Your guide to a Baltic adventure

I was jetlagged, so starting at four in the morning, I lay awake in my bed. The Latvian rain was falling in sheets, a constant drumbeat on the canopy of trees, mossy forest floor, and bushes that stood just beyond the window of my eco-lodge. Since it was spring, the first light of dawn broke at around seven, and with the appearance of the sun, the rain stopped, the clouds parted, and I heard the gorgeous sound that I’d come for: the twitter of birds. In the crisp morning air, I stepped into the forest, my binoculars around my neck and notepad in my back pocket. The ground was wet but firm; the earth smelled of mushrooms and rain and compost. All around me, I could hear birdsong, and every so often, a flash of color would flutter in the corner of my eye—a bird, to be sure, but which one?

After walking fifteen minutes into the woods, I decided to stand still, let the wildlife emerge around me. Then I scanned the trees before me through my binoculars. That’s when I saw it: a European golden plover. It sat perched on a high branch ruffling its feathers to rid itself from the moisture. Its plumage was beautiful: the dark black of its breast, the strip of white flanking the black, and the famous golden spots on its back and head. I watched the plover for several minutes before it dove off the branch and disappeared between the trees. Before leaving, I noted my sighting in my bird book, then started back to the eco-lodge for breakfast.

Birdwatching has been one of my great passions for more than a decade. I’ve searched for the most beautiful avian creatures in forests all over the world, from Volcano, Hawaii to Manu National Park in Peru. Yet one place in Europe always called to me: the Baltics. With its diverse ecosystem of sea lands, wetlands, and ancient forests, it is the perfect place for birdwatching. As you may have guessed from the introduction to this account, I started my adventure in Latvia, where in spring and fall, migratory birds—like the golden plover—pass over in numbers tens of thousands strong.

Latvia is home to many rare birds. From tiny fluttering finches to majestic hawks, they’re all here. Now, I understand that birdwatching might come off as somewhat subdued, geriatric even. Yet I, a woman of thirty-one years of age I might add, dispute that characterization. As I see it, birdwatching is the ideal way to appreciate nature without doing any harm to it. It’s an opportunity to be one with the forest and to respect appreciate its creatures. Birdwatching also adds an element of search to your natural adventures. It transforms a forest walk into an exploration for something rare and coveted. And believe me, when you sight an uncommon bird through your binoculars and watch it sing on a branch without the influence of humans, you will feel the same exhilaration I do.

Viewpoint at Liepaja Lake, Latvia.
Viewpoint at Liepaja Lake, Latvia.

Let’s return to my story. In Latvia, I spent time birdwatching in several ecosystems. Deep in the forests, I searched for—and often found—blyth’s reed warblers, greenish warblers, red-breasted flycatchers, thrush nightingales and common rosefinches. Later on, while staying in the wetlands, I sighted both black and white storks. And finally, at sea, I looked through my binoculars and saw several sooty shearwaters. These seabirds were captivating—I watched as they hunted from high above then dove with agility and speed toward the water’s surface to snatch a fish.

After five days of outdoor adventure, I had a notebook full of new birds and a great feeling of calm. Sadly, it was time to leave. Yet I still had time in the Baltics. After a comfortable and efficient train trip south, I set myself up in Lithuania, another paradise country for birdwatchers. My first stop was a small collection of wooden cottages nestled deep in the Ašmena highlands. That night, I lit a fire in the wood-burning stove, opened my novel, and read to the crackle of the burning birch. The next morning, I’d try to fulfill a dream I’ve had for years.

Being Canadian, one of the birds I’ve always wished to see is an eagle. Bald eagles live in Canada, yet I’ve never had the chance to encounter one. Before leaving for the Baltics, I had read about the many eagle that call Lithuania home. There are short-toed snake-eagles, golden eagles, imperial eagles and many more. But I wanted to see a specific variety: Bonelli’s eagle. Named after the Italian ornithologist and collector Franco Andrea Bonelli, this large bird of prey has always fascinated me with the grace of their wide wingspan and their beautiful curving beak. Early the next morning, I suited up. I put on my waterproof gear and my hiking boots. I grabbed my binoculars, sunglasses and notepad and I headed out to test my luck. For the first hour, I mostly saw booted warblers and citrine wagtails—both a joy to sight, but not my aim. Hungry, I found a nice rock to rest and eat my breakfast. Just as I unwrapped my sandwich, I saw a large, winged creature in the distance. As it got closer, I started to wonder what it was. I put my binoculars to my eyes and a feeling of joy passed through every fiber of my being: it was a Bonelli’s eagle. I could clearly see its unmistakable white breast and yellow eyes. For a time, it circled above, hunting for mice in the grasses below. Then it dove with great speed into a patch of shrubs. It tussled something for a bit, then returned to flight with nothing in its claws. For the eagle, it was a missed catch. For me, it was the bird sighting of a lifetime.

Male Bonelli's eagle.
Male Bonelli’s eagle.

Whether I’ve convinced you about birdwatching or not, I hope I’ve at least conveyed the incredible nature you can discover in Europe. From the Baltics in the east to Portugal in the west, there’s so much to discover. I look forward to my next adventure, and I hope my story has inspired you to embark on one too.


Christina Ornstein. Ottawa, Canada.

Things to consider before traveling

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Some tips to consider while traveling

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