Trip Report: Prague (Czech Republic), May 18-25, 1997

Jerry Griggs, Department of Mathematics, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208 USA;

I just returned from my first trip to the Czech Republic, to attend and speak at a mathematics conference near Prague. During the conference, I had time to go exploring for birds (on foot). I also picked up a few birds while in transit during an afternoon excursion. I am grateful for the suggestions sent to me by BIRDCHATters before my departure; it's a shame that an invitation to get together there from David Heyrovsky, who went over the same day I did, only reached me upon my return here. I hope to return soon to this interesting country, home of great beer, historical architecture, beautiful scenery, lively music and theater.

It was very hot when I arrived on Sunday, May 18, 1997, almost like South Carolina is supposed to be (but isn't this year; it's cool again today here). However, we got thunderstorms and then rain off and on through the week, while the temperatures steadily dropped. I would guess the lows late in the week were around 8°C. (46 F). The birding seemed to get better, however.

The conference was held from May 19-25 out in the country about 30 km southeast of the city, at the Hotel Stirin. This is a beautifully restored "castle" (elegant residence, like a palace) located near Velke Popovicky, site of a famous brewery. The hotel's grounds include a 9-hole golf course surrounded by woods, a large pond, a marshy area, and gardens, most notably, many wonderful azaleas and rhododendrons. In bloom during my stay were unfamiliar small lavendar azaleas, along with spectacular larger yellow and orange azaleas, as well as some deep pink and purple rhododendrons. This place is definitely worth a visit (there is a small charge to enjoy the park).

I felt it was more difficult to get a good look at the birds there than I am used to here. The birds there seem either more shy or more skittish. I tried "pishing" birds out several times, but to no avail. Other chatters have reported the same experience.

I was most surprised at how often my brief description of a bird actually coincided with the common name in my field guide! I observed NUTHATCH, WREN, BLACK-HEADED GULL, and so on, and those were their names -- the "canonical" species of each type, as opposed to their American variants I am more familiar with. Visually, perhaps the most astonishing thing was the bright vermilion-red underparts on the GREAT SPOTTED WOODPECKER, which otherwise looked rather like a Hairy Woodpecker to me. I didn't see any of the more exotic species I would have liked to seen (Hoopoe, for instance). The GOLDFINCH is quite striking, with its red face. The loud song of the CHAFFINCH was so common that it got to be a bit annoying (interfering with my attempts to locate other species).

The most exciting moment was probably on the last morning, Sunday, as I headed back into the hotel to pack up and to present my lecture (my first experience "preaching" mathematics on a Sunday morning). High up in the trees, very difficult to place, I heard the unmistakeable call of the CUCKOO. Another conference participant had described hearing one, but I was beginning to wonder whether he had been confused by the cooing of the Woodpigeons which were rather common there. No, this had to be a Cuckoo. I wish I could have tracked it down to have a look!

Here is the list of birds I identified at Stirin. These are probably all just typical European birds; I have almost no experience there, so every bird is a challenge. I am listing just the common English names from my old Peterson guide -- sorry. The Cuckoo was by sound alone, as was the NIGHT HERON (a call near the pond I heard often that sounded just like the tapes for the American version of this species). Others I first identified by sound eventually were seen.

I identified a few more species from the highway, as we whizzed by:

The CARRION CROWs appeared to be just like the crows over here, until I got a good look at some perched on treetops. They were somewhat lighter, in the places where Hooded Crows are pale, but not nearly as light as the Hooded Crows shown in my guide. Perhaps they are a hybrid of the two races?

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