Julian Sykes Wildlife Holidays

West Latvia Weekend

9th - 14th May 2009

Report by Julian Sykes

Saturday 9th May :- I flew into Riga Airport, where I was met by my good friend and local expert Janis Kuse, and together we sorted out the mini-bus and transference of money. Before long we were heading into the city’s old town, but not without seeing Northern Wheatear, Swallow, Hooded Crow and Jackdaw around the airport. In the city we were meeting our guests for the short break – Phil McVey, Graham & Agi Turner, Mike & Sue Pryor all of whom had arrive the previous day and spent the night in Riga sight-seeing. Janis & I got there in plenty of time and once we had loaded the mini-bus, we were soon on the road to the Kemeri NP. Before getting to the hotel Janis wanted to visit the Dunduru Meadows, an area of grazed land surrounded by forest (where isn't in Latvia?), and interspersed with shallow pools and winding rivers. Raptors were our primary focus and we were not disappointed as the several stops produced an adult male White tailed Eagle, 2 Lesser Spotted Eagles, a single male Hen Harrier, several Montagu’s & Marsh Harriers, Common Buzzard, Sparrowhawk and a couple of Kestrels. However these weren't our highlights as we found 30+ Common Cranes, lots of White Storks on nests, fabulous views of a breeding plumage Wood Sandpiper, 10+ Golden Plover, 2 Savi’s Warblers, several pairs of Whinchats, Ravens, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers and a Red Fox put in an appearance. We traversed the tracks ending up back on the main road were we headed for our fabulous accommodation - Jaunmokas Pils. This old country house is surrounded by mature trees & shrubs, a small lake and open fields also making it a haven for wildlife. A quick walk both before and after our evening meal producing a few singing Ortolan Buntings, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, House Martins nesting, White Wagtails, Robin, Wren and a Blue Tit. Making for an excellent afternoon, and a great start to the holiday.

Sunday 10th May :-
An early morning walk around the grounds by yours truly (later joined by Graham) was very enjoyable, but cold, something I wasn't used to coming straight from Spain!. I covered most of the area slowly finding a few Ortolans, some showing very well indeed, plus lots of Woodlark, a pair of Nuthatches,  White Storks nest, a group of Common Cranes bugled, Fieldfare, Song Thrush, Common Whitethroat, Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Yellowhammers - simply wonderful. Graham & I met the others for breakfast, after which Janis arrived so we readied ourselves for a full day in the Kemeri National Park forest. The first place we visited was the Sumragi Peninsular, which entails a long 8Km (there & back) through some old and rich woodland, which has become flooded due to Beaver activity. The walk started well with Woodlark, Whinchat, Common & Lesser Whitethroat and as we started to make our way through the trees we heard and saw Turtle Doves, Common Cuckoos, Wren, Dunnock, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Common Chiffchaff, Willow & Wood Warbler, Blackcap, Pied Flycatchers, Robin, Marsh, Coal, Great & Blue Tit, Nuthatch, Eurasian Treecreeper, Jay, Chaffinches, Greenfinches and Goldfinches. The going was fairly slow and at one stop we enjoyed good views of a pair of Green Sandpipers sat on a pine tree, which Sue thought was bizarre. Shortly after this Agi found one of the ‘bird’s of the day’ with a very smart Nutcracker. Unfortunately it didn't stay long enough for us to put the telescope on it, still most of the group had a decent view. Hazel Grouse made their shrill calls from the edge of the track but could we locate one – not a chance. Then at the end of the track we had our first view of a woodpecker species with excellent views of a male Black Woodpecker. However birds weren't the only feature of the morning as we also found many more interesting things include a recent spoor and a half-eaten boar, certain evidence that Wolves are not too far away in this area. Butterflies included the gorgeous Camberwell Beauty plus Brimstone, Peacock, Map Butterfly and a Hairy Emerald dragonfly, which looked resplendent in the late morning sun. The walk back was quicker as lunch was beckoning but myself, Graham & Mike happened on to a family of Wild Boar, which luckily headed into the woodland, as they have been known to attack!!!. Back at the minibus we enjoyed our picnic lunch sat on the bridge and the forward party of Janis, Agi, Sue & Phil enjoyed good views of a Grass Snake swimming in the river. During lunch we watched a female Hen Harrier crossing over one of the open areas, and overhead flew a couple of Common Buzzards. The plan now was to head for another area of ancient ‘raised bog’ woodland at Livberze Forest, for another shorter walk. This was fairly difficult as the humid conditions had also brought out the mosquitoes but we persevered. Unfortunately though we didn't see much different from the morning walk apart from a Hawfinch and a heard-only White backed Woodpecker (although Janis did get a brief flight view). So again it was made interesting by the finding of a few other creatures such as Sand Lizard (well done Mike), Common Toad and Common Frog, plus a few Comma Butterflies. Our ‘day of woodpeckers’ wasn't going as planned but Janis knows this National Park intimately and our final chance was at Smirdgravis (smelly channel). We arrived and had no sooner set and Janis found our first (female) of a pair of White backed Woodpeckers, and during the next hour we got fabulous views of both coming to a nest hole. Janis then whistled in a male Grey Headed Woodpecker, which was quickly followed by a female Black Woodpecker. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker called but could not be located and the final ‘pica’ was (incredibly) our only Great Spotted Woodpecker of the day. We weren't complaining though!. Whilst all this was going on an Osprey flew over, perched for a while near a White tailed Eagle’s nest. When the huge adult White tailed Eagle lifted to the edge of the eyrie the Osprey panicked and started mobbing it (my goodness). We watched a pair of Common Cuckoos copulating, Phil skillfully picked out a pair of Bullfinches and a nice group of Siskin. Graham found a nice obliging Pied Flycatcher close to where we were, 2 Grey Herons flew over and another tree-dwelling pair of Green Sandpipers made a very strange sight. It had been a phenomenal end to the day and a big pat on the back to Janis for his perseverance. The journey back to the hotel was punctuated with a stop at the supermarket to pick up essential liquid refreshments by my unique group. During which Janis and I had a scan around the car park and found a Northern Wheatear, Jackdaw and a couple of Herring Gulls. We got back to the Jaunmokas Pils in time for a quick shower before heading for our evening meal. While waiting for everyone to gather Phil & I found a Spotted Flycatcher and 2 Common Swifts amongst the other hirundines, rounding the day off nicely.

Monday 11th May :- A very early start saw us heading for the migration hotspot of Cape Kolka, and although it was a little late in the season things looked good. The road into the headland is renowned for having Capercaillie picking grit from early morning but today wasn't to be, however we did see several Mistle Thrushes. At the car park we got out and immediately saw passerines moving north, mainly Chaffinches and Siskins, but a Hawfinch was a good sighting. The pine trees around the car park were alive with the calls of Great Tits, Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler. Once ready we walked out to the beach were we positioned ourselves out of the cold wind to watch for any visible migration. An off-shore sea fret made things interesting as birds setting off out into the Baltic Sea had to turn round when they hit the fog bank and return to the mainland. Over the next couple of hours we witnessed plenty of migration mainly involving Chaffinches and Siskin but also Tree Pipits, Woodpigeon, Stock Dove, Common Buzzard, 10+ Sparrowhawks, Yellow & White Wagtails. The beach area was good with a lone Barnacle Goose, Common Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plover, Ringed Plover (seen by Graham), Herring & Black headed Gulls. Off-shore there were lots of sea-birds both sitting on the water and passing the headland, which mainly included Long tailed Duck & Common Scoter, with small numbers of Red throated Diver, Eider, Red breasted Merganser, Velvet Scoter, Goldeneye, Cormorants  and a few Arctic Terns. A ‘thunbergi’ Yellow Wagtail landed on the beach giving everyone a chance to scrutinize it as did a small flock of Linnets. Passage started to slow so we decided to return to the car park cafe for some light refreshments, and while we enjoyed our coffees in the warm morning sunshine several raptors passed overhead including 2 Rough legged Buzzards with Common Buzzards and Sparrowhawks, which was brilliant. We left the Cape Kolka area and started to return south towards Tukums, but eagle-eyed Janis soon had us stopping at a small reed-fringed wetland for a pair of Whooper Swans. We all got out of the mini-bus and a brief search produced Marsh Harrier, Common Buzzard, Cuckoo, singing Savi’s, Reed & Sedge Warblers, Reed Buntings and lots of Green Hairstreaks for the butterfly fans. We soon continued on our way and Janis guided through to a coastal site he knew with an observation tower overlooking a bay.  Again as we got out of the mini-bus we heard a Grasshopper Warbler ‘reeling’, quickly followed by views of a Thrush Nightingale and Lesser Whitethroat. Be grudgingly we followed Janis to the tower and looked into the bay, which was also stacked with birds including Mute Swan,  Black headed & Herring Gulls, Mallard, Goldeneye and Shelduck along with a single Great Black backed Gull, 3 Arctic Terns, Mallard, Gadwall and 2 female Goosanders. Graham & I decided to have a walk along the beach to try and get better views of the Goosanders, which paid dividends as we got fabulous views of several Wigeon, a singing Grasshopper Warbler, a couple of Whitethroats and a Tree Pipit. We joined the others back at the minibus where Phil had found a Common Redstart and seen another Lesser Whitethroat. It was now nearly lunchtime so we headed for Engures to buy some more provisions for our picnic. We drove down to the edge of Lake Engures and parked near the picnic tables near the observation platform. The road in had produced several Great White Egrets and waders along the edge of the lake, so we knew we were in for a treat. As we parked Janis saw a Goshawk sat in a tree, which unfortunately departed before the rest of us could see it. Then during lunch the lure of scanning for birds was too great and initial looks of the huge wetland produced 100+ Wood Sandpipers, a few summer plumage Spotted Redshanks, Common Redshanks, Ruff, Grey Herons, Great Crested Grebes, Tufted Duck, Shoveler, Common Pochard, drake Garganey, Common Coot, Common Terns, a magnificent Caspian Tern, several summer plumage Little Gulls, Black headed & Herring Gulls, Marsh Harriers, Great Bitterns ‘boomed’ and I found a Smooth Snake and lots of Four Spotted Chasers. It was fantastic. After lunch was packed away we walked down the boardwalk towards the viewing tower and on the way we got fabulous views of the waders either side of the footpath. Near the platform we checked some small close islands, where we found a small group of ‘thunbergi’ Yellow Wagtails, Phil picked out a couple of Black tailed Godwits and we got reasonable views of an adult White tailed Eagle hunting over this extensive wetland. It was cool in the freshening north west wind but species on offer made a suitable distraction, as we added a few more including a couple of summer plumage Red necked Grebes, and magnificent Ruff, complete with its white shaggy ruff (what a bird). Then Janis picked out a few marsh terns, of which the majority was Black Terns, but we also found at least 2 White winged Terns. These birds must have been moving through as half an hour later most had gone, but fortunately for us a few landed right in front of the hide and showed very well. Eventually we returned to the mini-bus extremely pleased with the vast array of birds on offer on this excellent coastal lake. It was now time to return to the hotel as it had been a very long day, but highly worthwhile. Back at the hotel we spent a little time in the extensive parkland gardens seeing Spotted Flycatcher, Fieldfare, Common Swift, Great & Blue Tits.  That evening we again headed out to our special restaurant the Pie Jana not 10 minutes from the hotel, where the food is not only fantastic but so much of it (just ask Phil?), probably the best find of the short break!.

Tuesday 12th May :- Today was planned as a fairly relaxed day after the previous day’s early start but a pre-breakfast walk was attended by all. We had a couple of target species, hoping to be seen well and gratefully they duly obliged. These were Woodlark & Ortolan Bunting both of which sat on the overhead wires allowing good views at quite close quarters. The rest of the stroll included Spotted & Pied Flycatchers, Fieldfare, White Wagtails, Common Cranes, Raven and Yellowhammer. After a very nice buffet-style breakfast we met Janis and set off again for Lake Engures but this time the opposite shore. The journey to the lake produced the expected White Storks, Jackdaws, Common Buzzard etc but also a very nice Black Woodpecker. At the lake it was cold with a strong wind blowing in from the north west but we persevered and climbed the tower platform to view the open water beyond. A Penduline Tit made its thin call and soon enough we were watching a pair in the bushes below our position. Agi a little later went for a short walk and found their nest which they were still building and what a feat of engineering that was. The lake was generally quiet with Great Crested Grebes, Shoveler, Common Pochard, Mallard, Coot, Black headed & Herring Gulls. Several Marsh Harriers put on a display as they sky-danced over the reedbeds and a Great Bittern ‘boomed’ from deep cover. As I said it was cold there and exposed so slowly we all dispersed with yours truly walking into the edge of the woodland were I got very good views of a pair of Black Woodpeckers, obviously nesting in this area. Agi & Graham had seen a Great Spotted Woodpecker along with this huge Wood Ant nest near to the car park. Janis suggested we tried the boardwalk through the reeds in hope of finding some ‘acrocephalus warblers’ so off we went. We hadn't’t gone far when a Hobby flew through but unfortunately didn't stop. The walk produced a few Reed Buntings and a Great Reed Warbler sang out of sight but on our return another Hobby appeared and gave us an aerial lesson in catching insects on the wing. It was now nearing lunchtime and Janis had planned we take at the coast so we left and drove the short distance to the Bay of Riga. At Mersrags we stopped next to the sea, with Agi & Sue very kindly laying out the picnic. Lunch as always was interrupted by birds being found flying out to sea particularly a couple of Arctic Skuas, 3 Little Terns, Common Eider and a small flock of Velvet Scoter. The sea held plenty of sea-duck with Common Scoter & Long tailed Duck dominating but also smaller numbers of Velvet Scoter and Red breasted Merganser. After lunch had been completed and packed away we took a walk along the beach into the next bay were we found a Grey headed (thunbergi) Wagtail, a small mixed flock of Little Stint and Little Ringed Plovers, with a couple of Oystercatchers on the off-shore rocks and in the distance 2 Greenshank, Common Redshank and 10+ Spotted Redshank (sorry Agi they were dot-birds!). Also in the distance were a large flock of gulls and terns with at least one Caspian Tern amongst them so we wanted to try and get closer. We returned to the vehicle and drove round to another parking area just inland from the shore, with Phil & Mike seeing a male Common Redstart on the way. The track down to the beach was notable for brilliant views of 2 Blue headed (flava) Wagtails, 2 Whinchats and a few Meadow Pipits. At the beach we found a couple of good flocks of gulls and careful searching produced a single Baltic (Larus fuscus) Gull, Great Black backed Gull and 3 Caspian Terns amongst the Herring & Black headed Gulls. It was now time to leave as we wanted to re-visit the Dunduru Meadows before returning to the hotel. Soon enough we were entering the site and as we drove slowly along the track a bird flashed across in front of the vehicle, which looked very interesting. I stopped and we looked, brilliant there was a Wryneck sat out in full view. Over the next ten minutes we got fabulous views of this unlikely woodpecker species as it hopped and a wood pile right next to the mini-bus. Eventually it disappeared so we continued through to the wetland were we found much the same species as before, so carrying on again I stopped for a dark shape stood next to the river. It was our first (and only) Black Stork, but we did get a good look at it before it flew off towards the forest. Our final stop was for a pair of Whooper Swans sat distantly in a field but as usually happens we also had a fabulous encounter with a pair of adult White tailed Eagles. I first found them flying together over the forest but they were heading out towards the ploughed fields in the distance. Amazingly they proceeded to dive-bomb the 40+ Common Cranes feeding but didn't manage to catch anything, as the cranes left in quite a hurry (who wouldn't?). They then landed in full view on the ground and allowed us to scope them, showing just how big and powerful these predators are. Well that rounded off another superb day in Western Latvia, we returned to the hotel in good time for reading ourselves for the evening meal later that night.

Wednesday 13th May :- This was our last day and decided to ‘go for it’ and convened at the unforgiving time of 5am to visit Janis’s local patch for peckers. On the way out of the Jaunmoku Pils Agi found a Hare on the ploughed field, where we had previously found a nesting Lapwing next to the track. We arrived at Janis’s work building in the heart of the Kemeri Forest and almost immediately he & Graham saw a Middle Spotted Woodpecker, which unfortunately didn't’t stay around for the rest of us. Once ready we set off into the wet forest, mainly of Black Alder, Silver Birch, Oak, Beech and Scot’s Pine - a veritable ‘schmorgas board’ of tree species. The walk in produced the usual Chaffinches, Robin, Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Dunnock and Wren were heard, Lesser & Greater Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, Wood & Willow Warblers. We arrived at a place we had had success in previous years and incredibly seconds later Janis animatedly says “ Three toe-ed drumming”, and strides off along this narrow track, with the rest of us mere mortals getting left in his wake. A couple of hundred meters we were close and Graham (who had sensibly walked along at his own pace!) says “it’s here”. Sure enough there was one of Europe’s rarest peckers - a male Three toed Woodpecker. We watched for a minute or two making it’s machine gun drum occasionally (this is the Charlie Magri of woodies) before it flew a short distance to where we had come from. So we got back to the original area and some got onto one bird while Agi & I were watching another – this time a female. This bird soon departed but the male decided to fly onto a dead Black Alder pick around and preen in full view for a full ten minutes – absolutely fantastic. In fact Janis actually said this is the best view of this species he has ever seen, which speaks volumes!!!. While all this was going on a Nutcracker had been calling from behind us and a Black Woodpecker had flew through. Once recovered we decided on a short walk in the other direction and this produced a Common Snipe, Garden Warbler and a very obliging Icterine Warbler all of which were additions to our growing list of species. We made one final attempt to locate the Nutcracker (for Graham who only got brief views previously) and in doing so we found a Common Cranes nest. Janis heard a Grey headed Woodpecker and managed to whistle it in to the top of a very close tree to give us yet more stunning views. By now the pangs of breakfast had begun for most of us so it was decided to return to the minibus and have a welcome break. In the grounds of Meza Maja we sat around eating our picnic in a wooden gazebo overlooking the extensive lawned area surrounded by trees. This area alone held Pied & Spotted Flycatchers, Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Phil found a handsome male Common Redstart; a Hawfinch sang but remained undetected, as did a Bullfinch. After breakfast we then set off on yet another amazing forest walk along a purpose-built boardwalk that meandered through the trees. It was taken slowly and found again many forest dwelling species including a superb male Red breasted Flycatcher, very close views of a Treecreeper and a lovely Red Squirrel. We did hear another Middle Spotted Woodpecker but unfortunately didn't’t reveal it’ self to us. Eventually we returned to the minibus and set off to the nearby Lake Slokas en-route stopping at some derelict buildings where we found a pair of Black Redstarts. At the lake we were hoping to find Slavonian Grebes but it wasn't to be the strong winds probably causing them to retreat into the reeds. However we did see a few Great Crested Grebes, 2 Marsh Harriers, Mallard, Grey Heron Black headed & Herring Gulls plus a Great Bittern ‘boomed’ on the other side. We then took another boardwalk through the wood bordering the lake and just as we set off Sue says “STOP, there’s a snake”, and sure enough there was a lizard, no snake but it’s near relative the Slow Worm – a very good find indeed. After grabbing some photos we walked into the wood and saw many of the same species found previously plus heard a Thrush Nightingale singing from deep cover. We left this area and set off for our final site of the morning – a return to Smirdgravis, the White backed Woodpecker place. Here we again looked out over the area of ‘raised bog’ woodland and soon enough we got views of the female White backed Woodpecker picking insects of the trunk of the tree. Phil found the pair of Green Sandpipers but things were generally quiet, although a pair of Crested Tits next to the bus was an excellent finale to the morning session. Lunch was taken at one of the local administrative buildings known by Janis, and provided an excellent meal for us all; this was followed by a return to the hotel for a planned siesta. It had been decided to reconvene early evening, go for our final meal at the Pie Jana and then go out ‘owling’, but the wind was still quite strong – not a good sign!. So we said our “goodbyes” to the delightful waitress at the restaurant and headed back out to Smirdgravis again and parked along another woodland track near to the lake. We stood around the minibus getting ready and I saw a Hazel Grouse fly across the track, which Graham actually saw on the ground a little later. Then walking along the track Janis heard what we had really hoped for – Pygmy Owl and it was close. We searched the conifers and eventually I found it sat out in the open, where it remained for several minutes allowing excellent scoped views of Europe’s smallest owl. What a start. We continued walking along the track for another kilometre or so listening to the sounds of the forest and enjoying the spectacle of the sun dropping below the forest skyline. Several Woodcocks flew over as did a Common Cuckoo but unfortunately we didn't’t hear any of the ‘hoped for’ Tengmalm’s & Eagle Owls. We left this area just as it was starting to become dark and drove through to the wetland at Dunduru Meadows. Here again we got out and listened to noise emanating from this small wetland area, which was a magical experience as Spotted Crakes ‘peeped’, Water Rails ‘wailed’ and Savi’s Warblers ‘reeled’. It was now getting late so we made one final drive around the grassland areas in the hope of hearing Corncrake, but sadly not, they had obviously not yet arrived from their wintering grounds. So Janis kindly returned us all to our hotel before heading off home, and the group and I enjoyed late night refreshments in the large hall adjacent to our rooms.

Thursday 14th May :- Our final morning was a quiet affair since we needed to be back in Riga for lunchtime but before we left we did manage one final addition to the list – Tree Sparrow. Mike had asked if we could make a quick visit to the coastal area of Jumala and since we had a little spare time made this short detour. However soon enough we had arrived into Riga with Janis & I delivering Graham, Agi, Mike, Sue & Phil to their hotel in the centre where they were staying for one extra night. I am sure sampling the delights (& wines!) of this historic city.

Thank you very much to them for making this the great success it was, although I am sure all would agree its Janis that deserves the full plaudits for his constant enthusiasm and attention to detail, his knowledge of his native country is boundless. We finished with a total of 150+ species (seen & heard), and although it’s not a ‘numbers game’, I still personally think is a phenomenal effort on everyone's part.

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