Thursday, 25 May 2017

Estonia Part I - SW Coast to Tartu 20th May to 24th May

Driving north out of Latvia on the E67 just as I thought my Latvian birding was over I noticed a large raptor hovering over the far carriageway that looked interesting. I managed to get off the road and was delighted to see that it was a Rough-legged Buzzard. I had had distant views of a bird at Kolka but it was great to see another. It was distant by the time I stopped and the light was against me but this is definitely a bird I would like to see more of as I head north.
Crossing in to Estonia was another none event with no border controls. During last years trip I was stopped at most Eastern European countries, but that may have been to do with the refugee problems. I drove a few miles up the coast and found a small camp site just south of Kabli, the immediate area had the usual birds Thrush Nightingale, Common Rosefinch, Icterine Warbler plus Chiffchaffs, Willow Warblers and the Whitethroat. It's still a thrill to hear those first three birds singing, any one of which would make for a great day out in the UK.
There was some rain overnight and it was cooler but it soon cleared as I headed for the Nigula Reserve area. On the way I came across a Black Woodpecker feeding in the tree tops. At the top edge of the Nigula Reserve driving on rough stoned tracks I made it in to the forested area and soon heard the repetitive song of the Red-breasted Flycatcher, soon followed by that of its cousin the Pied Flycatcher which is a familiar bird to me in the Derbyshire Dales. After a long walk I finally disturbed a Hazel Hen from the woodland edge but it was soon gone in to the impenetrable forest. A few metres further on another Pied Flycatcher caught my eye then something dark on the tree below, a woodpecker, Three-toed at last. Having missed them in Poland I was delighted and somewhat relieved to see this striking bird here. I managed a few photos but it was never really in the open and moved away from me in to the forest. I've taken the liberty of removing some of the branches which obscured the bird using Photoshop, I'm sure the woodpecker won't mind.
Three-toed Woodpecker - female

I moved on the main entrance to Nigula bog and immediately heard Wryneck calling, then the tapping of another woodpecker. It was beautiful habitat, wet deciduous woodland with lots of dead trees.
Nigula Bog

I stood for a while, expecting Great Spotted but no it was White-backed feeding near the base of a tree. It's so much easier trying to photograph them low down rather than in the tops of the trees like me first in Poland.
White-backed Woodpecker

There were lots of dragonflies emerging along the board-walk involving several species but haven't put a name to them yet.
Dragonfly awaiting id

At the tower hide an adult White-tailed Eagle was circling in the distance and it was a beautiful view across the bog which stretched for miles. I decided not to walk the full circuit of the bog and headed off to the Haardemeesste area (having had no vowels in Poland they certainly make use of them here!).
Two Corncrake calling close to the road sounded like they were only a few metres away but after sitting for 30 minutes I had seen no sign of them. They were calling next to a small occupied cottage and I could imagine that their incessant rasping call could get a bit irritating, but not for me and I'll be listening for more over the next weeks.
I searched a few locations where Citrine Wagtails occur but was unable to find one. This is a bird I want to see so it's a little frustrating that I've had no sign at three or four sites I've checked, perhaps they are not back yet?
Time to move on and I headed inland to the Tartu area. The roads here are excellent with few vehicles on them. The general speed limit is 90km/hr reducing to 70 in some areas and 50 in the villages and there are a lot of speed cameras. I'm happy to cruise along at around 80km/hr and the distances are not huge in Estonia so it's a pleasant drive. I stopped off first at Karevere, a well known lekking site for Great Snipe. The exact location of the lek depends on how wet the meadows are so I would have to return this evening to see if I could locate them. From Karevere it was a short drive to another well known birding site Ilmatsalu Fish Ponds. Thrush Nightingales, Common Rosefinch, Icterine Warbler and Wryneck, the usual suspects but still great to see or hear them. Plus, there is a colony of Little Gulls, at least a dozen Black Terns and three pairs of Red-necked Grebes. 
It had started to rain and was looking very grey as I drove back to Karevere and by 7pm was raining hard. I'd met a group of three English birdwatchers at Ilmatsalu and they turned up at Karevere about 9pm. I've seen very few bird watchers so far which is slightly surprising as I am visiting popular birding locations. I was busy sorting photos and wasn't paying too much attention to scanning for the Great Snipe given that it was still raining but a short while later one of them came back to say that they had found the lekking site and there were 5 or 6 birds displaying. The birds jump up and down in the grass in quite a comical fashion so are visible, at least when they jump from a distance. I had a quick go with the camera but the light by then was terrible but enjoyed watching the lek which was not a bad view through a telescope.
Just about proof that I saw the Great Snipe!

I stayed in the area overnight and checked the local wood first thing in the morning; 3 Red-breasted and 1 Pied Flycatcher singing but nothing else of note. Following the rain it was a misty start to the day but wasn't going far to a series of ponds at Aardla SE of Tartu. It was cool, only about 7 Centigrade when I was walking another area for Citrine Wagtail but this time successfully. A male was calling from a low bush, he did a short flight and chased another male. I saw at least three males and eventually came across a female which as luck would have it was building a nest close to the road. The light was still poor but I had finally found the Citrine Wagtails and was happy to sit and watch them from the warmth of the van.
Citrine Wagtail - male top female below
The usual suspects were in the area plus a nice male Marsh Harrier and a distant Lesser Spotted Eagle. There were supposed to be pools for waders but all these areas looked to have dried up some time ago and the only wader I saw was a fly over Curlew. 
I drove around the lake area and had nice views of a Red-necked Grebe,
Red-necked Grebe
whilst watching it I heard a repeated call that turned out to be a Hobby, two birds were chasing each other at high speed and appeared to be very agitated, I think it was anger rather than ardour which was the cause of the fracas.
Hobby - adult and 1st summer I think

Penduline Tits were quite common and could be heard calling from the reedbeds and neighbouring bushes.
Penduline Tit - male

I'd planned to try for the Great Snipe again and returned to Karevere but there were several cars of fishermen driving around so after a lucky view of one flying that was disturbed by a Marsh Harrier I decided to head back to the coast to explore the Haapsalu/ Matsalu area.
This is the route taken so far.
Route completed so far and approximate schedule for the rest of the journey

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Kolka and the Latvian Coast 15th - 21st May

Driving north across the border from Lithuania we decided to stop at Liepaja which has both coast, a lake and woodland. We picked the camp site Verbelnieki which proved to be a good choice and with its own restaurant. 
Local birds included Wryneck, Thrush Nightingale, Hawfinch, Red-backed Shrike and Woodlark and Common Rosefinch which appeared to be moving through the area. I also finally got some reasonable photos of Icterine Warbler which were reasonably common but still mainly singing from the tops of trees. 
Icterine Warbler

A pair of Crested Tits feeding young in the nest were the first we had noted on this trip and were easy to photograph as they were in and out the nest every few minutes. I also had a female Ring Ousel which is the only one seen so far.
Crested Tit

I wandered around the marshy areas which although showing as lake on the map were fairly dry reeddbeds and were a little disappointing.
From Liepaja we drove to Riga which took us through an undulating area with large numbers of small lakes. Stopping at one of these Durbe on the A9 we had two pairs of Red-necked Grebes, along with several Great Crested and 5 Whooper Swans. During the drive we had a couple more Montagu's Harriers and single Lesser Spotted Eagle.
Pam flew back to the UK from Riga on the 19th, I think the three hour flight cost 23€ which is amazing and would make a good start to a follow-up visit.
From Riga I drove up to Kolka which, due to it's geographical position, as the northern most point of a land mass pointing in to the Gulf of Riga is a bird migration hotspot. Lots of similar places are only hotspots in specific weather conditions and can be very quiet at other times but Kolka was hot. I birded the area around the Usi camp site which is at the northern edge of the village and proved to be in the ideal spot. Nothing special on the first afternoon but some reasonable groups of Grey-headed Wagtails in the fields and flying over.
Grey-headed Wagtail

There were rafts of Long-tailed Duck on the sea and although they were a long way out the evocative calls could be clearly heard from the land. I met Gaidis Grandans, which was very helpful as he is an expert on the area. He suggested I start the following morning on the tip of the Cape at first light, so that's what I did.
Sunrise at Cape Kolka

The sun rose over the Gulf of Riga silhouetting the gulls and other wildfowl on the water. The site is famous for the passage of wildfowl and divers but the main passage is in March and April but there were still a few divers passing and one Black-throated flew right overhead. 
Groups of swans came round the Cape and surprisingly there were more Mute than Whooper but both species looked spectacular in the early morning light.

Swans passing the Cape (Mute upper, Whooper lower)
A White-tailed Eagle circled over some gulls in the bay but never came close. All the while large numbers of Chaffinches and Siskin with smaller numbers Bullfinch, Greenfinch and Brambling were calling from the pine trees just inland from the Cape and would periodically explode in to the sky in groups of several hundred flying out to sea towards the Estonian coastline, sometimes turning round after flying hundred metres and dropping back in to the trees. Surprisingly large numbers of Yellow Wagtails, mainly Ashy-headed were behaving similarly with groups of 40-50 sometimes landing on the beach but more often than not dropping in to the trees. Quite a spectacle and one I would like to repeat at some point.
Heading back to the bushes north of the camp site I was amazed at the calls coming from them. There had been warblers in the bushes yesterday but not big numbers but now the noise was like standing at a Starling roost with all the calls merging to form a cacophony of sound. Only the strident notes of the Thrush Nightingale stood out against this background. It was so unusual that I made some recordings and when I've worked out how to, I'll place them here.
Blackcaps, Garden and Sedge Warblers and both Whitethroats were in the largest numbers with a supporting cast of Grasshopper Warblers, Redstarts, Golden Orioles, Thrush Nightingales and a single male Bluethroat. The song of Common Rosefinch kept starting and then disappearing as I can only assume they were flying north with groups of Chaffinch and Siskin that were also in the bushes. As the day wore on the sounds subsided as the birds dispersed. 
In the middle of the day I drove to Vidale and had a couple of Red-breasted Flycatcher singing in the pine woods and both male and female Montagu's Harrier and a superb Honey Buzzard. I saw several during the day but all bar this bird were distant.
Honey Buzzard

In the evening several Sparrowhawk passed over with Hobby and a Marsh Harrier.
Sparrowhawk - female

This morning I was back at the Cape but despite what appeared to be similar weather conditions the number of migrating finches and wagtails was much lower. Gaidis had seen three Broad-billed Sandpiper at Mersrags, a coastal village about 50km south so I decided to leave the area and stop there on my way to my nest stop in Estonia.
I was surprised to find two Latvian couples already at the tower hide on the northern edge of Mersrags when I arrived. It turned out that they were in an annual competition to see how many birds they could see from the tower in 5 hours with other groups at other towers around the country. They made it to 51 species which wasn't bad going.
I spent a bit of time with them but was keen to look for the Broad-billed Sandpipers. I soon found them feeding with about 150 Dunlin and 20 or so Ringed Plover. I quickly counted 8 birds and then another group of 5 arrived making it 13 in total although there could easily have been more nearby. There was a strong heat haze as it was about 23C but after an hour or so I managed to get in a reasonable position with the light behind me and spent another hour watching these delightful waders.

Broad-billed Sandpiper
Eventually I felt I had to move on and set off back through Riga and headed north again on the A1, near Adazi a Rough-legged Buzzard was hovering over the road but by the time I managed to pull over it had drifted away. Hopefully I'll encounter more as I travel further north.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Birding the Lithuanian Coast 13th - 15th May

We drove north out of Poland, stopping overnight on 13th May at a great camp site by a lake on the outskirts of Kaunas. Local birds included Icterine Warbler, Wryneck and Fieldfare all fairly standard now for parkland habitat. Not many birds on the lake but 2 pairs of Goldeneye were an indication that we were getting further north.
The following morning we drove to Vente which is a short spit of land projecting south in to the Curonian Lagoon towards the isolated Russian state of Kaliningrad and sheltered from the Baltic  by the Curonian Spit, a narrow strip of land which extends about 50km in Lithuania before entering Kaliningrad.
Vente has a bird observatory and the largest Heligoland trap I have ever seen. Approximately 100,000 birds are trapped here annually for migration studies and there are some historical records of ringing recoveries in a very smart museum which I have reproduced below.
Heligoland Trap - the supports look like stands for football stadium lights!

Letter from British Birds regarding a Starling shot in Cornwall in 1932 which had been rung at Vente!
The most striking feature of the area when we arrived was not the birds but the huge numbers of midge type flies which filled the air, fortunately they did not bite but at times it was impossible to breathe without inhaling several. Pam was not impressed, but we stuck with it and saw some interesting birds. 
Around the campsite we had Thrush Nightingales, Icterine and Barred Warbler and several Red-backed Shrike and at least half a dozen Cuckoo.
Barred Warbler - with bars, unlike the Autumn juvs I am familiar with in the UK

Cuckoo's could be heard calling all around Vente
We arrived in poor weather and there were hundreds of Ruff with smaller numbers of Wood Sandpiper and Greenshank moving north on the shoreline.
After birding locally first thing the following morning we drove a few kilometres up the coast to Kintai, where miraculously the flies disappeared, and explored a series of large lakes where we saw at least 13 White-tailed Eagles, 4 Wheatear were the first of the trip and a pair of Montagu's Harrier crossed the road over the car.
White-tailed Eagle immature taking flight
Montagu's Harrier - male
Fortunately the male circled giving me time to grab the camera and jump from the car.
A little further north at Dreverna we found habitat that looked ideal for Aquatic Warbler but all I could see were Sedge. A Honey Buzzard circled over a wood which is my first definite sighting of the Spring although a distance bird in Poland was probably a Honey.
It was raining and very windy the following morning and a short walk added Shelduck to our list and several Black Terns   crossing the spit. The area is a lot like Spurn and I'm sure in the right weather there could be hundreds of grounded migrants.
Before leaving Lithuania we called in at Palanga to have a look at the pier which is witness to a massive movement of ducks, geese and divers in March/April but apart from a handful of Common Scoter the sea was quiet. 
Common and Herring Gulls (argentatus here) were feeding along the pier which had fishermen every few feet catching what looked like some sort of Stone Fish.
Palanga Pier, with viewing seats and fishermen concentrated at the end

The object of the fishermen's attention - there must have been 50+ caught whilst I was there.
Leaving Palanga we continued north in to Latvia.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Biebrza Marshes, Poland 10th to 12th May

On our final morning I did another early check for Bison but again without success, I drove up to the rather remote forest glades of Kosy Most and saw two female Elk cross the road but they were gone in a few strides of their long legs. At Kosy Most I had at least three singing male Barred Warblers which are new for the trip and the first I have seen in their barred breeding plumage.
Barred Warbler

I also got some nice views of Wryneck which, although present around the campsite, I hadn't managed to photograph. Their insistent pee-pee-pee call is a feature of the parks and gardens in this area.
Singing Wryneck
Driving north from Bialowieza we headed for Siemienowka Reservoir. 
Siemienowka Reservoir - in the distance! With a foreboding sky
It looks to be a similar size to my local Carsington Water and like there many of the birds, which included White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns were very distant. As we started to explore the pools at the NE corner three White-tailed Eagles circled, sparring with each other. What an amazing site to see these huge eagles reasonably close.
White-tailed Eagles - immature with colour rings
There were Great Reed Warblers singing in the reeds and giving excellent views and we also recorded our first Red-backed Shrike of the trip, a lovely female.
Great Reed Warbler
Red-backed Shrike -female
No sight our sound of Citrine Wagtails which breed in this area but we left happy with the eagles.
We continued north to the campsite close to the Biebrza National Park offices at Osowiec. We were the only campers at the site which is right by the river and within easy walking distance of pools at Osowiec-Twierdza. I should comment at this point that Pam and I speak no Polish and can just about manage please and thank you but the pronunciation of most of the place names was well beyond us.
On the camp site we had Thrush Nightingales and a calling Lesser Spotted Woodpecker which was nice to see. I also found a Hawfinch next to where we were camped but the female was sitting and the male only seemed to make occasional visits so I missed this photo opportunity. Over the pools we had two Hobby hawking for dragonflies in the evening and there were dozens of Wood Sandpiper feeding on floating vegetation alongside the more familiar Common Sandpiper.
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
The following morning I walked round the Osowiec pools and added the first Bluethroat of the trip, a strikingly coloured male.
Osowiec marshes

The reeds also held singing Savi's Warbler and Penduline Tit whilst high overhead groups of White-winged Black and Whiskered Terns flew up river calling with several parties of Ruff.
Bluethroat - male
Later that morning we headed off for the Czar's Road which tracks the eastern edge of southern basin of Biebrza Marshes. We had only travelled a short distance when a bird of prey flew up from the roadside and landed in the trees close by us. Lesser Spotted Eagle, my closest views of this superb bird which stayed in the trees for 5 minutes thankfully allowing me time to get my camera and capture some images.
Lesser Spotted Eagle - adult I think
I got a little confused with the tracks and we ended up walking the 4km Honczarowska Dyke, which wasn't wasted as we saw what is perhaps the most famous bird of the marshes the sadly declining Aquatic Warbler. The views were distant but I was pleased to see it in one of its last areas with a decent population. There are signs all round the park detailing the work that is being done to conserve this species.
A little later we visited the Dluga Luka boardwalk which gives better access to the reedy grassland which the favour but all we could see were their close relative the Sedge Warbler. 
Dluga Luka boardwalk - it was all hands on deck looking for Aquatic Warbler
We returned early the following morning and saw another bird but in the rather windy conditions it was impossible to see singing birds. Whilst we waited a male Montagu's Harrier crossed the marsh.
Further south on the Czar's Road we stopped at the pools bordering the minor road to Zajki which had hundreds of White-winged Black Terns feeding over them. Periodically the whole flock would rise in the area calling loudly before returning to feed again.
White-winged Black Terns - arguing
We set off north again after a brief visit to the Wizna marshes, hoping for lekking Ruff but all the Ruff, which numbered many hundreds were feeding out on the flooded river. I did get nice photos of a male Yellow Wagtail which looked like Ashy-headed with a pale supercilium so not entirely sure what race it was but quite a striking bird. Driving up the western edge of the southern basin we stopped at Mscichy and saw more Sedge Warblers and several Black-tailed Godwits.
Yellow Wagtail 
We left Mscichy on Friday afternoon and continued north in to Lithuania which is a new country for both of us.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Bialowieza, Poland 6th -10th May

We arrived at the U Michala campsite on the outskirts of Bialowieza late afternoon on Saturday, the temperature was a very pleasant 26°C and we enjoyed our evening meal in the open air to the sound of Wrynecks calling.
Dinner at U Michala Campsite

That night it started raining and, on and off, it continued most of the following day. The mid day temperature fell to around 11°C but although in remained overcast the next couple of days were mainly dry. Today Tuesday 9th May it has turned cold with an early morning temperature of 3°C and a bitter wind with frequent snow showers but with blue skies between. It appears that the weather in Poland is as variable as the UK!
Bialowieza is famous, amongst other things for the number of species of woodpecker in its woodlands and on our first day I managed White-backed in addition to the much commoner Great Spotted Woodpecker. 
White-backed Woodpecker
Over the next couple of days I added several Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers but despite extensive searches couldn't find Three-toed. Hopefully I'll find this northern species elsewhere on the trip.
Middle Spotted Woodpecker

The Palace Park in the centre of the village is one of the premier birding spots. This building in the park is one of the oldest buildings in the area, constructed in 1845. 
The old lodge, Palace Park
During my first visit to the park I had found a very obliging Collared Flycatcher at a nest site. I thought the female might already be incubating but the following day I saw both birds carrying nesting material in to the hole. 
Collared Flycatcher - male

Collared Flycatcher - female
Another Flycatcher which breeds no further West in Europe than Poland is the Red-breasted Flycatcher and I managed a single male singing from high in the tree canopy.
Red-breasted Flycatcher - male

A single Common Rosefinch was giving its simple whistle from on of the islands on the lake but this is the only bird I encountered during our stay so I must be slightly ahead of their arrival date. Another bird which attracts birders to Eastern Poland is the Thrush Nightingale which replaces the Nightingale of Central and Southern Europe here. I only came across half a dozen different birds so the main contingent must also still be on their way. Like the Nightingale the Thrush Nightingale is not easy to photograph singing its powerful song from deep within a bush but after several attempts I finally found a more cooperative bird. 

Thrush Nightingale
Birds of prey have been few and far between but on our first day a Lesser Spotted Eagle flew overhead carrying an item of prey, presumably to a nearby nest although we never saw the bird again.
Lesser Spotted Eagle -showing the upper wing

Visiting Eastern and Northern Europe one of the birds I was hoping to see was the Long-tailed Tit, here the species has an all white head making it look quite different from the subspecies we see at home. I have only seen one once before, at Easington in 2005 so was pleased to find a couple of birds today that allowed me to capture some photos.
Northern Long-tailed Tit

Apart from a glimpse of Roe Deer in the forest the only mammal we have seen is the Red Squirrel, and this individual posed well whilst eating a Larch cone.
Red Squirrel

In spite of all the birds and other wildlife, the most famous wild inhabitant of the area around Bialowieza is the European Bison. Extinct in the wild in 1919 when the last wild animal was poached the animal was reintroduced in 1952 from zoo stock and the wild population now numbers over 1000 animals in eastern Poland and neighbouring Belarus. We saw captive animals when we visited the Bison enclosure whilst looking for Red-breasted Flycatcher but so far I haven't managed to see the wild animals but will have another look early tomorrow morning before we move north to Biebrza.
Captive European Bison