I have spent the past weeks assisting Triin Kaasiku with her PhD fieldwork in Estonia. While most time was spent searching for wader nests, there was plenty of time to enjoy other birds as well. I can now safely conclude Estonia is a fantastic country for birding! Regardless of my principle not to travel only for ‘fun birding’, the northernmost Baltic country wasn't on my radar so much, but it now certainly is and I’m surely coming back. The following is a compilation of the most interesting (or nice) photos I’ve made during my stay, mostly from the occasional migration counts we have done, the ferry crossings or when some of the field sites were particularly loaded with birds.
P.S. A word of warning: if you don’t like ducks, better not scroll down.
P.P.S. In comparison with other blog posts this one is probably a little bit sloppy in terms of photo selection and writing. As I have quite some travel planned in the upcoming months, I prioritised getting it out regardless, so it won’t end up on the big pile that’s my todo list.
Highlights in chronological order
April 22nd, 2019 — Ristna
Absolutely breathtaking day! I knew I liked duck migration already, but until you see it at the scale it occurs at in the northern European countries… you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Besides an impressive ~13.000 Common Scoters and 10.000 Long-tailed Ducks, I saw my first ‘proper’ Yellow-billed Diver (what a bird!), we found the 5th Great Skua for Estonia and to top it all off a Great Northern Diver passed over our heads. The last bird is the only one I regret not having any photos of as it is still a seriously rare record in Estonia.
April 27th — Saaremaa
We had to go to Hiiumaa for fieldwork and decided to travel through Saaremaa, to hopefully catch the Steller’s Eiders that could still be lingering around. In the end we searched in every possible bay they could be in, but we unfortunately didn’t find any birds. Nevertheless, we had a great day birding, found a female Red-footed Falcon (quite rare in spring), a Ring Ouzel and made lots of complete eBird lists along the way. Especially the crossings with the ferries were very rewarding as we had stunning views of the Long-tailed Ducks in perfect light. It’s still difficult to photograph the species in flight over water, but oh so enjoyable.
Ok, here comes what I’ve warned you for: some ducks.
April 28th, 2019 — Aandi
Aandi was probably our favourite fieldwork site on Hiiumaa, hosting a large diversity of bird species, but also in very impressive numbers. Specifically, numbers of Geese are absolutely incredible and certainly high for Dutch standards as well. We, for example, estimate to have seen over 14.000 Barnacle Geese fly over us in the span of a 30-minute mass movement.
April 29th, 2019 — Ristna
This place just fails to disappoint! After spending a whole day searching for Steller’s Eiders through the heat haze over the bays of Saaremaa, we were confident it would be highly unlikely we would still get to see this species. But then at the end of this day’’s count, out of the blue a group of 27 Steller’s Eiders passed the cape at just a few hundred meters from us. Despite seeing the birds mostly through the camera, we had breathtaking views of this fantastic species. And really, what better way to see them than on migration? This was the icing on the cake of an already very impressive count with 8000+ Long-tailed Ducks, a whopping 34 Rough-legged Buzzards, a Short-eared Owl and 3 Black Guillemots. Furthermore, the migration of Hobbies and Common Buzzards was very interesting as almost all birds came from the sea, probably arriving from a nightly crossing of the Baltic Sea from Sweden!
May 3rd, 2019 — Hiiumaa
Changeable, cloudy and very windy conditions made for a difficult photo session of the Long-tailed Ducks on the ferry to Hiiumaa. As it was impossible to get properly sharp images in 6Bft winds anyways, I opted for a different approach.
The weather conditions remained the same for the larger part of the morning, providing very nice backdrops for photographing birds on the field sites.
May 5th, 2019 — Ristna & Back to the mainland
Another excellent count! After the first one during a previous count, we never expected to see three Yellow-billed Divers in a single day! The first and third flew right over our heads. With a little sunlight added to the mix and the birds overhead, it's probably the easiest diver to identify: when lit from the side, that massive bill shines like a light bulb! The second bird was not photographed for a change, because I preferred to — finally — properly see and enjoy one through the scope instead of a camera.
Besides the Divers, we counted an incredible 54.000+ Common Scoters. Unfortunately we failed to properly estimate the duration of the drive to Ristna and started quite a bit later than anticipated. Based on the speed of passage in the first minutes of the count, we estimate we must have missed at least 15.000 Scoters by starting too late, if not (much) more.
Furthermore, we counted another 7 Steller’s Eiders, a (probably 2cy) Pomarine Skua, 3 Black Guillemots and 13 Common Guillemots, the latter of which is a seriously high number for this part of the Baltic region.
The morning had already proven to be fantastic for Duck migration, but the evening was even more impressive. On our way back to the ferry, we could see Ducks starting their nocturnal migrations and taking off from the water everywhere. Never before have I seen a dusk ascent of birds on this scale. Truly a magical sight to see, especially in this gorgeous light! Seeing so many ducks start their nocturnal migration at this scale is certainly an experience I will never forget.
May 6th, 2019 — Virtsu
The final vismig session of my trip. Relatively uneventful, except for the 27+ Arctic Skua that were migrating through the strait. The terns and specifically the Arctic Terns at the harbor were showing absolutely brilliantly.
For now these are all the photos I have ready to share. I hope you enjoyed going through them, despite the sloppiness of this blog post…