I visited Tallinn for a day as part of a Baltic Cruise, and felt I’d like to see more of Estonia. I usually go on a bird watching trip every year, so was attracted to a birds and mammals of Estonia holiday with Speyside Wildlife.
The trip started from Gatwick, with at a civilised late morning Sunday flight. It was a small group of 8 plus our tour leader.
We were met at Tallinn airport by our local guide, Uku, who was from Estonian Nature Tours with his mini bus and driver. It was a two hour drive to our first destination, so we were able to see rural Estonia. First impressions were – flat, meadows and verges with cowslips, ditches with marsh marigolds,- wooded areas- poor looking houses, drab grey with corrugated roofs and stacks of wood outside -lots of derelict army type buildings too. There was not much traffic, even around the airport. Road building (helped by EU) was evident near Tallin, but then the roads were bumpy and the mini bus far from the comfort standards of the UK.
Our first stop was Roosta Holliday village, on the coast in Western Estonia, a modern EU funded development of wooden chalets in a forest by the sea. I was surprised to have not just a room, but a whole chalet to myself. The bed in an attic space with ladder to reach them looked very child friendly, but I decided on one of the twin beds! Bathroom, shower, flushing toilet (rural toilets tended to be “dry”), kitchen area, dining and lounge area – with outside patio! I could have stayed a week there! A short walk over the dunes, and there was a long sandy beach. The complex had a restaurant, where we ate dinner.
We made an early start on Monday, 5-30am, which felt earlier as Estonian time was 2hours ahead of UK time. I was very grateful that I had packed a travel kettle, tea and breakfast biscuits! We drove round forest tracks and saw elk and deer. Our breakfast stop was by fields where we watched lekking black grouse, hen harrier, montagu’s harrier and more, and breakfasted on a picnic of cold fried egg and sausage and rye bread. Several locations were visited near Haapsalu town to see other birds. We had lunch in a café near an interesting castle. Back to Roosta for a rest before dinner, then out again to a headland and forest tracks. We saw over 100 species of bird in our first day, (hawfinch, thrush nightingale, wryneck, white backed woodpecker, ural owl), and realised that Uku was a young and dedicated birder with much more stamina than me (and I suspect others, we were all in our 70s and 80s.)
Tuesday was a long day. We breakfasted at 7am and were on the road by 8am. Sea watching was the first stop, which I couldn’t really join in on as I did not take my telescope. Others usually let me look through theirs, which didn’t work for sea watching as moving, migrating birds were the target. However it was a beautiful headland and beach, rocky and bounded by pine trees, and quite warm in the sun and out of the wind. I watched house martins collecting nesting material, and yellow wagtails flitting around. Not as exciting as the divers and ducks flying far out to sea, but interesting to me. A walk next, but I spent time photographing derelict soviet buildings and bunkers instead of watching birds. We had an excellent lunch at a farmhouse café overlooking the sea- homemade fish soup, bread and butter and rhubarb tart. A small craft room sold local items and rows of fishes were strung through their eyes outside to dry. We drove to a river for a boat trip, dinner on board and beaver watching. This was quite an experience. It was local enterprise and comprised of a large open, rowing style boat with outdoor motor with just enough room for us all and two large picnic baskets. We chugged along – reeds swaying as we past, savis warblers serenading us; white tailed eagles, black terns and skeins of geese overhead. We headed for the sunset, then the boat pulled into the reeds to stop for dinner. This was a local enterprise too – homemade stew served in colourful plastic bowls and fresh bread followed by homemade strawberry tart. Coffee with a splash of some Estonian spirit to finish, the dishes washed in the river and we were off again, upstream this time. The engine was cut and we drifted in silence with the flow of the river looking for beavers, and managed to see several. A long drive back, not arriving much before midnight. The holiday village did not have lights, so it was rather difficult to negotiate the paths (with tree roots) to our chalets. A light came on over the chalet door – but you had to find the chalet first! A 16 hour day, which I found rather excessive.
On Wednesday we drove to the South East of the country. It took longer than Uku had anticipated, I wondered he had done this trip before, or had planned it on paper. We did stop for an excellent lunch in an art café though, interesting pictures on the walls and visually interesting food – grilled fish on black rice with a garnish of cowslip flowers and three carrot rings. We didn’t know whether to eat the cowslips or not, but did, they tasted rather nice. We arrived at our hotel in Tartu, with little time to relax before dinner. Luckily it rained, so we were let off our evening birding excursion.
To make up for slacking the previous evening, we had a 5-30am start the next day. We first went to a wetland area and watched citrine wagtails in the grass tussocks, and a large flock of black terns with some white winged ones flying over the water, very dramatic with a stormy sky and rain. The next stop was a wild forest area, Taevaskoja (a managed park, so pathways and information boards). The sun had come out by now and it was interesting to walk through a hilly landscape after such a lot of flat country. We saw spotted, pied and red breasted flycatchers and excellent views of a three toed woodpecker – despite a noisy school party! Lunch was at a very interesting venue, a vodka factory that had been transformed into a very modern restaurant. It kept up the vodka identity though, by giving us a talk on the history of the building and offering everyone a shot of vodka! Excellent food too!! Back to the hotel for a short rest, then off again to some wetland area. Hundreds of swallows and martins feeding over the water and perched on the branches of a dead tree – very atmospheric in the rain! The day was not finished yet though. Straight off for dinner in a café, which took ages to appear and was luke warm. At dusk we went to an area where the rare great snipe lek, and stood in a damp, misty field until they appeared. By now tiredness had overcome my interest in birds, and having seen a glimpse of the birds I retreated to the mini bus, and watched a fox in a nearby meadow. We did see some wild boar by the road on the way back – interesting.
On the 15th, we travelled again to the North East. We had a pleasant stop at some fishponds and walked around at a leisurely pace in the sunshine, with lots to see – penduline tit, bluethroat, red necked grebe, thrush nightingale and more. We drove further, and checked into our last hotel at Rakvere. The last part on our itinerary should have been a night in a bear hide near the Russian border. This had to be cancelled due to army manoeuvres in the area. Instead we drove round the forest roads near Tudo. Not much to see, but an amazing sunset after a stormy evening. I was interested in the deserted houses in the forest, and Uku told us that is was a thriving village until the residents were sent to Siberia by the Russians, and did not return. Back by mid night, no bear hide experience, a warm comfy hotel bed instead!
Saturday was a leisurely day driving round forest tracks round Trudo, stopping for short walks. Sunny and not so cold (it had been unseasonably cold). A short day too, back by 8pm!
Sunday was our last day. We stopped at Lahenna on the way back. This was a manor house with grounds suitable for birding. A black woodpecker feeding young was spotted. I missed that as I discovered an interesting visitors centre, with a slide show in English, and interesting displays on the history, and wildlife of the area. A gift shop enabled a bit of retail therapy , a spinning demonstration, and flushing toilets. Back to Tallinn and a very interesting guided walk round the historic centre, then lunch and on to the airport.
In summary, over 160 species of birds were seen, and 9 mammals. Our guide was very knowledgeable, and made a real effort to find us an impressive number of birds but expected us to match his stamina.
My advice to elderly birders would be to check the proposed itinerary very carefully, especially distances to be covered, and ask if UK people are leading the trip, or has a local tour firm being used. Is the trip 100% focused on birding, or will it be a more rounded , relaxing experience with time for people, places and coffee breaks too? Those are certainly questions I will ask before my next trip!
Sorry no bird pictures – need to update my camera!