"Thanks for a super trip, it really was first class, I think the Baltic States being so under populated and quiet...
a real tonic for overstressed westerners, it did me a power of good. So many birds and so many memories"
.... Mrs M, N. Yorks
Being rich in large mammals, wildfowl and cranes, Latvia was once the luxurious secret hide-away for the Prussian aristocracy. Later, the Soviet elite would enjoy weekends hunting in its marshes and ancient forests, or strolling along the deserted Baltic beaches.
For this reason, Latviaís rich natural resources have survived intact to the modern day. The peace-loving Latvians have been welcomed into the European Union and much of their landscape is protected. A low population density means that there is little threat to the wild areas; something few countries can still boast.
Our tour takes us into forests full of Elk, Red Deer, Beaver and Wild Boar. Martens and Red Squirrel are frequently seen and eight species of woodpecker leave their mark on every tree. Green Sandpiper and Goosander doze by golden marigolds, in inky pools shaded by black alders. Ural Owls breed in neighbouring Lithuania, and a day trip over the border will give us a good chance to see this phantom of the forest.
Our first tour in 2014 was a great success, with all our customers falling in love with the beautiful location of our hotel in Kemeri National Park. Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers greeted us in the mornings and snowy-headed Long-tailed Tits perched in view of our breakfast tables.
The charming rural landscape is ablaze with golden, flower-filled meadows that stretch over the horizon, dotted with dew ponds and medieval manor houses. Here we are served up large portions of premier bird species such as Roller, Corncrake, Montaguís Harrier, Black Stork and Lesser Spotted Eagle. Vast swaying reedbeds resound to the boom of Bitterns, only becoming silent when White-tailed Eagles approach. Flamboyant Ruffs jostle for the right to mate, and other waders include Temminckís Stint and Spotted Redshank. Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse come to pick up grit once their pre-dawn dances have ended; there are high populations of both here.
Cape Kolka is the best location in spring to see movements of passerines. A spike of forested dunes jutting into the Baltic is overflown by flocks of finches, buntings and larks in their big push north. In the right conditions, Bluethroat, Common Rosefinch and hundreds of wagtails fall from the sky. Watching the sea brings an exciting mix of divers, scoters and Long-tailed Ducks, with Rough-legged Buzzard, Merlin, pipits and finches all hugging the coast. On our 2014 tour, an adult male Pallid Harrier became the fourth harrier species in one day here. Some days there is a surprise around every corner. Birding is in its infancy here, and new discoveries are frequently made. This unpredictability makes Latvian birding so vibrant and special.
KEMERI NATIONAL PARK AND BIRZAI
After a short flight, we will land by the medieval city of Riga and our hotel is not far away. It was once a top-secret Soviet retreat where Brezhnevís daughter practised ballet with only bird song to accompany her. It is hidden in a mossy forest, beside a small peaceful lake. Pied Flycatchers compete with the many Wood Warblers for top billing in this woodland song contest, while Crested Tit is likely to be one of the first birds we see.
With three nights here, we will make daily trips to a range of lakes, reedbeds and forests. Inside Kemeri National Park there are numerous trails that allow us to seek out the many species of woodpecker. Black and Grey-headed shout the loudest, so are usually the first to be seen. The rotting spruces are perfect for good populations of Three-toed Woodpecker. We enjoyed great views of them last year.
It might tempt fate to say that Middle Spotted Woodpecker is guaranteed; but they nest by our hotel and are certainly not rare. White-backed Woodpecker, too, is reliably found. Green Sandpipers utilise old Fieldfare and Redwing nests and Golden Orioles add an exotic touch to these primeval-looking northern forests. The striking white-headed race of Long-tailed Tit would turn any birderís head. They often interrupt breakfast by appearing at the hotel window.
Surrounding fields, copses and deserted orchards provide homes for Ortolan Bunting, Hoopoe and Serin. Together with a remnant population of Crested Lark and Tawny Pipit, it feels strange to see species associated with the Mediterranean breeding alongside birds from the taiga zone. Even the gaudy Roller reaches this far north.
Our timing means that skeins of Taiga Bean Geese will be pausing to refuel. Ruff dance, Snipe drum and Garganey grunt, as water levels drop in the precious watermeadows. Black-tailed Godwit conduct aerial displays and seven whistles betray the occasional passing Whimbrel. Our eyes will be open for the many Temminckís Stints or occasional Broad-billed Sandpipers that pass through.
Larger lakes, smothered with reeds, are home to many Great Reed Warblers. The voice of Saviís Warbler and Bittern are brought to us on the wind while Penduline Tits carry pussy willow fluff to their hanging nests. Three species of marsh tern (White-winged, Black and Whiskered) test the stability of flattened-reed foundations in readiness to lay, and Common Cranes will already have eggs.
We will take a day trip to neighbouring Birzai in Lithuania as there are no border restrictions now. Our friends here monitor breeding Ural Owls that use natural holes rather than boxes. In good vole years there may be up to 30 pairs in the area.
CAPE KOLKA AND THE BALTIC COAST
Our journey to Cape Kolka takes us along the Baltic coast. Among the ice age erratics, migrants pause on their journey north. Red-backed Shrike and Bluethroat are expected and, by scanning flocks of Grey-headed and Blue-headed Wagtails, we will hope for one of the many Citrine Wagtails now breeding in Latvia. Wryneck and Thrush Nightingale will be noisily proclaiming ownership of blossoming fruit trees. A snippet of a Common Rosefinchís Ďpleased-to-meet-youí song may betray the first of the season.
We have three nights here, and our activities are governed by weather and wind direction. Like Falsterbo in the autumn, this place offers us a chance to witness the spectacle of mass bird migration. Dawn could see thousands of Siskins and other finches heading out to sea. Among them are Woodlark, Golden Orioles and Common Crossbills. The latter are easy to picked out as they chip to each other in flight. Their stocky cousin, the Parrot Crossbill, nests in pines on the cape itself, and occasionally drinks from car park puddles. At sea, large numbers of Velvet and Common Scoters loaf among breeding-plumaged Long-tailed Duck. A procession of eiders and divers provides the opportunity for us to pick out rarer fare. Our recce yielded a breeding-plumaged White-billed Diver among many Black-throated. Caspian Tern is likely, while last year we found Latviaís second Iceland Gull here. Stellerís Eiders winter close by, so we should be mindful that one could linger.
By late morning, raptors have gathered above the point. Sparrowhawk, Marsh Harrier and Buzzard are the most numerous, with smaller numbers of Merlin, Hobby, White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard. Something rare is noted annually and almost any European raptor could occur here in spring.
Leaving Cape Kolka we take the road known among local birders as the ĎGrouse Safarií. Just inland, the woods hold good numbers of Capercaillie and Hazel Grouse and our journey could produce sightings of either. The adjacent meadows draw Lesser Spotted Eagles. Corncrake will be arriving and even wolves are seen occasionally. We return to Riga passing fish ponds and meadows frequented by Osprey, and Montaguís and Marsh Harriers. After our final night in Latvia, we fly home the next day. If you would like to extend your stay with a city break or more birding, please donít hesitate to contact our office.
CLIMATE AND PACE
Weather is changeable, in fact rather similar to British weather at this time of year. Breakfast will be taken at about 7am most mornings, with optional pre-breakfast trips at Cape Kolka to fit in with migration patterns. Basic fitness is all that is required. Full days will be spent in the field and reasonable length walks on the flat will be undertaken regularly.
ACCOMMODATION AND FOOD
Full board accommodation is provided, with three nights at Kemeri National Park, three nights at Cape Kolka and one night back at Kemeri National Park. All accommodation is of a very good standard, with excellent food. All rooms have en suite facilities. Lunch is usually packed, and taken in the field to maximise birding opportunities.
PRICE INCLUDES Ö..
All birdwatching excursions with expert leader and local guide, full-board accommodation (starting with breakfast on 4th, ending with breakfast on 10th), soft drinks at meal times, bottled water throughout, reserve entrance fees, local transport by minibus, international flights.
WHAT IS NOT INCLUDED
Travel insurance. Personal items, alcoholic drinks, laundry.
Direct flights are available from London Gatwick to Riga using the scheduled services of Air Baltic. The outbound flight leaves late afternoon, with the return arriving late afternoon. Flights are also available from Manchester and many other UK airports using KLM, for a small supplement. We will give a discount if you wish to fly with Ryanair from Manchester.
The meadows of Latvia echo to the sound of Corncrakes in spring
Penduline Tits breed on the banks of many Latvian fish ponds
European Beaver is common and are regularly seen in the daytime
Fruiting trees in coastal gardens attract singing Common Rosefinches
The Capercaillie is common and can be found taking grit from roads through the forests
click here to see the photographs in our Latvia Album
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