Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Sojourner in Scotland & Baltic & Nordic Europe

Howdy, Birders,
From April 23rd until July 19th, I was on an extended journey in Scotland and Baltic and Nordic Europe. All images, below, copyright, Debi Shearwater. Please ask permission to use. This is just a brief recap of my trip which included visiting thirteen different countries. I will write a more detailed report later this fall, complete with more images. It was an amazing trip consisting of several distinct parts, beginning in Glasgow, Scotland. On the morning of April 25th, our group boarded the M/S Stockholm and set sail amongst for the Hebrides and St Kilda for a seven day voyage. This voyage was previously detailed here. Below, is my image of the Callanish Stones, one of my most favorite sites. 
We enjoyed some incredibly beautiful scenery and weather. 
Absolutely hands down, the very busy Atlantic puffins on Lunga Island were a delight. 
A visit to Scotland would not be complete without a castle. 
At the end of the voyage, I opted to stay in the town of Paisley, where I visited the stunning Paisley Abbey which dates from the 1100's. 

On May 3, I flew from Glasgow, via Amsterdam to Tallinn, Estonia. Here, I would spend 36 days, traveling from one end of this gorgeous country to the other. Estonia is a fabulous place to see large numbers of birds that are not easily found in other parts of Europe, or that are dwindling in numbers. My stay began with four days of touring the capitol city, Tallinn which is one of the best preserved medieval cities. Tallinn Old Town became a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1997. Pictured, below is one of the towers.
There is so much to write about my long stay in Estonia. I arrived at what was really the end of winter. Trees were not yet leafed out. Ice had to be scraped from my car windshield each morning. Storks were building their nests atop old, abandoned chimney stacks, telephone poles, and just about anything that could hold a nest. Before I would leave the country, the trees would be covered with leaves, making it far more difficult to see small warblers. And, the storks would have young in their nests. May 17th was the day that turned the tide, from ice in the morning to warming sunshine and the first mosquitos of spring on that hot night— pure indication that the seasons had changed, literally overnight. What could be more rewarding than watching spring unfold across a countryside over the course of five weeks' time?
There are many birds to write about, but that will come in future blogs. Chaffinches were by far the most common, daily bird. 
This Common Rosefinch was in full song on a barely leafed out willow at Soomaa National Park.
A male Bullfinch was eating flower buds.
There is so much to say about lovely Estonia— about the birds, wildlife and the marvelous folks I met along the way! The countryside is stunning. So much more to tell about this place. One of the best parts of traveling, was that I had ample time to sit and talk with people for several hours at a time. I rambled around, turning down any road that looked interesting. Staying in little apartments, shopping at the local grocery stores, doing laundry, and basically "just living" like the local folks. Eventually, however, it was time to move on. So, I flew from Tallinn to Copenhagen, Denmark. For two days, I toured museums and sites in Copenhagen, including Tivoli Gardens the world's second oldest amusement park.
On June 9th, I embarked Oceania Cruise line's Nautica for a 10 day, luxury cruise, "Treasures of the Baltic Sea." 
Bring on the deck chairs! Yes, indeed, this was a luxury cruise (which I got a great deal on). Each day, our ship made port in a new city, many of them once part of the Hanseatic League. 
Our final two days were spent at the superbly stunning St. Petersburg, Russia— just indescribable. 
On June 19th, I disembarked in Stockholm, Sweden, not the least bit unhappy because I was fulfilling a life-long childhood desire to visit Sweden. A glitch with my hotel reservation caused me to book at a great hotel, right along the waterfront in Gamla Stan. (Old Town). Over the course of the next two days, I took in as many sites of Stockholm as I could, riding the ferry across the way to see the great ship, Vasa, among other sites. 
June 21st found me at the Stockholm airport on a flight bound for the Aland Islands where I would spend MidSummer with the Swedish folks. MidSummer is one of, if not the biggest holiday in Sweden. I watched some 17 MidSummer Poles in various stages of completion. These poles will remain standing for the entire year, until they are redressed for next year's holiday.

Returning to Stockholm airport, I retrieved my left luggage on June 25th and flew to Malmo. Picked up a rental car in Malmo and began to explore Skane, southern Sweden. 
This was a much bigger part of a dream-come-true-trip for me because my Swedish relatives had emigrated from this part of Sweden during the late 1800's. I was curious to see the cities and countryside. I visited the picturesque city of Ystad and the more industrial city of Trelleborg. Nothing really struck me as a "home" of any of my relatives. The farms were a reminder of their life in the countryside of Pennsylvania.
Returning to Malmo, I stayed at the old Mayfair Hotel Tunnein, near the Central Train Station. It was here that I could "feel" that my Uncle Eddie might well have stayed in the late 1800's. He might well have taken the train to Trelleborg from this very hotel. On June 30th, I took a train from Central Station to Copenhagen airport. From there, I few to Oslo, Norway. 
At Oslo, I met up with some of the folks who were joining the Shearwater Journeys' birding pre-trip. For the next five days, we explored many birding places with our local guide, Jon Luras. It was not the best time of year to see birds, but this trip was set up to make the most of our time, prior to joining the Shearwater Journeys' charter voyage at Svalbard. Nevertheless, we managed to find about 120 species of birds on our Oslo pre-trip. Some specialties in the high tundra, pictured below, included: Bluethroats feeding young in their nests; Ring Ouzel, Dotterel and newly fledged Dippers. We had a lot of fun— one participant decried the trip as "so much fun it was practically illegal."
On July 6th, our birding party, and by now, we were indeed a "party," flew from Oslo to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. 
The very small town of Longyearbyen supports quite an array of birds and wildlife, beyond the human kind, that is!
The "Svalbard" subspecies of reindeer has shorter legs and is quite tame.
Now, we were enjoying the "Midnight Sun" with a full 24 hours of daylight— and, I do mean bright sunlight at all hours. This Arctic fox was hunting in the early morning. It stole an egg from a Common Eider nest. 
 Of course our quest was for the icon of the High Arctic— the polar bear!
 So, after two and a half busy days at Longyearbyen, we embarked our little ship, M/S Stockholm on July 8th for Shearwater Journeys' 11 day charter expedition voyage like no other.

Departing Longyearbyen, below, the scenery and lighting was just stunning.
Our little ship, with only 12 guests on board took us places where no other ships could go. Our captain has his own soundings which enable him to do this safely.
Slowly, Captain Per brought the ship to within four feet of a solid rock cliff of thousands and thousands of nesting Brunnich's Guillemots (Thick-billed Murres). 
Somewhere, at the bottom of this cliff is our Zodiac on the beach. All twelve of us fit in one Zodiac when making landings. This saves loads of time and allows for maximum time on shore with wildlife.
The photographers had a field day!
And, the Polar Bears— in total, we saw 48 polar bears. At one stop we had 21 polar bears in view, some of them with cubs.
We spent almost two days in the pack ice where Ivory Gulls reign.
But, Black-legged Kittiwakes are far more numerous.
We saw Polar Bears! 
We saw Polar Bears up close!
And, even very close! It was thrilling. It was amazing. 
And, we had so much fun, it probably was illegal!
Our little party of extremely happy adventurers disembarked on July 18th and flew to Oslo that evening. Most folks flew home on July 19th and are now editing thousands of images. 
Let the good times roll on,
Debi Shearwater
Charter Master