Having experienced most regular (ie non-vagrant) birds in south-western Europe over the last five years my attention in 2017 has turned to new countries in which I might gain multiple life-list additions. One of these is Estonia, the most northerly and least populated of the Baltic states. Hence I joined a group tour by birdingbreaks.nl that was featured in Birdwatch magazine. The trip targets were mainly woodland species: Grouse, Owls and four new Woodpeckers out of a possible eight here; as well as Eagles and the globally threatened sea duck Steller’s Eider.
One landscape predominates in northern Estonia: flat, mostly yellow-toned fields mixed up with tracts of predominately pine, silver birch and spruce woodland. The pictures below give the general impression. It is endlessly samey, dour even but very wildlife rich.
We set off from Tallinn airport by minibus at around 2:30pm on 5th April, our destination being the Baltic island of Saaremaa. The first stop along the way was Kasari floodplain meadow, one of the largest extant open meadows in Europe. Flooding is caused here by snow melt in the catchment area and strong south-westerly winds that push sea water onto coastal lowlands. At the time of the spring flood thousands of migrating wildfowl stop over here, and as the waters subside the meadow attracts large numbers of waders.
Scanning the Barnacle and White-fronted Geese we found two Red-breasted Geese in amongst them. This was a good scene setter for northern birding I thought. A White-tailed Eagle made a long and languid fly past, then another one drifted through at greater distance. These huge raptors that have a front-heavy, large-billed, long, broad-winged profile with deeply fingered primaries, were seen on every day of the trip. From time to time along our route Common Crane would adorn roadside fields, almost always in pairs and sometimes dancing.
On the ferry crossing to (and from) Saaremaa what seemed a roll call of northern wildfowl would drift by on either bow, or fly busily from one spot to another. Long-tailed Duck were everywhere. There are thousands of them in the northern Baltic. Common Scoter were well represented, while the white eye and wing patches of a few Velvet Scoter could also be picked out in some of the rafts that rode the waves in the middle distance. Also seen in varying numbers were Scaup, Common Eider, Common Goldeneye and Red-breasted Merganser. It was impressive to see all these ducks in such numbers, quite a contrast to winter birding at home and a different bird-scape from other parts of Europe certainly.
Before reaching Saaremaa the road crosses a smaller island Muhu. Between the two is a narrow strait which is traversed by a causeway. Offshore here were very many Bewick’s Swan and also numbers of the larger Whooper Swan, as well as Mutes. In amongst these were more familiar wildfowl such as Tufted Duck, Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Northern Pintail and Mallard; and also Smew here and there. But the must-see attraction of this island is the wintering flocks of Steller’s Eider which grace it’s western seaboard that is ice free all year round. Those would have to wait for the morning.
Early on Thursday we headed for the coastal national park of Vilsandi that covers a total area of 237.6 km sq comprising many islets, peninsulas and relatively sheltered bays. It is the last-named that attract around 2000 Steller’s Eider from December to mid-April. They have to be picked out from amongst their Common cousins and the ubiquitous Long-tailed Duck here, as well as the assortment of wildfowl noted a day earlier. The tundra breeding Steller’s prefer shallow coastal waters in winter, especially with in-flowing fresh water, and they often come quite close inshore.
Our guide checked out a number of likely locations without success, before we arrived at a rather remote and deserted jetty location in Küdema Bay. This internationally Important Bird Area (IBA) in the island’s north-west corner is a major staging and wintering area for many water fowl. Here we scanned through the by now familiar assortment of offshore duck until from right at the end of the jetty a raft of about 80 or more Steller’s Eider were located (pictured below) bobbing in and out of view towards the far side of the bay.
These birds are about two-thirds the proportion of Common Eider, roughly the size of Common Goldeneye. Steller’s have a square head and spatulate, not wedge-shaped bill. The body appears elongated and the tail is cocked upwards like a Scoter when at rest. The stunning males are intricately patterned though at a distance stand out as almost white amongst the dark, chocolate-brown females.
We all observed them for some time before it was time to move on. I was one of the first to return to the minibus but was then called back. Our raft of duck had relocated closer inshore and so the diagnostics were plainer to see, especially with the pale-toned drakes. And so we watched a little longer before departing.
A full trip report on this visit to Estonia from 5-10th April will be published in due course, once I have obtained photographs of more trip targets from tour colleagues.