Tuesday 27 August 2013

More from Latvia - Part 2

The alarm went at 5.30am the next morning, after those beers the night before, the spirit was willing but the flesh and the head were very weak.
Karlis on the other hand was raring to go. We arrived at Kolka Cape carpark at 6am and began searching for Two-barred Crossbills. After 45 minutes though I had to admit defeat. I was shattered and had a thumping headache so I retired to the car for a nap.
I did manage to get some sleep and the one time I opened my eyes a Hobby flew over (no, it wasn't a dream). Eventually I crawled out of the car and wandered around the carpark looking up in the pines. I had a Chiffchaff, two Crested Tits and a single Willow Tit (much paler, silvery looking birds than any I've seen in the UK)....subspp. borealis, loennbergi?
Anyway, at 10am we headed back to the hotel for breakfast, after some pancakes, eggs and coffee I started to feel a little but more compos mentis!
We checked out and headed away from Kolka following the road through the forest in the direction of Ventspils. The pine forest seemed to go on for ages, we kept our eyes peeled for soaring birds of prey but could only manage Common Buzzard and Ravens.

Road through the pines - Latvia - 8th August 2013
However, after 30 minutes of driving, Karlis hit the brakes and exclaimed 'Capercaillie'. He had spotted a female hunkered down along the roadside. We went into reverse and just had a enough time to take some photos from the car before she and her four chicks gathered up and slipped away into the woods.

Female Capercaillie - Latvia - 8th August 2013
Once we cleared the pines forest we entered more open farm country. A lot of oats and barley. The day had started to heat up and we had wider views of open country so our chances for soaring birds of prey were increased. Still we were mostly turning up Buzzards and Marsh Harriers, not even a Honey Buzzard. In due course though I spotted a smallish narrow winged raptor soaring over a corn field. I could see a ringtail so my first thought was female type Monty's. But the second I got it in the bins Pallid Harrier entered my head and at almost the same moment Karlis said 'is that not a Pallid?'. In the time it took for us to grab our cameras out of the car, the bird had drfited away from us. Neither of us got decent shots, we followed it as a distant dot as it drifted away over the fields, we turned off the main road and tried to relocate it but never managed to see it again. I rather fancied that in my initial glimpse through the bins, I got a light collar around the head and subsequent pictures do appear to show dark secondaries on the under side of the wing. But in the end we have to let it go as unidentified, pity though as its a good record for Latvia.
In the same general area we did manage to see a single Lesser Spotted Eagle. Shortly after we checked a spot for Red-footed Falcon. We had a bird harassing a Marsh Harrier that looked good for RFF but the sun was directly against us so we couldn't establish any plumage details other than to say it looked dark, but then, so can a Hobby in certain light. I felt it looked structurally wrong for Hobby, less long winged and short-tailed but this one too we had to let go as unidentified. We really weren't having a good day.
We contined on through the more industrial city of Ventspils. Stopping along the way to check any soaring raptor we could see. Mostly Marsh Harriers and Common Buzzards. We did have two Great Grey Shrikes, one a juvenile and one an adult bird. We took a detour then and headed towards a breeding area in West / North-west Latvia for Bee-eaters. I have to say, not a species that I'd associate with Latvia and I wonder is this the northern limit of their range in the WP, probably close to it though, maybe as you go through Belarus and Russia they reach slightly further up. We managed to see 40-45 birds in the one area, both adults and juveniles so Karlis felt they had done well. They are subject to persecution by egg-collectors so I need to keep details minimal, quite sad really. In the same spot we heard a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker (but didn't see it) and had two Hobbys, a few Blue-headed Wagtails, a juvenile Great Grey Shrike and several Black Reds.
In the city of Liepaya, Karlis wanted to show me a spot where Crested Lark and Tawny Pipit breed. Again, in my opinion, not species I think of when I think of Latvia, and possibly also at the northern limit of their ranges. But opposite an oil refinery and along a busy road we easily found a singing Crested Lark....seems amazing!

A busy intersection in Liepaya, Latvia

A Crested Lark sings from a rooftop in the same area.
We were too late for Tawny Pipit but they too bred within the confines of the oil refinery opposite (which is also good for Northern Wheatear and Black Redstarts).
We did a quick check of the beach also for passage waders but the hot weather had brought the crowds out and the waders were nowhere to be seen. Nice beach though!

Liepaya beach, Latvia - 8th August 2013
Time was getting on and we needed to hit the road back to Jurmala which would be a 2.5 hour journey back. Along the way we stopped at a spot where a Greater Spotted Eagle had been reported a few weeks ago. The report had been of an adult bird not a passing juvenile so Karlis wondered if it had spent the summer there. We checked the area for large soaring raptors and checked any tall trees or telegraph posts for a sitting bird but didn't find anything. If there was one in the area (and I believe one has been seen since), I reckon it was hiding in the shade. At 6.30pm it was still 32oC!

At that point we called time and had reached Jurmala by 9.45pm.

In my two days with Karlis I had three lifers (Black Woodpecker, Capercaillie and Parrott Crossbill), other highlights included Lesser Spotted Eagle, Bee-eater and Roller. Lowlights included failing to nail possible Two-barred Crossbill, Pallid Harrier and Red-footed Falcon and a thumping hangover on one of the hottest days in Latvia this summer, Riga city was 42oC that day also - hard to believe those temperatures when you compare it to the Latvian winter, where it can be minus 32oC!

I said it before and I'll say it again, I believe Latvia is a fine country for birding. Apart from six species of Woodpecker, Pygmy, Tengmalm's and Ural Owl, there is also breeding Booted Warbler, Blyth's Reed Warbler and lots of other good stuff. I would highly recommend Latvia as a birding destination. There are regular flights with Ryanair, Wizzair and Air Baltic from Dublin, Manchester, Luton and Stansted to Riga. The infrastructure is good and if you need a guide you can go the birding Latvia website Latvian Birding and send them an email.  I would recommend Karlis Millers as a guide, a very competent birder with detailed knowledge of where to find specific birds in Latvia (he's also Latvia's top lister). In fact if you check out that website on a regular basis then you will get a flavour for the sort of birds you can expect to see at any time of the year in Latvia. 

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