across the bay, flushing hundreds of panicking wigeon. A bottle of Russian champagne (made in Italy) was opened to celebrate the nutcracker. On our way home we saw great lines of cranes, all heading towards the bay. Estimating their numbers was tricky, but there may well have been 5,000 or even 6,000 birds.
Tuesday 26th September
An even murkier start to the day. For the first time the sun failed to break through, so it was a generally dull day, with the temperature taking a long time to move from 12degC, though it did eventually reach 15deg. We started with a 7am breakfast, a sensible decision in view of the weather. After breakfast we drove round to the bay, stopping en route for a small flock of grey geese. They were beans, but they took off as soon as we landed so we failed to get a good view. However, judging by their size they were taiga bean geese (fabalis), the nominate race. From the ramp we could see hundreds of barnacles, plus greylags and the usual assortment of wildfowl, but the light was very poor.
We drove back to get our lunch at the supermarket, buying more of the excellent brown rolls we have become rather keen on, plus smoked salmon as a filler. Then it was off into the forest. Our first stop was at the site where we look for black woodpeckers in the spring, with several large scots pines with nesting holes. Here a nutcracker showed briefly, but continued calling unseen. Further stops in the forest, overlooking open areas, produced little of note, though once a crossbill flew over. There were chaffinches, goldcrests, a few crested tits but not much more, though a mystery bird (a woodpecker?) called twice. We stopped again at the marshy woodland site where we have seen three-toed woodpeckers in the spring, but not a bird stirred. Continuing on the forest road, a hazel grouse flew across the track. We stopped to look for it, with both Colin and Terry ploughing into the forest. Here hosts of small flies descended on us and proceeded to climb into our hair and disappear into sweaters and coats. They shed their wings readily, and then looked just like a large tick, while they also took a lot of killing. We got back into the car and drove to an open area where we all fought a lengthy battle removing and crushing them one by one. Our enthusiasm for the forest was much diminished by this encounter, but on our way out we stopped for a small flock of nutcrackers feeding in the spruces. They gave excellent views, while we were intrigued by their soft contact notes.
For lunch we drove up to the harbour at Ditami. At the harbour Colin spotted a female black redstart, and as I looked for it I saw a handsome male, while we also had exceptional close views of woodlarks. We ate our lunch in the forest (where, in 2002, I had seen a greenish warbler). As we ate our lunch there was a constant southerly passage of hundreds of barnacle geese.
After a short walk we drove back to our migration-watching point. Again, by far the most obvious passage was of geese, with thousands of barnacles pouring over in great waving lines. Only one or two black-throated divers seen, though I saw a small party of a dozen or so red-throats low over the sea. I also found four red-necked grebes, all still in full plumage, on the sea.
Driving south, we tried to find the sandy beach and small estuary that Antero has taken me to in the past, but without success. At one stop we again saw huge numbers of barnacles, and a flock of perhaps 50 bean geese also came over.
For our last stop of the day we drove back to the bay. On the way I spotted a small distant flock of grey geese in a field, so we stopped to scope. I'd been fooled: the birds were decoys, and two shooters were lurking in nearby rocks. These were the only hunters we've seen here, which seems surprising in view of the huge number of geese.
From the ramp we saw the usual mixture of wildfowl, but the light was poor. We eventually found a few whitefronts and a couple of bean geese among the greylags, but a search of the thousands of barnacles failed to produce a red-breast. We continued to the end of the road, where there is a small settlement. There were a few small passerines to be seen, including a flock of 30 white wagtails, but we didn't manage to find anything more exciting than a few chiffchaffs and robins. There was a good variety of wildfowl here, including pintail, mallard, gadwall, teal, wigeon, scaup, goldeneye and red-breasted merganser, but the drakes are all still in eclipse, so aren't so good to look at as they will be in six weeks time. It was now 6.30, so time to head for home, seeing more flocks of cranes and barnacles as we did so.
Wednesday, 27th September
Even at 7.30 it looked a much more promising morning than yesterday, and so it proved. We had a glorious autumn day of unbroken sunshine, with the afternoon temperature peaking at 21degC.
We left at 7.30, but took some time to find the way down to the sewage farm. The farm itself didn't produce anything of note, but there were lots of small birds in the reeds. We had some fun puzzling over a four acro-type warblers. They were light greyish-brown, hardly a hint of an eye-stripe though there was the faintest eye-ring. We eventually concluded that they had to be reed warblers, which also seemed the safest bet. Much easier to identify were the siskins that were feeding on the alders, the snipe that flew over and the numerous reed buntings. I was the first to hear bearded tits, and was relieved some minutes later when we finally saw a group of about eight birds, chasing each other furiously over the reeds, and getting quite high in the sky. They would soon be on their way south. Several swallows were to be seen, unlike yesterday when we hardly saw any. A ring-tailed hen harrier was also seen flying high overhead, and what was presumably the same bird quartering the reed beds.
After buying our lunch in the excellent supermarket we headed out east before turning south on one of the quiet gravel country roads. We soon came across our first flock of feeding cranes, so I had a go (reasonably successfully) at digiscoping them. While I was busy with the camera the rest of the party had a stroll, seeing a few fieldfares, a sparrowhawk and hearing a black woodpecker.
A short distance down the road and we came to the delightful settlement with a lake, where last year there had been breeding Slavonian grebes. No grebes this time, alas, but there were a couple of moorhens, plus a single drake wigeon and a few mallard. We spent some time here, as it is such an attractive spot, but birds were few. However, I managed to find a pair of marsh tits, which John and I were able to show to Colin and Terry, who had walked in the opposite direction.
We continued along the road, chancing upon a great grey shrike where, a year ago, we had seen a rough-legged buzzard. We watched it for some time. I chased it with the camera, and saw it make a pass at a chiffchaff. (In France, in 1982, I saw a great grey shrike catch a chiffchaff). There were numerous skylarks and yellowhammers in the stubbles here. Farther along the road there was a flock of around 1,000 barnacles, and they proved to be tolerant of us getting out of the car and watching them.
Here we turned round and headed south, passing through a mixture of abandoned farmland and woods. We came across several large flocks of feeding cranes, allowing me to get some more shots. Alas, I never managed to photograph any with the light behind me. Several brimstones butterflies were flying in the warm sunshine.
In the next wood we flushed a nutcracker off the road. I stopped to look for it, and then spotted a hairstreak butterfly climbing on roadside vegetation. It proved to be a brown hairstreak. There were two or three females here, and they basked in the sun, allowing me to digiscope them. John had seen his first brown hairstreaks near Gatwick back in August, but for the rest of us they were a new species.
We ate our lunch by a trio of large granite boulders, surrounded by open farmland. However, the entire area was fringed by forest. As we ate we watched lapwings, golden plover, a few ruffs, several hundred cranes and a few passing flocks of barnacle geese. Four roe came out of the woods and joined the feeding crane flock. It was a pleasant last picnic.
We then crossed the main road and meandered our way back to the bay, passing more flocks of cranes and barnacle geese. Before reaching the ramp we stopped for another great grey shrike which I managed to digiscope. At the ramp we enjoyed good views of both bean geese and whitefronts in the sunshine, as well as numerous greylags and barnacle geese. A passing osprey, heading south, scattered the flocks of ducks. I spotted a distant raptor sitting on a rock, so we walked closer to check it out. It proved to be a jack merlin; frustratingly, it flew at the instant I pointed the telescope at it, but gave fine views as it flew, eventually turning and going back up the bay.
Our last stop of the day, at the point, was notable for a good variety of wildfowl including a large flock of barnacle geese and a few brents. The only migrant I managed to find was a goldcrest. There was a brisk south-westerly wind blowing. As we walked back to the car we saw a cock black redstart which sang for us. I didn't know that black redstarts sang in the autumn. On our way home we paused once for a flock of several thousand barnacle geese that came flying over, heading for the bay. It was a good note to finish on.
Thursday 28th September
Yesterday's sunshine had given way to dull, foggy conditions. After paying our bill and checking out we looked for birds in the immediate vicinity of the town. A stiff wind was blowing, so the great majority of ducks, possibly as many as 10,000 wigeon, plus a few teal, gadwall, mallard, pintail and shoveler, were in one sheltered inlet. However, the light was poor, so there was no temptation to linger. We set off for Tallinn at 9, and dropped the car off at 10.40, having stopped to top the tank. It was an easy drive - I didn't go much above 80kph, but we made sure we came in to Tallinn on the Tartu road. The flight left more or less on time, and was about 90% full.