Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Estonia May 2018 Part 12. Postscript.

On returning home I decided I would get in touch with our tour company, Natourest, to give them some feedback on our experiences. It wasn't meant as a complaint but I felt they should know the shortcomings of our trip, the experiences with the places we couldn't get a decent meal, the poor service, the fact the hides even including their own bear hide had let us down to a certain extent.
We'd been under the impression we'd each get 5 bird hide and 2 bear hide experiences. The reality had been ruined shots by a carelessly left pole at the bear hide and the bird hides were unsuitable for both of us to use at once so we were down to three days, none of which were used as the birds weren't there anyway.We had after all stressed the importance of photographic opportunities before agreeing to book the trip.
I accepted that the weather had been seasonally hot which hadn't helped the wildlife cause but pointed out that the electronic tablet didn't work without a wifi signal and in any case much of the information needed wasn't on their maps anyway. Advice that filling stations provide a wifi opportunity and where to find a decent enough supermarket would be extremely useful in the circumstances we found ourselves in.
I received an apologetic reply accepting some of the shortfalls but not understanding why the tablet wasn't working as it should, anyway they felt they wanted to offer us a refund on our bird hide costs and would provide us with an extended weekend's bear hide and hotel accommodation as well as a free hire car.
How generous is that !
We are happy to accept their offer
Ok we have to find the plane tickets but the refund on the hides is a help towards them.
I suggested that it wasn't worth returning for just a weekend and so we have agreed on a return in June with three consecutive nights in the bear hide followed by one in a hotel near the airport to catch our early flight home.
Yes, there will be only one opportunity for a proper cooked dinner on the last evening and no opportunities for breakfast at all but we are now better prepared knowing where we did get a better choice of picnic materials than others. We might even take some food from home, we have the luggage allowance to do so!
With the nights even longer we might get a better bear experience too, perhaps there might be cubs about in a months time , that would be special. 
Maybe Estonia will live up to expectations after all, I'll let you know how we get on after the event!

Estonia May 2018 Part 11 Time to go home.

The last morning, a long day ahead of us. 
Early start in the floating hide?
Forget it, I decided I was staying in bed and had a lie in until 7.00am!
Mike meantime had taken the opportunity for another chance to sit in the floating hide. He'd fared no better really but had been impressed by a distant Moose (Elk) wading across the shallow waters of the bay way out ahead of him. He'd had much better views than the two I'd seen which had been tiny dots in the distance, even through a telescope lens kindly offered to me by someone at the Tuulingu Tower.
He'd also seen a Temmink's Stint briefly but said the views were very obscured by reed stubble and when he'd got fed up he'd wandered off to see if he could find the Thrush Nightingale we'd heard calling in the Tuulingu garden. He'd managed some images but at least that was still there so a chance still for me.
On the grounds of this evidence I decided I'd made the right call as I'd had a decent sleep instead! 
I took my bags down to load the car before having breakfast and on the off chance there might just be something still about near the hide I headed to the gate leading to it.
I didn't even have to go through, there were three Temmink's Stints just beyond it! I grabbed a couple of shots before deciding I'd return to the car to get 5D4 for some extra pixel power. The other three guests were just returning from their trip and I was engaged in conversation for a few minutes so unfortunately by the time I'd got back the Stints had gone.
Still I'd had a decent photo opportunity and without putting any effort in to it , here was my 6th lifer of the trip.
Temminck's Stint   Calidris temminckii
It didn't end there either, Mike and I went back in search of the Thrush Nightingale and I got some shots of that too>
My 7th lifer of the trip!
Thrush Nightingale   Luscinia luscinia
We were ending in style.
Thrush Nightingale   Luscinia luscinia
Happy we'd got something worth keeping we returned for breakfast and later, a chat with the pro guide.
We asked him for a tip about somewhere to go on our way back to the airport and he was good enough to point out on our map exactly where to find the Slavonian Grebes.
Slavonian Grebe  Podiceps auritus
and didn't they show well too!
Slavonian Grebe  Podiceps auritus
What a shame our hide experiences couldn't have given us this.
Slavonian Grebe  Podiceps auritus
Definitely the best and most successful birding photo session of our trip!
With me navigating as usual I took Mike off course to visit one last Gosney site in his booklet. We found one solitary bird floating in the harbour but it was a first for the trip, another for the Big Year list, a Long-tailed Duck.
Long-tailed Duck   Clangula hyemalis
Why it was here alone was anyone's guess because about a mile off shore there were thousands of ducks and geese in huge rafts. Maybe this one was just anti-social.
Long-tailed Duck   Clangula hyemalis
Mike was starting to get anxious we'd be late back to the airport but I'd got the map and knew all was in hand.
Besides, had we gone the quickest way we'd have missed our last excellent sighting of the day and the trip for that matter.
We'd just passed a road sign, one of these triangular ones that warn about animals crossing ahead which never are, only this time it was!
Great way to finish! Well might have been better if we didn't have to pay a speeding fine when we handed the car back but hey, it wasn't that expensive and we'd more than earned one during our trip. We'd been hurrying around on many occasions so we got off lightly.
Anyway, it was goodbye Tallin, hello Frankfurt. Goodbye Frankfurt hello Manchester before Mike safely delivered me back home at 2.00am.
Another tip over, not the most successful perhaps but there again not  all of life's rich tapestry is.
Hope you have enjoyed sharing our adventure.

but wait T.B.C.

Estonia May 2018 Part 10 Nice beaver!

As there was only room for one person in the floating hide I let Mike go first, I took the car back to the place we'd been for Barred Warbler but my journey was wasted. There were more mammals about than birds it seemed!
Hares abound everywhere!

and there are nearly as many Deer too.
Deer seem to stand for a while before they decide to run so photos are easier to come by than some things, that is of course if there is a decent amount of space between you.
By now I'd started to loose the will to look for birds, it just wasn't happening for me but it was a joy to be out and about at first light.
Returning for breakfast it seemed Mike had seen next to nothing although he'd got some shots of an Artic Tern he was pleased with and better still he'd seen 3 Bewick Swans fly past too. Another potential lifer I'd missed! I still decided I wouldn't bother with the hide, it seemed a bit pointless sitting in it for hours for just those very brief sightings.
There were three other guests staying and they'd been out early too, in fact they'd woken me up when they left. There were two Swiss ladies and their guide who is also a pro photographer. They had been out the previous evening on a Beaver watching boat trip, the one we were also down to do that evening. We chatted and asked how it had gone , what gear to take etc. We told the guide about our lack of success and he said that we'd have been better with a pro guide. The  guy who owned the hides had also said that too, well they would do wouldn't they! "Of course one of the benefits of a local guide is they do know some good spots to take you" he told us  "like the park ponds in Haapsalu where the Slavonian Grebes are so used to people you can get really close to them". Any way the three of them went back to their bedrooms for another sleep they'd been up so early but from what we could gather they had had some great shots of Hares and nothing else!
Mike and I wandered down the road to check out the Manor House gardens. We spotted a Wryneck so that was one more for the list and stood under a tree where there was a nest hole. We were getting savaged by the biggest mosquitos I'd ever seen and in the end after standing there for ages a Common Starling emerged. To add to the mosquitos, a local dog came and snarled at Mike which was a bit worrying but luckily a local man walking past barked at it in Estonian and it backed off.
There was little point hanging around so we decided to head for Haapsalu and see if we could find the ponds. A bit of a tall order really but with our road atlas and google earth I'd spotted a couple of potential spots.None of them were correct. Time was running on and the one thing we did have to do was find the Beaver boat departure point. It was mid afternoon by now and it was at least an hour or so away so we decided we'd get there early. Really early!
As it happened we found the place relatively easily and were there two hours before we were due to sail. There were Grey partridge calling in a large field but better still a Corncrake too.
Corncrake, that would be a top find!
More disappointment. The spot the call was coming from was on our side of a bend in the river. We had the Corncrake trapped, it would have to show itself we thought. No way. Even when the sound came from what seemed like a few metres we still couldn't find it despite walking extremely slowly and examining every blade of the long now silent meadow grass. Even as we walked away the cheeky bird called as if it was mocking us. That killed an hour or so anyway and soon the boatman arrived making himself known to us. He couldn't speak English but luckily there was a family group having a picnic and we got one of them to act as an interpreter.
It was idyllic sailing through the channels in the reeds but there was no chance of getting any photographs even when we arrived at a spot where we met the open sea. Everything had flown at the noisy engine sounds heading their way.
However, we got the message from our captain that we'd now start searching for Beavers.
With Mike in the bow
The Captain relaxed in his unlikely seat which has to be well screwed down doesn't it!
We started the hunt. Seemed to take ages before Mike spotted one swimming across the channel. We stopped at the place it had been heading to and sure enough, my first Beaver.
It stopped eating and about turned.
before plopping in to the water.
This was what they seem to do. Mike had missed a shot of the last one and only managed the head of the next because he had too long a lens. I'd been lucky but it was the only time the 100-400mm came in useful during the whole trip. Looking at my photograph I decided that the Beaver looked more like road kill it was so bedraggled! 
Mike spotted another ahead of us but by the time I got my lens on it it was too late and it was gone.
Shame as that one seemed to have a well groomed and reasonably dry face. It didn't now though.
We carried on when suddenly we were surrounded by flying gulls hawking for insects. The mosquitos were pretty thick in the air and big enough for the gulls to bother with.
Amongst them a Black Tern.
Black Tern   Chlidonias niger
I still had my 100-400 attached and it wasn't enough reach but by the time I'd changed lenses the Tern had vanished. Mike had carried on furiously shooting at the Black-headed Gulls and when I queried why he said he thought they might be Little Gulls.
That was a "lifer' for me and I'd stood there ignoring them!
Soon we'd sailed on past and the chance was gone. We stopped at a viewing tower and it was indicated we could go up the tower to take a look. I was covered in mosquitos , Mike took one look at my face and announced he was not getting off, I decided likewise and indicated to the boatman to get going again. At least when we were moving the mosquitos left us alone for the main part.
Sailing back we came across the Little gulls so we had another chance but by now the light was fading fast.
Little Gull    Hydrocoloeus minutus
With the sun almost set it was getting too dark to hope for much. but I had managed a couple that I could salvage.
Little Gull    Hydrocoloeus minutus
It was a pleasing end to our last full day but although we did see a few more Beavers they were way ahead of the boat and you could only see the top of their head as they swam. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but we both regretted not asking the boatman to stop when we first saw the gulls.
Little Gull    Hydrocoloeus minutus
UntitledThe trip over, and as we hadn't had anything to eat since our filling station sandwich for lunch it was a filling station meal again for dinner and by the time we got back to our resting place it was 23.30. Our host had waited up for us though and even served us a cold beer.
Now that's what you call service. This place actually wanted to please their guests and make their stay as memorable as possible.

Estonia May 2018 Part 9. The last chance saloon?

Another near dawn start, we were hoping for a change of fortunes by heading for an early session at the Pikla reedbeds.
Now don't get me wrong, our trip wasn't one long misery but if i'm honest it had failed to live up to expectation. Maybe we'd over egged the trip in our imagination but one thing was certain, we'd only eaten three proper evening meals in the last 8 days, the bird hides with the part exception of the pop-up were useless and even the bear hide had a level of disappointment. On the other hand the weather had been incredibly good...too good. My brother-in-law , a resident in the very far north of Scotland had posted some pictures of him having taken a swim in a Scottish Loch and described the conditions as "Baltic" I'd had to correct him and tell him we were now sweltering in 29 degrees and Baltic wasn't a fair adjective to use!
We had one last throw of the dice though, our final destination where we had another two hide days booked in what was described as the Floating Hide. We weren't expecting anything unusual but according to the blurb on the web site there was indeed a long list of possibilities.
First though the reedbeds.
That put a smile back on our faces . Three or four hours and I'd added a few more images for my Big Year count.
Bearded Reedling was especially welcome.

Bearded Reedling   Panurus biarmicus
but the loud but elusive Great Reed Warbler equally so.

Great Reed Warbler    Acrocephalus arundinaceus
We spent quite some time wandering along the raised tracks alongside the reed beds.
Our camouflage not quite working all the time!
It was certainly a stunning scene. Sure enough there was no-one staying at Pikla and at this hour of the day we had the place to ourselves.
except for the birds of course.
A distant booming Bittern broke the silence now and again as did the odd Common Tern flying past.
Common Tern  Sterna hirundo
The warblers were all noisy of course but their sounds are delightful when set in such a backdrop and it was fun trying to catch the showy Sedge Warbler in flight.
Sedge Warbler
The strangest sound though came from a less usual source. Mute Swan!
One had taken off, flying down the narrow channel between the reeds and needing all of 100m to gain height and clear the reeds it seemed. The noise from the wing beats at close quarters amazing. Some time later a pair made the return journey and as i stood there taking a flight shot I thought for one moment the bird was going to collide with me!
Mute Swan
It didn't appear to be getting any higher as it approached.
Mute Swan
It almost scalped me in fact!
Mute Swan
 then did a large circuit before coming back to give me another inspection.
Mute Swan
Time to move in case I was in the flight path again!
Mute Swan
I wouldn't normally spend much time on this species but I couldn't resist a sequence of one taking off from the mill pond that was the Baltic Sea.
Mute Swan
Time to move though. Breakfast ..the usual place. Was I loosing weight? No chance, a diet of beer, pastries, those continental sausages and filling station offerings was far from a healthy diet.
The first question I asked on arrival at Tuulinga, our new home for two nights , was "can we book an evening meal?"
The cook and co-proprietor  was away, her husband doesn't cook but her son volunteered to make us dinner. That was a result anyway. Everything about this place was really welcoming.
There was one concern though, the property itself is surrounded by the Matsalu National Park and you are not allowed to walk in there. The only exception was to access the floating hide through a garden gate and then just to follow the edge of the water to where it was placed.
Eager to see what the possibilities were we immediately went to check it out.
There was only room for one person so that meant one day each... not good, worse still there wasn't a lot of bird life around either! Oh well, might be different in the morning.
We took an afternoon drive to explore locally, once again using the Gosney booklet, but the possibility of Barred Warbler proved another broken dream.
Still, the good news was when we got back there was a feast of a creamy chicken pasta dish with a delicious salad all washed down with ice cold beers.
That was so good and plenty of it too. Son told us his mother had taught him to cook and I declared the only disappointment was that we wouldn't get to try her food. Maybe another time!

Estonia May 2018 Part 8. The good, the bad and the hungry.

Up at the crack of dawn again we headed back to Nigula bog to the White-backed Woodpecker nest site. We'd already planned where to set up our cameras, a fair distance from the tree and largely hidden by a bush. 
On our way there though we did stop to attempt a Common Crane shot but the minute we stopped the car they started to move away again and it wasn't as if they were near either, probably 400m away.
Common Crane   Grus grus
This huge open field was surrounded by woodland and the echo of the two Cranes calling was an amazing sound. I tried to capture it on this video snippet as it's worth sharing. Ignore the video itself, it's near impossible to focus whilst hand holding a 1dx and a 500mm lens but do have a listen ( and yes that's Mike firing off a couple of images in the background too!)
Common Crane soundtrack
Carrying on we arrived at our destination only to find a tent erected in the car park and two young ladies having a cigarette at the picnic bench. One of them wandered off past our nest site and down to the edge of the lake where it seemed another tent was in place. Much loud talking and shouting followed but fair do's when I gesticulated for them to keep quiet now we'd set up our cameras they got the message. They packed up to leave and were gone by 7.00am but still there was no sign of a woodpecker. Another 30 minutes later and we decided to accept our fate...another failure... and we were in the process of packing up when Mike exclaimed"There, he's stuck his head out!'
White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos
Sure enough, now everything had returned to perfect peace he'd decided it was all clear to take a look around.
White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos
We had hurriedly re assembled tripods etc when I spotted the female return to a neighbouring tree.
White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos
In hindsight it had been a bad move by us both to move positions and try to capture the image of the female. We should have realised there would be a change over of custodians on the nest but instead I missed the male leaving and only just got an image of the female entering the nest.
White-backed Woodpecker   Dendrocopos leucotos
I guess after 90 minutes or more of waiting one does tend to jump too soon out of desperation!
Anyway, we'd got an image so decided it was prudent to move on to another Gosney site which he'd dubbed "Magic Corner". In his booklet he enthused so much about the numbers and varieties of species, particularly Hazel Grouse, we needed to get there before it was too late. Following his excellent description and sketches we discovered the forest track blocked by a fallen tree.
Our attempts to move it were futile and I wasn't happy at leaving the car blocking the road just in case someone turned up to move it so I reversed about 400m to a passing place. The sketch showed Magic Corner was the opposite corner of a square of forest road. We might as well walk the circuit back to the parking place. 
Unfortunately the sketch was inaccurate in this respect, it wasn't a square, it was a rectangle and we must have walked at least 1000m before reaching the turning point. From what we could see the road was a continuation of tall trees on either side. A photographers nightmare at best and besides other than Chaffinch, brief glimpses of a Wood Warbler and a calling Cuckoo we'd seen nothing worth convincing us there was any point in carrying on.
Magic corner had indeed worked it's magic... a disappearing act! 
As we drove away we came across an organised bird tour walking along the track. We were able to brief the guide on what we'd seen, ( he looked glum!) and left. We bumped in to them the next day and they had no more luck than we did.
The question was what to do next? Heading back towards the main road , the Via Baltica, I suggested we head back to our favourite bargain breakfast stop for coffee and pastries and as it was close to Pikla, we might as well get rid of the hide that kept threatening to jump out when you opened the boot. Plan agreed,but we were just leaving Pikla when an approaching car slowed down to obviously speak to us. It was our hostess who announced she'd waited at Kosmonautika until 10.00am to give us breakfast ( the time her husband had been making it for us at Pikla) but I suspect her real reason for staying was we owed her for the two dinners we'd had there! Maybe I'm just cynical! She also announced she'd arranged for us to have breakfast the following day. Her change of heart was too late though as we told her we had a plan to come back to Pikla to check out the reed beds on our way north and it wasn't worth going back just for breakfast, couldn't we have it at Pikla. Negative she said, they were going away and wouldn't be home.
Looked like it would be coffee and pastries again!
Anyway, to fill in the rest of the day was our next problem and looking at the Gosney book I  suggested a site near Parnu 25kms north. With time moving on and Mike now driving he put his foot down although not to any great speed. It wasn't until we returned the car that we discovered we'd been clocked on camera doing 110kph which for the standard of the road and the level of traffic was not really fast. Still, the limit is 90 so we picked up a 50 euro ticket for our troubles! 
Did it pay off?
Did it heck!
We found Gosney's site but it was much changed from his description. The one time camp site was now a huge lumber yard and there were few birds other than the usual gaggle of nervous geese to be seen.
I settled for some Frog shots to make the journey worthwhile!
On our way back I noticed a park set back in the trees and just off the main road, why not, we'd give it a go. It turned out to be a cemetery and although I know they can be wildlife havens I feel awkward about wandering around with a camera when perhaps families are visiting to pay their respects to a dear departed. We didn't go in but instead followed a path in to the woods. Soon we were on to a singing Wood Warbler.
Wood Warbler   Phylloscopus sibilatrix
Mike wandered off and left me to the Warbler.
Wood Warbler   Phylloscopus sibilatrix
but when he returned he showed me an image of a Crested Tit he'd found. Now that would be a first for me but sadly although he showed me the place, there was now no sign of the bird.
Heading south again we stopped at the place we'd first found Citrine Wagtails but which Gosney hadn't.
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola
It was definitely the better of the two he'd mentioned.
Anyway we were happy we'd improved on our previous images from Tartu.
We dined out in the filling station once more then retreated to Kosmonautika with a 6 pack to consume on our terrace whilst watching the sun go down.
It had been another blisteringly hot day with temperatures reaching 29 degrees. Not good for birding but evening perfection with an ice cold beer!