Estonia - birds and tourism
May 23rd - May 29th 2007
Authors: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
After enjoying a short break in Latvia in November 2005 we decided to revisit the area in the spring. We'd read a few trip reports that promised at least a few new birds and perhaps just as exciting wild Moose and so we decided to give Estonia a try. Tallinn is the normal destination for people from the UK visiting Europe but we wanted to get out and see the countryside. We quite fancied the idea of visiting one of the islands but thought that we might end up spending too much time getting on and off ferries to make it worth while so after a fair bit of research we selected the Matsalu Bay area on the west coast, the south western section of the coast and Tartu in the south east, with a final day/night in Tallinn before flying back to England.
We flew with Easyjet from Stansted and booked our hire car at the same time as the flights. All hotels were reserved over the internet but only the Tallinn Hotel took payment beforehand. We used ATMs for cash - we needed surprisingly little and paid for most hotels, fuel and a couple of meals with cards.
Costs were more or less as follows:
Easyjet - flights/car hire/taxes - 2 people £266
Cash - approx £340
Lepanina Hotel, 2xB&B + 1 evening meal £198
Aleksandri Hotel, Tartu, 2xB&B £82
Petrol - approx £50
And that's about it. All meals, drinks etc. and the Lihula Hotel were paid out of the cash we took out of ATMs. A little less than £950 for a week for two of us and we could easily have found cheaper accommodation, or indeed less expensive rooms in the hotels we stayed in.
Some useful (?) tips
ATMs were easily available just about everywhere we went, so getting cash shouldn't be a problem.
Getting petrol could be more of a challenge. We came across 3 different systems at the 4 petrol stations we pulled in to. Least obvious were the self-service places that required you to insert your card or cash before any fuel was delivered. This won't be too much of a problem if you spot the machines before you get to the pump. The alternative is to stand there looking gormless until somebody else comes along and you watch what they do.
It is impossible to get a meal outside Tallinn. This is of course untrue but there really are quite large sections of Estonia where there are no restaurants and cafes and sometimes even the ones that are there are carefully hidden to keep them from the prying eyes of tourists. Other places look like restaurants but presumably aren't because although the doors are open they claim to be closed or too busy.
We arrived at Tallinn airport in the late morning. The weather was fine with a strong breeze and lots of sunshine. We picked up our hire car and were soon heading south on the main Route 2. We had a reasonable map of Estonia that we'd picked up in Latvia a couple of years earlier, 'just in case'. It was supplied by Jana Seta who has a website at . We also bought several rather good larger scale maps whilst in Estonia produced by Eomap, . These are probably much cheaper to buy in Estonia than by mail order, but they were pretty comprehensive and we used them all the time.
We saw a few common birds around the airport including one unidentified tern (we hadn't got the binoculars out when it flew over) but the first bird which we gave a second glance too was a White Stork on a nest right next to the Nabala exit a few kms down the road. We stopped for a few photographs and a look at the map and worked out a route towards out first proper stop, the former nuclear submarine base of Paldiski. We stopped at a couple of decent looking places along the road and heard what we assumed to be a Thrush Nightingale calling at one wooded spot. Unusually for Estonia, road signs were not too numerous in the area (Kili Vald) but we followed our instincts and ended up where we expected.
Much has been said about the horrendous environment of Paldiski. It's fair to say that the town itself is far from the most attractive place we've ever visited but in the brilliant sunshine the decaying barracks and other military buildings you pass on the way to the headland have a certain melancholy charm now that belies their past. The state of decay is quite surprising and if it continues it will only be a few decades before the forest reclaims them and there's not much left but a few concrete fence posts.
The headland is easy to find and you can drive as far as the lighthouse - further if your insurance is good. By the time we arrived the wind was blowing very hard and we had to put extra layers on, despite having been very warm inland. The wind direction was pretty much onshore and knowing the places reputation as a sea watching spot we thought we might be in for a treat. We were wrong. Nothing. The wooded areas held lots of common birds that could sometimes be heard singing above the roar of the wind and there were a few common coastal birds but the highlights were a couple of Black Guillemots seen from the viewing platform at the side of the road and a dozen or so Eiders heading south.
We started heading south to book into our hotel and drove through Padise where we took a few photographs of the rather pretty monastery. A few kms further on we saw 7 White Storks in a field with a number of radio antennae and we stopped somewhere near Riitsi to admire a Honey Buzzard that drifted overhead.
The Hotell Luige Villa in Lihula is easy to find, there being one main street in the town. The hotel is in a pleasant building down the hill from the attractive church. We were quite pleased with our room which was a good size with a view to the main street but only stopped for long enough to take a few items out of our luggage before we were off out to explore some of the Matsalu Bay reserve. It was late afternoon by now and we hadn't eaten. Nor had we seen anywhere much that looked like a restaurant or cafe so we bought a few odds and ends (bread, some marinated herrings, some kind of smoked sausage etc.) at the local supermarket, just in case. We saw our first House Sparrows in Lihula which gave us a chance to exclaim 'Estonia poor little sparrow' which had evolved into 'Livonia poor little sparrow' by the end of the holiday, as we grew more familiar with the geo-politics of the region.
If you've read any other trip reports about birding in the area then you'll realise that there are a number of observation towers around the bay. These are easy to find and quite an experience. We opted to try the Matsalu tower because it was fairly close by. It was quite an introduction to Estonian observation towers. The wind was almost as strong here as it had been at Paldiski and we felt quite exposed when we climbed up several flights of steep steps to push our way through the heavy trap door in the tower. It is enclosed and roofed and affords an excellent view of the surrounding area, which is very flat. We spent more than an hour here and in between munching on our herrings and sausages picked up quite a few species including a small flock of Barnacle Geese, a single White-fronted Goose, Marsh Harrier, Yellow Wagtail, a distant flock of several hundred Common Cranes in flight and some gorgeous breeding plumage Grey Plovers.
The drive back to Lihula took us on the road signposted for Salivere where the heathy areas and reed beds looked worth a look. We found a lone Whimbrel in one damp area and agreed to have another look at the area the next day. We didn't get around to it, though.
Back in Lihula we drove around looking for a restaurant for a few minutes but couldn't see anything likely. We did however get some great close up views of Fieldfares that were looking absolutely splendid in their summer plumage. There were lots of recently fledged Fieldfares about and they are much more vocal than those of us who only see them in the winter realise.
After a quick shower we asked at the hotel where we might get something to eat. We were directed 100 metres down the road. We had already spotted a bar that looked to have closed several years ago, but we thought we'd have another look in case it had mysteriously reopened, but the building still had an air of neglect and the door was locked. We were about to give up when JD decided that she could smell chips. At the same time we noticed the shell of a church that looked as though it had been destroyed in some military action (we never found out). It offered the possibility of some atmospheric photos so we approached it and discovered the bar entrance, facing away from any roads and with no obvious sign outside. We went in, ordered some drinks and asked if they were serving food but we were told that the kitchen had just closed. They kindly offered to prepare us some cheeseburgers which we eagerly accepted, not having had much to eat since about 8 a.m. Estonian time. At the risk of biting the hand that (literally) fed us and acknowledging that they did not have to bother at all, these burgers were just about the vilest thing that either of us have ever tried to eat. If you've ever been foolhardy enough to try one of those boiled burgers that come out of tins and used to be sold from vans of questionable hygiene standards outside the rougher types of UK nightclub, then you're not even halfway to appreciating these objects. They arrived in a sort of milk-chocolate coloured bun that had clearly been microwaved from frozen and that contained several hard bits - as hard as Thornton's toffee - and they had been absolutely drenched in a lukewarm coleslaw type substance that was a limp as spinach after it's been boiled for an hour. We didn't even get close to finishing them but we did lose our appetites somewhere along the way. At least the Vodkas were up to standard, and cheap too. Entertainment was provided by a local radio station which confirmed most of our worst prejudices about eastern European music. Who would believe that someone would issue an 'updated' cover version of Tarzan Boy!
Lihula is about as far north as the Orkneys so by this time of year there's not much night time to be had. The bar closed at 10 p.m. so we went for a stroll through the small park opposite the bombed-out church. The wind had dropped, which was of course cue for the arrival of swarms of hungry mosquitoes - we both picked up a dozen or so bites - but there was adequate compensation in the song of dozens of Thrush Nightingales, supplemented by some very vocal Fieldfares. A couple of Woodcocks flew over. We finally got a decent view of a Sprosser sitting on a leafless branch, singing its heart out. This was our first 'lifer' of the holiday and a very welcome one. The song has been compared favourably to that of the Nightingale and although this northerly relative does not have the spectacular Nightingale crescendo, we'd agree that on balance it has the more pleasing song. We went to bed with the window open, to a Thrush Nightingale lullaby.
We awoke early and rather hungry so set off quickly with the intention of getting back to the hotel for breakfast. We headed off back to the Matsalu area again because it was a short drive, after pausing by the church to confirm that the birds that we'd seen late last night had indeed been Spotted Flycatchers.
On the road from the main road down to Matsalu we saw several groups of Cranes in the fields. These took flight when we stopped to get some photos and were joined by many others - eventually joining into a flock of perhaps 500. A short distance further along we saw our first Roe Deer of the day (we'd seen one the previous evening just outside Lihula). At this point we realised that although our Skoda Roomster had its good point it did not have electric windows. Having birded around the world for years using vehicles where the window opened at a touch of a button, this was a bit of a shock.
We followed the road down to Sarstna where there was a car park and then walked a few hundred metres towards the coast. We heard Grasshopper Warbler reeling in the reeds a short distance beyond the car park. By this time the day which had started clear and bright was really beginning to warm up, but the strong wind was still in evidence as we got closer to the sea.
There was little of note on the walk, although it was quite a pretty area to stroll through, so we went back to the car and soon saw another Roe Deer close to the road that we were able to get some video footage of. It was a healthy male and seemed fairly indifferent to our presence.
On the way down we'd noted a Black Redstart near a farmhouse that was perhaps 500 m from the car park. It has dry stone walls and lots of small tress in the garden. There were lots of leaf warblers knocking about and we managed a few decent shots of Willow Warbler from the car, in between fending the mosquitoes off. Best of all a Wryneck flew down onto the road in front of us, so close that we actually had to reverse a few metres to see it properly.
Breakfast at the hotel was buffet style with a few hot items and best of all a selection of jam. We've never been able to understand why the only jam available in so many European hotels seems to be apricot flavoured. It's not very nice and they definitely have other types in the shops.
Suitably refreshed we set off towards Matsalu Bay again, stopping at the park centre/museum to see if they had any useful info, maps etc. The museum is in an imposing building and has a display of stuffed birds and animals found in the park, which is probably fine for people who like that sort of thing. They also have a section with recorded bird sounds so you can listen to booming Bitterns and craking Corncrakes whilst you browse. They were able to supply some very useful large scale maps of the reserve and also of some other areas that we might be visiting later in the holiday. Outside the building we saw a female Marsh Harrier overhead and seconds later a male Montagu's Harrier. There was a nesting stork, mentioned in other trip reports and we found a hedgehog in the long grass by the river and saw our first Red-Backed Shrike of the trip.
Our next stop was at the Kloostri Tower, a short distance beyond the museum. It was still very windy but again the tower was enclosed, so not too uncomfortable as long as you got the combination of open and closed windows right. There was not much going on in terms of birds but we did find two distant moose, although without the telescopes they would have been unrecognisable.
As there was not much else to see at Kloostri, we decided to move on to the Suitsu hide (NB - these towers and hides are surprisingly well signposted). After passing the museum again there was a right turn to Suitsu and JD noticed some orchids at the side of the road, near a ruined cottage. We stopped the car and just as we were getting out a woodpecker flew across the road and low down into a nearby tree. It was immediately obvious that this was a White-backed Woodpecker and it gave us rather good views for a minute or so before continuing into thicker woodland. The orchids were all Military Orchids and there were lots along this road, although they were mainly still a few days away from being fully in flower.
We decided not to bother with the observation tower at Suitsu because of the wind and opted for the boardwalk through the woods instead, the wind barely penetrating the dense wall of vegetation. Woodland birds were hard to see, though there was plenty of song, but crossing an open glade JD spotted some movement in the trees and with the binoculars we were able to watch a wild boar foraging for several minutes. We managed a few photos but the animal was always partly obscured by long grass and shrubs.
It was getting towards lunch time by the time we got back to the car so we decided to look for somewhere to eat on the way to the north side of Matsalu Bay. The main road took us past Lihula on what is effectively a by-pass for the town. Here we found a rustic looking restaurant at the side of the road. It's noticeable because it has several large wooded sculptures outside. The menu was all in Estonian and therefore rather hard to penetrate but we recognised Selyanka (aka Solyanka), a tasty soup of meat and vegetables served with a dollop of soured cream and managed to piece together a rather excellent meal. Suitably refreshed we set of for the north of the bay again with our first destination being the Haeska Observation Tower. This location is the sight of the highest ever single location day list for Europe - over 130 species if our memory is correct (Estonia also has the highest single day count for Europe as well) but we were hugely out of luck because the wind had really got up. We set out 'scopes up behind a tree because the hide was just too exposed but even then they were simply shaking too much for us to see anything on the sea. We got a handful of common shorebirds but not much else before we retreated to the shelter of the Skoda.
We moved along the coast to Puise where the wind was still fierce but there was a little more shelter and we found a few Scaup just off-shore. Heading back towards Haapsalu where we had decided to have dinner we pulled of the main road at Jugosaare where a Wryneck flew down by the side of the car as we were parking by the harbour and sat generously in the open whilst we took photographs and even managed to get it on video.
Dinner was in the Hermanus Maja in the centre of Haapsalu. We'd considered staying here rather than Lihula and with the benefit of hindsight it would have been a better choice. It's a pleasant little town with a splendid partly ruinous castle at its heart. The meal at the Hermanus Maja was the best of the trip so far and two drinks, two starters and two main courses came to less then EEK 250 or about £11.
On the trip back to Lihula we stopped at the observation tower signposted from the main road at Rannajo. In the dying light we were delighted to find our first ever Common Rosefinch singing in a bush by the car park. Despite the gloom and the myriads of mosquitoes we managed a couple of photos. There was another Moose visible from the tower, which was somewhat closer than the ones we'd seen earlier in the day. We saw males of both Hen Harrier and Montagu's Harrier from the main road on the way back got some video footage of the latter. The day was topped off by getting a recording of the Thrush Nightingales in the park at Lihula.
Today's early start saw us back at the Suitsu Tower, hoping to hear the Corncrakes that were illustrated on one of the interpretative boards here. We'd seen a Golden Oriole on the drive down from the main road but the most interesting sound that we heard was the barking of a Roe buck that we eventually found at the edge of the woods, clearly very annoyed to find two English people on his territory at such an early hour.
A small patch of reeds at the edge of Lihula (near the Oilex installation) that we stopped to check on the way back to the hotel for breakfast had Sedge and Grasshopper Warbler as well as a fleeting glimpse of a pair Bearded Tit.
After breakfast we set of south for our next destination, the Lepanina Hotel, south of Hardemeeste and a few miles north of the Latvian border. A brief walk at the edge of a pine forest a short distance south of Lihula added a few new species to the list but nothing remarkable.
We stopped briefly in the town of Parnu on the way south. A pleasant enough if unremarkable place, but we found little to make us linger and the atmosphere was probably not improved by the overcast sky and the threat of a very English light drizzle. The weather improved as we headed further south and the sun was shining again by the time we reached the hotel, where a male Common Redstart was waiting in the car park to greet us.
The Lepanina is perhaps a little incongruous. It is quite large, though only two stories high and sits in its own grounds right at the edge of the sea. We didn't really see anything else quite like it in Estonia and it probably has more in common with holiday complexes in the Caribbean than it does with much of the rest of the country. That said, the rooms were very comfortable, clean and airy with attractive views over the Baltic and a westerly aspect that pretty much guarantees some bonny sunsets. We had reserved a room with a Jacuzzi that was satisfyingly large and set in a generously sized bathroom.
As ever though, we wasted no time unpacking or checking for satellite TV channels and we were on the road again soon, making the short drive back up the road to the Kabli observation tower. Apart from some endearing Highland Cattle we found Reed Warbler and Pied Flycatcher here and some Edible Frogs in the small pools between the road and the beach. A few miles back towards Hardemeeste we stopped at the Nature Centre where the friendly staff furnished us with armfuls of rather good maps and leaflets and recommended that we should visit the Nigula Bog reserve a few miles inland. It was here that we heard a bird call that we were not familiar with and whose owner we could not find. We heard this call on several occasions over the next few days but were constantly frustrated in our attempts to find the bird.
We decided to explore some of the woods and lakes a few miles back from the coast, armed with the maps given to us by the Nature Centre and on the way stopped for lunch at the local equivalent of a motorway service station. The menu was quite extensive and much of the food seemed freshly prepared and as we sat outside admiring the articulated lorries thundering past on the way to or from Latvia we realised that it was very hot indeed - we estimated somewhere in the high 20s Celsius.
There are lots of forest tracks in the area east of Hardemeeste, around Laaksaare and Paikhe. Most of these seem to be drivable in dry conditions although in heavy rain some might prove interesting. Driving around without much intent we found Green Woodpecker and Icterine Warbler but were simultaneously delighted then disappointed to find a Lesser Spotted Eagle sitting on a telegraph pole in an area that we dubbed 'the Lapwing fields' that flew off about 2 seconds before we had the camera ready. This was somewhere south-east of Paikhe.
We found our way to the pretty Rae Jarve (Jarve = Lake) where there were frogs, toads and Common Sandpipers and followed the path along the side of the lake to an observation tower. Although scenically attractive there wasn't much bird activity and we didn't see any beavers either, although they're certainly in the vicinity. The temperature remained high and in the forest the humidity was also high so it felt more like a rain forest than northern Europe.
A sign near the exit road from Rae Jarve said Hardemeeste 17kms and in the mostly clear felled area shortly after this we saw a Black Woodpecker fly across the road. We'd heard this species before in France and had seen one flying away from us in The Netherlands but this one stopped on the side of a pine tree in full view and we were able to watch it through binoculars for several minutes. Despite the eagle, this was probably the bird of the day for us.
The final bird highlight of the day came when we pulled over at the side of the road back to Hardemeeste for reasons that have already been forgotten. We saw a large bird approaching quickly, heading straight towards us. As it passed within a few feet we realised that it was a second Lesser Spotted Eagle being pursued by a very irate Jay that seemed to have more courage than common sense.
Dinner was taken in the pleasant dining room of the hotel and the highlight was Lampreys on toast. We've a feeling that a mediaeval English king is alleged to have died from a surfeit of Lampreys and on this showing we could see why.
Hint to anybody thinking of staying in the Lepanina Hotel - don't put too much bubble bath in the Jacuzzi.
CC was up first and went out of the back door with the 'scope for a pre-breakfast sea watch. For the first time at a coastal location during daylight there was no wind. In fact the sea was flat calm and the temperature was balmy, which meant that it was also time for those early morning mosquitoes. There weren't that many exposed places left that actually needed to be bitten, so the best approach seemed to be to ignore them. There were a few bits and pieces off shore, mostly heading north, although a single Common Scoter seemed intent on bucking the trend. The commonest family were Divers and after a bit of effort both Great Northern and Red-throated were identified.
We had been provided with what appeared to be an aspirational large scale map of the area at the Nature Centre the day before. This had quite good representations of the roads and land features and also diagrams of the animals and birds that might be seen. We'd searched for a while for the giant Moose in the afternoon without any success, but decided to give it another chance and set off for the area around Soometsa for a pre-breakfast drive. The map had a nice picture of a Corncrake near this village, so it looked like a good option for an early visit.
The track to Soometsa is long and straight and there were storks, cranes and a Hobby to see from the car. The Corncrake on the map is shown as being next to a side track leading west from the main track. We saw a few possibles but couldn't decide on which one to take, but they all finished at a parallel track which eventually came out where the main one curved to the left. We followed this one back and JD who was map reading announced that the next corner would be the one with the Corncrake picture. We heard one calling before we'd even stopped the car.
By this time the weather was quite delightful, sunny and warm with barely a breeze and plenty of birdsong. We set the 'scopes up and spent half an hour trying to see the crake without any luck = there were perhaps 3 birds calling nearby - and then spent some more time identifying the various warblers in and around the fields. There were both Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats singing but one song was unfamiliar and we considered possible Marsh Warbler, however we easily got the 'scopes on the bird and were a little surprised to discover that we were looking at a Blyth's Reed Warbler - a species we'd seen quite a lot of in India but which we'd never heard singing before. The unseen Corncrake was a lifer for JD.
A couple of Grey Partridges (the only ones of the trip) and a pair of Bullfinches were noted on the way back for breakfast.
Nigula Bog beckoned, not least because it is the domain of Bear, Wolf and Lynx as well as Beaver, but also because of the promise of a 6.8 kilometre boardwalk. This sounded like a worthwhile expedition for the day so we stuck a - litre bottle of water in the day sack and set off. On the drive, that took us close to the Latvian border we experienced two major electrical storms that were both violent and impressive. One was accompanied by the heaviest hailstorm that either of us had seen. So intense was it that we feared for the car's windscreen and took shelter beneath a large roadside tree.
At the hamlet of Tuliku we heard another Corncrake calling. It sounded close to the road and the road was slightly elevated so we parked for a while to try to spot it, picking up a compensatory Marsh Warbler instead. The car park for the Nigula Bog was about 6 km further on and we found Map Butterflies here. We put on our waterproofs and boots and set off, fully expecting to get soaked in the next rainstorm. The bog is a fantastic habitat and the long boardwalk takes you past a small lake lined with trees that have been subject to the attentions of Beavers, across the bog which gets wetter and more treeless the further you go and then into a dense and very moist forest before returning across the bog again. Apart from numerous Tree Pipits, a few Common Gulls and a couple of Wood Sandpipers there weren't many birds to be seen. The rain had probably discouraged any raptors and was no doubt causing the mammals to stay in their shelters, because we didn't see any. The forest was full of birdsong but for every bird there were a million mosquitoes that made any stops hellish. The humidity was intense and despite the rain the temperature was high and it was a rather more uncomfortable place to be than most tropical forests we've visited.
Apart from 10 minutes of drizzle we didn't get any rain on our 4 hour walk and by the time we were on the last couple of kilometres the sun had come out and several Common Lizards were seen basking on the boards.
There were a couple of restaurants on the main road between Parnu and Hardemeeste and after 4 hours on - a litre of (warm) water, lunch seemed like a good idea. The first place we tried looked open but seemed closed - or at least that was the impression that the man with the scythe who shouted at us in German tried to convey and we reached the outskirts of Parnu before we found anywhere that looked likely. We were beginning to get the impression that eating out in rural Estonia is not something you can take for granted. Anyway we ended up at what seemed to be a railway station cafe that was quite busy and had a two course lunch and a few drinks for not very much money.
Our now trusted map indicated that there were Bitterns at a coastal site near Hardemeeste called Pikulu so this is where we headed next. We arrived to find a set of large reed beds and a couple of observation towers. This turned out to be one of the very best sites that we visited in Estonia and topped off a really good day. We were constantly accompanied by the booming of at least a couple of Bitterns but the Great Reed Warblers supported by Reed Warblers and Grasshopper Warblers were the birds we enjoyed the most. One Grasshopper Warbler reeled for ages from the top of a reed, allowing us to get the scopes on it and appreciate what a nice little bird it was.
The ponds and reed beds are surrounded by raised banks and the most obvious walk is out to the first tower, down to the sea and then along the other two sides of the square back to the car. We did three sides and then got to an isolated dwelling in an impressive position between the reeds and the sea. As we approached a very large unchained mastiff-type dog started growling and barking at us. It looked sort of friendly but we weren't sure and decided against taking a chance, walking all the way back round and past the tower again.
When we returned to the hotel we discovered that there was a large wedding party in full and noisy swing in the restaurant. We were told that it would be alright to eat there but it didn't seem the right thing to do, so we set off in the car to find an alternative. We didn't find anywhere until Parnu, meaning that we had a 120km round trip for dinner, which we took in a pleasant little pub in the town centre. We drove the 10 kms from Hardemeeste slowly with the windows down, hoping to hear some owls. None were calling but we did note a Corncrake calling just after midnight near the Kabli Bakery.
It was another calm and mild morning and our pre-breakfast outing took us down the road right to the Latvian border where the presence of a manned border post, effectively an upmarket version of many of the observation towers that we'd visited was the only sign that this was an international boundary - although the road was blocked so it was not possible to drive across.
Breakfast in the hotel was novel, taking place in the wreckage of the previous night's festivities as it did. The staff had made a valiant effort to tidy up but the sheer scale of the enterprise had defeated them so we dined almost alone, surrounded by confetti, balloons and the rather melancholy remains of streamers and other decorations, not to mention the even more melancholy remains of several party goers who had clearly stayed up all night with their bottles of wine, vodka and Grand Marnier. Good job it was a Sunday.
Whilst loading up the car we heard what we thought was probably a Serin calling in the trees but couldn't get a look at it.
En route to Tartu we stopped at the 'lapwing fields' where we photographed and filmed a group of 33 Common Cranes, some of which were engaged in display activities. It's worth mentioning at this point that apart from mosquitoes, Estonia is generously furnished with large numbers of big aggressive looking flies - similar to the horse flies we get in the UK but about 5x the size. These creatures seem particularly drawn to cars and just about every time we got out of the car, several of them got in. They looked as if they could bite - hard - and we must have wasted a couple of hours during the week trying to chase the stupid things out.
Our lunch stop was in the popular town of Viljandi. We spent 20 minutes in the excellent tourist information centre, loading up on leaflets, maps and post cards and then went for a wander round, having a look at the attractive ruined castle and the pretty old town. We heard another Corncrake from the viewpoint overlooking the lake from the castle.
The temperature had been climbing all morning so we had lunch on the outdoor terrace of the easy to find Telegaste Tuba Pubi, overlooking part of the castle moat. The only thing wrong with sitting out in this lovely location was that it meant you couldn't also sit in the equally lovely interior. The food was pretty good.
We stopped at Vortsjarv where we found plenty of Little Gulls and a few Black Terns amongst the Commons. By this time the heat and the sunshine was intense and you could easily have been standing by a lake in Greece or Turkey, rather than much further north.
Arrival at Tartu was delayed somewhat because our careful map-reading was thwarted by the 26th Tartu Rattaralli which seemed to be Estonia's largest cycle race and quite a major social event. After some messing about we found our way to the Hotell Aleksandri, the front of which has been designed to look like an enormous beer tankard. Refusing to be put off by this we checked in and went up to our rather excellent room (actually a mini-suite). Another clean and comfortable hotel, although the view left something to be desired unless you really enjoy industrial grim, or are agoraphobic.
Not wishing to spoil the habit of a holidaytime we slung our cases into a convenient corner and went straight out to explore Tartu, first visiting the lively and colourful finishing area of the cycle race. We then moved on to have a look at the town square and a taste of a rather good cherry pancake at one of the cafes with pavement seating. A breeze had arisen and the sky had turned rather threatening so we ordered a second round of drinks and dawdled over them somewhat, taking an opportunity to people watch. We were a little surprised at the level of drunkenness, especially given Estonia's rather tough laws limiting alcohol consumption away from licensed premises. We felt that most of the people who were the worse for a bottle or two were local. At least they weren't English, giving us a little reassurance that we're not always the most inebriated race in the world.
The highlight of the world of over consumption occurred when we were walking back to the hotel. We'd noticed a rather extravagantly dressed couple swigging from cans of beer walking in front of us. There was a pile of large pipes by the roadside, presumably awaiting installation underground. The gentleman put his can in the end of one of the pipes, which we though was a bit scruffy and started to urinate against a tree. When he'd finished he straightened up, retrieved his lager from the pipe and with as much dignity as he could muster staggered off after his companion. With another 4 hours of daylight left, they looked as if they were in for a night to forget.
We had dinner in the restaurant next to the Aleksandri, which may well have been called Old Hansa. We were a little nervous of the restaurant which had been done up to (presumably) be reminiscent of an old Estonian farm house but we were soon drawn in by the menu which included such items as 'Salmon salted on a tarred roof', 'Salted pork fat kept over the winter in a barrel', 'Pigs' ears (fritted or boiled) with sauce' and that old favourite 'Salty boiled horsebeans with smoked meat''. We're brave, but we're not that brave so we chose Pickled Garfish and some other fishy stuff with a bit of Black Pudding thrown in. Garfish, incredibly, have blue bones and are quite delicious. In fact the meal was excellent from beginning to end and the price was pretty much in keeping with other places we'd been.
As we were in a city centre we decided that the hassle of taking an early morning trip was not worth it, so we went for breakfast early. There are only a few tables in the hotel breakfast room so you need to share if it's busy. It was here that we heard our first English voices since leaving Tallinn airport and we spent half an hour or so chatting to a couple of mature motorcyclists who were in the middle of what sounded like a brilliant holiday taking in about 8 or 9 countries in a big loop from Norway, through Sweden, Finland the Baltic States and eventually back through Denmark to the ferry home. One of the bikers was from Southport, CC's home town.
Our vague aim was to explore the Estonia side of the large Piepsi Jarve, through which passes much of the Estonian/Russian border. We had few plans other than to get to the lake shore so that we could at least see Russia and at some point find a place to eat lunch. As it turned out, the former was easier than the latter.
We'd seen road signs to Rapina, which was quite near the lake, so we decided to follow these. There was a bit of a detour that probably cost us the best part of 30 minutes but we arrived in Rapina to find a really pretty small town set on the edge of an attractive lake (actually a very wide point in the river). We went into the town's tourist information centre to discover that there was nowhere to stay in Rapina, with the nearest accommodation being in Moosti.
Heading north east from Rapina on mainly unpaved tracks we made our way to Mehikoorma. At a point where we found a noticeable ruined windmill we stopped for a couple of photos. As we were listening to a warbler that we suspected was Savi's calling from the field a large raptor flew over, giving us the chance to get great views and a couple of ok photos of a Honey Buzzard. Golden Orioles and Common Cranes were heard and the field was full of Whinchats.
Mehikoorma is an untouched backwater with little to recommend it except for peace and quiet. By the time we arrived the temperature had soared and was probably close to the 32C predicted in the Tartu newspaper (London was basking in 10 degrees whilst Lisbon and Athens were enjoying 17 and 19 respectively). We were in the hottest place in Europe. On the edge of the village, hidden away in the trees was a ruined church tower. Even in the heat of the early afternoon there were lots of birds here. We identified Common Rosefinch, Icterine Warbler, Serin, Pied and Spotted Flycatchers, Whitethroat and several other species. There was a Storks nest on top of the church tower.
Moving on we followed the minor road towards Joepera and somewhere along here we saw what might have been the bird of the trip, a very unseasonable Rough-legged Buzzard. Although not a new species for either of us we did not expect to see this bird here and had assumed that any over-wintering birds would have long departed north and east to breed.
We tried to get to the lakeshore at several points along the way and at the tiny village of Meerapalu we stopped and crossed a precarious wooden bridge (one person at a time) and followed a short track to a tiny beach. The beach consisted almost entirely of thousands of mollusc and bivalve shells - fresh-water mussels, snails and others.
Extensive marshes to the north meant a long detour inland. We determined to stop to eat at the first place we found that was open. This was a long way off at Alatskivi. The Kivi Pood in this gorgeous village is part shop, part restaurant. The restaurant is old fashioned and gloomy and was enticingly cool after the heat outside. Pike and Pike-perch were on the menu so we shared a plate of each of them. Very good indeed.
Amongst Alatskivi's attractions is a well maintained 'castle'. We knew this would be closed to visitors but thought we might catch a glimpse of it for photographs so we drove up the approach road through some mature woodland. An odd looking bird on the track made us reach for the binoculars and we were surprised to find that this was a juvenile Common Crossbill. The bill looked a bit large so we considered Parrot Crossbill for a while, which would have been a new bird for both of us, but our decision was that Common was most likely. The bird seemed to be swallowing grit from the track.
The Russian 'old believers' village of Kolkya is worth a brief stop but we preferred the nearby settlement of Nina with its lighthouse on the edge of the lake. There's a cafe in Kolkya somewhere but it's well concealed.
By the time we got back to the Aleksandri they'd kindly transferred our bags to our 2nd room, the one with an integral sauna. We'd wanted this room for both nights but the cyclists had already booked it to ease their aching muscles. It was the first time that we'd had our own sauna and we were quite impressed, once we'd worked out how to switch it on. The room wasn't quite as big as our first one, but it was still pretty good value for money.
A Georgian restaurant in the centre of Tartu had caught our eye the previous day, so we decided to give it a try. Yet another excellent meal washed down with some good Georgian vodkas - a little more expensive than most places we'd visited but still cheap by British standards.
Our last full day in Estonia and we wanted to get to Tallinn reasonably early so that we could have a look at the city. After an early breakfast we were straight out on the road, determined to have a look at another large and wild bog, this time at Endla. The Lonely Planet Guide suggested that this was a smaller reserve than that at Nigula with a shorter boardwalk. It sounded just right for a short morning stroll and followed by a drive to Tallinn and, who knows, maybe even lunch.
The day started well enough, with sunshine and high temperatures likely but deteriorated quickly as we tried to find our way northwards. Jogeva looked like a good town to head for because it was in the right direction and large enough, but we made the mistake of following the main road signs instead of the rather inconspicuous yellow diversion signs. We ended up running out of road somewhere near the junction that should have taken us north and then had the frustration of retracing our route most of the way back to Tartu. The fact that several other drivers had made the same mistake was scant compensation.
Jogeva was earmarked for a snack stop. I don't know why we bothered. We found it eventually, despite several more misleading signs, and the town definitely looked as if it would have somewhere to eat but we lost the centre several times and just gave up. We weren't that hungry and the weather was exquisite so we pressed on to Endla.
Endla village was easy enough to find but we didn't see any indication about the direction of the nature reserve so we followed our instincts along tracks getting narrower and more rutted the further we got from the main road. We rounded a corner a ended up in the yard of an isolated farm sheltered on all sides by trees, with orioles and Sprosser singing. They were soon drowned out by the barking of two enormous mastiff type dogs, on of which was unleashed and came bounding over to the car in what was probably a display of friendship. In fact he seemed so pleased to see us that he could have eaten us. Literally.
The noise brought the farmer out of a barn, resplendent in substantial working boots and his red underpants (one must bee thankful for small mercies). CC waved the road map at him and tried a combination of resigned shrug and hapless grin in the hope that he would understand that we were lost and decide not to feed us to the dogs. He seemed quite friendly though and immediately started talking and gesturing animatedly. JD soon recognised that he was talking Russian (this is the benefit of a university language degree) and CC sat in wonderment as a real conversation ensued. Two minutes later we were off back down the track following handshakes and goodbyes, with a pretty good idea where the reserve entrance was (tip - just keep going on the main road north of the village).
A sign at the roadside indicated some kind of attraction. These often have rather good maps of the area so we pulled over to have a look to discover that at the top of the hill we were on (a rarity in itself in Estonia) was a standing stone - actually a ruined Christian cross - the Prilikivi Standing Stone. We felt like stretching our legs having spent the best part of two hours in the car, so we strolled to the top only to realise that we were looking at a woodpecker that probably wasn't Great-Spotted and that both pairs of binoculars were in the car. CC went back to get them but the bird had gone, however there were a couple of singing Common Rosefinches.
It was only a short drive to the entrance to the Endla Bog nature reserve. We had a quick look in the reserve visitor centre which was similar to the centre at Matsalu, with equally helpful staff who told us that there were plenty of raptors about as well as Black Storks. White-tailed Eagles were a good possibility.
Endla Bog might be one reason for us to return to Estonia. Perhaps we saw it under the best possible conditions, even though we didn't see many of its best birds, but the brilliant blue sky reflected in the dozens of pools, especially when viewed from the observation tower was quite captivating.
Walking through the horse paddocks towards the bog we could hear a corncrake in the distance and we had another good close-up of a Honey Buzzard as we approached the first wooded area. Lots of common birds were found with highlights including Pied Flycatcher, Siskin and Wood Warbler. As we headed out into the wet area on the boardwalk a Nightjar called twice. This was about 10:20 in the morning.
Our intention had been to walk to the tower and then return via the small lake near the visitor centre, but the forest in the distance beckoned. We already realised that the reserve area was much bigger than Lonely Planet suggested and included a large area with no access. We decided to walk as far as the edge of the forest, but when we got there it seemed daft not to carry on. The forest was much drier than that at Nigula Bog and there were numerous butterflies and dragonflies. A game bird was flushed and flew off into the trees. It was quite small and didn't look much like anything we'd seen before. A single loud popping sound heard a short while later just might have been a Capercaillie but we listened for a long time and didn't hear it again. More easily identified was a Wood Sandpiper that we flushed from under one of the wooden bridges that cross the small streams that intersect the path occasionally. This made such a noise and was so close that it made at least one of us jump.
The day continued to warm up and we soon remembered what a good idea it is to set of in 30 degree heat for a long walk with hardly any drinking water, but we soldiered on, finding our first Robin of the trip singing high in a conifer, shortly followed by a Great Spotted Woodpecker. A pair of Whooper Swans on the lake had well developed cygnets.
Returning to the car park we found some more Common Rosefinches and a number of Icterine Warblers and we were finally able to confirm that it was this species that had been making the mystery call that we had been hearing throughout the holiday.
Back on the road we stopped at the first petrol station we found to buy drinks and negotiate for some petrol (more difficult than you might imagine) and the pressed on to Rakvere where we knew there were restaurants, because the Lonely Planet says so. Somewhere on the edge of town we passed a small lake and being birdwatchers gave it a second glance. We were aware that we had not seen certain common water birds and on seeing a blob on the water shouted 'Moorhen' and 'Dabchick'. Being unable to reach a consensus we pulled over and walked back to the lake, where semi-nude day seemed to be in full swing with plenty of barely clothed sunbathers and were pleased to find that the bird was in fact a very pretty breeding plumaged Slavonian Grebe.
Continuing in to town we found not one but several places to eat. Despite the bewildering choice we settled upon the Berlini Trahter which despite its name seemed rather more like a traditional English country pub. We sat outside to eat, enjoying the not so traditional English weather. The food was better than passable.
Several hours behind schedule we set off for Tallinn, arriving in the city during the rush hour. We had a large scale map of the city which showed the location of the Go Hotel Shnelli and JD's map reading took us straight there with barely a deviation and on the right side of the road. We were fortunate enough to find a parking space right outside the hotel.
The Shnelli was a bit of a risk. We'd found it on the internet for a surprisingly low price, checked tripadvisor.com for reviews which were quite promising so we booked it on the basis that it was only for one night so if it was awful we could either tolerate it or find somewhere else. There are prettier and more central hotels in Tallinn, but do any of them have the view' We were given a key to a room on the 7th floor and found it to be a reasonable size with a good bathroom and certainly clean and well maintained. The view was exceptional, looking across a main road and a park to the edge of the old town, with mediaeval walls, turrets and glamorous buildings. The cost for the night, including breakfast, came to £29.32 on CC's credit card statement.
After taking a few mandatory photos we headed into the city to enjoy the late afternoon heat and crowds.
Tallinn is a lovely city that is beginning to exploit its charms to the full. There's a photograph at every turn. Narrow streets, broad squares, a mix of architecture from several different periods in history and some imposing old churches. We didn't really have time to do it full justice.
Showered and changed we grabbed a taxi and returned to the old town to get something to eat. Troika looked good but was fully booked and we weren't too taken with Peppersack. Old Hansa was just too Disney for words, although we've heard that the food can be good. After wandering round for a while we settled for a Ukrainian place, having had a terrific meal in a Ukrainian restaurant in Riga in 2005. This was easily the most expensive meal we had in Estonia and with the exception of the beef burger on day one, the worst. Several tempting dishes on the menu were unavailable and the first bottle of still water that we asked for was sparkling. When we made it clear that we didn't want sparkling the replacement was the temperature of tap water, which is what it probably was, although it appeared on the bill. The food was uninspiring at best and we didn't really finish it.
We weren't tempted to linger so after settling up we went to look for a drink or two. Troika is well-known as a vodka bar and we've been known to enjoy a glass or two so we returned there to find that it was closing, which was a bit of a surprise because it was only about 10 p.m. The manager told us that we had time for one drink so we ordered the most expensive vodka on the menu and another Russian vodka that we had not previously heard of. Both the vodka and the glasses came straight out of the freezer and the cheaper vodka was so cold that it poured almost like Golden Syrup. We would have liked to have spent a couple of hours there to really do it justice.
Back on the streets we wandered around for a while and ended up in a large and lively place that had its own mini-brewery. We ordered some more vodkas, the normal Russki Standart this time, and sat down at a long wooden table. Despite the slightly cheesy touches like 'traditional' costume we regretted not having found this place earlier. The food that was being served looked good and the customers seemed pretty satisfied.
Our flight was mid-morning the next day so we resisted the temptation to get a fourth round of doubles and headed back to the hotel to find that the night time view was quite as good as the daytime, with many of the old buildings opposite artistically lit. We left the curtains open all night.
And that's about it. Breakfast the next morning was in a large hall done up, appropriately like a railway station with some rather bizarre Christmas card wallpaper (you probably need to see it to appreciate it) and was not bad. The buffet was constantly refreshed with new items and there was plenty of choice. We made it back to the airport through the morning rush hour and were soon on our way back home.