11th-18th Feb 2023 – Estonia – Ducks, Owls & Woodpeckers

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Not a tour, but a short trip away. After a cancellation, I had a week free and decided to make good use of it to head to Estonia with my son for a short break. February is a bit early for many birds – March is generally the preferred time to visit – but we still figured it was worth a go and a couple of our target species might be better earlier. We were helped in our quest by local guide Tarvo Valker (https://birdinghaapsalu.ee/), who took us out on one day and provided us with other invaluable information.

Steller’s Eider was the first species we wanted to find and February is a good time to see them. An Arctic breeding sea duck, there are only a couple of places in Europe where they are relatively easy to see in winter, one of which is Estonia. We spent a day and a half on the island of Saaremaa, off the west coast of mainland Estonia, where the Steller’s Eiders can be found. We got lucky, with around 55 of them in one of the harbours, mostly roosting during the day with a mixed raft of Greater Scaup and Tufted Ducks.

Steller’s Eiders – great views of these ducks

Estonia is also a great place for owls. We were a little early for some of the breeding species, but a small number of Hawk Owls winter here. On the sunniest afternoon of our trip, we were treated to some stunning views of a Hawk Owl perched in some trees, preening. It was totally unconcerned by our presence and we found a place to sit close by to watch it. Stunning!

Hawk Owl – stunning views

Pygmy Owl is a resident breeder in the forests, but they were still noticeably quiet while we were there. We heard a couple calling in the dark very early one morning but they went quiet before it got light. Thankfully, we then did get lucky to come across one which seemed to be more territorial already, and started calling mid morning, so we were able to track it down.

Pygmy Owl – calling mid morning

Hazel Grouse was our other target species. Again, they were not particularly vocal or responsive yet but Tarvo did eventually manage to locate some for us, although they didn’t hang around long enough for photos. On subsequent days, we came across a few others but the best we saw was birds flying away.

A good variety of woodpeckers also frequent the forests here, and we managed to locate 6 out of 7 species (we were probably a little too early for Three-toed, and the weather was not helpful either later in the trip, when we were particularly looking for them). The northern form of White-backed Woodpecker, leucotos, was a subspecies tick for us and one of the more active and vocal species already.

White-backed Woodpecker – male
White-backed Woodpecker – female

Black Woodpeckers were also very active already, particularly at the start of our visit when the weather was a little warmer. We saw two birds displaying at one point. We also heard Grey-headed Woodpecker, and saw singles of Middle Spotted Woodpecker and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Great Spotted Woodpecker is relatively common, and we saw several.

Although the wider countryside is quite quiet at this time of the year, there were a few other species we found on our travels. Here are a few highlights. We came across a few crossbills, mainly in the forests towards the coast. As well as several Common Crossbills, we did see a pair of Parrot Crossbills up towards Spithami.

Parrot Crossbill – the male

Spotted Nutcrackers were fairly common and very vocal, but hard to get good photos as they remained in the tops of the trees.

Spotted Nutcracker – atop a spruce

It was interesting to hear the Bullfinches here – they have a very distinctive call, a bit like a toy trumpet. We occasionally see irruptions of these ‘trumpeting’ Northern Bullfinches which reach the UK in the winter.

Northern Bullfinch – sounds like a toy trumpet

Scarce in winter, we came across three different Great Grey Shrikes on our travels.

Great Grey Shrike – one of three

White-tailed Eagles were fairly common, particularly on Saaremaa and along the coast. This one was loafing on the ice off the causeway between Muhu and Saaremaa islands in the sunshine as we headed back to the mainland.

White-tailed Eagle – on ice

Jackdaws are quite common in the towns and villages (along with Hooded Crows and Ravens also in the countryside). It was interesting to look through some flocks of Jackdaws, as there was quite a bit of variation in appearance. Both ‘Nordic’ monedula and ‘Russian’ soemmeringi are believed to occur here. Birds with very extensive pale collars may well be of Russian origin.

Jackdaw – ‘Nordic’ or ‘Russian’

And finally to finish up, back to ducks. Long-tailed Ducks are common along the coast. One of the other highlights of the trip was watching displaying Long-tailed Ducks after tearing ourselves away from the Steller’s Eider, when a drake Long-tailed Duck flew in and landed on the water right below the jetty where we were standing. Amazing views of such a stunning species!

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