I was researching a trip to Estonia, then the pandemic happened. Even planning to travel came to a stop. However, I thought I’d share what I’d found.
So, if you’re thinking about going to Estonia, here are some websites, videos and books that will provide information and inspiration for nature-watching there.
Highlights of the year
January-February – the best time to observe Steller’s Eider when flocks can reach 1000 or more. Saaremaa, the biggest island in Estonia, and the most north-eastern point of the mainland at Cape Põõsaspea are the best places to see them, along with thousands of long-tailed ducks, goldeneye, goosanders and white-tailed eagles.
March-April is a good time to see forest birds such as nutcracker, woodpeckers, capercaillie, hazel grouse and various owls. There are still lots of waterfowl around – Bewick and Whooper swans, geese, ducks – perhaps including the last few Steller’s Eider before the last stragglers fly north. Resident songbirds are claiming their breeding territories. It can also be a good time to see elk (moose), as the previous year’s male calves are evicted from the herd and have to find their own way in life. The elusive European lynx is most likely to be seen at this time of year.
The botanical season also starts in late March, often before the snow had melted you can find Mezereon Daphne mezereum, Dwarf Milkwort Polygala amarella, Spring Vetchling Lathyrus vernus, Marsh Marigold and Toothwort Lathraea squamaria in flower. In dry calcareous meadows you can see Cat’s foot Antennaria dioica, Pygmyflower Rockjasmine Androsace septentrionalis, Small Pasque Flower Pulsatilla vulgaris, Bird’s Eye Primrose Primula farinosa and Globe Flower Trollius europaeus.
May-June is good for migrant songbirds, butterflies (including the Camberwell Beauty), and flowers. Bears emerging from hibernation are attracted to feeding stations. Flying squirrels can also be seen from now until the end of summer, but as they are endangered, access to their habitat to watch them is only allowed with the assistance of a local expert. Beavers are common across the country, and can be seen most easily from April to August.
May sees the first of the orchids – e.g. Military Orchid Orchis militaris, Sword-leaved Helleborine Cephalanthera longifolia, Fly Orchid Ophrys insectifera, and Lady’s Slipper Cypripedium calceolus. Raised bogs provide a spectacle of Bog Rosemary Andromeda polifolia, Labrador Tea Rhododendron tomentosum and Cranberry amongst others. By June, there are too many plants to mention.
July-August butterflies include swallowtail, purple and lesser purple emperors, chestnut heath, scarce fritillary and northern wall brown. The botanical spectacle continues into July and early August.
September-October is the best time for Elk-watching as it is the mating season. Bears start using feeding stations again in October if they have run out of natural food. Bird migration is in full swing as arctic breeders head back south.
November-December is when the bulk of the winter birds are settling in. The number of waterbirds, in particular, builds rapidly.
Estonia has six national parks. These highlights are taken from the Visit Estonia website where there is a lot more information, and link to 10-minute videos about each of them (narration in Estonian, but with English subtitles).
Lahemaa is the largest and oldest national park in Estonia, and one of Europe’s most important forest protection areas. In addition, you will find rocky and sandy coastal areas and sediment plains winding along the peninsula. Forest, wetland and coastal ecosystems exist side by side with the geological, historic and architectural monuments. The forest paths provide easy access for picking berries and mushrooms.
Matsalu National Park is an important stopover for birds migrating between the Arctic and Western Europe. It is one of the most famous European bird watching sites and a true paradise for nature lovers.
Soomaa National Park is home to massive wetlands but it has become most famous thanks to a local natural phenomenon called ‘the fifth season.’ During the spring flood time, up to 17,500 hectares of lower forests, roads and yards can only be navigated by water, making it a perfect place for a canoe trip
Vilsandi National Park is home to Estonia’s largest grey seal colony and many kinds of seabirds.
Karula National Park is the smallest national park in the country, cherished for its unique domed landscape formed by glacial ice about 10,000 years ago. There are about 40 lakes hidden between the hills and domes, and a heritage landscape of meadows, marshy grounds and forest.
Alutaguse National Park is the largest coniferous forest and marsh area in the country. With more than half of the park consisting of vast bog areas and 42% of forested landscapes, Alutaguse is a sanctuary for wild birds and animals. Several mammals like the wolf, the Brown bear and the Eurasian lynx move between Estonia and Russia via Alutaguse migration routes.
Põhja-Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve Although not a national park, Põhja-Kõrvemaa Nature Reserve is a home to grandiose landscapes where large forests and steep eskers alternate with swamps, plains and kames. The varied terrain and soil have created an almost magically alternating landscape that takes the visitor to the creme de la creme of Estonia’s hiking terrain.
Soomaa Wilderness Area comprises 11,530 ha of the Soomaa National Park, which is located in the south-eastern corner of Estonia. The Soomaa National Park was created to protect large pristine raised bogs, flood plain grasslands, wet forests and meandering rivers. More information
Estonian Nature Tours (also called NaTourEst) has been a pioneer in developing nature and bird tourism all over Estonia. They have long-term experience in organising botanical and bird watching tours, and the feedback from clients is always positive. Their website includes links to a number of tour reports by their clients – usually worth reading for an idea of what they offer. They also offer self-guided tours for independent travellers.
Estonian Wildlife Tours aims to offer an unforgettable experience in nature to small groups of people. According to their website, they take a personal approach to each visitor and even in case of trips for groups we will try to accommodate all special wishes. Everything is genuine and comes from the hearts of specialists who love their field.
Visit Estonia is the country’s official tourist website. Lots of information and links about nature as well as culture, accommodation etc.
Naturegate (Luontoportti) is a Finnish website that provides a very helpful ID guide and a tremendous amount of information about plants and animals of northern Europe.
In addition to the national park videos in the links above, I’ve found the following documentaries that are worth watching. The comments are the descriptions given for the videos on YouTube
Estonian Nature shows scenes from spring and summer in Estonia, accompanied by the natural sounds.
The Baltic coast is a documentary about the natural beauty of the shifting sand dunes of the Curonian Spit, the romantic beaches of the Latvian Baltic Sea and the island worlds of Estonia. Time and again, this deserted and almost untouched nature fascinates. In the winter, ringed seals give birth to their young on the pack ice. In the spring, Konik wild horse stallions fight fierce battles amongst themselves, while colourful European rollers fly through the dune forests. Lynxes wander through the coastal forests and in the orchid meadows turncoats and hoopoes find more than enough food. On the islands around Saaremaa in Estonia, grey seals hunt for fish. They share the archipelago with Europe’s largest tern, the Caspian tern.
The Baltic Forest is a documentary about the wide, often untouched wilderness of the Baltic hinterland that is home to many animals. More than 350 brown bears live in the primeval forests of Alutaguse. In the spring, the Soomaa National Park transforms into a huge lake. Europe’s widest waterfall is located in Latvia.
The Baltics are rich in superlatives: a fifth of the world’s spotted eagle stocks breed here. One of the largest courtship arenas for snipes is located here in the floodplains of Latvia. More than 1000 wolves hunt in Latvia’s forests. Lithuania is the land of storks – with over 13.000 pairs, no other region in the Baltic States has more white storks.
There are plenty of field-guides to birds in northern Europe, but it seems very little else. For plants, I’d recommend the Naturegate (Luontoportti) website which has an ID function, and lots of photos and details of most of the plants which are found in Northern Europe, including Estonia.
Birding Estonia provides the most comprehensive information on the best birding sites across Estonia and the best times to visit, as well as including advice for finding northern and eastern specialities like Lesser Spotted Eagle, Hazel Grouse, lekking Great Snipe, Ural Owl and White-backed Woodpecker.
Birding in Eastern Europe covers the best birding sites in eleven eastern European countries: Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
The Eurasian Crane in Estonia presents the most notable results of the studies of Eurasian Cranes in Estonia. The book consists of a short introduction, eight topical chapters, and conclusions
Wildlife adventures in Eastern Europe is an illustrated account of summer visits by a group of naturalists from England 2012-15, with checklists of the bird and butterfly species recorded. The book contains day-by-day accounts of where they went and what they saw. It includes a commentary on the places they visited, including accommodation, local people and appreciation of the different countries and their landscapes and culture.
Butterflies of Eastern Europe covers all the known butterfly species distributed east of Finland, Baltic countries, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. This area includes part of the Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, NE Azerbaijan and NW Kazakhstan. Information and distribution maps are provided on 293 species, with over 1700 photographs of collection specimens (males and females, upper and undersides), and 48 photographs taken in the wild. Species entries pay due attention to taxonomic issues.
P.S. Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.
Resources for nature-watching in other countries
A collection of information sources that should be of use to the naturalist wanting to visit Iceland.