Thursday 20 July 2017

Two nights and a day in Estonia

I'd been to Estonia once before in the depths of winter for a very particular type of birding - woodpeckers at a feeding station, and the Baltic population of Steller's Eider. This trip would be very different, a quick visit in early July to the wetland meadows and forests of southern Estonia. Originally planned as a city break in Tallinn, at some point leading up to the trip I cancelled my hotel booking and reinvested the money in a rental car instead. I arrived in the country at midnight on Saturday, and had until 6am on Monday morning. What could I see and hear? As it happens, loads....

  • A one day solo trip in early July.
  • Spent almost the whole time in Soomaa National Park with a short detour to the coast at Matsalu.
  • Finnair flights from LHR via Helsinki on the brand new A350 (geek alert), though there are also direct options with other airlines. I spent Saturday afternoon in Helsinki and then took the short hop over to Tallinn. The return left Tallinn at 6am on Monday morning with an hour in Helsinki in which to have a shower and get some breakfast before carrying on to London for an arrival which saw me get to work only slightly late.
  • Car hire from Avis got me a brand new Mini Cooper for about £90, however the booking was very last minute.
  • You can guess where I slept...
Hotel in the landscape...

Day 0-1
I arrived in Tallinn at about midnight with only optics as luggage and picked up my car without fuss. Soomaa is about 1h45m south, and the main roads out of the town are straightforward - just head for Parnu in the first instance. An hour and a bit on main roads then saw me head east towards the National Park on much smaller country roads. Here I stopped the car many times just listening to the astonishing cacaphony - Corncrakes everywhere but also River and Grasshopper Warblers reeling away. Thrush Nightingale could be heard too, and also something I wasn't familiar with but that turned out to be Icterine Warbler - I didn't know they sang at night. I eventually arrived at Soomaa at around 3am due to having spent so much time birding by ear on the way, and I was absolutely shattered. I parked the car at the end of a track which had a bird tower and a toilet, and gratefully reclined the seat. River Warbler and Corncrake serenaded me as I drifted off, but I was far too tired to notice.

I woke up at around 5am feeling only a little better. It was pretty light of course, and I could now see that I was exactly where I had aimed at, a lovely landscape of wet meadows surround by forest. I unpacked the optics that hadn't been needed during the night and drove the short distance to the main visitor centre and started off on the well-known Beaver Trail, a part path part boardwalk loop that goes through deep forest before travelling alongside a stream favoured by beavers. I didn't see any of course, but there was plenty of evidence of them with felled logs all over the place. It's a great birding trail, and highlights included loads of Wood Warblers trilling away, as well as Spotted and hard to see Red-breasted Flycatchers. It was however also mosquito heaven and it turns out that without Mrs L by my side I am quite attractive... I also heard what I assume was a Grey-headed Woodpecker but I could not leave the path to look for it.


The trail took around an hour to pick my way around, after which I spent a little time watching the surrounding area from the car park. Plenty of Whinchat in the scrubby field, Fieldfare feeding on the short grass, and loads of House Martin and Swallow nesting in the centre's outbuildings. A single Hawfinch landed on the track next to me before heading back into the woods, and further away I could hear the flutey calls of Golden Oriole. Cuckoos were seeming everywhere. Heading back out I passed an open meadow with a pair of Crane feeding. As I slowed the car to a halt they started calling to each other, almost impossibly loud bugling, and incredible sound in the stillness of the early morning.

Common Crane

I returned to my bird tower and this time climbed up it. A song I could not place but that reminded me in places of Nuthatch and it took ages peering into the canopy before I finally got onto what was making it - Icterine Warbler! Some mournful calls that sounded like a giant Scops Owl prompted me scan out from the tower, and I was stunned to see an entirely dark and very large woodpecker bounding away into the forest from a dead tree. Black Woodpecker! The first I had seen for an absolute age, and throughout the morning it or another came back out several times. Green Sandpiper was on a stream, Yellowhammers sang everywhere as did Rosefinches, a Red-backed Shrike saw off a Great Grey Shrike in a very noisy encounter and at one point a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker actually landed on the tower. If this isn't fantastic birding then I don't know what is!

Black Woodpecker

Icterine Warbler


I returned to the Beaver walk and did another circuit in better light and warmer conditions. Nuthatch and Treecreeper were strongly in evidence, but Woodpeckers were not! As I dawdled near the stream hoping for a beaver a distant raptor on flat wings came in from one side. Honey Buzzard!! Brilliant views of this bird as it came in and then over my head, it is hard to see how they are so frequently strung in the UK. I completed the circuit and realised it was lunchtime and that I had no food or water due to poor planning. On a Sunday my options in the park were zero and so after discovering that the Ingatsi path out to the bog was closed and there was nothing else to do but seek out food I headed to Parnu, back along the same roads I had driven in the night. Endless fields, but fields surrounded by trees and water, and full of birds, including several hunting Montagu's Harrier in the space of just a few kilometers. Brilliant views of these birds, but no photo opportunity - something common to the whole trip actually, loads and loads of quality birds and massive diversity, but none of it very photogenic - the exact opposite of Iceland.

Honey Buzzard
Great Grey Shrike

Restored at Parnu by Hesburger, I headed for the coast. Part two of my plan had been to visit either Lahmeaa RP on the north coast or Matsalu RP on the east, not far from where we had taken the ferry through the ice from Virtsu. I chose the latter as it was no distance at all (albeit that no distances in Estonia are very large) and was soon at another bird tower (Keemu vaatetorn) overlooking a vast bay. Lots of different birds here, including Wheatear and Yellow Wagtails in the fields, and great numbers of Lapwings, Baltic Gulls and Common Terns. The reeds held Sedge and Reed Warblers, but try as I might I couldn't detect a Savi's on this occasion. My hoped-for White-tailed Eagle also never materialised although Marsh Harriers were around, and I spent a very pleasant afternoon chilling out on the coast doing general birding as well as having a nice long nap! Early evening I returned back to Soomaa for some more overnight birding.

I spent most time on this third stint at the original tower, as well as driving some more roads in the park. This time I managed to get very good views of a singing Blyth's Reed Warbler, but best of all was a world lifer in the form of a Hazel Grouse by the side of the road. I drifted to a halt and did a U-turn but when I reached the spot it had gone. Bummer as I would have liked prolonged views of this hard to find species. At the tower a Woodcock was roding, emitting funny little squeaks as it did its circuits, and as ever there were Corncrakes starting up in every corner of every meadow. I left at around 1am for the drive back to Tallinn, taking a slightly different route which I hoped might net more night singers, but I was actually too tired to do much birding. I stopped half-way for a power snooze until I was rudely awakened by bugling Cranes, and thus managed to make Tallinn airport for around 4.30am. My flight left at 6, and at Helsinki airport I grabbed a shower and breakfast before gratefully falling asleep on the flight to London.

It probably wasn't very good for me but again demonstrates how much it is possible to cram in when you don't have much time. That said next time I may go for longer as I quite fancy the old growth forests to the east. There be bears....


Trip List - 86 species
Mute Swan
Hazel Grouse
Grey Partridge
Little Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Grey Heron
White Stork
Honey Buzzard
Common Buzzard
Marsh Harrier
Montagu's Harrier
Water Rail
Common Crane
Green Sandpiper
Black-headed Gull
Baltic Gull
Herring Gull
Common Tern
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Black Woodpecker
Grey-headed Woodpecker
Sand Martin
House Martin
Yellow Wagtail
White Wagtail
Meadow Pipit
Red-backed Shrike
Great Grey Shrike
Thrush Nightingale
Song Thrush
River Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Reed Warbler
Blyth's Reed Warbler
Icterine Warbler
Willow Warbler
Wood Warbler
Red-breasted Flycatcher
Spotted Flycatcher
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Reed Bunting
Common Rosefinch
House Sparrow
Golden Oriole
Hooded Crow


  1. Made up for the lack of Rhubarb Crumble then Jono

    1. This trip actually predates the crumble by a week Steve. Would that it had been the other way around and I might be OK today.