We arrived at the ferry terminal of Virstu before first light, a flawless drive by Jos. The first sign that things were seriously wrong was when I walked from the car to the waiting room without putting on any gloves. Perhaps a thirty second walk, at most forty five. Sweet baby Moses - hands lost all feeling about halfway. So now I knew what -24c meant. Quite extraordinary. I put gloves on.
Once on the island of Saaremaa, it's roughly a two hour drive to the far end, the peninsular of Undva where our quarry, a wintering flock of Steller's Eider, hopefully awaited us. A dip after an eight hour drive would have been somewhat galling. As we approached it didn't look good. The bay was frozen as far as the eye could see - as Jos put it, we were in danger of dipping the sea, let alone any birds. We abandoned the car some two or three miles from the end due to heavy snow making the track impassable, and carried on on foot. True to form, I fell over multiple times, including a superbly flailing effort that saw me swirl about six feet to my left and land in a snowdrift. We ploughed on (literally) and gained the shore - more ice, though a few patches of open water. One Goosander, three Goldeneye, hardly a good reward. Carrying on up the beach, White-tailed Eagles flying before us, we espied a more distant patch of clear water towards the point. It seemed to contain Swans. Things began to look up, but it was another half hour of slipping and a sliding (skateaway that's all) before we rounded the tip and finally got confirmation that we were in with a chance.
The sea, although 200m distant due to ice, was alive with birds. Thousands of them. Goldeneye, Mallard and Mute Swan dominated, but small flocks of Goosander, Whooper Swan, Smew, Velvet Scoter, a handful of Common Eider, and some funny apricot-breasted ducks diving in unison. Magic. We had done it, and there they were. Not the hundreds I had anticipated, but probably thirty or so in a tight-knit flock. Eventually we were treated to a close fly-by by a few birds, great views. For a while I didn't feel the cold, even though the landscape could have been the Weddell Sea. We finally dragged ourselves away for the long trudge back to the car, and once back in it, immediately crashed it. Legal restrictions prevent me from saying exactly who was driving, but suffice it to say that we ended up pointing into the sky, perhaps at an angle of thirty degrees, with surprised looks on our faces. We quickly established that we were all fine, but that the car had some, er, cosmetic issues. Let me demonstrate with some before and after shots.
We limped back to the hotel, and made some apologetic calls to a man who had until recently owned a pristine rental car. To cut a long story short, they agreed to meet us the following morning back on the mainland with a replacement car, albeit a crappy little car. Happy days, kind of.