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In May 2010 I was thinking about trying to see a Eurasian Flying Squirrel and not having much luck getting information on where to look in Finland. And then Phil Telfer's Estonian report arrived (see below). It was a sign. A few days later I had arranged a long weekend to look for the Squirrel and also European Mink which, to my surprise, still survive in Estonia.
Like Phil, I arranged my trip through Estonia Nature Tours. Marika Mann there is extremely helpful and was very keen for a successful trip. Marika has considerable experience running birding tours but like other enlightened people can see that mammal watching is the way of the future. She is trying to develop mammal trips to Estonia and rightly so. It has the potential to become one of the best, if not the best destinations in Europe to see large mammals. There are significant populations of Brown Bears and Wolves and it is home to 800 Lynxes (a very large population of this elusive animal for such a small country). Add to that large numbers of Moose, Wild Boar, Ringed Seals, European Beavers, (feral) Raccoon Dogs and Pine Martens and you can see the opportunities. And then there are the Flying Squirrels and a small (but potentially seeable) population of the fascinating European Mink.
Marika is also creatively entrepreneurial and managed to use some sort of EU tourism promotion grant to cover most of the costs of my trip because I would write about Estonia on my return.
Marika had fixed me up for a day with Uudo Timm, who knows more Estonian Flying Squirrels than anyone after working on them for well over 20 years. He has been finding the forest blocks where they are most active and trying to protect the trees. He's also done a lot of small mammal work.
We spent most of the day looking around the forest and swatting mosquitoes which were particularly bad this year. The rain had washed away most of the mammal tracks but apparently Bear, Wolf and Lynx tracks were usually easy to see. I'd been told in Finland that the best way to find a nesting tree was to find the yellow squirrel shit at the base and Uudo confirmed this, explaining that the poo was brightest yellow in the spring (and of course it stands out more clearly too then when the snow is on the ground).
Uudo has radio collars on several squirrels and knew a tree that was occupied. Flying Squirrels usually emerge from their nesting hole a little after sunset though their schedule is variable and depends on the level of cloud cover. We arrived at about 9.30. Sunset wasn't until well after 11 but the previous night Uudo had arrived after 10pm and the squirrel was already out of the nest. But it was a clear evening and the squirrel didn't emerge until 12.30. So it was a long 3 hours of squashing mosquitoes and worrying that the animal had already left the tree via some secret passage (though the radio antennae showed the animal was in the tree when we arrived, about 2 hours later the signal was showing the squirrel had moved somewhere else: luckily this was because of flat batteries in the antennae but you can imagine my paranoia while this was being established!) The only wildlife was a Ural Owl that flew about 2 metres over our heads.
When the squirrel emerged it moved straight to the opposite side of the tree to poo, then went back into the hole. Five minutes later it re-emerged, climbed up the tree and we had a great view of it gliding straight over our heads, as Uudo had predicted. But it was all very quick and extremely hard to photograph.
Although there are lots of other mammals in the area, I saw only a Roe Deer at the side of the road late one evening, and a Common Vole that Uudo caught which was unfortunately not a Sibling Vole that also occur there. Other small mammals in the region include Striped Field Mice and Masked Shrews.
Marika had arranged for me to meet up with Tiit Maran, the scientist who has been most closely involved in the project and head of Foundation Lutreola, and Riina Lillemäe a local conservation biologist. This was the first time they had ever taken someone to try to see the Mink and were honest that the chances were not great, especially as the recent rain had washed most tracks away so it was difficult to see which stretches of river were being most heavily used.
We did find some fresh tracks under a bridge and spent 3 hours in the evening staking out a den that had been used the previous year. But no Minks showed, so after a late dinner we went to Tiit's cabin and staked out a creek where Mink are often active. Riina found some fresh tracks and we sat for an hour or so until dark at about 1am. We returned at 4.30 and sat for another 3 hours. Still no Mink though just as I was getting up to leave a Pine Marten bounded along a fallen tree.
Tiit was fascinating to talk to about the Mink (and about small carnivores more generally). I hadn't realised how little we know about the species. It was once widespread over Central and Eastern Europe but has disappeared from most areas and no one is quite sure why. Competition with American Mink is presumably only a part of the story. The animal was first recorded in France only in the mid 19th century (and I am not sure if it has been seen there in the past 10 years). And it didn't appear to arrive in Spain until the 1950s. I'd looked briefly for Mink in Byelorussia in 2006 but it seems that population might also be extinct, while no one seems sure about how well the population in the Danube delta in Romania is doing. What is sure is that the 30 or so animals on Hiiumaa are globally important. Tiit and his colleagues are considering trying to establish a second population on the larger Saaremaa island nearby.
Hiiumaa is somewhere I have to return to, even if I may never see a Mink there. The island - which is less than one thousand kilometres square - is also home to about 20 Lynxes so there has to be a much better shot of seeing one here than anywhere else I know. Indeed, there were fresh tracks along the creek on Tiit's property.
Driving the roads late at night without a spotlight I saw a Red Fox, Roe Deer, European Hare and Wild Boar.
Many thanks to Marika at Estonia Nature Tours, Uudo, Tiit and Riina as well as Phil Telfer for the initial inspiration.
At the very start of April 2011 I returned to Hiiumaa for a weekend to join the annual trapping survey for European Mink. Winter had lasted longer than usual and many of the rivers were still frozen when I arrived, but 2 days later had melted. Perhaps partly as a result of that we did not catch any animals (it certainly reduced the number of traps we set). I drove for 3 hours through the interior of the island on consecutive nights with a spotlight hoping to see a Lynx . I did find some fresh tracks but no Lynx. The only mammals were several Red Foxes, a few Red Deer and a Moose. Once again I stayed at the very nice Daagen House guest house. It seems February might be the best time to look for Lynxes. There is more fresh snow, and they are quite vocal as they are breeding. Many thanks to Madis Podra for organising the trapping and being such a great host.
Footnote: a week after I left Madis Podra saw a Lynx cross the road near his house at night. This was the first Lynx he had seen during field work on the island that has spanned the past 12 years. So they are there. But still not easy!
Other People's trip reports
Estonia, Finland and Arctic Norway, 2012: Dominique Brugiere, 3 weeks & 17 species plus another 3 dead, including Wolverine, Brown Bear, Wolf, and Reindeer.
Estonia, 2012: Mark Hows, 1 week & 15 mammals including Eurasian Flying Squirrel, Brown Bear and a Masked Shrew.
Estonia, 2010: Phil Telfer, 1 week & 10 species including Eurasian Flying Squirrel, Brown Bears, Raccoon Dogs and a Striped Field Mouse.
Estonia, 2007: Richard Webb, 5 days and a few mammals including Raccoon Dogs.
Not a trip report, but NaTourEst are an Estonian ecotour company who wrote to me. They might be able to provide Wolf and Bear watching trips and other things too.