Europeans have long been aware of Estonia’s birding potential, though may well have overlooked this ex-Soviet country’s other wildlife delights: until now. A late winter visit should provide visitors with the spectacle of large wintering flocks of Steller’s Eiders (up to 10,000 may be seen in February!) and other seaducks, while an early spring trip will bring with it up to nine species of European woodpeckers, Northern Hawk, Pygmy and Ural Owls and other sought-after specialties such as Hazel Grouse, Parrot Crossbill, Nutcracker, Rough-legged Buzzard and so on.
Estonia is not all about birds, though; far from it! I only explored the north of the country and also a large island called Saaremaa but the part I went to was covered with differing habitats stacked high with wildlife. Endless wildflower meadows were a memorable feature, where I saw 13 species of wild orchids in just 4 days of searching. The drop-dead-gorgeous meadow at Laelatu has recorded the highest density of wild flowers in Europe: an incredible 76 species in one square metre!
Estonia has a high population density of mammals too. During my short stay, I was shown European Brown Bear, Raccoon Dog, European Beaver, Arctic and Brown Hares, Moose (Eurasian Elk), Roe Deer, Atlantic Grey Seal, Red Fox and Pygmy Shrew. With extreme patience and luck, a determined wildlife watcher may also find Grey Wolf and Northern Lynx!
Later in the season, from June to August, the meadows, bogs and marshes of Estonia are home to a wide variety of butterflies and dragonflies, though July is probably the best month for lepidopterists and odonatists to visit.
As you can see, a late spring excursion to Estonia will provide the all-round naturalist with an abundance of wildlife to seek out. If you like to be cooler while you watch wildlife, then a winter visit might prove suitably bracing. Autumn in Estonia is a mix of changeable weather and varying wildlife including the possibility of some quality migration watching.
Estonia is a dream destination for those who like their countries sparsely populated, safe, friendly, ‘wired’ and full of wildlife. If you like spending your ‘green-pound/dollar/Euro’ in a country that prides itself on its humanitarianism then you can’t go far wrong with Estonia: it rates highly in world rankings in terms of press freedoms, civil liberties, education and economic freedom and is almost 50% forested to boot. To add icing to the cake, the old part of Tallinn, the country’s capital city, is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Winter months can be harsh in Estonia, in some years reaching -30 degrees C! The chill is so severe that the five-mile wide Suur Väin Strait between the mainland and the idyllic island of Saaremaa can freeze solid enough for cars to drive across. If you can find a section of unfrozen water, you should see hundreds and possibly thousands of Steller’s Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks, which overwinter in the area. February is the best time, and is also a good time to find Northern Hawk Owls along forest edges.
When the channel is sufficiently clear of ice for the ferry to run, the ‘sun deck’ is an ideal place from which to birdwatch, though ‘icicle deck’ would be a more accurate description. Thousands of ducks can be seen from this vantage point, mostly Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters but Velvet Scoter may also be picked out. A White-tailed Eagle or two patrolling the channel is a distinct possibility.
Once on land at Saaremaa, any of the bays and ports on the western side may hold flocks of Steller’s Eiders. I had to search a few of these bays in March to find a flock but our guide Tarvo eventually found us a mixed flock of ducks containing many Greater Scaup, Long-tailed Ducks, Common Scoters, Common Eiders, Tufted Ducks and about 150 Steller’s Eiders.
Late April through to late May is the time to seek out woodland specialties such as Western Capercaillie, Hazel Grouse, Pygmy and Ural Owls, Middle-spotted, Black, and White-backed Woodpeckers (along with seven other woodpecker species) as they settle down to breed after the thaw. These birds become much more secretive later in the summer.
Raptors fly in to breed during late spring and summer, including the impressive Lesser Spotted Eagle, Osprey, and Montagu’s, Pallid, Western Marsh, and Hen Harriers, joining the resident White-tailed Eagles and Northern Goshawks. In fact, goshawk nest in several of the capital’s – Tallinn – parks and I was fortunate enough to find one during a revisit in March 2017. Watching a young ‘Gos’ flying about through the snow near the centre of a big city is certainly a strange experience! Rough-legged Buzzards pass through in early spring but move further north to breed in Finland and Norway, so a visit earlier in the year is necessary if you wish to see one.
Another feature of a late winter/early spring visit is the gatherings of geese. Any snow-free field may hold feeding flocks of Greylags, White-fronted, both Taiga and Tundra Bean Geese with the possibility of Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted Geese mixed in with the large gatherings. These grazers stop off to fuel-up on their way from wintering grounds in Europe on their way to breeding grounds in the Arctic and Russia. Whooper and Bewick’s Swans do the same in the bays and lakes. At any point during the day, one may see large skeins moving to another feeding ground or setting off north. Taking their place, Common Cranes and White Storks can be observed arriving for the breeding season.
Estonia’s vast marshlands attract a wide range of breeding birds. Because of the extent of the habitat, viewing these birds isn’t always easy, though. From late March through to September, the visiting birder should catch up with many Common Cranes. A visit in late March sees pairs of cranes idly feeding and displaying in roadside fields. The amazing dancing display and bugling calls of cranes provide one of the memorable sights and sounds of any trip to Estonia. I once lay awake listening to unseen cranes calling through the almost permanent light during a balmy June night on Saareema, not wishing to sleep in case I missed something. A snuffling wild boar in the marsh added to the mesmerising soundscape.
The expansive woods and woodland clearings of Estonia are home to several sought after European birds. Northern Hawk and Ural Owls may be found, though can be difficult. Another elusive species is Hazel Grouse, a beautiful cryptically-plumaged denizen of thick forest, sometimes given away by its ridiculous high-pitched whistle making it even more frustrating when you cannot find it a few feet from you in the wood!
Nutcrackers, crossbills, Red-breasted Flycatchers, and Barred Warblers may all be found in woods across the country, but it is perhaps the woodpeckers that are the stars. White-backed Woodpecker loves old tree stumps, where its favourite food proliferates: wood-boring beetles. Grey-headed, Middle, Great, and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers are also common, and it is not unusual to find all these drumming in a single large wood in a single spring morning!
In total, 230 bird species breed in Estonia. Because of the extensive habitat and low population densities, not all of the birds are easy to find but while you are looking you are guaranteed some wonderful scenery, lungfuls of invigorating, pure air.
Because Estonia has so much unspoilt habitat, it is home to some of the most sought-after mammals in Europe. Estonian Nature Tours – the company I travelled with – are soon hoping to set up trips to see the highly secretive Northern Lynx. A pioneering tour in the winter of 2016/17 was successful, so watch this space!
In the north-east of Estonia lie the forests of Alutaguse. I was fortunate to visit the area with local guides who have set up a hide for mammal watching. We carried our picnic dinner with us through the forest to the comfortable hide. After a delicious meal – all freshly-grown produce as usual – the group settled down to wait to see what sauntered our way throughout the sticky night.
The first animal to show was the bizarre Raccoon Dog; an introduced species from Asia. Not surprisingly, they did look exactly like a cross between a dog and a raccoon! Next up came a Red Fox but it didn’t linger.
Just before dark, a snapping noise switched us into full alert mode. A European Brown Bear ambled into view and plonked itself down about fifty yards from the hide and began to feast on the corn thrown down as bait. After quite a while feeding, the bear did exactly what bears are supposed to do and started using a tree as a back-scratching post. I couldn’t believe my luck!
After its pampering session, the bear sat down again and continued feeding. The whole, breathtaking experience lasted about half an hour before the animal wandered off and I felt I could breathe again.
Thinking it couldn’t get any better than a brown bear doing its back-scratching thing, I settled into one of the comfortable bunk beds at the rear of the hide for a sound night’s sleep. The photographer in the hide closer to the action saw our bear again at about 5.00am but not as well as the earlier sighting. The adventure was rounded off with a picnic breakfast on a forest track while a pair of Montagu’s Harriers displayed over a field in the background. Bliss!
Further notable mammal watching trips laid on for us included a bumpy boat ride out to an island to study a colony of Grey Seals, though my favourite mammal of the evening tour was the Pygmy Shrew trying to hide in nooks and crannies of the wooden jetty as our boat returned to terra firma.
Another mammal highlight was the evening spent cruising up reedy channels in search of European beavers. Again, a scrumptious picnic dinner was provided by our hosts, as we watched European Marsh Harriers quartering the reedbeds.
A young moose watched us watch it as we silently cruised past. Finally, with the sun setting ahead of us and with Bitterns booming and Spotted Crakes ‘whip-cracking’ from the reeds by the side of us, a beaver made its way across the channel before heading towards us.
Once again, eight excited wildlife enthusiasts involuntarily stopped breathing as the alert beaver swam towards us. It came to within ten yards and then realised it was being watched. With a mighty splash of its tail, it was gone, accompanied by a large intake of breath from its admirers!
In spring, Saaremaa is ablaze with the colour of wildflowers. I have never seen such extensive meadows anywhere like those in Estonia elsewhere in Europe, not even in such ‘unspoilt’ countries such as Slovakia and Romania.
If you want to find wildflowers, Peeter Visaak is your man. He led us through various habitats – from coastal dunes, through pristine bogs via beautiful meadows – to find many plants including thirteen species of orchids: thirty-six species have been found, so I have plenty more to go at!
In my home country of Britain, there are one or two specimens remaining of Lady’s Slipper Orchid (LSO), all closely guarded, fenced off to the general public, with the sites kept highly secret. In Estonia, Peeter led us through a scrubby meadow where he showed us up to 5,000 LSO heads; we were literally surrounded by these beautiful flowers!
In the same meadow, I saw my first ever Nottingham Catchfly plants. I have lived in Nottingham (UK) all my life and had to go to Estonia to see my first eponymous flowers! This plant was named after my home city when it was found on the walls of the castle. It can no longer be found in the city or even in the county of Nottinghamshire.
The walk through the dunes of Sörve to find Military Orchid also produced five species of wintergreen; definitely a task for the experts to sort out those from each other! I was careful not to tread on some of the more minute specimens of wildflower such as Dwarf Milkwort and Sand Pink, but it was difficult.
During my very brief stay in Estonia, I was shown nearly one hundred plant species. I am not a plantsman by any stretch of the imagination and neither was this a botany trip, so any expert spending longer in the field with diligent searching would rack up an impressive wildflower list.
Here Be Dragons
During my whistle-stop tour in June, I was shown several species of butterflies in different habitats. These included Northern Chequered Skipper, Small Pearl-bordered and Nickerl’s Fritillaries, Red Admiral, Green Hairstreak and Small Heath. July is the peak month, when butterflies take advantage of the long summer days to feed and breed.
A trip to Estonia in July might provide keen entomologists with such specialities as Frigga’s and Bog Fritillaries, Eastern Baton Blue, Lapland Ringlet, Clouded Apollo, Woodland Brown, Olive Skipper, Cranberry Blue, Large Chequered Skipper and many more.
My favourite site was at Kogula where I spent nearly ninety minutes trawling the meadow for insects. Amongst the hundreds of stems of Burnt Orchids, our group also found Nickerl’s Fritillaries and Black-veined Whites as well as the more familiar Red Admirals and Painted Ladies.
Sunny days from mid-June to the end of August bring out the aerial beauties that are dragonflies. Estonia is home to many northern European specialties. Extensive bogs dot the landscape, home to breeding waders, rare butterflies, and stunning dragonflies. Some are accessible by narrow boardwalks to get you closer to the wildlife.
Stunning Large White-faced Darter (or Yellow-spotted Whiteface), Four-spotted Chasers, Northern White-faced Darters and Azure Damselflies were just emerging in mid June and a visit later in the summer will produce many more species for the odonate enthusiasts. Perhaps my favourite was the delicate Siberian Winter Damselfly inhabiting the ditches adjacent to the Lady’s Slipper Orchid meadow at Loode Tammik.
WHAT’S TO LIKE
• Knowledgeable, friendly guides
• A full range of wildlife can be found almost everywhere
• Deserted roads
• Pure air
• Excellent food, mainly locally-sourced, fresh produce
• Cheap flights from most European airports available
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE
• Mosquitoes possible from late May – September
• The unwary and over-excitable wildlife watcher may end up with sleep deprivation in late spring and summer if you look at every living thing!
WHO TO GO WITH
Neil Glenn would like to thank Visit Estonia and Estonian Nature Tours for sponsoring his visit. Huge thanks also to our enthusiastic and very knowledgeable wildlife guides Tarvo Valker, Peeter Vissak, Triin Ivandi, Maarika Toomel, Marika Mann and Elin Priiks.