Notes on birds

Notes on birds seen and heard on Saaremaa during my visit, 9-19 May 2013

The numbers in square brackets are the estimated breeding pairs on Saaremaa taken from the most recent (31.12.11) checklist (available online at Loona Manor). I’m not sure quite how these totals were calculated, however, or how many observers were involved. I met no birdwatchers at all on my wanderings. I gather the leading naturalist on the island is Mati Martinson, who lives near Sääre and is a first-class photographer, and he was the one who put the list together.

In interpreting the figures it should be remembered that Saaremaa is a large island (2,688 sq km, so, about the size of Luxembourg or Samoa, and larger than Lewis and Harris combined; the Isle of Wight, by comparison is about 380 sq km), thinly populated (40,000 residents, mostly in Kuressaare) and very densely forested (with many inaccessible lakes, bogs and marshes). There may well be 10- 20 pairs of greenish warbler here, as the checklist records, but they are going to be hard to find!

I was based at Loona Manor the whole time, made two day trips to Vilsandi island, went twice to the Vidumäe reserve, made one drive to Sääre in the SE, but otherwise just explored the local coastline and forests in the NW near Loona.

Weather was dry all week with a lot of sun, with the temperature rising to 25 degrees C by 18 May. There were dense sea mists round the coast some mornings. Trees were quite bare when I arrived but were showing some leaf by the 19th. I was told the spring here was up to two weeks late this year, as it was in the UK. Mosquitoes started emerging seriously on the 18th. It was light till about 1030pm (clocks are two hours ahead of UK summertime).

Black-throated diver. One off Elda Pank peninsula, 13 May. Big spring transit of these but none breed in S. Great crested grebe. Quite a few on the larger lakes [200-400].
Red-necked grebe. One on Lake Karujä, 13 May [100-150].
Slavonian grebe. One on Lake Karujär, 13 May [40-80]. Cormorant (sinensis). Quite common, with big colony on Vilsandi [3000].
Grey heron. Just a few singletons here and there [200-300].
Black stork. One circling overhead at Vidumäe (they nest near there) [10-20].
[White stork. Not seen on S [6], but several pairs nesting by roadside on way back to Tallinn.]
Mute swan. Common, no doubt included migrants [550-600].
Whooper swan. A vocal party of up to 30 all week in the bay at Saareauk (Kiirassaare), just NW of Loona. Numbers declining by end of week [5-10].
Greylag goose. Common, must have included a lot of migrants. [200-500].
Barnacle goose. Common and vocal, must have included a lot of migrants. There is a huge spring migration of these passing in May [80-100].
Canada goose. One with the greylag/barnacle flock from Loona, 15 May [2].
Shelduck. Common [250-300].
Wigeon. Just a few, probably late migrants [0-5].
Gadwall. Seemed almost as common as mallard [200-300].
Teal. A few round the bays and in the pools [100-300].
Garganey. A pair on Vilsandi, 10 May. Surprised not to see more [100-200].
Mallard. Very common [3000-4000].
Shoveler. Quite common [100-200].
Pochard. Just a few in the bays and on the larger lakes [200-400].
Tufted duck. Common [1000-2000].
Scaup. Several late migrants in the bays [0-5].
Smew. A pair on Lake Laialepa (Harilaid peninsula), 15 May [doesn’t breed].
Eider. Big colony on Vilsandi and no doubt at other coastal spots [3000-5000].
Long-tailed duck. A few seen from the ferry crossing to S [doesn’t breed].
Velvet scoter. Just a few round the coast, though there is said to be a huge passage in early-mid May involving over a million birds passing through the Baltic. A few breed [100-150].
Goldeneye. Several pairs and parties all week [10]. Red-breasted merganser. Quite common round the coasts [200-300].
Goosander. Common both round coast and on lakes, including quite small ones [300-500].
Buzzard. Just a few, presumed vulpinus [300-400].
White-tailed sea eagle. Several pairs (Vilsandi and Vidumäe in particular) and a few singletons [30-40].
Lesser spotted eagle. One seen at Lake Linnulaht, 16 May probably of this species, but spotted eagle is a possibility here too [0-2].
Marsh harrier. Surprisingly just one [100-150].
Montague harrier. One on Vilsandi, 10 May [10-20].
[Hen harriers breed but I didn’t see any [10-20]. In general it seemed surprising not to find more raptors since rodents must abound, but the territory is huge.
Sparrow hawk. Just a few [200-300].
Goshawk. One on Harilaid peninsula [30-40].
Peregrine. One on Vilsandi, 9 May [0].
Kestrel. Surprisingly, only one [5-10, why so few?].
Hobby. One in marsh just NE of Kihelkonna, 15 May [30-50].
Coot. Quite common on larger lakes [500-1,000].
[Moorhen. None [20-40], surprisingly scarce on S.]
Crane. Common and splendidly conspicuous [700].
Oystercatcher. Quite common [1,500-2,000].
Ringed plover. Not uncommon [1,000-2,000].
Little ringed plover. A pair near Kaugatoma [20-30].
Grey plover. A few (in summer plumage), only a migrant here [0].
Lapwing. Quite common [1,000-1,500].
Common snipe. Some but would have expected more [1,000-2,000].
[Woodcock. A surprise not to find any of these [1,000-3,000] but I didn’t make any evening outings beyond Loona.]
Black-tailed godwit. One on Vilsandi [100-150].
Curlew. A few parties [200-300].
Whimbrel. A few passing through [0-10].
Redshank. Common [2000-3000].
Greenshank. A few [0-5].
Spotted redshank. One (in breeding plumage), Vilsandi, 10 May. Doesn’t breed here.
Wood sandpiper. Some pairs and individuals, and one heard ‘singing’ – a kind of wild yodelling [10-50]. Common sandpiper. Only one, surprisingly [100-200].
Black-headed gull. Very common [10,000-15,000].
Common gull. Very common, often in silent parties on fields [4,000-7,000].
Herring gull. Less common [4000].
Great black-backed gull. Common [500-1,000].
Common tern. Quite common but seemed less so than arctic [500-1,000].
Arctic tern. Common all round coast [2,000-3,000].
Sandwich tern. A few calling offshore at Sääre (Caspian tern a possibility here too but I didn’t see any) [50-100].
Little tern. Seen at several coastal locations, especially Elda Pank peninsula [50- 100].
Stock dove. A few, usually near farmlands [20-30].
Wood pigeon. Quite uncommon – what a relief (and an equally welcome total absence of pheasants!) [1,000-2,000].
Feral/rock dove. Common in the villages [2,000-3,000].
Cuckoo. Quite common (though perhaps not quite as much as expected) [1,000- 3,000].
Swift. Just a few passing overhead, though present in large numbers in towns like Tallinn [1,000-2,000].
Great spotted woodpecker. Common, vast amount of suitable habitat of course [3,000-5,000].
Lesser spotted woodpecker Just a pair at Vidumäe but again a lot of suitable and unexplored habitat [200-300].
Green woodpecker. Just a few, scattered individuals [30-50].
Black woodpecker. Had bred at Loona itself last year and quite widespread, but only seen (twice), at Vidumäe [300-500].
Wryneck. One or two pairs at Loona itself and in several other locations, including the centre of Kihelkonna [100-200].
Golden oriole. Heard calling at Vidumäe [50-100].
Skylark. Splendidly common [50,000-100,000].
House martin. Common [5,000-15,000].
Swallow. Very common, the national bird, whose name in Estonian is Suitsupääsukese, which I gather means ‘smoke swallow’. The Estonian birders’ magazine is called Hirundo. Let’s hope the species doesn’t decline here when they inevitably ‘improve’ the farming techniques, sanitise the farmyards and ban the smoke from all the wood fires. [5,000-15,000].
Tree pipit. Wonderfully common – the third most common species in summer (after chaffinch and willow warbler) [5,000-15,000].
Meadow pipit. Seemed much scarcer than the checklist figures suggest [5,000- 10,000].
Rock pipit. Two by Vilsandi lighthouse [0-5].
Yellow wagtail. A few, mainly flava (blue-headed) [100-300].
White wagtail. Very common [3,000-5,000].
Wren. Seemed quite scarce and I would query the checklist figure [3,000-5,000]. They are summer migrants here, the winters being too severe for them.
Dunnock. Quite common but a shy species of the woodlands rather than a garden bird here [2,000-4,000]. Robin. Ditto and a huge official figure [10,000-30,000].
Common redstart. Quite common and present at Loona Manor[200-300].
Black redstart. Just a few in the decaying industrial buildings from the Soviet period [20-30].
Thrush nightingale. Common, several singing birds at Loona, vocal day and night, as residents will observe … [1,000-3,000].
Whinchat. Common, one of those species we are rapidly losing in the UK which it’s a pleasure to see and hear so easily here [3,000-5,000]. The same applies to tree pipit, wood warbler, garden warbler, spotted flycatcher, hawfinch, cuckoo (going), red-backed shrike (going), wryneck (gone). Wheatear. Common [1500-2,000]. Blackbird. Very common [8,000-10,000].
Fieldfare. Common [3,000-5,000].
[Redwing. Curiously absent until I reached Tallinn on the return journey, though should be abundant [3,000-5,000]. Can’t explain this.]
Song thrush. Common [8,000-10,000].
Mistle thrush. Just a few [1,000-2,000].
Sedge warbler. Late arriving (11 May) and only few heard in all [but 3,000- 5,000].
Marsh warbler. Also late (16 May, Lake Linnulaht) [100-150].
Reed warbler. The commonest reedbed warbler, on this trip at least [1,000- 2,000].
Great reed warbler. Quite a few from the 16th [1,000-2,000].
Icterine warbler. Arrived in numbers from the 15th [1,000-3,000].
Lesser whitethroat. Abundant, and a tremendous density compared to UK [8,000-10,000]. Many had a more developed and tuneful song than in the UK, preceding or in some cases replacing the rattle.
Common whitethroat. Abundant [10,000-12,000].
Garden warbler. Arrived in numbers from the 16th. A huge summer population [8,000-10,000].
Blackcap. Common from the 11th [6,000-8,000].
Wood warbler. Wonderfully common [15,000-20,000].
Chiffchaff. Very common [15,000-20,000].
Willow warbler. Abundant, the second most numerous species in Estonia [20,000-30,000].
Goldcrest. Quite common in coniferous forests [3,000-5,000].
Spotted flycatcher. Fairly common [1,000-2,000].
Pied flycatcher. Slightly less common [1,000-2,000].
Red-breasted flycatcher. Three singing males at Vidumäe on 12 May [100-150].
Marsh tit. Scarce [1,000-2,000].
Willow tit. Just a pair at the marsh just NE of Kihelkonna, 15 May. Huge area of good habitat [1,000-2,000]. Blue tit. Common [7,000-10,000].
Great tit. Very common [10,000-15,000].
Long-tailed tit. A pair (caudatus, the white-headed ones) by the marsh just NE of Kihelkonna, 15 May [100-200].
Treecreeper. Relatively few, though huge areas of good habitat [1,000-2,000].
Golden oriole. Just one, calling, expected more [50-100].
Red-backed shrike. Common in all open areas [1,000-2,000].
Several singing. Jay. Quite common [1,000-2,000].
Nutcracker. Twice in Vidumäe area, very vocal; presumably quite widespread [1,000-2,000].
Magpie. Quite common, though not on the scale of the UK [2,000-3,000].
Jackdaw. Common, surprised the checklist figure isn’t higher [1,000-2,000].
Hooded crow. Very common [4,000-6,000].
[Rook. Didn’t see any and there are surprisingly few on Saaremaa [50-80], though there are more than 10,000 pairs nationwide, unevenly distributed.]
Raven. Quite common in singletons [300-500].
Starling. Common [3,000-5,000]. Interesting range of local mimicry (cranes, thrush nightingales, icterine warblers etc).
House sparrow. Just one seen, at Vilsandi lighthouse, but clearly commoner than that (I didn’t go into the ‘towns’ at all) [1,000-2,000].
Tree sparrow. Some near farms [1,000-2,000].
Chaffinch. The commonest bird in Estonia [3 million pairs] and on Saaremaa [80,000-100,000]. Most of the songs had that characteristic Northern European chick (like a great spotted woodpecker call) at the end of the flourish.
Greenfinch. Quite common [1,000-2,000].
Linnet. Ditto [1,000-2,000].
Redpoll (presumably mealy/flammea?). Quite a few small parties (surprisingly not recorded in the checklist as breeding but I suspect they must be).
Goldfinch. Not uncommon [800-1,000].
Siskin. Abundant in forests; the checklist figure must surely be an underestimate [1,000-2,000?].
Common crossbill. Quite common [500-1,000]. Supposed to be parrot crossbills here too but I didn’t distinguish any.
Scarlet rosefinch. Arrived in force from the 17th [1,000-2,000, surprised not more].
Bullfinch. Scarce [1,000-3,000].
Hawfinch. Scarce but several flyovers heard and seen [200-300].
Yellowhammer. Very common [2,000-3,000].
Reed bunting. Fewer observed than the suitable habitat would suggest likely [2,000-4,000].
The Saaremaa checklist records 179 regular breeding species and a further 29 occasional breeders, a tremendous diversity for just one island (and the very small island of Vilsandi off the NW end of Saaremaa is said to have 114 breeding species by itself).
Migrants were arriving in waves all the time in my last few days (icterines from the 15th, garden warblers from the 16th, rosefinch from the 17th, and so on). I’m sure that a week later there would also have been honey buzzard [10-30], quail [10-30], corncrake [300-500], barred warbler [1,000-1,500], Blyth’s reed [10- 20], river [100-200], greenish [10-20] and various other species delayed by the late spring? Some other species ‘missed’ include those where more specific local knowledge of the likely sites would have helped: black grouse [200-300], black [100-300] and Caspian [50-100] terns, little gull [100-200], bittern [30-70], 6 spotted crake [50-100], dunlin [10-50], ruff [20-100], pygmy [100-150], eagle [10-20] and Tengmalm’s [30-50] owls, though some of these are in any case likely to have been in the more inaccessible lakes, marshes and deep forest. And even scarcer breeders [all under 10] are: hazel hen, willow grouse, black-necked grebe, great snipe, jack snipe, osprey (why not commoner?), Ural owl, whitebacked and three-toed woodpecker, collared flycatcher, crested tit and penduline tit.
Maybe others can supplement my notes and we can build up a fuller picture for future visitors to Loona Manor?

Jeremy Mynott
25 May 2013