Birds seen and heard on Saaremaa in 2015

Saaremaa, 13-21 May 2015

Notes on birds seen and heard on Saaremaa in 2015, with some comparative records from 2013 and 2014.

The numbers in square brackets within entries are the estimated breeding pairs on Saaremaa taken from the most recent (31.12.11) checklist, which is available online at Loona Manor (LM). I’m not sure quite how these totals were calculated, however, or how many observers were involved. I gather that the leading naturalist on the island is Mati Martinson, who lives near Sääre and he was the one who put the list together. I query some of the figures (in both directions) on the basis of my own, admittedly very limited, experiences.

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); it is thinly populated (40,000 residents, mostly in Kuressaare) and very densely forested (with many inaccessible lakes, bogs and marshes). There may well be great snipe and collared flycatcher here, as the checklist records, but they are going to be hard to find without local knowledge.

We were again based at Loona Manor the whole time in 2015, made two day trips to Vilsandi island, went four times to the Viidumäe reserve, made one drive to Sääre in the SE, but otherwise just explored the local coastline and forests in the W and NW near Loona. Much the same as in previous years, but the 2015 trip started a little later and was a couple of days shorter (2013 was 9-19 May; 2014 was 12-22 May).

The weather was generally cold (5-10C) and dull most of the week, with a few bright periods but rain on several days and a persistent strong and chill wind from northerly quarters. It only started feeling more spring-like, let alone at all summery, on 21 May (the day of our departure). We were told that spring was a couple of weeks late. There were therefore no orchids in flower and the trees were still quite bare for most of the week. The main bird migration movements were also clearly delayed, though various outriders made it on more-or-less the same dates as in previous years. No mosquito problems at any rate, though some were emerging by the 20th.

It was light until at least 11pm (the clocks are two hours ahead of UK summertime).

Whole entries in square brackets involve species recorded only en route between Saaremaa and Tallinn and not in Saaremaa itself.

Notes on species seen in 2013 and 2014 but not in 2015 are included for completeness.

Mute swan. Common, no doubt included migrants, but a good number stay to breed [550-600].

Whooper swan. A pair on the big field at the back of Loona on the 14th and 15th and at Kargi on the 18th. A few breed [5-10].

Greylag goose. Common, but the numbers presumably include a lot of migrants. [200-500].

Barnacle goose. Common and vocal; the herds must have included a very large number of migrants (sometimes in parties of over a thousand). There is a huge spring migration of these passing through in May. Just a few stay to breed [80-100].

Brent goose. Recorded in 2014 (see notes to that year).

Canada goose. Recorded in 2013 [2].

Shelduck. Common [250-300].

Wigeon. None in 2015, though a few late migrants in previous years [0-5].

Gadwall. Almost as common as mallard and the checklist figure of breeding pairs [200-300] seems an underestimate?

Teal. Recorded in 2013, but none in 2014 or 2015 [100-300].

Garganey. Just one record of a pair at Lomala promontory on 14 May in 2015; more in 2014 [100-200].

Mallard. Very common [3000-4000].

Shoveler. Quite common [100-200].

Pochard. Three on Lake Linnulaht on 18 May; more widely distributed in 2014 [200-400].

Tufted duck. Common [1000-2000].

Pintail. Recorded in 2014 on Vilsandi lake.

Scaup. Parties of late migrants in the bays and on the crossing from Virtsu. A few stay to breed [0-5].

Smew. Recorded in 2013 on Lake Laialepa (Harilaid peninsula). Doesn’t breed.

Eider. Big colony on Vilsandi and no doubt some at other coastal spots [3000-5000].

Long-tailed duck. Large numbers (100s) seen on the ferry crossing to Saaremaa on 13 May, but none on the return trip on 21 May. As previous years. [Doesn’t breed].

Velvet scoter. Just a few round the coast opposite Vilsandi, 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 small parties. [10].

Red-breasted merganser. Quite common round the coasts [200-300].

Goosander. Common both round coast and on lakes, including quite small ones like the pond at the back of Loona. Parties of up to 30 at the lighthouse end of Vilsandi [300-500].

Hazel hen. One probable in 2014. Huge territory, tiny population [0-5].

Black-throated diver. One recorded in 2013. Big spring transit of these but none breed in S. Surprised not to have seen more divers overall.

Great crested grebe. Quite a few on the larger lakes and round the coast [200-400].

Red-necked grebe. At least two breeding pairs at Riksu in 2015; also other places in previous years [100-150].

Black-necked grebe. One probable at Riksu on 14 May. A very rare breeder [0-1].

Slavonian grebe. One at Lake Linnulaht on 18 May (likely to be breeding there); 3-4 at Riksu in 2014 [40-80].

Cormorant (sinensis). Quite common, with huge colony on Vilsandi [3000].

Great egret. A surprise party of three roosting with the herons at Riksu on the 14th. Migrants or intending breeders? If latter, they are probably the most northerly ones in Europe, indicating a further range extension. Not seen on second (brief) visit on the 18th,.

Grey heron. Quite a few singletons here and there and a group (looked like a breeding colony) at Riksu on 14 May [200-300].

[Bittern. None heard on Saaremaa but a boomer at Matsalu (Manor walk) on 21 May. Nice Estonian name of Hüüp [30-70].]

Black stork. Recorded at Vidumäe in 2013 (they nest near there) but not seen in 2014 or 2015 [10-20].]

[White stork. Not seen on Saaremaa. Only [6] pairs supposed to be there, oddly, but many pairs nesting by roadside on way from and to Tallinn].

[Honey buzzard. One at Virtsu in 2014. Surprised not have seen more since they are common on mainland Estonia – and are featured on the new national stamps. [10-30]]

White-tailed sea eagle. Several widely distributed birds, sometimes two together. A natural presence in the landscape. One on the same rock off Lou Pank as in 2014 [30-40].

Spotted eagle sp. One bird at Lake Linnulaht on 16 May 2013 was probably a lesser, but another spotted sp. was seen at close range near Lope in both 2014 and 2015, near to a large eagle’s nest, which had one young in it on 18 May (doing its wing-stretching exercises). Lesser breeds on Saaremaa [0-2].

Marsh harrier. Several one’s and two’s, but surprising not more given the habitat available [100-150].

Montagu harrier. One on Vilsandi in 2013. Breeds in small numbers [10-20]. Seen en route from Tallinn in 2015.

[Hen harriers breed in small numbers [10-20] but we didn’t see any on Saaremaa itself, though we did see one or two en route from Tallinn. In general it seemed surprising not to find more raptors of all kinds since rodents must abound, but the territory is huge.]

Osprey. One flying over at Kargi on the 18th. Again, surprisingly rare [0-2].

Sparrow hawk. One only in 2015, on Vilsandi on 19 May [200-300].

Goshawk. One on Harilaid peninsula in 2013 and one en route in 2014. A few breed on Saaremaa [30-40].

Buzzard. Quite a few, presumed vulpinus [300-400].

Peregrine. One recorded on Vilsandi on 9 May 2013. Doesn’t breed.

Kestrel. Two on Harilaid in 2013 and 2014, and on Vilsandi in 2014 and 2015, but why so few [5-10]? Huge area of rough grasslands [5-10].

Hobby. One on Vilsandi on the 15th and three on the 19th A few breed [30-50].

Coot. Quite common on larger lakes [500-1,000].

[Moorhen. None in any year, surprisingly scarce on Saaremaa [20-40].]

Water rail. None recorded in 2015. One or two heard calling in previous years [50-100].

Corncrake. One craking at Loona on 21 May 2014, but none in 2015 (presumably late arriving). Nice Estonian name of rukkirääk [300-500].

Crane. Common, though they seemed less conspicuous early in the week than in previous years. One gathering of 41 in field near Loona on the 16th suggested they might not all have paired off and dispersed yet? [700].

Oystercatcher. Quite common [1,500-2,000].

Ringed plover. Quite ccommon [1,000-2,000].

Little ringed plover. A few on the west coast beach areas like Kaugatoma [20-30].

Grey plover. A few (in spectacular summer plumage); only a migrant here.

Lapwing. Common [1,000-1,500].

Common snipe. Only one in 2015, on sentry duty on a post at Alta (near Loona) [1,000-2,000].

Woodcock. A surprise not to find any of these in any year [1,000-3,000], but we didn’t make any evening outings beyond Loona.

Avocet. A few nesting birds [50-100].

Black-tailed godwit. Recorded on Vilsandi in 2013, but none in 2014 or 2015. Lots of good habitat but not a common breeder [100-150].]

Curlew. A few individuals [200-300].

Whimbrel. A few passing through [0-10].]

Redshank. Common [2000-3000].

Greenshank. A few migrants [0-5].

Spotted redshank. A few in breeding plumage, but doesn’t breed here.

Wood sandpiper. A migratory group recorded in 2014 on a roadside water meadow just south of Riksu near Lomala/Moldri on the 14th. Only 2015 records were of (probably) two in flight at Vilsandi on 19 May. Does breed[10-50]. Green sandpiper is supposed to be the commoner breeder [100-200] but none of those seen.

Common sandpiper. Just a few [100-200].

Dunlin. Parties on Vilsandi and the Saare lighthouse point. Seemed to have very black bellies so presumably alpina [10-50].

Stint sp. A party of about 15 on Vilsandi on the 19th. Presumably Temminck’s but too flighty to be identified.

Turnstone. A few around the coast. Breeds in small numbers [20-50].

Arctic skua. Recorded in 2014 but not 2015.

Black-headed gull. Very common [10,000-15,000].

Little gull. A substantial colony at Riksu lake again.

Common gull. Common[4,000-7,000].

Herring gull. Quite common [4000].

Great black-backed gull. Less common, but several on Vilsandi in particular [500-1,000].

Little tern. Seen at several coastal locations. Seemed commoner than in previous years [50-100].

Black tern. Recorded in 2014 but not 2015, when we didn’t penetrate the likely marshes [100-300].

Caspian tern. Several at different locations in 2015, including Riksu and Lake Linnulaht, but also quite a few along the coast [50-100].

Sandwich tern. A few recorded off Sääre in 2013 but none in 2014 or 2015 [50-100].

Common tern. Probably quite common, if we had troubled to identify them, but still many fewer than arctic [500-1,000].

Arctic tern. Common all round coast [2,000-3,000].

Stock dove. Just one singing male in 2015, at Vidumae [20-30].

Turtle dove. One recorded in 2014, none in 2015. Quite rare here [5-10].

Wood pigeon. Quite common, but not the overwhelming presence they are in the UK [1,000-2,000].

Feral/rock dove. A few in the villages [2,000-3,000].

Cuckoo. Quite common but less so than previous years [1,000-3,000].

Tree pipit. Widely but more thinly distributed than the 2011 breeding figures suggest [5,000-15,000].

Meadow pipit. Quite a few, but seemed scarcer than the checklist figures suggest [5,000-10,000].

Rock pipit. Two by Vilsandi lighthouse on the 19th [0-5].

Yellow wagtail. Just one or two possibles on Saaremaa in 2015, but both thunbergi and flava at Matsalu on the 21st [100-300].

White wagtail. Very common. The calls seemed sweeter than those of pied. [3,000-5,000].

Owl sp. One large owl being mobbed by thrushes in spruce understory at Vidumäe on 19 May, briefly glimpsed as it made its escape. On the basis of size and distribution most likely Ural owl: too big for long [100-300] or short-eared [0-10](and wrong habitat for latter); too small for eagle owl [10-20]; great grey conceivable but very rare [1].

Nightjar. One flushed at Vidumäe on the 19th [50-100].

Swift. None recorded on Saaremaa in 2015 (late arriving), but a few over Matsalu on the 21st [1,000-2,000].

Wryneck. One or two calling birds at Loona itself from the 16th (later than in other years) and at several other locations. Clearly quite widespread [100-200].

Great spotted woodpecker. Said to be very common [3,000- 5,000] and a vast amount of suitable habitat of course, but only a few recorded.

Lesser spotted woodpecker. One at Vidumäe in 2013, but again a lot of suitable and unexplored habitat [200-300].]

Green woodpecker. Recorded in 2013 but not in later years [30-50]. Three-toed (0-5), grey-headed (0-1) and white-backed (0-10) are supposed to be here in small numbers too.

Black woodpecker. Breeding at or very near at Loona itself in earlier years but not in 2015. A pair with at least one young (looking out of nest-hole) at Vidumäe [300-500].

Golden oriole. Recorded at Vidumäe in 2013 but not in 2014 or 2015 [50-100].

Skylark. Very common [50,000-100,000].

Woodlark. Two or three singing birds at Vilsandi on 19 May.

House martin. Common. Breeding at LM. [5,000-15,000].

Sand martin. A party of about 15 over the reeds at Muhu after the crossing on 13 May.

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. Breeding at LM [5,000-15,000].

Wren. Seemed rather uncommon, except at Vidumäe, 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 here rather than a garden bird [2,000-4,000].

Robin. Ditto and a huge official figure [10,000-30,000]. Commonest at Vidumäe (which sounded a bit like an English wood, with song thrush, robin, wren and blackbird the main songsters).

Bluethroat. One recorded in 2014 only [0-5].

Thrush nightingale. Common and widespread; heard on arrival at Loona on the 13th and at least three singing birds there all week. As we left Tallinn on 22 May there was even one singing from some bushes by the airport forecourt. [1,000-3,000].

Common redstart. Quite common, present at Loona Manor from the 14th [200-300].

Black redstart. One at the Vilsandi lighthouse on 15 May, in exactly same location as last year. Plenty of potentially attractive nesting-sites in deserted buildings from the Soviet period [20-30].

Whinchat. Common [3,000-5,000]. Two singing males already at LM area on arrival on 13 May and numbers built up further. One of those species we’ve effectively lost in much of the UK but thriving here.

Wheatear. Common. Breeding at LM [1500-2,000].

Blackbird. Very common [8,000-10,000].

Fieldfare. The official figure is quite large [3,000-5,000], but they are dispersed in widely separate colonies. Present at LM all week.

Redwing. Curiously elusive but quite common [3,000-5,000]. Very few singing males heard and can’t explain this.

Song thrush. Common [8,000-10,000].

Mistle thrush. Just a few [1,000-2,000].

Grasshopper warbler. Heard singing on Vilsandi in 2014 but none in 2015 (except at Matsalu on the return journey).

Sedge warbler. Less common than expected but huge potential habitat [3,000-5,000].

Marsh warbler. Recorded from 16 May in 2013 at Lake Linnulaht, but not heard in 2014 or 2015. Late migrant? [100-150].]

Reed warbler. Only a few and, as with sedge, one would have expected them to be more evident [1,000-2,000].

Great reed warbler. One singing at Riksu on the 14th and a few elsewhere later, including at Lake Linnulaht on the 18th [1,000-2,000].

Icterine warbler. First heard on 15 May in 2013 and 16 May in 2014. One singing weakly at LM on the 14th in 2015 and then again later in the week, but they still hadn’t arrived in the usual numbers by the end of the week [1,000-3,000].

Lesser whitethroat. Abundant, and a tremendous density in suitable habitat [8,000-10,000].

Common whitethroat. Abundant, less so than the lesser [10,000-12,000].

Garden warbler. A huge summer population [8,000-10,000]. Several singing birds at LM from the 14th.

Blackcap. Common but less so than garden warbler [6,000-8,000].

Barred warbler. In 2014 had found six singing birds in a relatively small juniper plain just north of the lighthouse on Vilsandi on 20 May. Not there (or elsewhere) by 19 May in 2015. My guess is that we just missed them by a few days [1,000-1,500].

Wood warbler. Well-distributed and common, but less so than chiffchaff and willow warbler [15,000-20,000].

Chiffchaff. Very common [15,000-20,000].

Willow warbler. Abundant, the second most numerous species in Estonia after chaffinch [20,000-30,000].

Greenish warbler. One or possibly two almost certainly of this species heard singing at Vidumäe on both 16 and 17 May, but not verified visually.

Goldcrest. Several in forests, especially at Vidumäe [3,000-5,000].

Firecrest. None recorded in 2015.

Spotted flycatcher. One heard calling at LM on the 19th but not again until the 21st. Very common in other years so must have been a delayed migration in 2015 [1,000-2,000].

Pied flycatcher. Present at LM from the 14th and seemed to have arrived in good numbers everywhere [1,000-2,000].

Red-breasted flycatcher. At least two singing males at Vidumäe from the 16th [100-150].

[Penduline tit. One heard calling in ideal habitat at Matsalu on 21 May (not seen)].

Long-tailed tit. None recorded in 2015 [100-200].

Marsh tit. Scarce [1,000-2,000]. Might have expected both marsh and willow tits to be more common, given the habitats.

Willow tit. More of them heard and seen this year than in previous ones, especially at Vidumäe and from the forest path to the quay from LM [1,000-2,000].

Coal tit. One or two at Vidumäe, but generally uncommon [500-1,000].

Crested tit. None recorded in 2015. A rare bird here [0-5].

Blue tit. Common [7,000-10,000].

Great tit. Very common [10,000-15,000].

Treecreeper. Just one or two heard at Vidumäe, though huge areas of good habitat [1,000-2,000].

Red-backed shrike. Common in all open areas [1,000-2,000]. Seen from 15 May.

Jay. Quite common [1,000-2,000].

Nutcracker. One heard, and briefly seen, from the forest trails west of LM; widespread but elusive species [1,000-2,000].

Magpie. Quite common, though not at all on the scale of the UK [2,000-3,000].

Jackdaw. Common, surprised the checklist figure isn’t higher [1,000-2,000]. One nice aerial display of 30 or so at LM on the evening of 13 May.

Hooded crow. Very common [4,000-6,000].

[Rook. Didn’t see any on Saaremaa in any year [50-80], though there are more than 10,000 pairs nationwide, unevenly distributed].

Raven. Quite common in singletons or pairs; some resident birds were around LM all week [300-500].

Starling. Common [3,000-5,000].

House sparrow. Just one seen at LM in 2015 and none elsewhere, though we were not often in towns like Kuressaare [1,000-2,000]. In 2014 we had a nice sighting on way back to Tallinn of them nesting in the lower storeys of white stork nests at Lohu.

Tree sparrow. A local pair at LM again, despite the destruction of the centre bed of bushes where they hung out in 2014. Also a very tame pair near the garage parking lot in Kuressaare [1,000-2,000].

Chaffinch. The commonest bird in Estonia [3 million pairs] and on Saaremaa [80,000-100,000]. Many 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?). Just one heard at Vidumäe on the 20th (surprised not more and also that not recorded in the checklist as breeding).

Goldfinch. Not uncommon [800-1,000].

Siskin. Common but mobile in the forests; the checklist figure must surely be an underestimate [1,000-2,000].

Common crossbill. A vocal party at Vidumäe on the 16th ( of maybe 5 or 6 birds) [500-1,000]. Supposed to be parrot crossbills here too but didn’t distinguish any in this or previous years.

Common rosefinch. Arrived in force from the 17th in 2013 and 2014, but the only 2015 records were of two singing at LM the evening of 18 May and one on the patio, seen from the breakfast table on 20 May. Another delayed migrant? [1,000-2,000].

Bullfinch. Not uncommon and a quiet presence around LM the whole time. Seemed very bright – so probably the nominate Scandinavian variety. [1,000-3,000].

Hawfinch. Both scarce and elusive. Not recorded in 2015 [200-300].

Yellowhammer. Very common [2,000-3,000].

[Corn bunting. None on Saaremaa, but one heard singing as we left Rapla on 23 May 2013].

Reed bunting. Fewer than the suitable habitat would suggest likely, but not uncommon [2,000-4,000].


Total of 168 species on Saaremaa for the three year

That makes a grand total of 168 species on Saaremaa for the three years (8 new ones in 2015). 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 just by itself. My list includes various migrant non-breeders, of course.

Migrants were arriving all the time, but we either missed or were too early for quail [10-30], Blyth’s reed [10-20] and river warblers [100-200]. Some other species ‘missed’ included those where more specific local knowledge of the likely sites would have helped: black grouse [200-300], bittern [30-70], spotted crake [50-100], ruff [20-100], pygmy [100-150], eagle [10-20] and Tengmalm’s [30-50] owls, though some of these are likely to have been in the more inaccessible lakes, marshes and deep forest and the owls would have been more vocal earlier in the year. Even scarcer breeders [all under 10] are: hazel hen, willow grouse, black-necked grebe, great snipe, jack snipe, osprey, Ural owl, white-backed and three-toed woodpecker, collared flycatcher, crested tit and penduline tit.

No orchids were in flower by the 21st, but the lady slipper was expected to flower in the next week or so. Vast sheets of cowslips and dandelions everywhere and wood anemones were still at their best in the woodlands. The cold weather was holding back the flowers and the tree foliage (oaks and beeches were scarcely leafing).

We encountered various animals and reptiles: an adder, several foxes, hares, an elk or two, a close encounter with a pine marten at Vidumäe; also a family party of boar with piglets bulldozing the meadow near the quay and a huge male in the reeds near Karala. Somewhere on the island there is supposed to be at least one wolf family too.

Butterflies included green hairstreak, peacock, painted lady, orange-tip, large white, brimstones (many) and a swallowtail at Matsalu Bay.

Jeremy Mynott
26 May 2015