Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Inselaffe abroad part II: further on and further east!

Yes, my friends, onwards and eastwards! We were woken bright and bleary by our landlady hammering on the door at some ungodly hour of the morning. Not being religious, this mattered not, so we sprang out of bed, grabbed our bags and waited patiently by the car to catch a lift to the station at Schwedt. Following a short drive, we sat patiently on the platform and watched the train pass by into town. As it returned to Angermuende it paused again, we hopped on, and our journey east to countries new began... Shockingly, the train was 5 minutes late getting in to the station, so our 7-minute comfortable changeover became a 2-minute mad dash under the lines and along the full length of the station to the next train. An hour and a half later we were left in Szczecin station, where the challenge of crossing Poland by train became apparent: there appeared to be no information to tell us which platform the train to Warsaw would go from... None of those little electronic boards above the platforms, not even a clicky board where the letters and numbers all roll over one another like a one-armed bandit with loads of potential combinations. We eventually found a paper notice with the day's trains printed on it, which seemed to suggest that platform 4 was the one to be on. Dilemma two: platform 4 was actually two platforms. Cunningly, the platform was also divided into four 'tors', for which we could divine no purpose. We finally found the correct train by watching the labels on the doors as they went past - this one was also late.

We ground into Warsaw and repeated the whole tedious process of finding the correct platform, and boarded another tardy train, then fell out of the carriage in Bialystock, bought some restorative coca-cola and a hot dog, and boarded the final train of the journey. This one departed on time, but we did have some unexplained pauses on the journey whilst various members of staff stamped up and down the length of the train at high speed, frowning. Everyone else (driver included) seemed as baffled as we were, and to be honest, we were grateful when we finally jumped ship at Osowiec, where we settled in to a rather comfy room in Biebrza National Park headquarters...

The next morning was a cracker: clear, cold and with a fresh NW wind. Migrant birds were passing over - we could hear Yellow Wagtail and Tree Pipit from the comfort of our bed - and so we leapt up, finished the food we had left, and headed out for some exploring. The trees around the little village were dripping with Chiffchaffs and Spotted Flycatchers, with a generous sprinkling of Pied Flycatchers. A couple of Wood Warblers appeared to add some sparkle, and we wandered slowly on towards the open marshes and fields. As the landscape opened out, different birds appeared: the bushes by the road were hopping with Lesser Whitethroats and Blackcaps, whilst the fields were scattered with Whinchats: all in all, a sight to delight any birder who's based in the southwest of England! All the while, Yellow Wagtails and Tree Pipits passed by overhead, joined by a single Black Stork, then a single White Stork to make things even.

After pottering back to HQ to pick up rented bicycles, we headed back out along the Fort II boardwalk, where a young male Elk was the surprise find of the day, then out through Osowiec village to a wet woodland we'd noticed on the maps. This was again dripping with birds: the same mix as earlier, but with a couple of added bonus species thrown in for good measure: a single Hobby and a couple of Honey-buzzards overhead, and Redstart, Cuckoo, Golden Oriole and adult Red-breasted Flycatcher at eye-level.

If you squint, you can just make out an Elk. Or a Moose, if you come from North America - I don't mind, though Woody Allen's moose sketch always echoes in my mind when I hear the name. Maybe that's reason to call it an Elk?

Wet woodland. Full of birds in autumn - it must be stunning at dawn in the late spring.

The journey back via Goniadz rounded the day off with a tranquil view across the marshes, with a handful of Black Terns hawking the river in front of us.

The northern part of Biebrza National Park, from the observation tower at Goniadz

Continuing the theme of distant wildlife: a Black Tern hawks over the marshes, against a beautifully complex sky.

The morning of August 30th was spent wandering along the Tsar Road, through a patch of former peat-cutting, which had been recommended to us by Urszula. This turned out to be a fabulous area, with a canopy of pine and Silver Birch over a shrub layer of the highly aromatic Labrador Tea (either Ledum palustre or L. groenlandicum) and heathers, interspersed with a myriad of dark peaty pools, many choked with a rich variety of Sphagnum mosses and Hare's-tail Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum). The whole area must be heaving with interesting dragon- and damselflies in season, but we were left with a smattering of resident birds and an abundance of green frog species (maybe Pool Frog Rana lessonae).

Silver Birch over Hare's-tail Cottongrass, with Labrador Tea in the middle. Mmm.

Probably Dark Mullein Verbascum nigrum on the side of the Tsar Road

Fungus erupting from the trunk of a birch tree.

Whilst Na gave her presentation to the park staff, I wandered back to the boardwalk at Fort II, where I was rather stunned to see a Little Crake and a Spotted Crake loafing together below a willow, right next to one of the observation platforms. The Little Crake even had the decency to hang around until Na rejoined me - her second new bird species of the trip...

More distant wildlife. They're both in there somewhere. Honest. Little Crake on the left, Spotted on the right.
Sand Lizard juvenile basking on the boardwalk.

Common Figwort Scrophularia nodosa

Speckled Wood butterfly

Grasshopper sp. One day I might get an identification finished on these.

Pale (?) Clouded Yellow butterfly

Alkanet (Pentaglottis) sp.


We were then offered a boat trip down the river, and a visit to the mineral islands in the middle of the marsh. We met up and headed out early enough for the river mists to be nicely romantic, past a couple of feral Alsatians and down to the islands. At this point, disaster struck, when I lost my footing in the depths and submerged myself and my camera. That rather put paid to any further photos on the trip, so anything after this is likely to be courtesy of Na. The rest of the day was rather uneventful by comparison, and the wind began to pick up - an ominous precursor of things to come! Urszula kindly showed us around her home town of Suwalki - the last town in Poland - and we had our first chance to taste proper Polish cooking; as well as some awesome Polish hospitality!

Na (R) and Urszula (L) fail to show how deep the water was between the reeds and grasses. Thigh waders were a necessity...

The first day of September opened with teeming, steaming, tipping rain. We were back at the park in time to meet up with Christoph, one of the two onithologists employed by the park and head into the Alder carr forest. For a Brit, this was a humbling experience. Wet Alder woodland in this country is usually a minor corner of a fenny area, perhaps a couple of hectares in extent if you're lucky, and often consists of a tangled patch of scrubby trees over a bit of Yellow Flag iris (perhaps I exaggerate, but the point is that our Alder wet woodland is small in extent). This was a single block of 1,000 (count 'em) hectares of wet Alder woodland of a quality to awe. Despite the rain, despite the fact that we were ploughing through water up to our thighs, despite the cold, it was probably the single most memorable day of the trip. Walking into a patch of wet woodland for an hour and a half, following a GPS track to find our way to our goal - the trifling matter of checking a White-tailed Eagle's nest - the sheer scale of the place was phenomenal. The icing on the cake was a female White-backed Woodpecker which posed about 50m away from us for a short while, before disappearing again into the depths of the woodland.

Christoph demonstrates the raininess of Alder woodland

Our journey home was broken with a short stop to admire the minor area of sedge swamp where the bulk of the park's Aquatic Warblers breed: a mere 5,000 hectare extent, which was in the process of being mown by several enormous tracked tractors, throwing up clouds of spray as they churned their way across the marsh. 

Mowing the 5,000 hectares.

and a closer look at the beast in action. Two man cab so you don't get bored and fall asleep too. All mod cons!

We spent our final day in the Red Bog protected area, jamming in on feeding time for the rehabilitated Elk, Wild Boar and Wolf, and then learning a little about the structure, ecology and management of the bog and the acid grassland and woodland around it. A distant blob seemed to be another Elk - confirmed when it later disappeared when we took our eyes off it - but the day was oddly quiet. After the first day, the flush of migrant birds had really petered out, and the weather was cold enough that most of the invertebrates had been knocked on the head. The plants were pretty much over as well - we saw the leaves of Eastern Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) whilst we searched for Thesium ebracteatum (which either has no common name, or rejoices in the name of Bastard Toadflax - I haven't yet worked out which). but September is really time to pack it in for much of the non-birdy interest. So we duly packed it in, headed back to Warsaw (both trains were on time - what are they trying to tell us?) and the airport, then off to Cologne, Na's parents and a party and a half to celebrate their Ruby wedding anniversary.

 Urszula and self discuss the species present on a bit of acid grassland

Bog pine forest at the Red Bog reserve. Scot's Pine over Labrador Tea, heathers, bilberries and Sphagnum. Niiice...

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Inselaffe abroad - part I: Germany

A whole month goes by with no contribution. I plead mitigating circumstances: work, crazy-busy ringing at weekends, holidays (of which more later) and finally taking the plunge to buy a digital SLR, which I'm gradually coming to terms with. It's a relief not to be using a compact or bridge camera though, and the return to flexibility offered with changing lenses for different jobs has been like falling in love all over again. Sort of.

Na allowed me to tag along with her on the more exotic end of her scholarship trip to the Odertal National Park in northeast Germany and the tongue-twisting Biebrza National Park in northeast Poland. So, without further ado...

The Odertal.

We flew in to Berlin from Heathrow, then took a bus to the Hauptbahnhof and a train to Angermuende, where we were collected. We stayed at a very pleasant bed & breakfast in the village of Criewen (Pension Storchennest), where we had a clean, cosy and reasonably-priced double room. All well and good... in fact, the owners not only picked us up from the station, but they also produced a couple of bottles of beer to help us settle in for the first night - which were drunk in the back garden, with accompaniment from a variety of green frogs and a hedgehog floor-show.

For the next week I was kept busy exploring the various paths and tracks around the floodplain and forest fringe, whilst Na dropped by when she wasn't working with the park staff. The weather wasn't anything to write home about, but the wildlife was pretty good. A particularly poor summer in this part of Europe meant that there were spring/summer floods, which wiped out most of the birds' nests in the park - a similar story in Biebrza as well - so that many of the larger wetland birds had already moved on south: ducks, terns and waders all in very short supply. The flora was also pretty late, which meant we saw more than we might have, and the invertebrates were also perhaps not quite as expected - though the dragonfly populations didn't seem to be doing so badly! Some gain, some lose, I guess.

So, some of the highlights were...:

Odertal - a typical view across the floodplain meadows. The plants were rather late growing, due to the flooding, so it's all a bit uniform and relatively uninteresting. A sea of knee-high grasses, there were patches where you were suddenly into shallow-flooded marsh which was alive with frogs, dragonflies and flowers.

Odertal - evening light over the meadows

White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla. Honest. A daily bird, with half a dozen pairs present in the park - the most we saw in a day was some 6-7 birds, and their yelping calls were a good indicator of the adults, which were often loafing in trees.

Red Kite Milvus milvus checking us out for movement, or in case we're voles. These, the White-tailed Eagles and Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) were the commonest birds of prey.

Common Cranes Grus grus passing over - we saw at least a few every day, though never hit peak numbers - there can be a few thousand present later in the year.

Common Toadflax Linum catharticum. A common flower along the tracks and banks.

Common Bluetail Ischnura elegans

More of the Odertal... this is near Schwedt, towards the northern end of the German section of the park.

Small White Pieris rapae. on Viper's-bugloss Echium vulgare. As with Ruddy Darters (below), the combined totals of Small, Large (P. brassicae) and Green-veined White (P. napi) butterflies must have been in the thousands each day - everywhere you looked there was a dancing cloud of white, like confetti continually dipping and twisting over the grasses.

Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum. This was the most impressive sight of the German part of the trip: thousands upon thousands of Ruddy Darters swarming across the floodplains. They were perhaps at their peak abundance before the weather turned...

Touch-me-not Balsam Impatiens noli-tangere.

The countryside looks much the same towards Poland (the hills in the distance) too.

Male Blue Featherleg Platycnemis pennipes. A species coming to the end of it's season really. Several seen around the oxbow lakes, but not after the weather turned cold and manky.
Female Yellow-winged Darter Sympetrum flaveolum. I saw a fair few of this species, but this was the only one obliging enough to pose for me in any way. Sorry it's not a better picture...

Male Black Darter Sympetrum danae. Only a few of these around, but indicates that the system is on the acid side, at least in places.

More Odertal view - looking from Criewen to Schwedt. The banks along the canal are very flower-rich and attracted large numbers of white butterflies, bees and flies; which in turn attracted plenty of birds.

Campanula of some kind, growing in the woods. They reach about a metre tall.

Thrift Armeria maritima ssp. longifolia. Something of a surprise to me to find Thrift abundant at such an inland site, but what do I know? All seemed to bear a strong resemblance to longifolia.

Male Small Redeye Erythromma viridulum. Before the weather turned, there were plenty of these lurking along the edges of the oxbow lakes, perching on waterlilies, pondweeds and emergent vegetation. Sometimes you've got to get down to their level to get a nice picture.

Female Small Redeye. Not as pretty or as dramatic as the male, but a beautiful blue and dusty grey nonetheless.

And another view of a male Small Redeye... just to show how smart they are.

Male Ruddy Darter Sympetrum sanguineum

The banks of the Oder - pretty much species-rich neutral/acid grassland. Much richer than the floodplain grazing marsh and associated neutral grassland we have here in Devon, but that's not so surprising!

Indeed. Translates as: 'use at your own risk', effectively. I think they mainly mean that the boardwalk is slippery when wet, but obviously the risk of a tree falling on you is worth considering...

Part II to follow.