Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Swiss birding squad

Even for somebody like me who has been through the process a few times, moving to a new continent can be a bit intimidating. On top of all the usual challenges in navigating a new culture and physical setting, the critical support networks of friends and families are left behind.

With Natalia off in southeast Asia I was left on my own to bird in a strange Swiss land. The forecast had looked good, but an unexpected dense fog shrouded the landscape, as well as the birds, at the local hotspot, "Katzenseen."

The dense fog at Katzenseen. I felt like I was more likely to encounter an advancing infantry front than a bird.

My early wake-up and pre-dawn arrival proved to be pointless, as I wandered around destitute in the haze for hours while silhouettes of migrating Goldfinches and Fieldfares swirled around in the colorless treetops. Passing hikers said unintelligible things to me. Greetings, presumably, though the Swiss-German accent to my untrained ear recalls more of a fork being dropped into a garbage disposal.

When the sun finally came out after several hours, I blinked at the beautiful landscape I had been until then unable to perceive.  It was quite pretty and I could see the birding potential, but I was starving and it was time to retreat home for lunch. I would have to return another day.

After the fog lifts I can finally see where I am

This was a bit of a lonely and inauspicious early go at Swiss birding for me, but thanks to birding's growing popularity, finding birder friends has become easier than ever.  Within Natalia's work department alone we now know a half-dozen-or-so birders.

So armed with Natalia and some new friends I later returned to Katzenseen to give the place another go.

bird squad at Katzenseen

And of course it was so much more fun, even with a decent snow falling.

The ubiquitous European Robin eating fallen apples in the snow
And this time birds were better and more interesting. Or perhaps it was just that having people along to listen to my jokes and pontifications.

'This treecreeper looks like it could be from Eurasia." This comedic gold would usually be left to bang around inside my own.

I'm finally starting to get a handle on the treecreepers. This is a Short-toed Treecreeper (note the long bill), not to be confused with the nearly identical Eurasian Treecreeper (both are common and widespread in Eurasia)

Finally a decent look at a Fieldfare (if you're not snow blind). The Katzenseen apple orchard was loaded with Thrushes.

Wow, a Black Woodpecker excavating a nest!  This is worth a video.

Best of all, we had a target staked out.
Long-eared Owl, the first I've seen since I saw my lifer in Rhode Island a full decade ago. Fun fact: my life list at that point was less than 300.

Ashwin knew where a group of Long-eared Owls roost, and we were able to tally 11 of them peering out of a dense thicket.

Our report of the owls to eBird drew some attention, and not the hate mail that casually reporting an owl roost usually brings. Some birders from Basel reached out wanting some location details so they could chase.  I offered to lead them to owls the following weekend and earned another couple birder friends. Daniel and Julie also happened to be professional conservation ecologists with a knack for whispering out Water Rails.

Since then I have had the chance to bird a few times at hotspots further afield thanks to my new friends' cars and willingness to drive.

The best, closest birding spot to Zurich is Lake Constanz, which offers an impressive spectacle of waterfowl mega-flocks (the best I've seen outside of North Carolina's Mattamuskeet NWR).

small chunk of mostly Tufted Duck within a raft of 10,000 mixed with Greater Scaup and Common Pochard

Let's take this opportunity to appreciate some of the common Eurasian Waterfowl, like this Eurasian (Common) Teal

Or these Red-crested Pochard (with a Great Crested Grebe), which Natalia considers to be the prettiest duck on the continent. My new Spanish birder friend Josep disagrees (the red bill is too gaudy, he says. I bet he also doesn't like women who wear lipstick).

I had pretty low expectations about Swiss birding when I arrived here in the middle of Europe, but it's been surprisingly fun. Despite having birded a good bit in Greece and Scotland, I've managed to tick 22 lifers during the species-poor winter months.

A recent lifer for me was Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (this one was at Lake Constanz). It may not look like much more than a Downy Woodpecker, but this can be a tricky bird to find.

After a lot of searching I finally found my first Great Bittern at Klingnauer Stausee

Digiscoped pic of my most recent Swiss lifer was Garganey, a bird I had dreamed of seeing as a vagrant in North Carolina. It proved to be easy enough to find at Lake Constanz in March.

This success has all been thanks to my new Swiss-based birding friends (you know who you are). With migration around the corner, I'm sure I'll be out birding with them again soon!

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