Young wildlife photographer, Tom Mason, was lucky enough to spend a few valuable days in Latvia with his mentor, David Lindo. Read about his trip here…
Part 1 of 2
Latvia. Before the trip I knew very little about this little eastern European ex-soviet country. Riga, the capital, I knew was a well known destination for stag and hen weekends, but for wildlife watching it had never even come onto my radar. When I was offered the chance to head out to Latvia along with David Lindo ( The Urban Birder) I took up the chance to explore a new territory for wildlife watching in the EU.
Latvia is a small country of 65,000 sq km and with a population of just over two million, making it one of the least densely populated areas in Europe. The country is bordered by Estonia (north), Lithuania(south) and Russia (east) and since the 13th century has spent most of its time occupied by foreign rule. The country is mostly flat with over 1/3 of the total land area covered on boreal pine forest. The rest of the country is a mixture of agriculture and urbanised regions. The fact that the country has remained largely untouched means it is a stunning location for wildlife watching with many of the natural ecosystems preserved.
Day : 1
Monday morning. I generally hate mondays but due to the fact I was flying out to Riga it was a mix of stress and excitement for the trip ahead. Myself and David were both a little intrigued with what we would find in this little unknown country that was only a short flight away from London.
Touchdown in Riga and straight away we were birding, Hooded Crows and a few gulls were in the list before we had even met our hosts! We collected our bags from the luggage carousel and met up with Ilze (our lovely host) and Ruslans (our guide for Riga) who quickly whisked us away to our hotel for a bag drop off, cup of coffee and then back into the car for our first evenings birding in Riga.
After a whistle stop birding tour the sun was going down and we headed off to the banks of the river Daugava for our last stop before dinner. I was taking a few images if the swans in front of the old soviet tower blocks when to my surprise I turned around to see my guide with a swan in his arms!
He quickly pulled out his ringing kit and in no time at all had ringed the swan before releasing it back into the river! In the UK to ring swans we need a boat and various specialist pieces of kit but in Latvia a handful of bread and fast reactions are the tools of the ringer!
Day : 2
Apparently being on location for 7am in latvia is early…. But for myself it was a pleasant surprise! We had plenty of time for an extensive breakfast before meeting up with the press huddle that had formed ready for David to lead a walk along the river. As we walked along talking to the media about the importance of wildlife watching in cities we took very little notice to some of the more common birds we saw…I didn’t even think to photograph the little egret that was stalking in the shallows. When our guide asked what we had seen however and we told him of this common UK species, he asked us if we were joking and then proceeded to tell us that it was only the 6th ever record for Latvia!
After stopping for a coffee and finishing off a few more radio interviews we left the press behind and headed off birding in the surrounding area of Riga. Our guide took as to some fish ponds just north of Riga and we pulled up looking for Penduline tit’s. After finding a few nest our attention was drawn to some Black Terns fishing in the ponds, we watched them for a few minutes before David also spotted four whiskered terns in amongst them. Our guide once again shocked by the sighting madly asked me to take a few photos, they were a long way out of range but he wanted some record shots to submit along with the finding. After a few moments he turned round and filled us in with the fact that these were the first in Riga for 24 year! We had joked with out guides when we first met that we brought the birding luck…and so far it was holding true!
After spotting a few more birds, Black kite, Hoopoe and listening to a few Booming Bitterns we headed back into Riga city for one final location before dinner. As we pulled up alongside a shopping centre I must admit I was skeptical, It was only a few hundred meters from our hotel and I really didn’t fancy an evenings shopping. As we climbed out of the car our guide explained that the roof of the building was home to the largest nesting colony of Black headed gulls and common terns in Riga, Over 600 pairs of birds breeding on one roof!
We even managed to get permission to go onto the roof itself and we became the first Naturalist and Ornithologist to be granted this full access to this Urban Birding haven.
The day was over and so we headed into town for dinner…Myself and David thought we were going to a nice restaurant but instead we were greeted with aprons and chefs hats because we were learning to cook in one of the cities finest dining locations! After a great amount of wine and so much food we rolled back into the hotel ready for a more reasonable 4am start!
Day : 3
4am…Thats more like it!
We met up with our guides in the Hotel lobby and had planned to head out to find Rollers just outside the city. When we greeted them in the morning they informed us that if we wanted we could also twitch a local spot for Bluethroat too if we were interested…As it was a lifer for me…we went on a twitch!
The early morning payed off and we were treated to wonderful views as the sun rose over Riga. I managed a few frames and the above was probably my favourite. After finishing with the Bluethroat we headed off in search of Roller and also managed to find a breeding pair..All before 6am!
On our return to the hotel we once again met up with Ilze and after having breakfast we joined Gaidis (or new guide) and Janis (our driver) who would accompany us for the next four days. We all settled into the mini van and headed off on the first leg of our journey to the city of Liepājā.
Stopping off on the way we had some magical birding moments. We saw hundreds of Ruff, Cuckoo, Merlin, Red-Backed Shrike, Stalks, and even Crested lark!
After a mad day of birding and travelling it was over as fast as it began, we had already seen just over 80 species but I was still holding out hope for the 150 species target I had told David we should aim for (he though I was mad…But id done my research!).
So that is the first stint of my time out in latvia, Part two will be out in the next few days and It will contain some truly amazing birding experiences, A highlight for my own birding life as well as for David’s!
Originally Published: http://tommasonphotography.wordpress.com/2013/05/17/urban-birding-in-latvia-1-of-2/