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Dave Williams

Birding in Estonia. May 2018

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Dave Williams

I shall paste my Google blog here for ST'ers to read should they wish, a bit more personal that way, you can comment and ask questions as you want!

Edited by Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

 

Introduction:-

Why Estonia? Several people asked me the same question and the answer was Why not!

My birding/photography pal Mike and I have been taking an annual trip for the past few years and we have travelled to Hungary,Bulgaria twice,Iceland, Spain and Scotland so we were looking for somewhere different again this year. Leaving our wives at home (as they have no wish to subject themselves to the sometimes punishing schedules we set ourselves) we also try to avoid places that they might regret not travelling to, in other words a spring tour that isn't going to suit their needs of a sunbed and a swimming pool.We can't have them being envious of our trip after all!

After some consideration we thought we'd give Estonia a try as we'd thoroughly enjoyed Iceland and thought Estonia might surpass there , certainly in terms of numbers of species and also the added bonus of mammal opportunities.

We found a company offering self guided trips and decided it was perfect for our needs. We wanted a mix of hide opportunities and self found birds and we don't want to be part of a big group.

This is what they came up with.

Day 1 (6/05/18) Meet at the airport to pick up the hire car and an electronic tablet plus maps from company rep. Travel to our hotel in NE Estonia for an overnight stay.

Day 2 Free to explore..overnight in bear hide

Day 3 Free to explore.. overnight in bear hide

Day 4 Free but drive to West Coast overnight in Kosmonautica ( one time R&R centre for Soviet space crews)

Day 5 Black Grouse hide early am then travel to Pikla for overnight

Day 6 Ruff lek hide early am, overnight in Pikla

Day 7 Ruff lek hide early am, back to Kosmonautika.

Day 8 free to explore overnight Kosmonautika

Day 9 free to explore, drive to Tuulinga for overnight.

Day 10 Floating hide early am, Beever boat trip evening. Overnight Tuulinga

Day 11 Floating hide early am, drive to airport and fly home.


The package was a reasonable 1380 euros per person and included car hire of a VW Touran, overnight accommodation with breakfast for 8 nights plus 7 hide hires and a boat trip.

It was all sounding very exciting particularly as we hoped to see several new and desirable bird species like Cappercaillie, Ural Owl,Hazel Grouse as well as witness the Ruff lek, a personal target for my list, and then of course there were the mammals, particularly Brown Bear. That would be a bit special.

As always from booking (June 2017) to departure in May 2018 seems to take forever but at the crack of dawn we set off from home at 4.45am to fly from Manchester airport to Tallin via Frankfurt.

We'd spent ages deciding what clothing we needed... we were heading to the Baltic region after all and were scheduled for some early starts which might be cold... and then there was the photo equipment too. Normally one big lens will cover all your birding needs but here we had mammals too, and big ones at that. There might be low light so an f2.8 lens might be advantageous. Problem was we only had 8 kilos of hand luggage so it would take some tough decisions on what we could or couldn't take.

As it happens Mike and I both have similar equipment and we both decided to take:-

Canon 1DX2

500mm f4

100-400 f4.5-5.6

70-200 f2.8

1.4 TC

2.0TC

Binoculars

Tripod

Wimberley head

Batteries, cards,chargers

My new Canon 5D4, Mike has a 5DSR

I also took a laptop, external hard drive, charger and my 24-105mm zoom ...oh and an Olympus Tough pocket camera. I even took my most recent acquisition, a Rode microphone. 

Now there is no way all that can go in your hand luggage so for once we took the radical decision to put our zoom lenses in hold baggage, along with chargers, tripods etc. Some might think it a bit rash risking lenses but they were transported from their place of sale to our homes by courier so they have to be built to travel after all. Anyway we took a chance.

There were sacrifices too of course but they were in the form of clothing. We didn't intend getting dressed up for dinner which is just as well as it turned out but more of that later.

Lets get on with the report!

T.B.C.

 

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Dave Williams

Part 2 No food at the Inn.

 

Arriving in Tallin which is two hours ahead of the UK, it was now past 18.00pm by the time we set foot outside the terminal. Our tour company rep was there to meet us as promised and he took us across the road to meet our car hire rep and fill in the necessary forms. A brief instruction on how to use the provided electronic tablet and we were good to go. Escaping Tallin was easy and we were soon on a decent standard of road heading east towards our hotel for the first night. What struck us en route were the huge numbers of geese both flying and in the surrounding fields. There were literally thousands and it really heightened our sense of expectation for the next 10 days. 

Around 90 minutes later we arrived at the unexpectedly grand Sagadi hotel which is part of what appears to be a summer place or stately home. We were soon down to earth though. I asked what time dinner was served until and was told 19.30. It was 19.35. We wouldn't be able to get anything now the rather unconcerned receptionist told us. The bar however was open until 20.00! Asking where we might get something to eat we were told 15 kms away. We decided we couldn't be bothered as the effort of looking for somewhere was beyond us so instead decided to take a short drive around the locality to get some early birding in.

Inevitably we found some geese!

Bean Goose   Anser fabalis

Bean goose no less, a first for me! 

There were also Great White-fronted Geese, one I'd only ever seen once before too.

Greater White-fronted Goose   Anser albifrons

Add to that a Yellowhammer feeding in a ploughed field and I was quite happy, they are something of a rarity in the UK nowadays.

BH2I8947

The other species that struck me by their numbers were Fieldfare. They were everywhere, that was one species I'd assumed would be further north but there again we were quite far north. About as far north as the very top of the British Isles in Shetland.

We returned to the hotel for an early bedtime, knackered by our early start and journey. Forward thinking Mike had purchased a bottle of beer each so it was nightcap and bed at 2100 even though it was still light!

TBC.

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Part 3 The Teddy Bears and the Picnic.

 

Having gone to bed early the previous night, and dropped off to sleep with ease in my case anyway, we were both up and around the Sagadi hotel's large grounds at the crack of dawn.

A large lake held two Goldeneye ducks but they kept their distance no matter how you tried to narrow the gap, they were always at the furthest point away. I gave up, I can get closer at our local reserve.

A pair of Linnets were feeding in the garden


Common Linnet  Linaria cannabina

 and the many trees surrounding the lake had several nest boxes attached.

These it seemed were all occupied by Pied Flycatchers.

Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca

Breakfast was served at 8.00am and we both got stuck in for a much needed refuel having survived on two small sandwiches the previous day. Fair do's it was a pretty good breakfast too. There were another dozen or so guests all on the same birdwatching tour, I wondered where they had eaten the night before.

Anyway with our first full day ahead we decide to drive up to the north coast before eventually meeting the guide where he would lead us to the bear hide ( we hoped) for that night's, and the next for that matter, stopover.

Oh, and there's one thing I haven't mentioned yet! The weather.

Dave Gosney in his 2008 guide booklet that Mike had brought along mentioned how the seasons can change in the space of a week. This at least was still a pertinent observation but more of that later. The forecast had looked promising before we arrived and it looked like we were going to get good weather. We weren't prepared for what we did get though. From the moment we arrived to the time we left I would say we had 90% cloudless skies. Our first full day was no exception.

Arriving near the beach we parked up and wandered to see what was about.

Hire car

Our ordered VW Touran had been substituted by this Chrysler Voyager but we had no complaint about that. Loads of space as it has three rows of seats as well as extra space for bags too. Mike was a bit taken aback to realise it was an automatic, he'd never driven one before he said but he soon got in to the hang of it, so much so he ended up doing most of the driving which was fine by me.

Anyway, wandering around the beach area I found a cooperative Hooded Crow

Hooded Crow  Corvus cornix

and managed to catch a couple of shots of a less willing Yellowhammer hiding in a bush.

Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella

There wasn't much to see on the beach so we moved on. Eventually we found a superb little spot on the Baltic coast where there were several hundred geese resting on rocks or floating around the place.

Baltic Sea

The air was clean, the sea clear and blue.Bliss.

The geese stayed in their place, obviously feeling a bit more secure by the water separating us.

Greater White-fronted Goose  Anser albifrons

I wandered around the headland and found a single Common Scoter but by now the sun was up and the heat so intense that any chance of a sharp photograph was beyond hope, despite the bird being reasonably close.

Common Scoter  Melanitta nigra

We didn't realise at the time but this was to be a major issue for us for the entire duration of our trip. Today it was 24, maybe 25 degrees but that was as low as it was going to get, well during the day anyway.

We meandered on exploring potential sites along the way but never finding anything that good but there again, most things had retreated in to the shade during the heat of the day.

The one thing we did notice was how many watch towers were dotted all around Estonia, presumably a relic of the Soviet era. "Birdwatching towers" are regularly mentioned in Dave Gosney's book but it appears that all the ones we checked out are no longer there, perhaps they fell in to the same state of repair as this one.

Another tower!

Anyway, the part of Estonia we were in wasn't visited by Gosney so there were no suggestions in his booklet, the tablet we'd been given was of no real help either. We did find a gravel quarry to explore that had several pairs of Goldeneye's and a few Slavonian Grebes on the water.

Gravel Pits

There were also one or two good birds in the surrounding grassland too but the heat haze made a decent photograph impossible. 

Little Ringed Plover   Charadrius dubius

Even when this Little Ringed Plover was down to about 7 metres the shot was still fuzzy.

Anyway, time was rolling on , it was now getting to late afternoon and we had to meet our guide to get the keys for the bear hide at 17.30 and before that we needed to get some provisions in for our overnight stay.

Heading south we found a supermarket which had limited choice but we were able to put together an extremely unhealthy picnic so we wouldn't go hungry during our near 15 hour stop over.

We found the meeting place thanks to a bit of guess work which was something of a miracle, the directions we'd received had been extremely vague, and Mike in particularly was relieved to know we'd be escorted to the bear hide, along with another couple who would be stopping in the hide next door. They travelled light, I was loaded to the limits with all my photo gear, a spare rucksack with extra clothes and food and water plus my tripod. I think it's a 1.7 km walk so no easy task with my failing body which is currently suffering from back pain and sciatica but we  made it. Just!

There are two hides, we had the one on the left which had sufficient room for 8 people to sleep in although only 4 photography spots. 

Bear Hide   Estonia

Two of the spots have tripod head mounting screws but we opted for using our full tripods.

Bear Hide   Estonia

So having got ourselves set up we settled down in anticipation. It wasn't long, maybe an hour, before we had our first visit from an extremely wary Fox.

Fox Estonia

He circled around the whole perimeter of the clearing were food had been strategically placed but he was very nervous in his approach. Photo opportunities were limited and the one time he got very close I fired off two shots in "silent shutter" mode but the noise was enough to send him running, much to Mike's frustration. Mind you he'd done the same thing earlier!

Fox Estonia

I must admit I was rather pleased with the outcome though! The first shot grabbed his attention and he was on to the source instantly. The second a mili second later had him running. That was it for the Fox though, he made one last visit approaching from the front of the other hide and whatever set him off , possibly from there, had him running full speed and disappearing for the rest of the night. Still, we'd been entertained for 20 minutes whilst willing the Fox to put on a show. Now we were back to the waiting game.

A quick check of our photographs and we realised we had a problem. Right in front of one of the baited feeding areas there was a pole.

Fox Estonia

This was not good!

Oh well, we were stuck with it, too late now.

45 minutes passed and it was approaching 20.00hrs but still reasonably light. The sun was still shining but it wasn't penetrating the forest, just lighting up the top of the trees.

Suddenly Mike said, "there's something coming and it's not a Fox!"

"Bear?" I replied.

" No, it's too small but it's also very darkly coloured. Racoon Dog" came back the reply.

Then there it was, only slightly wary, it paused briefly at the edge of the clearing, sniffed the air and then confidently proceeded to the bait.

Obviously knew the score!

Racoon Dog

With half decent light we could get some shots of this interesting beast, one neither of us had seen before.

Racoon Dog

It stayed for maybe 20 minutes, raiding the food supply intended for the bears. We hoped that it wasn't all gone but we needn't have worried.Within minutes of the Racoon Dog leaving we had the main attraction arrive. 

And nothing quite prepares you for what you are about to see either!

Brown Bear    Estonia

What a beast, they are huge!

Brown Bear

We were treated to some close up views right in front of the hide, 30 metres away perhaps.

Unfortunately many of our shots were ruined by that damned pole but some could be saved with a heavy crop.

On one occasion he wandered right in front of the neighbouring hide too.

Brown Bear    Estonia

The bear hung around for some time before he suddenly took off. An even bigger bear came on the scene and he too went about raiding the bait of fish heads. By now it was getting too dark to photograph, a shame especially when we saw the biggest bear stand upright on his hind legs as if looking for the source of a smell or sound. Anyway, we decided there was little point in staying awake any longer and crawled on to our respective bunks, again knackered by all the travel and general lack of sleep.

The Bear experience had been something special and the good news was we'd have a second attempt tomorrow as we were back in the hide for a second night!

TBC

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Part 3 Teddy bears and the picnic. Take 2!

 

 

We woke up to bright sunshine, actually that's not true when I think about it. I was flat out when Mike's alarm went off. Why he'd set it I don't know but now awake I climbed out of my bunk and took a seat at the camera. There wasn't anything happening out there but we'd been told not to leave until 8.00am so we hung around until then just to make sure the bears had retreated deep in to the forest again. We passed the time eating the remnants of our food but I was longing for a hot cup of coffee. Ah well, such are the little pleasures we'd sacrificed for a night in the woods. To be honest it hadn't been too uncomfortable, the bunks had decent mattresses and sleeping bags are provided for warmth although stupidly neither of us had used them so we had been a little chilly. The cabin was divided in to two sections so we had a section each to sleep in, A compost toilet separated them but which neither of us could bring ourselves to use though! 

8.00am and we were off back to where we'd parked the car and a repeat of that long walk. It was quite muddy in parts making the going even tougher. I even managed  to leave my boot behind in one sticky patch which Mike fortunately retrieved for me otherwise my sock would have been in a right state!

The bear walk

Feeling that we were now well out of danger, there was a farm house a hundred metres away, we stopped to try and get a photo of a singing Wood Warbler but the bonus was a fleeting view of a Pine Marten, another first for us both. Sadly too quick for a photo though.

Back in the car I suggested we drive south towards Lake Peipus, the 5th biggest lake in Europe apparently and one that has the Russian border running down the middle of.

Clearway

Once again the roads were a pleasure to drive, two cars in one shot was a rare event. These fabulous roads have a speed limit of only 90kph which is easy to forget but do so at your peril, they do have hidden cameras and they cost 50 euro per photo which we found to our cost when we handed the car back at the airport!

Meanwhile our search for a cup of coffee was proving as unsuccessful as spotting any wildlife. We did see  Common Crane on a couple of occasions but the minute you stopped the car they were off, just like the flocks of geese they simply turned their back and walked away so photos were hard to come by. This was turning in to something of a frustrating day. There were lots of potential places to have breakfast but they were all shut as it was out of the tourist season, after checking several villages having followed encouraging eating place signs we gave up and headed back north.

That's when we made a discovery that was to shape the rest of the trip.

Fuel stops!

Fine dining   Estonia

Some were bigger and better than others but they all had a decent coffee machine and some sort of food as well! Better still they all offered free wifi connections too! We were able to keep in touch with the world, even make a Skype call home the connections that good. Some offered hot food too, that would become our saviour as it turned out but on this first visit a hot drink and a blueberry muffin was manna from heaven.

Driving north didn't improve our birding opportunities though. We checked out a couple of the suggestions on our provided electronic tablet but they too were a waste of time.

A pleasant walk in the woods but that was all.

Beaver dam

No beavers in the dam, no birds in the trees.

A surprising find was a handy loo in the forest though!

Loo in the woods!

Once again the weather was counting against us. It was really quite hot now. My navigational skills trying to find somewhere and something to interest us all but failed with the exception of seeing briefly, a pair of Montague's Harriers.

Montagu's Harrier  Circus pygargus

It was a case of stop the car, jump out and hope for the best. Certainly not prize winners but they did count towards the little game I'm playing. 

The Photo Big Year! Yes, along with one or two others we aim to get as many species in camera in a single year. I have set myself a target of 500 so the more I could capture, no matter the quality, the better. Every bird counts. Some images are so bad it's become a competition within itself. The only rule being the bird has to be identifiable. Good game eh! In actual fact it added some purpose to the trip.

Anyway, that was about all I did achieve that day, well until we got back to the bear hide anyway. Stopping at another small town supermarket for food supplies for the night we must have spent 30 minutes scratching around for something appealing enough to eat. How the locals survive on these offerings I really don't know. My picnic dinner consisted of a pack of cheap chocolate Swiss Rolls, two Snickers bars and a pack of two donuts which turned out to be filled with a savoury fishy filling and were only partly cooked.YUK!

Ah well, we weren't in the bear hides for fine dining. After being forced to waste another 30 minutes waiting for a blocked forest road to clear because they were  loading a lorry full of felled trees we found ourselves back at the meeting point for the bear hide an hour early. The rep turned up on a Quad bike and our first request was to tell him about that troublesome pole. He initially said it couldn't be moved but when we showed him some shots he went back to where he'd come from to get what ever was necessary too get rid of it.

Out with the pole!

He was right when he said it wasn't easy. It has been screwed in to the ground so was well secured. We'd guessed that perhaps it had had a camera or such like on top of it at some stage but whatever it's purpose it was still unbelievable that this was in front of a photographic hide.

Anyway, it was now gone thankfully.

There was one other slight anomaly too. Our rep/guide/contact turned up at the hide on his Quad bike complete within a rather large woman on the back to whom he'd given a lift. It wasn't until the next morning when he came back to pick her up that we found out there were three people in the next hide that night and she needed transport to get there.

The instructions for walking to the hide are talk to each other at a normal level. Any bears hearing you should go away. Don't make too much noise as they might be too disturbed to come to the hides. I'm not sure what a Quad bike might do but on this second night the Bears, or should I say Bear as we only had one, didn't turn up for almost an hour later than the first night so our photo light was very limited indeed.

We did at least get a few shots though

Brown Bear    Estonia

not only the Bear but of a Racoon Dog too.

Racoon Dog

Ironically only the Racoon Dog visited the now clear viewed feeding station while it was still light enough to photograph.

Once again, as soon as it became too dark to carry on we headed for our bunks to catch up on some sleep. This time I had to good sense to use the sleeping bag and had the best sleep in 48 hours.

TBC

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Part 4 Off in to space.

 

We woke up fairly early but well refreshed after a decent nights sleep in the bear hide and prepared to wait until 8.00am to depart the hide and head off westwards towards our next destination. Much to our surprise the Quad bike was back at not long after 7.00am to give the lady who'd arrived by this mode of transport a lift back to their car again. Considering how much gear we'd been carrying we did wonder why there hadn't been an offer to take some of ours with him too but perhaps he was a little annoyed that we'd made him remove the pole the night before. Anyway, we had the same walk as the previous days and by now we were pretty confident there was no danger from the bears even though we found paw prints and fresh glistening evidence that the bear had not long departed!

Arriving back at the car was when we discovered there had indeed been three people in the hide next to ours. They had stayed awake half the night and confirmed there were two bears there for much of the time making several visits right up to the time they called it a night at 3.00am. They had heard them right outside the cabin too so it makes you wonder what might tempt them to try and break in! Maybe a wise decision not to bring certain foodstuffs.

Anyway, we were now finished with the bears. The second night, although a thrill still, hadn't lived up to the expectations following the first night but that's wildlife for you.

Studying our map we worked out it was a fairly long journey ahead and with no experience of the roads difficult to judge how long it might take. We were only due to stop at Häädemeeste for one night but after two nights away would return for a further two nights. This was because our middle venue at Pikla was fully booked due to it's desirable birding location.

Anyway, a check of Dave Gosney's guide gave suggestions of several sites around Tartu, an almost midway stop, so we decided we'd try his recommended site for Citrine Wagtail, a species neither of us had seen before.The male member of the three people we'd been talking to at the bear hide confirmed that Tartu was indeed a good place to find them, they nest around the base of the birdwatching tower.

Following my road atlas  and Gosney's instructions for the fine detail we found ourselves not sure if we were in the right place but unable to progress further despite the guide suggesting we should be able to. We parked up and got out of the car and bingo! Within seconds a Citrine Wagtail flew towards us and beyond landing in a small bush as seen in the middle of this photo!

Tartu

Problem was it was boggy on one side, water on the other so we had to settle for photos from a distance. Still, what a result. Who would have imagined such an instant success.

Citrine Wagtail

We hung around for ages in the hope of a better opportunity but eventually decided we'd have a look around to see if we were were we thought we should be!

A full tour of the locality, some of Gosney's guide we were able to pinpoint but being unable to find the birdwatching tower had us mystified. It was only later we discovered it had been demolished a couple of years ago. The guide book was written an age ago.

There wasn't too much else to see, "scan the field for geese and ducks" etc was all pretty obvious as indeed were the geese stood in it. Completing the full circle we attempted another go at finding the tower and in doing so finished where we'd started!

The good news was both male and female Citrine wagtails were actually walking on the road in front of us. When the both flew they landed in a nearby bush and we were able to get very close indeed. By now though it was so hot the heat haze once again made photography difficult. Most of my shots ended up in the recycle bin but the odd one was acceptable.

Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola

Once again we left the Citrines behind and continued on our journey west. Our designated accommodation was Kosmanautika, the one time holiday location for Soviet cosmonauts including a visit by the first ever female in space,Valentina Tereshkova.

We were surprised to find the place totally deserted and in fact "For Sale" signs were posted at the end of the driveway. From the outside the various cabins looked in need of some T.L.C.

A man on a bike dressed in overalls appeared and he passed us his phone so I could speak in English to the lady on the other end. We had been allocated rooms 2 and 3. I enquired about eating and was told we could have chicken as it was being served to a birdwatching group that were also staying there. Dinner was at 18.30pm. Non negotiable!

We hadn't eaten a proper meal in 4 days so we decided we'd forgo the evenings birding which we'd hoped to fit in before dinner. Instead we caught up with a few domestics re-sorting our packing, charging batteries etc, etc.

In fairness the rooms were not too bad. Right from the off we'd requested separate rooms, here we were given an adjoining apartment each but ended up just using one of them to sleep although the two shower rooms were handy!

Mike had the main bedroom.

Kosmonautica

I had the bed in the lounge.

Kosmonautica

It wasn't long before the birdwatching party arrived back from their trip out and I was able to make contact with their tour leader who also happens to own the hides we were due to use over the next few days. We were supposedly going to the Black Grouse lekking hide early the next morning. He kindly offered to take us to show us where to go so off we went before dinner. It was probably 20 minutes drive away. 

On the way back we spotted a bird lying in the road. It was obviously a recent kill as it hadn't been there on the way.

A Hazel Grouse

Hazel Grouse roadkill

It was one of the birds we'd wanted to see but not like this. The birdwatching group hadn't managed to locate one either because although they are not rare they are very shy. We took it back to show them.

The owner of the hides moved to sit next to us at dinner which was not well received from the look of the face of the woman sat next to Mike. We'd sat at the end of a long table with the bird group and she obviously thought we had no right to infiltrate their tour. Most of the others seemed friendly enough though and we exchanged a few pleasantries with them, easy enough, they were all British after all.

During dinner the hide man suggested we really should be better going to the hides that evening, we might find it difficult re-locating them in the dark. It wasn't what we wanted to hear, we had a comfortable bed waiting for us after two nights roughing it, but where needs must you have little option.We agreed on this course of action and after a quick stop at the local petrol station to buy a few beers we headed off to spend the night in the hides.

In truth we would never have found them in the dark, we missed the turn once even in daylight! There were two box hides in the middle of a huge field of several hundred acres.

Enjoying a nightcap before retiring in to our separate boxes we wondered what chance the Grouse would actually choose to land near us! 

Preparing for a night of hell!

It was something we needn't have bothered thinking about. As it happened we were about to endure one of the worst nights I have ever experienced ! Badly prepared despite bringing several layers of extra clothing the cloudless sky meant the temperature plummeted during the night. It was horrendous, just a thin mat to lie on and shivering with the cold. Mike heard me moving around as dawn broke around 3.30am, he'd been every bit as miserable as me. We set up our gear and waited.

But nothing happened.

At 5.30am we made a joint decision to abandon the hide and head back to Kosmonautica for some much needed warmth.

Not the best of days, not the best of nights either.

Things could only get better!

TBC

Edited by Dave Williams

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Part 5 No more Ruffing it!

 



After our extremely unpleasant night in the Black grouse hide we headed back to Häädemeeste and went straight to the filling station which fortunately is open 24/7. A hot coffee and a hot breakfast roll cheered us up a bit before we went for a wander on the beach in front of Kosmonautica to kill time before a proper and second breakfast! There were a few birds about, mainly out on the beach but also in the ponds in front of our cabin.

28420114348_da7803b939_b.jpg

A pair of Goosander took off the moment they saw me and that seemed to be the case with everything in Estonia. Why? Have they just completed a harrowing section of their migration, shot at or whatever? Anyway, they certainly weren't co-operative when it came to photography.

We were beginning to feel a bit frustrated. The bear hide experience had been good even if the photos had not been all they should have but we'd spent over 3 days trying for bird photos and to date were largely unsuccessful. Our next two nights would be spent at Pikla where we had two days of hides booked for Ruff lek photography. That was a mouth watering prospect and probably as much anticipated as the Brown Bears. With little point in hanging around we left Kosmonautica as soon as breakfast was over and headed the short distance up the road to Pikla.

It is indeed a lovely location , the house overlooks the beach on one side.

41623810354_779b15995d_b.jpg

and one of the large ponds on the other.

28473425238_2a2246de0b_b.jpg

but that wasn't what caught our attention as we headed up the road towards the house.

What we spotted was two people loaded up with equipment and sleeping bags making their way back from a distant hide but through the most atrocious quagmire you can imagine. They were wearing waders too, and they needed them as in places they were up to their knees in mud. One of them appeared to almost fall over a couple of times and was grabbed by the younger female he was with. We decided to wait and ask them some questions to get some tips on what to expect but they had little advice to offer. In fact they were rather disgruntled that the only Ruff they had seen were very distant even when using a 500mm lens with a 2.0x teleconverter. This was not the news we wanted to hear.

We'd been promised that if we chose to sleep in the hide we would be issued with sleeping bags. We'd also been advised that crossing the field was not advisable in the dark as there were some really deep mud patches you could get stuck in. 

We continued our drive to the house where a large group of German photographers were hanging around, waiting for lunch as it happened.

42298442912_36039f8cc7_b.jpg

I asked if the owner was about and she appeared from just inside to announce we were too early to book in, it was only 11.00am, we should come back at 3.00pm. No problem I replied we would use the time for a good look around.

We also took the opportunity to pick the brains of the Germans too!

It turned out the Ruff had stopped lekking in front of the hide some days previously, prior to that they had some excellent opportunities. One of the guys had spent two uncomfortable nights in the Black Grouse hide we'd used ( no doubt with a sleeping bag!) and his reward hadn't been much better. A single grouse on each night so hardly the right set up for a Lek! We were also informed April is the best month for both the Ruff and Grouse Leks. This was a bit annoying on two fronts.

Firstly, we had been almost certainly set up in the Grouse hide with the owner knowing the likely hood of grouse was minimal. We would have much preferred an honest appraisal and accepted that such is nature and instead settled for a decent nights sleep in a proper bed.

Secondly we realised that we really should do more research to find the optimum times to visit before booking and accepting an agency travel plan. We now realised that we were being slotted in to what remained of the spare places to suit them rather than us.

All was not lost though, on our drive up to the house we had spotted Ruff and they were still lekking at 11.00am, just in a totally distant place to the erected hide. That gave us two options, move the hide or borrow one of the available pop-up hides and set that up to give us an alternative option. We chose the latter and armed with the hide, some large metal pegs and a mallet we headed off to find a decent spot.

The Germans seemed to think it was a waste of time but we weren't deterred. Once set up near the lekking spot we'd seen, which was also on much drier land, we left it for the birds to become accustomed to. It did however become a source of instant curiosity to the large herd of cows that also used the field. We wondered if it would get trampled on but luckily all was well.

Eventually back to the house to check in, my first request was to ask if it was possible to have an evening meal that night. The answer came back, "No, you have to book it the day before"

We'd also discovered from the Germans that the couple that own Pikla also own Kosmonautika so I asked if I could book meals for the following three nights too. I was told she would have to ask her husband as she was due at Kosmonautika to cook the following evening.

So, we'd now been in Estonia for what would be five nights and only had one proper evening meal. This was not good but not a lot we could do about it. The nearest restaurant to Pikla was 25kms away. Too far to be bothered making the journey.

Luckily just up the road was a small supermarket and next to it an even smaller little independent shop that sold delicious coffee and cakes at incredibly low prices!

42298443142_3237bd8b28_b.jpg

So if you happen to be driving on the E67 "Via Baltica" and passing through the village of Voiste do give them a call as they are only a third of the price of the petrol station chains and deserve all the custom they can get.

Anyway, with no meal to interrupt the schedule for the evening we could sit in our newly erected hide until it went dark!

We didn't spend that long as it happened but we were in it for three or four hours I guess.

We had reasonable success too. After an hour or so we had two male and a few female Ruff land right infant of us. There wasn't a lek as such but we did manage some photographs of the stunning breeding plumage the males were in. Unfortunately most images were once again soft thanks to the heat... we were now up to 27-28 degrees ( and oh dear,it was grey, cold and miserable for the girls at home too) but as the evening wore on things improved so at last we got some images worthy of keeping.

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The Ruff came and went on several occasions so it was most satisfying we'd rescued something out of the situation we found ourselves in. 


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Ginger was we called him, well you would wouldn't you, came really close on one visit.

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Feeling a little more elated than at any time since the first night in the bear hide we packed up for the night and headed back to the house for a cold beer to celebrate.

We'd both made the decision that a night in the other hide was a non starter. It would be pointless if the Ruff weren't there and as we'd been keeping an eye on the distant hide we knew they wouldn't be. We'd also been told that unless you are on intimate terms the other hide was too small for two people. Mike and I are good mates, but not that close. On the earlier toss of a coin I was nominated for the first night but the soft comfy bed in my room was going to be slept in, that was a certainty.

After three nights of roughing it, getting in to bed was perfect bliss!

T.B.C.


 

 

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Dave Williams

Part 6 Dinner is served!

 

After a beautiful night's sleep in my exceptionally comfortable bed I don't think I'll ever take such a simple pleasure for granted ever again still, I was wide awake quite early and so decided to head back to our new hide. Mike on the other hand had decided to wander around the reedbeds using the car as a hide. He must have fared better than I did as my best shot of the session was a distant cow wading through the wet field!

Pikla

Disappointing but my spirits were lifted by an excellent cooked breakfast and the announcement that we would get dinner tonight after all.Husband was going to cook for us but informed us his skills were limited. He could make us pasta with Bolognaise sauce or Meatloaf. We left him to decide , we were happy just to get something hot to eat.

Once again the sun was blazing down and gave us the usual problems, Earlier though I had managed my first images of Lesser Whitethroat for the year

Lesser Whitethroat   Sylvia curruca

But trying to get anywhere near the Garganey on the pools was near impossible. They flew the minute you tried.

Garganey (Anas querquedula

We decided to explore the coast further north to see what we could find and from a listing point of view it was quite successful, Grey Partridge and Short Eared Owl being the standouts but I also managed some more images for my Big Photo Year too.

Just four juvenile Whooper Swans , the rest must have flown north by now.

Whooper Swan  Cygnus cygnus

and some more Goosander shots.

Goosander   Mergus merganser

There were certainly plenty of them about in Estonia.

The main attraction though was to return to the pop-up hide to see if we could better the previous day's efforts. Unfortunately we couldn't. The one we'd named Blackie turned up but there was no sign of Ginger at all. A third male also made the occasional visit but he had no interest in displaying at all, he was more concerned with hunting for flies. 

Ruff

With dinner due at 20.00pm we decided to call it a day and had actually got out of the hide when a few males landed some 100m away and were quite active lekking. There we were stood out in the open too! 

Ruff

We decided we might as well try and get closer, nothing to loose now. 

Ruff

Surprisingly we halved the distance and so managed to get some reasonable images but nothing to rival the previous evening's efforts. 

Ruff

Ah well, at least we did get something out of the visit to Pikla. We decided to knock down the hide and ask if we could take it to Kosmonautika the following day.

Dinner was accompanied by a few beers and in fairness the Pasta Bolognaise was pretty good. A little salty perhaps but that just increased our thirst for cold beers.

We spent the last hour of sunshine sitting on the patio as the huge golden orb slipped in to the sea just as it had done the night before too.

Pikla

If you think the horizon isn't level what else would you expect from a photographer under the influence?

It was pure bliss sat out there and I had to capture the moment. Mind you I think our wives were a little envious of our weather when they saw the pictures.

TBC

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michael-ibk

Gorgeous Ruffs, they are such cool-looking birds in spring. Sorry about the Black Grouse (non-)experience, that must have been very frustrating indeed.

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janzin

You must have lost weight on this trip with all the non-eating :)

 

Fantastic photos of the Ruffs (never have seen them in breeding plumage) and the bears, fox, Racoon-dog (never knew there was such a thing!)

 

And I confess I had to look up Estonia on a map to see just where it was. Never realized how far north it was.

 

But now to the not-so-good: I was pretty taken aback to learn that they bait the bears for these hides.  In many wildlife photographers' books (including mine) that is a real no-no. OMG, especially bears!  I gather it is common in Europe?  I know there have been discussions on this previously on ST (not for this area specifically, but baiting wolves and jaguars in Brazil, baiting leopards in Bera, India, etc.)  So perhaps not the place to open up the discussion again but it just doesn't sit well with me. :(  

 

 

 

 

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Dave Williams

@janzin I understand your point of view but in reality so many wildlife photographs and films are engineered in one way or another. We have bird feeders in the back garden as do so many gardens in the UK, they are a great aid in maintaining a healthy population of birds that might otherwise struggle for food. The Red Kite population was near extinction in Wales until one particular farmer was persuaded to start feeding them meat on a regular daily basis. Not only has the population survived it has expanded and spread across Wales and the farm has become a major tourist attraction as they get 100's of Kites coming to feed at certain times of the year when food is scarce.

When it comes to feeding predators like leopards then the most import thing is that they are fed on a regular basis otherwise they will become a threat but is that not a better solution than persecution and them being shot for taking domesticated animals for food?

I know the hotel we use in The Gambia has a bit of a problem with monkeys. Despite notices asking guests not to feed them, some can't resist. The problem now is that they are so used to human contact they don't fear them any more and will attempt to grab food from tables, even from guests bags or hands. Ultimately the only course of action is to cull the monkey if it becomes too much of a pest. They can cause serious injury with their teeth but it's not the monkey that's to blame, it's the ignorant guests.

Bears in Europe? I have little knowledge of them, these were the first I have seen. I think they only survive in the least populated parts of Eastern Europe but as pressure grows on space theirs might be a limited future too.Ensuring their survival by feeding them and creating an attraction might well be their saving grace. They are still wild, there is no direct human contact, the bears come and go as they please, they are in so many ways less habituated than the animals of the Mara Mara who appear to have a posee of vehicles around them whenever they sit down to a meal.

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janzin

All very good points @Dave Williams  Its a complex issue for sure and I realize that the stakes are variable depending on the animal and the context. I think for predators its especially concerning, but you may very well be right about bears in Europe and I will see if I can read some more about it. I guess my concern in this case would be habituating them to be fed by humans which could be a danger to its long-term survival. Also I presume that they are protected from hunting there. If they got used to baiting for photographers and there was also hunting permitted.....  Its very different here, in some states in the US bear hunting is allowed and so is bear baiting for hunting, a problematic situation (to put it mildly.)

 

Anyway from a photographer's standpoint, I'd just prefer knowing that I made the image without the animal being manipulated in any way. I don't even like photographing birds at feeders but I confess I do it :)and I've been happy to get photos of hand-fed antpittas in South America. I suppose that's hypocritical but somehow predators, especially threatened or endangered ones,  seem different than birds.  

 

Anyway thanks for your measured response!

 

 

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Peter Connan

Two opposing viewpoints:

 

Many years ago, my grandfather owned a share of a piece of land in the Timbavati.  One of the original partners sold his share to somebody else.

This guy took to baiting lions by shooting an antelope and dragging it around the farm with his pickup truck.

 

This was not for hunting or even photography, just viewing pleasure, but he did it fairly frequently. One day my grandfather was driving his pickup around the farm (keep in mind that pickups were the game-drive vehicles of the time, and the passengers used to stand on the back) when a lion jumped on...

 

On the other hand, there are a number of vulture restaurants around now. There is a very good chance that this may just save vultures in SA, because these and kills in game reserves are probably the only safe sources of food around, due to the muti trade and farmers using poison bates to try and control jackal and other small predators...

 

A number of these vulture restaurants finance themselves by operating photography hides.

 

My point is: feeding can be both detrimental or helpful (perhaps even necessary) for the animal's survival. It depends very much on how it's done.

Edited by Peter Connan

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Dave Williams

Part 7 Moving on again.

 

On our last morning at Pikla we decided to get up early and checkout a forest track that was marked on our electronic tablet which I'd now been able to update using the Pikla wifi.

Setting off at the crack of dawn we headed via some back roads to the village of Soometsa but search though we did we couldn't find the place we were meant to park and start walking. We tried a couple but they didn't seem likely spots and one of them soon had us in retreat at the sight of some guard dogs barking and heading our way!

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We decided that we'd beat a hasty retreat and abandon the idea. Disappointing as we'd wasted an early start for nothing. Still a tasty breakfast awaited us and after we bade goodbye to our hosts at Pikla we had a check of the reedbeds there.

The owners of Pikla are a nice friendly couple,  I'd be seeing our hostess again at dinner time as she was cooking at Kosmonautika again, but before we left she gave us the news that dinner wouldn't be available the following night as the kitchen was closed, as it would be for breakfast the day after too. Not particularly happy with the situation, we'd learnt to live without proper meals by now and shrugged off the news, our acceptance that it was our fate!

Checking out the reed beds I heard a rather unusual sound, well to me anyway. I knew it was something different but wasn't sure what. A warbler for sure, I could see it as it edged up a reed stem.

Savi's Warbler Locustella luscinioides

Mike's first guess was a Grasshopper Warbler and I was delighted if it was as it would be a first, however, when we later checked the book it turned out it was a Savi's Warbler which was even better as it was a first for both of us! The sound they make is not that dissimilar to Grasshopper Warbler , just at a lower volume.

I also had a brief view of a Bearded Tit (or Bearded Reedling as they have been officially re-named I believe) and there were Great reed Warblers around too judging by the noise they were making. The reed beds certainly had potential that we hadn't fully exploited so we decided on a plan that would bring us back at the crack of dawn when we passed on our way north to our final stop over place.In reality we'd have loved to have stayed at Pikla for the duration but they were fully booked.

Off on our travels again, we headed south and we went straight to our rooms in Kosmonautika to ditch our luggage and then went to seek a spot for the pop up hide so we could return to it later in the evening. Unfortunately the plan had to be abandoned as there wasn't any suitable places to put it up, the ground far too wet and boggy. Reluctantly we had to put it back in the boot of the car where it waited like a Jack in the Box to explode outwards and escape whenever we opened the boot. Those pop ups are very fast to self erect but they are not easy to keep down!

Anyway, Gosney guide in hand we went looking for his sites. The first one he'd said was excellent for Citrine Wagtail and Greenish Warbler, we found neither but we did find Icterine which was also mentioned. Poor views but at least another addition for my Big (Photo) Year.

Icterine Warbler   Hippolais icterina

With mostly poor photo opportunities I was rather relieved that I had set out to achieve a specific target for my B.Y., at least it gave a kind of purpose for these awful shots!

We moved on to  a second site Gosney mentioned but couldn't find it at first. He'd found this one courtesy of another guide book written by someone called Gorman, who in it had said it was an excellent spot for Citrine Wagtails which could be found around the birdwatching tower there.

Birdwatching tower? There wasn't one! Again we discovered it had been demolished since Gosney visited in 2010.

In the car parking area  though we found a very co-operative Whinchat,

Whinchat   Saxicola rubetra

We took far more shots than necessary, feasting on a rare opportunity for a decent photo!

Better still we spotted the Citrine Wagtails flying about but by now it was getting pretty warm again so we decided to retreat for lunch with a vow to return later.

In the afternoon we headed up to another Gosney recommendation, Nigula Bog.

It was some distance to drive so we didn't have that long to spend there as we'd been told dinner would be served at 18.30pm. In fact it was 19.00 before the assembled group of German birders turned up for dinner but we got a better reception when we joined them than we had had from our fellow Brits three days earlier. Breakfast we were told would be at 0800 as arranged for the group. We told our hostess that we might not turn up for that as we intended going back to Nigula Bog. We had a specific target in mind, one we'd discovered earlier....White-backed Woodpecker!

A first for us both we'd spotted a nest hole and it was occupied. The light was all wrong in the evening so we'd return first thing the following day. With other options in the same area we'd just have to forego our breakfast, it wasn't viable to come back especially that early. We'd been able to arrange a late breakfast at Pikla to accommodate our early morning plans but here we had to go with the majority.

It was then that reality dawned! As a pair we weren't worth the effort of cooking just for two, our host couldn't be bothered driving from Pikla to do so herself and financially it probably wasn't viable to pay some one else to do so either. 

TBC

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Dave Williams

Par 8 The good,the bad and the hungry

 

Up at the crack of dawn again we headed back to Nigula bog to the White-backed Woodpecker nest site. We'd already planned where to set up our cameras, a fair distance from the tree and largely hidden by a bush. 

On our way there though we did stop to attempt a Common Crane shot but the minute we stopped the car they started to move away again and it wasn't as if they were near either, probably 400m away.

Common Crane   Grus grus

This huge open field was surrounded by woodland and the echo of the two Cranes calling was an amazing sound. I tried to capture it on this video snippet as it's worth sharing. Ignore the video itself, it's near impossible to focus whilst hand holding a 1dx and a 500mm lens but do have a listen ( and yes that's Mike firing off a couple of images in the background too!)

Common Crane soundtrack

Carrying on we arrived at our destination only to find a tent erected in the car park and two young ladies having a cigarette at the picnic bench. One of them wandered off past our nest site and down to the edge of the lake where it seemed another tent was in place. Much loud talking and shouting followed but fair do's when I gesticulated for them to keep quiet now we'd set up our cameras they got the message. They packed up to leave and were gone by 7.00am but still there was no sign of a woodpecker. Another 30 minutes later and we decided to accept our fate...another failure... and we were in the process of packing up when Mike exclaimed"There, he's stuck his head out!'

White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos

Sure enough, now everything had returned to perfect peace he'd decided it was all clear to take a look around.

White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos

We had hurriedly re assembled tripods etc when I spotted the female return to a neighbouring tree.

White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos

In hindsight it had been a bad move by us both to move positions and try to capture the image of the female. We should have realised there would be a change over of custodians on the nest but instead I missed the male leaving and only just got an image of the female entering the nest.

White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos

I guess after 90 minutes or more of waiting one does tend to jump too soon out of desperation!

Anyway, we'd got an image so decided it was prudent to move on to another Gosney site which he'd dubbed "Magic Corner". In his booklet he enthused so much about the numbers and varieties of species, particularly Hazel Grouse, we needed to get there before it was too late. Following his excellent description and sketches we discovered the forest track blocked by a fallen tree.

Untitled

Our attempts to move it were futile and I wasn't happy at leaving the car blocking the road just in case someone turned up to move it so I reversed about 400m to a passing place. The sketch showed Magic Corner was the opposite corner of a square of forest road. We might as well walk the circuit back to the parking place. 

Unfortunately the sketch was inaccurate in this respect, it wasn't a square, it was a rectangle and we must have walked at least 1000m before reaching the turning point. From what we could see the road was a continuation of tall trees on either side. A photographers nightmare at best and besides other than Chaffinch, brief glimpses of a Wood Warbler and a calling Cuckoo we'd seen nothing worth convincing us there was any point in carrying on.

Magic corner had indeed worked it's magic... a disappearing act! 

As we drove away we came across an organised bird tour walking along the track. We were able to brief the guide on what we'd seen, ( he looked glum!) and left. We bumped in to them the next day and they had no more luck than we did.

The question was what to do next? Heading back towards the main road , the Via Baltica, I suggested we head back to our favourite bargain breakfast stop for coffee and pastries and as it was close to Pikla, we might as well get rid of the hide that kept threatening to jump out when you opened the boot. Plan agreed,but we were just leaving Pikla when an approaching car slowed down to obviously speak to us. It was our hostess who announced she'd waited at Kosmonautika until 10.00am to give us breakfast ( the time her husband had been making it for us at Pikla) but I suspect her real reason for staying was we owed her for the two dinners we'd had there! Maybe I'm just cynical! She also announced she'd arranged for us to have breakfast the following day. Her change of heart was too late though as we told her we had a plan to come back to Pikla to check out the reed beds on our way north and it wasn't worth going back just for breakfast, couldn't we have it at Pikla. Negative she said, they were going away and wouldn't be home.

Looked like it would be coffee and pastries again!

Anyway, to fill in the rest of the day was our next problem and looking at the Gosney book I  suggested a site near Parnu 25kms north. With time moving on and Mike now driving he put his foot down although not to any great speed. It wasn't until we returned the car that we discovered we'd been clocked on camera doing 110kph which for the standard of the road and the level of traffic was not really fast. Still, the limit is 90 so we picked up a 50 euro ticket for our troubles! 

Did it pay off?

Did it heck!

We found Gosney's site but it was much changed from his description. The one time camp site was now a huge lumber yard and there were few birds other than the usual gaggle of nervous geese to be seen.

I settled for some Frog shots to make the journey worthwhile!

Frog!

On our way back I noticed a park set back in the trees and just off the main road, why not, we'd give it a go. It turned out to be a cemetery and although I know they can be wildlife havens I feel awkward about wandering around with a camera when perhaps families are visiting to pay their respects to a dear departed. We didn't go in but instead followed a path in to the woods. Soon we were on to a singing Wood Warbler.

Wood Warbler   Phylloscopus sibilatrix

Mike wandered off and left me to the Warbler.

Wood Warbler   Phylloscopus sibilatrix

but when he returned he showed me an image of a Crested Tit he'd found. Now that would be a first for me but sadly although he showed me the place, there was now no sign of the bird.

Heading south again we stopped at the place we'd first found Citrine Wagtails but which Gosney hadn't.

Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola

It was definitely the better of the two he'd mentioned.

Anyway we were happy we'd improved on our previous images from Tartu.

We dined out in the filling station once more then retreated to Kosmonautika with a 6 pack to consume on our terrace whilst watching the sun go down.

Kosmonautica

It had been another blisteringly hot day with temperatures reaching 29 degrees. Not good for birding but evening perfection with an ice cold beer!

TBC

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Dave Williams

Part 9. The last chance saloon!

 

 

Another near dawn start, we were hoping for a change of fortunes by heading for an early session at the Pikla reedbeds.

Now don't get me wrong, our trip wasn't one long misery but if i'm honest it had failed to live up to expectation. Maybe we'd over egged the trip in our imagination but one thing was certain, we'd only eaten three proper evening meals in the last 8 days, the bird hides with the part exception of the pop-up were useless and even the bear hide had a level of disappointment. On the other hand the weather had been incredibly good...too good. My brother-in-law , a resident in the very far north of Scotland had posted some pictures of him having taken a swim in a Scottish Loch and described the conditions as "Baltic" I'd had to correct him and tell him we were now sweltering in 29 degrees and Baltic wasn't a fair adjective to use!

We had one last throw of the dice though, our final destination where we had another two hide days booked in what was described as the Floating Hide. We weren't expecting anything unusual but according to the blurb on the web site there was indeed a long list of possibilities.

First though the reedbeds.

That put a smile back on our faces . Three or four hours and I'd added a few more images for my Big Year count.

Bearded Reedling was especially welcome.


Bearded Reedling   Panurus biarmicus

but the loud but elusive Great Reed Warbler equally so.


Great Reed Warbler    Acrocephalus arundinaceus

We spent quite some time wandering along the raised tracks alongside the reed beds.

Pikla

Our camouflage not quite working all the time!

Pikla

It was certainly a stunning scene. Sure enough there was no-one staying at Pikla and at this hour of the day we had the place to ourselves.

Pikla

except for the birds of course.

A distant booming Bittern broke the silence now and again as did the odd Common Tern flying past.

Common Tern  Sterna hirundo

The warblers were all noisy of course but their sounds are delightful when set in such a backdrop and it was fun trying to catch the showy Sedge Warbler in flight.

Sedge Warbler

The strangest sound though came from a less usual source. Mute Swan!

One had taken off, flying down the narrow channel between the reeds and needing all of 100m to gain height and clear the reeds it seemed. The noise from the wing beats at close quarters amazing. Some time later a pair made the return journey and as i stood there taking a flight shot I thought for one moment the bird was going to collide with me!

Mute Swan

It didn't appear to be getting any higher as it approached.

Mute Swan

It almost scalped me in fact!

Mute Swan

 then did a large circuit before coming back to give me another inspection.

Mute Swan

Time to move in case I was in the flight path again!

Mute Swan

I wouldn't normally spend much time on this species but I couldn't resist a sequence of one taking off from the mill pond that was the Baltic Sea.

Mute Swan

Time to move though. Breakfast ..the usual place. Was I loosing weight? No chance, a diet of beer, pastries, those continental sausages and filling station offerings was far from a healthy diet.

The first question I asked on arrival at Tuulinga, our new home for two nights , was "can we book an evening meal?"

The cook and co-proprietor  was away, her husband doesn't cook but her son volunteered to make us dinner. That was a result anyway. Everything about this place was really welcoming.

Untitled

There was one concern though, the property itself is surrounded by the Matsalu National Park and you are not allowed to walk in there. The only exception was to access the floating hide through a garden gate and then just to follow the edge of the water to where it was placed.

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Eager to see what the possibilities were we immediately went to check it out.

Untitled

There was only room for one person so that meant one day each... not good, worse still there wasn't a lot of bird life around either! Oh well, might be different in the morning.

We took an afternoon drive to explore locally, once again using the Gosney booklet, but the possibility of Barred Warbler proved another broken dream.

Still, the good news was when we got back there was a feast of a creamy chicken pasta dish with a delicious salad all washed down with ice cold beers.

That was so good and plenty of it too. Son told us his mother had taught him to cook and I declared the only disappointment was that we wouldn't get to try her food. Maybe another time!

T.B.C.

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xelas

Re-reading your excellent Estonia birding trip report again here ,as it is easier to my eyes and to enjoy the photos one more time. The prospect of self-driving birding tour looks very appealing to me. Yet I assume one should be a an experienced birder, or in a company of one. Anyway, another short-term destination on our to-go list. BTW in Hungary I have heard excellent words about birding in Belarus and Georgia. After checking your blog site this two could be your new destinations to explore. And how it comes you have not considered Slovenia?! We have bears and bear hides and birds ... and an evening meal is an integral part of our daily life :D. Even BBC Wildlife Magazin was here last week https://www.facebook.com/WildSlovenia/ .

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Dave Williams

Local knowledge is always a good thing Alex. You don't need to be an expert to know good places where you might find birds. Mike is a lot more experienced, a lot more knowledgeable than I am but between us we won't miss much as long as it's there to be seen or heard. 

Self driving would always come ahead of a large tour group in one vehicle for me. Too many people with different priorities and needs. We could see that with the groups we came across on our travels. I guess there is an advantage in terms of friendships for those who want to make them but these trips tend to be aimed at birders rather than photographers too, and the reasons being obvious!

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Dave Williams

Part 10   Nice Beaver!

 

As there was only room for one person in the floating hide I let Mike go first, I took the car back to the place we'd been for Barred Warbler but my journey was wasted. There were more mammals about than birds it seemed!

Hares abound everywhere!

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and there are nearly as many Deer too.

Untitled

Deer seem to stand for a while before they decide to run so photos are easier to come by than some things, that is of course if there is a decent amount of space between you.

Untitled

By now I'd started to loose the will to look for birds, it just wasn't happening for me but it was a joy to be out and about at first light.

Returning for breakfast it seemed Mike had seen next to nothing although he'd got some shots of an Artic Tern he was pleased with and better still he'd seen 3 Bewick Swans fly past too. Another potential lifer I'd missed! I still decided I wouldn't bother with the hide, it seemed a bit pointless sitting in it for hours for just those very brief sightings.

There were three other guests staying and they'd been out early too, in fact they'd woken me up when they left. There were two Swiss ladies and their guide who is also a pro photographer. They had been out the previous evening on a Beaver watching boat trip, the one we were also down to do that evening. We chatted and asked how it had gone , what gear to take etc. We told the guide about our lack of success and he said that we'd have been better with a pro guide. The  guy who owned the hides had also said that too, well they would do wouldn't they! "Of course one of the benefits of a local guide is they do know some good spots to take you" he told us  "like the park ponds in Haapsalu where the Slavonian Grebes are so used to people you can get really close to them". Any way the three of them went back to their bedrooms for another sleep they'd been up so early but from what we could gather they had had some great shots of Hares and nothing else!

Mike and I wandered down the road to check out the Manor House gardens. We spotted a Wryneck so that was one more for the list and stood under a tree where there was a nest hole. We were getting savaged by the biggest mosquitos I'd ever seen and in the end after standing there for ages a Common Starling emerged. To add to the mosquitos, a local dog came and snarled at Mike which was a bit worrying but luckily a local man walking past barked at it in Estonian and it backed off.

There was little point hanging around so we decided to head for Haapsalu and see if we could find the ponds. A bit of a tall order really but with our road atlas and google earth I'd spotted a couple of potential spots.None of them were correct. Time was running on and the one thing we did have to do was find the Beaver boat departure point. It was mid afternoon by now and it was at least an hour or so away so we decided we'd get there early. Really early!

As it happened we found the place relatively easily and were there two hours before we were due to sail. There were Grey partridge calling in a large field but better still a Corncrake too.

Corncrake, that would be a top find!

More disappointment. The spot the call was coming from was on our side of a bend in the river. We had the Corncrake trapped, it would have to show itself we thought. No way. Even when the sound came from what seemed like a few metres we still couldn't find it despite walking extremely slowly and examining every blade of the long now silent meadow grass. Even as we walked away the cheeky bird called as if it was mocking us. That killed an hour or so anyway and soon the boatman arrived making himself known to us. He couldn't speak English but luckily there was a family group having a picnic and we got one of them to act as an interpreter.

It was idyllic sailing through the channels in the reeds but there was no chance of getting any photographs even when we arrived at a spot where we met the open sea. Everything had flown at the noisy engine sounds heading their way.

However, we got the message from our captain that we'd now start searching for Beavers.

With Mike in the bow

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The Captain relaxed in his unlikely seat which has to be well screwed down doesn't it!

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We started the hunt. Seemed to take ages before Mike spotted one swimming across the channel. We stopped at the place it had been heading to and sure enough, my first Beaver.

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It stopped eating and about turned.

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before plopping in to the water.

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This was what they seem to do. Mike had missed a shot of the last one and only managed the head of the next because he had too long a lens. I'd been lucky but it was the only time the 100-400mm came in useful during the whole trip. Looking at my photograph I decided that the Beaver looked more like road kill it was so bedraggled! 

Mike spotted another ahead of us but by the time I got my lens on it it was too late and it was gone.

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Shame as that one seemed to have a well groomed and reasonably dry face. It didn't now though.

We carried on when suddenly we were surrounded by flying gulls hawking for insects. The mosquitos were pretty thick in the air and big enough for the gulls to bother with.

Amongst them a Black Tern.

Black Tern   Chlidonias niger

I still had my 100-400 attached and it wasn't enough reach but by the time I'd changed lenses the Tern had vanished. Mike had carried on furiously shooting at the Black-headed Gulls and when I queried why he said he thought they might be Little Gulls.

That was a "lifer' for me and I'd stood there ignoring them!

Soon we'd sailed on past and the chance was gone. We stopped at a viewing tower and it was indicated we could go up the tower to take a look. I was covered in mosquitos , Mike took one look at my face and announced he was not getting off, I decided likewise and indicated to the boatman to get going again. At least when we were moving the mosquitos left us alone for the main part.

Sailing back we came across the Little gulls so we had another chance but by now the light was fading fast.

Little Gull    Hydrocoloeus minutus

With the sun almost set it was getting too dark to hope for much. but I had managed a couple that I could salvage.

Little Gull    Hydrocoloeus minutus

It was a pleasing end to our last full day but although we did see a few more Beavers they were way ahead of the boat and you could only see the top of their head as they swam. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we both regretted not asking the boatman to stop when we first saw the gulls.

Little Gull    Hydrocoloeus minutus

The trip over, and as we hadn't had anything to eat since our filling station sandwich for lunch it was a filling station meal again for dinner and by the time we got back to our resting place it was 23.30. Our host had waited up for us though and even served us a cold beer.

Now that's what you call service. This place actually wanted to please their guests and make their stay as memorable as possible.

 

TBC

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Dave Williams

Part 11 Time to go home.

 

The last morning, a long day ahead of us. 

Early start in the floating hide?

Forget it, I decided I was staying in bed and had a lie in until 7.00am!

Mike meantime had taken the opportunity for another chance to sit in the floating hide. He'd fared no better really but had been impressed by a distant Moose (Elk) wading across the shallow waters of the bay way out ahead of him. He'd had much better views than the two I'd seen which had been tiny dots in the distance, even through a telescope lens kindly offered to me by someone at the Tuulingu Tower.

He'd also seen a Temmink's Stint briefly but said the views were very obscured by reed stubble and when he'd got fed up he'd wandered off to see if he could find the Thrush Nightingale we'd heard calling in the Tuulingu garden. He'd managed some images but at least that was still there so a chance still for me.

On the grounds of this evidence I decided I'd made the right call as I'd had a decent sleep instead! 

I took my bags down to load the car before having breakfast and on the off chance there might just be something still about near the hide I headed to the gate leading to it.

I didn't even have to go through, there were three Temmink's Stints just beyond it! I grabbed a couple of shots before deciding I'd return to the car to get 5D4 for some extra pixel power. The other three guests were just returning from their trip and I was engaged in conversation for a few minutes so unfortunately by the time I'd got back the Stints had gone.

Still I'd had a decent photo opportunity and without putting any effort in to it , here was my 6th lifer of the trip.

Temminck's Stint   Calidris temminckii

It didn't end there either, Mike and I went back in search of the Thrush Nightingale and I got some shots of that too>

My 7th lifer of the trip!

Thrush Nightingale   Luscinia luscinia

We were ending in style.

Thrush Nightingale   Luscinia luscinia

Happy we'd got something worth keeping we returned for breakfast and later, a chat with the pro guide.

We asked him for a tip about somewhere to go on our way back to the airport and he was good enough to point out on our map exactly where to find the Slavonian Grebes.

Slavonian Grebe  Podiceps auritus

and didn't they show well too!

Slavonian Grebe  Podiceps auritus

What a shame our hide experiences couldn't have given us this.

Slavonian Grebe  Podiceps auritus

Definitely the best and most successful birding photo session of our trip!

With me navigating as usual I took Mike off course to visit one last Gosney site in his booklet. We found one solitary bird floating in the harbour but it was a first for the trip, another for the Big Year list, a Long-tailed Duck.

Long-tailed Duck   Clangula hyemalis

Why it was here alone was anyone's guess because about a mile off shore there were thousands of ducks and geese in huge rafts. Maybe this one was just anti-social.

Long-tailed Duck   Clangula hyemalis

Mike was starting to get anxious we'd be late back to the airport but I'd got the map and knew all was in hand.

Besides, had we gone the quickest way we'd have missed our last excellent sighting of the day and the trip for that matter.

We'd just passed a road sign, one of these triangular ones that warn about animals crossing ahead which never are, only this time it was!

Untitled

Great way to finish! Well might have been better if we didn't have to pay a speeding fine when we handed the car back but hey, it wasn't that expensive and we'd more than earned one during our trip. We'd been hurrying around on many occasions so we got off lightly.

Anyway, it was goodbye Tallin, hello Frankfurt. Goodbye Frankfurt hello Manchester before Mike safely delivered me back home at 2.00am.

Another tip over, not the most successful perhaps but there again not  all of life's rich tapestry is.

Hope you have enjoyed sharing our adventure.

cheers

Dave

 

but wait T.B.C.

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Dave Williams

Part 12   Postscript.

 

On returning home I decided I would get in touch with our tour company, Natourest, to give them some feedback on our experiences. It wasn't meant as a complaint but I felt they should know the shortcomings of our trip, the experiences with the places we couldn't get a decent meal, the poor service, the fact the hides even including their own bear hide had let us down to a certain extent.

We'd been under the impression we'd each get 5 bird hide and 2 bear hide experiences. The reality had been ruined shots by a carelessly left pole at the bear hide and the bird hides were unsuitable for both of us to use at once so we were down to three days, none of which were used as the birds weren't there anyway.We had after all stressed the importance of photographic opportunities before agreeing to book the trip.

I accepted that the weather had been seasonally hot which hadn't helped the wildlife cause but pointed out that the electronic tablet didn't work without a wifi signal and in any case much of the information needed wasn't on their maps anyway. Advice that filling stations provide a wifi opportunity and where to find a decent enough supermarket would be extremely useful in the circumstances we found ourselves in.

I received an apologetic reply accepting some of the shortfalls but not understanding why the tablet wasn't working as it should, anyway they felt they wanted to offer us a refund on our bird hide costs and would provide us with an extended weekend's bear hide and hotel accommodation as well as a free hire car.

How generous is that !

We are happy to accept their offer

Ok we have to find the plane tickets but the refund on the hides is a help towards them.

I suggested that it wasn't worth returning for just a weekend and so we have agreed on a return in June with three consecutive nights in the bear hide followed by one in a hotel near the airport to catch our early flight home.

Yes, there will be only one opportunity for a proper cooked dinner on the last evening and no opportunities for breakfast at all but we are now better prepared knowing where we did get a better choice of picnic materials than others. We might even take some food from home, we have the luggage allowance to do so!

With the nights even longer we might get a better bear experience too, perhaps there might be cubs about in a months time , that would be special. 

Maybe Estonia will live up to expectations after all, I'll let you know how we get on after the event!

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Peter Connan

Very interesting read Dave, and you managed some excellent photos of the things you did see.

 

That mute swan series is really exceptional!

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TonyQ

A very enjoyable read with some excellent photos. You put your new camera to good use. I can see the trip must have been frustrating, and it is good that you are getting another crack at it! And you did "end in style".

It must have been nice to stay at a place ( at the end) where the owners seemed actually to want you to stay there. I hope you have a good second visit.

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xelas

It all depends on each person's expectations, but costs aside, I would rate your birding trip as a successful one! You have gathered many excellent photos, and a good number of birds for BY, and even 7 lifers (not that easy for a birder of your mileage).  You have mentioned a very early booking time. Is that obligatory for that part of Estonia?

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janzin

Well I have to say that this report does not serve well as a sales pitch for a birding trip to Estonia :) but I agree with @xelas that you did do well with many excellent photos and 7 lifers.  And the bear shots too. And Racoon-dog, which I never heard of, but I see its an introduced invasive. Still, a cool animal.

 

It is great that you were offered compensation for your troubles although I think you are a very good sport for bothering to return!

 

Anyway I learned many things from this report....including that there are Moose and Beaver in Europe! I had no idea, thought those were only North American mammals (I see now the European Beaver is a different species; the Moose, a sub-species.)

 

Will be interesting to see how you fare in June....

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