Lammergeiers from Leeds – a festive fortnight on the near continent by rail and bus

By Jonnie Fisk

Birding trips abroad are a high-carbon indulgence. But that can be cut down by quite some margin by ditching air travel. I spent two weeks on Europe’s winter rails to show that productive, fulfilling and affordable birding can be had without the need for a plane or car.

In January 2019 I flew to Hungary with one of my best mates. We hired a little Suzuki Swift and toured around the snowy steppes and mountains of Eastern Europe – under the pretence of paying homage to the wintering Long-eared Owl ‘experience’ in Kikinda, Serbia. I returned to coastal East Yorkshire having had the usual formative escapade one does when travelling to new places and seeing new birds with great company: my first Saker Flacons and caudatus Long-tailed Tits, picking out Red-breasted Geese among thousands of ‘White-fronts’,  experiencing a Brambling roost that supposedly numbered into the millions…etc. etc… It was fun to burn rubber across four countries, spotting Great Grey Shrikes, Jackals and Crested Larks in the snow as we went. But was it right that the budget airline flight cost less than half as much as my usual train from Hull to my hometown of Harrogate? The bargain flight, cheap accommodation and massive meals under 20 quid left little reason to dwell on the environmental impact of what was essentially a little winter jolly.

With a year to sit on it, and crushing environmental anxiety from the daily dose of reality dished out every time I checked online, I came to a small personal epiphany. In x many years’ time, I want to be able to look at myself and know that I made changes to my lifestyle in the face of undeniable and catastrophic climate change. I try not to preach or judge others outwardly on their travel, but knew that going forward, if I birded abroad, it would be without the assistance of an aeroplane. I’m lucky that I live an inherently birdy lifestyle on the Spurn peninsula, meaning there is often very little motivation to take myself elsewhere. But barely having digested my boxing day leftovers in December 2019, I found myself sat on an overnight coach travelling from Amsterdam to Berlin, my binoculars tucked inside my jumper and a familiar ‘herbal’ smell emanating from the other young passengers. By the morning we were in Germany, and less than 24 hours after I’d set off on the train from Leeds, I was watching Berlin’s iconic urban Goshawks.

This trip I took across the near Continent; to Berlin, then to Italy as far south as Naples, back north to the Swiss Alps and home to Spurn by way of Amsterdam, was not my first foray on Europe’s rails. Fresh out of school about seven years before, two buddies and I went from the Netherlands to Turkey over three weeks using an Interrail ticket – a rite of passage for scores of European youths on their holidays. The ticket cuts down costs massively and, at 24 years-old, I was still eligible for one now. For some continental rail trips, buying individual train tickets works out cheaper, but if you want some wriggle room on dates and locations, greater freedom of movement, or are planning on packing in lots of journeys over the selected time period, as I was here, an Interrail ticket is a no-brainer. 

I’ve visited Berlin before in the summer, also via train, and knew how easy it was to spend all day lost in the Großer Tiergarten with Icterine Warblers, Striped Field Mice and Red-breasted Flycatchers. But winter brought a whole different experience, and during my three days there, I’d walk the 30 minutes from my hostel and spend all daylight hours in the park, not really sure what to expect apart from the Goshawks I’d come to study. Flocks of Hawfinches, Bramblings and northern Bullfinches fed in the sycamores, and one afternoon a skein of White-fronted Geese flew over low. At least three Middle Spotted Woodpeckers were faithful to the same areas of the park, looking pink-flushed and full-bodied in the frosty foliage. I watched them for hours.

I’ve seen Goshawks before, sure. As barrel-chested silhouettes displaying over breckland or upland clearings. But there is something about the promise of seeing one of these battleaxes of the Palaearctic’s primeval forests in a city park; with joggers and prams and defecating dogs passing under them, which drew me back to Berlin. And it’s just as described. The Goshawks preen, feak specks of flesh off their chops, and just generally stare wild-eyed into a private world of murder and meat while city-life carries on beneath them. The huge flocks of Woodpigeons in the park feed restlessly, constantly looking over their shoulders in a way you don’t see in the UK. A Goshawk culture breeds an untamed air to these urban parks: a carnivorous iron-grey agrestal weed among labelled, imported trees and cyclamen borders. A wildness missing from Britian’s cities – but only a bus away.

I should say now that long distance train travel (especially in Europe) is, generally, marvellous. Rather than getting from A to B in a soulless, airless cabin – viewing all the places in between your destinations as circuit boards of cities and capillaries of rivers from 42,000 ft – you watch each vista slip slowly into another, note the gradual changes in landscape use, in architecture, in the flora. Not only is it visually pleasing, but it’s very settling for the mind. Legendary travel writer Paul Theroux sums it up: “Train travel animated my imagination and usually gave me the solitude to order and write my thoughts. I travelled easily in two directions along the level rails while Asia flashed changes at the window, and at the interior rim of a private world of memory and language.” (from The Great Railway Bazaar).

Of course, cities are easier to reach on trains and buses than prime European birding sites. But one can compromise. I celebrated the New Year Italian-style with an old work colleague in Lombardy before we spent the first day of 2020 travelling by rail to Rome. I expanded my culinary horizons and attempted some ‘culture’, but will admit I was mainly focused on the Blue Rock Thrushes, Black Redstarts and Serins around the Roman ruins, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers and nesting Monk Parakeets in the city parks, and come sunset, a distant – but still breath-taking – dance of a million or so Starlings over the city skyline.

It was then onward to Switzerland, my belly full of pasta and fingers itching to exercise on the focussing wheel of my binoculars. Even Alpine species are not beyond the range of rail and bus birding, if you save a few spare francs for a ski-lift ticket. A couple hour’s travel out of Zürich and I was crashing through the snow of the Gemmi Pass, where Alpine Accentors descend upon any discarded crumbs. I took this photo with my phone.

The Gemmi Pass is accessible from the ibex-skull adorned streets of Leukerbad, and the cable car up provides an excellent vantage point from which to see Alpine Chamois at play. Both these rock-jumping ungulates, or their remnant populations at least, provide carcasses for Bearded Vultures. Watching the shaggy angles of this bone-guzzling gargoyle turn in the air below me was a pure EVENT, and a lifetime goal was achieved when its shadow slid over my back as I threw more nuts at the scavenging Alpine Acc’s.

I should at this stage point out that I only knew where to go in Switzerland thanks to my friend Ruben Lippuner. I met Ruben when he volunteered at Spurn Bird Observatory in 2017 and 2018, we’ve kept in touch ever since and he foolishly offered to show me his favourite birding sites should I ever find myself in Switzerland. Ruben knows the Swiss rails and accessible birding sites like the back of his fondue-twirling hand thanks to a youth discount card that sees him able to travel for free on almost all Swiss public transport after buying the pass each year.

Me feeding Alpine Choughs. They may be dross ski-resort fodder but are no less enigmatic and another string to the bow of high-montane birding possible without the car.

I’m all about experiencing birds in each and every way they present themselves. This transcends species boundaries and includes plumages, settings, behaviour etc.

I mean, seeing proper juv. Snow Buntings, then full piebald adult males, then mealy ginger-fringed wintering birds are much more interesting stamps in your personal birding passport than three more cisticola ticks…! After encountering Rock Buntings in sweltering mountain meadows in Spain and the Balkans, their blue and orange sings against snowy Swiss hillside villages! What a thrill to get a new angle on old friends…

The Bernina railway sends charming red trains crawling across montane bridges, along frozen waterfalls and through the chocolate-box villages of Pontresina, where Ruben and I departed and wandered around the pine forests, occasionally leaping out of the path of wild cross-country skiers. Willow and Crested Tits were easily coaxed down from the branches and into our seed-stocked palms. ‘Black’ Red Squirrels and Spotted Nutcrackers showered snow down on us as they moved through then beard lichens.

Yes, of course birding without a car requires more effort. It requires planning. It requires time. It sometimes requires long walks along mountain vistas, with Ravens bounding along behind you. But perhaps a shift towards a slower pace of travel, via overland means, spending longer at each place is a step in the right direction for those that still want to travel while conscious of their carbon budget. Productive, fulfilling travel incorporating European birding is out there – and an interrail pass makes this easy and affordable.

Coming from East Yorkshire’s agricultural flatlands, I find any mountainous landscapes oppressively beautiful. Mythical birds deserve suitable environs, and lo – this olde-worlde bridge; separating the birder from an icy death down a glacial ravine by just a metre of so of rock, is a Wallcreeper watchpoint, accessible by a small montane bus service. No finer place to spend a winter afternoon as the light wanes.

Some birds just can’t be overhyped. There will be numerous easier sites where Wallcreepers winter in the Pyrenees, or as one-off individuals closer to the Channel – all accessible without a plane, or even a car in some circumstances. Before we tackle the issue of whether we should travel to see these birds, you can at least for now address how you travel to see them.

I’ve experienced the demise of rural bus services in the UK, as their demand wanes and budgets are cut. But the Swiss transport system includes bafflingly discreet bus-stops, marked on painted boulders on nondescript mountain roads. You can catch a ride deep into the valleys to kick start a day’s hiking, or hail a people-carrier-sized village bus back home after watching Wallcreepers til the sun sets behind the peaks. You’d be naïve to not realise that travel is a privilege, and the climate emergency should provoke all of us to redefine what is regarded as a legitimate & ethical way of enjoying birds. Should I travel at all? My day-to-day life certainly isn’t ornithologically impoverished enough that I need to seek out birding therapy abroad, or even elsewhere. But it is comforting to know that if I want to experience some continental birding, an interrail ticket, some prior planning and an open mind is all I really need.

@jonnie_fisk

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