We found ourselves in a spirit-level landscape of vast horizons, towering cloudscapes and pastel colours, where the acres of tilled fields are lined by hedgerows or punctuated by picturesque clumps of trees, like something out of a painting by a Dutch or German Old Master. To put it in English terms, imagine the Levels or Holkham Freshmarsh, but on a colossal scale. Water is never absent: slow-flowing rivers, reed-fringed lakes, boggy fields beloved by wild geese. This countryside has so far escaped being tidied up, so everywhere there are welcome patches of unregulated ground – huge mushrooms on the verges, distant Roe Deer dotting the fields, bouncing flocks of finches and larks. Here survive agricultural ecosystems in what feels to us like Arcadian abundance, though in fact the management of them is unobtrusively thorough. A network of reserves has been carefully designed to safeguard the many special species which still occur, including a small population of Great Bustards and the Cranes which use this area as a migration stopover.
11 club members had the privilege of being introduced to this ornithologically rich region, some 50k west of Berlin, by Roger White. He has been coming here for a decade, but became aware that there was almost no birding material published in English, and so to pass on his accumulated experience wrote his own guidebook. This is evidently a resource so invaluable to any visitor that Roger’s own copy was snapped up by the grateful leader of a Berlin-based tour group with whom we overlapped. Following the outline suggested in A Birdwatching Guide to Brandenburg and Berlin, we explored West Havelland, visiting a number of the main sites – Havelländisches Luch, Gülper See, Linum Ponds and Strengsee in particular.
As soon as we emerged on the first morning, we could tell that things were different: the majority of Sparrows in the gutters of our hotel were Tree, the crows on the roof Hoodies. Carrion Crows were almost non-existent, and we saw no Collared Doves. But the sheer number and variety of birds to be seen at all times was uplifting. As we drove around geese and cranes were omnipresent, whether as distant chevrons in the sky or foraging in the fields in groups. The most numerous were Bean and Greylag, though we had plenty of Whitefronts and the odd Barnacle, whose alternative German name is, charmingly, ‘Nun Goose’. We logged a good range of ducks including Pintail and, on our last stop, two female Smew. A distant white blob would invariably turn out to be a Great White Egret: we lost count of how many we saw in total, but we had several aggregations of more than 30. Buzzards were the most frequent raptor, exhibiting a far wider range of plumages than the ones we are used to. We saw plenty of Red Kites too, as well as Marsh Harrier and a fly-over Merlin, but more exciting were several Hen Harriers and Rough-legged Buzzards. We were also fortunate enough to encounter, as advertised in Roger’s mouth-watering briefing notes, a number of White-tailed Eagles.
We made forays into patches of woodland, often an unrewarding habitat to work in autumn, and were able to add both Common and Short-toed Treecreeper as well as Crested Tit to our list. Exciting woodpeckers largely eluded us, apart from a flyover Black Woodpecker. Roger knew the exact location of a Penduline Tit’s nest, an astonishing miracle of construction. A bonus was that in several places we saw evidence of the presence of beavers in the gnawed or felled trunks of trees. The total number of bird species seen was – again as advertised – just over the 80 mark.
The special moments? Of the many, I will focus on those involving just three species.The Great Bustards were primeval creatures picking their way through the fields of growing rape that they favour at this season. We saw 55 birds, virtually a third of the entire German population. They spend most of their year in single-sex groups several kilometres apart, wary and unapproachable in their chosen terrain. Through my scope they looked awkward and startled, the relics, really, of another age, ostriches amongst the cabbages.
We notched up a double-figure count of White-Tailed Eagle – spilling out of a hide on the first morning, I became aware that the others were watching a juvenile soaring overhead, accompanied by three puny Red Kites thermalling above. Next day an adult flew low over the vehicles and landed nearby in an open field, dwarfing a mobbing Hooded Crow. And on our final stop, another enormous adult swept past our hide at close range, sending hundreds of wildfowl careering into the sky.
But for me the most memorable event was the visit to the main Crane roost at Linum Ponds. The count from the previous day had been a record 93,300. We joined a hushed knot of appreciative spectators to witness parties of birds converging from all directions, planing gracefully down to gather in stately family groups spread across several large fields, their bugling cries all the while providing an evocative soundtrack to one of Europe’s great natural spectacles.
Two and a half days, however productive, could only provide a taste of the wealth on offer. This area supports a largely different (though equally enticing) avifauna in summer with a number of East European species at the western end of their range. The group, most of whom knew each other from previous BOC excursions, welcomed this first-timer with generosity. Alison Levinson put her linguistic expertise at our disposal as translator, showing the good humour and versatility needed in these situations. Nick Hawkridge was the cheery and resourceful driver of the second vehicle.
Roger White deserves a special paragraph to himself: we were all aware of our fortune in being the beneficiaries of his accumulated wisdom and knowledge. He knew precisely where to go and what to look out for, the Obi Wan Kenobe of Brandenburg.
There were eight of us on this venture to Suffolk. We started out from Jane’s house in Portishead in misty weather and the day continued cool and overcast but our spirits were lifted with excellent views of three Stone Curlews from the hide at Weeting Heath. One male and female were clearly a pair. The heath was busy with rabbits, hundreds of corvids and a Mistle Thrush sat on a pile of sticks and serenaded us. We drove to Lakenheath where a Red-footed Falcon had joined with the Hobbies. He gave excellent views flying around and sat in a tree. The photographers were kept very busy! A lucky few briefly saw the male Golden Oriole in the Poplar grove. Unfortunately, he was too quick for me. Cuckoos called and we managed to see two. Bitterns were booming, 12 Reed Warblers were very noisy and further up the path a Crane flew out from a field of oil seed rape and across the reeds. Early next morning saw us out on Westleton Common. All the birds were singing well and we enjoyed Nightingale and Garden Warbler in the same Sallow with both showing well. Woodlarks were elusive but over three visits several of our group got good views; unfortunately Jane and I both missed out. Saturday was mainly spent at RSPB Minsmere where we visited all the hides and walked along the beach. Common Terns, Black-headed Gulls and Avocets were nesting on the scrapes. Turnstones flew over the sea. Bitterns boomed and Bearded Tits showed well and the usual warblers were singing. Next we went to Hen Fen where Hobbies were being mobbed by Black-headed Gulls and then we walked two miles along the River Blythe to see the reported Spoonbill. It was fishing in a shallow pool demonstrating its technique very clearly. Along the river we also saw Common Sandpiper, Oystercatcher and Redshank. In the evening we went to Westleton Heath for Nightjars but no luck, perhaps it was too cold. We did hear Stone Curlew and Tawny Owl and saw four Red Deer. Our last day took us to Dunwich Heath where we added Dartford Warbler, Stonechat, Whitethroat and another Hobby and there were lovely views of Minsmere reserve from above. The sun was finally out and it was warm. A return visit to Lakenheath was made but no luck with Golden Oriole. Thanks to Jane Cumming for all that driving and leading so well.