Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

West Latvia Weekend

10th - 15th April 2008

Report by Julian Sykes

Thursday 10th April :- The early morning flight went quickly as we caught up on some sleep from the night before, and at a damp Riga Airport we met up with our superb local guide Janis Kuze, and after changing some money we jumped into the van and headed out of the city. The journey to the accommodation was punctuated with birds such as Common Buzzard, White Stork, Raven, Hooded Crow, Great Tits, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. We checked in without fuss and after a quick break we gathered in the grounds where we saw our first Fieldfares, Blackbirds, White Wagtails and Chaffinches. Then Janis drove us to the superb Dunduru Meadows where we spent a couple of hours around the flooded fields and extensive Scots Pine forests. Here we found a magnificent pair of displaying Black Storks, a pair of Garganey, Green Sandpipers, Common Redshank, an immature White tailed Eagle, Goshawk, Marsh Harriers, Whooper Swans, Redwings, Mistle Thrushes and a pair of Bullfinches. Next we went to an area I had not been to before the convergence of two rivers - Svete, and it was well worth the visit, as we found 5000+ Eurasian White fronted Geese, plus 2 Barnacle & 2 Taiga Bean Geese amongst the White-fronts. Also here was a large body of water which held lots more wildfowl including another male Garganey, several Tufted Duck, plenty of  Pintail, Wigeon and Common Teal, and a male Northern Wheatear was a nice find as was a beautiful Great Grey Shrike, how different they are to the Southern Grey Shrikes I see in Spain. The find of the day was an adult Caspian Tern hunting along an adjacent river this being one the earliest dates of arrival in Latvia this year. We were understandably getting quite tired by now so we decided to head back to the hotel, which was a good idea as it had now started to snow a little. A fantastic three course meal was enjoyed in the evening followed by an early night to bed.

Friday 11th April :- A pre-breakfast wander around the grounds of the castle was highly worthwhile, although very cold, as we saw 2 Hawfinches, Bullfinch, lots of Fieldfare and Redwing along with commoner species. After breakfast we drove to a fantastic tract of 'Old Forest' on the Sumragu Peninsular, and a long walk into the heart of the reserve held many highlights including a pair of nesting Black Woodpeckers, 3 Grey headed Woodpeckers, 4 Lesser spotted Woodpeckers and several Great Spotted Woodpeckers, brilliant views of a Nutcracker and a Pygmy Owl, with several gorgeous Northern Long tailed Tits, Marsh & Willow Tits, Woodlarks and a Sparrowhawk. One fascinating moment was finding an adult Wild Boar with 2 piglets as Janis later informed us, they are the most dangerous animal in the forest and might well have attacked!!!. One slight disappointment was getting only brief views of a Beaver as it dived into the dark peaty waters. After such a long walk lunch was most welcome and very tasty, and was followed by another good walk in the ancient Kemeri Forest, where Janis is in charge of habitat management. Although not as productive as the mornings walk, we still managed to add some more very good species for the day including 2 Lesser Spotted Eagles & White tailed Eagle, Marsh Harrier, a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, Eurasian Treecreepers, Goldcrests, Siskins and a Wren (but not for Dave). As there was still some good daylight and the weather had improved considerably since the morning so we decided to return to the first site before heading back to the Castle. Janis took us along another trail, which was equally impressive with it's fantastic old trees, some rotting and covered in lichens and fungis, with Wood Anemones carpeting the tracks all encompassed in the rich woodland smells. A pair of Crested Tits made this the 7th species in this family today and another pair of Black Woodpeckers completed a fantastic day. One last stop almost paid dividends as we heard a Hazel Grouse near the track but could not manage to tease it into view. There’s always another day (hopefully).

Saturday 12th April :- WOW - What a morning ! Today we were going to witness one of European birding's finest spectacles. A very early start saw us on our way to Latvia's famous migration hotspot - Cape Kolka, a pine covered peninsular that sticks right out into the Baltic Sea. The journey went well with good views of a Wild Boar, Red & Roe Deer, and as we pulled into the car park shortly after dawn we witnessed the sight and sound of flocks of migrating finches. We quickly made our way to the beach, which gives the best all-round view of this visible migration and for the next few hours (including coffee break) we watched as literally thousands of passerines flew out over the Baltic Sea in close attendance of voracious Sparrowhawks. We estimated in excess of 10,000 birds were seen heading north with the great majority being Chaffinches & Bramblings along with huge numbers of Great & Blue Tits, Goldcrests, Wood Pigeons and we enjoyed picking out the Bullfinches, Siskins, Goldfinches, Coal Tits, Wood Larks, Skylark, White Wagtails, Fieldfares, Redwings, Mistle Thrushes, Jackdaws, Rooks, Common Starlings and a Common Buzzard. Out to sea we saw Common & Velvet Scoters, Long tailed Ducks, Goldeneye, Herring, Common & Black headed Gulls, along with yet another Caspian Tern migrating along the coastline. One last surprise just before we left was a female Black Grouse flying over the pine trees. Eventually we dragged ourselves away and headed back along the Baltic coastline to one of Latvia’s largest lakes - Engures. This 50 Km2 body of water with extensive reedbeds held many birds including Red necked & Great Crested Grebes, Cormorants, Grey Herons, Mute Swans, Grey lag Geese, Mallard, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Teal, female Smew, Goosander, Marsh Harriers, Bitterns booming and Reed Buntings. Unfortunately for us the weather was deteriorating so we left for lunch at a local restaurant and afterwards we visited a coastal site adjacent to Engures Lake spending some time checking the water birds. We saw lots of the same species but also 50+ Bewick's Swans, 4 Scaup, Wigeon, 2 Oystercatchers and lots more Long tailed Ducks, Common & Velvet Scoters. We left here and headed back towards Kemeri, stopping off at Canieres Lake close to our accommodation near Tukums, it was now quite cold and overcast making the viewing from the platform pretty fairly uncomfortable. Here we found more of the same wildfowl species plus 2 White tailed Eagles, Marsh Harriers, Great Bittern and Common Cranes, then a walk through the woods produced a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Siskins, Long tailed & Coal Tits, and Janis heard a Tengmalm's Owl from deep within the wood, but unfortunately it only called the once. It had been a long day so we returned to the hotel earlier than normal, all agreeing we had had another brilliant day.

Sunday 13th April :- The 13th is certainly an unlucky day for some and unfortunately we were no exception, in the early hours we had been woken by a severe storm outside and things weren’t much better when we met Janis after breakfast. This morning we were visiting a special piece of habitat within Latvia, a naturally flooded forest of Black Ash, and we had bought some waders just for this adventure but even these didn't stop us getting soaked from above, and for some, below. It was a very tough few hours as we waded through knee-deep water with hidden vegetation and fallen branches, and the birding was quiet (again mainly due to the weather). Apparently his tract of forest holds all seven woodpecker species with White backed having the highest concentrations in the area but we did not see or hear one woodpecker in all our time there. The only thing of real significance was several Chiffchaffs that were new to our list. We drove slowly back out of the forest before going for lunch. Whilst we were eating our welcome lunch Dave found a large raptor flying past the window of the café which turned out to be a Lesser Spotted Eagle. Feeling much better after the mornings exploits we visited the Dunduru area again, first looking for woodpeckers and then the wetland areas. The weather was still poor but we did manage to find Lesser & Greater Spotted Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Treecreepers, Long tailed Tits, Jay and Bullfinches in the woodlands. Out on the meadows and wetlands we completed our day where we saw 5 Whooper Swans, Pintail, Goldeneye, 3 White tailed Eagles, Sparrowhawk, Kestrel, Golden Plover, 2 Whimbrel, 23 Taiga Bean Geese and 2 Northern Wheatears. We decided to call a halt to the day early and returned to the Jaunmokas Castle for a well-earned shower and followed by a very welcome beer. Although it had not been the most productive day, we all agreed it had been a most incredible experience.

Monday 14th April :- This was our final full day and full was going to be the operative word, if yesterday had been slightly disappointing birdwise, this was another day. Janis wanted us to start at dawn in order to give us the best chance of our four remaining targets, and we were all very keen on this. The weather had improved so we left Tukums and by the time we had reached the heart of the Kemeri forest it had cleared considerably with hints of blue skies. Our walk started well with several Lesser & Great Spotted Woodpeckers but then a noise made Janis stop, it was the machine gun-like drumming of a Three toed Woodpecker and it was close. A frantic search and I found it on a dead trunk where it remained for a couple of minutes, before flying a short distance and landed again, this time remaining there for about 15 – 20 minutes allowing for fantastic scoped views. It was a very good start but we still needed to find a White backed so off we went to another part of the forest, this wasn't as successful but we did get brief views of a Grey headed Woodpecker. We returned to the Jaunmokas Castle for a hearty breakfast while Janis had to attend a very important field meeting in Kemeri. The sun was out and the skies were blue so after breakfast with a couple of hours to spare we birdwatched around the grounds, which was most productive as we found Tree Sparrow, Nuthatches, Bullfinches, Goldfinches, Linnets, Fieldfares and Redwings. For the final hour we just sat and watched the skies as there was clearly some visible migration on-going, which included 2 Ospreys, 10+ Common Buzzard, Kestrel, Marsh Harrier, 200+ Taiga Bean Geese, 400+ Common Cranes & 500+ Wood Pigeons. Just before lunch Janis collected us, so armed with our lunches off we went to another tract of forest. The early afternoon was gorgeous with plenty of butterflies on the wing including Brimstones, Commas, Peacocks & Small Tortoiseshells. Things were looking good as we soon found 4 Great Spotted Woodpeckers chasing each other followed by a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. An Elk caught us by surprise as it disappeared into the deep undergrowth, then Janis heard another call and we confirmed not one but 3 White backed Woodpeckers chasing each other. One left the scene and we were then treated to two of these mega-elusive woodpeckers going through some kind of display involving them being either side of a trunk at the same level and moving slowly downwards while throwing their heads back. Simply awesome!. Thrilled with our fortune we ate our picnic in the sunshine watching a Eurasian Treecreeper, Wren (not for Dave) tits and finches. I wandered off little further along the track finding a Common Winter Damsel, and was really pleased when I found the nest-hole of a Middle Spotted Woodpecker before strolling back to the van. Before returning to the accommodation we revisited the Black Woodpecker nesthole and got brilliant views of the male watching us from inside the hole. Then a Grey headed Woodpecker called and a pair of birds landed on the adjacent tree to the pine we were watching. Janis heard a Hazel Hen close to the track so while I stayed with the telescopes while Janis took everyone to look for it and everyone managed to get brief views of this very secretive species. A drive through the forest produced another Black Woodpecker before we reached the Dunduru Meadows yet again. This magical place always produces good birds and today was no exception, and the highlight was Andy finding a female Merlin plucking it’s way through a recently caught passerine quite close to where we were standing. Also here we saw Whooper Swans, Wigeon, Teal, Pintail, a male Garganey, 2 White tailed Eagles, Lapwings, Redshank, Greenshank, Green Sandpipers, Golden Plover, Mistle Thrushes, Yellowhammers and Reed Buntings. Back at the accommodation everyone was in high spirits and why not, we had managed to see 7 species of woodpecker in one day, an awesome achievement only done once or twice by Janis previously. After the meal it was not finished as we had agreed to return to Lake Canieres, and a chance of finding Tengmalm's Owl. We arrived with about 40 minutes to go before dusk and just stood on a raised platform listening to the surrounding wildlife, where Savi’s Warblers reeled from the phragmites and Great Bitterns boomed, Red necked Grebes made their ‘water-rail like’ scream followed shortly by calling Water Rails, a Woodcock ‘roded’ overhead and a Beaver was heard gnawing at a tree trunk, unfortunately hidden by the reeds. It was all very evocative and worth the effort without the chance of an owls, and as night fell we made our way back to the main track and again listened until Janis soon said "Tengmalm's Owl". It was a long way off but we clearly hear it's call so we tried to walk closer but to no avail although as we did a Beaver ‘tail-slapped’ the dark waters making everyone jump. Knowing our chances of seeing the owl were very slim we aborted the task and made our way back to the accommodation. The log was completed over a welcome beer before everyone retired for a good nights sleep, luckily, we weren’t flying back until late morning so we all got a welcome extended night in bed.

Tuesday 15th April :-  The morning went well with our journey back to the airport going really well and our flights being on time. We said our fond farewells to Janis, who had been simply awesome in his knowledge and enthusiasm for his corner of Latvia. Thank you very very much.



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