I’d never been to Estonia, but I’d heard great things about it - Primeval boreal forests, peat bogs, some of Europe’s densest populations of wolves, bears and lynx, and a healthy number of white-tailed sea eagles.
We were hoping to photograph the eagles in the snow, but having booked the trip a few months previously, we hadn’t expected such a warm Spring and when I arrived, the snows were still yet to come - in fact the day before I arrived it was the hottest day on record for the time of year!! Harsh Winters usually means hungry eagles, so a road-kill roe deer left out in front of a photography hide would normally attract double figures. This wasn’t the case though, and the eagles had plenty of food - perhaps a little unfortunate for us, but great news for the eagles. In fact, Luke had seen first-hand evidence in the shape of a dead wild boar floating down a river, ostensibly drowned after falling into a lake that had thawed unseasonably early.
We already knew that this wasn’t going to be the trip we’d hoped for, but I was still looking forward to seeing a bit of Estonia’s taiga landscape and wildlife - perhaps the warm Spring might have brought the bears out of hibernation early...
Luke had already had an encounter with a confiding family of Eurasian elk, which sounded pretty exciting to me, having never seen them myself.
We headed up to the north-east - just a few miles from the Russian border, and that night I got to see my first Estonian wildlife, when a long-eared owl flew out in front of our car. We were shown a capercaillie site, which we thought we’d try in the morning as we heard capers calling from the tree-tops and found some prints and droppings. Back at the lodge that night I had my first encounter with elk - a hearty wild elk stew. Very tasty, but I never expected to taste elk before seeing them.
Overnight, the weather changed - the temperature rapidly dropped and it dumped over a foot of snow. We got up before dawn to get to the caper site, but it wasn’t looking good as wildlife isn’t particularly active when the snow first comes. On the way, I saw my first ural owls hunting in the dark and we had a couple of snowy hares running through the beams of our headlights.
At the caper site, it was deathly quiet, with not even a whisper of wind - I could even hear the large flakes of snow hitting the ground. We slowly walked the forest trails for a few hours, checking clearings and tree-line edges with our binoculars, but it seemed like the wildlife was hunkered down deep in the forest, waiting for the snow to pass. Apart from the odd raven cronking in the distance and the thin high-pitched calls of crested tits up in the trees, we were alone.
We headed back to the lodge to meet local guide, Uudo, stopping on the way to take a few pictures of garden birds in the falling snow. Uudo took us on a bit of a tour of the area, where we saw black grouse, beaver sign and pine marten tracks in the snow and Uudo took us to a place where he had recently seen brown bear and cub tracks, which must have been just out of Winter hibernation.
As the light started fading, Uudo took us to a site where he had radio collared a Siberian flying squirrel. It was a bit of a Benny Hill moment watching Uudo running around, trying to find the squirrel, but it wasn’t long before he got a decent signal and we found them. Our spirits were instantly lifted, as we had some amazing sightings of flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree, chasing each other around the trunks and poking their little heads out of their nest holes. It was the perfect time to see them as it was right in the middle of their courtship season and there was loads of activity. We looked for squirrel droppings at the base of the nesting trees, which Uudo told us were more valuable than gold, as their presence can prevent the area from being forested - the main reason the squirrels are suffering is islandisation of habitats due to forestry. Uudo’s study of the Siberian flying squirrels is incredibly important to their survival in the area, and that night he told us a heart-warming story about how he raised a family of squirrels and taught them to fly, after one of his squirrels called Karl was eaten by a pine marten and they were orphaned. He took them into his home and when he was confident that they could fly well enough to survive, he released them into the wild, and continued to monitor them. After a few months, they were all eventually picked off by pine martens - pine marten and Ural owl are their main predators, but goshawks and eagle owls will also take them.
After a few days in the north-east, we headed south towards the eagle hide - we weren’t expecting miracles, but there had been reports of at least 1 eagle in the area and perhaps the snow would bring us luck. On the road down, we stopped to photograph an obliging road-side snow bunting in the falling snow. We pulled over and left the hazards on, which I chose to include for a bit of context.
The next morning, we got into the hide before first light and to our surprise, we were soon joined by a white-tailed eagle which perched in a nearby tree to check out the road-kill roe deer carcass that had been left out to encourage them down. We decided not to move around or take any pictures as we didn’t want to spook it before it was light enough to get a decent exposure, but frustratingly it decided not to hang around and that was the only eagle we saw that day.
As the day progressed, the temperature rose and the snow melted and more and more ravens appeared until we had at least 40 in front of us. It was really interesting to watch them feeding and bickering and I learnt a lot about their behaviour and pecking order, just by watching them all day.
At first, they had trouble getting in to the deer carcass as not only does it have a thick hide, but was partially frozen. Over the course of the day, as it got warmer, there was various amounts of activity, but there seemed to be just a brief period of around 15 minutes when they got to the “good stuff” and there was a sudden feeding frenzy. My most memorable moment was when a dominant raven plucked out the roe deer’s heart and seemed to parade up an down with it like a prize, almost challenging the others to take it from him, before taking it elsewhere to feed on it.
Although it was interesting to watch the ravens, we decided not to risk the eagle hide again, as it is a big investment to stay in from before dawn until nightfall, and it turned out to be the right decision, as there were no further reports of eagles there for the rest of the week.
Instead, we decided to spend the rest of the time visiting different areas of Estonia, driving the forest tracks and looking for wildlife. The next morning started promisingly as just outside our hotel, there was a pair of whooper swans roosting on a frozen lake. Just as the sun was rising, a dog-walker out for an early morning stroll along the edge of the lake passed by and the swans raised their heads from under their wings to watch them go by.
Later that day we came across a group of female capercaillie that had come out of the forest to feed on the grit on the forest road. Grit is important to aid digestion as with no teeth, birds need something solid and abrasive in their gizzard to help break their food down. Although very shy, they weren’t in a hurry, so we slowly got closer and closer, using the car as a hide and lying on the ground to get a nice low angle.
Later that day we met up with Marika Mann from Estonian Nature and she showed us a black grouse lekking site, with over 40 lekking black grouse. It was an amazing spectacle, but too distant for pictures, so we set up some hides near the biggest concentration of grouse droppings in a nearby field which was also an occasional lek site, in the hope that they might move in the next few days. Later that evening I saw my first elk at the edge of a clearing. It was too dark and distant for pictures, but it was great to watch them and as they disappeared into the forest, we drove around the corner and watched them as they crossed a clearing that had been cut for power lines.
The next day we met Tarvo, another guide that knew the area well and he took us out to show us his local patch. It was quite a quiet morning to begin with, but after a few hours and some breakfast, we saw another family of elk, a great grey shrike, long-tailed ducks, a black woodpecker, a field of cranes and a flock of 300+ snow bunting that had stopped on migration to feed in a field.
That evening, Tarvo took us to a site where he had put up a nest box for Ural owls earlier in the Winter, which was already occupied. We didn’t want to get too close at such a sensitive early stage in nesting, so we stayed well back and observed with binoculars and took a few distant pictures.
Before long, the week was up and it was time to head home to the UK. The weather was a blessing and a curse, as all though we saw some sights that we would have missed without it, like a big fall of woodcock brought down by the snow during their night migration, we missed a lot of opportunities that we might have had if it was a more “normal” Winter and the wildlife had been behaving more predictably. I didn’t come home with award winning frame-fillers of white-tailed eagles, but we did see one flying low over the trees on the way back to Tallinn airport, which was a nice way to round off the trip. Estonia was great for wildlife watching and I saw loads of species that were firsts for me. Photographically, we could have done with a bit of better luck with the weather and some better planning of alternative options for when the wildlife or weather wasn’t behaving as we’d hoped. There is definitely some amazing potential there though and from the amount of bear, boar, lynx and wolf tracks we saw in the snow when we were there, I think it is somewhere I will be returning in the future :)
Thanks to Estonian Nature for inviting me and showing me around. You can check out their wildlife holidays and photography tours here.
All pictures © Sam Hobson 2014 unless otherwise stated.