Birding tour with a difference

Places are available on a birdwatching tour with a difference, to Vilsandi National Park, Saaremaa Island, Estonia


Participants will explore the countryside, listen to birds with sound recordist Geoff Sample, top nature writer Mark Cocker, and musician Peter Cowdrey, then take part in a series of creative responses to wildlife study.

In the evenings there’ll be birdsong-inspired music with Peter, Geoff will create soundscapes and Mark will lead a writing workshop. Rosie Johnston told us more about the trip…

My colleague Peter Cowdrey and I are on a recce to Saarema Island off the coast of Estonia, where Peter will be leading a tour with Mark Cocker and Geoff Sample next May. Our destination is Vilsandi National Park - founded in 1914, it’s the second oldest national park in Europe, and is a stunning bird migration hotspot opening onto the Gulf of Finland. Before the Second World War it was a pioneering ecotourism destination and was reinstated as a nature reserve by the Soviets in 1957. Its far western location made it a vital military exclusion zone, preventing people from escaping to the west. Saaremaa is dotted with Soviet watchtowers, now wonderful observation posts for birders!

The legacy of this history is a wild, pristine landscape of reed-fringed coastline, juniper scrub, ancient forests and small-scale agriculture with an extraordinary concentration of birds, insects, and wild flowers. Peter, Mark and Geoff want to embrace all these aspects of wildlife study – after all Vilsandi boasts 28 species of wild orchid including the spectacular Lady’s Slipper – and legions of rare and beautiful butterflies.

Saaremaa lies four hours to the west of Tallinn, so before our bus leaves, we take a stroll through the city’s park and up the side of the ancient castle walls. The centre of Tallinn abounds with birding delights. A pair of Spotted Flycatchers, once so common in England, do their strange fluttering foray for food, dancing a circle and returning to the same spot. I catch my first sight and sound of the beautiful Rosefinch, his fresco pink breast shows clearly amongst new green leaves. His song is short phrased, clear and sweet. A Lesser Whitethroat sings its soft, drawn-out mattress-spring ping. White Storks fly over the lake and Goosanders edge nervously away. Suddenly, a miniature orchestra blasts into my ear. It’s an Icterine Warbler doing brass, woodwind and strings all at once.

We load our bags into the bus, and head for Saarema. We are with our wonderful eco-guide, Maarika Toomel, chatelaine of Loona Manor, where our tour will be based. She’s busy; her mobile never stops. Her voice, giving endlessly cheerful orders and information, sounds exactly like a Garden Warbler. On our journey we see a pair of Spotted Eagles riding thermals and White Storks nesting in pylons along the route. I see my first Estonian ‘Mega’ – an exotically fat lady mowing the lawn in her bikini.

We’re staying at Loona Manor, HQ of Vilsandi, a basic, German-built 19th century hunting lodge. Immediately, we hear Wrynecks in quadrophonic stereo. A pair of Red-backed Shrikes perch on a bush in the low, slanted sunlight. Maarika casually points out a Black Woodpecker’s nest five metres from the house. Help – adrenalin rush. What to do first? Set up the camera? Stalk a Wryneck? Spy on the shrikes as the male has his way with the missus three times? I set the camera on its tripod tilted up to the perfect oval woodpecker hole. Then, from garden scrub, comes the russet-timbre flow of the Thrush Nightingale – a viola to a Nightingale’s violin. We tiptoe through waist-high nettles and cow parsley to the next field; a pair of Cranes struts awkwardly through kingcups and oxide daisies. They hear our footfall and taxi for take-off; their French horn call, the thrum of their wings echoing through the trees like a low-flying Lancaster. Bejesus, I think, I’ve been dismembered by a Lynx (sometimes seen on Saarema) but it’s a mosquito – somehow we forgot repellent, but Maarika gives us a slice of lemon, which serves as a decent anti-itch.

Later I check the Black Woodpecker footage and there she is, Mama woodpecker giving her mate the hurry-home. Her huge head twists left and right, the strange, almost pelican beak waiting for takeaway beetles, grubs and ants. The sideways sun hits her red crest. She spends a while waiting, then retreats. Days later, the male flew into the frame as I focused on the nest, his strident, breek-breek flight call preceding his vertical landing against the tree.

The next day we take a boat to Vilsandi Island; half an hour of unhurried chugging across the tourmaline green water of the Gulf of Finland to beautiful, world-away peace. The roads are flattened grass; there’s one tractor and one couple living there. The only hotel has an outside loo and hardly any beds. We walk along gold and yellow reedbeds. The grass is a million shades of green and thick as a car rug underfoot. Terns everywhere; Peter disappears in search of the elusive Caspian.

The roads on Saarema are bizarrely wide and straight. The story is that the Soviets had their map upside down and thought they were developing an important strategic town the other side of Moscow. Wherever they thought they were, trees and hedges were flattened for tanks, leaving very silly roads for a place with virtually no people or cars. But you don’t have to pull over if you need to consult your map, and you’ll never need your handbrake.

Maarika takes us to the end of the world – a beaten-up bench on a spit of shallows and shingle; a paradise of Rosefinches, Icterine Warblers, Wheatears, Stonechats and Whinchats. Nearby forests are home to Nutcrackers, Red-breasted and Collared Flycatchers. Sea eagles circle above and breed here. Caspian Tern, Barred Warbler and Velvet Scoter all call this home. Spectacular clouds of migrating Barnacle Geese fly overhead.

Saaremaa is proud of its locally brewed beer and cake-like rye bread. The food is delicious and all locally sourced. The only food shop we found had packets of salami in amongst the toothpaste; my guess is that Saaremaanians don’t use shops at all. We regularly ate locally reared and butchered meat marinated in prune juice, apple and blackberry sauce or Christmas tree syrup. Weekends on Saaremaa are spent in a smoke sauna, where friends and relatives gather, stark naked to sweat out their news. Part of the tradition is to beat each other with juniper or stinging nettles although this will be an optional extra on our tour.

We will explore the countryside, listen to birds with Geoff, Mark and Peter then guide a series of creative responses to many aspects of wildlife study. It won’t be about ticking off species, but about spending time listening, examining the birds’ context and habitat. In the evenings we will have birdsong-inspired music with Peter on Loona Manor’s grand piano, and his gypsy-inspired sister Liz on violin. Geoff will create soundscapes, and talk about his experience as a field-recording artist. Mark will lead a writing workshop. We will examine birdsong with spectrographs and film, all this in the brilliantly equipped field centre attached to Loona Manor. Then we’ll drink local beer and eat delicious food, and try, this time, not to forget the mosquito repellent.

The tour runs from May 11-17, 2013, and costs £1,500 (not including flights from London to Tallinn. EasyJet has return flights for under £100 if you book now). For further details, go towww.operaunlimited.org.uk