Wednesday 30 January 2008

Why I am happy about NOT being a UK birder

The UK and birding are quite a unique couple. The two of them are actually so dear and near to each other that single observers have apparently managed to see more than 500 species there, quite amazing considering the complete German list "only" stands at 514 species, some of which haven't been seen since the 19th or early 20th century.
Because of this and the fact that many of these species are exciting and excessively rare vagrants from Siberia or - mostly - North America, many other European birdwatching nations look up to the UK in envy.

Not me though.

I mean, I sort of used to, but the White-crowned Sparrow that was recently (is still being?) seen in Norfolk changed that for good.
I regularly check the Britain & Ireland rarities gallery on Surfbirds and the last few days were severely dominated by nice pictures of said White-crowned Sparrow.
First I also thought that this was a neat record and how much I wanted to also find such a rare bird on my home patch. But then I thought of the nice pictures I took of the ever so common White-crowned Sparrows at Rondeau and Point Pelee in southern Canada and of the great days I had while taking them.
Here they are, a few of them, and they are quite similar to the ones of the bird that made a Norfolk driveway its home...

And then I suddenly couldn't help but think how sad it would have been to see the beautiful White-crowned Sparrows at Point Pelee and to not have that fantastic lifer feeling because of a bird I saw at some soggy driveway on the Eastern side of the Atlantic.

It would really have spoiled the whole party!

The Evil that Sparrow do

Let me show you more graphically - and in colour - what I mean:

The following list is my trip list from May 2005 and can be regarded as an assembly of species any birder from overseas is likely to encounter during an ordinary birding trip to the Great Lakes in May.
Blue are the species that also occur in Europe and are thus more or less easily seen in the UK. Red are North American species that have already been encountered in the UK and for the sake of this post, I presume (of course knowing this is completely unrealistic, but it makes for better reading) a keen UK birder may have seen them all in his home country.
So what is left for such a birder on a trip to the Great Lakes, what lifers can they expect?
The black ones.

Common Loon

Red-throated Loon

Pied-billed Grebe

American White Pelican

Double-crested Cormorant

American Bittern

Least Bittern

Great Blue Heron

Great Egret

Snowy Egret

Green Heron

Black-crowned Night-heron

Mute Swan

Trumpeter Swan

Canada Goose

Pale-bellied Brent

Wood Duck


American Black Duck

Northern Shoveler

Blue-winged Teal

Green-winged Teal


Ring-necked Duck

Long-tailed Duck

White-winged Scoter

Surf Scoter

Hooded Merganser

Red-breasted Merganser

Common Merganser

Ruddy Duck

Turkey Vulture


Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper's Hawk

Northern Harrier

Broad-winged Hawk

Red-tailed Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk

Golden Eagle

Bald Eagle

American Kestrel


Peregrine Falcon

Wild Turkey

Ring-necked Pheasant

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Ruffed Grouse

Spruce Grouse

King Rail

Virginia Rail


Common Moorhen

American Coot

Sandhill Crane

Black-bellied Plover

American Golden Plover


Semipalmated Plover

Piping Plover

Greater Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

Solitary Sandpiper

Spotted Sandpiper

Hudsonian Whimbrel

Upland Sandpiper

Ruddy Turnstone



Pectoral Sandpiper

White-rumped Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

Semipalmated Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper

Short-billed Dowitcher

Wilson's Snipe

American Woodcock

Wilson's Phalarope

Little Gull

Bonaparte's Gull

Laughing Gull

Ring-billed Gull

American Herring Gull

Glaucous Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

Black Tern

Caspian Tern

Common Tern

Forster's Tern

Rock Dove

Mourning Dove

Black-billed Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Common Nighthawk



Chimney Swift

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Belted Kingfisher

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Black-backed Woodpecker

Northern Flicker

Pileated Woodpecker

Olive-sided Flycatcher

Eastern Wood-pewee

Willow Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher

Yellow-bellied Flycatcher

Acadian Flycatcher

Eastern Phoebe

Great Crested Flycatcher

Eastern Kingbird

Warbling Vireo

Philadelphia Vireo

White-eyed Vireo

Red-eyed Vireo

Yellow-throated Vireo

Blue-headed Vireo

Blue Jay

American Crow

Common Raven

Horned Lark

Barn Swallow

Cliff Swallow

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Bank Swallow

Tree Swallow

Purple Martin

Buff-bellied Pipit

Black-capped Chickadee

Tufted Titmouse

White-breasted Nuthatch

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Marsh Wren

Sedge Wren

Carolina Wren

House Wren

Winter Wren

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

Eastern Bluebird

Swainson's Thrush


Gray-cheeked Thrush

Hermit Thrush

Wood Thrush

American Robin

Gray Catbird

Brown Thrasher

Cedar Waxwing

European Starling

Tennessee Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Blue-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

Northern Parula

Yellow Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Cerulean Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Palm Warbler

Pine Warbler

Prairie Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Kirtland's Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

American Redstart

Prothonotary Warbler

Common Yellowthroat

Mourning Warbler

Connecticut Warbler

Kentucky Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Louisiana Waterthrush


Canada Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Wilson's Warbler

Yellow-breasted Chat

Scarlet Tanager

Summer Tanager


Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Indigo Bunting

Northern Cardinal

Eastern Towhee

Chipping Sparrow

Clay-coloured Sparrow

Field Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Lark Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

Henslow's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow

Savannah Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

Swamp Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

White-throated Sparrow

Baltimore Oriole

Orchard Oriole

Eastern Meadowlark

Western Meadowlark


Red-winged Blackbird

Brewer’s Blackbird

Common Grackle

Brown-headed Cowbird

House Sparrow

Evening Grosbeak

American Goldfinch

Pine Siskin

House Finch

Purple Finch

And frankly, having only the black birds left as new bird impressions and visual adventures makes a trip to one of the most wonderful areas of the world (bird-wise and in my honest but personal opinion) rather pointless.
Just imagine: You're landing at Toronto or Detroit, get your common stuff (like the grackles) within your first day en route and then you're left with hardly any lifers at Point Pelee despite being in North America for the very first time!

What a terrifyingly horrible and despicably depressing thought!!

And this, my inclined reader, is the reason why I am happy about NOT being a UK birder:

The fact that Germany barely ever gets any North American vagrants has effectively kept me from pursuing them on the "wrong" side of the Atlantic and had left a whole bag full of new-species-fun for my trip to North America in May 2005 (my high school exchange year in Canada being so long ago - almost 20 years - that the birds seen then felt like lifers again in 2005).

Any North American bird species seen back home would have effectively reduced the greatness of the trip.

But then of course - knowing myself - I wouldn't be able to restrain myself from watching North American vagrants - if I was a UK birder - and could not deliberately stay at home while everyone else around me was watching stray tanagers.
So I think it works best for me to just not have a chance at seeing/finding North American birds here along the Baltic Coast of Germany.

I am perfectly fine with it, thank you very much.

And last but nor least, another reason for being happy about residing and birding in Germany:
The German name for White-crowned Sparrow is "Dachsammer" which translates to Badger Bunting.

And after looking at the bird and comparing it to a European Badger, that's one of the best bird names I ever came across, regardless of language!

So maybe, and now that I have seen the species in North America anyway, just a wee little tiny bit of White-crowned Sparrow around Stralsund would be acceptable?

Don't you agree?

Mind sending the Norfolk bird over?

Thank you very much.

Monday 28 January 2008

No more Mr. Birdwatcher?

As a birder, I have always enjoyed searching for rarities, finding the unusual, the vagrants and oddities.

That's all over now.

After roughly a quarter of a century, this has all simply become far too boring to be worth my while.
Yes, it is true: "Been there - seen that - done that" feeling all around as soon as I even lay my eyes on a pair of binoculars.

"Where's the challenge?", I keep asking myself and no one answers.

I have therefore switched from birdwatching to something far more difficult, if not impossible:

I have joined the ranks of my fellow amateur-meteorologists and started the ultimate quest that makes kayaking the lowland swamps of Louisiana in search of some woodpecker look like a trip to the local grocery store in search of a bottle of Coca Cola:

I have decided to go and look for winter!!

Well, rumour has it that the North American winter is throwing some big party around the Great Lakes and has invited all his buddies over, including our good old trusty Mister Baltic Winter. If this is true or not still remains to be clarified, but what's for sure is that January is almost over, we're nearing the peak winter phase and have had - optimistically - a handful of days below freezing point until now.
Well, I wouldn't mind that too much if I was staying in Egypt on the Red Sea coast, but over here? Dammit, we're as far North as the southern coast of Hudson Bay, for crying out loud!!


I have taken a few shots of our winter skies over the last few weeks to prove my point or rather emphasize that this is truly turning into a psychological problem.

Beginning of December

Middle of December

End of December

Beginning of January

Middle of January

Winter birding has basically been non-existent so far and if this warming trend continues at its current pace, we'll have a though time finding Snow Buntings in this kind of winter landscape next January:

Oh well, this is still a birding blog, so here you have it, your birding feature:

Mysterious Monday

Anyone dares a guess as to the object's identity?
It might be a bird.
And it is neither a rogue flying carpet nor a melanistic Seriema flying to the left.

And - unfortunately - it also is not our winter coming in to land and settle down.

Wednesday 23 January 2008

The things I have been up to...

It's been a while, I know.

I have missed blogging throughout this time and was delighted to see and read that there are indeed a few people out there who noticed my absence and actually demanded a new post.

This is very kind!!

Okay, to take the burden off my soul I must say that there has been a good reason for staying off-line, possibly the best reason there can be.
No, I did not visit Panama with Nuthatch's group, although that would be another acceptable reason.
I am also not dead, haven't even been ill lately, am knocking on wood right now, everyone else around me - as far as I can tell - is fine (hear me knock again), I did not visit the Ross's Gull that's been hanging around Denmark for ages now..., nope, nothing of that sort.

What kept me from Blogging was the arrival of my son

His Hungryness Prince E. M. Belltowerbirder the Smallest

on December 11th, at 9:36 am. For the first time ever, I am a father.

All of us - my wife, son and also myself - are fine and healthy. Well, my wife and I have shown recent signs of massive fatigue and ageing, but I suppose that's just the normal evolutionary process of withering and wilting age in the face of the next generation.

As many of you might have noticed, his arrival hit our planet 6 weeks ago and I still haven't even managed to send out emails with pictures to our closest friends.

Shame and honest apologies.

Well, he's someone who can keep you quite busy and even though this is all more than fine, any spare time we accidentally chance upon is used to maintain basic biological functions through eating, drinking or catching some sleep.

Well, of course parental duties severely impact birding possibilities and I was therefore very relieved to find that Lovely Belltowerbirder Junior (or LBJ as his closest friends and relatives are allowed to call him) shows all the signs of becoming Germany's Next Top-Birder.

I therefore took him on his first real birding excursion to the vast outdoors, which is the city's harbour right outside our little apartment.

I have documented his first approach to birding with a few pictures that I'd like to show and comment upon here:

This is my new perspective upon birds and birding: Mallards, Gulls and Coots viewed over the front of a stroller. Oh come on, it could be worse - as soon as I get bored, a quick glance into (and not over) the stroller will immediately get me an excitement fix to carry me through the next 50 Black-headed Gulls

But you do know the birding is lame when you get excited over finding a largely black-headed Black-headed Gull in winter. And yes, those are rain drops...

This is what those with decency are supposed to look like now...

... and that flasher of courtship signals in winter and totally out of season surely got the disapproval of the whole flock.

Some may remember that in my former life as a birder, I took a deep interest in the variation of the Common Gulls wintering here around Stralsund. Well, that project has hit a nasty snag recently, and not through diaper duty: it's pretty hard to study the variation of winter gulls when winter has decided to skip a few years here. Indeed, there are hardly any Common Gulls around and the following one, the only one I was able to photograph this winter, isn't too exciting as it shows all the field marks of the western form Larus canus canus, the usual form around here.

The common Common Gull

Once in a great while, exciting birds show up around the ponds and harbour waters of Stralsund, and during this first ever birding excursion, LBJ got to see a very close Great Crested Grebe.
Well, he would have gotten to see it had he not fallen asleep the moment I left the house with him.

Another Great species (though not really crested around here but man, that would be a neat record) regularly seen by myself and LBJ on our bird excursions - well, the one we had - is the Coot. As a matter of fact, anyone who's seen them in courtship fights knows why there's even been a song written about them ("Black Balls of Fire" as sung by Jerry Lee Lewis) and incidentally, there's a growing number of scientist who maintain that the Titanic did not hit an ice berg after all but was just unlucky in getting in between two fighting Coots. I endorse their theory, no matter what their pinkish bills might make you think.

And last but not least, my new birding hot spot offers a chance to take a look at the common species from a completely different angle and possibly gain new insights and inspirations.

My son LBJ always enjoys to make a deep and profoundly good impression on people and has thus decided to demonstrate his scientific motivation to his parents and the world by proving that the term "fuzzy baby" hasn't been taken to the extremes, yet. Therefore, and quite often so, I find myself placed in the push position behind a stroller containing LBJ and walking the nightly streets of Stralsund.
Yet again though, I can see that LBJ means only good and Stralsund at night isn't all too bad.
Here for example is the Gorch Fock, a beautiful sailing ship with quite a history that you can read about here.

Day after day, day after day we stuck no breath no motion, as idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean ... or as an old ship with no money for repair at a remote harbour.

While the pubs and bars are still out of bounds for LBJ and me on our nightly tours...

... the harbour's breakwater is a good compensation and a very social one, too if you enjoy the sole company of a sleeping baby.

Yet again though - and even in his sleep - LBJ's birding genes amaze me: through our night excursions, I found out that up to 1,400 Black-headed Gulls use the jetties as a roosting site during the night.

Happy birding trails and all the very best from LBJ as well!