Europe 2000 (longish)

Subject: Europe 2000 (longish)
Date: Tue, 16 Apr 2002 15:13:39 +1000

Dear Birding-Ausers,

While it occured some time ago, I thought you may be interested in my trip to
Europe in 2000.  Before we went, I was not aware of much information on the
Czech Republic so we went there without many expectations.  As you can see, we
were very pleasantly surprised.

The information below on the Czech Republic was published last year in the BOCA
Bird Observer, but I have posted it as I thought some of you might not subscribe
to that publication.

I am happy to help with any queries if you are planning to visit.


                               BIRDING IN EUROPE

                                    May 2000


My wife, Rosemary, and I travelled to the United Kingdom, Italy and the Czech
Republic in May 2000, primarily so that I could attend a surveying conference in
Prague and visit some work-related places in England and Rome.  Of course, the
opportunity to do some birding beckoned.  So, we managed to fit in some short,
but good, birding in England and Wales and some better birding in the Czech
Republic as I took some recreation leave there for that purpose.


With help from Keith Betton, an English birder on Birding-Aus and a regular
visitor to Australia, I spent some time in Hampshire and Surrey in early May.
With Keith, I birded the New Forest and the Southampton coast, seeing some
terrific birds including Brent Goose, Common Shelduck, Red-legged Partridge,
Eurasian Thick-knee, Northern Lapwing and many other waders and gulls, Winchat,
several warblers, Long-tailed Tit and Yellowhammer.

Keith also arranged for Jeffrey and John, two of his friends, to show me around
parts of Surrey, which he correctly asserted was an excellent birding spot.
There, we saw many extra species, including Tufted Duck, Eurasian Curlew, Green
and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Common Nightingale, Common Redstart, Dartford
Warbler, Goldcrest, Eurasian Jay and Bullfinch.

On Keith
's advice, we stayed at a small pub in Frensham, near Farnham.  It was a
terrific venue with both the food and service excellent.  We also enjoyed the
habitat and scenery, which we both thought matched our imagined view of what
should be classically English, especially some of the forests shrouded in mists
at dawn.


Most of my time in England was taken up with work.  Ro spent some time seeing
the sights of London, Southampton and Weymouth.  We did have a spare day before
we left for Italy and, again at Keith's suggestion, we headed to Wales to Skomer
Island on the west coast.  This turned out to be an inspired choice as we had a
perfect day weatherwise - warm and sunny with a light breeze and not a cloud in
the sky after the early fog cleared.

After arriving at Skomer on the ferry, we circumnavigated the island (it isn't
very big) and took in the magnificent coastal scenery and the fantastic birds -
species such as Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Northern Gannet, European
Shag, Peregrine Falcon, Black-legged Kittiwake, Common Murre, Razorbill,
Northern Wheatear and Meadow and Rock Pipits.

Skomer also provided two highlights of birds I really wanted to see in Europe -
Atlantic Puffin and Red-billed Chough.  All in all, one of the better day's
bird-watching.  We left Great Britain having seen 119 species.


Our Italian experience was only three days long, visiting the FAO of the United
Nations in Rome.  We saw several interesting species there but none that we did
not see elsewhere.

The Czech Republic

What did we know of the Czech Republic before we left?  Not very much!  We knew
that it had been under Soviet domination from after the war until 1989.  The
"Prague Spring" had occurred in 1968 and had ended in reassertion of Communist
rule.  The former Czechoslovakia had split into separate Czech and Slovak
Republics (in 1993).  And, of course, Prague was the capital.

Inquiries on Birding-Aus gave me several Czech birding contacts and I made
arrangements via e-mail to bird with two of them, one in the southeast of the
country and the other in the south.

South Moravia

My local Czech contact, Josef Chytil, had informed me that the geography of
South Moravia (in the far south east of the Republic) was incredibly
interesting.  Based on a limestone karst, there are extensive central European
broad-leaf forests.  As well, there are flood-plain forests with pine and
thermophyllus oak forests that depend on the spring floods of the Morava and
Dyje Rivers.  Finally, this is the western edge of the Pannonic steppes (which
extend through Hungary and the Ukraine), which are covered in short grasses.
The area has an extensive fish pond system that increases the habitat diversity.
Much of this diverse area is included in the Palava Biosphere Reserve and the
Lednice - Valtice Cultural Landscape Area.

So, on the 17 May, Ro and I landed at Prague airport, hired our first car and
drove east, arriving quite late in the town of Mikulov, south of Brno, just
north of the Austrian border.  We stayed in an excellent local hotel recommended
by Josef, the Rohaty krokodyl named after the pet crocodile domiciled in the
foyer.  We got used to ordering meals from the German menu, as the only English
one kept getting mislaid.  (While we knew little German, ordering from the Czech
menu was beyond us as we didn't ever get to grips with that language.)

On the first day, we birded the Lednice - Valtice Cultural Landscape area,
spending the morning around zamek Lednice (Chateau Lednice) and Zamecky rybnik
(its lake).  The afternoon was spent around the fishponds south of Lednice, some
of which had extensive reed beds.  They were terrific habitat for waterfowl,
waders and reed birds.

We had a fine introduction to the local birds, seeing Garganey, Red-crested and
Common Pochards, Tufted Duck, White Stork, Western Marsh and Montagu's Harriers,
a fine selection of waders, Common Cuckoo, Tawny Owl, Great Spotted, Middle
Spotted and Black Woodpeckers, Spotted and Collared Flycatchers, Black Redstart,
Eurasian Nuthatch, Long-tailed Tit, several warblers, including Icterine, and
Eurasian Penduline-Tit.  We also saw Red Squirrel, Brown Hare and Roe Deer.

Day 2 found us birding around Mikulov, looking at birds such as Syrian
Woodpecker, Eurasian Golden-Oriole, Red-backed Shrike and Marsh Tit.  In the
afternoon, Josef and I birded the forest around Milovice, finding European
Bee-eater and Hawfinch.  This forest is primarily managed for game, particularly
deer.  While good habitat, it appears to have lost some diversity and has the
disadvantage of lots of ticks (because of the deer).

Later, we birded the margins of the dam, Nove Mlyny, around Dolni Vestonice and
Strachotin.  Because of Josef's local knowledge, I was able to see Peregrine
Falcon (rare in these parts), Mediterranean Gull and European River Warbler.  I
also saw the classic White Storks nesting on house chimneys.  Ro and I also
spent a frustrating evening trying to see the local Eurasian Eagle-Owl.  We
heard it calling in the dusk from its roost up the hill, but it refused to fly
in our direction across the quarry, where it had nested recently, and out across
the fields to hunt.

On day 3, Josef and his wife, Dasha, took us to the Dolnomo ravsky area, quite
near the Slovakian and Austrian borders.  On the way, we had to deliver some
empty wine bottles to their friend, Peter, and discovered another Czech
tradition, wine making.  This area is famous for its white wines and, like many
Czechs, Peter and his brother had their own small wine cellar in Valtice.  We
sampled some of their wines, but decided not to drink too much before birding.
Returning after birding, we confirmed that the "local drop" was excellent.

The birding in this floodplain area was also excellent, with great sightings of
Imperial Eagle and Saker Falcon (both rare), Red Kite, Black Stork, European
Turtle-Dove, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Northern Shrike, Crested Lark, Fieldfare
and Corn Bunting.  The Corn Crake, however, was less obliging, calling
constantly but staying in the thick and very wet grass.  New mammals included
Red and Fallow Deer.

Our last morning here was spent with Josef looking for specialties we had
missed, such as the terrific Bearded Parrotbill (Bearded Tit), Common
Nightingale and Marsh and Barred Warblers.  South of Mikulov, we travelled on
the road that borders Austria, where Russian tanks used to patrol to ensure
potential Western invaders from NATO didn't catch them by surprise.  Returning
to Prague for the conference, Ro and I tried once again for another bird that
had eluded us in the Milovice forest.  Josef gave us a site and described the
call.  After some searching, we heard the bird calling and tracked it down, one
of the birds of the trip, the very strange-looking Eurasian Hoopoe.

The Capital Prague (Praha)

Prague was a great experience, despite the total absence of bird-watching.  The
history is so extensive.  The Czechs have adopted Mozart as a second son, so we
visited the Mozart Museum and attended a fabulous "Best of Mozart" evening at a
small theatre next to the Vltava River.  We wandered around the older areas of
Mala Strana, which looked like Mozart and friends might appear around the next
corner.  We visited the impressive Charles Bridge, which was rebuilt in the
1300s after a massive flood destroyed its predecessor.

I had to attend the conference for the next few days, so Ro toured Prague
Castle, went on a boat cruise on the Vltava River to the Troja (zoo) and caught
the train out of town to the nearby Karlstejn Castle, all of which she enjoyed.
We had time to wander through Stare Mesto, the old town, and look at the
architecture of Staromestske namesti, Prague's old town square, and reflect on
the recent history of Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square), where the public
protests in 1989 resulted in the end of communist rule.

Prague was well organised and tidy, with terrific public transport in the form
of an underground train system and an above-ground tram system.

I got to see a bit of the north of the country with a one-day surveying
excursion to Liberec and Harrachov, the later a ski town in the Krkonose
Mountains adjacent to Poland.  It looked interesting, but no time for birding.

South Bohemia

After the conference, South Bohemia called.  We travelled to Trebon, about 150
km south of Prague, to meet Slava Kloubec, our new guide, who was to take us to
the Sumava Mountains late that day.  He gave us some local birding sites to
visit in the afternoon.  This area forms part of the Trebon Basin Biosphere
Reserve, consisting of cultivated forests of Scots pine and Norway spruce and
transformed cultural landscape of fields and grasslands, along with the
outstanding landscape characteristic of the extensive fish ponds, canals and

We visited Rozmberk Lake and Velky Tisy swamp, where we saw Common Goldeneye,
Reed Bunting and Eurasian Bullfinch.  We also looked around the town of Trebon,
which dates from the 12th century and has a magnificent town square in a
protected, walled centre with historic renaissance and baroque-style gabled

We returned to meet Slava at 6 pm and set off for the Sumava Mountains near the
border with Germany and Austria, stopping at a wetland near Sliv for Eurasian
Spoonbill on the way.  In the Sumava Mountains near Ceske Zleby, we looked
unsuccessfully at dusk for Ural Owl, which had been reintroduced to the area,
but did find Eurasian Woodcock and Common Grasshopper Warbler.  We stayed at an
ordinary hotel in Volary, but as we arrived after 11 pm and left at 5.30 am the
next day, it didn't matter.

Next morning, in the fog at dawn, we were birding around Volary, first finding
Willow Tit.  Then, we located another trip highlight, calling Black Grouse on
its favourite rock across the gully.  We couldn't find the White-throated Dipper
in the nearby stream, but Grey Wagtail and Common Redpoll were some
compensation.  We then set out for another highlight, Boreal Owl (also known
locally as Tengmalm's Owl) in a nest box, with encores of Short-toed
Tree-Creeper, Goldcrest, Firecrest and Coal Tit.  We returned to Trebon for
lunch, finding Pied Avocet on the way.  I returned to Rozmberk Lake to find
European Pied Flycatcher before thunderstorms cut short the birding in the later
afternoon.  Slava and I birded in the evening and he was able to show me
White-tailed Eagle nesting on a wetland south of Trebon and Eurasian Pygmy-Owl
hunting in the forest.  A truly excellent day's birding.

Early next morning, our last in the Czech republic, I was up early and revisited
Velky Tisy swamp, looking successfully for Bluethroat, and the "Pygmy-Owl
forest" for Crested Tit.  To me, this was a very satisfying way to end the
birding on the trip.  For Ro, the sleep-in and leisurely breakfast apparently
provided the same, although I didn't see how.

So, after 148 species and an unexpectedly marvellous experience, we returned to
Prague airport on 29 May in plenty of time for our flight, dropped off the
second hire-car and flew out to London to return home to Melbourne.


I enjoyed the brief stay in England and will one day revisit it to look around
more extensively.  Keith had also recommended Scotland, but we couldn't fit it
in and so we need to head further north next time.  Wales deserves further

Our whole Czech experience was terrific.  We now know much more about Czech
Republic and it is all good.  The Czech people were very friendly and helpful
despite the fact that English was only really useful in the capital.  We were
able to survive quite well with some help from our guides and by making it up as
we went.  Both the Czech food and wine were excellent.  And it was good value,
with the costs significantly cheaper than the equivalent in Australia, a welcome
change from England and Rome.

Economically and environmentally, the Czechs seemed to have survived the
communist era and prospered afterwards.  (They pointed out that they survived
400 years of Austrian-Hungarian domination, so passively resisting the Russians
was relatively easy.)

The final highlight I will mention was the great new European fieldguide, the
Collins Bird Guide by Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstrom and Grant.  It was very
comprehensive and incredibly useful.
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