Archive for Germany 2010: Final Scouting
A photo or two from the wonder that is Dresden.
A small part of the Zwinger with the Crown Gate. The palace now houses some of Dresden’s incredible museums; we visited the Green Vault, jam-packed with the contents of an early modern “curiosity collection.”
Another view of another small portion of the Zwinger.
More of the city’s museums are housed in the Albertinum, including the Sculpture Gallery. Sadly, we didn’t have time to go in, but we did sneak a peek at one of the storerooms.
Yes, those are some of the collection’s leftovers!
Our tour hotel is just behind the Frauenkirche, one of the last major buildings to be reconstructed in Dresden.
The palace of the princes of Saxony is now an office building for the state government, but its visual appeal, at least on the outside, hasn’t been diminished a bit.
The Semper Opera is just on the other side of the palace.
The true measure of how much I liked Dresden? I cannot recall a single bird from that entire day. Certainly they were there, and certainly we saw them, but the city itself overwhelmed anything feathered that crossed our path. And that’s saying a lot.
It’s funny how firm first impressions still sit: until we were there last week, my opinion of the great Saxon cities was still founded on late-night lay0vers in grim and grimy train stations a quarter century ago.
Things have changed.
Both Dresden–the “Florence of the Elbe”–and Leipzig–the “Little Paris of Saxony”–have leapt high onto the list of my favorite cities in Germany, and I can’t wait to return to them both next spring.
Leipzig’s train station, one of the great masterpieces of nineteenth-century transportation architecture, is still a marvel, but now–most unlike my experiences en route to and from Poland so many years ago–it’s bright and bustling and clean as a locomotive’s whistle. And because it, like all German train stations, is now off limits to smoking, it’s a very pleasant place to have a good meal or do some shopping or even just wait for a train.
Our hotel was just across the park from the Opera and the Gewandhaus, and five minutes’ walk from the Thomaskirche. Or it would have been five minutes had there not been so much to look at on the way.
This beautiful Baroque palace was frequented by all of Leipzig’s most prominent citizens in the eighteenth century; it’s just a couple of doors down from the birthplace of Richard Wagner, too.
I’m not much of a consumer, but even I found the stores and galleries and shops of Leipzig a fascinating distraction.
As of now, this is the new standard-issue footwear for all WINGS leaders.
But at last we made it to the city’s most famous landmark, late Gothic St. Thomas’s.
It’s a modest church by the standards of its period and place, but it would be hard to overstate its importance in the cultural history of the west.
Martin Luther preached from this pulpit in 1539, and two centuries later, Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last three decades of his life here as music director.
His grave was moved to the choir of St. Thomas’s after the church where he had originally been buried was destroyed in the war.
The baptismal font in the background was used for eleven of the composer’s children.
Almost cultured out, after some coffee and cake we headed back to the hotel, stopping in the small park between us and the Opera.
Mallards and Black-headed Gulls were expected, but we were happy to find a good variety of other birds, too, from Common Moorhen to Song Thrush. I can easily imagine lingering here next May when the group sets out to explore a surprisingly wonderful city.
Mittenwald, in a beautiful valley on the Austrian border, is the classic Bavarian village. Its many attractions include the fascinating little Geigenbaumuseum, dedicated to the town’s long tradition of instrument building–and a little something called the Alps.
The cluster of buildings (the long tubular one is a little mountain museum) perches at more than 7,000 feet, and is reached by one of the more exciting modes of conveyance around, a free-hanging cable car.
Dutiful birders that we are, David and I were on the first car up the mountainside (at the civilized hour of 8:30), and lost no time on our arrival fifteen minutes later in setting out on the easy path circling the huge glacial depression below the mountaintop restaurant. Mountaintop restaurant? Yes, this is Germany, remember, and you can bird the Karwendel from inside or from the beautiful little terrace overlooking the rocky slopes and peaks.
The first sign of life we encountered on our walk was a mammal, and a big one at that.
Alert but not overly concerned, two chamois made their way with breathtaking confidence along the cliffs above us, pausing to look down at us (and for all I know, down on us) every few minutes.
As the sun rose and the air warmed birds became active, too.
Alpine Choughs, elegant and colorful little crows of the highest elevations, swooped in to see if we’d brought them any breakfast, and Black Redstarts, at home, it seems, at any elevation as long as there are cliffs or cliff substitutes, caught insects from stony perches.
The most abundant passerine, though, was the spectacularly wonderful Alpine Accentor, singles and small aggregations of which were in sight almost the entire time we were on the mountain.
With their rusty streaks, gray heads, and odd black and white wings, fresh-plumaged Alpine Accentors are some of the prettiest birds going, and it didn’t take us long to learn their sputtering calls or to figure out how to identify them in flight as small flocks flew back and forth above and below and around us.
We were watching one in flight, in fact, when a different bird entered our binocular fields: Wallcreeper! My first in Germany, the bird passed at close range, showing well the spotted wings, the short tail, and the long, decurved bill, then continued a few more yards south to become my first in Austria.
And it got better.
David decided that he would emulate the chamois.
I’m a little less comfortable with sheer drop-offs of several thousand feet, so I stayed on the level portion of the trail and pretended to be scanning the cirque below us, an exercise always fruitless in my experience. But not this time. As I watched, a pair of white wings and a black tail lifted off from the talus far below us and disappeared into the rock field across the basin.
I called David down from his airy perch, and within a few minutes we’d discovered a good half a dozen Rock Ptarmigan, including nearly pure white males like the one at the center of the photo.
And it got better.
With a look at our watches and our itinerary–Dresden that night!–we continued the short, easy loop trail. Not far on, a little patch of snow on the trail broke up and started to move, and soon became five more Rock Ptarmigans.
What should we do? We didn’t want to harass the birds, but we needed to be on the next cable car down, so we continued, hoping that they would simply move down into the cirque and join their compatriots. They didn’t.
Apparently these birds’ faith in their own invisibility is so great as to overcome any and all evidence to the contrary, including the clicking and whirring of cameras from just a few feet away. All five simply stepped off the trail and into the rocks, where their mottled plumage did a great job of making them hard to see–but not invisible.
Some looked at us, others didn’t really seem to care.
I can’t promise a ptarmigan show anything like this one on our tour next spring, but I can certainly promise that we’ll look. And that the ride back down the mountain will be every bit as exciting as the walk on top of the Alps.
Sure, it’s fun to say (“Vahk-hoy-s’l”), but the old sugar beet ponds at Waghäusel, just across the Rhine from the amazingly beautiful city of Speyer, also have a big place in my own personal birding history: I went there for the first time more than 20 years ago with Gisela and Dieter (piae memoriae), and that first visit and a few others subsequent gave me more German lifers than anywhere but the old sewage beds north of Münster. It’s a great place.
I’d never been there in fall, so the quick visit David and I paid on Monday was full of anticipation and full of surprises. The waterfowl show was good, more or less as expected, with enormous flocks of Gadwall and Common Teal, with lesser numbers of Mute Swans, Eurasian White-fronted Geese, Graylag Geese, Common Pochards, Tufted Duck, Eurasian Wigeon, Mallard, Northern Pintail, and Northern Shoveler–whew! We could probably have run the tally even higher if we’d got there earlier and stayed longer.
The paths around the ponds were as smooth and wide as I’d remembered, but a very pleasant surprise was the discovery of two brand new blinds, roomy and intelligently designed for scopes and for people of all sizes and heights.
Big numbers of Chiffchaffs and Bramblings came in close as we stood at the blind windows, and I was delighted to have a flock of Eurasian Siskins, long one of my favorite birds, visit the alders just outside the blind. Wag has always been famous for its breeding grebes, and we saw numbers of Great Crested and Little Grebes, plus a couple of Eared Grebes.
The big surprise, though, was the herons. This is Germany’s best site for Purple (and the place where I saw my ‘lifer’ of that species), but of course they were gone already; plenty of Gray Herons made up for it, and we were startled to see no fewer than nineteen (!) Great Egrets come out of a roost, one after the other, to feed on the ponds.
We would see this species again several times near Anklam, on the Baltic coast, but never will I forget the sight of those white birds streaming out of the reeds at one of my favorite birding sites in all of Germany.
We’d had amazingly beautiful weather for our entire trip, but things changed as we approached the Baltic. Sun and cool were replaced by mist and cold, but it was still a wonderful couple of days in Anklam.
Graylag, Eurasian White-fronted, and Taiga Bean Geese were on the fields,
joined here and there by Common Cranes.
The best birding was on the “polders,” diked marshes behind the Peene River, where we wish we’d had much more time.
Lots of waterfowl, including the usual hordes of Gadwall, and raptors including Red Kite, Sparrowhawk, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Eurasian Kestrel, and White-tailed Eagle: bodes well for next May’s tour!
The tour, of course, is Birds and Art–not just (just!) birds. And Anklam delivers.
The Marienkirche is an especially handsome specimen of the “red brick Gothic” of the late Middle Ages, and inside it preserves some very fine wall paintings.
I think our May gang is really going to like it here. I certainly did.