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Wildlife Newsletter for the Township of Dalkey
October 2014 - Michael Ryan

A brown bear in the woods
Photo: M. Ryan
  I’ve been in plenty of bird hides which are usually plain if solid structures with bench seating and with small discrete windows designed so they could be opened causing minimal disturbance to the creatures you’d come to watch. But the hide we were entering was much bigger than any bird hides I’d been in before, the windows didn’t open and there were 12 bunk beds. The beds were a necessity since once you entered this hide, between 5 and 6 in the evening, you weren’t allowed outside the door again till 8.00am the following morning.
  Also, we had been warned many times in advance not to put on anything that might smell strongly, so no deodorant, perfume, aftershave or insect repellent sprays. This was because the creature we’d come to see, unlike birds, has a very highly developed sense of smell and the scent of humans could deter it from visiting. The animal we were hoping to see was a Brown Bear and we’d come to this hide in the middle of a remote forest in Estonia hoping to see it.

   We’d gone to Estonia in the first week of June to spend a few days being driven around looking for wildlife and then to spend a few days in the famously beautiful and perfectly preserved old medieval sector in the centre of the capital city, Tallinn. I had thought it would be nice to go to a central or eastern European country before midsummer and was
looking through wildlife tours around Estonia done by local people when I saw advertised a tour group which did bear watching trips. This would involve a guide taking you to spend two nights in a purpose built hide where there was a good chance a bear would come visiting through the night. Estonia is a small country but it has the highest density of brown bears of any European country, an estimated 700 individuals and the chance of seeing a large predator in its natural habitat was very tempting. We committed ourselves to a tour and flew into Tallinn on a lovely sunny Sunday. We were met by Marko who would provide our transport and be our guide for our stay. A very pleasant companion, he spoke perfect English, was an excellent photographer, and was very knowledgeable about his country’s rich flora and fauna. We loaded up into his car and it wasn’t long before we’d left the suburbs and were driving along a wide straight highway with flat fields on one side and native conifer forest on the other. Driving along this road we saw our first mammal, an elk, which appeared at the edge of the forest. We were staying in a B&B in the Alutaguse region near our bear watching destination and from there travelled around the surrounding countryside. White Tailed Sea Eagles,
Buzzards, Marsh Harriers and many other species of raptor are present in Estonia and it would be a rare drive when you didn’t see at least one species. As dusk approached we drove to the edge of a huge lake whose far shore was too distant to see and we watched a osprey plunge into the water and carry off a large fish.

  Driving back to the B&B we stopped to look at a raptor which had crossed the road then saw a Ural owl quartering the farmland beside the road. As we watched it in the fading light a Nightingale sang, a Cuckoo called and a Corncrake made its ‘kraking’ call from a meadow, a wonderful soundtrack and a perfect evocation of the magic of springtime in old Europe. Our first night at the bear hide would be the following day, Monday. In the morning we walked along a forest road and Marko showed us trees where bears had scratched deep ruts in the trunk and peeled off the bark. He warned us that if a bear did appear we should stand perfectly still since running away would trigger their natural predator reactions. There’s a well-known whimsical saying that if running away from bears, or any other wild animal that might be in pursuit, you don’t have to be the fastest runner as long as you’re not the slowest but it wasn’t something we wanted to put to the test. Despite their enormous size, brown bears are extremely fast, having been clocked at speeds of 48 kilometres per hour. It’s well over 100 years since anyone was killed by a bear in Estonia but many people get injured during accidental encounters and if the bear has cubs it can be particularly dangerous if you meet one. The bears won’t try to eat you, just frighten you away by showing their dominance but a swipe from a bear paw could do you serious damage. In late afternoon we parked on the edge of the forest and walked a few kilometres along a trail to the hide. There were four other tourists as well as three guides staying in the hide and once we entered we all spoke in whispered tones and settled down for a possible long wait. Apair of Pied Flycatchers busied themselves at a nearby nest box and later a Great Spotted Woodpecker gave great views at a feeding station on a tree just outside the hide.
  There was no guarantee we’d see a bear so there was relief and great excitement only an hour or so into our stay when my companion Lucy exclaimed “there’s one coming!” Our first ever sighting of Europe’s biggest predator lumbering through the trees was something to remember with that huge head with disproportionately small eyes and the great hulking mass of its body as it ambled around in front of us. Raw fish had been placed under a heavy board which was no problem to the bear. It lifted it up, retrieved the fish and ambled off into the woods.

   Bears returned regularly during the night but there were other visitors as well. A fox often appeared, looking for any scraps the bear may have missed, getting instantly alert before disappearing into the trees when it sensed a bear was returning. Another fascinating visitor appeared, a Raccoon Dog. With its bandit mask face markings and similar fur it resembles a raccoon but is in fact a member of the canid family, one of
only three species of that family that climbs trees and the only canid species that hibernates.

  The Raccoon Dog originates in East Asia but was intensely bred in Russia for its fur. It was released into many areas of Russia and the Baltic States during the midtwentieth century then spread all over Europe reaching France and Switzerland as well as the Nordic countries. It has reached high nuisance status in many countries where it preys on the eggs and young of ground nesting birds as well as taking many native amphibians. It has possibly caused the reduction in native mammals by outcompeting them for prey but another serious concern is the fact it can carry rabies.


A Raccoon Dog
Photo : M.Ryan