Monday, April 30, 2012

Little America in Kaiserslautern

For my next stop, I took the train to Kaiserslautern to visit my friends Barb and Dave. Last time I saw them, they had recently returned from the Peace Corps in Swaziland. Now they have lived in three additional countries and have two teenaged daughters!

I didn't do a whole lot of birding here – having come down with a persistent cold my first morning didn't help. But Barb and I had fun with making a couple meals – I did chicken fajitas one night, and she made delicious tilapia with a mango salsa one night. I also showed Barb the easy no-knead bread that I like so much.

We took one field trip to Ramstein base to do some shopping, but along the way we did some fossil hunting in the mall (this and the grocery store are a strange bit of America in the middle of Europe). The floors and walls of the mall made from locally quarried limestone. Here are a belemnite, an ammonite, and a hard-to-see staghorn coral.

The weather was often not conducive to birding, and when it got better and I felt well enough for a short walk, we went through the field behind their house and into a strip of woods at the bottom of the hill. We had some just-arriving Pied Flycatchers, a pair of Chiffchaffs building a nest, and a wonderfully vocal Common Nightingale. I managed to get a pretty good recording of it with the Audio Memo app on my iPhone and loaded it up to Xeno-canto.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Wagbachniederung bei Waghäusel – A Mouthful for a Marsh Full of Birds

After our day in the Kaiserstuhl and in the edge of the nearby Black Forest, Michael and I had one more full day of birding before I moved on to my next visit. We started with a nice walk into the riparian forest that begins right across the street from his house in Meißenheim. We walked past a White Stork nest at the edge of town. It kept fiddling with its head down, probably turning eggs, then sat down. I should be able to get a better pic somewhere else.

We had countless Blackcaps singing up a storm and even two Common Nightingales. Not an abundant species in central Europe, the shy Nightingale needs dense thickets, preferably with some standing water. I took a photo of one piece of typical habitat where one was singing.

Then it was time to say goodbye to the family, with a quick photo shoot, before Michael and I continued our day of birding.

We drove north (through France, to avoid an Autobahn construction project!) to southwestern Germany's most famous birding spot – the Wagbachniederung bei Waghäusel. Not far from Heidelberg, it's a complex of basins with ponds and marshes, trails on the dikes, and it's full of birds. When I was living in Germany in 1990-9, it was pretty famous just for the small population of Eared Grebes (Black-necked Grebe to the Brits, to which the Latin and German names also translate).

In the middle of a large colony of Black-headed Gulls, Michael very deftly spotted this Mediterranean Gull. Gull names don't translate well – the German name for Black-headed Gull is Lachmöwe, which could be translated as Laughing Gull (though some claim it actually means puddle gull; the specific epithet ridibundus, also meaning "laugh," argues agains this theory however). And the German name for Mediterranean Gull is Schwarzkopfmöwe, which translates to Black-headed Gull. If you translate Mediterranean Gull to German, you get Mittelmeermöwe, which is the name for Yellow-legged Gull.

Waghäusel is also a great place for Bluethroats, of which we saw several, and I even glimpsed a Bearded Reedling flying back and forth across one stretch of reed. We saw several Purple Herons sitting on low stick nests partially hidden in the reed beds, another one of the birds that makes this place famous.

Just a kilometer down the road we stopped at an Aldi grocery store parking lot for this staked-out Crested Lark, a very local bird in Germany. Michael is standing below the lamp post where the bird is sitting.

We finished our day of birding by Deidesheim, north of Neustadt an der Weinstraße, on the western edge of the central Rhine Valley, where the valley floor meets a sudden hilly region. The wine-covered lower slopes here are home to several pairs of Cirl Bunting, a very local breeder with only a couple hundred pair known in the country. We spotted a pair of these beautiful birds in short order and finished up with a Middle Spotted Woodpecker in the parking lot before Michael whisked me off to the train station for the next part of my trip.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hoopoe in the Kaiserstuhl and empty Black Forest Quarries

I'm getting behind in my blog. That's what happens when you go birding and botanizing all day, visit with friends you haven't seen in 20 years, and then catch a debilitating cold.

These photos are from three days ago already, when I took a hike around the Ihringen part of the Kaiserstuhl with my friends Uwe and Michael.

The Kaiserstuhl is an isolated range of hills that break up the otherwise flat upper Rhein Valley. The main massif is of ancient, extinct volcano cores, with loess deposits heaped up all over. It's known as one of the warmest and driest regions of Germany and is home to a small population of Hoopoes and several colonies of European Bee-eaters. The bee-eaters aren't in yet, but we did see one Hoopoe. The area, like much of SW Germany is dominated by vineyards. This is a shot looking southeastward across the Rhein valley towards the southern Black Forest.

Besides the Hoopoe, we also saw a couple Stonechats. All bird photos here are digibinned, so please excuse the poor quality.

Eurasian Jay is always a nice bird to see, with its lovely blue wing coverts. This one was half of a pair gathering twigs for their nest.

It's been a very cold April, so many wildflowers are rather late. This is Common Pasqueflower, Pulsatilla vulgaris, related to anemones.

This interesting flower is Greater Celindine, Chelidonium majus, a member of the poppy family. It's notable for its yellow sap, recalling the tropical shrubby Bocconia, also known as celandine in Jamaica.

In the vineyards we came across a small cluster of this morel, Morchella rotunda.

On our return we came across a pair of Wrynecks that did not cooperate for a photo, but as we reentered the town of Ihringen, a garden dwarf stood still enough for a quick photo.

After saying goodbye to Uwe, Michael and I continued to the western part of the Kaiserstuhl where we took another short walk, finding Tree Pipit, Black Woodpecker, and Middle Spotted Woodpecker. The latter two I had not seen in 21 years.

This area also had a few nice wildflowers, such as this Cypress Spurge, Euphorbia cyparissias.

This is a Wood Spurge, Euphorbia amygdaloides.

Globedaisy, Globularia puncata is now considered a member of the plantain family, Plantaginaceae.

And this is a Potentilla sp., a confusing genus that doesn't allow easy ID from photos alone.

We also saw one butterfly, despite the cold. This is a Wood White, Leptidea sinapis.

Michael then drove us northeast to the foothills of the central Black Forest near Lahr, where we poked our noses into three different quarries where Eurasian Eagle-Owls have nested in past years. No luck this time for this potential lifer.

This Carrion Beetle, Oeceoptoma thoracicum was a new family for me – Silphidae.

Before heading to Michael's home in Meißenheim, we took a short walk through picturesque and historic Gengenbach and stopped for some delicious gelato.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Black Forest Wildflowers

Yesterday I joined my friend Christoph to two sites in the central Black Forest where he had a contract to do some bird surveys for proposed construction projects. We passed through some truly classic Black Forest farm country with the huge farm houses that incorporate the barn and living quarters all in one. This quaint little house still had an operational water mill.

We passed through Alpirsbach, a touristy town full of Fachwerkhäuser – the typical wood frame construction seen here. This town also has a locally famous brewery, and we came away with several types of beer to try.

We also passed by what looked like Roman ruins.

In an area called Ehlenbogen we arrived at the first survey site by a tunnel.

Here we saw Goldcrest, tons of Coal Tits, a couple Eurasian Bullfinches, singing Blackcaps and a few other expected birds. I enjoyed all the early spring wildflowers:

Coltsfoot, Tussilago farfara

Common Bilberry, Vaccinium myrtillus

Cowslip, Primula veris

Wood Anemone, Anemone nemorosa

It's been quite cool in northern Europe these past few days, so I was surprised to see this butterfly, a Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas.

On the way home we checked out a potential raptor migration viewpoint with a lovely view to the NW over the upper Prech valley (Oberprechtal).

Today was a little less exciting: a late breakfast, some errands downtown (including a quick stop by the yarn shop!), finishing up post-tour materials on my computer, doing some knitting, and then changing over from Christoph and Friederiecke's to Uwe's house nearby, where our friend Stefan just happened to be making a last minute work trip from Bonn.

Friederieck's homemade pizza

The yard behind the house where Christoph and Friederiecke live.

Stefan, Uwe, and I.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

My Age Has Doubled in Freiburg

As I wandered through the student dorm complex here in Freiburg (StuSie am See is the nickname) and stood before this building that I called home for 10 months in 1990-91, I thought of the current Oregon exchange students that might be living there now. I occurred to me how young they must be, as I was only 20-21 then. And how that was 21 years ago. And…oops! That means they were only just born when I was a student here, I'm twice as old as they are now, and my age has doubled! Maybe I shouldn't have come up the hill around the corner after all.

But it was a nice walk down memory lane to check out the birds on the lake that is located right behind the complex, Flückiger See. I checked out the birds here almost every day back then, keeping a record of everything I saw. It's a great location for student dorms, even though it's six light rail stops from the university.

Today there were some migrants in the trees by the lake, including Blackcap, Chiffchaff, and this Wood Warbler.

Only 1 pair of Red-crested Pochard was here, as were two pairs of Great Crested Grebes, one on a nest.

I also got a chance to visit with old friends, here Andreas by the budding garden he and his partner Markus started about a year ago in their really great new house. I had coffee and three kinds of fabulous cakes and torts at Andreas' while we caught up on each others' lives.

And I had lunch with Christoph and Uwe at the Markthalle in downtown Freiburg, more catching up to do. I'm staying at Christoph's here in Freiburg, while Uwe slipped out for lunch from his work at the Forestry Stewardship Council.

Speaking of downtown Freiburg, it's a wonderful, charming place to walk around. The entire center is a pedestrian zone full of shops, and all the little streets are lined with channels called Bächle, Freiburg's hallmark.

One thing I like about Freiburg is how many people use public transportation and ride their bikes. The light rail system is wonderful and the bike trail system is very well thought out. In Tucson, bike paths – if there are any – are barbarically located on the same level as the street and are often merely marked by a line that in effect only narrows the car's lane. There's often no place in an entire shopping center to park your bike because there is no bike rack at all. Even the gigantic Tucson Mall has space for about six bikes at two racks at opposite ends of the mall, but at least you'll be the only bike there (though I have to admit that after 5 years of lobbying, I finally got my local Trader Joe's to install a second bike rack). Here in Freiburg, if there's no place to park your bike, it's because 100 people have beat you to the racks.

Another thing that strikes me here in Germany is how practical and sensible nearly everything is, even down to the engineering of the urinals in the downtown public bathrooms. The bulging center to the porcelain is carefully designed to minimize splatter and spray, redirecting it into the urinal rather than onto the walls and floor, but only if the stream hits a certain spot – and to encourage that, each urinal has a small fly painted on the spot where one should aim. Fluid dynamics and psychology ingeniously incorporated into a single, simple object.

The main cathedral (Münster) is Freiburg's landmark, and I love perusing the farmer's market here.

Christoph and his wife Friedericke sing in the cathedral's choir (Freiburger Domchor), and this evening I showed up at rehearsal to watch and listen. If I had arrived earlier, I might have staked out a seat across the hall, but Christoph beat me to it and got permission from the director to invite me to sing with them instead! It was a new program for everyone, so it was sight-reading and playing through the parts for some nice music, such as a Gregorian chant piece and some stuff by Schmider, Mozart, and Palestrina. Great fun. Below you can listen to 30 seconds of a choir practice (with the director tapping out the beat on his music stand), here Sicut Cervus Desiderat by Palestrina, recorded with my iPhone. They were actually quite good sight-readers, and I wish I could be there to hear the finished pieces.