Paljassaare Special Conservation Area
If you have only half a day or a few hours to get scores of birds to your list, then the first choice should be Paljassaare special conservation area (SCA) (Paljassaare hoiuala). This is the best birding place within 50 km. The bird reserve is located in North Tallinn borough (Põhja-Tallinna linnaosa) and covers the northern and western parts of the Paljassaare peninsula. There are 231 birds in the Paljassaare bird list and every year a few new species are added. Area of this NATURA 2000 site is 276 ha, 150 of it is the mainland. Paljassaare bird life can be described by quality rather than quantity. Except for Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis) and migrating geese, it is not a place where you could find thousands of birds roosting. Instead, you would see a few or tens or hundreds from each species and this is how your bird list is filled.
Infrastructure, do’s and don’ts
Paljassaare SCA is located only 10-15 min car-drive away from Tallinn city centre and can be easily and cheaply reached by taxi. However, if you take a taxi, “Pikakari beach” (Pikakari rand) is a more well-known landmark for local taxi drivers. The beach is situated just next to the bird reserve.
It is also possible to reach the area by public transport from central Tallinn. During summer months (June 1st – September 1st), bus route number 59 is usually prolonged to the Pikakari beach and hence the doorstep of the birding grounds. The rest of the time the final bus-stop (“Paljassaare”) is some 1,5 km (15-20 min walk) away from the bird reserve. On the positive side, this means that you will most probably get acquainted with Black Redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros) on your way.
Information about the bus schedules is here.
As you can see from the map, the northern tip of Paljassaare peninsula, including both smaller peninsulas – the eastern Väike-Paljassaare (or Lesser Paljassaare) and western Suur-Paljassaare (or Greater Paljassaare) peninsulas have good network of paths. All of the paths can be passed on foot and even rubber boots are not usually necessary. There are 2 birdwatching towers, a wooden and a white brick one. There are some information boards with maps put up in the Paljassaare SCA but it is recommended, that you have a printed map with you. Regarding do’s and don’ts, it is recommended, that during the breeding season, people should stay on the paths and not wander around in the bushes or reed-beds or along the coastline. And simply put: no camp-fires, no littering, no dogs without a leash, no motorized vehicles. But feel free to pick wild strawberries and raspberries along the way!
Birding spots and birds
There are 231 bird species registered in Paljassaare SPA. 46 species belong to the EU’s Birds Directive Annex I list. Over 100 species are definite or probable breeding birds in the area.
There are 6 birding spots to be pointed out. 2–2,5h trip allows you to get acquainted with Katariina’s bulwark, both two birdwatching towers in the Lesser Paljassaare peninsula and hence the reedbeds and sand flats between the Lesser and Greater Paljassaare peninsulas. If you have 4-5h spare time, you can also go to the northern tip of the Greater Paljassaare peninsula. However, depending on the date and weather of your visit, you will get 75-95% of the species from the shorter trip.
1) Katariina’s bulwark (Katariina kai)
Katariina’s bulwark is a 100 year old stone bulwark, which is excellent spot to get the first taste of local bird fauna. In spring and autumn, there are many species of dabbling ducks (Wigeons (Anas penelope), Gadwalls (Anas strepera)) and diving ducks (Mergansers (Mergus sp.), Tufted ducks (Aythya fulica), Long-tailed Ducks (Clangula hyemalis), Eiders (Somateria molissima), but also Coots (Fulica atra), Terns (Sterna hirundo, S. paradisaea, S. albifrons), gulls etc.
In winter you will get most of the Paljassaare waterfowl from this spot. You must look out for ice openings in the gulf around the bulwark, because this is where the fowl gather. Nervously acting Hooded Crows (Corvus cornix) give away White-tailed Eagles, resting somewhere on the icy Gulf of Tallinn.
In summer, the birdlife is somewhat poor, partly because of the active Pikakari beach behind it. However, early in the mornings of July and August, don’t forget to look out for migrating waders on the rocky and muddy shores of the Paljassaare peninsula. You can easily spot Dunlins (Calidris alpina), Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax), Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), ringed plovers (Charadrius sp) etc.
2) White birdwatching tower (valge linnutorn)
White birdwathing tower was actually built decades ago for the Soviet navy to be used as a searchlight garage. These types of white brick buildings have been dotted all over the Estonian coastline, however only the one in Paljassaare have been reconstructed into a birdtower. It’s a 3-storeyed building which means, that you can find shelter from the rain. On the 2nd floor terrace you can find a bench, which proves its worth during the prevailing chilly western winds.
From the tower you get an overview of the northern parts of the reed-bed and with a good fieldscope, you can also ID most of the species that roost between the Lesser and Greater Paljassaare peninsulas. If you took the coastal path to reach the tower, you must have passed Marsh Warbler’s (Acrocephalus palustris), Yellow Wagtails’ (Motacilla flava flava) and Scarlet Rosefinch’s (Carpodacus erythrinus) territories. From the tower itself, Whitethroats (Sylvia communis), Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) and Blyth’s Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus dumetorum) should make up most of the bird choir in May and June. In April-May and Sept-Oct, this is quite a good spot to observe passerines’ migration. In summer you can enjoy watching waterfowl with fledglings swimming around the coastal sea and almost every summer one or two Long-tailed ducks also spend their summer somewhere around the Lesser peninsula.
In a snowy winter, reaching the tower may be quite a challenge, since blizzards from the sea tend to cover all the paths with 50 cm of snow. In that case, skis or snowshoes make the journey more pleasant. If you did not notice White-tailed Eagles on the Katariina’s bulwark, then you must definitely spot them from this tower. The whole Tallinn Bay is reigned by 3-4 eagles from Nov to March and the ducks around Paljassaare serve as a regular fast food restaurant for them. Appr. 2 km northward from the tower is the main feeding ground of thousands of Long-tailed Ducks, staging in the area and passing through from Oct to April.
It must be reminded though, that most of the forest passerines prefer the northern tip of the Greater Paljassaare peninsula before taking off and you will miss most of the autumn migration of the Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) sitting in that tower.
3) Western coast of the Lesser Paljassaare
It is recommended, that the coast should not be visited between May 1st and July 31st in order not to disturb breeding waders and terns.
This spot is located north of the white birdwatching tower – walk 200 m along the path until a small track heads left, towards to an information board. Continue this track until you reach the coast. Light conditions are the best in the morning. Here you can see the small and shallow bay with sandy and muddy shores and sand flats between the Lesser and Greater Paljassaare peninsulas (Saartevahe lõugas), where rich benthic flora and fauna attracts dozens of waterfowl and wader species.
Autumn migration of waders starts in July and peaks in August and ends in September. Flocks of waders may rise up to hundreds of birds and consists of up to 20 species. Most common migrants are Dunlins (Calidris alpina), Great Ringed Plovers (Charadrius hiaticula), Wood Sandpipers (Tringa glareola), Ruffs (Philomachus pugnax) etc. All Calidris species and most Tringa species are present hear, not to mention Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), Bar-tailed Godwits (Limosa lapponicus), occasional Broad-billed Sandpipers (Limicola falcinellus) etc. The rarest waders spotted in this area are Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), Red Phalarope (Phalaropus fulicarius) and Terek Sandpiper (Xenus cinereus). Just “comb” the pools, sand flats and coasts thoroughly with your fieldscope, be patient and be ready to find new species!
4) Wooden birdwatching tower
If you only have time to visit one spot in Paljassaare, then the wooden birdwatching tower should be the primary choice. Approach the tower by the main path, which starts 100m before the parking lot. The tower sits in the crossroad, where one path leads to the white tower and the other leads you to Greater Paljassaare peninsula. The tower is overlooking the reedbeds and the southern lake. There’s also a scrubland by the tower and an open brownfield in the south, which attracts raptors (hawks, buzzards, harriers, falcons) during the migration. Only Marsh Harrier breeds in the area.
The Bittern and the Penduline Tit are the key species you can’t miss. Of course, the birdlife is the busiest during migration, April-May and August-October. Most of the dabbling and diving ducks are then present at the lake, but usually in small numbers. 2 species of grebes (P. cristatus, P. grisegena) nest there, alongside a noisy colony of Blackheaded Gulls.
This tower is also an excellent spot to witness the Barnacle Goose migration in late September- early October. Geese always tend to follow one specific migration route and therefore, if you happen to pinpoint the exact time and weather when the massmigration across the Gulf of Finland starts, you will see tens of flocks and thousands of birds flying over in a couple of hours.
In winter, 1-2 Great Grey Shrikes try to keep a watchful eye on Willow and Blue Tits, Wrens and Bearded Tits that remain in the reed and shrubs.
5) Paljassaare Bay
If you follow the path between the reed and after reaching a T-junction you turn left, you will reach the shore of the Paljassaare Bay. The best time of visit is July-August to get some extra waders that you have missed on the Lesser Paljassaare. Narrow strips of mud and algy are loved by Ruffs, and Spotted Redshanks (Tringa erythropus) and also by other waders. There is always waterfowl present there, but most probably it is the period between October – March, that you will get either new species (e.g. grebes in December) or larger numbers (Goldeneyes in winter).
If you are into rare pipits you should then turn south (left) and stroll around in the ruderal areas at the coast in October. Rock Pipit and Blyth’s Pipit (Anthus godlewskii) have been both recorded there.
If you are into rare Siberian warblers and Long-tailed Ducks, then you should turn north (right).
6) Tip of the Greater Paljassaare Peninsula
So if you turned right and it’s October, and you are lucky, you may come across some rare Siberian warbler. If not, you should walk up to the tip of peninsula to try to count the thousands of Long-tailed Ducks, foraging 1-4 km from the shoreline. This is one of their best feeding grounds in the Gulf of Tallinn and they are present from October to May. And, of course, enjoy the view!