Winter birding in Estonia


Having not done a trip abroad together yet, the six of us available (myself, Nathaniel Dargue, Owen Beaumont, Liam Andrews, Josh Fusiara and Alex Masterman) were keen to have a short winter birding break somewhere in Europe. We collectively settled on Estonia mainly due to the star species available, as well as some good general birding, cheap accommodation (around €20 per night each), fairly affordable and direct flights (€160). Our trip focused on several key targets: Steller's Eider, owls, woodpeckers and grouse. For a number of species, using some form of playback was vital in aiding our ability to see them, with us often driving down forest tracks and stopping periodically to use tape – not something that we enjoyed doing. Unfortunately, the reality is that a it would be almost impossible to see some of the species without it. 

Direct flights were booked through WizzAir, that took us from Luton to Tallinn. We arranged a hire 4x4 mini-van though Europcar that we picked up at the airport. Walking and driving tracks were fine; some places had a lot of compacted ice that required some more concentration however. Surprisingly, we almost always had excellent phone service, even in the middle of dense woodlands and bogs. All our days were self-guided using information available online. Some nice food was available too in local cafés and restaurants, with most villages having small supermarkets such a Co-ops. 

In terms of birding information prepared for the trip beforehand, we spent a lot of time looking through previous trip reports and eBird checklists. Although what turned out to be our saving grace just before the trip was PlutoF, a website we'd discovered that I can only describe as almost the Estonian equivalent to BirdGuides! The website is updated constantly throughout the day, providing exact co-ordinates of most the Estonian target species (though Steller's Eider and Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker locations are withheld). Without PlutoF, we surely wouldn't have seen nearly as much as we did over the course of the trip. You can make a free account, search species by their scientific names, and filter sightings by the date of observation.




Day one: 1 March 2024

Day one started with an early arrival at Luton Airport (3 am) for 6.10 am flight that would hopefully give us half a day to do some general birding on the way down to the island of Saaremaa. Unfortunately, the trip couldn't have got off to worse start for me as, at the check in desk, I realised I had brought my mum's passport instead of my own (I don't know how this happened, and yes I know I'm stupid). The rest of the squad departed Luton on time, landing in Tallinn at 11 am local time. 

They then went on to pick up the hire vehicle, leaving the airport by 12.15 pm. Meanwhile, I had managed to retrieve my own passport (thanks to my superstar Dad) and headed to Heathrow Airport, where I booked a 10.15 pm flight with a connection in Warsaw, Poland. Disastrously, my Heathrow flight got delayed, meaning I missed my connecting flight in Warsaw, which left me stranded in the capital for nine hours before the next available flight to Tallinn. A pretty horrible first day, but things could surely only get better from here.

While all that was going on, the rest of the group had meandered their way down to Virtsu ferry terminal to catch the ferry to Saaremaa, picking up four Great Grey Shrikes, White-tailed Eagles, Common Cranes, Eurasian Goshawk and Northern Treecreepers en route. After a smooth ferry crossing, they arrived at our cabin in Kuressaare, the main town on Saaremaa. The accommodation was complete with a swimming pond, hot tub and sauna. It seemed more places had a sauna than not – we weren't complaining!

Common Crane, Saaremaa, Saare (Miles Cluff).



Day two: 2 March 2024

Eventually, at 1.40 am, I arrived in Tallinn and made my way down to Virtsu ferry terminal via an Uber. The ferry from Virtsu to Saaremaa is only 30 minutes, at a bargain of €4 that you can pay on arrival. After a stunning crossing through the frozen sea at sunrise, I was reunited with everyone at Kuivasta. 

With the whole group back together again, we wasted no time and headed off birding. The main goal of the day was to see Steller's Eider, one of the sole reasons we came to Estonia in the first place. The north side of Saaremaa provides an internationally important wintering population of these spectacular seaduck and is typically the only place in Estonia to find them. It's also probably the easiest place in the world to see Steller's Eider in terms of travelling time, accessibility, cost and weather. When researching through previous trip reports and eBird checklists before the holiday, Saaremaa Harbour (58.5363, 22.2352), located just north of Ninase, was identified as the obvious best place on the island to get closer views of them, with the breakwater offering sheltered areas for any seaduck.

We passed a few Common Cranes feeding and courting in the roadside fields on the way to the harbour, a magical start to the day, and easily the closest views any of us have had. On arrival, another Eurasian Goshawk flushed off the beach, before flying into the forest. There was plenty of parking space at the harbour itself – you can even park close enough to the seafront to use the car as a hide. The strong south-easterly winds meant there was shelter for duck at the north side of the breakwater. Before even getting out the van, we could see the unmistakable plumage of two drake Steller's Eider, with a female in tow. 

We'd essentially sacrificed the whole day to locate the eider, not realising that we'd have seen them within seconds of arriving at our first spot early in the morning! We stood on a couple of wooden pallets and used the breakwater as a shield to watch all the ducks without disturbing them as they gave outstanding views. We had hoped to see them at identifiable range, and knew they could be tricky to get good views of, but here they were showing down to 20 metres! Still, slightly frustratingly, the birds spent most of the time with their heads tucked into their backs. On the other side of the breakwater were hundreds of Long-tailed Duck, displaying and feeding in tightly packed rafts in the harbour, also making for an exceptional spectacle. The perfect start to our first full day birding.

Steller's Eider, Saaremaa, Saare (Miles Cluff).

Now feeling more relaxed, we had a slow drive towards Uudepanga Bay (58.5146, 21.9159) at the north-west end of Saaremaa, where the main flock of Steller's Eider is usually said to occur, though typically more distant than birds at Saaremaa Harbour. It was clear on arrival that the bay was filled with wildfowl, with good numbers of Greater Scaup, Common and Velvet Scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Whooper SwansRed-breasted Merganser, Common Goldeneye and a single adult drake Smew, plus plenty of White-tailed Eagles (which was the case in most places we went). 

It didn't take long to locate a raft of around 80 Steller's Eider. In recent weeks there had been reports of up to 350 birds, but presumably the rest were further out to sea. The flock was very distant in the bay, barely identifiable views with the wind and choppy water not helping. If visiting Saaremaa, we definitely recommend spending more time at the harbour for Steller's Eider, given the calmer conditions and closer viewing. 

With still plenty of time left in the day, we headed for the forests of Viidumäe Nature Reserve, hoping for some woodpecker and owl action. However, the forests were silent, with little to no bird activity whatsoever, possibly due to the chilly, breezy wind and overcast cloud. 

After a few birdless hours, we thought it would be best to make the most of the Steller's Eiders on our last day on Saaremaa, and so we headed back to the harbour. All three eider were still loafing just off the breakwater late afternoon, even closer than before. Frustratingly, they were refusing to wake up, and after a while, they flew off out to sea. An unforgettable first full day – but the week would only get better from here!

Long-tailed Duck, Saaremaa, Saare (Miles Cluff).


Day three: 3 March 2024

Our third day in Estonia had us travelling back to the mainland, where we'd spend the rest of the trip. Little did we know at the time it would prove to be one of the most incredible days of birding most of us have ever had. The aim was to target owls and woodpeckers. We departed our Kuressaare lodge and headed back to Kuivasta ferry terminal. We were surprised to see a Ringed Seal hauled out on the ice close to the boat, a new species for the trip. 

After another picturesque frozen crossing, we wasted no time heading towards Lindi LKA, where PlutoF was showing reports of an overwintering Northern Hawk-Owl at a solar farm near Kõpu (58.2922, 24.1743) in recent weeks. On the way there, it would've been rude not to pull over for a surprise group of 19 Black Grouse (including lekking males) in a roadside field at 58.5432, 23.9121, a decent bonus for the day and not something that was really on our radar. 

We arrived at Lindi LKA and after no more than a few minutes of driving around, the unique silhouette of a Northern Hawk-Owl materialised at the top of a large birch! We couldn't believe it – I don't think any of us really expected to see it, and after so little effort as well. I'm not sure I've ever scrambled out of a car so clumsily and as quickly as that before. The owl swooped down and spent the next hour and a half above and around the roadside, perching on pylons, telegraph wires and even on solar panels down at eye level, not caring about our presence whatsoever. The views were utterly outrageous, in perfect light, no wind and no one else to be seen! We were speechless – a bucket list bird for all of us. I believe this is the best bird I've ever seen. 

Northern Hawk-Owl, Pärnu, Estonia (Miles Cluff).

While watching the owl, some 150 Tundra Bean Goose flew over in a couple of groups, the first of the trip. Annoyingly, we didn't see any on the deck throughout the week, so never got to properly check for Taiga Bean Goose.

Like with the eider, we had allocated the whole day for trying to find the owl, so we didn't really know what to do next. Liam had heard and seen a Black Woodpecker in the large woodland behind where the hawk-owl was, so we went for a little wander to relocate it. It was immediately obvious that the forests of the mainland contained a lot more birds than on Saaremaa. The large woodland mostly consisted of mature silver birch, rich in dead wood and ideal for drumming woodpeckers. The weather was perfect for drumming, too, being warm and calm. We were quickly confronted by a couple of vocal woodpeckers at 58.2898, 24.1786, and were shocked to find that they were a pair of White-backed Woodpeckers! This was another species that we expected to be extremely tricky to track down on this holiday, but here they were without us even trying We had some classy views of the male drumming at the top of a fallen silver birch limb, though we never managed to relocate the Black Woodpecker. What a crazy start to our first day on the mainland – it wasn't even 11 am yet. 

With woodpeckers on the brain, we thought our next best plan was to head for a nearby village park, Audru Park (58.4116, 24.3589), just outside Pärnu. This was flagged to us as a good site by eBird for Middle Spotted Woodpecker. The park was fairly small and consisted of mostly deciduous woodland (mainly oak and hornbeam), vastly different to the White-backed Woodpecker woodland. Yet again, after only a few minutes within arriving, we were watching a Middle Spotted Woodpecker, only 10m away on bird feeders. During the next hour or so we had unbelievable views of three Middle Spotted Woodpeckers drinking sap low down in the trees in front of us. A pair of continental Eurasian Nuthatches (europaea form) excavating a nest hole provided a lot of entertainment too – really smart looking beasts, lacking almost all the furious tones from our nuthatches in Britain. Everything was just falling into place. 

Middle Spotted Woodpecker, Pärnu, Estonia (Miles Cluff).

We checked a few other nearby areas for Grey-headed Woodpeckers with no luck, so with the afternoon progressing, we thought our best bet was to try for another of our main targets: Pygmy Owl. We drove to Kildemaa Forest (58.429822, 24.803022), only a 25-minute drive east of Pärnu, where many reports of Pygmy and Ural Owls had appeared recently on PlutoF. The forest was mostly coniferous, with some mixed woodland, easily accessible by the network of logging tracks throughout the forest. There were plenty of large clearfells that contained a few mature trees (presumably left for the benefit of wildlife), which were ideal for woodpeckers. 

We drove the van down the logging tracks, stopping and listening regularly, which we found to be a good birding technique. We quickly had lots of Crested, and Willow Tits, Northern Bullfinches trumpeting away and Crossbills. A bit of a surprise further into the forest was a Raccoon Dog running across a side track (given they should be hibernating). At the same spot, we became aware of the distinctive, echoing calls of a Black Woodpecker deep in the forest at 58.4070, 24.8021. It didn't take long for the bird to fly overhead and start drumming on a dead tree at the other side of the clearfell, giving some nice scope views. The drumming was a lot louder than I expected, more akin to a machine gun than anything else. We were buzzing, Black Woodpecker was one of my top targets for the trip, and it definitely didn't disappoint

With our luck in, we slowly drove further down the main track, and again, stopped to listen for any calls. This time, we heard exactly what we hoping for, a calling Eurasian Pygmy Owl! The bird sounded deep into the mixed woodland at 58.3998, 24.8176, and we weren't hopeful that we'd get eyes on it. While patiently waiting and trying to pinpoint where it was calling from, a pair of Grey-headed Woodpeckers began calling from the clearfell right behind us. At this point, we didn't know where to look, with Pygmy Owl one side of the track and Grey-headed Woodpeckers at the other side! 

The woodpeckers put on a really nice performance in the standalone trees in the middle of the clearfell. These ended up being the only Grey-headed Woodpeckers we saw the whole trip. Having briefly forgotten what we were originally searching for, we were quickly reminded there was still a calling Pygmy Owl somewhere behind us. After 20 minutes, a small shape dashed through the canopy and landed in a silver birch by the track. There it was! It was a mesmerising experience being stared directly at by its piercing yellow eyes – there was so much character in such a tiny bird. Another species that I'd been desperate to see, it certainly lived up to the hype. We watched it for five minutes out in the open before it melted back into the forest.

Eurasian Pygmy Owl, Kildemaa, Estonia (Miles Cluff).

With daylight fading, we headed to our accommodation in Risti to drop off our bags and reenergise with some junk food. Still wanting to make the most of the whole day, we headed out again shortly after for a nocturnal owl search, with hopes of connecting with Ural Owl. PlutoF had come to the rescue again and provided us with a few different co-ordinates at the west side of Marimesta LKA, only a 10-minute drive from our lodge. We knew that Ural Owls prefer clearings in the middle of dense coniferous forest, so our best bet was to drive along forest tracks and stop at each clearing to listen for their calls. The tracks are very icy here, so just a word of warning for anyone visiting at this time of the year. 

At a clearing at the end of the track we finally heard the deep hooting of two Ural Owl, meaning the day's hot streak continued. It wasn't long before the powerful shape of a large owl flew low over us into the clearing, shortly joined by the second bird. We had some satisfactory views in the low light before then flew back deep into the woodland. We were left in awe at the species we had managed to see throughout the day, it really couldn't have gone any better.


Day four: 4 March 2024

Today required another stupidly early start, with Hazel Grouse the main target. We had our hopes set fairly low given the secretive nature of this diminutive grouse. Nevertheless, we headed for a dawn arrival at Rouma Kula (58.9641, 24.0656) in Marimetsa LKA, an area that we knew was good for Hazel Grouse, as well as Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker (though records here were sparse). The area contained the grouse's preferred habitat of dense, damp, mixed coniferous woodland at the edge of a large bog. 

There was plenty of room for parking, although the walk into the woodland was treacherous, with compacted snow on the trail forming thick ice. Several of us hit the deck on the walk, though thankfully there were no injuries or broken optics. In the first stretch of woodland towards the bog, we had our first Spotted Nutcracker of the trip, a vocal bird on top of a conifer silhouetted against the light (58.9649, 24.0478). A few more could also be heard calling throughout the forest. 

Further along the spruce forest track, nearing the boardwalk at the east edge of the main bog, we heard the bizarre high-pitched whistle of a singing male Hazel Grouse! If you've never heard the call of a Hazel Grouse, I suggest you have a listen online – it's probably the last bird you'd think of being capable of making a sound like that. Hearing it is one thing, but trying to see it is another. Unlike some of the other birds on the trip, this required a bit of graft, and took us a while before the male in question ran across the track in front of us at 58.9647, 24.0433. 

Hazel Grouse, Marimesta, Estonia (Miles Cluff).

It seemed it plucked up some courage though, as over the next hour we had some good views of the bird singing away low down in the spruces as he moved between favoured perches. With our target in the bag, we continued towards the bog, hearing another singing male Hazel Grouse not far away. We thought it would be best to leave them be, so headed out onto the boardwalk through the bog. Alex had managed to find a Great Grey Shrike and 10 Black Grouse, but little else could be seen on the bog. It was spectacular landscape nevertheless, with a gorgeous vista from the viewing tower in the middle of the bog, and is somewhere we definitely recommend checking out.

Over the moon having seen Hazel Grouse, we turned back to the car and spent the afternoon driving around the forests and clearings west of Marimesta LKA where we had been the previous evening. A few more Crested Tits, Crossbills and a heard-only Eurasian Pygmy Owl were the best we could muster. We decided on having a more relaxing evening, retiring to the cabin to chill out in the sauna. 


Day five: 5 March 2024

Our final full day saw us in the company of a tour guide that we'd booked through Birding Haapsalu a few weeks prior to the trip. Admittedly, we didn't think we would have seen as much as we had done over the previous days, so in hindsight we probably didn't even need the guide. However, we still hadn't seen Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, notoriously the most challenging of the woodpeckers to see in Estonia. 

Our guide met us at our accommodation at 6 am, then we drove straight for the coniferous woodland west of Marimesta bog, exactly the same areas we had been looking in the previous afternoons and evenings. One of the clearings happened to be where we had the two Ural Owls and calling Pygmy Owl the previous nights! There were signs of Eurasian Three-toed Woodpecker, with drilling holes and bark stripped from spruce trees. After a few hours in the area, Owen finally located us a female climbing up a large spruce by the track – only a brief view for all us, but good enough. Another difficult target checked off and one that we didn't really have too much hope in seeing. 

With all our targets for the trip now seen, we were keen to get some more Ural Owl views in better light. We killed a few hours doing some general birding and attempting to twitch another Northern Hawk-Owl near Haapsalu, but to no avail.  

With late afternoon approaching, we headed for the clearings at the south-west side of Leidissoo LKA near Vanaküla, an area where Ural Owls had been seen in good light by some other tour groups in previous days. It didn't take long, and at 5.20 pm we heard the resonating call of a male Ural Owl in the thick of forest. The bird flew out the forest into the open clearing and spent the next hour putting on a truly magical display. At close range and in excellent light, it was everything we could've dreamed of. I don't often get goosebumps when birding, but there was something so magical about this encounter that I couldn't put my finger on. All of us were lost for words … and if that wasn't enough, we were treated to a second bird calling in the forest too! Just as good as the Northern Hawk-Owl earlier in the week. It really felt like we had seen the very best of Estonia over the past few days.

Ural Owl, Leidissoo, Estonia (Miles Cluff).


Day six: 6 March 2024

With our flight home from Tallinn at 11.15 am, we didn't have much time in the morning for any birding. Our guide the previous day had tipped us off that a nearby road at the south side of Marimetsa LKA bog was used by Western Capercaillie at dawn, where they eat gravel off the road which helps with digesting plant material in their stomachs. Our early morning efforts weren't rewarded though, and we had to leave in vain. We headed back to the accommodation and finished packing our bags, before driving to the airport for a smooth trip home. 

If you're looking for a cheap, self-guided winter birding break, then I think you'd struggle to find any better than a few days away in Estonia. We had an absolute blast, and mopped up most species in just four full days. Incredible scenery and some spectacular species – what's not to love!

Written by: Miles Cluff

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