Estonia, a trip in June 2012 arranged by Mike Williams
Wednesday 6 June
On a grey, cool morning after overnight rain I collected David and shortly after 8.30am we were on our way to Stansted. Despite the day and time of day the roads were Sunday-quiet, it being part of the extended Bank Holiday celebrating the Queen's Golden Jubilee. As a result, we reached the drop-off point outside the terminal building in about an hour and waited a short time for our 'meet and greet' man to take away the car. Airside arrived by 10am followed by a cooked breakfast in Est. Mike and the others duly arrived including three new faces, Carol Wood, Ann Hadfield, and Ron Waters: great to see David Porter again, his Nepalese shattered leg now mended. The rest of the group contained the ubiquitous Tony Simpson and Neil Thompson.
Our 2½ hour Easyjet flight to Tallinn landed on time at 5pm (UK + 2 hours) where we were met by the Tour Company representative, Marika, and taken to the minibus. Our driver spoke no English and seemed happy to keep his own company. A 190 km drive to Tartu in the south-east took another 2½ hours, a pleasant quiet town apart from the students congregating in the park near the Barclay hotel where a good dinner had been booked for us. The driver had some difficulty finding the hotel and parked a short walking distance away. Our first introduction to the local brew was an A Le Coq lager, not bad!
A further hour and 70km got us to our accommodation for the next few days, the excellently refurbished Mooste Viinaköök vodka factory. A Thrush Nightingale (Luscinia luscinia) sang us in, but as it was already 11.30pm most of us downed the welcome vodka shot and promptly hit the sack.
Thursday 7 June
An early alarm at 6.30 led into a good buffet breakfast at 7 - the porridge was excellent. Our entomological guide, Erki, arrived before 8 to brief us on the week ahead. It was immediately clear that Neil would be well advised to change his standard shorts for long trousers as the ticks around here are particularly numerous and carry Lime's disease as well as encephalytus! Check often!! We got away just after 8 in pleasant sunshine interrupted by high clouds for our first field stop of the trip, a bog some 20km distant. The approach to Uulika Bog was forced through birch and pine becoming increasingly squishy underfoot and the clouds of mosquitos we disturbed were of concern. As the habitat became wetter and the pines became more stunted Erki spotted the first butterfly of the day, a male Northern Chequered Skipper (Carterocephalus silvicolus). You'd think it was the only one on the planet as we clamoured to take its photograph. Deeper into the bog, where standing still equated to slowly sinking, a fritillary was spotted and having been pursued turned out to be a Pearl-bordered (Boloria euphrosyne). But shortly afterwards Erki glimpsed a Baltic Grayling (Oeneis jutta) down in the herbage that soon darted up onto a pine trunk, its classic pose. Chasing butterflies was not easy in the bog and wet legs were inevitable as we got down to photograph the next species to show, the rare Bog Fritillary (Boloria eunomia). Other species seen as we exited the bog included Green Hairstreak (Callophrys rubi), Sooty Copper (Lycaena tityrus), and Neil saw a Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus). Species were few and individuals similarly so.
Our picnic lunch was taken early, at 11.30, and as location #2 was only 6km away, we were on site by noon at Jarvselja Forest. A Northern Chequered Skipper welcomed us as we alighted from the bus. Ahead lay a boardwalk through pristine wet forest where the spring form of the Map (Araschnia levana) was like a new species for me, and where many Northern Chequered Skippers were joined by regular Chequered Skippers (Carterocephalus palaemon), Green-veined White (Pieris napi), Brimstone (Gonepteryx rhamni) and later on at the roadside, a Mazarine Blue (Cyaniris semiargus) and Common Blues (Polyommatus icarus) were seen. The final leg back through the forest threw up a Comma (Polygonia c-album) but was most memorable for a pair of Green Sandpipers (Tringa ochropus) calling and dashing amongst the trees: this bird nests in woodland using old nests - very odd behaviour.
Erki wanted to take us to another site at Saki where he had seen a Camberwell Beauty (Nymphalis antiopa) recently. En route the bus came to a sudden stop on the forest road as we actually collided with one! Although it was on its last legs anyway, it was nevertheless a sad way for its life to end. This unplanned stop produced some real 'finds' - a couple of Scarce Heaths (Coenonympha hero), new to me, a False Heath Fritillary (Melitaea diamina) and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries (Boloria selene), Wood White (Leptidea sinapis), Black-veined White (Aporia crataegi) and more Maps - true serendipity!
Stop 4, a little further on, was a forest path atop a levee had more Northern Chequered Skippers and some Maps but was maybe most notable for the Beaver damage evidenced by excavations under the track - Erki does NOT like beavers! Some large horseflies harassed us but weren't biting, and footprints revealed that a Moose had been around. Back at the vodka factory around 6pm, a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) idled up the lake as A Le Coqs were taken after an excellent day that had exceeded expectations. A thorough tick inspection, shower, nice dinner, lists, and an acquaintance with Vana Tallin, the country's liquor made from rum, spices and citrus preceded bed at 11pm.
Friday 8 June
7am alarm, another early start on an overcast but calm morning. We departed at 8.30 for the 60km drive almost to the Russian border in the far south-east of the country near Piusa, in particular a meadow and the railway embankment that ran alongside. By 10am our trampling had begun and a fresh Purple-edged Copper (Lycaena hippothoe) was first to show. Butterfly numbers were low but new species steadily added to the list - Sooty Copper (Lycaena tityrus), Heath Fritillary (Melitaea athalia) and Small Pearl-bordered Fritillaries. Strolling westwards, away from Russia, we reached the railway line and a much drier, sandier habitat where Common Blue and Wood White were joined by a magnificent fresh male Amanda's Blue (Polyommatus amanda), Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas), Olive Skipper (Pyrgus serratulae) and Queen of Spain Fritillary (Issoria lathonia). An adjacent line was then inspected after a very short hop in the bus where additional species included Chestnut Heath (Coenonympha glycerion) and Pearly Heath (Coenonympha arcania), Weaver's Fritillary (Boloria dia) and Knapweed Fritillaries (Melitaea phoebe), followed by the pick of the bunch, a stunning freshly emerged Purple-shot Copper (Lycaena alciphron) discovered by David.
A 30 minute drive to lunch at a modern-looking timbered farm complex, where we arrived a tad later than planned at 2pm, gave us a welcome break - jugs of home-made fruit juice, meat balls with horseradish sauce, followed by lemon sorbet - albeit a short break as we were soon heading for the afternoon's stop at the nearby castle ruins at Vana-Vastseliina. Built on a high point in Estonia at 350m the castle is surrounded by lush meadows, home to an abundance of Clouded Apollos (Parnassius mnemosyne) and Marsh Fritillaries (Euphydryas aurinia), but the first butterfly to show was a Swallowtail (Papilio machaon gorganus), the only one of the entire trip. A male Orange-tip (Anthocharis cardamines) attracted attention as its orange patch seemed larger than usual extending well past the dark cell spot. Maps buzzed about here also. As David and I were bringing up the rear late in the day, Mike kindly pointed out the pupa of a Black Hairstreak (Satyrium pruni) on top of a leaf of Bird Cherry, a prunus alternative in the apparent absence of Blackthorn.
The weather seemed to be on the turn with the wind picking up and the sun disappearing as we set off for Mooste, and I slept most of the way back, so when we arrived at 6pm the glorious sun was a bit of a surprise! Beers came first on arrival prior to a tour of the old factory led by the lovely Liist. The usual routine followed - another beer capped off with a Vana Tallinn, and so to bed.
Saturday 9 June
Awoke at 6.50 ahead of the alarm and watched Ron visit his moth trap outside my window (as usual, only 3 or 4 moths had been attracted). Though still dry, the morning was grey, overcast, and calm. After breakfast at 7.30 we set off to meet Erki on the edge of his home town, Tartu, to find an electrical store so that Ron could buy a couple of bulb holders. As we reached our first site around 10am, the Karkna Forest where Erki had seen many Scarce Fritillaries (Euphrydryas maturna) in previous years nectaring on the umbellifers, the rain was falling steadily: so some time was passed in the bus having coffee. I joked that I had a good feeling about this spot - a strong 'maturnal' instinct - but feedback was mostly in the form of groans. Fortunately, the rain didn't last long so in overcast conditions we ventured out. The forest track was very quiet and very fresh Black-veined Whites were first to appear after half an hour or so, around 11am as the sun began to prevail. A Heath Fritillary, Green-veined White, Brimstones and Northern Chequered Skippers were seen but little else was happening.
Picnic lunch by the bus in the forest coincided with a bit more sun but also a stiffening of the breeze. Time to press on to another site, the moist habitat of Laeva Forest, another track to follow. Holly Blue (Celastrina argiolus), Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae), Orange-tip, Map, Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria), and a solitary Geranium Argus (Aricia eumedon) were here but not in any numbers. Three Camberwell Beauties were spotted on the path as we began to exit the site around 3.30pm.
Tahtvere Bog became our final spot for the day, reached down a woodland track through birch and pine with Wintergreen aroma filling the air. Not as wet as Uulika but with only faded Green Hairstreaks and the odd Pearl-bordered Fritillary to chase, by 5.15 we were at the bus headed for a rustic restaurant and an early dinner (5.45 - 6.45) at the Hansa Hotel on the edge of Tartu prior to an evening beaver watch on the Emajogi river flowing strongly eastwards into Lake Peipus. The party had to split into two groups and I was in the second group which ventured into the sedge beds for some bird-watching until we could swap with the others. The 'watching' was non-existent but at least we had a stroll! Under a clear blue evening sky we set-off downstream around 8.45pm in two boats and glimpsed a couple of Beavers as they dived on our approach during the hour we were out. It took a good hour to get back to Mooste, arriving at the hotel at 11pm, very weary. A Vana Tallinn nightcap rounded-off the day with the two Davids, Mike and Tony but I couldn't stay the pace and headed for bed at midnight.
Sunday 10 June
A transit day today to Saaremaa Island in the far west so it was another early start, up at 6.30 to pack before breakfast at 7 and departure about half an hour later. Another cool, calm, and grey start lay ahead of an all-day crossing of the country from the South-east to the far West (the route took in the towns of Tartu, Puhja, along the north side of lake Vortsjarv, Kopu, Parnu, Lihula, a ferry, Kuressaare, and Pilguse) and soon descended into steady rain followed later by some blue sky and stiffening wind. A good day to be in transit. Around noon we made a stop near Hanila/Karuse and stayed on the road through the forest known for Yellow-legged Tortoiseshells (Nymphalis xanthomeles) but which only yielded both species of Chequered Skippers, Wood White, and Holly Blue: Neil and David glimpsed a Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina). The lush vegetation here was typical of what we'd seen throughout the country, dominated by ground elder, meadow sweet, lily of the valley, cow parsley and other umbellifers, Solomon's Seal, and Columbine. Lilacs were used extensively as hedging around dwellings and often we'd see more isolated shrubs in the general hedgerows.
Not quite sure where we had lunch but it was a truly memorable experience in an old railway station - Hanila? - on the now disused line to the port of Virtsu. The building is being slowly refurbished by a woman from Tallinn using, for example, clay dug from a nearby pit for wall plaster. The central heating system was fantastic - wood burning silos up the centre of the building - and the roof space, hung with drying fish and other foodstuffs, was surprisingly warm despite the many gaps. The room used for eating was papered with old advertisements for Soviet era films, and we were served lime flower tea, very pleasant too. It would be brilliant to get this project onto Grand Designs or to find some way to help finance the refurbishment. And the food? The typical heavy veg and meatball soup followed by I don't remember what!
A short drive to the wet Laelatu meadows and woodland, part of the Puhtu-Laelatu Nature Reserve, but apart from clouds of dragonflies there was hardly a butterfly to be seen. The star attraction of the site, however, were drifts of Lady's Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus) amongst the trees, a quite fantastic sight. Other plants included Primula marginata and Herb Paris. As things were so quiet, Erki took us to a dry meadow, so-called 'dry alvar', around 4.30 where a Nickerl's Fritillary (Melitaea aurelia) allowed itself to be photographed 'papilio-atzi' style and where Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages) and also Small Blue (Cupido minimus) were seen. We got away at 5.40 for the nearby ferry port ready for the 6.15 crossing to Kuivastu that would take about 30 minutes across a flat sea.
There was still a long drive ahead of us and around 8pm we stopped for dinner at a converted windmill on the edge of Kuressaare for another quick eat, this time chilli and potato mash, accompanied by piped oompah folk music. On pretty deserted roads we eventually reached our accommodation, Pilguse Manor, around 9.20pm and having dumped bags, took an easy stroll around the grounds to get our bearings but not until I had closed the wooden shutters across my windows - the south-facing room was very warm. The surrounding vegetation looked promising for roosters, and even though the temperature was dropping quickly under clear skies, Ron remained undeterred and set about finding a power source for his moth trap. Little gulls (Larus minutus) flew over the obscured lake but the mozzies drove us indoors to another glass of Vana Tallinn before bed.
Monday 11 June
With roosters in mind I'd set the alarm for 7 and was soon outside, joined by David. A couple of Small Heaths (Coenonympha pamphilus) and a cluster of 5 Common Blues, all minutely 'dewed' indicated a sheltered micro, nay nano-climate, as no others were found outside a 10sqm area. One of the blues opened-up revealing a beautiful dark blue form. Breakfast was scheduled for 8.30 and as the weather continued to be overcast we delayed our departure until things seemed to be improving around 10 o'clock.
Stop 1 was at Kogula Alvar, the dry grassland not too far from the hotel. A Common Blue with strange underside hindwing markings caught my attention but close inspection revealed a number written in red pen - 132! - we learned later that a group of students were doing some research. Roosting Glanville Fritillaries (Melitaea cinxia) and Nickerl's Fritillaries (Melitaea aurelia) numbered about 5, once again contained in a small area not much bigger than 5sqm. Small Blue was here as were Black-veined Whites, one of which had recently emerged and posed very well for photos. We stayed at this sunless site for an hour until 11.30 and then left for the Loode Tammick oakwood near the coast arriving 15 minutes later in light rain but got out anyway. There were no butterflies but another field of Lady's Slipper Orchids was good. Half an hour later we went back to the bus and set off for a restaurant lunch around 1pm. The usual potato and other veg soup containing strips of meat and dumplings was very good, as was the rustic apple juice.
The stunning woodland meadows of Viidumae disappointed and in the entire time we were there I saw a single butterfly, a Common Blue. The meadows are, apparently, a hot spot for Scarce Fritillary but none were seen. Worryingly, the ash trees on which eggs are laid appeared to be badly diseased. Later on Ron found a maturna larva getting ready to pupate so we reckoned that the season was a couple of weeks late and that this species would have to await another visit. Undaunted, Erki took us to another spot in the same woodland complex but as the weather remained overcast the only thing moving was a laboured Wood White. Reminiscent of Peru, a 26m tall tower had to be scaled for a view over the wooded flatlands but only treetops were to be seen. The descent felt 'hairy' because I was concerned that the heel of my big boots might catch a rung and tip me forward towards disaster (I am getting more risk aware!) so by the time I reached the ground my thighs were almost cramping up - a very odd, and unusual, feeling.
Back to our digs for 6pm David, Neil and I went for a short 10-minute walk in the first sunshine of the day and found another lovely female icarus prior to a beer, and dinner at 7.
Tuesday 12 June
Alarm went off at 6.30 ahead of packing and a 7am breakfast before of a long transit to Tallinn. Away at 8am in sunshine, the ferry port was reached at 9.40 and the sea remained calm. We only had time for a coffee before the boat was coming into port and despite the distance still to be covered we agreed with Erki that it was worth trying to fit in another couple of sites before we reached Tallinn. So, around 11.45, to the SW of Tallinn, Rabivere Bog came on the agenda and Erki insisted that we made straight for it and didn't get distracted en route - bit of a forced march, though, of course, not for everybody. The bog itself was fantastic, very wet, and with both Bog Fritillary and Pearl-bordered Fritillaries common. Given the time constraints we had to leave before most of us were ready to do so and before the allegedly present Frigga's Fritillary (Boloria frigga) had been seen - but perhaps the late season was the reason for this.
Back on the road by 1.15pm, eating our picnic sarnies as we travelled, a further 100km lay ahead of destination #2, the disused military site to the SE of Tallinn known as the Aegviidu Polygon, where we arrived just after 2.40pm. This area looks like a terminal moraine consisting of sandy soils and acid heath and is approached through an area of wet meadow and deciduous woodland: Map and Marsh Fritillary welcomed us, but Erki was keeping us on the move. Once into the dry area, a Heath Fritillary came into view and I found a slow-worm under a sheet of rusty old metal, as you do. Neil and David had tagged along with Erki and all three were almost out of sight when signalling heralded another new species for the trip, Eastern Baton Blue (Pseudophilotes vicrama). On the way back a superb Dingy Skipper was photo'd.
Part of the forced march was due to an early dinner booking at the Olde Hansa restaurant in mediaeval Tallinn and after a 90 minute drive, latterly through the suburbs with their Soviet-style tower blocks (but plenty of smart cars) we arrived still in our sweaty and soiled field gear to reunite with Marika. It didn't matter because in the dingy candle-lit restaurant nobody would have noticed anyway. The food was unusual, apparently pretty close to mediaeval cuisine - eg barley and crushed hazelnut, smoked fish, moose and boar mince, etc - and we had a good time. David read one of his poems/ditties much to everyone's amusement and then we parted company with Erki who had to make his way back to family and university life in Tartu. Our hotel (the Domina Inn Ilmarine) wasn't far away, a modern redevelopment of an old engineering factory, and we checked in around 8.30: more A Le Coq in the bar, and then to bed.
Wednesday 13 June
Homeward bound. We checked-out and left our bags in the hotel whilst we took a 2-hour tour of the town with Riita. Learned about the Hanseatic history of the town and country and the fact that for most of its modern history it has only been independent twice, the second time most recently since the collapse of the Soviet Union (it seems they still feel independent inside the European union…). The town became packed with tourists as the massive cruise ships disgorged their passengers. When Riita had left, we all had coffee in the old square before going our separate ways. I was looking for postcards and eventually wandered back to the hotel for 1pm coinciding with Neil's return, so the pair of us had a sandwich and beer in the bar: I wrote my cards then checked emails etc as Neil went out to visit the harbour.
At 3.30 a new bus took us to the airport, only 15 minutes away, with its modern, calm terminal where we whiled away the time until the Easyjet flight at 5.50pm. This arrived at Stansted some 20 minutes early around 6pm and an hour later we were on our way home.