**note: this is an abbreviated trip report for the journal, an aide memoir for us and something preliminary to share with friends. Accordingly, illustrations are minimal and representative – a more comprehensive (but well edited – we promise) photo gallery and hopefully the usual limited selection of ‘art’ photos will be appearing later for anyone interested. Please also note that more birds were seen by the group as a whole than those listed below which are the ones we can personally lay a claim to. We also fully and with red face acknowledge that this was not a green birding trip (http://www.greenbirding.ca) and we shall have to atone for this to the carbon emitting gods in the months ahead.
Only a few photographs here, just to give a general impression of the main features of each day – but if you click on any one of them you will see an enlarged version
It was very interesting to compare bird life in central Europe with that at home in Canada. Driving around we passed through many places, often agricultural landscape, that you could say that looks just like X or Y back home yet everywhere there was simply more bird song in the air and more individual birds flying about. Hard to know if they use less pesticides (plenty of insect for food) or reap and sow and plough and hoe to a different timetable or what but whatever it is the place seemed to be generally speaking birdier than North America. This is a subjective observation and subject to verification, but certainly the impression that we were left with.
And so …
This trip was organised by Quest Nature Tours and was, as is the nature of these things, somewhat grey-haired in nature. We had been with this company last year to Newfoundland and been impressed. We flew overnight 25 May from Montreal to Vienna via Zurich. Arrived at the hotel Sunday morning way too early for a room so went for a four hour self guided tour of Vienna which didn’t get us far past the grounds of the Belvedere, one of many, many Hapsburg palaces around town,m with lunch in an old world Viennese coffee house. Gorgeous gardens including a magical secret Alice in Wonderland garden with topiary and hidden vistas. Somewhat jet lagged, we discovered that Austrian restaurants mostly close on Sundays, certainly those outside the main tourist belt, but we were saved by the eventual discovery of a welcome greek and turkish run Italian resto that was open and had plenty of beer. Interestingly, they still allow smoking in restos over there (not good) and it seems mostly do not take credit cards but want cash (who carries cash any more?) which inadvertently caused us to discover that the “Central European” for ATM/guichet is the delightful word Bankomat.
Monday morning spent walking the nearby university’s botanic gardens – small and compact and quite delightful with fine plantings and plant groupings. Met the rest of the group over lunch and then had a guided tour of the city. Museums, palaces, theatres, opera houses and gorgeous stonework everywhere. The Austrian economy is clearly on a roll and the rest of Europe might want to take a few tips. Worth coming back again for a week of intensive culture.
Not many birds so far – not looking that hard at this stage to be honest – but had House Martin, Euro Nuthatch, Blackbird, Carrion Crow, Hooded Crow, Pigeons, House Sparrow (1), Coal Tit, Great Tit which was a start. Nice to meet old friends again. Best was a Hen Harrier cruising over Zurich airport outfields as we landed at just after six in the morning.
In case anyone thinks that Vienna is a city entirely of gorgeous buildings, cultured philosophers and composers busily creating away in coffee-houses … it also offers the world this :
Tuesday 28 May
A divided day … Morning at Schonbrun Palace (big baroque pile, impressive) in Vienna. In the garden red squirrels.
Morning birds – Mallard, House Sparrow, Carrion Crow, Hooded Crow, Euro Starling, Pigeon, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Greater Spotted Woodpecker, Chaffinch, Great Tit, Swallow, Swift, **Syrian Woodpecker, Greenfinch, Jackdaw, Rook, Song Thrush.
Afternoon, two hour drive to Illmitz beside the Neusiedler See – flat, vineyards, wetlands. The Neusiedler See is the extensive remnant of an ancient salt sea and so still at least partially saline. It has extensive bays and mud flats and red beds that provide homes for a very wide variety of birds, both resident and migratory. Pouring rain, thunder, lightening (a constant theme for most of the trip) but stunning birding for about an hour towards the end of the afternoon … Included: Kestrel, Great White Egret, White Stork, Marsh Harrier, Black headed Gull, Red-backed Shrike, House Martin, Wood Pigeon, Collared Dove, Avocets, Pochard, Red-breasted Pochard, Lapwing, Spoonbill, Mute Swan, Barn Swallow, Greylag Geese, Red-legged Stilt, Black-winged Stilt, Grey Heron, White Wagtail, Eurasian Coot, Little Ringed Plover, Great Crested Grebe, Common Redshank, Spotted Redshank (and ***) two Curlew Sandpipers in passage.
A bit of a cliché, I know, but many houses had huge White Stork nests on their roofs – supposedly they bring good luck. They certainly provide a place in the bases for House Sparrows to nest.
Wednesday 29 May
Up before six to visit a site on the Austro-Hungarian border (where 70,000 refugees came over in the 1956 uprising) in successful search of Great Bustards. Agricultural area but with plenty of trees. The border itself is marked by a very bird rich canalised river with any bird flying across counting on two country lists.
The Bustards were most impressive. A group of about seven males displaying in a desultory way to much smaller females lurking amongst the grass and crops. Hares and deer all over and bright groups of poppies amongst the wheat.
Morning birds (before returning for breakfast) included … Great Bustard, White Stork, Pheasant, Great White Egret, Greylag Geese, Black Tern, Euro Blackbird, Skylarks, Western Marsh Harrier, Crane, Euro TreeSparrow, Curlew, Whinchat (3), Crested Lark, Western Yellow Wagtail, Greenfinch, Yellowhammer, Nightingale, Red-backed Shrike, Savi’s Warbler (heard, we think), Green Woodpecker, Little Grebe, Reed Warbler, Cormorant, Golden Oriole, Cuckoo, Common Buzzard, Tutle Dove, Whiskered Tern, Collared Dove, Carrion Crow.
After breakfast we spent the rest of the day checking out hotspots around the large and small lakes in the area. The sun got hotter and hotter but the birds kept a-coming … Mallard, Black-headed Gull, White (Pied) Wagtail, Sedge Warbler, Penduline Tit ( and its penduline nest), Marsh Harrier, Marsh Warbler, Reed Bunting, Bearded Reedling (used to be Tit), House Sparrow, Red-crested Pochard, White Stork, Black-winged Stilt, Avocets a plenty with young, Greylag Geese, Purple Heron, Redshank, Grey Heron, Spoonbill, Mute Swan, Northern Shoveler, Kentish Plover, Lapwing, Icterine Warbler, Euro Goldfinch, Green Woodpecker, Tree Sparrow, Little Egret, Great White Egret, Black-winged Godwit, Coot, Common Teal (now split from Green Teal), Grey Plover, Skylark, Hoopoe, Tufted Duck, House Sparrow, Black Tern, Common Linnet, Garganey.
Thursday 30 May
A four country tour (Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic) mostly in the rain.
Hungarian national park at southern end of the Neusiedlander See where it crosses the border – marshland and lake with IMPERIAL EAGLES (2) plus Greylag Geese, Garganey, Mute Swan, Mallard, Black-winged Stilt, Redshank, Avocets, Great Crested Grebe, Cormorant (there were also rare Little Cormorants but not seen by me as I was not looking in the right direction), Cuckoo, Yellow Wagtail, Common Buzzard, Marsh Harrier, Euro Goldfinch, Gtey Heron, Common Swift, Magpie, Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Whisked, Common and Black Terns, Euro Starling. Birding brought short by torrential rain – retired to cafe and persuaded Hungarian staff to charge us in Euros. Rained pretty continuously after that for the rest of the day.
Outside Bratislava (Slovakia) we stopped in a high rise, post communist era housing estate and walked some slippery woodland paths up a hill behind them … Why, we wondered? Well the view at the top was impressive with the ruins of a thousand year old castle across a river and the rather tidier than Slovakian countryside of Austria making an interesting contrast from the nearby river border, but the star of the show, what made it worth getting wet (again) was a sandy outcropping riddled with holes that were the nests of European Bee-eaters. We saw seven of these unbelievably colourful aerial acrobats flying around the tree tops. Stunning and totally unexpected – a very rare bird in the region that we had on the would like to see but don’t expect to see list. Also, Serin, Tree Sparrows.
This was the only time on the trip when I wished that I had brought along the big birding camera and lens and not the portable alternative …
Then another hour and a half in pouring rain to our next hotel in the Czech Republic. Saw Spotted Flycatcher in hotel grounds, Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Chiffchaff.
Bird of the day? Impossible to choose between Imperial Eagles and Bee-eaters so I won’t try.
Friday 31 May
Intended to be a day focused on botany it nevertheless yielded two lifers during breakfast – a White-tailed (Sea) Eagle over the lake beside the hotel and a Black Redstart. Lots of Orchids and other excellent flowers in meadow sanctuaries.
Birds were, White-tailed Eagle, Black Redstart, Serin, Tree Sparrow, Grey Heron, Common Swift, Great Crested Grebe, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Magpie, Chiffchaff, Common Buzzard, Blackcap, Goldfinch, Yellowhammer, Tree Pipit, Song Thrush, Corn Bunting.
Saturday 1 June
A mixed day starting with early morning birding on the hotel estate around a large lake and a late breakfast (for the not quite so interested semi-birders) which produced … House Sparrows, Chaffinch, Black Woodpecker, Sarin, Spotted Flycatcher, Euro Blackbird, Grey Heron, Pochard, Red-crested Pochard, Cormorant, Mallard, Coot, White Wagtail, Greenfinch, Tufted Duck, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Euro Kestrel, Cuckoo, Reed Warbler, Nuthatch, Black-crowned Night Heron, Mute swan, Great Crested Grebe.
After that start things moved in a more historical and cultural direction (to the relief of some members of the party). A guided visit to Chateau Lednice after breakfast turned out to be a guided tour of the gardens and its birds … which was actually rather nice. These are old fashioned stately house gardens where it is possible for the people in charge to do it properly because they can hire enough gardeners instead of cutting corners. Anyway, Lednice birds turned out to be the following – Black Stork, Green Woodpecker, Honey Buzzard, Golden Oriole, Gadwall, Black-crowned Night Heron (colony), Song Thrush, Red-crowned Pochard, Pochard, Mallard, Collared Flycatcher, White Stork, Grey Heron, Blackcap, Moorhen, Chiffchaff, Reed Warbler, Wood Pigeon, Jackdaw, Black Woodpecker, Goldfinch, Kingfisher, Marsh Harrier.
The evening was passed in a Moravian wine cellar tasting surprisingly tasty Moravian wines. The whites were better than the reds and a Gewurtztramminer was outstanding.
Sunday 2 June
This day was spent on the road travelling from Moravia to Bohemia so there was little opportunity for serious birding. However, a bit of culture and enlightenment never being a bad thing, and the rain still incessantly falling we visited the Jewish cemetery in Mikulov which was fascinating … The community in this small town went back to the 15C and was well established. Numbers fell in the early part of the last century as people drifted from the country to towns but it was still significant … and then the Nazis set up a regional headquarters in the town and suddenly everyone was on the train to Auschwitz and 500 years of settlement was gone. The cemetery is very, very old and full of trees and flowers and really a wonderful place – it even has a small, self-set patch of white poppies.
Later we saw the preserved stretch of the iron curtain at the Austrian border kept as a reminder to future generations with its electrified wire and gun emplacements. The fences were some two or three km inside the actual border so that if anyone did manage to escape the guns and guards there was room to send the dogs after them. Quite chilling. Not the sort of thing one usually sees on a birding trip, but well worth the diversion. Everyone should see this stuff.
Lighter fare was found with a splendid lunch in the UNESCO heritage town of Telc with a perfectly preserved renaissance town square and castle. A lovely place indeed.
Monday 3 June
… And still it rained and rained and rained and the media were full of tales of imminent and catastrophic flooding. We spent the night in another preserved walled town called Trebon that is surrounded by hundreds of acres of fish ponds established in the middle ages to provide fish to a population regularly denied meat by the catholic church and unable to pay the price for fish demanded by the Germans. Tons and tons of carp are still taken from the “ponds” for the market while the ponds and the marshes around them make a world class place to see water and forest birds.
Being here for the birds we said bugger the weather and set out to test the power of GorTex which we found eventually can be overcome but thanked god for good boots. The rain fell and fell and the floods visibly rose around us while the birds skulked, sensibly, in whatever shelter they could find. We had excellent local guides though and did well under the circumstances but not as well as we hoped … By late afternoon we were enjoying a tour of a local brewery and discovering why Czech beer has the reputation is does for quality. Dinner at a splendid fish restaurant in Trebon – carp with paprika.
Wet birds of a very wet day included … Fieldfare (with young), Common Goldeneye, Reed Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Marsh Tit, White-tailed Eagles (2), Cormorants, Mute Swan, Great-crested Grebes (doing their display act), Tufted Duck, Common Tern, Herons, Mallard, Pochard, Red-crowned Pochard, Spotted Flycatcher, White Wagtail, Collared Flycatcher (both parents furiously stuffing food into junior), Great Tit, Blue Tit, House Sparrow, Black Redstart, Blackbird.
Tuesday 4 June
Not at all a birding day, rather a fay of hoping we can avoid the worst of the flooding. A few hours in Cesky Krumlov – another of the Czech UNESCO heritage towns with a huge castle containing the best preserved baroque theatre in the world. Simply amazing – all the original stage machinery, costumes, props and scenery.
Then three long hours to Prague.
Wednesday 5 and Thursday 6 June
Serious culture day (5) with a lengthy guided tour of the Prague Castle, St Vitus Cathedral and the old town followed by some wandering, some buying of a Bohemian Garnet necklace (“sparkles”) and a fine farewell dinner for the group in an art nouveau restaurant.
We did, however, add one bird to the talley – a group of Euro Jays were around the castle grounds, somehow we had not come across them on earlier days. A fine looking bird to finish with.
Thursday was an extra day for us and we devoted it to wandering the streets, especially a visit to Wenceslas Square where the so-called Velvet Revolution started … a real contact with recent history. We had also been recommended to check out Café Louvre for lunch (website – http://www.cafelouvre.cz/en/), and what a find it was. It turned out to be a rather famous art nouveau café, barely unchanged since it opened in 1902. Previous customers included Kafka and Einstein … that sort of a place with wonderful cakes included. A very fine way to finish our encounter with central Europe.