Posts tagged great northern diver
Estonian Highlights

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


A lonely house on the peninsula. Must be amazing to life there…


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.


Mixed streams of Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters. They were all over the place: low, high, close, near, over land, over sea…

The 5th Great Skua for Estonia and we have the pixels to prove it.

My first ‘proper’ Yellow-billed Diver. Great to see after an observation of a migrating individual in The Netherlands that left me very unsatisfied. In case you’re wondering where the yellow bill went, that’s a typical ‘sign’ you’re looking at a YbD: it’s very hard to see the bill against the sea.

The team that made it happen, minus yours truly. Batumi Raptor Count represented by Triin performing coordinator duties and Gabi doing what he does best: tackling continuous streams of birds.

The team, once again (including yours truly).

A close Black-throated Diver. For some reason many birds were flying with their bills somewhat opened up. Is that some form of thermoregulation for migratory flights?

Three Black-throated Divers.


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.


Adult female Red-footed Falcon, quite a rare spring migrant in Estonia.

Flock of Barnacle Geese crossing in front of the ferry. Very pretty geese in general, but especially in Estonian light conditions…


Ok, here comes what I’ve warned you for: some ducks.


Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Ducks. Same birds as above.

A flock of Long-tailed 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.


Barnacle Geese.

Greater White-fronted Geese.

Some geese moving back to the bay after a short trip towards the surrounding agricultural fields.

The same flock as in the previous photo.

A small flock of Cranes. I never expected Cranes to be so common in Estonia. It seems that every field has a pair of Cranes somewhere around…

A single adult Common Crane making a close flyby.

Quite regularly the geese would be scared away from the bay by approaching White-tailed Eagles (so common we call them the Estonian House Sparrows). This kettle of 11 (!) White-tailed Eagles, however, was a surprise to see!


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!


Fan-tas-tic! What a treat! A very compact group of 27 Steller’s Eiders passing the watch site at just a few hundred meters. The next day another 69 birds would be seen migrating past the cape.

Hobby arriving from the sea.

Second calendar year Rough-legged Buzzards were most common and most of the birds were actively moulting their 1st primary (P1).


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.


Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Ducks.


The weather conditions remained the same for the larger part of the morning, providing very nice backdrops for photographing birds on the field sites.


Little Tern in light snow.

Little Tern in light snow.

Adult Little Gull… Beautiful birds…

Adult Little Gull. Photographing these birds poses one major challenge: getting a little bit of catch light in the eyes. So far I have failed miserably at that. Until I manage to do so I am convinced the black cap and eye of these birds can be classified among our blackest materials possible.

Lots of Ruff around, mostly in full breeding plumage.

Dunlin of the schinzii subspecies, with restricted black on the belly.

A massive flock of Golden Plovers.

Golden Plovers hanging/soaring in the strong wind.


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.


What. A. Bird! Yellow-billed Diver. The third one of the day.

Yellow-billed Diver, the third bird of the day.

The first Yellow-Billed Diver of the day. As you can see, it flew right over us.


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.


A flock of Common Scoters.


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.


The scenery that we could enjoy on the way back.

Red-breasted Mergansers

Female and male Goosander.

A flock of — you guessed it — Long-tailed Ducks taking off for the night.

More Long-tailed Ducks…

As birds were flying progressively higher, some groups could be seen quite close overhead. Before this evening I had not seen birds from below properly, as they would mostly fly at or below eye level.

More Long-taileds…

Flocks of probably mostly Scoters cruising north at high altitude.

Common Scoters and a few Long-tailed Ducks.


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.


A small flock of Common Goldeneye, many of which — for some reason — were flying south rather than north.

Arctic Tern.

Arctic Tern hovering.

Arctic Tern, same bird as previous.

Arctic Tern, same bird as previous.


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…

VisMig Highlights October 2018

I spent the majority of the month October coordinating the Batumi Raptor Count in Georgia, but after my return to The Netherlands there were still a few nice days of migration counting to be enjoyed at De Vulkaan.

Interesting records in chronological order

October 23rd — October 26th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Four days with fantastic conditions for seawatching. On the 23rd we counted 6 Leach’s Storm Petrels, on the 24th we counted 15 of them and on the 26th a whopping 29 Leach’s Storm Petrels. We saw 2 Great Northern Divers (1 on the 24th, the other on the 26th) and loads of other species to enjoy. By far the best sighting of these days, however, was one that I unfortunately had to miss: on the 25th, a relatively slow morning, the first ever migrating Cory’s Shearwater for The Netherlands was recorded. The bird would later on be seen at multiple count sites south of The Hague, where they managed to safe it from an otherwise obligatory identification as a Calonectric spec. A full report of what happened that day in The Hague and further south can be found on the Dutch Birding website (unfortunately in Dutch only).

October 28th, 2018 — De Vulkaan

Calm weather and winds from the east as usual bring a nice variety of species to the our site. For some reason a large Diver made the decision to fly over land rather than over the sea, which unfortunately meant we had to look against the sun and could not identify it on species level. A single Pale-bellied Brent Goose was seen flying south in between impressive migration of almost 3000 Great Cormorants. Fairly early in the morning we started to see fairly strong migration of raptors, including a season’s first Rough-legged Buzzard, a Short-eared Owl and two Merlins.

Juvenile Common Buzzard

Over the city migration of Common Buzzards started picking up and we had counted dozens by the time I decided to leave. I figured that the day woud not produce anything of substance anymore (keep in mind I had just returned from Georgia where we counted a million raptors in 2 months). Usually the afternoons are very slow and rarely interesting, but this time I was wrong about that. When I arrived home and had a look at the local Whatsapp groups, it was clear something else was going on: Common Buzzards were migrating through the region in unprecedented numbers. By the end of the day a whopping 363 Common Buzzards were counted at De Vulkaan, a massive improvement of our previous record of 225 birds. Surprisingly, this was the highest number of migrating birds counted in The Netherlands on that day, something that rarely happens at this coastal site so far in the west.

October 31st, 2018 – De Vulkaan

An adult female Rough-legged Buzzard, which surprisingly came from the south, hence the record shot from this weird angle.

From the moment the sun hit the horizon, a continuous stream of Common Gulls was seen far over the sea migrating south. There are few things I enjoy the challenge of as much as counting and identifying distant groups/streams of gulls, so this day had plenty to offer for me. By the end of the count we had amassed over 8000 Common Gulls, the 4th best day in The Netherlands. In between the gulls were great numbers of Alcids (mostly Guillemots) for October (640 of them) and Red-throated Divers (149), the latter of which is a new October record for the country. Like on the 28th, Buzzards were flying in good numbers and we counted 112 of the Common ones and were surprised to find 2 Rough-legged Buzzards going north. A late 1cy Marsh Harrier was a nice sighting as well.

All of that would have made for a memorable day already, but this day had migration of Red Kites as well, a species only record on ~50 days at our site in decades of counting. For some reason Red Kites were migrating in full force across the western half and middle of the country this day. We tallied a whopping 15 Red Kites, truly unprecedented numbers for the Dutch coastal region, and could enjoy 9 of them flying in a single group. Our previous record was 6 Red Kites on March 18th, 1988.

Adult Red Kite, the only bird which came close enough for a photo.

And that concludes November 2018.