A Saturday morning with the Young Birders Club at the Carl Zeiss Bird Station

4:45 a.m.: The alarm clock went off. Thinking of sleeping in on a Saturday morning? Not when you’re going to watch migratory birds with the Young Birders Club! We began counting all migratory birds even before the sun rose. So we met at the Wedel Marina at 7:30. We’ve headed to the marina because this is where the river Elbe is at its most narrow, causing the migrating birds to gather so that they can spend as little time over the water as possible as they fly south. This Saturday started out gray with a strong wind from the southwest – not exactly great conditions for migrating because birds generally don’t fly when there are headwinds. Despite the weather, a small group of Young Birders met at the marina.

And it paid off! In spite of the wind, large groups of birds were out and flocks of them flew across the Elbe heading south every couple of seconds. Today the record went to the common chaffinch: in three hours, more than 21,500 of them flew across the river. Yet you have to look sharp when there are swarms of finches, because in between the common chaffinches is the odd brambling and hawfinch. Picking out individual species when bird watching requires a special kind of skill. Species that look quite different on the ground can appear almost exactly the same when flying overhead. You can only distinguish between them by their call and flying silhouette.

But we were lucky. The birds were not flying as high due to the wind, making them easier to identify. It's quite impressive when you stand on the slightly elevated jetty directly along the Elbe and watch a flock of hundreds of chaffinches and bramblings flying around your head.

Four of us counted while one person wrote down the numbers. Christian explained to us how to identify each species. You can pick out bramblings from the common chaffinches by their call. It was also easy to see the different coloring on the birds’ underparts with a pair of ZEISS Victory SF binoculars. At the moment there are only a few bramblings, but there will be a lot more later in the fall. It’s hard to miss the hawfinches in the flock thanks to their more robust stature and size. You can also pick them out by their chick call. Siskins and red crossbills are easy to identify by their calls and fly overhead in small numbers.

The last barn swallows of the season are also on the move. Other species of swallow left several weeks before, but you can still see individual barn swallows up through the middle of October.
The thrushes begin their migration slowly. Song thrushes, fieldfares and mistle thrushes are out in the small groups, and there still a few hundred redwings. Distinguishing between different types of thrushes as they fly by takes a lot of practice, in particular redwings and song thrushes look very much alike and often travel together. In this case, the only thing to go by is their calls.

The highlight of the day was spotting two merlins heading south. You seldom see these small hawks in this area, and spotting two on one day is a really special event.

After watching the birds from the Marina, we headed to Wedel Marsh. Here it was also hard to miss the migratory birds: we spotted chickadees, leaf warblers and finches everywhere in the bushes. They were still resting before departing. The same held true for the white wagtails and meadow pipits on the levee. We enjoyed a cup of tea to warm up at the Carl Zeiss Bird Station while watching out for charadriiformes and anadtids and tallied up our numbers from the morning.

We spotted more than 25,000 birds and 27 different species in three hours. The common chaffinches (21,500), redwings (2,000) and common wood pigeons (500) were the most frequently sighted. All of a sudden it got a bit hectic at the bird station, the geese and ducks at the station all flew away. We immediately started looking for the white-tailed eagle. Instead, we found some cranes had frightened the geese and landed directly in the field next to the Carl Zeiss Bird Station.

That was something I had never experienced after more than 100 visits to the bird station. Cranes – if you get to see them at all – usually fly far overhead, and there is neither food nor anywhere for them to rest in the marsh. But the headwinds and lack of a thermal lift meant today they had no choice but to make an involuntary stop and wait for better weather.

Thus a memorable and successful day of bird watching came to a climactic conclusion with a personal first. I’m already looking forward to the next Young Birders meeting where many more exciting sightings and a lot of new knowledge await.

Sören Rust

Sören Rust is an enthusiastic Young Birder, nature photographer and volunteer at the Carl Zeiss Bird Station at Wedel Marsh.