Friday, 28 March 2008

Country Profile: Latvia

Latvia (Latvija) is a fully-fledged republic which joined the European Union in May 2004. The capital is Riga. The currency is the Lat (LVL). Latvia is the central country of the three so-called Baltic States with Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south. Belarus is to the south-east and Russia to the east and in the west there is around 500 km of Baltic coastline. Latvia covers some 64,589 km² and its inland landscape is typified by fertile rolling plains and flat boggy forested areas. Nearly half of the country is farmed and much of the rest made up of natural landscapes. There are no serious upland areas and indeed most of the country lies below 100m. There are some low hills in the east where the country's highest point (Gaizinkalns 311m) can be found. Latvia has more than 3000 lakes and reservoirs. Some lie on the coast whilst others are set in forested areas and most are good for wildlife. This is certainly true for the largest Lake Lubans (80 km²) which along with adjacent man-made fish-ponds is a superb birding area. The main rivers are the Gauja and the Daugava, the latter entering Latvia from Belarussia and flowing for some 350km through the heart of the country before entering the Baltic at Riga. The Gauja enters the Bay of Riga just north of the capital after meandering through forested gentle sandstone hills. The other feature that dominates Latvia's topography is its stretch of Baltic Sea shore. There are varied landscapes here, too, with several large coastal lagoons like Liepaja and Engure, pine-covered dunes and long sandy beaches. On the bird front, Corncrakes are widespread and White Storks are doing very well with around 12,000 pairs breeding. Latvia has significant populations of forest birds. White-backed Woodpecker is in a stronghold with an estimated 1500 breeding pairs and Middle Spotted Woodpecker is increasing and expanding its range. The Capercaillie is important, too. Pygmy Owl is quite common in mature coniferous forests and Ural Owl common in the mixed forests of the north and north-east. Though unpredictable Parrot Crossbills breed in some old pine forests. In meadows and flood-plains about 1000 pairs of Great Snipe are thought to breed and small numbers of Marsh and Terek Sandpipers sometimes nest on fish-ponds in the east of the country. There is also a small but very important population of the threatened Aquatic Warbler. Citrine Wagtail has started to colonize the country with breeding sites being discovered almost every year. Another rare European breeding species is Greater Spotted Eagle. More common and typical breeding birds which in summer should be found without too much difficulty include Black Stork, Lesser Spotted Eagle, Common Crane, Green Sandpiper, Black Tern, Red-backed Shrike, Woodlark, Thrush Nightingale and Common Rosefinch. A little time and effort and Black and Hazel Grouse, White-winged Black Tern, Tengmalm’s and Eagle Owls, Grey-headed and Three-toed Woodpeckers and Blyth’s Reed and Greenish Warblers should be seen. Actual records of Steller's Eider are few, but it is thought that a regular wintering population resides on the sea off the north-west coast. On the other hand there is no doubt about Long-tailed Duck which is abundant on passage and in winter along the coast. The Baltic coastline is a major flyway in both spring and autumn for huge numbers of divers, swans, geese, ducks, seabirds, raptors, waders and songbirds.

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