Estonia
In search of the ghost
March 2022


 

- Pre-departure planning
- General information
- Itinerary
- Lahemaa NP.
- Saaremaa Island
- Sooma
- Matsalu

 

For several years now I have a wish to see all of the large cats in the world. Due to Covid nothing came of it the last two years. In 2019 I tried Iberian Lynx which despite it being one of the rarest of the cats is quite possible to find on your own. It frequently wanders in open habitat. I missed it during a week search on my own due to sheer bad luck. While spending most of the time in the field I had to visit the supermarket to buy food in the middle of the day. And exactly that short time is when two cats chose to pass by exactly at the very site where I spend most of my time.

Seeing Eurasian Lynx is a totally different matter. This cat is almost twice the size of the Iberian Lynx and I would say counts as a 'big' cat but is very shy, a true forest dweller and almost strictly nocturnal. One can easily say that in Europe it can be considered to be a true ghost. Almost impossible to see. The largest of all Lynxes is this eastern subspecies Lynx lynx lynx. A stunning beast and about the same weight as it's favorite prey the Roe Deer. By size think of a German Shepperd dog. One can see this cat maybe easier in the Himalaya's where it very frequently also hunts in open habitat but this would be the smaller subspecies isabellinus.

Why Estonia? Well truth is, that it is one of the best places in Europe to see it. March is the best time when it is the mating season and the cats wander around more and also call to each other. Estimation is that there are about 400 Lynx in the tiny country (and about 1000 Brown Bears! But they are almost all still in their dens in March). I knew my chances of trying to find it on my own without local knowledge were very slim. The other complication can be the snow. March is winter in Estonia. Very low temperatures are common, most of the country is still covered in snow and ice usually. This means on small forest roads one needs a 4WD. But snow cover is actually good to find this cat.

I contacted Tarvo Valker tarvo.valker@gmail.com

who is one of the leading birders in the country and an excellent guide for birds. I am grateful he put me in contact with Martin Piispea martin.piispea@gmail.com

Martin is THE Lynx expert in Estonia. He is by far your very best help to find this cat. He usually succeeds in finding it within 4 days. He has mapped all movements and sights for many years and works with a system of trail cameras and a top-quality Thermal Image Scope. He can tell you many things about the habits of this ghost. Without Martin your chance to find this cat are close to zero. With him your chances increase to quite likely I would say.


The other reason to visit Estonia (apart from visiting a new country) was to find my last Owl of Europe and my number one wanted missing species of Europe: Ural Owl. Also, Ural Owl is quite likely there though March is a little bit early.

The country in March is also one of the very few in the world to offer the stunning Steller’s Eider and 7 species of Woodpeckers of which three good species: White backed, Eurasian Three toed and Grey Headed were also on my list. I had seen them only once a long time ago. Western Capercaillie was also on my wish list (also seen once before). As was Taiga Bean Goose but this March was still a lot of snow so the masses of thousands of Geese where not passing through yet.

The 2-week trip gave me all the birds that I could hope for and a good range of mammals including the Ghost of all European mammals. Last one even at full daylight which is rare!


Martin can be found on the net:

http://www.gran.ee/

e-mail: martin.piispea@gmail.com

Phone: +372 521 5255


On his website it shows even my first target (Lynx) trying to catch my second target: Ural Owl.

He is highly recommended. He is very good company and goes out of his way to give you the best possibilities he can offer.



 

Pre-departure Planning

Timing is everything. March is excellent for Lynx. Their mating season is fitted to give birth when the Roe Deer gives birth so that not all prey should have to be last a year or older Roe Deer and calves are also on the menu so better chances to raise offspring. I thought that Owls and woodpeckers would also fit. In Holland February is a good month for Woodpeckers and Owls are active even earlier. Estonia is also a very good country to find Ural Owl. It has about 1000-1500 pairs of Ural Owls.

March is excellent for Steller's Eider because this stunningly beautiful species, only possible in a handful of accessible sites in the world, migrates north in April and early timing could result in the sea being frozen. It turned out that because of a late cold spell nature seemed in deep winter sleep when I was there. The only species that seemed active were Eurasian Pygmy Owl and of the Woodpeckers White backed and Grey-headed just seem to have started being active in early mornings only. Grouse were reputedly just starting. At least 1 Capercaillie indeed moved from breeding to lekking habitat. No Owls besides Pygmy were calling spontaneously except 1 Long Eared at a known spot. Hazel Grouse were heard calling. But some good species will be missed. If you go there for Owls, Woodpeckers and Grouse half April is the best. Estonia is also very good for Great Snipe, Blyth's Reed Warbler, Greenish Warbler and to some extend Booted Warbler and other nice species but of course they are not back yet in March and April. In terms of mobility, it must also be noted that earlier than March increases your chances to need a 4WD due to snow. In the West and Northwest, the highways were snow and ice free but non-tarmac roads often were ice roads. The East of Estonia is still in a thick layer of snow in March. Not all winters are the same. 2020 I've heard was a year with hardly any snow. It was kind of weird to see that the end of March seemed a bit like our beginning of January. Some of the birds took a while to get them and the forest was very often completely silent. No Robins and Wrens are even active end of March. They migrate from this far north further south. Get yourself informed locally about snow conditions if you go in winter (and March generally is winter there). Mind that in a day or two the country can be covered in a thick layer of snow around that time and it could not melt away in another month.

A good booklet to prepare if you go for birds is:
Birding Estonia, Uku Paal; Margus Ots 2nd ed. 2020. It contains all the information you need. Good maps and detailed information on sites and birds.

 

Itinerary

I planned this trip to start with a 4-day hunt for the Lynx and then a 10 day driving around to find the interesting birds that I missed during the Lynx hunt


19-03-2022 - Arriving, Lahemaa NP.
20-03-2022 - Lahemaa NP.
21-03-2022 - Lahemaa NP.
22-03-2022 - Lahemaa NP.
23-03-2022 - Pick up rental car. Drive to Parnu
24-03-2022 - Saaremaa Island
25-03-2022 - Sooma NP.
26-03-2022 - Several sites further South
27-03-2022 - Matsalu NP.
28-03-2022 - Sooma NP.
29-03-2022 - Sooma NP.
30-03-2022 - Drive to Haapsalu via Matsalu NP.
31-03-2022 - Silma Nature Reserve
01-04-2022 - Nova Coastal Forest, Cape Poosaspea, Cape Pakri
02-04-2022 - Flying home



General information

Estonia is a very modern very Scandinavian like country.

It is mostly nature is a little bigger than Holland but has only 4 million people.

Currency is the Euro. You can pay everywhere with your own bankcard contactless.

You can jump in your rental car from the Airport without entering the city and it even has an affordable place to stay at the Airport so you can dump your rental car, walk to your hotel and next morning walk to your airplane to fly home. Accommodation is cheap, food is a little more expensive than in Holland.

I paid a little over 200 euro for a week in a very comfortable room in a nice quiet environment.

I spend 2 nights in a very luxurious bungalow with my own private sauna for 120 euro to give you an idea.

Everything is very well organised. People always speak a little English, enough to help you and they are always willing to help you if you need help. What I also liked was that there are lots of petrol stations that sell good quality fast food, quite often up to 22:00 hrs but sometimes 20:00 hrs. You do not have to waste any time if you want to spend as much time in the field as possible. Supermarkets are just like any found in western Europe. Very modern, lots of luxury high quality food, self scanning system to not have to wait at the counter. It may even be ahead as far as digitalisation of everything. It truly is a wonder how this nation developed from being a Soviet state in the 90's into a very modern European country.

Go there to see what happens if a nation joins the EU and NATO if it was a former Soviet state if you are in doubt about the Ukraine joining Europe. Go there if you are an EU sceptic.

In the beginning of the 90's corruption was viral. Forests were dumping places for waste. Now they are very neat, well maintained very clean beautiful National Parks with signposts and information about wildlife and being used by lots of local people.

Estonians should be really proud of what they have achieved in 3 decades time.


March 19-22 Lahemaa NP.

I had an arrangement with Martin for 4 nights. Martin lives in Lahemaa National Park in the middle of Lynx habitat and has a nice comfortable self-contained unit in the middle of the forest where he has lived his entire life. We spend 4 days and late evenings in the area that is shown on the map of the Pärispea peninsula below.





The first night produced quite a few of mammals:

About 3 Red foxes, 3 Raccoon dogs and 2 Beavers, 1 Wild Boar and of course lots of Roe Deer and Common Hare.


The next morning, we had to rush to one of the trail camera's where a male Lynx had triggered a signal picked up by Martin straight away on his mobile.

We watched from a distance the forest edge but saw nothing at the beginning. Then Martin used a speaker to play the sound of the territorial call of a male Lynx. After a while Martin spotted the cat sitting at the forest edge watching us. A fantastic view of this beauty in the morning light! I could even take a few pictures. This is what they usually do when they hear the call Martin said. They stop what they are doing (even when they are eating) and go watching but stay quiet and more or less hidden.

A spectacular view! And this was my first morning in Estonia. Looking at my pictures the very first picture in Estonia was that of a Lynx!

After a few minutes the cat moved towards a Roe Deer carcass just out of view.



But it moved again allowing for a few more pictures.




Eurasian Pygmy Owl was calling when we were watching the animal for 15 minutes or so.





Since we had seen a 9 out of 10 views of this illusive cat, we changed plans a little for the other nights and shifted a little to mornings and evenings for birds.

This produced: wonderful views of a hunting Pine Marten at night, 1 Mountain Hare, 1 Moose and more Red Foxes and 1 Red Squirrel at daytime as far as mammals goes.

Estonia also has a Flying Squirrel in the East which is still in thick snow in March. Martin knows how to find it later in the season or can put you in contact with another guide.


March 20

We tried for a site Martin knew that Ural Owl is present. No spontaneous calls were heard also no response to few brief calls from our tape. But about 19:00 hrs when there was still a little light, I saw my most wanted bird catching a small rodent! 1 Ural Owl



The first full day and my 2 main targets already seen. A wonderful start.

Picture is not the best because of distance and not enough light.


At some distance we heard Eurasian Pygmy Owl calling.


We had a look at the tip of the peninsula. A few Red-breasted Mergansers, Goosanders, Goldeneyes and very distant Long-tailed Ducks.


March 21

Morning try for Capercaillie. And we found one male at a lekking site Martin knew!





March is usually not the best time for this bird but few are just starting their courting.

It seemed shy. We stayed in our car on the road at some distance but to my surprise it allowed us a 5-minute view and decided that it received too much attention and flew away.

Sometimes the birds can be very aggressive and attack people when in the height of their mating game.

Raven is common in Lahemaa as is Hooded Crow all over the country. Jackdaw seen a few times and Rook just few times (f.i. At Haapsalu). Carrion Crow is very rare here.


We moved on to a site where Nutcracker should be present. Heard it calling when we arrived.

And again, we found a Nutcracker.





We think we heard Three-toed Woodpecker also but did not find it.


In the evening we went to a site for Eurasian Pygmy Owl and we soon started hearing several calling.

A few tape calls was enough to get one in a top of a Spruce tree nearby.





So far everything went extremely smooth apart from the Woodpeckers. Well, I needed some challenge when I would drive around in the South for 10 days....


March 22

One of the few birds calling besides a few tits and goldcrests are Eurasian Treecreepers with their song being so different from the species that we have in Holland.



On thing also struck me in particular about the Northern subspecies of the Bullfinches. In March they still use their contact calls. I never heard the contact call of our subspecies

europaea

https://xeno-canto.org/441702/download

It was always the pyrrhula subspecies

https://xeno-canto.org/83654/download

In two weeks time it was everywhere and always very consistent. No europaea subspecies were heard and daily many pyrrhula subspecies were heard many times.


When the call is so systematically, so very different one starts thinking is it the same species?


All Long-tailed tits I saw were of the white-headed caudatus subspecies.







March 22

Morning to try for Hazel Grouse. I'd seen this quite a few times and also had very good views in the past but it is always nice to see one again. After a few calls of the tape, we had a response and a bird was walking towards us: Hazel Grouse.

Camera was set the wrong way so the pic is blurry but it gives an impression.





This year Estonia had a brief spell of nice weather and then winter continued quite firmly and longer than usual. It is always a question how fast the snow melts very spring. Small roads were still snow and ice and temperatures at night went down to minus 14 degrees.

Bird wise this meant that there was very little activity yet. Eurasian Pygmy Owl was the only Owl we heard. (Except one call of a female Long Eared Owl).

The weather was mostly perfect. Cold but hardly any wind and sunny.


The road passes by close to the shore of east coast of the peninsula where Parispea also has White-tailed Eagles always and usually quite a few of them.


At Vihasoo There is a watchtower to view the waterfowl.


https://goo.gl/maps/R9iuJsBJVtqEQFeN7



March 23-April 1

Martin drove me to the Airport where I picked up my rental car to start birding on my own for 10 days to various sites. I based myself near Pärnu. Which seemed in the middle of various sites I wanted to visit

among them:

nearby Audru polder (Geese)

Sooma NP half an hour drive

Matsalu NP about 40 minutes drive

And the very South for some sites.

Next part is grouped to the various interesting sites so not so much chronological.



After arriving in the Pärnu area I drove to Audru Polder which has two access points but both were small very icy roads where one could get stuck in a normal car. There were geese there. Greater White Fronted and Tundra Bean geese and a few Whooper Swans

The weather was not good in the afternoon so I called it a day.


March 24 Saaremaa Island

Drove to Virtsu to take the ferry to Saaremaa Island.

Ferry can be booked beforehand if you intend to cross at a busy time:


https://www.praamid.ee/portal/ticket/departure


But this is not necessary when you go there in March or earlier.

The fee is a little over 16 euro one way for a car.

You can just drive to the gate for the ferry wave your bankcard and they will hand over the contactless device to pay.

On my way from Pärnu to Virtsu I stopped at a very wide stretch of road and as soon as I was out of the car I heard 3 different White-backed Woodpeckers drumming with their characteristic drum that has the same acceleration as a Ping-Pong ball bouncing to rest.


https://goo.gl/maps/UyC98xLhkCjctWQ59


On the way back in the late afternoon I stopped and wandered around from the area I heard them from in the morning but did not get any response with a few tries of the tape and no views either.

The ferry trip (about 40 minutes) will produce lots of Long-tailed Ducks in March and a lot more ducks when later in the season.


The best site for Steller’s Eider is:


https://goo.gl/maps/gepSwePthgzZ2kAv8


This is where I found my group of about 60+ Steller’s Eiders

The light is not very good arriving mid morning and the birds were at a distance so my picture is just an impression for my own memory.





There were also lots of beautiful Long-tailed Ducks around that were courting.



1 Greater Scaup was the only one I saw on this trip. Reputedly half April (only two weeks later) thousands of them will be present usually at good shores stretches.


The second spot is:


https://goo.gl/maps/83FUamZN3WU258Qi7


I did not see them there but there were other ducks around and the sea is likely not frozen even earlier in the season. This might be a better bet if you go earlier.


Interestingly despite the cold I saw still quite few butterflies throughout the trip and one interesting only on Saaremaa:




This looks like Yellow-legged Tortoiseshell to me. I could not check its legs it did not allow close views.


One of the major surprises is the number of butterflies I encountered in the very cold climate.

Apart from this Tortoiseshell, Comma Butterflies, Brimstones, Peacock's, Red Admirals etc. all the stuff that is wintering in Western Europe flying around in the freezing climate with no nectar around. This was probably due to a warm spell some time before I was there.


Great Grey Shrike's and Hen Harriers

Two Bewick's Swan were seen on an open part of the partly frozen sea between Saaremaa and the Island in between Saaremaa and the mainland the two islands are connected by a bridge.

Whooper Swans were found scattered throughout the whole area in small numbers.



March 25, 28, 29 Sooma NP.

For Woodpeckers Sooma NP is good but it could be flooded in March.

The best road proved the road bisecting the park:



The yellow line is the woodpecker road.

Common cranes are everywhere in this country all bogs and open areas in forest seemed to have a pair. They can produce a lot of noise when you try for owls in late evening and they suddenly see you at dusk.





Indeed, it produced the 7 species of Woodpeckers although in March it took me several days to get all of them.


Grey-headed Woodpecker heard calling at a distance but since this was the least of the 3 Woodpeckers, I wanted I started focusing on White backed and 3-toed. Middle Spotted Woodpecker heard calling, I did not look it up because in my home area it is easy to see. Little Spotted Woodpecker heard calling and of course Great Spotted.

Since the "Woodpecker road" through the park was covered in ice I tried walking next to it to listen and see what it would bring. Quite soon a White-backed Woodpecker flew over and landed nearby. It was joined by another and showed quite well:





A few Redpolls flew over. Winter in Estonia can also produce Arctic Redpolls but this winter was like Holland a winter that had very few Redpolls wintering from the north.



Lynxfood is everywhere in Estonia. Maximum speed is 90 km/hr on most roads but in many places that is certainly too fast to react on Roe Deer crossing the road. I had 3 crossings close to my car in just 10 days driving.



March 28

Sooma. Woodpecker road:

A beautiful adult Golden Eagle was flying very near and low but quickly vanished


Black Woodpecker,



Woodcock





March 29

Sooma snowing most of the day but still this day turned out to be one of the best.

Started off walking on the snow and ice ...

Heard Black Grouses near Kuresso Bog

At the start of woodpecker road near the water there were 3 Moose close by but they were too quick off into the forest before I could get my camera.





slowly driving woodpecker road:

Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker


Finally...


Further south halfway between Tipu and Kopu where trees were of reasonable size, I tried a single tape call and immediately got response of Grey-headed Woodpecker




March 26

South to various sites

North-westerm storm. It was very cold due to the strong wind

Laiksaare Forest. Red Crossbills. Estonia is also famous for Parrot Crossbills but I did not find those with certainty.

Nigula Bog was still completely frozen. No birds.

Haademeeste Coastal meadow. Due to strong winds and distance did not seem appealing. A group of Goldfinches on the ground seemed a little confiding:





On the way back stopped to check a flock of Geese. In between the Tundra's there seemed one individual that had a bit of a Taiga appearance it seems to have the Taiga-like orange on the bill and also seems to have a fairly long bill but after checking the strongly curved line between the upper and lower mandible I'm hesitant to call this a Taiga.






March 27 Matsalu


On road to Matsalu: Red Kite. Arriving at Kloostri: Great Grey Shrike

Everything still frozen even the bay (seawater) still frozen. Some small groups of Tundra Bean geese between several Thousand of Greater White-fronted Geese and some Barnacle Geese.


Suitsu:

Sea mostly frozen still. Somewhat in the distance: Whooper Swans, Pintails, Tufted Ducks, Common Pochards etc.

Great Grey Shrike, Rough-legged Buzzard


Drove back via Ermistu Lakes but everything still frozen calling Great Bittern as was Lindi Bog near Liu Spit. There Great Egret, Smew (2) and the regular species like Whooper Swans, Goldeneyes Goosanders, Red Breasted Mergansers



March 30

Started driving north to next destination for two nights.

On the way tried Matsalu NP but now the north part of the bay. Still, everything frozen but this time more flocks of Geese. Rannajoe is the place with lots of Geese. Checking some of the pictures again there is one suspicious individual between them but again it didn't convince me to be a true Taiga.




Arriving at the bungalow on the shore of the small lake of Vaike viik in Haapsalu. I was not surprised that the lake was completely frozen. This lake often has a pair of Horned Grebe breeding in summer.



The sea was partly open around the peninsula because it is more open to wind. But not a lot of waterfowl yet.

Goosanders, Goldeneye's, Whooper Swans and other not too interesting duck species were there.



March 31


Sutlepa Sea

There was quite a bit of open water but not that many waterfowl. One of the surprises is that Great Egret has totally settled in Estonia now. One sees quite a few now even in a cold winter. Distribution maps do still not show this settlement in most sources.



Apart from this group at Sutlepa Sea I saw one at Parnu several times, one at Liu Spit.




On way to Nova Coastal Forest

Finally passed by a small group of Waxwings. One of the birds I hoped to see. But they moved north soon after I took the first distant shot:





The forest seemed excellent for Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse I would think this should be also one of the places to try for Tengmalms Owl: Lots of old Black Woodpecker holes. I checked at least 6 of them to see if they were occupied simulating Pine Marten on the bark. No signs. This owl is also quite possible in Estonia with 100-200 pairs but is the third rarest of their regular breeding owls. Great Grey Owl sometimes has a few pairs and so does Northern Hawk Owl. If you want to try the rare Owls you might want to contact Tarvo (above) to see what the situation is. If Great Grey or Northern Hawk Owls active he is the most likely to know about them.


April 1st

Last day.

Early morning to check the nice forest at Nova Coastal Forest again. But it was very quiet and nothing interesting was seen. Then checked Cape Poosaspea:

Common Eiders courting Long-tailed Ducks, Goosanders, Goldeneye’s and a Flock Snow Buntings

flew by.


After that I drove to Cape Pakri

The one site where Black Guillemots are breeding in summer to see if they might be there already. Did not see them but a huge group of courting Long-tailed Ducks in the distance.


Tried one site south of Tallinn but it wasn't suitable to walk around and did not seem very productive.

I filled up the car, drove to the Hotel Tallinn by Mercure at the Airport, cleaned the car and returned it.

Next very early morning was a 500 m walk to the airplane and that was it.

Practically saw everything that I hoped for with marvellous views of a Lynx as the undisputable highlight.