Home arrow 2009 Diary arrow April 2009. Lithuanian Floodgates, Latvian Mega.
April 2009. Lithuanian Floodgates, Latvian Mega. PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jos   

White Stork


After a long cold March, April arrived with a punch - sun and birds galore. Highlights included numerous migrants, butterflies back on the wing and a few bonuses to boot - not least a Ferruginous Duck and both Brent and Barnacle Geese. Award for find of the month, however, goes to a Pine Bunting, a potential first for the country if accepted by the national rarity committee! Doing its best to over-shadow this though, Europe's first-ever Slaty-backed Gull reappeared mid-month, allowing me to finally catch up with this mega bird.




2-9 April. Massive arrivals.

HepaticaThe sun was shining, temperatures were up and birds were pouring in, perfection.

Down at Baltoji Voke, on the 2nd, Lake Papis was as seeing its best numbers of the year so far, almost 300 Pochard, 150 Tufted Duck, 615 Wigeon, 120 Goldeneyes, plus 49 Great Crested Grebes, a few Smew, several White Storks. Lots more too.

Temperatures had soared to a balmy 10 C, not enough to melt the ice on the fish pools, but sufficient to bring the first major flight of Small Tortoiseshells, a good dozen or so truly opening the butterfly season. Also four Great White Golden SaxifageEgrets, a couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and a little assortment of waders - all new in, Green Sandpiper, Common Snipe, Redshank and Black-tailed Godwit. Also enjoying the sun, a few migrant Song Thrushes and a Black Redstart. Spring had truly arrived!

Two days later, on my land at Labanoras, things just got better and better. Unbroken sunshine, temperatures nudging 15 C and surprises amongst the birds, plus early butterflies and flowers. Arrived early and stopped to admire the flowers peeping up through the rank grasses in the meadows. Cranes were calling, a Meadow Pipit tumbling out of the sky in display, then the melodies Lungwortof geese approaching. I watched them fly over, several skeins of White-fronted Geese - as they passed overhead, I scanned through and there, right in the middle, a single Greylag Goose, a new species on my Labanoras patch. That was nice.

I then had some management work to do - planted one tree, put up a nestbox, cleared fallen trees from several paths, sulked at the devastation wreaked by the resident Beavers - proactive tree protection is going to become a priority! In between, plenty of birds - the usual Black Woodpeckers, then an explosion from the forest floor, two Woodcocks rising in a clatter! Wow, thought I, only the second time on my land.

ColtsfootI retired back to the meadows and sat atop my raptor point, a Grey Heron investigated the still frozen pools below, Common Buzzards mewed overhead. Quite a passerine movement underway, I noticed flocks of Redpoll, Siskin, Fieldfares, then a flock of Chaffinches. About 20 in all, they flew in and landed in small birches just behind me. New in, I thought I would scan them, maybe I would get lucky and find a Brambling. I did get lucky, but it wasn't a Brambling!!! Sat near the top of one bush, sitting side-on, a pale bunting. Hmm, thought I, that is one pale Yellowhammer, immediately clicking that it had no trace of yellow whatsoever. Alarm bells began to ring, maybe I was actually watching a Pine Bunting, a near impossibility I had to admit, but...

That is exactly what it appeared to be, a female PINE BUNTING! Pretty amazing record - basically a washed-out Yellowhammer, the yellows totally relaced by whites and greys, complete with white primary edging, the bird was most likely a first-year female - rufous flank streaking present, plus a shadow of the male's head pattern, but lacking the rufous on the chest. Within a minute though, the bird was off - the flock whole upped and left towards the eastern horizon, gone! Did my fieldnotes, wandered round a bit, added a singing Woodlark, then homeward bound.

RobinNext day, with sun still high and temperatures even higher, southward I ventured - a tour of the southern lakes. Started off with a quick visit to Batoji Voke - notable additions including Bittern and Greenshank - before journeying down to the twin lakes of Dusia and Metelys. Now in the company of two Lithuanian birders, we arrived at Dusia to begin the mammoth task of counting the birds upon this vast lake. The mammoth task took about a minute and a half - the lake was totally frozen, oops! It would seem we were in for a fruitless trip - the sun was beating down, but not a scrap of water was in sight. Still plenty of early butterflies already recorded on this day - dozens of Small Tortoiseshells, plenty of Brimstones. Here and there, a Peacock fluttered by, but highlight of the day, a Camberwell Beauty, a rare butterfly, but frequently noted in the very early parts of the season.

Back to the birding, way off in the distance, a tiny patch of water up against one bank provided the first birds - a grand sum of six Goldeneye! Maybe Lake Metelys would be free of ice, we wondered. Only three kilometres to drive, so off we went. Hmm, ice, ice, ice - another Arctic replica! But then we spotted water - one little corner of the lake, perhaps 300 metres by 100 metres, was glinting in the morning sun, free water! And full of birds. A quick scan revealed a lot of Wigeon and dozens of Coot, plus a few Pintail and Shoveler. Adjusting our position to get better light, I decided it was time to wander off to a local shop to get coffee. I returned ten minutes later to see a birder jigging around on the road, 'Oo, either they've got fleas, or they are trying to call me', thought I. 'Quickly, quickly' said they. I guessed the flea option was not the correct version. 'Ei, where's my scope gone?' 'Pointing at the Ferruginous Duck' was the answer. And indeed it was, my scope was trained on a fine male Ferruginous Duck, a not so common bird in Lithuania. There it dabbled, between three Smew and a Gadwall, a most fine example of a bird. Though rare, Metelys is the hotspot for this species in Lithuania and most records are from this site. I celebrated by spilling my coffee over the birder's car.


White-fronted & Barnacle Geese

With most of Metelys frozen and all of Dusia, our trip so far had not taken a lot of time, so with much of the day still in front of us, off we went to nearby Zuvintas. Weird weather, though only 15 km distant, not a hint of ice on Zuvintas! And more importantly, a flock of geese quietly grazing on the adjacent meadows. Did a quick count, 1590 White-fronted Geese - an average number, but the best was amongst their throngs. In addition to a few Bean Geese and Greylags, there were some rather daintier birds - eight exquisite Barnacle Geese and two dark-breasted Brent Geese, both good birds for Lithuania, especially inland. 

Birds on the lake included a half dozen Garganey, a Great White Egret and a raft of over 90 Great Crested Grebes, nearby meadows resounded to drumming Snipes and Redshank - winter at Dusia, spring at Zuvintas, our day was over.

 Common Toad

By the 9th, with the sun still in control, migrants were flooding in at a great rate of knots - I only had a couple of hours, but Batoji Voke was super. Hundreds of new birds in, rafts of dabbling ducks, including several dozen Garganey, the males in tight pods all doing argy-bargy. Also plenty of waders - upward of 50 Black-tailed Godwits, an exquisite Marsh Sandpiper, one Spotted Redshank, the first Wood Sandpiper of the season and at least 15 Green Sanndpipers and a dozen Common Redshanks. Also early Yellow Wagtails, a Common Tern, a fall of Robins and several stunning Black Redstarts.


11-13 April. Easter Weekend.


Rare is it that a public holiday coincides with unbroken sunshine and perfect birding conditions. But yippee, that's just what it did - the near continual sun that marked the first half of April just kept pushing forward, bringing yet more birds and greater numbers of butterflies and amphibians.

Down at Baltoji Voke, despite water levels rising on the fish pools, still the birding was excellent - the Marsh Sandpiper lingered, now joined by three Wood Sandpipers and a splendid 71 Black-tailed Godwits. Also, good numbers of Green Sandpipers, a Greenshank and a Curlew, plus a mini influx of Camberwell BeautyCaspian Terns - two on the fish pools and another at Lake Papis. Also Hawfinches on the move, several flying over during the day.

For all the birds though, more pleasing were the increasing numbers of butterflies - as well as Small Tortoiseshells and Brimstones,  the season was hotting up with the appearance of my second Camberwell Beauty of the year and my first Yellow-footed Tortoiseshell. Also popped down to Salcininkai for a change - 20 Bewick's Swans on one pool, but not may other birds! Dozens of Common Toads hopping about!




Beaver damageOn the second day of the weekend, I was up on my land at Labanoras. Not really birding, but assorted management tasks - improvements to the raptor view point, but moreover beginning the fight back against the beavers! The pesky things have been going on the rampage, entire stands of trees gnawed out of existence. First all the birches, now ash and alder, some parts of the forest look like a scene from Apocalypse Now, fallen trees littering the ground. Wishing to preserve some resemblance of a forest, key remaining trees in vulnerable locations will now encased in chain-link, apparently sufficient to deter the average beaver. Unfortunately, this is going to be a mammoth task, not to mention expensive! Only did a couple of trees this day, soon realising I needed better equipment to cut the chain-link.

Few birds seen, but Green Sandpipers spent much of the day in active display, all White Storks in the area are now paired up and several Hawfinches were flying about.

On the Monday, I went to Baltoji Voke - saw four Caspian Terns, had a Black Stork drift over, counted all the wildfowl, but the day was rather disturbed by the news below!


18 April. Baltic Twitching, Return of a Mega!


Five months earlier, I had been standing in the glorious surroundings of a rubbish tip in Klaipeda city, the wind a biting cold northerly and the cause celebre, the first-ever Slaty-backed Gull in Europe, indeed in the entire Western Palearctic. In lands further west, birders would have been falling over themselves, thousands stumbling across the trash to eye this star. Lithuania did it in style - our biggest twitch in history, a grand total of fourteen people turned up, ten Lithuanians, two Latvians, one Finn and myself. We all missed it, the bird never showed.

Roll on five months, it was Easter Monday, there I was minding my own business, happily birding on my local patch. The phone rang, it was Paul Hackett. 'Hi Jos, Paul here. Slaty-backed Gull in Riga, thought you'd be interested'. Coo blimey, thought I, fairly impressed the grapevine had got the news to England before Lithuania. 'Er, how do you know?' enquired I, about to add 'Are you coming over?'. The second question was unnecessary - I was stunned, not only was Paul actually watching the bird as he spoke, but it had been him and a friend that had found it, I didn't even know he was in Latvia! I glanced at my watch and just knew it was cutting it too fine to hit the road, my second chance at this bird would have to wait a whole five days.


Tuesday, still present, Wednesday, on the tip again, Thursday, yep, the bird was lingering. Friday, all day no news ...arrgh.  Late Friday evening, bing, it had been seen, my cross-border dash swung into operation.

Baltic Twitch #2

Oh four thirty, I crawled out of bed, stumbed off into a chilly morning and drove over to Lithuania's only other madcap that seemed interested to go cross-border. By five-thirty, we were on the road, motoring north. First bird of the day, an Osprey flying parallel to the road pre-dawn, my first of the year and a good start to the day.

Herring GullBy eight-thirty, I was traipsing up Riga's main city rubbish dump - second country and second dump for one bird! Given it had been present for five days and widely publicised, I had expected a fair international contingent of birders, plus of course a few Latvians. 'Err, where are they?' I wondered, then it sunk in, we were alone. Not quite alone, several thousand gulls going berserk as countless rubbish trucks spewed out their offerings of gull breakfast. Twitching, Baltic style - no barging in the crowds, no fighting the photographers, just the rather crucial task of having to find everything yourself. One hour on, still no other birders, nor a Slaty-backed Gull! Other than a Caspian Gull and a strange hook-billed Herring Gull, the only thing worthy of note was the pong that wafted up from the rotting heaps. Another hour passed, and another half. Every gull was scrutinized, one thoughtfully decided to crap on me! 

Slaty-backed Gull



By now, with a bitterly cold northerly wind blasting the tip and chilling my bones, we pondered a change of tactic. A quick plea for mercy and the very understanding guards permitted us to bring the car right into the heart of the tip. Dodged a few refuge trucks, avoided a trash-thrashing monster of a machine and parked adjacent to a favoured roosting area. Still not a single other birder had appeared. However, this was now almost civilised - a nice warm seat in the car, windows open, a coffee in the hand and gulls everywhere outside. Naturally, to keep up the Slaty-backed Gullappearances of a serious birder, I continued to scan. And then, the right bugger of a bird, it didn't even let me finish my coffee - I suddenly found the holy grail of the Baltic gull world! There, standing by a earth mound, looking big and a tad mean, was the Slaty-backed Gull! I did a double-take, maybe I was making a stupid mistake, but everything ticked - legs, size, back colour, white trailing edges and so on. A quick few photographs and then it flew, super bird, the flight views confirming I was not hallucinating, the 'string of pearls' in the primary tip now visible.




Slaty-backed Gull


Still no other birders. Another two hours we stayed, the bird constantly present, either squabbling with billions of other gulls in a frenzy at the mouth of the trash-thrashing machine or back at its roost spot, a picturesque mountain of multi-coloured plastic bags, rolling cardbox boxes and assorted city left-overs and dross. A White Stork arrived to stick his nose in, it was time for us to leave.




19 April. Labanoras News.

Pasque Flower



After the mad dash of the day before, this was a far more sedate affair, enjoying the sun upon my land at Labanoras. Not very warm though, temperatures had dipped to minus 5 C overnight! Brrr!  Regardless, plenty of birds about - Green Sandpipers displaying in the forest, my first Pied Flycatcher of the year, a booming Bittern off yonder and, the best of the lot, the return of my resident Lesser Spotted Eagles, a pair mewing and tumbling in display. Very nice indeed. Also two pairs of Teal in the forest, one vocal Black Woodpecker and plenty of signs to suggest Elk are still lurking in the depths of the forest.

However, for all the birds, today was more about conservation work. In an attempt to curb the carnage inflicted upon the forest, I have a summer ahead that will be dedicated to protecting prime trees, today another group got their 'wraps', a chain-link collar to keep Beaver teeth at bay. Darn hard work it is lugging all the stuff through the forest!  






25-26 April. Sleeping Bag Birding.


Baltoji Voke

WhinchatWith a shift in the winds and temperatures rocketing up to 20 C, the final flood gates had opened, migrants arriving in force. Down at Baltoji Voke, two smart Red-necked Grebes on Lake Papis kicked the day off, whilst Savi's Warblers, a half dozen Hawfinches and singing Lesser Whitethroats all added flavour. One Lesser Spotted Woodpecker was drumming away, a male Brambling appeard in a bush and soon I was watching my first House Martin of the year, plus a Wheatear and, in the meadows nearby, a good few Whinchats and other common migrants. Two Wrynecks too, one singing, one hopping about on the grass, completed the trip.


And with that sun, out came the butterflies - new for the year, Orange Tips, Commas and Map Butterflies. Also more Peacocks, Small Tortoiseshells and Brimstones.

Back to birds, next stop was the fish pools. Oo er, one of the fish pools had been drained - this had to be good, the exposed mud always a irresistible magnet to passing waders. And indeed it was, the best wader day of the spring so far - joining the several dozen Black-tailed Godwits and Ruff, no less than 104 Wood Sandpipers and an impressive 52 Greenshanks. In amongst them, always a chance of a scarcity or two -  and there they were, the prizes of the day, an exquisite pair of Marsh Sandpipers, with a third nearby. Regular at Baltoji Voke, but far from common, the pair were actively courting, maybe they will breed in the area. Also two Curlews and, on the opposite side of the pool, four Common Sandpipers.



My land is at its best just now - a mosaic of blues, yellows and delicate greens, as Hepaticas and Yellow Wood Anemones carpet the woodland floor, while above alders are budding, the birches not far behind. Blue skies and birds singing everywhere.

White-backed WoodpeckerWith much to do, I decided a night in my cabin would be rather nice, allowing me to wake at the swamp's edge, perhaps a Beaver or Elk paddling or strolling past. One Long-eared Owl on the drive up, a few loud splashes during the night, nothing enough to get me out of my sleeping bag.

Morning arrived - rather rudely at 5.30 a.m. with a Wryneck calling full blast right outside! Shuffled across to the window, tugged the sleeping bag up tight and peered out to watch the dawn. Middle Spotted Woodpeckers already on the feeders, a Pied Flycatcher investigating a nest box, another singing nearby. I couldn't see the Wryneck, so poured my morning coffee instead. Then, hmm, I spotted a hole! A new hole in a tree stump in the flood forest. Odd, that hadn't been there a short time back. And what an strange location, in a fresh stump of an alder that had fallen during the winter, the hole was just a metre above the water. Rather large I pondered, maybe even Black Woodpecker - they were supposed to be breeding some way to the left. Anyhow, no sign of life, so I watched the incoming Nuthatches, poured another coffee and tucked myself ever more into the sleeping bag. A Crane flew over, a Goldeneye floated past, the sun was beginning to creep across the woodland canopy.

Then a flash of black and white on the stump, a woodpecker alighted and shuffled up the stump and straight to the hole! And in it went, I barely got my binoculars onto it, but I was near certain, a female White-backed Woodpecker. Now that really would be good - after attracting this mega bird to the feeders during the winter, a male had also appeared in late March and I'd really been hoping they would stay to breed. Two weeks back, they'd became elusive, I was not sure they were still about.

'Hmm, must watch that hole', thought I. Then the Wryneck appeared, singing again, but now atop a nestbox just across from the woodpecker hole! Magical, two classic species probably breeding about 50 metres apart, only separated by a Pied Flycatcher in another nestbox! Half an hour later, the confirmation arrived - the male White-backed Woodpecker arrived, out came the female, in went him, a change-over in incubation duties, superb, the first-ever case of breeding on my land now a reality.

It was time to go back to sleep. Woke the second time an hour or so later, still the Wryneck was calling on the nestbox. Two Teal were floating past and Green Sandpipers very active in display. Rather chilly in the cabin, so got up and strolled to the meadow behind, idea being to catch the sun. One Lesser Spotted Eagle had the same idea, sitting in the meadow a little further down, the partner bird in a nearby birch. The world looked a very fine place indeed. Then a male Marsh Harrier cruised past and the first White Storks of the day took to the skies.

GarganeyDictated by the teeth of Beavers, much of the rest of the day I had earmarked as a 'work day', clearing a few of their fallen trees from the forest paths, but moreover adding more chain-link wraps to the best of the trees yet to be nibbled. Off I walked, deciding which trees would get their wraps today. I had not gone far when a flotilla of ducks went sailing between the trees - at least four Teal, but then a quiet 'wow', a stunning male Garganey zigzigging through the alder trees. I crouched and watched, another new species for my land. And he wasn't alone, moments more and I was watching three, two males and a female. Immediately greedy, I am now hoping they will stay to breed too! Also nice, one Reed Bunting, only third time on my land!

One more surprise during the day, being an irresponsible dog owner, my trusty mutt accompanied me as I struggled with the chain-link and equipment - me doing hard graft, him having a wail of a time. And then he wasn't alone, round and round he was running, one black Labrador and one very gingerery Racoon Dog! Oops! 'Backas' I shouted, 'come here'. And him being a well-behaved responsive creature promptly paid no attention whatsoever. Ah well, hope the Racoon Dog enjoyed the exercise, says I rather sheepishly. Past me, they both dashed, then into a thicket. The Racoon Dog vanished, I presume into a hole, the dog returned, tail wagging plenty, 'yay, that was fun', he seemed to say.


Last Updated ( Sunday, 03 May 2009 )
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