Thursday, 19 March 2015

A Long Weekend in Latvia and Estonia

Birdy bits are in blue. Smallholding bits are in purple. That way you can just read the bits you are interested in, or you can read the whole lot. Hopefully this post will gradually fill with photos, as I manage to persuade the photographers to forward them to me.

Steller's Eiders - a bit distant, but you get the idea.
A few years back, Sue and I spent a week birdwatching in Poland, which turned into two weeks due to a volcanic ash cloud. The main target birds were woodpeckers and owls. In the end we were successful with 9 species of woodpecker (we only have 3 in Britain and one of those is becoming very rare). However, it took us the full two weeks and an awful lot of trekking to catch up with the ninth, White-backed Woodpecker. As for the owls, we were treated to brilliant experiences with diminutive but very territorial pygmy owls but it took days of searching to finally catch up with it's larger cousin, the Ural Owl. As for Tengmalm's Owl, this highly nocturnal species proved most frustrating . We got as close as the tree that the bird was in, but just couldn't see the bird. I did see a shadow fly across a gap.
So when a friend asked if I wanted to go to Estonia and Latvia to see a similar range of birds, I was very keen. I just needed to negotiate being away for Sue's birthday! Sue is an angel about this sort of thing so I was quickly booked onto a flight.
As it turned out, the long weekend was not just a birding experience but a lesson in smallholding and self-sufficiency too. More on this later.
A very early morning flight to Riga on Thursday and by the afternoon we had driven North into Estonia, boarded a ferry and were on our way across the island of Saaremaa. The weather was still and crisp and it was great to watch large numbers of winter wildfowl on the sea. A first stop in a cemetery turned up White-backed Woodpecker (yes, the one that took me 2 weeks to catch up with in Poland!) although only Will got a view of this individual. There was Middle-spotted Woodpecker and Great Spotted too, along with Nuthatches, Treecreepers, Bullfinches and Willow Tits.
Another stop to break the journey and I had my first lifer, but it was not a bird. Instead stood along a track and SO not bothered by our presence was this

... an elk!
We found a hotel for the night (60 odd euros for the night... for 4) and were up early Friday morning to seek out our main target species on the island, Steller's Eider. A real Northern species this one. I was lucky to see a female in Scotland in 2000, but for the others it was a completely new bird. We located the bay where a flock of about 300 birds were known to spend the winter and it wasn't long before the flock was located. Rather more spectacular than the lone, drab female I had seen all those years ago. One drake in particular was separate from the rest of the flock, very close to the shore.

 It did, however, have a little trouble balancing on a rock.

On our return we had a staggering 14 White-tailed Eagles in the air at once. We headed back across the ferry, back into Latvia and headed toward the North-East of the country to the forest house of our guide for the next two days, Gaidis. There was another woodland stop on the way, as we had a GPS location for Grey-headed Woodpecker. We parked up and headed into an area of tall trees which shot up towards the sky. A White-backed Woodpecker was quickly located. We found its favourite drumming tree and enjoyed extended views. The Grey-headed Woodpecker duly turned up too and at one point we had both species in the very same tree.
In retaliation for him throwing sticks at me, I then managed to pour soil down Dans back. Impressively, it made it's way all the way down into his wellies!

Watching White-backed
and Grey-headed Woodpeckers
We continued further into Latvia and arrived at our meeting point in the pitch black. Gaidis then drove along a rough forest track and we tried to keep up. We were clearly in a very special place and I looked forward to the morning with great anticipation. Gaidis's wife prepared a lovely late night dinner for us, a real feast of Latvian specialities. Very tasty it was too, washed down with a Latvian beer or two and a rather pungent liqueur. Gaidis and Maia (may have spelt that wrong) were incredibly generous people and made us feel tremendously welcome for the whole time we were there.

The lodge was completely off grid. Water pumped from a well, heat and hot water fuelled by a limitless supply of wood. The walls were of planks which sandwiched insulating layers of sphagnum moss.

The meal itself was a lesson in self-sufficiency, including such treats as home made cheese, smoked ham, duck soup and beef sausages.

I retired to bed and slept like a log, waking to a lightening sky and out to explore this magical place. The morning was crisp. Woodpeckers were drumming and calling, but Gaidis's keen ears picked up a distant calling pygmy owl. I was just as interested in looking around the smallholding.

The breakfast spread was a real smallholder's banquet, with ham, cheese, eggs, honey and apple juice. In fact, this was all quite familiar, but Gaidis and Mya (If I didn't spell it wrong last time, then I have this time) live in a country of smallholders and come from a generation reared much closer to the land than we are in Britain. What Sue and I do is quite unusual, in Britain but here in Latvia it felt like the skills Sue and I have been learning these past few years are still, for some, passed on through the generations.

The morning's birding was a forest affair. The Pygmy Owl came in and sat right above us. The photographers papped it to their hearts' content.

Woodpeckers were fairly quiet though, but we still saw the giant Black Woodpecker, Grey-headed and Great Spotted.
We looked for Three-toed Woodpeckers, which should have been in an area of damp alder forest but were silent today. We did, however, see plenty of moose poo and plenty of trees chopped down by beavers. The forest was a magical place.

In the afternoon we headed off south towards the site where a Hawk Owl had been present for a while. It had not been looked for in two weeks though, during which time the snows had melted and spring had come. Disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the Hawk Owl had moved on.

There was another target species for me to hope for today though. In Poland I spent two weeks not seeing hazel grouse. I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Gaidis describes Hazel Grouse as ghost birds. They are relatively common in the right areas, but disappear long before you clap eyes on them.

But I was to be luckier in Latvia. Toward the evening we headed off to another area to try to see Ural Owl. Gaidis works extensively on owl surveys, so knew where the territories were. This did not mean that we were guaranteed sightings though. We still needed a bird to respond to recordings and to fly into the open. Gaidis told us that this was also a good place for hazel grouse and to look along the sides of the road. It wasn't long before BINGO! A bird flew across the road in front of us, quickly followed by another. We managed to see where they landed in the forest and spent the next 20 minutes or so catching tantalising glimpses of them on the forest floor and up in the branches of spruce trees. Excellent.
But the day wasn't done yet. As darkness enveloped the sky we managed to lure in a Ural Owl. At first it called in response to a recording. It is always amazing when suddenly you realise that last call wasn't from the machine. Fortunately the bird flew into the clearfell area to investigate and the others, sharper eyed than me, glimpsed it in the dark. It didn't take long for us to be obtaining excellent views by torchlight. It put on a real show. I was especially impressed with its graceful flight.

Bouyed by our success, we moved on to an area where Tengmalm's Owls had previously nested. They maybe wouldn't even be back on territory anyway, but we whacked on the tape more in hope than expectation. Tengmalm's Owl are very nocturnal and secretive. They occasionally respond to recordings, but generally don't fly towards the tape. After not much more than a minute, a female called from extremely close. This really did come as a surprise. The torches went on and after a while Dan picked up eye shine high up in a tree. But the bird was perhaps spooked by the torch as it flew almost immediately. I saw nothing of it. A period of intense searching ensued, but to no avail. The bird even had the audacity to call once more while we were searching for it, but we just couldn't find it. After a while we decided to leave the area and return a bit later. But this time the bird was nowhere to be seen or heard. The next night it was the same story. Again, so close but so far.

Dan tests the ice on Sunday morning.
Unsurprisingly it doesn't support his weight.
We returned to the lodge, highly satisfied with our day's birding, even if there had been a couple of slight disappointments. That's birding for you.
It may have been approaching midnight, but Mya still provided us with a feast, including Latvian blood sausage which was amazing and pickled pumpkins which were a revelation (project for when I get home). They actually weren't dissimilar to tinned peaches!

Our final day was spent exploring new areas as well as going over old. It started with a successful return to the alder woodland around the lodge. This morning the air was absolutely still and the woodpeckers were clearly enjoying it. Unlike yesterday, the Three-toed Woodpeckers were drumming almost constantly and it didn't take too long for us to locate two or three of them. They are a favourite of mine. Later in the day we found a most obliging Middle Spotted Woodpecker in this line of trees.

A drive along the Russian border gave me my best ever views of Capercaillie and then another forest drive had me shouting STOP! STOP! STOP! STOP! STOP! STOP! STOP! I did actually say it seven times in very quick succession, only stopping when the car did, for a Hazel Grouse had just run up the bank and just into the forest edge right next to the car. We managed to get it up in a tree and then heard the male singing (sounds like a dog whistle). It wasn't long before we were watching a pair of hazel grouse. They stayed mostly on the spruce branches, but as far as hazel grouse views go these were excellent.

There was to be one more treat for the day. After dark Gaidis's dog was barking and something was barking back at it from the top of a tree... a pine marten. I have only ever seen this mammal twice before, both times as I was hurtling through the night in deepest Scotland. Nothing like this though.

A beer and a shared jug of Birch Sap (something else I really must learn to do - apparently you can easily get 20 litres in a day from one tree) and it was to bed. All that remained of this great break away was an early morning drive back to the airport and the delights of a Ryanair flight back to Stanstead.

At 2:30 in the afternoon on Monday I pulled up in the driveway of my farm. I'd had a brilliant break away but it was great to be back too. And I have lots and lots of new ideas to try. Look out for my posts on collecting birch sap and pickling pumpkins.

1 comment:

  1. That was a very interesting account. Look forward to hearing how you get on with birch sap.


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