Estonia’s neverending boreal forest is packed with the continent’s most exciting large carnivores. But, as Ben Hoare discovered, its star attraction is not a wolf, bear or lynx, but a flying squirrel.
Uudo told me not to take my eyes off the woodpecker hole about 5m up the tree trunk, but half an hour into the stakeout I was already away with the fairies.
Our small party had spent a long and tiring day squelching across a soggy carpet of pine needles and sphagnum moss in a neverending forest. We were in north-east Estonia, close to the Russian border; it was early May, and the snows had not long melted.
Lichen festooned every spruce, aspen, birch and pine, and the silence of the cool, damp air was broken only by the calls of cuckoos and the distant trumpeting of common cranes.
At one point, Uudo spotted a cluster of our quarry’s luminous orange droppings (“nuggets of gold”, he called them) wedged in some bark. And now the reassuring ‘plip, plip, plip’ coming from the radio-tracking receiver proved that we were tantalisingly close to a female Siberian flying squirrel called Teisi, one of three tagged individuals in this remote area.
The flying squirrel is probably the cutest European mammal you’ve never seen. It is a small, nocturnal resident of northern Europe and Asia’s vast boreal forests, so to find one you need to join a nestbox-checking tour or deploy the biologist’s dark art of radio telemetry.
At 9.30pm, right on cue, a grey face with huge, mascara’d eyes peered from the tree-hole. Teisi was ready for a night out.
She shimmied up the trunk then paused to groom, revealing the flight membrane or patagium folded loosely between her limbs – an adornment that initially looked as luxurious and superfluous as a pashmina. But then she jumped...
The glide to the next tree was quicker than I had expected and extraordinarily graceful. Spellbound, we watched Teisi repeat the highly efficient manoeuvre, the transmitter’s signal fading with each leap as she melted into the darkness.
While we toasted our success with hot pepper vodka, Uudo explained that flying squirrels nest only in aspen trees more than 70 years old. Unfortunately, the optimum age for felling aspens is 40 years, and when they disappear, so do the squirrels.
It’s a familiar tale of habitat degradation and fragmentation. It is hoped that mammal-watching tours that feature characters such as Teisi on their itinerary, a relatively new concept in Estonia, will add impetus to the fight to protect its magnificent old-growth forests.
And while the flying squirrel is being used as a flagship species by Estonian conservationists, many other charismatic mammals such as lynx, bears and wolves are also found here – and all are more tolerant of younger, managed plantations and mixed farming landscapes.
The numbers are impressive for such a small country, with 800 lynx, 600 bears and more than 150 wolves.
Our group hoped to have plenty of mammal sightings, and so far, so good. The day after our squirrel adventure, two young and enthusiastic guides, Bert and Triin, took us to the forests and bogs of Sirtsi Nature Reserve.
On the way, we passed fields being nibbled by tens of thousands of hungry beaks, as flocks of migrating white-fronted, bean and barnacle geese paused en route to their breeding grounds further north.
No sooner had we left our vehicle at Sirtsi than we started to see animal prints. Within a couple of hours, Bert and Triin had pointed out the tracks of at least one bear, two wolves, a pine marten and numerous elk, foxes, raccoon dogs and wild boar.
We also came across boar rootlings in the soft, peaty earth, though the highlight was finding two sets of fresh lynx tracks. The prints were surprisingly large – Eurasian lynx have broad paws that act as snowshoes in winter.
I asked the likelihood of spotting a lynx. Triin smiled: “March is the best season, when males are looking for females to mate with. But, of course, nothing is guaranteed.”
How many times have I heard that before? Guides hope to see one or two lynx a year, sometimes in broad daylight, but most usually at night, crossing a road. Would I get lucky and spy one of these elusive cats on my six-day trip? I could only cross my fingers…
That evening, we drove slowly along the forest trails, and were rewarded with great views of a group of wild boar snuffling for buried treasure, several roe deer and three raccoon dogs – adorably shaggy, low-slung, fox-like carnivores.
But being handsome won’t protect them from a proposed cull: the species is native to the Asian Far East, and these descendants of fur-farm escapees, which now roam eastern and northern Europe in large numbers, are a menace to native ground-nesting birds.
Before calling it a day, there was still time for Bert’s party trick – he does a mean impression of a howling wolf. Sadly, though his performance was fairly bloodcurdling and there were two wolf packs within earshot, none deigned to reply.
Autumn, when the pups are older and likely to join in, is prime time for hearing wolves, he said; tonight, we would have to be content with woodcocks croaking mechanically overhead and the baritone hooting of a Ural owl.
A bounty of bears
Though we had drawn a blank with wolves, I was determined to see my first brown bears. Not least because bear tourism has become big business in Europe, with hides in Sweden and Finland offering success rates of higher than 90 per cent.
By now, our party had recorded bear prints, scats and claw marks raked across tree bark, and even the remains of a boar that had been stripped to the bone by these opportunist omnivores. So we were quietly confident of observing the real thing.
Estonia currently has two bear-watching hides, both in the Alutaguse region and barely 200m apart. Much to the amusement of Bert and Triin, I agonised over which would offer the best chance of an ursine encounter.
I finally chose the smaller, two-person model, at the edge of a picturesque clearing surrounded by pine trees. A dead horse provided the bait.
Waiting for the bears to appear was nerve-racking. Two ravens and, bizarrely, a nuthatch of the ghostly northern race visited the carcass to pick at its flesh, while a pine marten zipped across the clearing and vanished up a tree.
And then, illuminated by the setting sun (the hide faces east, to provide the best evening light for photographers), a mother bear and her cub ambled into view. They romped for a while, at one stage approaching within 2m, but the horse meat held no appeal.
After 15 minutes, the pair left having barely touched it. But half an hour later they were back, remaining until night fell.
A characteristic of forests the world over is that intense wildlife activity is separated by long interludes when little stirs. During our week in Estonia, there were times when the only sign of life was a fly-past by a Camberwell beauty butterfly. But the busy periods made up for it.
We glimpsed beavers on crystal-clear pools fringed by primitive horsetails, displaying Montagu’s harriers and lesser spotted eagles, capercaillies and so many black grouse that I lost count.
Tarvo, our brilliant bird guide, tracked down no fewer than seven of Europe’s 10 woodpecker species, often by the timbre and tempo of their drumming. We were also treated to the bluster of a great snipe lek, where rival males scurried to and fro like clockwork mice as they competed for mating rights.