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Dave Williams

Birding in Estonia. May 2018

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Dave Williams

@Xelas.. Of course you are right about expectations Alex. The package we booked  didn't deliver on a few fronts as explained. Failure to provide an evening meal on three occasions in places that were supposed to. Having to take evening meals at a specific time to suit another group but which severely impacted on the evening light availability for photography.  Even failure on breakfast too .Struggling to buy anything suitable for a picnic meal for our two nights in the bear hide... we could have been pre warned and told where you can get a decent choice of food stuffs in a supermarket. An electronic tablet that didn't work although possibly my fault but there again not enough time was spent showing us how it worked either. 5 bird hide days and I didn't use any of them due to lack of birds...correction I spent an uncomfortable freezing cold one in the Grouse hide without adequate warning or provision of a sleeping bag or rugs. The bear hide where a pole had been left in a stupid place on the first night and the possibility that the Quad bike scared them off an earlier visit on the second.  I think they failed to deliver to be honest and I think they recognise that fact hence the offer which  yes is generous in some respects but we are paying to fly there to experience what we should have had first time around.

 

I think if I'd booked everything myself I would have had an equally successful trip to be honest, may be even more so and certainly less expensive in all probability.

 

The birding opportunities in Estonia are huge but as yet not really exploited. They don't have enough places to cope with the demand and the majority of the tourist season doesn't begin until Mid-May. To get the weeks you want, yes book early for things like the hides but as always what's right this year might be wrong next. Weather changes from year to year throw the cycle out. We were probably unlucky as the weather was too good!

 

I have just paid the deposit on next years trip and arrangements were agreed a good few weeks back. 

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Dave Williams
5 minutes ago, janzin said:

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....

 

@janzinEstonia is a beautiful country in as much as it has lots of forest and cultivated fields, not too many people. There is a huge amount of land given over to national park too although who knows if it will remain so in the course of time.( Etosha is a lot smaller than it used to be despite that there is a similar situation of low population there too).

Remember that it wasn't that long ago they were part of the Soviet Union and they haven't yet recovered from that and indeed are still living on edge that they might get invaded again.Tourism has been largely domestic until recently and they are still learning.Most western tourists seem to either arrive  by cruise ship or on coach tours that take in Latvia,Estonia and Russia's St Petersburg. There isn't that much for most tourists to be interested in I don't suppose. The scenery although green is as flat as a pancake. The coast line often inaccessible but where it is, very attractive but too cold for most to use for a beach holiday. Bit like the UK, we now head south for the sun and warmth guaranteed.

I doubt we'd have ever returned had we not had this offer but despite what happened I'm still excited at the prospect of going back.

I hope I can come back with a glowing report, but  I can only reflect what I find. I know a few people have read my reports in the past and taken the same trips as a result, even staying at the same places in some instances. I try to be fair in my judgements which are of course entirely subjective but I don't want to mislead anyone either.

 

PS Incidentally I miscounted, I had 8 lifers! 

 

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xelas

@Dave Williams, you will return to Estonia next year? For more of the same or different locations?

Doing such a trip as D-I-Y, without prebooking any hide or guide, how would you estimate our chances to get some decent bird photography? Comparing your 11 days with our 6 days in Hungary (which were also far from optimal), our tally was 34 birds for Big Year.

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Dave Williams

@xelas No I wouldn't go back next year I don't think, after another trip in June the bear hide will be done with for good I hope!

Would I recommend anyone else to go? Not so sure to be honest, the birds may well be different a week or two earlier.

The new species I saw were mostly ones I could find elsewhere, some even in the UK on rare occasions.

Bean Goose

White-backed Woodpecker

Temmink’s Stint

Citrine Wagtail

Common Crane

Savi’s Warbler

Little Gull

 

From where you are I'd try Bulgaria. There are places there you can arrange private hides too.

I had a successful photo tour to Hungary with Sakertours but they are a little expensive but they are the best outfit I have experienced. Very professional.

The trouble with pro hides are that you see the same photo over and over again just taken at different times by different customers. If you want to be original it's often best to find your own places.

 

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xelas

Thanks, @Dave Williams! Indeed both Bulgaria and Romania are on our list; they would both fit nicely into about 10 days that we have end of April/beginning of May. And if not Estonia, which will be your next year destination?

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Dave Williams
56 minutes ago, xelas said:

Thanks, @Dave Williams! Indeed both Bulgaria and Romania are on our list; they would both fit nicely into about 10 days that we have end of April/beginning of May. And if not Estonia, which will be your next year destination?

 

Spain in January, after that who knows!

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xelas

Spain in January! I hope not Madrid. 

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Dave Williams

Well, I did say I'd let you know how we got on so here's the next instalment!

 

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Dave Williams

Seems like only a short time ago pal Mike and I  were on our first visit to Estonia and here we were on our way back just over a month later, this time as guests of our tour operator, Natourest.

Fly out at the crack of dawn on Monday, return at the crack of dawn Friday, 3 nights in a bear hide, one in a hotel. Just the job and not asking too much of our wives  as we'd been away on the Isle of May for a week in the interim.

Met at the airport by our host, off we went with his car having exchanged a few words about our previous trip. We weren't the only ones who hadn't been totally happy with what had gone on it seemed and as a result they have decided to scrap the self guided bird hide photography trips. Probably a wise decision if it resulted in a repeat of our experience and better they concentrate on guided birding groups were they don't have problems.

Anyway, we felt vindicated in as much as it wasn't just us that felt unhappy but that was in the past. Today was a new start. 

It was agreed we didn't need anyone to show us the way through the woods to the bear hide, well not to the "old" one, they have two sites now. The hide was unlocked, we just had to grab some drinking water on the way. No problem with food this time, we'd brought our own to cover the first night.

We'd been given a map and I'd brought my SatNav as well. No offer of a tablet this time, maybe they have decided they don't work as they should either but we didn't need one anyway.

Having landed in Tallin at around 1.20pm we were sat in the hide by 5.30 and amazingly by 5.45 I think, we had our first visit, a Racoon Dog which was quickly joined by several more. 


Racoon Dog

Here we were again, familiar territory and one we'd already spent two nights in on our last visit.

How would things compare?

Well, the most obvious thing was that the grass had grown considerably longer, views were likely to be more obscured.

Fox

In fact sometimes you couldn't even see the subject!

Fox

but the sense of excitement when the first bear makes an appearance hasn't diminished!

Brown Bear

as it entered the clearing in front of the hide it's true size becomes more apparent.

Brown Bear

They are big!

Brown Bear

and so impressive.This shot was taken when it paid a visit  about 10 metres in front of the hide.

Brown Bear

We had lots of activity for the first couple of hours but as the light faded we decided to call it a day, we'd been up since 2.00am, so we climbed in to our bunks and had an early night blissfully unaware of whatever activity was happening just outside our safety zone!

 

 

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Dave Williams

We didn't have a lot of time on this return visit and that was  made less by the fact that if we were spending the first three nights in a bear hide. We had to be in there by 17.30pm and couldn't really leave until 7.30am, just to make sure the bears had left the area ! By the time we'd walked to the car, driven to the nearest petrol filling station for coffee, pastries and general ablutions it was probably getting on for 10.00am. What would we do with our time? Where would we go?

Well, I'd read a trip report that suggested the Palmse Hotel had some decent grounds and would be worth a visit so that's were we headed. About an hour's drive away.

Large grounds complete with ornamental lakes and one or two decent birds too.

Yellowhammer

Yellowhammer

and Icterine Warbler

Icterine warbler

Our attention was grabbed by a female Goldeneye along with three ducklings.

Goldeneye  Bucephala clangula

but no sign of the male. Neither was there any sign of our hoped for target species...Rosefinch. No new birds for the year then but we did have a splendid late lunch and a beer before heading back for our first visit to the "new" bear hide.

We wasted about an hour searching for the supermarket we'd used last time but eventually found a much, much better one and so , stocked up with provisions for the night's meal we set off to find the hide and meet our guide who'd show us the way.

The hide was set deep in the forest this time and we got a lift for half the distance in his 4x4 pick up, our Opel astra wasn't up for the forest track. Even then we still had a fair walk but having learnt from past experience we were now travelling much lighter. No need for extra clothes, I left my laptop in the car but not knowing the layout I took my 100-400 as we'll as my 500mm f4 lenses along with two bodies, my Canon 1DX2 and 5D4. So much of the gear I'd brought to Estonia on the first trip had been left at home!

The new hide was impressive, in fact there are two of them as there are in the other site and like the previous night we had the site to ourselves again.

We were soon setting up to get ready for the evenings shoot and taking stock of our new surrounds.

Bear hide,Estonia

This new hide is pretty spacious and can accommodate 10 people comfortably, the area split in to three more private sleeping areas curtained off from the main viewing area, well the viewing area from one side anyway. The advantage of this hide is you can look out on both sides.

To the one side a forest clearing.

Bear hide,Estonia

to the other a view over what I presume is an an Ox-bow lake formed by a slow moving river.

Bear hide,Estonia

Our guide put down some food in the baited areas and left. We'd have to walk the full distance back to the cars in the morning!

Within minutes we had a Racoon Dog at the furthers point in the clearing helping itself to a free meal but the baited spot was so far away we didn't bother taking any shots. Within what seemed like only minutes the first Bear made a rather nervous appearance on the fringe of the woods, after some deliberation he(?) came out to feed.

Brown Bear

The view from my spot was partially obscured particularly if the bear moved position.

Brown Bear

The image is "cropable" but even with a clear view those logs are not desirable in your shot.

The bear later came back and headed to another baited area out in the open, again some distance away and you need a good telephoto lens to get the shots.

Brown Bear

A closer crop reveals the number of mosquitos around at this time of year too!

Brown Bear

One thing we had taken was a can of fly spray so we could fumigate the hides in case any got in!

There were nearer baited areas but the bears kept away until it was almost dark and by then the Racoon Dogs appeared to have eaten the lot.

Out on the other side though it was definitely lighter without the surrounding forest but again, after checking out one side the young three year old bear arrived too late to find food on that side too. The Racoon Dogs had got there several hours ago.

3 year old Brown Bear

So the bear went hungry and we went to bed!

3 year old Brown Bear

We we're beyond the point of needing to see anything if it was dark but we had been told that Elk visit on occasion at around 4.00am. By then it was light again and despite checking several times over the dawn we didn't get lucky on that score.

Our overall view was that the "Old hide" was a much better venue from a photography point of view but we were later told that although other photographers agree with us, 'wildlife watchers" prefer the new hide.

Anyway, we have sent in some suggestions, also mentioning that the bird life could be attracted and made a photo opportunity if they create some natural looking shots. The following morning I took a grab shot of a Willow Tit on a feeder, purely for my Big Photo Year count as I wouldn't normally bother with birds on a feeder.

TBC

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xelas
41 minutes ago, Dave Williams said:

in case any got in!

 

Are there glasses on the windows of the hide? 

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Dave Williams

There are plastic glass panels above the open camera portals Alex. That way you can see what's going on without having to use a camera.

Once you have opened the flap to the portal you push your lens through a cloth screen.

Edited by Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

It was a long walk to start the day but eventually we got to our car and headed off to our breakfast spot, the same filling station as the previous day. Coffee, pastries, and free internet to catch up on the World Cup soccer scores.

Today we'd head directly north, check out a couple of spots near the coast. We were still looking for that Rosefinch!

Alas, today wasn't to be the day and we had to settle for some other sights instead.

A pair of Red-backed Shrikes appeared to have a nest nearby and were busy collecting food.

Red-backed Shrike

but that was about all we could find although Mike was delighted he'd seen a brief glimpse of his first ever Barred Warbler. I was elsewhere at the time!

We decided to head south to an area of wetland nearer to the Russian border. Sadly we never found the wetland, a huge area of what was once probably peat bog has been stripped bare which huge hills of peat being ready to be taken away and what remains a totally sterile environment. Very sad indeed so think twice before buying these products for your garden.

The surrounding forest brought better luck though. I had a brief view of a Hazel Grouse we flushed as we drove past but it was the movement of several small birds that caused us to stop. A mixed feeding flock of Great Tits and better still, Crested Tits.

Crested Tit   Lophophanes cristatus

I'd never seen one before so I was delighted!

This seemed to be the end of our lucky streak there and we decided we'd head back to bear hide to get there nice and early, around 4.00pm. So far the action had been early evening so the sooner everything was settled maybe the sooner the animals would come out to play?

We also needed to get some supplies for the evening meal too so it ended up another stop at a previously visited supermarket. One we had previously dubbed the worst in Estonia and it was now upgraded to possibly the worst in Europe! The choice of food was truly awful but they did at least have the one product we really wanted but more of that later!

We drove on, continuing along a minor road before leaving on a gravel track which was a short cut to where we wanted to be.

Along the way we heard a Corncrake calling from what we thought was the edge of the road. We stopped and reversed back a short distance. It was loud and clear, perhaps in the grassy ditch along the roadside that separated us from an orchard which the owner was mowing with his tractor.

It was then we realised the sound was actually coming from a very small square of long grass, maybe a metre square at most. The Corncrake had taken refuge in here as it was the last remains of long grass as the grass cutter couldn't take this part as there was a telegraph pole in the middle of it.

Mike suggested I go and take a closer look, I knew his tactic was to get the flight shot when I flushed it! I suggested he went and fair do's he did!

I have no excuses for what happened next!

I should have nailed the shot but I didn't. Far from it in fact. 

Corncrake disaster!

Too many mistakes. As he approached the patch i realised I had my 1.4 TC connected to my 500mm f4 lens. Quick take it off! I managed that before the bird flew but I was using far too slow a shutter speed, I was using all the focus points and I had the image stabilisation set on the wrong settings.

I should have told Mike to wait but for some reason I didn't. Perhaps it was because the tractor was heading back towards him and it was private land he was standing in! Whatever, I made a total cock up of the situation , and that is something that will irritate for some time to come. Will probably irritate Mike too as he had no chance of getting a shot from his position and he probably regrets the fact that it was me who got the chance that he would have taken better!

Ah well, at least we saw this elusive bird. Many people have heard one but never seen one. 

Driving on we also spotted a pair of Common Cranes. We'd been hoping for better views than we'd had last time in Estonia but this was as good as it was to get.

Common Crane

The heat haze, the vegetation and the fact that they immediately turn their backs and walk away from you all contributed to another unsatisfactory outcome!

Common Crane

Onwards to the bear hide and despite having taken the identical route before, I managed to direct Mike down the wrong track! Still we got to the hide by around 16.15pm.

We were getting ourselves ready when another car turned up. One lady driver, a young student from Belarus who said she spoke little English but we later found out her English was a lot better than our non existent Russian. Someone had gifted her the hide experience so she was there to meet the guide at 5.00pm. We could have offered to walk her to the hide but thought better to let her meet the guide in case he thought she hadn't turned up( although of course a car would be there) We set off alone and wondered what the poor girl was thinking. Would she be sharing a hide with two strange men?

 

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Dave Williams

So there we were once again and for the last time, back in the "old" bear hide. Our fourth overnight of the year in here and it was beginning to feel like home!

As we'd walked to the hide, the man who looks after everything had passed us on his Quad Bike, a couple of buckets of food on the back but no young lady. We assumed he'd go back for her but it wasn't to be. She had been left to walk on her own which made me feel a bit guilty as she could have come with us. Shown in to her hide which she had all to herself I nipped across and offered the use of our fly spray to kill off any mosquitos that might have entered the hide and to tell her we'd give her a knock when we were about to leave in the morning so she could walk back with us.

Before settling down in the hide we had a few little cosmetic jobs to do, whilst I tried to remove certain bits of grass and other undergrowth to give  a clearer view Mike set about baiting a tree trunk.

Our objective to see if we could get the bear to stand upright! We'd seen it do just that in the middle of the clearing on a previous visit but the light had been far too dark to get a photograph. Maybe, with a little encouragement we could replicate the shot to a certain extent?

We'd agreed which tree to use, one we would both have a clear view of  but Mike went to the wrong one. Too late, what was left I smeared on another tree which I could see.

Then we settled down for the evening.

Once again the action started early!

As before the Racoon Dogs were first.

Racoon Dog

Some seem to tolerate each other, others don't!

Racoon Dog

They are always aware of what's going on around them, sniffing the air and often staring in a given direction giving us a clue that something was about to happen.

The bear was on it's way!

Brown Bear  Estonia

No matter how often you see one it's still one impressive beast!

Brown Bear  Estonia

Tonight we had two bears.

Brown Bear  Estonia

This one loosing it's winter coat.

Brown Bear  Estonia

Again we had some great views.

Brown Bear  Estonia

The bears hung around for a while but after about 45 minutes they were both gone for good, or so we thought anyway. They often take a piece of food and wander off to eat it out of sight in the woods before returning for more, why this need for security I don't know but they must feel vulnerable in an open glade even though they wander around there for some time.

Once they have gone the Racoon Dogs were soon back and this time the Fox too.

The bait used to attract the bears is what appears to be soaked bread crusts and fish heads.

The bread is out in the open and is attractive to birds as well as all the other visitors, however the Racoon Dogs, Fox and Bears all prefer the fish heads and in an attempt to prevent all but the latter access to them various ways have been developed to try and prevent them.

Holes in the ground with logs over or wooden boards, anything really. The Racoon Dogs have the patience to dig under them though and can spend ages attempting entry. When you get a bit closer to the spots, particularly when the grass is shorter you realise the ground is full of craters a bit like a World War 1 battle ground in miniature.

One Racoon Dog had made several visits to the same spot and eventually got the prize he was after, a plump meaty Salmon head.

But someone had seen the opportunity too!

Fox

Enter stage left Mr Fox!

He must be aware of a presence in the hide but he wasn't detered in the slightest. 

Fox

He was eyeing up the recently excavated fish head and he made his ambush quick and effective. Soon he was running off with his stolen prize.

We had some great views of all three mammal species, probably the best of any of our five nights. 

Racoon Dog

The early visits in good light were a bonus.

Brown Bear  Estonia

but because we were in a clearing in the woods the light still fades reasonably early. Between 20.00 and 21.00 pm the action had virtually dried up so Mike decided to have a lie down. I said I'd try and keep going a while longer and lucky I did. 

Just as it was getting dark one of the bears returned!

I woke Mike to come and see.

Having investigated one of the baited areas the bears had opened earlier the bear realised the Racoon Dogs had taken the rest of the food.

The bear wandered across the clearing  and started sniffing.

Bingo, he'd discovered our bait.

He was soon up on his hind legs helping himself but to my total distress he wasn't in camera shot from my position in the hide. Even if I tipped the camera over as far as it would go through the viewing portal the view was blocked by a tree!

Aghhh!

This was unbelievably frustrating. Lean over a foot or two and the view was perfect, as it was from Mike's position. He was rattling off the shots and I was sat cursing out loud!

Mike realised my dilemma and offered to swop positions which was very decent of him but we should have simply taken our camera bodies off the lens and swopped over that way but it was too late. Mike had pulled his lens ( identical to mine) out of the portal to allow me to stick mine through instead. This involved trying to push it through the cloth screen bag too and took precious moments. By the time I managed I tried to focus the camera and it wouldn't. I think the focus ring was caught in the bag. By the time I'd re adjusted it I was almost too late.

But not quite!

Brown bear

I got two shots one of which wasn't very sharp but who needs two anyway.

I was delighted to have got one at all!

The bear seemed to have finished with that tree and was now attracted by a second one I had baited.

Brown Bear

but then he must have noticed some activity, probably in our hide.

Brown Bear

He suddenly turned and ran and that was the last we saw of him!

The next morning we were awake very early as usual but couldn't really leave until the agreed time of 8.00am. After an hour and a half Mike suggested he knock on the other hide and see if the young lady was awake yet, it was after all 7.30am.

Was she ready? You bet!

Poor thing had had a sleepless night worried we would go without her. I think the size of the bears had taken her by surprise too, especially the one that had been stood up! She'd hardly slept all night!

We walked back to our cars together which was when we discovered her English was very good indeed. We asked if she'd seen everything, which indeed she had, and if she had some decent pictures.

She said that her camera gear wasn't up to it. 

I have to say Mike and I are lucky to have top of the range gear that actually can make a dark scene quite light. Those last shots of mine were taken at ISO 25,600 which for those who don't know too much about photography is way beyond the limits of most cameras. Back in the days of film you had a choice of ISO 100, 200 or 400. Things have moved since then!

Anyway, amused by the size of our lenses, she asked to take a few shots of them so we took some of her holding one using her phone and promised we'd send her some bear photos too.

We bade our farewells, she was heading back to Tallin and college, we were off to the filling station for breakfast! 

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Peter Connan

That fox is skinnier than an Ethiopian racing snake @Dave Williams!

 

Your photography and post-processing is excellent at these kinds of ISO!

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Dave Williams
16 hours ago, Peter Connan said:

That fox is skinnier than an Ethiopian racing snake @Dave Williams!

 

Your photography and post-processing is excellent at these kinds of ISO!

 

Thanks Peter but In actual fact there is very little done to these shots Peter which is testament to the quality of the IDX2 and little to do with me! I think the key is to over expose the image slightly and crop as little as possible so as not to reveal noise or lack of definition... easy in this instance as the subject filled the frame.

Yes, we commented on how lean and lanky the Fox was too!

28327837677_673c05087a_b.jpgFox by Dave Williams, on Flickr

Edited by Dave Williams

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Dave Williams

We had one last day in Estonia and we wondered what best to do with it.

We'd return to Palmse and have another try for Rosefinch, might also pop back to the nearby Sagadi Hotel, the one we'd started out at on our first trip. I was interested in trying for Tree Sparrows there.

The main attraction at Palmse were the  Martins,Swifts and Swallows picking insects off the surface of the lake.

It turned out to be a pretty thankless task and a waste of camera shutter life!


Sand Martin


A full frame camera and a short lens didn't give enough reach, using my 500mm became hard going as I was suffering a bad back and couldn't hold it for long.

This was about as good as it got.

Sand Martin    Riparia riparia


After a wander around the wood which again drew a blank, I suggested to Mike enough was enough and he agreed.

A quick check of Sagadi proved yet another blank on the Tree Sparrows so we decided we'd head to Tallin and check in at the hotel.

After three days living rough in hides it was an absolute pleasure to have a proper shower and we certainly made the most of it before setting out to explore the "Old Town" in Tallin.

Tallin is an excellent cruise stop as the ships dock within easy distance of the old town and the locals are making the most of it.

Everywhere is very busy with tourists from all over the world.

Tallin, Estonia

Lots of stalls selling things, open air bars to sit and watch the world go by and indeed open air eating places too.

Tallin, Estonia

What a contrast to our earlier experience in May when all of Estonia seemed closed with not a cafe or restaurant to be found in the places we visited. This of course is the capital city though so I'm sure they are open for business all the year round.

Prices are not particularly cheap though, a 500ml beer was 6 euros in every bar we tried, but the food was more reasonably priced in comparison to the UK at least and in fairness excellent. Having dined out on picnics every evening both Mike and I decided to go a bit mad and ordered the "Golden Pig".

Before

This was a huge piece of roast pork cooked to perfection and served with sauerkraut and roasted potatoes.

After!

I scoffed the lot and washed it down with a dark beer which was equally delicious.

With a 6.00am flight home and the need to be in the airport at around 4.00am it was an early night though so with just one stop at a convenient watering hole on the way back our second trip to Estonia was now concluded.

We were able to write a further report on our observations about both bear hides with some suggestions thrown in.

Without a doubt Estonia is definitely worth a visit, I think a bird watching trip with Natourest would be an attractive proposition for anyone so inclined and I would strongly recommend asking for a night or two in the bear hides to be included. It was a real pleasure to watch these magnificent beasts at such close quarters.

If anyone needs any extra information don't hesitate to ask.

Dave July 2018

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Peter Connan

Looks like you had a much better trip this time around Dave!

 

Yes, cropping is a killer at high ISO's. But I am still impressed.

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TonyQ

Great to hear, and see that this trip went so much better than the first.

Thanks for posting.

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xelas

Last part of the this trip was probably the best, although Golden Pig does not qualify as wildlife photo :D! Ljubljana to Tallin are mere 2000 km, doable by car and even easier by plane. Just those 6 Eur/ 500 ml beer are way too many euros for a beer; what was the price for it in the market, @Dave Williams?

Edited by xelas

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Dave Williams

@xelas I think we were being charged 4 euros away from Tallin but I can't remember for sure Alex

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