May 2014 was a very special month for me. For the first time in my life I traveled abroad specifically for the purpose of pursuing nature and wildlife photography. After doing a lot of research on the web to find a destination to my liking I more or less stumbled upon the Baltics – a region that is for the most part not yet a particularly popular tourist destination.
May is somehow also a very special month for Estonia. Thousands of geese, ducks, divers and waders are headed to their arctic Siberian breeding grounds during the Arctic Migration. Combined with the huge amount of domestic birds, Estonia is probably one of the best birding regions in Europe. Additionally, some rare wild animals can be seen (if you're lucky, of course) such as bear, wolves, lynx or elk.
About half of the country is covered by forests and the nearly 4000km of coastline, about 1400 lakes and 1500 islands create seemingly endless possibilities for landscape photographers. Apart from these natural assets the Baltics also have a very rich cultural heritage.
Due to the length of this post I split it up into two parts, where the first part deals primarily with urban photography, sightseeing and cityscapes. The second part focuses more on nature and wildlife photography.
From Riga via Tartu to Tallinn
Riga, the capital of Latvia, is with roughly 700,000 inhabitants the largest city of the Baltic states. The city is especially famous for its Art Nouveau style buildings and the very well preserved old town. As it happens, in 2014 Riga is also the European Capital of Culture so I had the opportunity to see some special exhibitions, concerts and festivals.
Although an urban setting is usually not a very favorable place for wildlife photography, I once saw a family of beavers directly in the Bastion Hill park in the city center. Unfortunately it was already too dark to get usable shots but the experience of encountering wild animals in the biggest city of the Baltics was exciting nevertheless. For now I hope you will be content with my promise that real wildlife images will follow further down this article series, and these pictures of sparrows in flight (also taken at Bastion Hill).
After some uncomfortably cold days in Latvia's capital I continued my journey to the north and crossed the Latvian/Estonian border at Valga. A great thing about the Baltics is that the physical size of the countries is rather small, which enabled us to get from Riga to our next destination Tartu in a convenient three hour drive. Despite the small distance, the change in customs and the appearances of towns and cities changes rather noticeably. While Latvia is a truly Baltic country with many cultural ties to Lithuania, Estonians see themselves as northerners – more closely related to the Scandinavian countries. While Latvian and Lithuanian are the only two surviving Baltic languages, Estonian has many resemblances to Finnish.
Tartu is often referred to as the intellectual center of Estonia due to its famous University (founded in 1632). Notable sights are the town hall, St. John's Church, the botanical gardens and especially Toome Hill including its historical buildings.
About halfway between Tartu and Tallinn a very special landscape that is quite different from its surroundings can be found – the Endla Basin. The lake that marks the center of the basin is known to be one of Estonia's most diverse birding locations. Although a wide range of species, including the white-tailed and the golden eagle, can be observed, getting close enough for pleasing images is a big problem. Unfortunately I was just passing through and did not have enough time to find a good spot and wait for some wildlife to pass by, so my rate of yield was not as good as I would have liked it to be.
Tallinn (formerly known by its German name Reval), the capital of Estonia, lies at the Gulf of Finland, about 80 km south of Helsinki. With roughly 400,000 inhabitants it is home to about one third of Estonia's population. The city has never been razed by enemy forces and also withstood heavy bombardment by the Soviets in WW2 without major destruction of its medieval core. Therefore wandering through the alleyways of Tallinn's exceptionally well preserved old town evokes a feeling of entering a different era.
Within the city borders, three peninsulas that are a natural habitat to a variety of shorebirds can be found. Unfortunately the weather conditions were not in my favor during my visit, but at least I managed to get some shots of terns and cormorants in flight.
My visit of Tallinn also concluded my stay at the Estonian mainland. After a short drive to Virtsu I boarded the ferry to the island of Saaremaa.