Thursday, June 20, 2013

Will spring arrive?

On my first day after leaving Berlin, I met a Japanese cycle tourist also heading for Poland. An artist by profession, he had been cycling for 15 years and was planning on parking his bike for good in October this year. After admiring the simplicity of his cycling rig, I was again reminded that one does not need the latest gear to cycle tour, but just the desire to get out there and do it!

Japanese touring cyclist south of Berlin, heading for Poland to meet with a friend.

I pushed hard to get through the south-west corner of Poland in two days. While it did not snow again, there was enough left on the ground to make it look like mid-winter. The landscape certainly looked more intimidating than it had in Germany, and was also more hilly. There was no end to the snow when I entered Czech Republic, and I was beginning to wonder if spring would actually arrive. But then it all changed rather rapidly. Within the same morning, the snow-coated landscape slowly dissolved into one boasting fields with new green growth. By the time I reached Zábřeh, snow had become something of the past. It was also here that I was fortunate to meet Petr. Petr was on his way back to the local table tennis championships when he noticed me gleaning an information board for directions. A quick cup of tea at his house ended up in us playing a game of table tennis – a completely unexpected turn of events! Petr kindly hosted me for the night, while his friends generously served us dinner at their home. Although Petr is handicapped, he has cycled over 20 000 kilometres across Europe, including countries such as Spain, Turkey, Italy, France, Croatia and Greece to name a few. He was a real inspiration and I hope his plans to cycle Scandinavia materialise soon… 

Little birding was done as I pushed through Poland, hoping for spring to arrive.

Making friends in Czech Republic, with Petr on the right.

Soon after departing from Zábřeh, I got my first Little Ringed Plover on an open field, followed by a pair of Garganey in the company of Mallards. The occasional woodland that I passed had drumming Great Spotted Woodpeckers; an impressive sound made by pecking rapidly at resonating wood. There was no shortage of good birds as I passed from Czech Republic to Slovakia, with Linnet, Crested Lark, Black Redstart, Marsh Harrier, Great Crested Grebe, Green Woodpecker and Eurasian Serin making an appearance. I was pleased with my first Great Grey shrike, Hawfinch and Middle-spotted Woodpecker as I approached the impressive floodplain of the Morava River in western Slovakia. It was also great getting views of species which I had not had the pleasure of seeing for a while, such as Grey-headed Woodpecker, Reed Bunting, Dunnock, Marsh Tit and Stonechat. While the floodplain seemed relatively quiet at the time, I got glimpses of large flocks of waterfowl occupying the inaccessible stretches of water; the area obviously has huge potential given more time. 

Little Ringed Plover in Czech Republic; with diagnostic yellow eye-ring and black beak.

The mornings were frosty in Czech Republic, but new growth was evidence of spring!

I reluctantly left the Morava River floodplain and pushed on through to the city of Bratislava, from where I would make my entry into Hungary. My first day in Hungary was rather uneventful, but it did lead to a one-day detour into Austria to explore the Neusiedlersee and surrounding wetlands. I passed the lowest point in Austria, and appreciated the fact that it was a lot less work getting there by bike as opposed to the highest point in the country! 

The lowest point in Austria; easy to reach by bike!

The wetlands held a good diversity of waterfowl, with species such as Mallard, Gadwal, Common Pochard, Northern Shoveler, and Red-crested Pochard being common. Twice I had a small group of Ferruginous Duck fly overhead, but the views were not satisfactory enough to add the species to my life list. I tried for Moustached Warblers in the extensive reedbeds surrounding the Neusiedlersee, but had no luck. I figured it was perhaps still too early, as even common warblers were not around. I was amazed at the number of Marsh Harriers patrolling the reedbeds; at one point I could see 11 different individuals gliding over the reedbeds across a stretch of only a few kilometres! 

The striking Red-crested Pochard, seen here at a shallow wetland near Neusiedlersee.

Taking the ferry ride across the Neusiedlersee, Austria.

A Common Gull trailing the ferry ride across the Neusiedlersee.

Back in Hungary, I got my first Syrian Woodpecker in the town of Sarród, while the wetlands at Fertőújlak delivered great views of Black-tailed Godwit, Black-winged Stilt, Ruff, Common Shelduck, Gadwal, Pied Avocet, Whimbrel, Common Greenshank, Snipe and Little Egret. Good numbers of Yellow Wagtails, including an individual of the Feldegg race with the neat black hood, foraged the grassland at the edge of the waters. My first Common Nightingale made its presence known by waking me up one morning – this species would become so common that I don’t think another day passed when I did not hear it! My last lifer in Hungary was a very obliging Corn Bunting, while my first Montagu’s Harrier for the trip showed itself shortly before I reached the border with Slovenia, a country where I really started birding at leisure.  

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Off to an icy start

For those who were wondering where I was during the European winter, I used a free return ticket to see family and friends back in South Africa. The rough-cut plan was to return to Germany in February 2013 to continue my trip through Europe, but the prolonged winter delayed my plans until March. Just as well, as it gave me more time in sunny South Africa, and to accept a fantastic opportunity to join the Birdlife South Africa ‘Flock at Sea’ cruise ( in early March. This was an incredible trip; meeting with old friends, making new ones, and seeing some stunning Southern African pelagic bird species again. Nothing above the water beats a soaring albatross! 

I finally arrived in Hamburg on 18 March, and took a few days to get my bike serviced. I was pleased to meet up with a German couple from Hamburg, whom I had met only weeks earlier in the hot and dry Cederberg in South Africa. We exchanged many recent South African experiences while they gave me a tour of some of Hamburg’s finest architectural heritage sites. My stay in Hamburg was, however, very brief and I departed on 23 March with the idea of cycling from Hamburg to Berlin along the Elbe River. Snow and ice was still abundant when I started off, but fortunately the roads were ice-free. Some cycle paths along the river dyke still had icy surfaces, but careful navigation ensured no falls. There were a number of other touring cyclists on the road too, so I was not alone. I met two cyclists on the first day, and even a family of four on the second day - I was happy to know that I was still sane! The daily temperature was about zero Degrees Celsius (great for cycling by the way!), considerably lower than the 20 degrees experienced last year at the same time.

View over the Elbe River west of Hitzacker, Germany.

Snow landscape next to the Elbe River.

The birding highlights along the Elbe River were undoubtedly the daily encounters with Red Kites and Greater White-fronted Geese. While the kites were seen singly, the geese numbered in their hundreds across the snow-covered fields. Others species regularly seen along the river included Mallard, Greylag Goose, Goldeneye, Common Buzzard, White-tailed Eagle, Great Egret, and Lapwing. An Osprey also made an appearance while a small flock of Bean Goose was a surprise. Unfortunately I had my telephoto lens packed too deeply in my luggage, and thus never got around to any serious bird photography. A terrible excuse, I know!

Mallards were common along the Elbe River.

I passed through some really quaint German towns, such as Hitzacker and Havelberg. The architectural style of many of the buildings was something to behold. Then of course the roofs were also graced by the returning White Storks, busy repairing their nests for the approaching summer breeding season. 

White Stork depicted on electrical infrastructure. Not the real thing but close enough.

The Havel River, which flows into the Elbe.

I reached Berlin in five days after managing around 80 kilometers a day – I could feel I had not been touring for a while! Upon arrival I was kindly hosted by Stefan, who is a regular summer visitor to my home region on the West Coast of South Africa. I took a day to revisit some sites in central Berlin, such as the old Tempelhof airport. For Easter, I was fortunate to meet up with friend Ute and her family, who ensured a memorable weekend for which I am most grateful. After five fantastic days in Berlin it was time to take to the road again. I was now heading for Eastern Europe; only days after more snow had fallen over Poland.

The Berlin Tempelhof, previously the city's airport and site of the Berlin Airlift.