Monday 11 November 2013

German Adventures part 1: What's in a name?

My sister is doing French and German at university and she's currently living in Lemgo, Germany, for her year abroad. Last month my parents and I went out there to visit her. Lemgo is in north-west Germany, and my dad doesn't fly so to get there we took the ferry from Dover to Calais, then drove through Belgium and the Netherlands to get into Germany. Five countries in two days! It was exhausting.

Of course, when my sister was settled in at Lemgo (she lives in a granny flat-type thing under a house), I had one question- 'what's the wildlife like there!' She couldn't tell me much, but from the minute I arrived I had my binoculars out, and practically never put them away. I was determined to find out everything I could about the wildlife of Lemgo, because I don't go to other countries very often and I wanted to make the absolute most of the chance to see wildlife outside the UK. On the day we arrived my sister had some exciting news: she had seen a Red Squirrel from her garden window that morning! On the second day of our stay we all saw one: a dark red, beautiful, tufty creature with a lovely thick tail, perched in the garden apple tree and then running off over the bushes with a piece of apple in its mouth. Germany never allowed Grey Squirrels to become introduced (I hear the closest ones on the Continent are in Italy), and it was wonderful to find out that the Grey Squirrel problem is not all over Europe. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to me that it wouldn’t be. Though Germany does have Racoons- descendants of escaped pets, apparently!

The weather confusingly went from being what my sister called ‘coat and gloves weather’ before we came, to a humid, sweaty mildness, though the leaves were turning autumn shades beautifully all over Lemgo. I couldn’t resist starting a small garden list for the view out of my sister’s window, after 15 minutes of watching produced Blue Tits, Blackbirds eating elder berries, a gorgeous male Bullfinch, a Great Spotted Woodpecker and a House Sparrow in quick succession. (The House Sparrow, a male with only a tiny black bib, appeared to be picking up nesting material- perhaps one of this year’s birds confused by the warm weather?)

The view over Lemgo from the park. Look at those autumn shades!

But things got even better! 5 minutes away from my sister’s place is a large, mixed deciduous and coniferous wood, and with the leaves on the deciduous trees changing bright colours, there couldn’t have been a better time of year to visit. Before we’d even visited the wood I got a taste of the wildlife there. While we were waiting for a bus near my sister’s home, I looked over towards the forest and saw a Buzzard circling over the trees, along with another soaring bird of similar size but which wasn’t holding its wings in the typical Buzzard shallow ‘v’. Looking through my binoculars I saw it was all white underneath, which most Buzzards aren’t, and had a longer tail which it did not spread in flight. It was, in fact, my second Goshawk ever! Unlike in the UK Goshawks are not rare in Germany at all; it has the highest number of breeding pairs in Europe apart from Russia, which is of course a lot bigger. Then later when I got the chance to visit the wood properly I happened to glance upwards, and there gliding above the treetops was another Goshawk, this time being mobbed by another bird, a Sparrowhawk that looked absolutely tiny in comparison. I love seeing mobbing situations that involve birds of prey mobbing other birds of prey, and this also gave me a great chance to see the size difference between Goshawks and Sparrowhawks, two species that are often confused in the UK but that there is no confusing when they are seen together!

I had heard that Goshawks were much commoner in Germany but seeing these two birds without any effort at all took a little getting used to, especially after all the multiple journeys and searching it took to see my first one in the UK. During the visit I was able to meet and chat to a German birdwatcher (my sister’s professor’s wife) who showed me all her bird books and we got talking about our favourite visitors to our gardens. She had seen Hawfinches in her garden! I told her about the Yellowhammers that visited our garden last winter, and the Sparrowhawk that had started to visit regularly (the male involved in last post’s clash of the titans, though he seems to have moved on at the time of writing), which I described as a hawk that is commonly seen in gardens. Using the book I was able to show her which one (the German for Sparrowhawk, awesomely, is Sperber), and she said ‘oh, I thought you meant Habicht’, which is Goshawk. Apparently Goshawks are seen in gardens, in Lemgo anyway! I think Habicht might translate as just ‘hawk’. I love finding out about different country’s names for birds. My favourite example of a different bird name was one of our hostess’s favourite garden visitors, the Wintergoldhänchen or Goldcrest, whose name translates as ‘winter gold chicken’. Firecrest, incidentally, is Sommergoldhänchen (summer gold chicken). The summer and winter parts make sense as in a lot of Germany Firecrests are summer visitors only, and while Goldcrests are found all year round, if it’s anything like Britain they are much more secretive in their breeding season, and a lot more visible in winter when the leaves are off the trees and they tag along with winter tit flocks. The part that really doesn’t make sense to me is the ‘chicken’ part. How can such a teeny bird be compared to a lumping great bird like a chicken? Very strange!

Stadtwald  Lemgo, or Lemgo town forest, with the evening light shining through the trees.

 It’s a good thing my sister isn’t that into wildlife as if she had been she wouldn’t have done any work due to spending too much time in those woods! I could have spent every daylight hour there, seeking out its feathered inhabitants. It was hard to find the birds in the deciduous parts as they were almost silent, but the coniferous parts were filled with little ‘see-see-see’ sounds. Being with family I often wasn’t able to take the time to wait for the birds to show themselves, but at one point I could hear flock calls above me and sat down to wait for a while. After a moment a small bird came into view, and I got an impression of a big, fluffy head, finely barred in white and black, before it disappeared again. I can’t be certain because I didn’t see it very well, but I think it was my first ever Crested Tit! Like the Goshawk, the Crested Tit in Germany has a much wider range than in the UK, where it is restricted to the Caledonian forests in Scotland. Speaking of different ranges, I later saw a Treecreeper...or it could have been a Short-toed Treecreeper, because their ranges overlap over that part of Germany, and they are practically impossible to tell apart by sight in the field. In some parts of Europe you can only find Short-toed’s, so it would be as easy there as it is in Britain, (where you can only find Treecreepers except for very rare vagrant Short-toed’s). So, my notebook just says Treecreeper for now! Maybe one day I will be able to distinguish them by call, if I somehow become well-versed in Continental birdwatching...

Tomorrow: some of the fungi I found in Stadtwald Lemgo!

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