Friday 14 February 2020

Flying squirrels and ringed seals in Estonia

Estonia is already a good country for seeing mammals, often so tricky in Europe. The usual Honeyguide holiday in Estonia includes our partner NaTourEst’s bear hide, where as well as brown bears there are usually racoon dogs and red squirrels.

Estonia also has two unusual species of mammal, ringed seals and flying squirrels. Could it be good idea to adapt our itinerary to try to see then on a Honeyguide holiday? Honeyguide’s Chris Durdin asked NaTourEst’s Peep Rooks about these mammals.

Ringed seal in Hiiumaa, Estonia (Simo Kikkas)

Ringed seals are generally a species of the High Arctic and Chris suggested that Estonian ringed seals would be some of the most southerly in Europe.

Peep says: “Yes, the ringed seals in Estonian waters are the most southern population in the world. They ‘got stuck’ in the Baltic Sea after the last ice age, when the land started to rise. We integrate the ringed seals usually to our itineraries as a ’day-tour’, which means we drive to the port – 20 minutes from Matsalu NP – then the ferry crosses for 1h15 minutes and then it's maybe another 15-30 minutes, depending on the port we depart from.

“If the trip is made in the first part of May or autumn, already the ferry ride is great for birdwatching. In June, Hiiumaa is besides bird also great for plants. A lot of alvars, and similar to the island of Saaremaa [visited on Honeyguide’s recce visit] in that sense. The haul out area of the seals is between small islets south east of Hiiumaa and we sometimes also go on land on some of the islets, such as Saarnaki. We have a picnic there and then go back ... the islets themselves are beautiful, but nothing spectacular in terms of plants or birds in my opinion – some orchids and white-tailed eagles are quite certain, but these you would also see in Matsalu or Hiiumaa.

“I'll also add that ringed seals are more shy than grey seals. I know in many countries you can watch grey seals from a short distance, but that's not the case with the ringed seals. Though every time there are some individuals who come to check who is coming with the boat!”

Flying squirrels are rare this far west and said to be mostly nocturnal, asked Chris, so how easy is it to see them? Peep strikes an optimistic note.

Flying Squirrel  (Martin Absalon)
“Flying squirrel is a difficult species to see, but it's also really rare...almost the most western population (Finnish squirrels are a bit more western). The locations our specialist usually finds are in Alutaguse National Park and last time they were about 20 minutes by car from our brown bear hides. The tour usually consists of two parts - visiting the habitat during midday, when the expert describes the habitat, shows videos etc. and there's a chance to see them already during daytime (for example if there's a pregnant female, who has to leave the tree cavity also during midday).

“Then we go out of the forest, do something else and have dinner or lunch and return in the evening, when there's the highest chance to see them. In the beginning of June, the days are so long and the nights are so bright that the squirrel just can't wait until it's pitch black. So the chances are quite good.”

This blog is partly a little insight into two unusual mammals from the perspective of a British naturalist. It’s also to ask if trying to see either of these would attract Honeyguiders to visit or return to Estonia. Please tell us what you think!

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