By Dominic Martin
Thursday morning, my phone is vibrating. A quick look on the screen and a notification from the Swiss Bird Alert app is telling me that a Lesser Yellowlegs was spotted at Klingnauer Stausee—the first time this American wader has been observed in Switzerland. Exciting! I haven’t got the time today, but tomorrow morning should work. Let’s hope the bird will still be there!
To plan the trip, I open the app of SBB—the Swiss national railway. Reaching Klingnauer Stausee from my base in Zurich is easy, first an InterRegio train westwards, then a connecting regional train to the town of Klingnau. The trip takes just over half an hour, plus some walking. Next morning, I jump on the train and after some searching and chats with other twitchers, I see the bird wading through the shallow waters of the lake. Back home I add my observation to my Swiss list but also to the ‘public transport list’, meaning a bird list that includes only those species I manage to see using public transport.
The public transport list was recently introduced by CHClub300, the Swiss birding and twitching club and developer of the Swiss Bird Alert app. The list aims to demonstrate what is possible with public transport and to motivate twitchers to use it. The rules are simple: one can count all birds observed when having travelled to and from the site using only public transport and muscle power, either by foot or bicycle. So far, 48 twitchers have entered the list (out of 303 users of the site) and those individuals currently sharing pole position have all seen 347 species using public transport only. This is quite impressive considering that the current leader of the Swiss list, that includes car-based twitching, has seen 376 species. Regarding my own lists, I have a much better standing on the public transport list—with 320 species I currently make it into the top 10, while my 322 species on the Swiss list leave me in 69th place.
Partly explaining these figures is the fact that Switzerland has one of the best public transport systems in Europe, also connecting small villages—Swiss law requires that every hamlet of at least 50 people must be accessible by regular public transport links. This makes it possible to get to almost all relevant birdwatching locations by rail and bus or by bringing the bicycle on the train.
For example, some of the best birding spots in the ‘three lakes area’ in western Switzerland are best explored by bicycle, so taking a bike on the train (or renting one at the train station) is a great option. And other popular sites at Lake Constance are also best visited by bike. Visiting the mountains is likewise possible using public transport, for example the area around Leuk in Valais or in Toggenburg in eastern Switzerland is perfectly accessible. Here, starting a day of birdwatching in one place and taking a bus back home from a different station can be the best option.
I am fully aware that public transport is not as good everywhere, so reaching good birding spots by rail and bus may be challenging in certain European regions. Still, in some places combining rail and bike may be a great option to reach good birding spots where local bus routes are scarce. There is indeed untapped potential to make public transport lists more popular across Europe. And as many users of public transport know, once you begin doing it you also start to reassess your own expectations about what an ‘impressive’ bird list is. You simply learn to value birds differently.
Besides the obvious benefits of using public transport for birding to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, I also see other advantages for the birding community. By walking or cycling to and from bird watching spots, bird watchers cover a larger area and are less focused on the ‘top spots’. Especially for finding migrating birds resting on fields, being out in the field rather than inside a car is advantageous. Personally, I also always feel that using public transport to reach sites, especially when running after a rare bird, is a highly social activity. Sitting among good friends in the train after a successful twitch is a great part of the twitching experience, and also allows you to share a drink together after a long day in nature.
Public transport birding also facilitates the independence of young birders. I started birdwatching as a kid as part of the Natrix youth group—a group running bird excursions and conservation activities for children. Within the group, we always used public transport for all our activities, and doing so also enabled us to make independent birdwatching trips and twitches before any of us could drive a car. Consequently, five of the top ten people on the Public Transport list are former members of the youth group.
Switzerland’s transport network definitely helps me to be a low-carbon birder, but with careful planning and the right expectations, public transport birding trips can be a joy no matter where you are based.