Germany: Birds & Art in Berlin & Brandenburg Sep 30—Oct 08, 2016

Posted by Rick Wright

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Rick Wright

Rick Wright, a native of southeast Nebraska, studied French, German, philosophy, and life sciences at the University of Nebraska, where he worked in the bird collections of...

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To anyone whose impressions are still colored by grainy photographs or grainier memories from the days of the Wall, twenty-first-century Berlin is absolutely unrecognizable. The city is lively, bright, and bustling, full of cultural, historical, culinary, and natural highlights that are once again open to all. On this inaugural tour, we took advantage of as many of Berlin’s offerings as possible—and most of us, I’m sure, left wanting even more.

Our comfortable hotel, right across the street from a convenient and quickly familiar S-Bahn station, gave us easy access to everything from woodland birds to world-class museums. At times, as on our first afternoon’s visit to the medieval treasures of the Museum of Decorative Arts or on our windy walk through the agricultural meadows near Belzig, we found ourselves privileging culture over nature or nature over culture; for the most part, though, each of our destinations throughout the week beautifully combined both aspects of the tour.

The small park surrounding the baroque palace of Charlottenburg, for example, which we visited on an evocatively dim, occasionally misty morning, gave us not only a glimpse into the courtly life of the early eighteenth century, but lingering looks at one of the indisputable highlights of our time together, a massive juvenile Northern Goshawk that blithely ignored our admiring stares as it searched for a juicy starling or pigeon for breakfast. The breathtaking Mandarin Ducks there and at nearby Sans Souci, refuge and residence of Fredrick the Great, were the descendants of birds introduced centuries ago to ornament landscapes already adorned with such native beauties as European Robins, Blue Tits, and Eurasian Jays. 

Our first introduction to those and the other common woodland bird of the region was in another former royal and imperial park, the Tiergarten, whose dark woods, quiet ponds, and inviting paths stretch from our hotel to the now effaced border between what were once East Berlin and West Berlin. Colorful Chaffinches fed on the graveled paths while cryptically marked Short-toed Treecreepers and colorful, dashing Great Spotted Woodpeckers worked the tree trunks; most memorable for most of us, though, was probably our first Eurasian Kestrel of the tour, a male circling against the blue sky just above the monumental symbol of German unity, the Brandenburg Gate.

It would have been easy to linger right in the exciting center of Berlin for the entire week, but a few very special birds called us farther afield. Our first visit to the meadows and pastures of the Belzig area was not helped much by the terrific winds, though they made the sight of a Peregrine Falcon flushing Wood-Pigeons from the tall trees even more dramatic; Stock Doves, Linnets, and brightly colored Yellowhammers did their part, too, to take the sting out of our missing the local bustards, which were no doubt hunkered down in the vast fields out of the raging wind. We made up for it in spades a few days later, when on our way to the large and bird-rich lake at Gülpe we found not one but two flocks of Great Bustards, a total of 33 individuals loafing unconcerned on roadside fields; the numbers of this enormous and enormously appealing bird in Germany have rebounded encouragingly from its post-war low of only about 50 individuals, but the two flocks we encountered still made up something like 15% of the country’s entire bustard population, a sobering and at the same time gratifying thought.

October is also prime time for migrant geese and cranes in the region drained by the Oder River. We had good views of Tundra Bean Geese along with the more familiar Graylags and Greater White-fronted Geese, and the crane show was better with each passing day. By the time we paid our visit to the roosting grounds at Linum, the local tally of Common Cranes had neared 65,000. We enjoyed close and lingering looks at small troops on the ground, this year’s juveniles still easily picked out as they fed with their parents, then watched in awe as some tens of thousands streamed in during the late afternoon. Along with the Sandhill Crane, this is the only one of the world’s gruids whose population is significantly increasing, a circumstance that makes autumn in central Europe that much more exciting.

After millennia of human habitation, of course, even the “wildest” countryside in northeastern Germany is a landscape mixing nature and culture. A particularly evocative example is the thirteenth-century monastery of Chorin, just a few miles from the bottomlands of the Oder River. On the holiday weekend when we visited, the beautiful ruins of the church provided the stage for a festival of local artists and craftsmen and for the afternoon concert of a Black Redstart, singing his gravely, gristly song from 700-year-old brick shaped by the hands of long-gone monks and forgotten peasants.

Berlin’s more modern history was all around us, too, in the bullet-pocked walls housing the overwhelming riches of the museums on the Museumsinsel, the busy construction and restoration still underway at the Potsdamer Platz, and the jumbled but still fascinating displays at the Checkpoint Charlie museum commemorating the lives destroyed when a wall divided one of Europe’s greatest cities. We are fortunate to live and to visit in a time when Berlin is once again whole, and the surrounding countryside of Brandenburg is once again accessible to visitors interested in nature or art or history—or, like our congenial group, in all of the above, ideally all at once.