21 October, 2013

Trip report: Western Estonia 3.-6.10.2013

Executive summary:

Three and half days of hardcore birding in Estonia, i.e. birding from sunrise to sunset. Result: 140 000 birds, 137 species. I love birding in Estonia...

Day 1.

My annual fall trip to Western Estonia (mainly Läänemaa and Saaremaa counties) with Rainer Häggblom started on 3rd of October from Helsinki.

When you go birding to Estonia from Finland, the ferry trip from Helsinki to Tallinn can be turned to few hours pelagic trip. It's not comparable to pelagic in big oceans, but it's still possible to see for example alcids and skuas. This time we did not see any skuas, but 2 migrating Razorbills (Alca torda) and 1 unidentified Razorbill / Common Guillemot. Also Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima) in outermost islands of Finland, in Halliluoto, was a nice observation.

Cliffs at Pakri peninsula

In Estonia, our first target was Pakri MKA near Paldiski. Great cliffs and perfect sea watching place, but not much birds at this time, just some migrating Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis), Northern Pintails (Anas acuta), Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima) and Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus). Also a sedentary Northern Shrike (Lanius excubitor), the first but not the last during this trip.

From Pakri we continued towards Matsalu. In Riisipere fields we saw an Asio sp. i.e. either Long-eared or Short-eared Owl, first Asio for me in Estonia.

Eurasian Nuthatch

Next longer stop wast at Koluvere Loss, an old castle. The highlights of the place were two Eurasian Nuthatches (Sitta europaea) and two Marsh Tits (Parus palustris). Both are common in Estonia, but rare in Finland. Ok, Nuthatch is scarce, not rare. In addition to those, there was also a possible Yellow-browed Warbler (Phylloscopus inornatus), but it disappeared too fast... shame.

Barnacle Geese and Northern Lapwings in Matsalu
After Koluvere we continued to Kullamaa, Kirbla and Lihula and saw quite a nice collection of raptors there: Eurasian Sparrow Hawks (Accipiter nisus), Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo), 2 gorgeous male and 2 female Hen Harriers (Circus cyaneus), Eurasian Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus), several White-tailed Eagles (Haliaetus albicilla), Rough-legged Buzzard (Buteo lagopus) and the best species of the day - old female Montagu's Harrier (Circus pygargus), an exceptionally late observation. The geese were surprisingly low on numbers, only small flocks / few thousand birds. Jack Snipe (Lymnocryptes minimus) in Matsalu fields was a nice surprise too, first for me in Estonia.

From Matsalu we had to move soon to Virtsu harbor and the ferry to islands of Muhu and Saaremaa. Not much to tell about the ferry trip over Suur Väin strait, surprisingly few birds there, couple of migrating Red-throated Loons (Gavia stellata), sedentary Greater Scaups (Aythya marila) and Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula), that's all.

Small part of the birds in Väike Väin, in the evening of 3rd of October 2013

But.. if Suur Väin betrayed us, then another strait, Väike Väin, between islands of Muhu and Saaremaa, surprised us. The whole strait was full of birds! Mostly waterfowls, but also some waders, cranes and herons. Sun was already setting down and we quickly and carefully estimated that there was around 12 000 birds visible from our observation point. But the total number was much bigger, as we learned next day...

Day 2.

Hooting and screaming Tawny Owl (Strix aluco) woke up us few times during night in Rainer's farm in Lõmala. In the morning Winter Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) was singing and searching food from the yard and European Robin (Erithacus rubecula) was singing too, it felt almost like an early spring.

Phonescoped Peregrine
Quick breakfast, then off to the road again and to Sõrve peninsula, the most southern tip of Saaremaa. Morning migration was not very spectacular at this time, as the cold air outbreak few weeks earlier had already emptied taiga forests of Finland and Russia well. Still quite a lot of species, highlights were Twite (Carduelis flavirostris), Wood Lark (Lullula arborea) and juvenile Peregrine (Falco pergerinus) which showed us a wonderful hunting attempt, chasing waders, gulls, geese and cormorants.

In Sõrve we met also couple of other Finnish birders, Juha Sjöholm and Jände Nordblad. They had stayed in Sõrve Bird Observatory for some time already and made great observations. Take a look at Sõrve diary (in Finnish / Estonian only).

As the migration in Sõrve was so weak, we decided to leave soon and started to search for sedentary birds. We followed the coastal roads of peninsula to north, stopped here and there. At Rahuste laht bay we found 3 Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), relatively rare bird in Estonia, but not so special for us Finns... The Hawfinch (Coccothraustes coccothraustes) instead was nice as it's rare here in Valkeakoski, where I live. At Aristelaht bay we saw something that I never had seen before: a flock of 29 Common Snipes (Gallinago gallinago), feeding in open beach. Usually they are hiding in grassy wetlands, but in Aristelaht they were acting like some sandpipers. Very strange behavior from Common Snipes, IMO.

Soon after that a small, long tailed bird jumped to the air from the road side. We saw it from car only for a few seconds... What the heck was it? Some Pipit ?? Rainer stopped the car, I jumped out and stomped around the area - nothing. But when I got back to car, Rainer smiled and asked: "Do you know what it was?" I got no idea... "
The Grey Wagtail!" Rainer had saw the Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) well when I searched it from the wrong area. Cool, one more new species for me from Estonia!

Lahetaguse bird observation tower after we fixed it
From Aristelaht we moved to Lahetaguse, our plan was to fix the hand rail of the bird observation tower which had collapsed. The saw was no needed, but the hammer and nails were essential. About 15 minutes and the tower was fine again. From the tower we saw for example 5 White-tailed Eagles (Haliaetus albicilla), lot's of waterfowls, migrating Little Gulls (Hydrocoloeus minutus), etc. When leaving the place, we saw also a Middle Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos medius), first time in Saaremaa.

Part of large flock of Porchards in Väike Väin
Next a lunch at Kuressaare, pancakes, and then towards north, back to waterfowl paradise of VäikeVäin. Oh my... what a place again! 6800 Tufted Ducks (Aythya fuligula),  5400 Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula), 1800 Porchards (Aythya ferina), 150 Smews (Mergus albellus), 6000 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), 1750 Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus) etc. Totally about 25 000 waterfowls !!! In addition to those, just for example 90 migrating Rooks (Corvus frugilegus), sounds of Bearded Reedling (Panurus biarmicus) and Western Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus).

Day 3.

Nice start of the day at Lõmala: Second Peregrine (Falco peregrinus) of the trip, hunting on the shore. I love that bird... Our first target today was Undva Nina cape in western Saaremaa. Strong southerly wind, 15 m/s in gusts, made sea watching challenging. In spite of the wind, migration was pretty good: about 45 Razorbills (Alca torda) plus 5 unidentified Razorbills / Common Guillemots, 2 Black Guillemots (Cepphus grylle), ca 200 Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima), 1 juvenile unidentified Skua (Stercorarius sp.), Crossbills, Tits, Pipits etc.

Gulls, mainly Common (aka Mew) Gulls in Undva. 1 Mediterranean Gull somewhere in the middle.
Sedentary birds were also interesting. We knew that few days earlier Juha Sjöholm and Jände Nordblad had found two Mediterranean Gulls (Larus melanocephalus) from here. So we had to check each and every gull in sight... and there were about 1300 gulls, changing places all the time. Finally we found one 1st calendar year Mediterranean Gull, it was the first in Estonia for both of us!

After stopping the migration watching, we concentrated in sedentary waterfowls on the bay on south side of Undva Nina. At first we found just Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis), Velvet Scoters (Melanitta fusca), Eurasian Teals (Anas crecca) etc. common species, but finally Rainer saw in the mouth of the bay 8 Steller's Eiders (Polysticta stelleri) ! But what the heck, I could not see them with my Zeiss Diascope 65 T*FL 15-45X !!! I just saw that there was something... But Rainer's new Swarovski ATX 30-70x95 saved my day! I must get the same scope! Time to start saving money...
So, the morning was really good, but in the afternoon we made a wrong decision. Somehow we thought that that the wind was from SW (as promised in the weather forecast) and in that case the bays in NE side of Saaremaa would be full of birds. So we drove to Kahtla-Kübassaare LKA, and only there we noticed that the wind was directly from south and most of the birds had moved to some better wind-protected locations... Only one new species for the trip: Garganey (Anas querquedula) in Saareküla harbor.

But now it was time to catch the ferry back to mainland. Short stop in Väike Väin saved the evening, as we found a nice flock of 11 Great White Herons (Egretta alba).

Delicious bread of M/S Muhumaa

Hint: in the cafe of ferry (at least in M/S Muhumaa), get yourself a dark bread with herring, leek and egg. It's simply delicious!

Evening came fast, and it was already totally dark when we arrived to our hotel in Haapsalu. There we met a group of birders from UK, they had had a very nice day too.

Day 4.

Great Cormorants in front of the Baltic Hotel Promenaadi in Haapsalu
Big surprise right in the morning... Our hotel, the Baltic Hotel Promenaadi, is a perfect place for birders!!! The hotel is in the shore of Tagalaht bay, which was full of birds!!! Biggest flock of Gadwalls (Anas strepera) that I've ever seen, ca 4100 birds! Wow! And many others, like ca 2100 Eurasian Wigeons (Anas penelope), ca 750 Coots (Fulica atra), 300 Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) etc. During breakfast, take a window table and don't forget your bins to your hotel room ;) And when we left, Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) was singing somewhere nearby. Nice! This hotel will be our number one choice from now in Haapsalu.

Our first target today was Pöösaspea cape in Noarootsi (New Sweden) area. While driving to north from Haapsalu, we saw first a late Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) in Uuemõisa and bit later a huge flock, some 4000 Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) on the roadside. The flock took off and suddenly the sky was filled with geese and the noise was amazing, as you can see and hear from my YouTube video above.

Long-tailed Ducks on migration in Pöösaspea. I'd prefer to use former name Oldsquaw of these beautiful ducks.
In Pöösaspea the migration was modest, we spent there about an hour and half and saw for example ca 3000 Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis), 2000 Common Eiders (Somateria mollissima), ca 50 Black-throated Loons (Gavia arctica), 60 Red-throated Loons (Gavia stellata) plus 50 unidentified loons on migration. Lot's of sedentary birds as well, like 500 Goldeneyes (Bucephala clangula), 1000 Common Eiders etc. The cape was crowded with birders, in addition to us there were the same group of British birders that we met in hotel yesterday and one local Estonian birder, who was so busy in counting the migration that we did not dare to interrupt him. If any of you Estonian readers of my blog happen to know who this young guy was, I would be happy know. He probably lives in Spithami as he had arrived to Pöösaspea by bike.

Note! The number of juvenile Long-tailed Ducks was alarming, the ratio between old and juvenile birds was about 95:5 !!! What has happened in their breeding places in Siberia? Was the summer weather bad, or have the foxes spread from south to Arctic tundra?

From Pöösaspea we drove to Haversvi shore, which is located in between of Roosta puhkeküla and Kronnsaar. It's a great place to watch waders, even at this late of autumn. There were still a nice mixed flock of waders left: 33 Dunlins (Calidris alpina), 2 Curlew Sandpipers (Calidris ferruginea), 1 Red Knot (Calidris canutus), 2 Sanderlings (Calidris alba), 3 Common Ringed Plovers (Charadrius hiaticula), 3 European Golden Plovers (Pluvialis apricaria), 12 Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) and 1 Common Snipe (Gallinago gallinago). Especially the Sanderlings were really cool to see, I had not seen them for years. One of the Dunlins was still in full breeding plumage, which was a bit odd, IMO.

Common Ravens are really common in Estonia

Next a short visit to Leidissoo LKA, just to see how it was. Not much birds this time of year, just 6 Marsh Tits (Poecile palustris), Hazel Hen (Tetrastes bonasia), Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris) and Common Ravens (Corvus corax). Oh, and tens or hundreds of annoying Deer Flies. The British group had saw there a Ural Owl (Strix uralensis) though. Our best observation was a poop pile of Brown Bear (Ursus arctos). ;)

Time was running fast and we decided to get back to Haapsalu area to check the nearby bays. The first target was the western observation tower of Tahu Laht (in Google maps "Haapsalu bay"). We could not have chosen a better place... the bay was filled with birds! Ca 10 000 Eurasian Wigeons (Anas penelope), 7000 Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis), 1500 Great White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons), 100 Tundra Bean Geese (Anser fabalis rossicus), 4 Greylag Geese (Anser anser), 1200 Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus), 1200 Mute Swans (Cygnus olor), 100 Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus), 68 Great White Egrets (Egretta alba), 250 Northen Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus), 9 White-tailed Eagles (Haliaetus albicilla), migrating 1st year Pallid Harrier (Circus macrourus), first for us in Estonia, White-backed Woodpecker (Dendrocopos leucotos) and many, many more.

33 Great White Egrets over Saunja bay!

After Tahu, we had still some time left so we headed to Saunja laht eastern observation tower. Saunja laht is basically part of same large area with Tahu laht, they are just separated by large reed beds. Sun was already setting down and thousands of geese took off from Tahu laht and flew past us to fields. Also the Great White Egrets (Egretta alba) took off and flew around the area. The biggest undivided flock of  Egrets was 33 birds, the biggest I've ever seen! Totally, in Haapsalu area, we saw 82 Great White Egrets plus yesterday 11 in Väike Väin, i.e. totally 93 Great White Egrets!

From Saunja, back to Tallinn, Helsinki and home...

Finally, some sums: 137 species, 140 000 birds, 38 White-tailed Eagles, 11 Harriers - all 4 species, huge numbers of waterfowls. Getting back to almost empty inland of Finland after this was again a slight birding shock... ;)

17 October, 2013

Northern Hawk Owl influx in Finland

Counting backwards from today, 1376 Northern Hawk Owls have been seen in Finland during last 30 days. Here in Valkeakoski, where I live, at least 5 birds are present. So, if you haven't seen or photographed this species yet, now you have a chance!