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.

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