Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

Latvia - The Magic of the Baltic

10th - 17th April 2007

Report by Anthea Skiffington

Tuesday 10 April :- This was to be Oliva Rama Holiday’s first trip to Latvia, and for Jules, as well as for the rest of us, this was all-new territory. So as he, Chris, Steve, Harry, Val and I assembled at Stansted for our afternoon flight, it’s fair to say we were all keenly looking forward to discovering whatever lay in store. And we weren’t to be disappointed!. We arrived in Riga just before 7pm local time, where we were greeted by Janis Kuze our guide, with Ken Shaw, John and Ian. This Scottish contingent had already been in Latvia 24 hours and so had started the birding ahead of us. When they reported they’d already seen 2 White backed Woodpeckers and a Pygmy Owl, our excitement rose –, as did the pressure on Ken and Janis to find these birds again tomorrow! Our hired bus was extremely luxurious, and it was a 50-minute drive to our hotel, the Jaunmoku Pils, a beautiful Gothic-looking hunting lodge. One group member was heard humming the Addams Family theme as we got off the bus, and I admit I was half-expecting to see giant bats zooming out from behind the turrets. This evening was our first introduction to Latvian cuisine, and we were all very impressed – dinner was absolutely delicious; and as I retired to my very comfortable room, I heard Tawny Owl, a nice start to the bird list.

Wednesday 11 April :- A pre-breakfast walk in the hotel grounds gave us Hawfinch, Marsh Tit, Yellowhammer, Fieldfare and Redwing, along with the Chaffinch which was to prove our most constant companion in Latvia – they are everywhere, which you might expect in such a highly forested country. After an excellent buffet-style breakfast we set off for Kemeru National Park, with our sights firmly set on Pygmy Owl. And Janis did not disappoint us – he led us straight to a site, whistled in the owl, and it came and sat on a branch right by us and obligingly posed for photos. This was a breath-taking look at my first “life” bird, and we were absolutely blown away by it! Near the information centre, Janis used a recording to call in Middle Spotted Woodpecker, and it flew into a tree right in front of us, looking for its imagined rival, and treating us all to excellent views. We were realising how lucky we were to have a guide like Janis, who has worked at Kemeru for many years and really knows the place inside out. On to the Dunduru Meadows, where the wetlands at Melnragu held Common Cranes, Marsh Harrier, Garganey, Wigeon, Teal, Snipe and Green Sandpiper, while at the Dunduru Watchtower we got a Sparrowhawk, Raven and Common Buzzard. From the bus, we enjoyed great views of White Storks on nests, and Hooded Crows were everywhere. After lunch at a transport café (we were now all becoming amazed at the consistently high quality of Latvian cuisine) we moved on to the Sumragu peninsula. Here, during a leisurely 8Km walk through the forest, along a path fringed by streams which bore much evidence of European Beaver activity, we found 2 Grey-headed & a Great Spotted Woodpecker, plus enjoyed great views of a Goshawk being mobbed by a Sparrowhawk. We stood awhile hoping for a Three-toed Woodpecker, which didn’t oblige, although we did hear Black Woodpecker drumming and calling, and we did get our first looks at White-tailed Eagle, and a distant Lesser Spotted Eagle was picked up and identified by Ken, Janis and Jules. As we returned to the vehicle, our disappointment at missing the three-toed suddenly turned to great excitement as a Hazel Hen was found perched on a low branch beside the path, and everyone managed to see this elusive bird. A little further we encountered another Black Woodpecker, which some of the group saw, I unfortunately missed it!. We returned to the hotel in high spirits, to settle with a Latvian beer, work out the bird list, enjoy dinner and plan the next day’s birding – though it would have been pretty hard to top today!

Thursday 12 April :- After discussion it had been decided to alter our plans to go to Cape Kolka first thing and instead to try again for White backed Woodpecker in Kemeru NP. So at 6 a.m. we piled on to the bus to head back into the park. As we walked the trail (clambering over the trees that the local Beavers had thoughtfully dropped across our path) we heard Black Woodpecker again, and some group members had brief looks at it – but then to our delight, we heard, and then saw, an adult male Three-toed Woodpecker! This bird drummed and a reply came from elsewhere, not one but two. This second Three toed Woodpecker could not have been more obliging – in fact it was a right little poser. It flew in and located a small tree trunk right in front of us and proceeded to drum at several points until it found the exact resonance it was looking for. Then it sat there happily hammering heck out of the stump, enabling a lucky few of the group to get photos of it, and all of us to enjoy superb views. We returned to the hotel to load our bags on to the van, and then after breakfast we bade farewell to Jaunmoku Pils and headed up the coast to Cape Kolka in the hopes of passage migration. And these hopes weren’t disappointed. No sooner had we parked the vehicle than we picked up Rough-legged & Common Buzzard, Goshawk and Sparrowhawk passing through. The sea-watching proved absolutely superb – rafts of Long-tailed Duck, Common  & Velvet Scoter, plus Goosander, Great Crested Grebe and Red-throated Diver, and good views of Eider, while many more Sparrowhawk were coming in off the sea. The trees behind us held Willow, Coal & Crested Tit, Siskin and Redpoll. We returned to the car park for coffee, interested to see several large flocks of Woodpigeon streaming overhead. And then a final bonus – a flock of 20 Common Cranes flew right over our heads, calling. Magical!  Next on to Engures, a wetland site on the coast, and from a very windy viewing platform, amongst the flocks of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Pintail and Greylag Geese we located a Red-necked Grebe, a Great White Egret, and several Black-tailed Godwits; and several V-shaped flocks of Common Cranes passed over us – we reckoned, well over 200 birds in all. As we walked back to the vehicle, we found a Large Tortoiseshell Butterfly sunning itself on the ground. We made a belated stop for lunch (delicious, warming goulash soup) at a café overlooking the sea, and here we added Bewick's Swan, Oystercatcher and Barnacle Goose to our already very healthy list. Then it was time to head for Riga, where we were to say a reluctant goodbye to Janis, who had proved an excellent guide and who had worked really hard to ensure that we saw as many woodpeckers (and other birds) as he could conjure up for us. His knowledge and expertise had proved invaluable, and we were all very appreciative. Here we picked up Maris, who was to be our guide for the next part of the trip, and then we set off on the long drive towards the Rundale Palace. Our guesthouse just outside the palace grounds was very comfortable, though the men did have to bunk in together and I, as the only single lady in the trip, had a lovely room in the family part of the house. Once again, dinner was superbly cooked and presented; and after an excellent meal, Maris led us on a starlight walk to the Rundale Palace, hoping to hear Long-eared Owl. We didn’t – but the palace by moonlight was absolutely stunning, and I couldn’t get over the views of the stars – there literally seemed to be a million of them. We could even see satellites travelling across the sky, like slightly slower shooting stars. It made one realise how bad the light pollution is in South East England – you never get to see the night sky looking like that. Latvia could be an astronomer’s paradise!

Friday 13 April :- Out before breakfast to walk the grounds of the Palace. The Rundale Palace was built in 1736 for the Duke of Courland by the architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who also designed many Russian palaces. It is stunningly beautiful, currently undergoing restoration, with three sides of its exterior currently completed. I was impressed, too, with the beautifully laid-out formal gardens, every individual shrub still covered with white muslin-type material against the severe Latvian frosts – as we watched, gardeners were going around starting to remove these, ready for the day’s visitors. A Little Ringed Plover landed near us; Maris told us these birds breed in the gardens here. Our breakfast included some delicious little pancakes – most of us helped ourselves to seconds! – and then we packed up the vehicle and drove on, alongside a river which is the border between Latvia and Lithuania. A Grey Heron stood at the edge of the water. Keen to start a Lithuanian bird list, we tried to claim it as a Lithuanian tick, but our guide was having none of this – “It is on Latvian half of river, it is Latvian heron!” he told us firmly. We were now heading into excellent Lesser Spotted Eagle territory, and Maris told us how this raptor is the only bird of prey that eats moles – in July, when the young moles disperse, these eagles are to be seen on the ground, picking them off. We stopped to enjoy views of a migrating Black Stork, and further on, in a forest, Viestte, we found Rough-legged Buzzard, Siskins and – at last! – a stunning White-backed Woodpecker. A stop at Daudzeva Ponds, a fishing lake, gave us Smew, Goldeneye, 6 Goosander, and our first Barn Swallow for the trip, along with a calling Chiffchaff. As we drove away from the lake, we stopped to see a Northern Wheatear and suddenly to our delight an Osprey appeared – a nice addition to the raptor list. An hour’s drive onwards brought us to the area surrounding Lake Lubans. From a Watch Tower, we counted 43 Smew, with several Goldeneye, a White-tailed Eagle, another Osprey, and huge flocks of Bean & White-fronted Geese. Driving on, we were delighted to see 4 Black Grouse from the bus, one of which was displaying; and from the next Watch Tower, we found Great White Egret. We arrived at our accommodation at Idena, which proved interesting – I had a bed in the dining room, while our leaders and the driver slept in the sauna!. However, the dinner was absolutely superb. We were presented with carp, freshly caught in the lake that day and home-smoked. These were brought to the table whole, and we broke off portions to eat with rye bread, tomato and cucumber. The fish was juicy and unbelievably fresh, just melting in the mouth!  Straight after dinner, we went out to look for Ural Owl. Maris did his best to call them in for us, hooting in an impressive imitation of their call, but although we did see Woodcock, no owl showed up. We weren’t too disheartened, it had been a brilliant day!

Saturday 14 April :- A pre-breakfast saunter around the reedland area near the house gave us booming Bittern, while Tree Sparrows chirped from the roof of the sauna. Breakfast proved interesting – amongst the other delicacies on offer, we were challenged to try a dish of small pieces of dark smoked meat – and were informed it was beaver. Still, it was a new experience! Then, off to Lubans Lake where we found literally hundreds of Whooper Swans and many displaying Goldeneye, with Pintail, and an amazing total of 53 Smew. Geese were plentiful, in thousands, roughly in a ratio of 3 White front – 1 Taiga Bean. We found 5 Red-necked Grebe, looking stunning in breeding plumage, and a further Osprey, while a White-tailed Eagle obligingly put up about 4000 geese, treating us to an amazing spectacle. And as we drove home for lunch, an unexpected Grey Partridge was sitting on the side of the track!. After lunch, we drove on through Lubana, a black alder riverine forest that Maris said is the best in Latvia for Hazel Hen, and indeed a few lucky people did get a quick glimpse of one. Then we stopped to do a 6Km walk through oak woodland at Pededze. This proved to be more of a yomp than a walk, but we did manage to see Nuthatch, Treecreeper and Middle Spotted Woodpecker. When we finally rejoined our bus, Edgars the driver was very excited because he had seen a European Beaver – unfortunately for us, he was the only one who did!. We tried again for Ural Owl, but although we heard Tawny Owl, no Urals obliged. Back at the guesthouse, a very late supper of bread and cheese had been provided, and after a couple of bottles of wine we decided to postpone doing the bird list till the next morning – it was now midnight and we were all more than ready for bed!.

Sunday 15 April :- A pre-breakfast stroll produced booming Bitterns again; we reckoned there were three males in the territory. Breakfast included delicious sweet buns and milk fresh from the cow, warm and foamy and surprisingly good. After completing the previous day’s impressive bird list, we packed up and headed off for a long drive towards the Estonian border. Soon we entered Zuklis, which is Lesser Spotted Eagle territory, and with our usual good luck we enjoyed superb views of one that came to check us out as we clambered out of the bus to scope it. We also saw Common Cranes doing a display flight, following each other, and Maris said this was the first time he had ever seen this sight – usually, it’s Black Storks that behave this way. Ravens were pretty obliging in this area, too. Entering the hilly region of northern Latvia we paused at Bzezgu (highest point in the whole country - 255m above sea level) to climb to the top of the “viewpoint” and stretch our legs, and added a Camberwell Beauty to our growing butterfly list. Our next walk, along a woodland stream, gave us superb views of 2 Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, mating – good to know the population of LSW in Latvia would soon be increased, we felt. Not long after the town of Valmeira, we stopped in a village named Burtnieks to scope out a field of geese, which proved to be mostly Taiga Bean & White fronted Geese, but with 6 Barnacle Geese and about 10 Tundra Bean Geese for those who were clever enough to distinguish them from the Taiga Bean (I don’t include myself in this category). On to our accommodation, the amazing Lantus guesthouse, which was newly-built and extremely luxurious. In the downstairs communal area, there was a huge dining/sitting room with a log fire, and a wonderful meal was laid out when we arrived. We tucked in hungrily, then went out to search for Ural Owl, our last chance. Once again, we heard Tawny Owl and saw 3 Woodcocks, but we failed to find any trace of a Ural Owl despite Maris’ best and most skilful efforts. Still, that’s birding – we all know you can’t have absolutely every bird you go for! To our amazement, a whole second meal had been laid out upon our return, and we did justice to this one too. As we sat around drinking wine and doing the bird list, we all felt very warm, sleepy and contented, and only the very bravest amongst us ventured into the sauna (let’s be truthful - after hearing Jules' scream as he hit the cold splash pool, no one else was tempted!).

Monday 16 April :- We slept in this morning – very welcome, after three late nights owling! – and after breakfast we headed off over the Estonian border, for a quick look at the Haardemeeste Marshes. Here we found big flocks of Bewick’s Swan and Barnacle Geese, 4 White tailed Eagles, Goosanders flying past, and Pintail. We added 4 Avocet to the species list, and Yellow-legged Gull. As we returned to the bus, Ken and Steve heard a Red-throated Pipit fly over, but try as we might we could not locate it again. As we drove back towards the Latvian border, we enjoyed excellent looks at a Great Grey Shrike. Back in Latvia, we headed back for Riga, stopping just outside the capital at Vangazi forest, which we named “Last Chance Saloon” – our last try to get a good look at Black Woodpecker. We were completely unsuccessful at this – but, in compensation, we had wonderful views of a pair of Merlin displaying. Maris was very pleased at this, as this was only the second known potentially breeding pair in Latvia. A nice note, to end the birding!

The group’s final tally of birds was 124 species, of which I personally had seen 118, with which I was extremely satisfied. As to the Ural Owl and the Black Woodpecker, well, you always have to leave something to go back for, don’t you!. To sum up, I had gone to Latvia not really knowing what to expect, but was surprised and delighted with the very high standard of the birding. I had 7 “lifers” on this trip (I had gone hoping for 6, so my expectations were exceeded!) and furthermore, thanks to Jules, Ken and the Latvian guides I had excellent looks at all of them. The woodland around Kemeru is magnificent, particularly for woodpeckers, and Cape Kolka is superb for sea-watching and migration; while the Lubans area is wonderful for geese and swans. The other pleasant surprise was the standard of the cuisine – it’s truthful to say we never had a disappointing meal, which really does contribute overall to the enjoyment of the holiday. In short, would I bird Latvia again? – in a heartbeat! And I would fervently recommend this excellent, but underestimated, country to any birder.


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