Trip Reports: Switzerland, February 3-4, 1998, and December 12-13, 1998

Tom and Margot Southerland, 282 Western Way, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA;

Anyone who has ever visited Switzerland, seen a Swiss calendar or a Swiss travel brochure, knows that this small country is endowed with extraordinary beauty regardless of the season. And, there are great delights for the birder as well because of Switzerland's varied terrain, its central location in Europe and its excellent transportation options. The Alps dominate most of the landscape (70%) but there are great forests, deciduous and coniferous, that cover over a quarter of the land. And there are many rivers such as the Rhine, Rhone and Ticino, many lakes including Geneva and Lucerne, and numerous ponds, marshes and vast farming land. And birders can go from lush valleys up to the alpine regions. Because of this variety of habitat, over 380 birds are listed for Switzerland.

When we birded in Switzerland a number of years ago, our two target birds were Wallcreeper and Black Woodpecker. The latter we tried for unsuccessfully in Belgium two years earlier so were not too optimistic we would see one. Our friend, Martin Spiess, from Zurich is an ornithological field researcher, and he offered to help us with both. He confirmed our odds on the woodpecker but felt we had a reasonable chance to see the Wallcreeper in Burgdorf, some 10 miles north of Bern where we stayed. Why Burgdorf? In November, several of a number of Wallcreepers that come down from the Alps to spend the winter, probe the tall sandstone cliffs (at least 46 meters or 150 feet high) that form the backdrop of one side of the town. You are separated from the cliffs by a stream, and to your back is a large, open grassy field with a 12th Century castle on a hill high above. Horses for riding are located just below the cliffs near where we scanned along the dirt foot-horse-bike path.

Trip 1: Early February

Our first visit to Burgdorf was in early February 1998. We stopped en route home from a trip in India (Ranthambhor, Keoladeo, and Jim Corbett National Parks) and Nepal (Royal Chitwan N.P.) and spent the better part of one day (3 Feb.) at the cliffs plus a few hours the following day with an old friend, Bill Grant, a biology prof from Williams College, and Martin. It was all in vain for the Wallcreeper although Margot and Bill did catch a fleeting glance of a bird or something diving down the face of the cliff that was quickly obscured by trees. It was probably the bird but not a sighting one would want to use for a life list. We also knew that late November to early Jan. is a more optimal time to look for it. But we did manage to see other birds and to visit several other areas including a direct run to Lake Neuchatel to pick up two standing Yellow-legged Gulls (southern race) at fairly close range and in good light. While scanning the wall on 3 Feb., two seemingly knowledgeable locals on their lunch break said they had seen the Wallcreeper on the castle tower but two trips there by car produced no Wallcreeper.

Trip 2: Mid-December

We returned "to the scene of the crime" for birding on 12 and 13 December 1998 after leading a college alumnae (non-birding) trip to southern Africa. It soon became obvious that the Wallcreeper was not at the Burgdorf cliffs nor at the castle. The castle did produce three Hawfinches and several other passerines. We then decided to head a few miles outside Burgdorf into the countryside near the small village of Krauchtal where large cliffs appear on both sides of the road. Compared to the cliffs back at Burgdorf, they appeared longer and larger. They were also further away from the road with the exception of one cliff face. We had stopped there in February, but at that time the rocky faces seemed more daunting and we were running out of time.

The morning was overcast, but Tom picked up a bird in his scope on the Krauchtal cliffs but initially thought it was a Jackdaw. It turned out to be the dark head of a Wallcreeper coming out of a hole. It was the next day when we were joined by Martin's wife that Martin, and then all of us, picked it up again on the cliffs opposite side of the road from the previous day. It was in the early afternoon on a delightful sunny day, and the Wallcreeper was on the one cliff face you could drive right up to via a short spur road. All our efforts were rewarded for we watched it -- scope and binocs -- with the sun at our backs for about an hour while it probed, flew in short spurts, flashed its wings or rested. It was still there when we finally left to go to the town of Ins for more birds.

Early that morning before seeing the Wallcreeper in sunlight, we had gone to several forest areas because Martin's uncle had seen a Black Woodpecker a day or so earlier. It was near Gümligen (outside Bern). We drove into one nearby forest to make periodic listening stops but with no luck. So we soon decided to walk to another forest across the valley. While walking (and made easier with little snow in the woods) we soon heard a Black Woodpecker for they often call while flying. It flew nearby. We watched its path and soon saw a female in the open on a tree. Bingo -- our two target birds!

Sightings (Bern-Burgdorf Area and Lake Neuchatel)
From 3 Feb. To 4 Feb., 1998

  Great Crested Grebe      Podiceps cristatus       (one)
  Mute Swan                Cygnus olor
  Gadwall                  Anas strepera            (female)
  Common Teal              Anas crecca
  Common Pochard           Aythya ferina
  Tufted Duck              Aythya fuligula          (many males, some females)
  Common Merganser         Mergus merganser         Burgdorf (two females)
  Gray Heron               Ardea cinerea            (8-10)
  Eurasian Kestrel         Falco tinnunculus
  Peregrine Falcon         Falco peregrinus         Burgdorf (pair on cliff on 3 Feb.; 1 on 4 Feb.)
  Eurasian Coot            Fulica atra
  Mew Gull                 Larus canus
F Yellow-legged Gull       Larus cachinnans         Lake Neuchatel (2 standing; super views)
  Black-headed Gull        Larus ridibundus
  Eurasian Jay             Garrulus glandarius      (four)
  Black-billed Magpie      Pica pica
  Carrion Crow             Corvus corone
  Common Raven             Corvus corax             Burgdorf (several)
  White-throated Dipper    Cinclus cinclus          Burgdorf (1 on 3 Feb.; pair on 4 Feb.)
  Eurasian Blackbird       Turdus merula
  European Robin           Erithacus rubecula       Burgdorf (one)
  Long-tailed Tit          Aegithalos caudatus      Burgdorf (three)
  Coal Tit                 Periparus ater           Burgdorf (three)
  Blue Tit                 Cyanistes caeruleus      Burgdorf (one)
  Chaffinch                Fringilla coelebs
  Red Crossbill            Loxia curvirostra        Burgdorf (four)
26 Species

Sightings (Bern-Gümligen-Krauchtal-Ins)
From 12. Dec. to 13. Dec., 1998

  Gray Heron               Ardea cinerea            (six)
  Eurasian Sparrowhawk     Accipiter nisus          Ins (one soaring)
  Common Buzzard           Buteo buteo              Ins (at least eight) 
  Eurasian Kestrel         Falco tinnunculus        Ins (one sitting, flying and hovering)
  Peregrine Falcon         Falco peregrinus         Burgdorf (pair); near Krauchtal (one)
  Eurasian Collared-Dove   Streptopelia decaocto    Ins (three) 
F Black Woodpecker         Dryocopus martius        Gümligen (female flying, calling and on tree)
  Eurasian Jay             Garrulus glandarius
  Black-billed Magpie      Pica pica
  Carrion Crow             Corvus corone
  Common Raven             Corvus corax             (seven)                         
  White-throated Dipper    Cinclus cinclus          Burgdorf (pair)
  Eurasian Blackbird       Turdus merula
  Fieldfare                Turdus pilaris           Ins (4 or 5 in tree)
  Redwing                  Turdus iliacus           Ins (one in tree with Fiedfares)
  Eurasian Nuthatch        Sitta europaea           Gümligen (two)   
F Wallcreeper              Tichodroma muraria       Krauchtal (1 on 12 Dec.; 1 on 13 Dec.)
  Eurasian Treecreeper     Certhia familiaris       Gümligen (one)
  Long-tailed Tit          Aegithalos caudatus      Ins (one)
  Great Tit                Parus major              (four)
  House Sparrow            Passer domesticus
  Eurasian Tree Sparrow    Passer montanus          Ins (male)
  Chaffinch                Fringilla coelebs
  European Greenfinch      Carduelis chloris        Burgdorf (one); Ins (five)
  Eurasian Bullfinch       Pyrrhula pyrrhula        Gümligen (two males and a female)
  Hawfinch                 C. coccothraustes        Burgdorf (three)  
  Yellowhammer             Emberiza citrinella      Ins (one)
  Reed Bunting             Emberiza schoeniclus     Ins (10 feeding and sitting)
28 Species

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This page served with permission of the authors by Urs Geiser;; June 9, 1999