Four a.m. starts with small children are not wholly recommended as a matter of course, but once in a while is OK.
Birmingham airport is also OK once in a while - I wouldn't want to make a habit of it.
Arriving in Berlin in temperatures of 39C in the shade with two very tired small children, to discover that Flybe have mislaid your car-seat en route and that your car-hire company has no record of your having booked one car seat, let alone wanting two, and oh, I'm so sorry, we don't actually have any car-seats anyway... well.
To be wholly fair to everyone involved, the lady at the Enterprise desk was very polite, her colleague found two car-seats from a rival company and the children were really as good as gold.
So, our visit to Mueritz National Park, about 90 minutes northwest of Berlin, didn't get off to the most auspicious of starts. Be that as it may, wending our way gently through the summer countryside under cloudless skies, watching Black Kites glide elegantly across the stubbles behind gigantic combine harvesters, the children sleeping soundly in the back of the car, it certainly felt like it was shaping up to be a nice summer holiday.
We eventually arrived at Mueritzparadies, a small collection of wooden chalets next to Germany's biggest lake (Constance doesn't count, as it borders Austria and Switzerland too), where the girls gratefully spent the next couple of hours splashing in the waters of the lake and revelling in some playtime. Another Black Kite drifted over to remind us we weren't at home any more - as if we needed that, with Tree Sparrows flustering in the bushes, and temperatures which would probably be melting the tarmac in Devon. The main drawback was that the house had been shut for most of the day, so the bedrooms - upstairs - were sweltering. The only solution was to put the youngest daughter in the downstairs loo to sleep, the elder daughter adjacent and sleep on the livingroom floor ourselves. Needless to say that was great fun for all concerned (!) and sleep proved a little elusive for a while...
|A family of Hooded Crows - another sign we're not in Devon - sweltering in the heat atop a birch|
The next day dawned bright and fair, and promised to be nearly as hot as the previous, so the sensible decision was taken to stay in the lake as much as possible. The heat was well into the mid-30s, so the wildlife was doing just as the humans - staying in the shade and not making too much fuss. The odd Red Kite and Black Kite floated over, a Red-crested Pochard flew by offshore and the distant trumpeting of Cranes provided a staccato background chorus every so often. All very relaxing. Time to take stock of our surroundings a little better...
Mueritzparadies lies just outside the edge of Mueritz National Park. The countryside is predominantly arable farming - with lots of arable 'weeds' like cornflower, poppies, fumitories &c evident in fallow plots and crops - interspersed with wooded land: lots of planted conifer in the main. There are marshy hollows here and there with willow, alder and aspen carr, reedswamps and luxuriant tall-herb fens. In spring the area must teem with migrant birds and echo to the sound of returning breeders, but in the heat of midsummer the song is mainly over and the air is filled with the buzz and rustle of insect wings and the soughing of the wind through the leaves instead. The lake itself is shallow, so the water is warm and tempting, even to non-swimmers.
|Cornflowers, bluer than the eyes of flaxen-haired maidens in some romantic poet's vision. The mist of blue across the gold of the ripening barley is stunning, poets aside.|
|The nearby field corner - it became known as the 'Acker-ecke' (sorry, just means 'field corner') - was a riot of colour and invertebrates. Clearly someone's forgoten to glyphosate this part of the world. Can't be having that.|
|Even such goodies as Consolida regalis in there!|
There are also - just next door - some very extensive fishing ponds: the Boeker Fischteiche, which are well-known as a good birding spot (we saw one other couple birding, which is pretty high-intensity stuff). We thought we'd branch out a little, drag the children away from the lake for the next morning and see what the ponds had to offer. Two hides and a viewing screen attest to the birding interest in the site (I suspect in spring and autumn it is actually quite busy) and we were duly welcomed to the site by an Osprey fishing slap-bang in front of us, far too close to bother with things like binoculars to enhance the view. If you'd tried, you'd probably have had nightmares about the bird's feather-lice. A backdrop of Marsh Harriers and both kite species held Bina's attention and she duly got very excited about pointing out every soaring raptor that came over, soon learning to pick out the kites from the rest with their forked tails an easy clue. Just to cap it all, a young White-tailed Eagle drifted leisurely over us at treetop height, mobbed by a pair of Red Kites. 'Wow', said Bina, 'das ist gross'. Not wrong. [Na points out that I may be inadvertantly confusing English readers who lack basic German. To set the record straight, it means 'that's big'. Nothing yucky.]
Although the wind picked up strongly, there was calm enough water for us to be treated also to a couple of pairs of Red-necked Grebes feeding semi-stripy young. Perhaps the nicest thing of all, though, was walking along the boundary between a hayfield and woodland, feet drifting Heath Fritillaries with every step. Scattered amongst them were the more familiar fare of Meadow Browns, Ringlets and skippers, as well as ghostly-pale Blue Featherlegs sliding mysteriously between the leaves. Even the walk through the arable fields was worthwhile to a farmland-bird-starved Devonian: Corn Bunntings and Yellowhammers singing everywhere.
The cooling trend continued the next day - the wind stayed fresh and the temperature was down to the mid-20s. We met up with one of the park staff, Volker, who took us on a short bike tour within the national park to the Specker See and back. We passed initially through tracts of conifer, gradually returning naturally to broadleaf woodland (look Britain, no gardening!) before getting into areas where a mosaic of acid grassland, alder woodland and swamp intermingled. Climbing an observation tower, we were treated to the sight of a vast bed of Great Fen Sedge stretching out to the Binnenmueritz - a stretch of fen reminiscent of Biebrza, albeit not on quite the same scale. Volker told us about the work that had happened since the park was designated: the re-wetting of drained agricultural land, the restoration of lake, swamp and fen hydrology, the natural recovery of broadleaf trees amongst the conifers. We cycled and stopped, talked, looked and listened - a River Warbler briefly piped up, followed by a couple of Grasshopper Warblers; the occasional Willow Warbler fluted in the scrub. Another White-tailed Eagle passed by overhead. It's a tough life sometimes.
|Cladium mariscus swamp. Mmm...|
|Re-wetting isn't to the taste of everything. There are plenty of trees which find the whole process just too, well, wet. The skeletal remains of conifers dot the wet grassland and swamps, making ideal perches for resting Ospreys.|
All good things come to an end, and our stomachs insisted that lunch should now be a priority, so we said goodbye to Volker and occupied one end of a spacious hide overlooking lake Mueritz to eat some food. We were immediately joined by a large touring group who abandoned bicycles outside and came in for a lecture from their guide about the national park and the lake. As this progressed, a wasp flew in and hung around us. It was soon joined by another, and then a few more. None of them seemed interested in our food (fortunately), but all of them seemed somewhat bemused, and before long we had about 50 wasps droning gently up and down the hide, to the mild consternation of some of the people sharing the space. The guide was obviously not to be fazed by a bunch of stripy insects and finished his talk. As the group filed out, the wasps - with an almost audible sigh of relief - found their route to their nest, lovingly built between two backboards, unobstructed once more and resumed their normal commute. Those of us left in the hide also breathed a sigh of relief and set to their food with enthusiasm.
The following day was forecast to be windy, cool and with occasional sharp showers - what better excuse to head for the UNESCO-listed beechwoods around Serrahn. This area is a peculiarity of Mueritz National Park: the park itself is in two separate parts; the one is the vast forest-bog-swamp-grassland complex around Lake Mueritz, the other an area of forest, swamps, bogs and lakes surrounding some undeniably fabulous ancient beech forest a short way east of the small town of Neustrelitz. We walked from the Zinow entrance along a small trail winding initially through open pinewoods. The floor of the woodland being liberally carpeted with bilberries, the children both soon had purple faces and wide grins.
|Caterpillar on Deschampsia flexuosa|
|Common Heath moths - Ematurga atomaria - were abundant throughout the pinewoods near Serrahn|
As the path wound down towards a lake, the clouds closed in and the pines gave way to beech woodland. The rain was soon pelting down, so we scurried for the shelter of an observation tower overlooking the lake. The rain generously eased as we reached the shelter, so the families already in residence decamped and allowed us in. A wide soughing swamp of Harestail cottongrass gave way to reed, then open water. On the opposite bank a family of Ospreys did some vigorous exercise to rid their wings of water and get their muscles in fettle for their maiden flight. We admired, then headed on towards Serrahn for some lunch. The rain began again.
|The view from the observation tower near Serrahn. Eriophorum vaginatum swamps merge into Phragmites - the conifer line retreats from both sides of the lake and the alders march in|
|Fir Clubmoss, Huperzia selago, by the foot of the observation tower|
We squelched on for the last kilometre, then came to a most spectacular boardwalk through an arm of bog. The rain was pelting down steadily, so no photos, but the path wound gently through perhaps the richest bog I've ever been privileged to see, with copious information boards about the plants to be seen - all of them carefully placed next to the plant in question: milk-parsley, bladderwort, round-leaved sundew, tufted loosestrife, marsh cinquefoil, bogbean, water-violet... the list went on. Everything was underlain by a thick, luxuriant carpet of Sphagnum. On a still and sunny day it would have been rustling and buzzing with dragonflies and damselflies, moths, flies and mosquitos - as it was, the gentle patter of raindrops made an appropriately liquid soundscape.
Lunch was taken sans rain (to our relief) and the walk back along the sandy cyclepath was less interesting, though a smart Red-breasted Flycatcher livened the start up. On a nicer day - and perhaps earlier in the morning - it would likely have been a very productive trip to make. Next time, maybe.
|Platycnemis pennipes - the Blue Featherlegs - displaying his fine and shapely tibias.|
|Ajuga genevensis growing willy-nilly outside the house|