"Thanks for a super trip, it really was first class, I think the Baltic States being so under populated and quiet...
a real tonic for overstressed westerners, it did me a power of good. So many birds and so many memories"
.... Mrs M, N. Yorks
Being rich in large mammals, wildfowl and cranes, Latvia was once the luxurious secret hide-away for the Prussian aristocracy. Later, the Soviet elite, including ministers and generals, would enjoy weekends hunting its marshes and ancient forests, or strolling the long deserted Baltic beaches.
For this reason Latviaís rich natural resources survived intact to the modern day. The peace-loving Latvians have been welcomed into the European Union and much of their landscape is protected. A low population density means that there is little threat to the wild areas; something few countries can still boast.
Our tour takes us into forests full of Elk, Red Deer, Beaver and Wild Boar. Martens and Red Squirrel are frequently seen and eight species of woodpecker leave their mark on every tree. Green Sandpiper and Goosander doze by golden marigolds, in inky pools shaded by black alders. Ural Owls breed in neighbouring Lithuania, where a day trip allows us to see this phantom of the forest.
Vast swaying reedbeds resound to the boom of Bitterns, only becoming silent when White-tailed Eagles approach. Flamboyant Ruffs jostle for the right to mate, and other waders include Temminckís Stint and Broad-billed Sandpiper.
The charming rural landscape is ablaze with golden, flower-filled meadows which stretch over the horizon, dotted with dew ponds and medieval Manor Houses. Here we are served up large portions of premier bird species such as Roller, Corncrake, Montaguís Harrier, Black Stork and Lesser Spotted Eagle. Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse come to pick up grit once their pre-dawn dances have ended; there are high populations of both here.
Cape Kolka is the best location in spring to see movements of passerines. A spike of forested dunes jutting into the Baltic is overflown by flocks of finches, buntings and larks in their big push north. In the right conditions, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch and hundreds of wagtails fall from the sky. Watching the sea brings an exciting mix of divers, scoters and Long-tailed Ducks, with Honey Buzzard, Merlin, pipits and finches all hugging the coast. There is a surprise around every corner and, with birding in its infancy here, new discoveries are frequent. This unpredictability makes Latvian birding so vibrant and special.
KEMERI NATIONAL PARK AND BIRZAI
After a short direct flight, we soon land by the medieval city of Riga. Our hotel is not far away and rumour suggests that it was once a top-secret Soviet retreat. It is hidden in a mossy forest, beside a small peaceful lake. Pied and Red-breasted Flycatchers compete with the many Wood Warblers for top billing in this woodland song contest, while Crested Tit or one of the two redstart species are more likely to be the first birds we see.
With three nights here, we will make daily trips to a range of lakes, reedbeds and forests. Inside Kemeri National Park there are numerous trails that allow us to seek out the many species of woodpecker. Black and Grey-headed shout the loudest, so are usually the first to be seen. The rotting spruces are perfect for good populations of Three-toed and White-backed Woodpeckers among the more familiar British species that also occur. It would tempt fate to say that Middle Spotted Woodpecker is guaranteed; but they are certainly not rare! Green Sandpipers utilise old Fieldfare and Redwing nests and Golden Orioles add an exotic feel to the otherwise primeval-looking northern forests. The striking white-headed race of Long-tailed Tit would turn any birderís head.
Surrounding fields, copses and deserted orchards provide homes for Ortolan Bunting, Hoopoe and Serin. Together with a remnant population of Crested Lark and Tawny Pipit, it feels strange to see species associated with the Mediterranean breeding cheek-by-jowl with birds from the taiga zone. Even the gaudy Roller reaches this far north.
Our timing means that skeins of Taiga Bean Geese will be pausing to refuel. Ruff dance, snipe drum and Garganey grunt, as water levels drop in the precious watermeadows. Black-tailed Godwit conduct aerial displays and seven whistles betray the odd passing Whimbrel. Our eyes will be open for the many Temminckís Stints or occasional Broad-billed Sandpipers that pass through.
Larger lakes, smothered with reeds, are home to many Great Reed Warblers. The voice of Saviís Warbler and Bittern are brought to us on the wind and Penduline Tits carry pussy willow fluff to their swinging nests. Black Terns test the stability of flattened-reed foundations in readiness to lay, but Common Cranes will already have eggs.
We may take a day trip to neighbouring Birzai in Lithuania as there are no border restrictions now. Our friends here monitor breeding Ural Owls that use natural holes rather than boxes. In good vole years there may be 30 pairs just 1km from each other! Of course in bad years, there can be none, so we will use the latest information to see if it is worthwhile pursuing this phantom. Of course there are others in Latvia, but these sightings are less predictable.
CAPE KOLKA AND THE BALTIC COAST
Our journey to Cape Kolka takes us along the Baltic coast. Among the ice age erratics, migrants pause on their journey north. Red-backed Shrike and Bluethroat are expected and, by scanning flocks of Grey-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, we hope for one of the many Citrine Wagtails now breeding in Latvia. Wryneck and Thrush Nightingale will be noisily proclaiming ownership of blossoming fruit trees. A snippet of a Common Rosefinchís pleased-to-meet-you song or the River Warblerís zee-zee-zee will betray the first of the season.
We have three nights here, and our activities are governed by weather and wind direction. Dawn could see parties of siskin and finches head out to sea. Crossbills are easy to pick out among them as they chip to each other. Their stocky cousin, the Parrot Crossbill nests in the pines on the cape itself and occasionally drinks from car park puddles. At sea, large numbers of Velvet and Common Scoter loaf among breeding-plumaged Long-tailed Duck. A procession of eider and divers provide the opportunity for us to pick out rarer fare. Our recce provided a breeding-plumaged White-billed Diver among many Black-throated. Stellerís Eider winter close by, so we should be mindful that one could linger.
By late morning, raptors have gathered above the point. Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier and Buzzard are the most numerous, with smaller numbers of Merlin, Hobby, White-tailed Eagle, and Rough-legged and Honey Buzzards. Something rare is noted annually and almost any European raptor could occur here in spring.
Leaving Cape Kolka we take the road known among local birders as the ĎGrouse Safarií. Just inland, the woods hold good numbers of Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse and any journey along them could produce sightings of either. The adjacent meadows draw Lesser Spotted Eagles. Corncrake are common and even wolves are seen occasionally. Little Crake breed but numbers fluctuate annually. Those that are newly arrived are more vocal, but luck is needed to see them well. We return to Riga passing fish ponds and meadows quartered by Montaguís and Marsh Harriers. After our final night in Latvia, we fly home the next day.
Breakfast will be taken at about 7am most mornings, perhaps earlier at Cape Kolka to fit in with migration patterns or grouse drives. Basic fitness is all that is required. Full days will be spent in the field and reasonable length walks on the flat will be undertaken regularly.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full board accommodation is provided, with three nights at Kemeri National Park, three nights at Cape Kolka and one night back at Kemeri National Park. All accommodation is of a very good standard, with excellent food. All rooms have en suite facilities. Lunch is usually packed, taken in the field to maximise birding opportunities.
PRICE INCLUDES Ö..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guide, full-board accommodation (starting with dinner on 13th, ending with breakfast on 20th), soft drinks at meal times, reserve entrance fees, local transport by minibus, international flights and airport taxes.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.
Direct flights from London Gatwick to Riga using the scheduled services of Air Baltic. The outbound flight leaves late morning, with the return touching down late morning. It may be possible to fly from other UK airports. Please call for details. Domestic flights from Manchester and other UK airports are also available on this tour. See booking form for details.
**NOTE** since publishing our brochure, flights to Riga are now available from regional airports (Manchester, Leeds, etc)
The meadows of Latvia echo to the sound of Corncrakes in spring
Penduline Tits breed on the banks of many Latvian fish ponds
European Beaver is common and are regularly seen in the daytime
Fruiting trees in coastal gardens attract singing Common Rosefinches
The Capercaillie is common and can be found taking grit from roads through the forests
click here to see the photographs in our Latvia Album
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