Birding in Estonia
Why to bird in Estonia?
It’s easy to find general info about Estonia and it’s birdlife from the net. To keep it short… We have still some patches of untouched nature left unlike most western European countries. Plus we are in the middle of Arctic flyway, so in the migration time this little country is packed with birds. Since it’s a small country, driving distances are relatively short.
The prices are rising but it’s still cheaper here than in most of the western countries and USA. The infrastructure (roads, hotels, web availability, ATM’s etc.) is relatively good. Nature trails have free access and there are dozens of birdtowers in Estonia. Basic English is widely spoken. Traffic is busy only on the main roads and bigger cities. Good road maps are easily available in bigger gas stations and book shops. The most detailed guidebook for a visiting birder is Birding Estonia published in 2018.
When to bird in Estonia?
Winter can be quite harsh and birdless but some specialties can lighten up your day (Hawk Owl, Dipper, Steller’s Eider, Arctic Redpoll, Snow Bunting etc.). Snow cover can stay until the beginning April. In the end of March things start to brighten up. Woodpeckers are drumming actively and owls are hooting in calm nights. This is the time when forest-birding is at it’s best (and condition of forest roads at it’s worst).
Spring migration peaks in the middle of May (Arctic migration plus passerines) and this is the favourite time for birding here. The selection of species is best (easily over 100 per day on the coast) and numbers are good. Active Arctic migration lasts until the first days of June.
Beginning of summer is best for eastern warblers (Blyth’s Reed, River, Barred, Greenish) and other late arrivers (Golden Oriole). In July the breeding season is in full swing plus the autumn migration of waders start. In August the autumn migration is active (waders, raptors, night migration of warblers).
Autumn migration peaks in the last days of September with the mass migration of Chafffinches and seawatching is rewarding as well. In good days you can see thousands of scoters, divers, ducks, cranes and geese on migration.
In some years the first snow cover comes in October but in some winters we get barely any snow (climate change has turned things pretty upside-down). In November the autumn mass migration ends.
So May and August-October are most preferred birding-seasons here.
Where to bird in Estonia?
The names of most popular birding areas are mentioned in trip reports and other websites. Actually that basic information is almost all you need. Estonia is a good place for finding your own birds. Staying in one area for a longer period is a good idea. Generally one week trip to Estonia includes some time in Haapsalu and Matsalu NP area. Then couple of days south from Pärnu and then last days in Tartu forest and wetland areas. All the islands are excellent for general birding but these are not very productive if you’re interested in local forest-specialties. Woodpeckers and owls are difficult (or impossible) on islands and you need local companion. If you have more time then some trips in bigger bog areas (Endla, Alam-Pedja, Soomaa) are suggested.
What species can visiting birders expect here?
This is very basic and random information about typical target species for supporting trip reports. Knowing the birdcalls is crucial for finding some of these species (what a surprise!). The species are in listed alphabetical order.
Some can be found in bigger Redpoll flocks in winter. From November to March.
Rare and declining species. Can be found with luck on some forestroads (usually in early mornings). All the lek-sites are under protection and can’t be visited during the breeding season!
Common breeder in coastal juniper fields. Rarer inland. Arrives in May, stays until August.
Fairly common breeder in larger bogs. Comes often to display on the large fields.
Rare and declining species. From May to August.
Common in different forest-types.
Blyth’s Reed Warbler
Fairly common. Arrives in the last days of May.
Very rare breeder. Arrives in the last days of May. Breeds in south-eastern parts of the country. Hard to find without local help.
Passing through in May and July-September. Check bigger wader flocks carefully.
Aardla lake is the well-known place to see this rare breeder. Arrives in April, leaves breeding sites in August.
As the name suggests it is very common. Arrives in the beginning of May and leaves in August.
Common in open fields. Arrives in May and stops singing in July.
Common forestbird (pine and spruce forests).
Rare and declining bird. Under protection so luring and any kind of disturbance is strictly prohibited. You have to be very lucky to see this species in Estonia.
Protected as all the eagles. Stopping and scanning from the roadsides close to bigger bog areas is the most effective way to find one (and other soaring birds).
Declining. Likes old forest-types. Sometimes hunting near rubbish dumps.
The Tartu lek-site is the only available place to see this declining bird. Any disturbance is strictly prohibited and birds should be watched from the marked area. From the end of April to beginning of June. In July-September migrating birds are occasionally flushed from tall grass.
Greater Spotted Eagle
Protected and very rare breeder. Declining. Often interbreeding with Lesser Spotted Eagle so some birds can be un-identifiable in the field.
Uncommon (local) but still fairly easy to locate in suitable habitat. Arrives in the last days of May. Prefers hilly deciduous forests, rarely in mixed forest.
Common in suitable habitat. Prefers old deciduous or mixed forests (like most of our woodpeckers).
Fairly common in different forest-types, but notoriously hard to see. Usually seen crossing the forest roads.
Fairly common in broad-leafed forests and city parks but often stays high in the canopy. Knowing the flight-calls helps a lot in locating this species.
Rare winter bird. Few birds seen almost every winter.
Lesser Spotted Eagle
About 200 pairs. Arrives in April and leaves in September.
Rare breeder. Few singing birds every years. Very hard to see and actual status is not well-known. All the records are considered by the Estonian Rarities Committee.
Uncommon but increasing bird in old broad-leafed parks (prefers oak and maple) in southern parts of the country. Easy to find following the song which is often heard in March-April.
Nomadic. In good years fairly common (mostly in young spruce forests).
Nomadic and fairly rare, numbers vary greatly from year to year. Difficult identification makes estimating the status hard.
Fairly common in suitable habitat. Arrives in April, leaves in September.
As all owls numbers vary greatly depending on the available prey. Most active in March-April.
Arrives in May. Fairly common in the old-growth mixed forests.
Fairly regular migrant (though small flocks) in May and July-September.
Late migrant. Common in suitable habitat. Overgrown fields or forest-cutting plots near water is good habitat.
Common in larger reedbeds. Arrives in the end of April. Sings often until August.
Numbers vary greatly from year to year. Notoriously hard to see, but in good years often heard in nighttime. Arrives in May. Best time to hear them is in June. Best areas are the polder systems in south-east.
Saaremaa island is well-known stake out. Arrives in November, stays usually until the end of April.
Rare breeder. Declining and notouriously hard to see. Protected species so avoid any disturbance. Often ringed in September-October in ringing stations.
Fairly common is suitable habitat. Protected species so avoid any disturbance.
Probably most common owl in Estonia, but like all the owls, never easy to see. Likes to hunt in open areas so you may see one hunting at dusk or dawn.
Nomadic. In some years very common winterbird. Some stay until May. Numbers depend on crop of rowan berries.
Fairly common in suitable habitat. Protected species so avoid any disturbance.
Fairly easy to find in any suitable wetland and coastal areas.
White-winged Black Tern
Rare breeder in Estonia. Check all the bigger Black Tern parties and report if you see one. Black Terns arrive in the beginning of May. Wetlands in south-eastern parts of the country have been fairly good for this species in last years.
This is not commercial website so we don’t go in detail here. There are several bird-tour companies which do guiding in Estonia. It’s easy to find them from the net. You can ask us about the possibilities, but since local birders prefer to spend good migration seasons on the coast it’s not always easy to get people to do the forest-guiding.
Your observations can be important!
Birding is not very popular hobby in Estonia and all interesting oservations are always welcomed by our team. So if you find some interesting breeders, count good migration numbers, read colour-rings or bump into rarities then just let us know. ANd all the major rarities should be reported to our Estonian Birdrarities Commitee. You can find the Rarities Committee checklist here .