At the filling station of migrating birds

Flat land and green wet meadows as far as the eye can reach. In total 24 football fields of marshland are in front of us. In the middle two Common Snipes search for food. A Northern Lapwing does impressive flight maneuvers, accompanied by the melody of a Sky Lark. And finally two yellow dots in the meadow, the first Yellow Wagtails, who will build their nests in the thicket at the ground close to the dike by the end of April in order to breed. At the edge of the scene, on one of the small roads, is Marco Sommerfeld who observes the birds through his binoculars. You would not guess he is 46 years old. His face is healthy colored at every season of the year and he always smiles when encountering people. With his blue hooded sweatshirt of his nature conservation organization called NABU he seems ageless. He just conveys good mood and good will. Exactly the right person for environmental education he is. Many office people envy him because of this job.

From Eurasian Oystercatcher via Northern Lapwing to Little Bustard

Marco Sommerfeld has overseen the Carl Zeiss bird station for more than a decade with consistent commitment. Every year he welcomes around 12,000 visitors to his station, and around ten to 15 school classes. Before the guided tours many of the kids from Hamburg’s city believe that ducks eat bread. Lively and with the focus on around five bird species Marco enlightens the kids from the city for the marshlands of Wedel on ducks and other birds. The children memorize the oystercatcher with its size, its distinctive appearance and its special name very easily. Besides birds they often watch mammals. Once a rabbit rested only two meters away from a school class for a quarter of an hour and waited until Marco finished explaining. Even if the animals are further away the kids stay close to them with the ZEISS Terra ED binoculars they get at the bird station.

Grown-up visitors are more interested in background information of bird life and nature conservation.

They worry about the declining figures of birds they observe even among frequent species like lapwing, starlings and skylarks. After the outbreak of the Usutu virus, which hit hundreds of blackbirds as well as single other singing bird species in Hamburg in August 2018 for the first time, Marco daily answered many questions for visitors and phone calls of concerned citizens.

For Marco Sommerfeld and his team of trainees and volunteers it is therefore important to emphasize positive highlights in bird conservation. For many years they celebrate a lapwing party with tours about the birds in the marshlands at the Elbe, where they lend binoculars and inform on how to protect the habitats of the grassland birds. Children get separate adventure tours, Lapwing Olympics and a varied game program.

During June’s bird festival of NABU, Germany’s oldest and biggest nature conservation organization, in Hamburg called HanseBird Marco’s team organizes several field trips and lectures.

The festival has the motto “We protect what we know well” and attracts bird watchers and photographers who meet the optic manufacturers and enjoy the diverse programs. All big optic manufacturers and dealers present their innovations, artists present bird art and ZEISS provides an exclusive inspection and service of binoculars on-site.

Beyond those exceptional days with festivals maintaining works in the biotope, public relations and visitor support dominate daily life at the bird station. Marco works outdoors a lot, coordinates the jobs of his team and has got his own hands full as they never run out of work around the station. Seven years ago his everyday life was turned upside down for some days. For the first time in a quarter of a century a Little Bustard appeared in Germany at his station. Around a thousand ornithologists from the whole of Germany visited the marshland to catch this rare bird in their binoculars.

There exists hardly a better job to discover rarities. Especially during migration Marco gets his money’s worth; his bird list reaches more than 350 bird species in Germany. When we had a first phone chat in the fall Marco reported live on the cranes flying over the marshlands and a sparrow hawk directly above the house. Something with birds is always happening and Marco rejoices also in ordinary as well as rarity sights.

Typically, German bird watchers, who turn their hobby into a career, start in nature conservation organizations as children. They may work in the Wadden Sea after school, study something with biology or similar sciences, and find a job in organizations or institutions related to bird study. Marco’s bird watching career was not that straightforward in the beginning.

As a child “My First Bird Book” rated well among his favorite books and he like to help his grandfather with the hens and pigeons, but as a teenager he had other interests. At the age of 17, after school he started professional training as a male nurse. His empathic ability to support others is helpful in his job to this day.

First with his civilian service instead of military service he developed a deep interest in birding during his time in the visitor center in Dangast, in the national park in the Wadden Sea. He discovered the attractiveness of working in nature and did not want to go back working in the hospital.

So he went back to school to get the degree for studying landscape ecology in Münster, where he also worked as a volunteer for the Federation of German Avifaunists and then wrote his master thesis on songbirds on the North Sea island Wangerooge. During that time he got the idea to start a job as a Wadden Sea tour guide in environmental education for NABU. There he worked until a friend of his told him about an advertised job in the bird station of the marshlands in Wedel.

Like many European ornithologists Marco used to make vacations on Lesbos, in Israel and Morocco. For three years now he focuses on alpine bird species in Bavaria as a contrast to his everyday life at the Elbe.

The marshlands of Wedel across the Elbe are the filling station of very many European migration birds.

Young geological formation

Marco Sommerfeld regularly counts up to 160 bird species in the field, with 80 species breeding there. As alluvial soil it was formed by sediments of the Wadden Sea and of the salt meadows, it belongs like all marshland to a very young geological phenomenon. It first developed after the glacial period. NABU Hamburg took over the area, restructured the water body and made it a perfect biotope with shallow water zones for waders, a duck paradise with the deeper water and an ideal breeding spot for ground breeders in the meadows.

It is rare to see so many bird species on such a small area. It is also an ideal location for young birders and with this Marco had an idea.  He, together with a friend, founded a Young Birders’ Club following the American example. As a natural talent in dealing with other people he quickly won young volunteers, introduced them into the basics of bird identification and nowadays carries out waterfowl counts and bird ringing with them. Often enough the youngsters now organize themselves with joint weekends and excursions. With this Marco contributed to let youngsters share their passion with like-minded friends and to lead some of them on the direct way to their future dream job.

Michaela Sulz

Michaela Sulz is a passionate birder and ZEISS blogger.