Elegant Little Gulls feeding over the marshes. Photo: James Lidster
Tucked away in a forgotten corner of the Baltic Sea, Estonia is a fairytale land of extensive forest, wild bogs, and ancient grasslands all braided together by an amazing number of rivers flowing down to a coastline fringed with around 1000 islands. Needless to say this wonderful mosaic of ancient habitats is alive with birds and Estonia is one of Europe’s premier birdwatching destinations.
Although the country has developed quickly since its independence, an enlightened series of protective measures has ensured that many species in decline in Western Europe have increased in Estonia and birds such as Common Crane and White Stork are an inseparable part of the Estonian landscape alongside specialities such as Capercaillie, Corncrake, Great Snipe, White-backed and Grey-headed Woodpeckers and Citrine Wagtail. Equally significant as the breeding birds is the incredible spring migration. In early May, hundreds of thousands of geese, scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, divers and waders depart their wintering grounds around the North Sea for their rich Arctic breeding grounds and can be found streaming along the coast of Estonia, providing one of Europe’s greatest migration spectacles.
Day 1: Our tour begins late afternoon at Tallinn airport where we’ll meet up with our local guide before driving to the west of the country. After checking into our hotel we hope to have time for a little local birding, where species such as White Stork and Common Crane set the scene for the coming days. Night near Nõva.
Day 2: This morning we head to the Põõsaspea peninsula, a small northward pointing spit, ideally located for watching spring waterbird migration. This should include varying numbers of Black-throated and Red-throated Divers, Great Crested and Red-necked Grebes, Bean and Greater White-Fronted Geese, Eiders and a variety of ducks. If the weather conditions are suitable then we could see vast numbers of Long-tailed Ducks, Common Scoters and Velvet Scoters. The rest of the day will be spent around Silma nature reserve and Haapsalu Bay, where White-tailed Eagle, Whooper Swan, Goosander, Smew and waders will be some of the species we hope to encounter. After dinner we’ll head out again to listen for, and hopefully see, Ural Owl. Night near Nõva.
Day 3: Before breakfast we’ll concentrate on looking for the shy grouse species of this area, namely Western Capercaillie, Black Grouse and Hazel Grouse. The woodlands here also hold Black Woodpecker, Eurasian Wryneck, Crested Tit, Wood Larks and flocks of Common Crossbill. The rest of the day will be spent around Matsalu Bay where we’ll visit Rannajõe and Kloostri towers. This will give us an excellent vantage point to scan over the marshes and vast reed-beds located here, the largest expanse on the Baltic coast and home to Eurasian Bittern, Western Marsh Harrier and Bearded Tits. Towards the evening we enjoy a picnic dinner on board a boat as we cruise quietly through the marshes looking for European Beavers. Night near Nõva.
Day 4: We’ll begin today visiting Matsalua National Park, the oldest Ramsar site in Estonia. At times of peak passage hundreds of thousands of wildfowl pass through this area, including thousands upon thousands of Eurasian White-fronted and Barnacle Geese, plus hundreds of Whooper and Bewick’s Swans. The marshy areas will hold Ruff and Spotted Redshanks in breeding plumage and both Wood Sandpipers and Temminck’s Stints are likely. Although these migrants offer some remarkable spectacles, Matsalu has much more to offer and the 170 breeding birds recorded on the reserve include species such as Red-necked Grebe, Eurasian Bittern, Osprey, White-tailed Eagle and Caspian Tern. Later we’ll move on to the northern shore of Matsalu Bay to explore a variety of habitats which should give us a wide range of species before dusk. Night near Pärnu.
Day 5: This morning’s early excursion will be to the old coniferous and mixed forests around Soometsa. With luck we hope to see and hear resident Black, Grey-headed, Three-toed and White-backed Woodpeckers, while there is another chance for Hazel Grouse. After lunch we’ll pay a visit to the Häädemeeste coastal dune systems and Kabli bird ringing station near the Latvian border. This is oldest bird ringing station in Estonia, equipped with huge Helgoland-type traps. As our visit will be during the peak migration season we stand a good chance of seeing numerous species of warblers, flycatchers, chats and tits (including white-headed Long-tailed Tits) being processed by the ringers. Night near Pärnu.
Day 6: We’ll make a short visit to the lookout tower and boardwalk at Tolkuse bog, where migrating geese and Common Cranes may be much in evidence, before travelling to the vast expanse of the Aardla wetlands near Tartu town. This area is a mosaic of lakes and ponds and usually holds a good selection of water birds and perhaps a few surprises such as Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagles, Penduline Tit and Citrine Wagtail. After dinner we visit an area known as one of the best spots in the world for lekking Great Snipe. This is a magical experience as we wait quietly listening for the strange clicking calls of the males, and then catching sight of them, throwing their heads back and puffing out their chests in an attempt to impress the females. This rare and elusive wader clings on to a tentative existence in Estonia and at a few other sites in Eastern Europe and it is a rare privilege to witness this remarkable display. Night near Tartu.
Day 7: The oldest protected areas in Estonia is Järvselja forest. In 1924 it was decided to maintain a part of the intact forest area as a sample of virgin forest, which today includes trees up to 40 metres high and over 200 years old. Being able to wander through such an ancient landscape is a reward in itself, but we also may be treated to sightings of some of the many woodpeckers and other forest birds that live here. Later in the afternoon we’ll visit Taevaskoja, a magnificent valley with steep Devonian sandstone riverbanks, dry boreal pine forest and valley of the River Ahja, which is home to some fascinating plants, including Alternate-leaved Golden-saxifrage. We can also expect to see Kingfisher here. Night near Tartu.
Day 8: There may be time for some local birding before we return to Tallinn airport where the tour ends.
Updated: 11 October 2019