Travel photography: Estonia 2014 - Part 2

November 22, 2014

This article is the second part of my series about my trip to Estonia. If you haven't seen the first part I'd recommend you check it out here.


The island of Saaremaa, situated in the Baltic Sea, is the largest of Estonia's islands. With only about 35,000 inhabitants the 2500 km² sized island is very sparsely populated. The only city is its capital Kuressaare, where about half of Saaremaa's people live. The island lies in the East - Atlantic flyway, a migratory route that connects the Baltics with the Arctic regions. The 1300 km long coastline mainly consists of stony (and partially sandy) beaches but there are also some cliffs, most notably the 22m high Panga Pank in the north of the island.

Tiny settlements like these were the home of fishermen already thousands of years ago and are still today. There is another house visible across the bay and there were about four or five more in the vicinity.
These types of post mills are typical for Saaremaa. The basic principle is that the mill rests on a single post and can be turned into the wind with the long protruding beam. Until about a hundred years ago every group of three or four farmers had one of those. If a family did not own its private mill it was possible to “rent" one, where the fee was to grant the owner a certain amount of the produced flour. This one in Muhu is now a museum.
This mill has been out of service for quite some time now but is still in an excellent condition - unfortunately the sails are gone.
The Kuressaare castle (Schloss Ahrensburg) was built in the 14th century by the Teutonic Order and is one of the best preserved medieval castles today. The watchtower in the front is the so-called Pikk Hermann (the long Hermann).
This little lake is what remains of a massive impact of a meteorite with a mass of 20 to 80 tons with a speed of 10 to 20 km/s (all figures at impact), that occurred probably 4000 years ago. The Kaali crater is the main crater, but several smaller craters can be found in the area. The energy of the impact is comparable to the Hiroshima bomb.

The coast of Saaremaa is an especially good place for observing waterfowl like the common tern. The following images depict its typical hunting behavior.

This common tern is on the lookout for prey about 3 to 8 meters above the water.
When the time is right and a suitable victim has been spotted, the tern enters a rapid nosedive.
If everything goes according to plan, the tern breaks the surface and grabs its prey. The reemerging bird is a fascinating subject for action photography – unfortunately the majority of hunting attempts are as unsuccessful as these.
Sometimes the predators are lucky, though, and transport their catch back to the nest.
This Black-headed gull uses a similar and very effective strategy.
Not infrequently the terns engage in spectacular aerial combat over the best breeding grounds, hunting spots or mates.
In the air the common tern also attacks and dominates the substantially larger seagulls due to its superior maneuverability and flying skills.
Huge flocks of birds nest on very small breeding grounds. This results in lots of noise and potential for conflict.
View from the harbor of Kuressaare. The clouds were emphasized by using a circular polarizer.
The highest point on the island (Viidu Raunamägi) has an elevation of only 54m. However there is an Observation Tower which offers a wonderful view over the surrounding forest. This image was taken at sunrise from the top of the tower.
The lighthouse on the Sõrve Peninsula is one of the famous landmarks of Saaremaa.
Ruins of watchtowers and bunkers are a fairly common sight and bear witness to the history of the island in the two world wars. Especially on the Sõrve Peninsula heavy fighting took place in 1941 between the attacking Germans and the retreating Soviets, and 1944 with the roles reversed. Some areas of the island still contain unexploded material and are not safe to traverse.
After World War 2 the whole island was a restricted area and even Estonians needed a special authorization to enter.
An abandoned fishing vessel anchoring near Sõrve. The peaceful sensation and simplicity of this image makes it one of my favorites of the whole trip. The clouds and reflections on the surface of the water were again accentuated with a circular polarizer filter.
One thing I learned on this day was that during sunrise and sunset one should never forget about the other side of the sky. What I mean is, normally people take pictures in the direction of the sunset (with the sun in the frame) and totally forget to turn around and see what the sky looks like on the opposite side. In this image you can partially see the actual sunset on the right side of the frame, and the opposing sky on the left side.
The same vessel, taken a couple of minutes later than the previous two images. Colors change quickly over time and are especially dependent on the direction of view – in this case the “traditional" view into the sunset.
This male Long-tailed duck is enjoying the last sun rays of the day on the shore. This species lives in colder regions than any other kind of duck and therefore molt three times per year for constantly perfect heating insulation. They are excellent divers that can reach depths of up to 60 meters. Unfortunately they are categorized as threatened due to rapidly declining numbers in recent times.
It is a rare and fortunate occurrence to get a shot of the Long-tailed duck in flight.
This Mute swan had a nest nearby and was cleaning its plumage while its mate took care for the eggs.
The redshank is a bird from the wader family. The species is not threatened nowadays, but scientists predict that the effects of climate change will greatly influence its population in the future. It is also likely that the bird will have to find breeding grounds in colder regions and will therefore probably disappear from Europe.
The ringed plover that nests directly on the stony shore uses a quite interesting technique to protect his juveniles. When a predator approaches the nest, the adult plover will move away and attract its attention by making noise and feigning an injury. When the predator is successfully lured away the plover will simply take off and fly to safety.
The almost ridiculously huge legs help the chick to move very quickly over the stony ground.
Catching the ringed plover in flight is quite difficult due to its small size and very high speed.
A pair of common gulls.
Eurasian oystercatchers are constantly emitting piping sounds during flight, which is a very welcome behavior for me as a bird photographer. In the second image all I had to do was framing the standing bird and waiting for its mate to land – while he was always keeping me updated on his current position via calling.
Due to the arrival of flat screen TVs this kind of CRT TV is becoming a threatened species by itself. On a serious note, environmental pollution is a big topic also in the Baltics. Even on very remote locations like this one (taken on a very small island, a couple of hundred meters from the shore) remnants of human visits are constantly in sight. Why anyone would bother bringing a TV to this place where probably no reception and certainly no power is available is utterly beyond me (maybe the empty bottle of vodka is an explanation though).
The leaning lighthouse on the Kiipsaare Peninsula is another well-known landmark of Saaremaa. Due to erosion the lighthouse will most likely collapse into the sea eventually.
Sometimes when pursuing wildlife photography a little luck is needed to get a great shot. In this case I encountered this pair of red deer feeding on the misty grassland in the late evening hours (about 11 PM). It was actually quite a bit darker than the images would suggest but due to the fantastic image stabilization of the EF 500mm f/4 L IS II USM, I could still manage to get some sharp photos at 500mm and a shutter speed of 1/20th (!) of a second while the lens foot was rested on a car door.
The Tagaranna Limestone Cliff at sunset. Colors like these, during sunrise or sunset are really something that I'm not used to seeing where I live. You can probably imagine my disappointment when I go out early in the morning and see nothing but grayish fog with a faint of red and think about the stunning hues I saw on Saaremaa.
I thought it would be a nice conclusion to this article series to show some more sunset images. The last one was taken with the 500L and shows that a super telephoto lens can be an excellent landscape lens.


When I look at the results of my trip from a photographic point of view, I do so with mixed feelings. On the one hand I'm quite pleased about some of the landscape images – considering the fact that I usually don't do very much landscape work and therefore I'm not a very proficient landscape photographer. There are also some photos of birds in flight that I consider decent, but unfortunately I wasn't really able to create a truly exceptional image this time.

On the other hand I must admit that I'm a bit disappointed about the fact that I couldn't really shoot wildlife apart from birds. I did see beavers, foxes with pups, a lynx and even an elk but wasn't able to get a usable shot for various reasons. Most of the time it was too dark or I couldn't react quickly enough (setting up a packed super-telephoto lens takes up to 1 minute). Once I made a good shot of a fox crossing the street but the heat haze from the midday sun destroyed the image quality and thus rendered it useless. There were also many situations where I simply couldn't get close enough – distant encounters with white tailed and spotted eagles come to mind in this regard.

Trying to do wildlife photography is simply put an equally rewarding and disappointing endeavor. It takes some real passion to keep going when one thinks of all the missed opportunities and hours spent waiting in vain. I am however already planning my trip for 2015.

Thanks for reading!

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