Sunday 29 May 2016

A mixed week in Latvia

As far as previous visits to Latvia are concerned this one was a bit of a mixed bag. The first few days were cold, windy and very wet. In the garden there were a pair of Redstarts, a Lesser Whitethroat, a single Wood Warbler and at the local reserve by the Lielupe all I could dig out was a single Sedge Warbler and a Common Whitethroat. Things improved mid-week but sadly my long awaited trip to Kolka Cape went somewhat "pear-shaped"....more on that sorry saga later!
As I said the first few days lashed rain and the wind felt cold. But on Wednesday the sun shone, the wind dropped and the temperature warmed up to around 18oC. I paid a return visit to the Lielupe area and it was like a different place. In the space of a couple of hours I had two male Red-backed Shrikes and one female, a stunningly fine looking male Barred Warbler, three singing Icterine Warblers, a Marsh Warbler, several Common Rosefinches, a briefly reel from a Savi's Warbler and a Thrush Nightingale. I didn't have much luck photographing the Barred Warbler, which was one I really wanted to snap, but one of the male Red-backed Shrikes was a little less shy.

Male Red-backed Shrike, Leilupe, Dzintari, Jurmala, Latvia
And here he is doing what RB Shrikes do best, that is - happily catching bees.

Anyway, all of that put a spring in my step and with me due to depart on Thursday morning for three days at the famous Kolka Cape, I was beginning to think I had timed my arrival there just right.
So, Thursday morning off I set, going via Kemeru rather than up the coast road P131. The idea of this being to try and stop off at some nice meadow spots for Corncrake and forest areas for Woodpeckers. This route brought me along some fairly rough dirt-tracks where dust and sharp stones were aplenty. But I took it easy and enjoyed regular stops along the way to look at White Storks, Common Cranes and Whinchats in the fields on either side.

Common Crane

White Storks

Whinchat on oilseed rape

Whinchat - common bird in the summer in Latvia but still little crackers!!
I was making  good time and on course to hit Kolka at 5pm, the plan was to drop my stuff at the guest house and then bird the tip of Kolka Cape for migrants until dusk. Anyway, that's when I saw the warning message on the dash board "Low tyre pressure". My heart sank - I stopped got out and could hear the hiss of escaping air from the back right tyre. I cleared all my gear from the boot and lifted up the spare tyre, not even a space saver tyre - just a small little pump and a bottle of silicon compound with the advice that once I get this stuff into the wheel and manage to stop the puncture then drive no more than 10 kilometers to the nearest garage and replace the tyre. Nearest garage!!! I was miles from anywhere. Anyway, I made it the next 32 kms to Kolka with my fingers crossed. The tyre held up. I spent that evening and the next morning trying to find a 195/60/R16 tyre - I tried Ventspils, Talsi, Roja and even had Polina call garages in Riga - no one had one. I called the rental company (Europcar) and they didn't want to know - could I drive for 220kms back to Riga I asked?? You could try but go very slowly and pray the tyre holds up - if it doesn't ring us and we will talk then - what service! "Good luck" - the guy told me before he hung up. So, with birding the least of things on my mind. I reluctantly left Kolka and started the 220 km drive back to Jurmala, crossing my fingers that I could make it without the tyre failing. After an hour and the tyre still hanging in there, I passed a garage in Roja - using google translate I asked "Man vaja jaunu reipu" - I need a new tyre. I didn't really understand the reply but called Polina and got her to speak in Russian to the mechanic over the phone and then to translate back to me in English. The gist of it was that he had just caught some fish, needed first to go and put them in the smoker and would return in an hour and fix my tyre. So I waited and an hour later he comes back and between him and another guy they whipped the tyre off, pulled out a nail, repaired it and had me on my way - all for the princely sum of €10 - much better than europcar.

The offending article

My car at Roja in the best garage in the world!
However, not wanting to take any chances and being genuinely concerned that if I returned to Kolka and the repair job failed then I was right back where I started except on a Saturday or a Sunday with a flight to catch and any garage or repair truck enjoying its weekend off. So I continued on to Jurmala and made it there a couple of hours later - much relieved.
To try and salvage something from the week I decided to try and get some shots of the singing Barred Warbler at Lielupe. Previously I've only seen females or juveniles - never seen a male and they are stunning birds. Remarkably melodic and easy to confuse the song with Garden Warbler. The male was singing in the open thankfully and with a little patience I managed some shots.

Male Barred Warbler, Lielupe, Dzintari, Latvia
Plus a short video clip.

Meanwhile back at the house, an Icterine Warbler sang for one day from deep cover at the back of the garden. The male Redstart had an open battle with a male Pied Flycatcher for who got the new nest box that the neighbours had put up. I wanted a couple of shots of the female Redstart who interestingly showed some male plumage characteristics, i.e. off-white band across the forehead (not quite the snowy-white one the males have), some dark feathers to the face and grey / blue crown and mantle.

Female Common Redstart with some male plumage features

And her partner
I checked with Yoav Perlman and he suggested that she was a very old female, as they age they start to increase testosterone levels and exhibit some male features - I never knew that and would like to speculate then if she is four or five years old, could she be the same female that is around each summer and the same one I photographed in the garden in 2012??....who knows, possibly but possibly not either - its a nice thought that she is.

Female Redstart - photographed in 2012 - same bird? Who knows??


  1. What an adventure!!! I'll be in Latvia in August and will definitely check to see that there is a spare tyre. Such a pity about the rain and the tyre and associated trauma. Should I be able to get some bird shots while there, would you please help identifying for me? I only remember a few of the most common birds from my early childhood.

    1. Hi Arija, yes you should be able to photograph some birds there at any time of year, although spring is best. Even the common birds are good in Latvia. Happy to help you identify species from any photos you take, in the meantime have a great trip to Latvia.