Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Inselaffe mode again

A thought struck us: let's get away from the English 'lack-of-summer' and spend a week in Germany, where the sun will shine, birds will sing and the inlaws will look after Sabina occasionally whilst we relax a little. Well, we kind of got it right...

The journey over was quiet - we occasionally had to check that Sabina was still in the back of the car, she was so quiet - and we drew up at French border control in Dover with plenty of time to spare before our ferry. We were waved through without even a cursory glance at our passports (!), spiralled around the port and got to check-in, where the lady behind the counter knew who we were even before we'd rolled to a halt. A ticket for an earlier ferry was issued and we were through to the queue almost before we knew it. Amazingly slick!

The ferry proved to be a deeply absorbing place for Sabina, who spent most of the journey flirting with other passengers. We left Dover with two colour-ringed Herring Gulls on board, but unfortunately never had chance to see whether they continued with the vessel or returned to the port - I can't help thinking there must be a few international movements across with the ferries though. And predictably enough, as we reached France, it started raining...

So we rolled off the ferry at Calais under the overcast and headed briskly off through northern France (flat), Belgium (flat) and finally western Germany (nearly as flat), arriving in lovely - and sunny! - Leverkusen just about ready for a snooze. Our post-drive wind-down was serenaded by a male Black Redstart on the neighbours' roof: a sure sign that we're not in England any more. Nice.

Garden birds in Leverkusen.

Day one in Germany and we're woken with a mildly damp start. A walk around the Biesenbach seemed the perfect way to stretch legs tired out from constant slouching in the car. Sabina into sling and off we tromp. Black Redstarts feeding young, tails quivering rufous, are everywhere around the horse-paddocks just beyond the houses. A Lesser Spotted Woodpecker calls from an orchard tree. Better still, a Firecrest pipes up from the conifers by the path. Starlings buzz through between grass and holes in trees, trailing fat grubs for chicks rasping their hunger to the air. Swallows and House Martins skim the trees and grasses. All in all a pleasant start. Once away from the fields and gardens and walking through the Naturschutzgebiet along the stream, we're into proper wet woodland with swampy fens growing into Alder carr. If it was warmer we'd be looking out for dragonflies. As it is, we're not. Blackcaps seem to be everywhere. Under the trees the path is lined with Wood-sedge, Remote Sedge, Wood Melick and strawberries, whilst the Beech canopy casts a cool and luminescent green light over everything.

Nature red in mandible and palp

The afternoon passes with a blur of relatives, whilst the bird feeders in the garden are bedecked with young Great and Blue Tits, Greenfinches and Bullfinches - and the odd Ring-necked Parakeet. After their departure we head out for another wander in afternoon sunshine, where we encounter some of the local Yellowhammers and a flyby Hawfinch.

Our second day began in slightly damp fashion again, so we set off on a longer and more complicated walk - starting by heading upstream along the Biesenbach. As we walk up the valley, we're slightly surprised to see a house with a substantial pond and extensive lawn, upon which graze a pair of colour-marked Mute Swans. A large duck-house-type building on the edge of the water has a Grey Heron on top, and another heron sits on top of the main house, where a walkway leads up from ground to roof. We wonder vaguely whether these are pets rehabilitating birds, or coincidental. On the roadside there's a family of Egyptian Geese, mother grazing and guarding eight semi-featherd goslings, whilst father sits on top of a building and watches for trouble.

Further along the valley the sun finally deigns to come out as Naomi feeds Sabina. We follow this meal up with a scramble up a steep bank, then a trudge through thigh-deep wet grass (mmm!) around a field-edge to a track, then across the road and down another field margin - to be met by neck-deep nettles! After that the walk back through the woods and across the plateau of the Schoene Aussicht is a breeze... Highlights of the day: a Red Kite drifting overhead, more Yellowhammers and a corking male Serin who flies over, then circles back to land on the fence just in front of us. Sometimes it's just worth it. The weather staying nice persuaded Na to head to the local swimming lake for the afternoon, where she and Michael swam whilst I strolled around with Sabina and admired the wildlife.

Some Leverkusen countryside. Next to the dynamite factory.

Garden birds in Leverkusen. Hey, this is just like home.

Wednesday, our third full day, dawned downright English: cold and dismal. We thought this would be a good point to stretch our wings a little and visit the Ohligser Heide, just to the north of Leverkusen, near Solingen. We found our way to the rough area without incident, but then struggled to find the heath before being put right by a kindly passing dog-walker. Calling it a heath seemed excessive to me, given that most of the site was planted with trees, but some heath restoration has occurred - and looks to be paying dividends: lots of heather, some Purple Moor-grass, sedges and Bog-myrtle in a variety of heathland types from dry and sandy through to proper wet. Despite the heathy element, the birds were rather woodland-ish: Pied and Spotted Flycatcher, Wood Warbler, Short-toed Treecreeper and more Firecrests. Crested Tits purred at us from the trees every so often, and we watched an entertaining spat between Great and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers in the trees above, whilst a Red Squirrel ambled unconcernedly across in front of us.

By Thursday we're in the mood for something a bit different - and joy of joys, so's the weather! We head down to the banks of the Rhine, to Hitdorf am Rhein, where we crossed on the ferry as foot passengers for a walk along the banks to some of the remaining auen. These are the remnant riparian forests which once would have stretched along the banks of a wildly meandering river, but now are confined to small remnants, patched here and there with oxbows and fragmented by pastures and meadows. The auen around Cologne are restricted compared to those I've been used to in Austria, where they form the basis of a National Park, but in many ways they are similar beasts. Tall poplars stand over a dense shrubby understorey of hazel, nettle and (aargh!) Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Knotweed, rides cut through the woodland are the haunt of mosquitoes, butterflies, hoverflies and dragonflies, and the air is full of mingled songs of Blackcap and Blackbird, mixed with the more exotic strains of Icterine Warblers and Golden Orioles. On top of all that the sun shone gloriously warm and for a while, a brief glorious while, I could abandon my coat and my jumper! And on our return to the ferry, whilst Na fed Sabina, there in front of us was a female Eider, meandering along with the local Mallards for the cone-ends that the local ice-cream seller threw them. No rings, no sign of wing-clipping, but an Eider on the Rhine in June??

One of the many barges which make crossing the Rhine such an exciting experience. This one with the endearing name of 'Tossa'. I kid you not.

And here she is: star of the show, in a sense. I'm still a little bemused.

Friday, however, returned us to rain with a vengeance: almost continuous and absolutely tipping it down. Our consolation prize: aving dragged ourselves round the local shopping centre, we found a family of Fieldfares feeding their young on the lawns of the local park... Every turn a new treat.

Our final full day was yet another rainy day. We threw caution to the winds and took ourselves off round Altenberg, in the hope that it would ease off later on (as forecast). Well, it didn't, proving that German weather forecasters are no better than the Met Office (ha!). We strolled around the woods, listening to the trees dripping and admiring the mosses glistening, but saw little of note until almost back to the car, when a male Goshawk hurtled from the trees in front of us, smashed through a small pack of crows - sending them all into hysterics - and disappeared back into the trees as suddenly as he'd emerged. It all happened so fast that we didn't even get to see if he'd made a kill (I blame the amount of rain on the binoculars and the fact that juggling binoculars, an umbrella and a reluctant baby in a sling is nigh-on impossible), but it was an undeniably impressive display of speed and power.

Finally, a bit of German culture: a half-timbered house in the Altenberg area (listed building fanatics, please note: they get to install double glazing in listed buildings, because it's more efficient, safer and people in Germany like to feel warm in winter)