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Alex Douglas-Kane shares her experiences and understanding of Discover Nature Awareness

Saturday, 16 May 2009

After the Wall came down...

About a year after the Berlin wall came down my good friend Richard and I decided we would do a tour of some of Eastern Europe from 9th - 14th Aug 1992.

Setting out from Germany we visited Austria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), Slovakia, Poland via the Tatra Mountains and into East Germany.

Some of the birds seen during our trip were a Pygmy Owl! - the Neusiedlersee in Austria, Black Stork at the Hortobagy – Hungary and an amazing stroke of luck the Ural Owl in the Vyhorlat Hills - Czechoslovakia (now Czech Republic), Three-toed Woodpecker up the Tatra Mountains - Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia) and growling Brown Bear in the distance and finely at the Gullpersee, East Germany Six Ospreys, and one White-tailed Eagle.

Along the way we had many interesting experiences, allow me to share some of them with today. Our first was one night while up in the hills near to Neusiedlersee we heard a pygmy owl which we dually reported tour sighting to the gut in charge of the nature centre there. As I relayed our sighting in my best German (or so I thought) to the guy who we reported our sighting to became very excited. He informed us that our sighting was a first for that region.

It was not until we were some way into Hungary that I realised that I had reported to wrong bird the authorities. I reported that we had seen a Scops owl instead, Doh (so sorry for getting it wrong, I just hope that no twitcher's went to get our not so rare sighting).

Some time later we ended up at the Hortobagy. however, along the way we saw a lot of discarded military equipment and empty barracks, we even passed a scrap dealers were there was a Mig 21? sat on top of a load of old cars, still with its entire insignia on it. Oh yes, and we awoke one morning, well I, woke Richard up who was none too happy, to tell him all about the blindly obvious Storks clapping around us, I guess he was tired.

Continuing on our drive through Eastern Europe, we observed a clever way of using what appeared to be an old transport plane, namely the front half of the fuselage was cut from the rest of the plane and then stuck onto a restaurant, and to get into the restaurant you had to walk up the steps of the aircraft and into the plane and along the inside to the front door of the restaurant, quite novel I thought at the time and it did bring a smile to my face.

We also met several local birders who were using a pair of binoculars split into two halves which they used as individual scopes, this I guess, was due to the lack of funds to purchase the more expensive equipment that we are use to. Just shows you when you want to do something you will find ways to achieve the best results with what you have available.

At one point we considered the possibility of going into the Ukraine, but as we got closer to the boarder we felt it might be wiser to give it a miss, and so began a long night drive into the Czechoslovakia hills (now Slovakia). We stopped at various points along the way in the hope of getting a Tengelmalm’s owl, by playing a tape recording, during one of these stops we had a response from another owl which we determined to be a Strix of unknown origin.

At this point we decided to venture into the woods, soon realising that it was a boggy woodland which required us the move along fallen trees and not along the ground for fear of doing a disappearing act. As we approached the owl, our batteries on our torch we discovered was running low, and just before they wee about to die, we encountered our first ever Ural owl.

How excited were we? Just enough to stay in the trees I guess, we discovered on our return to Germany that the British Birds magazine had reported on the status of the birds of Czechoslovakia, and that the Ural owl we saw was possibly one of ten known breeding pairs?

After this we tried to enter into Poland, the Polish Border Guard wanted a bribe and he wouldn't let us into the country until we had paid him, we informed him that all we had was local currency as we had been changing our money as we passed through each country. But he remained convinced that we had Deutschmarks or Dollars on us. Eventually, he let us in, after he realised that we were telling the truth , I guess he decided this when he saw that we had started brewing up at the side of his hut. I guess he must have thought that we were hard core and in it for the long term, it must have appeared to him that we were settling in for the night.

Was this the beginnings of CAOS (I wonder)?. Sorry everyone only those who are in the know will understand.

After our very unwelcome reception, we decided not stay in Poland and pushed on into East Germany, aiming for the White-tailed Sea Eagle. Some nice birding was to be had there. As a result of not staying in Poland we returned to West Germany early. Along the way we bought some very discussing drink ,which we gave to our friend Dave as a gift for feeding us, when we stopped over at his place on our way home. He was not very impressed when he drank it, thankfully we were long gone by the time he had put it to his lips, and boy did we laugh. We had an ice cream from the same place, the shop was advertising magnums and all kinds of ice creams the sort you would expect to find at home. They actually only had one kind, and you really needed the disgusting drink to wash away the taste of it, it was like frozen powered milk, that’s the best way I can describe it.

For me the best was yet to come, when I got home, my house was empty. I thought were could the wife and kids be? Ah I know, they will be round our friends house, so off I went. I knocked on the door and it was duly opened and our friend stood in shock at seeing me there, “what are you doing here? We thought you had forgotten all about it” she said. Think Geoff what have you forgotten as my mind raced for answers, my mouth let loose these words. “Why do you think I have come back early, it is because I have not forgotten (whatever it was)”.

On entering their house I was greeted with the same words “we thought you forgot” “who me, never” I was able to string this out for well over an hour and no one asked me the obvious question, that is until on the way home, my wife said you have forgotten haven’t you… silence. “Yes, what have I forgotten then?” she relied “our wedding anniversary.”


All in all a great time was had, by Richard and I.

Drawing: Short-eared Owl - by Geoffrey McMullan

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