A couple of relatively short flights from London via Helsinki to Tallinn, then out on the road and we were soon heading out to western Estonia, heartland of some of northern Europe’s best autumnal birding. The first scheduled stop saw our motley gang of journalists and tour leaders delving into our still unpacked luggage. We were promised some Cranes and a cold wind was blowing, so we bunged on some layers and hats and set up some scopes.
In a few minutes we were perched on the platform of the Rannajoe birdwatching tower overlooking a vast expanse of damp grassland, woodland and marsh of Matsalu National Park. Down below in the distance a couple of hundred Cranes were settling themselves for the evening roost. Estonia sees an autumn passage of hundreds of thousands of Cranes and at any time there can be tens of thousands in the country. The herd below were just a taster, but we could hear the unmistakable murmur of more in the distance drifting in. Soon, a group of a few hundred more came in a V over the trees and the wonderful calls of the flying birds mixed with the welcome of the birds below.
Over near the Cranes was a mixed flock of grey geese: Beans and White-fronts and Greylags. It was early evening, and our hosts, conscious of the cold, asked if we wished to move on to our ‘hotel’ or would we like to brave out the weather in the hope of more Cranes. Our unanimous decision to stick it out was rewarded with great riches, as almost from the moment it was made, the action started to hot up.
Firstly, more Cranes came into the roost, with the several hundred now on the marsh starting to dance and leap with excitement as the numbers swelled. Then flocks of Barnacle Geese came through the gaps in the trees and over our heads, yelping. Then more Cranes and more Barnacles.
Someone picked up a hunting Great Grey Shrike, which passed along a line of small trees, stopped and hovered like a Kestrel at a height of 50 feet for what seemed like minutes and minutes, quite a wonderful sight. Over beyond the shrike, golden Roe Deer were appearing in little groups and, straight out, we noticed one or two male Black Grouse standing in the grass. More Cranes came in and by now the field was bubbling with the haunting trumpets of perhaps 5,000 of them – more than I have ever seen in my life by thousands!
And, as the light was thinking of dimming, perhaps my highlight of this wonderful evening, a female and baby Elk (Moose) splashing over the wet ground, the poor calf finding it hard to keep up with its tall, white-legged mother.
The whole evening served as a wonderful introduction to the nature of Estonian birdwatching. It is all about atmosphere and wildness, migration and mammals, and not a little about a preserved ancient working environment, giving a privileged glimpse through time to the sort of landscape which must have dominated much of northern Europe in former times.
Though most of us know its history as a former Soviet state, this country is far from grim and forbidding. Rather, its mix of damp mixed woodland and ‘old fashioned’ agriculture gives it a charming rural feel, yet recent EU membership has helped link the country with fabulous, un-congested, ‘easy’ roads. And those roads are the sort of roads that make you feel something could cross your path at any stage, keeping you alert. We were lucky enough to see a Pine Marten crossing, plus had glimpses of perhaps half-a-dozen Raccoon-dogs during our stay of a few days and nights. Even stranger, though, was a Corn Crake which popped up in front of us on a country lane, stood up straight, flapped its wings a couple of times, then disappeared into the grass. But this is what Estonian birding is about: the unexpected could be lurking around any corner.
Its geographical position, just a short hop from Finland, makes Estonia an ideal stopping off point for the great autumnal migration, when masses of birds attempt to escape the frozen wastes of Fennoscandia. There are great masses of wildfowl enjoying the rich waters and where there are wildfowl and water, there are White-tailed Eagles. Nowhere was this more dramatically illustrated than in the city of Happsalu where we lunched at the wonderful, historic Kuursaal restaurant overlooking the water. It really is hard to concentrate on eating when out of the window there are thousands of ducks and above them threee White-tailed Eagles battling for a fish!
Migrants were unavoidable while I was in Estonia in mid-September. One morning, there was a small ‘fall’ of Whinchats outside our guesthouse, and migrating Redstarts, Red-backed Shrikes and Scandinavian Chiffchaffs were liberally scattered. Round every bend, there was always a chance of another cluster of Cranes waiting in a field.
At the coast, we could watch migration in action on a grand scale. There were Sparrowhawks, Chaffinches and Pied Wagtails spilling over the waves, big flocks of Velvet Scoter and Scaup moving; Black-throated Divers passing in procession, and flocks of more than 30 Willow Tits growing in the coastal trees. Perhaps most impressive of all was a pre-dawn drive along the long, thin peninsula that fingers to the west of the off-shore island of Hiiumaa. The glistening wet forested road was almost carpeted with little blobs, which flitted away as we approached. They were hundreds upon hundreds of Robins, presumably just having flown in and seeking an easy meal on the damp road surface.
Our hosts, though, were saving the best till last. On the last morning, the weather cleared for the first time and also for the first time we were able to witness visible migration of landbirds, at Soometsa Forest. With the first rays of sunshine came the first calls of Chaffinches and Bramblings, Meadow Pipits and Tree Pipits. A steady flow of Sky Larks started to pass over. Then we noticed the odd Crossbill and Hawfinch.
As the sun rose, a steady passage of Jays was moving through, interspersed with scattered Nutcrackers. During the morning, thousands of passerines passed over, all heading roughly south and west, all leaving Fennoscandia for warmer climes.
Who can blame them for leaving the frozen north, and who can also blame them for choosing the rich wonderful birding land of Estonia for their first stop-over.