in search of owls, woodpeckers and wintering wildfowl



"Thank you for sending your tour report for Estonia, plus a CD. Both good reminders of some excellent birding. Great Snipe and Nutcracker were my own favourites.."......  Mrs W, Edinburgh





Estonia has become a firm favourite in the Bird Holidays calendar. Having completed ten succesful trips to this small and beautiful Baltic country, we have been enthralled by the surprises it has to offer. With its Siberian-like taiga forests, Scandinavian peat bogs and water meadows full of wildfowl and waders, Estonia has a wide variety of habitats to explore. The country has a fascinating indented coastline of inlets, small bays and promontories with more than a thousand offshore islands. For a short time in spring thousands upon thousands of ducks, geese and swans use Estonia as a stopover on their northward migration to Arctic breeding grounds.


This tour offers a slight twist to our established late spring tour as we head out earlier to coincide with this mass migration. Many wintering seaduck remain and with luck we will still be able to find a few Steller’s Eiders amongst the countless thousands of Long-tailed Ducks. Large flocks of geese are on the move, particularly White-fronted and Bean Geese. A small remmant population of Lesser White-fronted Geese also stop over in late April at Matsalu Bay, an internationally important Ramsar site. April is a good time to locate calling Pygmy and Tengmalm’s Owls. Woodpeckers are more vocal and easier to locate now before the trees gain their foliage. It is possible to see seven species of woodpecker including Grey-headed, White-backed and Three-toed.


At this time the migration of cranes is well underway and raptors too are also heading north in numbers, particularly Rough-legged Buzzards and Marsh Harriers. The first summer migrants are returning, such as Thrush Nightingale, Bluethroat, Savi’s Warbler, Penduline Tit and Citrine Wagtail.





We arrive at Tallinn airport, the Estonian capital, and are quickly transferred south to Parnu on the Gulf of Riga where we will be based for two nights.


Sooma Bog is an ancient habitat created by a mix of lakes, mosses and forested bogs. The woods in early spring are already full of the sound of birdsong. Redwings, Robins and Chaffinches are very common. The targets here are the resident woodpeckers which include Black, Grey-headed, White-backed and Three-toed. Other more secretive residents of the forest include Capercaille, Hazelhen and Nutcracker, whilst Woodlarks sing in the clearings. Hawfinches can be relatively common whilst other specialities include the striking white-headed form of Long-tailed Tit.


If the skies are clear, parties of Common Cranes will be seen and heard heading north along with skeins of migrating geese. Coastal fields attract thousands of White-fronted Geese and both forms of Bean Goose, the stubby billed Tundra and the longer billed Taiga. At this time the first waves of migrating Barnacle Geese appear and with them perhaps a chance of the rare Red-breasted Goose.


In the late afternoon or early evening there will be an opportunity to listen for owls in the vicinity of our hotel. The forests here hold the large and impressive Ural Owl as well as the smaller but equally enigmatic Tengmalm’s and Pygmy Owls.



On day three we drive north a short way before catching a ferry to Estonia’s largest island, Saaremaa. Time has stood still in this beautiful and special place which is reminscent of our own Atlantic coastline. The fields are lined with stone walls and colourful houses, while churches adorn the countryside. This will be our home for two nights as we explore the headlands and bays of the island’s west coast. Thousands of seaduck both winter and migrate off the north west corner of Saaremaa. With the help of local guides we will seek out Steller’s Eiders which should still be present in small numbers. The sea here is alive with Long-tailed Ducks and Common Scoters and both Red-throated and Black-throated Divers will be passing by close inshore. Red-necked Grebes feed in the small bays which also hold good numbers of Smew, Goosander and Goldeneye. Visible migration is very evident with White Wagtails, Siskins, Bramblings and Chaffinches constantly passing overhead.


If the weather is favourable cranes will also be on the move and raptors stop to soar and gain height above the last fingers of land before heading out across the Gulf of Finland. Species on the move should include both Common and Rough-legged Buzzards as well as Sparrowhawks and perhaps a surprise in the form of a Golden or Lesser Spotted Eagle. White-tailed Eagles are returning to breed on offshore islands and create a fantastic spectacle as they scatter seaduck before them.



On day five we head back to the mainland via the narrow strait of water between Saaremaa and Virtsu which is usually packed with seaduck. The hordes of Long-tailed Ducks are accompanied by smaller numbers of Scaup and scoter. If packs of sea ice are still present we may find Ringed Seals resting on them.


We will spend our final three nights at Haapsalu, visiting Matsalu, Poosaspea and Leidissoo. Matsalu Bay is Estonia’s premier nature reserve and an internationally important Ramsar site. Most of the world’s population of Bewick’s Swans use the bay as a staging base en route to their arctic breeding grounds. Along with both Mute and Whooper Swans over 10,000 wild swans can be found in the bay at this time of year! The strident sound of bugling swans is a magical one and provides an enduring memory of a tour at this time of year. Alongside the wildfowl breeding waders such as Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff and Snipe will have returned and can be observed displaying over the marshes from the reserve’s watch-towers. Bitterns can be heard booming whilst both Marsh Harriers and the massive White-tailed Eagles display over the extensive reedbeds. The surrounding woodland also holds White-backed Woodpeckers and this is one of the best areas in the country to encounter this species. In all over 170 breeding species have been recorded and the site also boasts the record Northern European day count of an amazing 197 species recorded in a 24 hour period!


Large mammals, particularly Roe Deer, are common in the the area and we know of two sites from which to observe Elk; sometimes a dozen or more of these magnificent beasts can be found. In addition there is a chance of encountering the tracks and signs of European Beaver, Wolf or Brown Bear.


The area is huge and we will make more than one visit to maximise the potential of this impressive reserve.



Although little more than a spit jutting out into the sea Poosaspea is perhaps the most famous of all Estonian birdwatching sites. In spring it is a magnet for migrating birds. Thousands of wildfowl pass offshore, and hundreds of cranes and raptors use it to launch their journeys across the Baltic Sea to Finland and beyond. On some days the woods and marshes hold countless passerine migrants. One morning during our visit in April 2010 some 25 Rough-legged Buzzards flew north at Poosaspea, along with smaller numbers of Common Buzzard and Sparrowhawks. Over 100 Velvet Scoters flew past offshore along with good numbers of both Red-throated and Black-throated Divers and several Red-necked Grebes.



The forested hinterland of Poosaspea is also an exceptional area for birds. Most of the land is still forested with pine trees. Both Capercaille and Hazelhens can be encountered on the access road just south of the famous headland. The woods hold small populations of specialist birds such as Nutcracker, Parrot Crossbill, Crested Tit and Three-toed Woodpeckers. There will be opportunities to look for these birds as well as to visit a Black Grouse lek. Green Sandpipers display above the forest canopy.


On day eight we will head back to Tallinn for a morning flight home. Alternatively why not extend your stay and spend a couple of nights in Tallinn?



Breakfast will usually be around 7am to 7.30 am, perhaps later if the previous day has been tiring. Basic fitness is all that is required. Full days will be spent in the field and short walks on the flat will be undertaken regularly. There are no uphill walks.



Full board accomodation will be provided with two nights at the Lepanina Hotel, just south of Parnu, two nights at Kuressaare on Saaremaa and three nights at the Hotel Promenaadi in Haapsalu. All hotels are of good standard and all rooms have en suite facilities. Packed lunches will be provided every day.



All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guides (starting with dinner on 16th, ending with breakfast on 23rd), local transport by minibus, ferry to Saaremaa, reserve entrance fees, soft drinks at meal times, international flights and airport taxes.



Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.



Return flights from London Heathrow to Tallinn (via Helsinki) using the scheduled services of Finnair. Outbound flight departs mid morning, with return landing late afternoon. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are avaiable on this tour. See booking form for details.



7 nights:


Principal leader:


Local guide:


Maximum group size:


Cost with discount

(if you book before

1st January 2011):


Full Cost:


Single supplement:





16th to 23rd April 2011


John McLoughlin


Tarvo Valker


12 clients with one leader

and a local guide



£1550 per person sharing


£1650 per person sharing







We have managed to see Ural Owl on most of our Estonia tours. This one posed nicely in 2005.

Cranes are common nesting birds in Estonia. At the time of our tour, local birds are starting to nest, while Russian birds are passing through.

Barnacle Geese over the Baltic - chased by a White-tailed Eagle

We found a Citrine Wagtail on our first trip to Estonia when it was a very rare bird. Since then, they have become regular breeders.

Penduline Tits will be nest-building. This male showed well in 2005.

An Estonian meadow in early spring

The peat bogs attract breeding Wood sandpiper, Black-tailed Godwit and Common Gull

Meadows around Matsalu Bay

The pine forest is home to Nutcracker, Crested Tit, Bear & Capercaillie

The Northern Nuthatches have white breasts. This bird nested next to our hotel.


Estonian Manor House.


The Elk or Moose is common at Matsalu


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