The landscape was green and lush. Forests, meadows and wetlands flashed by us as we made our way from Tallinn airport to the West of Estonia. There was such a variety of habitats that it felt as if we were travelling across the world – not just two hours across one country!
It was the middle of September and I had been invited by Marika, of Estonia Nature Tours, to witness the wonder of Autumn migration. With the eastern Atlantic flyway running along the western Estonian coast millions of birds fly along this route annually, from their overwintering grounds in the warmer climes of western Europe and Africa to their breeding grounds to the North (many within the Arctic circle) and back again.
Amazingly 25% of Western Estonia is made up of protected areas, and our plan for the week was to focus on the most famous of these areas – the Matsalu National Park. A Ramsar-listed wetland, the Matsalu National Park was designated in 1957, primarily for the protection of migrating waterfowl, and our guide Ivar assured us that it was the best place to spot those jet-setters of the birding world.
We hadn’t been driving long before we spotted our first flock of common cranes flying overhead. And then, every field we passed after, seemed to reveal more of them – with their grey silk bodies, long black legs and shock of red feathers on the top of the adults heads, against the lush green meadows or crops of yellow flowers or muddy brown fields they looked like paintings. Their harsh cronking calls, so at odds with their subtle elegant forms, filled the air. They foraged for food next to greylag geese and the odd whooper swan. But the true scale of the cranes numbers was only made clear a little later from the Rannajõe observation tower, which overlooks the Kasari floodplain, a known pre-roost site for the common cranes before they headed to their roosts in the reed beds. Each year 10-15 thousand common cranes use the Bay as a stop-off during their Autumn migration – their numbers reinforced by their new young, who I was surprised to learn from Ivar wouldn’t breed until they were at least 3 to 7 years old – and as we watched the gathering flock the air tingling with their cries, it was impossible not to be overwhelmed by them.
“Cranes are my favourite bird because for me they announce the onset of Autumn – a time when we can begin to relax, curl up on the sofa by the fire, have time to ourselves after the busy Summer,” Marika explained to me. One of my favourite traits about birds is their significance to people, and sharing in what was such a personal experience for Marika made that first evening all the more magical.
We awoke the next morning to the same noise that had welcomed the darkness and which now greeted the rising sun – the calling of a 1,000 plus cranes from an islet close by to our guest house. Tuulingu Guesthouse was situated on the Haeska coastal meadow, a muddy stretch exposed by the low sea level which was perfect for the gadwall, wigeon, great white egrets, greylag and barnacle geese that fed there. We even had a bar-tailed godwit land in front of us, only to be rudely chased away by a territorial lapwing.
Hours could have been easily spent at the top of Tuulingu’s observation tower, watching the comings and goings, but Ivar had things he wanted to show us. Our first morning we ventured a little way out of Matsalu to Variku Fields, an area known for its black grouse population. Scouring the fields as we drove, the brakes were slammed on and the scope set up before I even knew what it was we were looking at. Finally, I caught sight of the little black head, and then another, and then another …. there were 16 male black grouse in total, their distinctive red wattles wobbling, their white feathered bottoms flashing as they practised their lek. The black grouse aren’t migrants, but we were never too far from the travelling contingent of the feathered community with northern wheatear hopping about the track, endless swallows dancing through the sky and the call of larks from high above.
From there we drove through Leidissoo Forest, the type of forest you hear about in fairytales with lichen dripping from the spruce and pine trees, where lynx, wolf and bear roamed, huge red toadstools emerged from the leaf litter and scattered bird boxes (apparently from the Soviet era) hung from the tree trunks.
Our next stop was Poosaspea peninsula for the Arctic migration, to see the migrants arriving from the tundra area. There were flocks of Brent geese, 200 or more black- and red-throated divers, red-necked grebes, crested grebes, velvet and common scoters, cormorants, common eiders, Arctic and sandwich terns, long-tailed ducks and a flock of scaup. The record for the area had been May in 1997 when in a single day one million passing Arctic waterfowl were counted at Cape Poosaspea.
But it was the following day, at Puise Peninsula, that I was really blown away with the number of migrants. The conditions were perfect for the smaller birds to make their journey, the wind was a strong south-westerly, the sea reflecting this with foamy white crests atop of its perfect blue along which patrolled white tailed eagles. And in those first twenty minutes of arriving, we had seen over 10,000 chaffinch. Ivar was our measuring stick, how he did it I have no clue for the rate they were passing us seemed uncountable in my eyes. They flew past a blizzard of birds. There were blue tits, long tailed tits and bramblins, green finches, coal tits and spotted flycatchers. We saw at least 50 migratory woodpeckers – greater, middle and lesser spotted. They made it look like they were having the time of their lives, soaring so easily into the wind, all in it together on this epic journey – the blackbirds, hawfinch, redwings, fieldfare, snipe, woodlark, meadow pipits, ringed plover, common sandpiper. As the morning sun caught them on their passage they looked like autumn leaves tumbling through the sky. A little flock of 30 or so birds bobbed up and down, their flight pattern quite different to anything else I’d seen and the cry came from across the viewing deck – bearded reedlings! A nutcracker flew directly towards us and the group almost cheered in excitement. It was an awe inspiring and emotional 3 hours, and Ivar’s final tally for the time was that over 80,000 birds had flown by. And by ten o’clock, of those first chaffinch that we’d seen it was highly likely they had already made it to Latvia!
It got me thinking about the physicality of migration on these birds, something we would never truly understand. Humans can do as many iron mans or Tour de Frances as they like, but nothing will ever compare to the feat of bird migration on this scale. I thought to myself that although physically we cannot compete we should certainly be inspired by the fearlessness of these creatures.
Mixed flocks of linnet and goldfinch floated across the meadows, roe deer grazed at the fringes, and as we drove back to our guesthouse we sang songs, like school children, in the back of the bus. Suddenly a shout interrupted our rhythm and the car came to an abrupt stop. In the field to our left, a huge male elk was sauntering across the middle. He was a magnificent creature, but you could tell by his pace that he wasn’t very keen on being exposed. Fortunately for us the field was wide and he gave us a beautiful show before reaching the thick forest on the far side and melting into it.
On our last day, we headed early to Puhtu Peninsula, a unique broad leafed forest which stretched further to the north and was situated directly on the shoreline. We spotted our first red squirrel as we arrived, the iconic little tufts on his ears giving him away as he sat watching us from a tree branch. As we walked the trail, sunlight twinkling through the canopy, a sudden movement caught our eye as a large grey bird flew through the trees. It was a ural owl! it disappeared as quickly as it had appeared – a ghost of the forest. After about half an hour we came across an old research station, where ornithologist Jüri Keskpaik had in the early 1970s led a team of pioneers that had quite possibly put the very first radio transmitters on birds in Europe to study their physiology. Ivar told us that it had been Jüri who had taught Ivar how to use radio transmitters on cranes. There was a watch tower on the peninsula that had been built in 1979 and had been where the researchers used to stand with their radio antennas, receiving the signals from tagged birds.
“I tell people that Matsalu is like a 5* hotel,” explained Marika as we stood on the peninsula, watching a flock of golden eye fly by. “There is such a good variety of habitats – places for migratory birds to feed, rest and hide – it is why some stay up to two weeks here as they migrate through.” I could understand what attracted them to this place. The landscape is that of a bygone era, the wildlife is abundant and on top of the natural wonders of the area the warmth and hospitality of Estonia’s people, as well as its hearty, home cooked meals, together made it a place I knew I would return.
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