Mammals included a daylight encounter with a lovely, undulating Pine Marten (indeed, in five glorious minutes we had this mustelid, Hazelhen, Black Grouse and several Capers), evidence of Beavers (a species that still eludes me!) and Elk, plus plenty of Roe Deer. Outside the forest, there was plenty of avian action too. Several pairs of Cranes strode around languorously, White Storks nested in several villages and - best of all - there were great flocks of migrant geese adorning the fields, their northwards travels halted by the weather. In total, we probably saw about 8,000 geese of four species (Tundra Bean and White-fronted mostly, but also Greylag and Barnacle) spread across a dozen or so rolling plains. It was almost like being in northeast Norfolk. Almost...
Travelling aside, Uudo and I spent the entire time in the old-growth forests of northeast Estonia, close to the Russian border. The first night we spent at theBrown Bear hide operated by NaTourEst. I was keen to see for another ursine encounter, having only seen the species in Romania a few years ago.
Courtesy of the Estonian Tourist Board (#visitestonia) and Estonian Nature Tours, I have just returned from another weekend in this fine Baltic country. As with the first trip, when I successfully saw Eurasian Lynx (but also broke my ribs, an event that has rather impeded life for the past eight weeks), I was researching a trip for inclusion in my forthcoming book for Bradt Travel Guides, 52 European Wildlife Weekends. This time I was guided by Uudo Timm, arguably the world's expert in my principal target species,Siberian Flying Squirrel, surely Europe's cutest mammal.
In short, we flunked. Although I did see a Siberian Flying Squirrel clinging to an aspen trunk, it was without torch and without chance of a photograph. The animal, it appeared, was in a different hole to the one we had staked out. And it had emerged from its abode without us glimpsing it. It was only by chance that I spotted some spruce fronds waving and found the individual on a nearby tree. It speedily disappeared into cover. No amount of radio-tracking or shining a torch secured better views; the animal stayed concealed even when moving between trees. After a couple of hours tracking it, we lost contact - and gave up. Frustration is not the word.
Using signals from the radio transmitter, Uudo decided upon one particular individual in one particular tree. We agreed to return here before sunset and wait for it to emerge. I was under strict instructions not to shine a torch on it the moment I saw it nor to fire a flashgun. If I did so, the squirrel would bolt back 'indoors' and shut up shop. Once the animal was settled and out of the tree, however, it was all systems go. Accordingly, I was both optimistic and tooled up. Failure was not contemplated. As the light ebbed, Woodcocks roded, Capercaillies gritted on the roads, Cranes yodelled from roost and a Pygmy Owl heralded the arrival of night. Game on.
Fortunately, we had a fallback target species - and this one was a lifer (albeit one from inadvertently introduced population). Whatever their status, Raccoon Dogs were very smart indeed, and it was a joy to watching at least three individuals at close range for several hours. The following images were taken on ISO12,800. A remarkable performance from my Canon 1D X mark ii.
With the final goose flock, my 48 hours in eastern Estonia ended. A partly successful trip in terms of mammal encounters, but highly pleasurable in terms of the overall experience. I have developed a real fondness for this country, and hope to return - ideally regularly - in future. Thanks again to my sponsors, the Estonian Tourist Board and Estonian Nature Tours, and to my guide, Uudo Timm. #visitestonia!
Cute-eyed, bushy-tailed, much-wanted rodents aside, there was plenty to see and hear in the forests visited - and this despite them being under ever-increasing pressure from foresters out to make a swift euro rather than manage these special natural resources sustainably. In addition to the birds already mentioned, we encountered several Hazelhens, Black Grouse, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Black & Grey-headed Woodpeckers, Crested Tit, and Pied Flycatcher (but it was a week too early for Red-breasted). An incubating Capercaillie was a particular treat.
Despite (between us) spending the entire night awake, alert and watching, we were unfortunate. No bear visited that night. A big surprise, given that Tarvo Walker (who guided me on my previous visit) has not failed in 30 attempts!
After breakfast back at Matsu guesthouse, and a couple of hours kip, Uudo and I returned to the forest to track down Siberian Flying Squirrel. We visited several sites where Uudo and colleagues are monitoring flying squirrel populations through radio-tracking of marked individuals and surveys of clues such as droppings and remote camera traps. It was an honour to be in the field with Uudo, who has devoted 30 years of his life to unveiling the secrets of this remarkable rodent.