Barry McCarthy just sent me his trip report on our visit to Latvia (I've dropped some of my location pix in, but you can see the birds on earlier blog entries). Thanks Baz.
ALUS IN WONDERLAND
âŠâŠ.being an account of an intensive four daysâ birding in Latvia, 24-28 April 2006, by Southport birders John Dempsey, Simon Jackson, Barry McCarthy, Mike Stocker, Paul Thomason and June Watt
MONDAY 24 APRIL
Arrived Riga Airport on Ryanair flight from Liverpool at 2230 local time, to be met by our guide, Janis Kuze. It took about 40 minutes by minibus to reach our accommodation for the next three nights at Jaunmokas, a restored castle-cum-museum and hotel about 10 km west of Tukums. To bed without further delay at the end of a long afternoon and evening of airports, beer, flying and beer.
TUESDAY 25 APRIL
Up at dawn, a cold, grey morning with spits of rain. After a brief stop at a petrol station in Tukums to stock up with coffee, water and sandwiches we set off for a dayâs birding in and around Kemeri National Park. This reserve of 38000 hectares of forest, bog and open water lies near the coast of the Gulf of Riga, some 30 km west of Latviaâs capital. Our first stop was at Sumragi Peninsula, a tract of forest on raised bog. After a good hike in Wellingtons along a boggy track, recording little except singing Chaffinches, Chiffchaffs and Song Thrushes we reached a clearing and began our search for the primary target group of the trip: woodpeckers. The rain had ceased by now and the sky cleared a little, but the cold breeze persisted. A steady stream of passerine migrants, mainly Siskins, Chaffinches, Bramblings and Redwings, with a few Waxwings, passed low over the treetops. Our patience was soon rewarded; a male Three-toed Woodpecker delivered machine-gun bursts of drumming, and we had fine views of the pair. A little later a very obliging Grey-headed Woodpecker posed for photographs in a tree by the track.
As we made our way back to the minibus we had brief views of a Black Woodpecker and a flushed Hazelhen; other highlights of our visit to Sumragi included Common Crane, Woodcock, displaying Green Sandpiper and Nuthatch. Our guide also demonstrated the differences between the excrement of Wolf (below), Pine Marten and Wild Boar.
About 20km driving, mainly on dirt roads, brought us to Odini Forest by the Lielupe River. As we approached across open pastures, still grey and dead-looking after months under winter snow, a fine Great Grey Shrike perched up on a roadside tree while a Rough-legged Buzzard flushed from the verge and flew off, still carrying small mammal prey. Dismounting at the forest we spent several hours quietly walking the tracks in search of our Number One target species, White-backed Woodpecker. Apart from hearing one brief call we failed to make contact, although excellent views of Middle Spotted and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers provided some consolation, while other noteworthy species included Osprey, Montaguâs Harrier, Crossbill, Hawfinch and Willow Tit.
Maintaining morale demanded a stop for refreshments, so a roadside cafÃ© provided excellent coffee and snacks. Just after leaving the cafÃ© en route for Slampe Meadows and hoped-for Lesser Spotted Eagle we screeched to a halt on the hard shoulder as an eagle of that species soared over a roadside pasture. Much relieved we continued on to Slampe under brightening skies and intermittent sunshine.
Our knowledgeable guide and driver Janis answered our many questions regarding distribution and populations of Latviaâs birds; most farmyards along the route featured an active nest of White Storks perched high on a pole, Buzzards soared over the woods, and Hooded Crows flapped over the roadside fields. Approaching Slampe a brief stop at a small shallow lake was rewarded by views of adult and immature White-tailed Eagles on surrounding trees, while Greenshank and several Wood Sandpipers fed in the marginal vegetation.
The Slampe Meadows are an extensive area of grassland intersected by the Slampe River and bordered by stretches of forest. Within a short time of stopping we saw the first Lesser Spotted Eagle soaring over the trees; during the next hour or so we saw at least four others in bright sunshine, but a stiff breeze. Also to be seen here were Hen Harrier, Golden Plovers, Goldeneyes and the resident herds of wild-type cattle and horses.
From Slampe, on the southern edge of Kemeri NP, we now travelled in late afternoon to Lake Kanieris in the northern part of the Park. This is the largest water-body in Kemeri, and 45 minutes or so at a watchpoint on the eastern shore added Red-necked Grebe, Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Saviâs Warbler, Smew, Garganey and many more familiar duck species to the trip list; a Hazelhen could be heard whistling in the nearby woods.
Back to Jaunmokas after some twelve hours in the field, in high spirits even though White-backed Woodpecker had eluded us-so far. Janis had ordered dinner in advance by mobile phone, and the meal was excellent; less commendable was the conduct of one of our party who celebrated his three lifers a little too boisterously for the peace of mind of the manager. Diplomatic smoothing of ruffled feathers was required before we all retired to our very welcome beds.
WEDNESDAY 26 APRIL
Up at 0430, collected packed breakfasts provided by the hotel and hit the road by 0500 for the 100 km drive to Cape Kolka, at the tip of the western arm of the Gulf of Riga. A clear, cold morning; we reached our destination at 0645. Cape Kolka is a low-lying sandy peninsula, mainly covered by scrubby pines. We were immediately in the midst of a massive simultaneous passage of landbirds low over the treetops and seabirds low over the waves, almost all heading east. Numbers were stupefying, on what another British birder, a regular visitor to Kolka, described as a quiet morning.
We spent five hours here on the beach, in bright sunshine but a cool breeze. Highlights included several hundred Red-throated Divers, some 25 Black-throated Divers, innumerable Common Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks, smaller numbers of Barnacle Geese, Common Eiders, Scaup, Velvet Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders. A total of some 30 Rough-legged Buzzards and at least 40 Sparrowhawks headed out over the Gulf, and we heard that we had missed a Pallid Harrier by only 20 minutes! Also recorded were a single pale-phase Arctic Skua, numerous Arctic and Sandwich Terns, Little and Baltic Gulls. Among masses of unidentifiable fast-flying passerines were many Siskins, Bramblings, Chaffinches, Waxwings, Fieldfares, Common Redpolls, White Wagtails, Tree Pipits and Bullfinches; single Woodlark, Hawfinch and Wheatear added spice to the mix, and a Black Redstart sang from a ruined building nearby.
Movements eased off markedly towards midday, so we moved off back down the coast. First stop was at a cafÃ© by a coastal lagoon at Berciems; by now the sun was warmer, the breeze lighter. All three swan species were on the lagoon, along with Redshanks, Black-tailed Godwits, Shelducks and Arctic Terns; offshore, big rafts of scoters. Onward to nearby Engures Lake, a famous Latvian birding site now suffering from the depredations of escaped American Mink. In the surrounding woods newly-arrived Redstarts, Pied Flycatchers, Wood Warblers and a Lesser Whitethoat were singing.
The lake and marshes around it were most impressive. From a tower by the shore, in the warm sunshine, we watched a Great White Egret, Caspian and Common Terns, Red-necked Grebes and Garganeys; a distant White-tailed Eagle soared over the woods. Bitterns and Saviâs Warblers were heard, and a Jack Snipe flushed from the edge of the path as we arrived was a lifer for Janis. An ardent search for the tripâs first Yellow Wagtail was rewarded by views of a single bird in the boggy vegetation below the tower; closer study revealed this to be a female Citrine Wagtail, the first to be recorded in Latvia this spring.
By now, with most of the supporting cast accounted for, all thoughts turned increasingly to the Big One, White-backed Woodpecker. Another visit to the Black Aspen Forest at Odini in late afternoon proved unproductive; yesterdayâs Rough-leg was still present and we flushed a Woodcock from a ditch, but all the woodpeckers were conspicuous by their non-appearance. En route back to our accommodation at Jaunmokas one of those events occurred that make birding either exciting or frustrating, depending on oneâs point of view. We stopped at a wood by the main road near Kudra, a former rubbish-tip at which Janis had seen White-backed Woodpecker in the past. Simon left the main group, wandering up a side-track in order to urinate in peace and modesty; there, briefly, on a tree-trunk ahead of him was a White-backed Woodpecker.
An immediate search by the whole party produced only Middle Spotted, and the knife was turned in the wound when Simon alone had a further view of the bird flying off across a clearing.
Only one likely site for this species in the Kemeri area remained unchecked: Livberze Forest. It was decided not to attempt this until tomorrow morning, en route to Lake Lubans, as it was now 1830. After 14 hours in the field we returned to base, to another excellent dinner, a slightly more restrained celebration, and a relatively early bed.
THURSDAY 27 APRIL
Packed and departed Jaunmokas by 0610 and made straight for Livberze Forest, just south of Kemeri NP and due west of the town of Jelgava. A clear, cool, still morningâŠperfect! This was by far the most impressive forest of the trip, a huge, partly-flooded tract full of old, fallen and leaning birches and aspens. We splashed along a muddy track for several km, and waited. Janis disappeared into the forest, a cause of mild anxiety, as in his absence we heard a White-backed Woodpecker drumming not far offâŠto go looking for it, or not? Janis returned, having found a newly-excavated nest hole which he attributed to our quarry; we drew back 100m or so, set up scopes, and waited.
The male soon appeared and provided breathtaking scope views of this most elusive and sought-after of Western Palearctic woodpeckers. We left promptly, concerned lest we put the nest at risk by staying too long. As we tramped back to the minibus, elated, we had excellent views of Grey-headed Woodpecker and heard Black Woodpecker calling; the woods were full of Willow and Wood Warblers and Pied Flycatchers singing in the warm sunshine, and we saw our first ânorthernâ Long-tailed Tit, as well as glimpsing a distant Elk trundling across the track ahead of us.
There followed a long, three-hour drive into the Wild East, skirting Riga to the south and up the Daugava Valley as far as Jekabpils, where we turned north-east towards Lake Lubans. It was now warm, even hot in unbroken sunshine; we reached Nagli, in the midst of a huge complex of fishponds south-east of the Lake itself, by 1430. A very reasonable fee of one Lats per head paid to the manageress of the ponds provided us with a permit to visit all the compartments in the area. New birds soon followed, thick and fast:
Penduline Tits nest-building in birches by the track (above), White-fronted and Tundra Bean Geese on the ponds, a pair of Little Crakes in a clump of reeds, several flava and thunbergi Yellow Wagtails. A lengthy halt by a mud-fringed pond provided a feast of wader-watching: three Marsh Sandpipers, double figures of Greenshanks and Wood Sandpipers, several Ruffs, Redshanks and Little Ringed Plovers, and single Spotted Redshank and Temminckâs Stint; a superb male Citrine Wagtail perched on the tops of the reeds. A brief stop at another pond produced a pair of summer-plumaged Black-necked Grebes; during the afternoon we saw several White-tailed Eagles, either soaring overhead or sitting in bare trees by pond margins.
With enough beer and local champagne on board to satisfy a thirsty regiment we now proceeded to our night-stop, a guesthouse/farmstead at Idena, at the south-eastern edge of Lake Lubans. A hearty alfresco dinner of fish broth and bread preceded a 25 km drive in the dusk to a stretch of forest where, after a brief wait, we heard and then had good views of a Ural Owl. En route we had our only sighting of the ubiquitous Beaver, whose workmanship/vandalism we had observed in every wood, a single animal swimming across a roadside pond. Back to Idena to a memorable, lengthy evening of sauna and beer.
FRIDAY 28 APRIL
Barry, who with Janis had endured a broken nightâs sleep in a freezing shack, woke his more fortunate companions in their warm chalet with news of a Wryneck singing in nearby trees; we all saw several birds during the next hour or so. An excellent alfresco breakfast of smoked carp and all the trimmings was followed by packing and departure into a warm, sunny morning. We worked the eastern and southern shores of the vast Lake; new species were now hard to find, although we flushed two female Black Grouse from the roadside a long way from any significant woodland. Our search for Bluethroat was negated by the fact that most of the lakeshore scrub had been recently burnt. An amazing total of Smews, Goosanders and Red-breasted Mergansers were seen on the Lake, and Bitterns, Saviâs Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats were heard along the edges.
At about 1100 we set off on the long road back to Riga, although a wise decision by Janis brought us via the less-frequented road south of the Daugava rather than the traffic-choked main road we had taken on the outward journey. At about 1530 we reached the Jurmala area, just west of the capital. No doubt trusting our competence and discipline by now (at least in daytime, as far as the latter is concerned) Janis took us to a Black Stork nest, deep in the forest. We approached the site in total silence, had a view of the femaleâs head and bill as she incubated her eggs, and slipped away as quietly as we had arrived to the trilling calls of Crested Tits in the pines.
On a warm sunny evening we called at a hypermarket on the outskirts of Riga, where some of the party purchased enough vodka to win the Battle of Stalingrad. We then made for the Airport, exchanged email addresses and bade an affectionate farewell to our outstanding guide, Janis. We then carried out a major depletion of the Airport barâs stocks of beer before departing at 2245 to Liverpool by Ryanair, having recorded 155 bird species in four hectic days in Wonderful Latvia.
âŠâŠIn case anyone is wondering, âalusâ means âbeerâ in Latvian. What a surprise!
2 May 2006
ABOVE: Jellyhead (left) and Bazzo working out the trip list, either that or how much beer costs at Riga Airport. Unfortunately it was THAT cheap.
JD POSTSCRIPT: Butterflies included several Camberwell Beauties at Lake Engures, Brimstones at loads of sites, and one or two frits that were just too quick for us....oh, and we had an emerging damselfly at Nagli Fishponds.