Saturday 18 June 2011

Balmy in the Baltic

So we cruised across the millpond that is the North Sea, or at least we were lucky enough to encounter it in a rather benign form.  Not much in the way of birds as we did the crossing, but a good chance to catch up on a little sleep and prepare for the upcoming days ahead in the Baltic.

Our first port of call was the Island of Sylt, a small island off the coast of Germany.  We landed at List Harbour and I headed off with the birders.  We had a local guide and did a short walk along the shoreline where we saw a few good things, including great views of a cuckoo perched and calling.  We had it in the scope calling away for several minutes, so nice to see this sometimes elusive bird so well.  There was a lot of singing, with whitethroat, meadow pipit, icterine warbler, and some good shorebirds including bar-tailed godwit, red knot, and little ringed plover.  There was also a small Arctic tern colony on the shoreline, with birds flying back and forth and displaying.  We then wandered back and caught a bus to another wetland area which has now been made a reserve.  We walked along a floodbank wall, with forest on one side and extensive areas of reeds and scattered bushes on the other.  There were a lot of birds still singing away, with the previously mentioned species plus sedge and reed warbler, blackcap, robin, wren, and lesser whitethroat being pretty common.  A bit further down we had a male reed bunting and a pair of marsh harriers quartering the reeds, with the local lapwings giving them a hard time.

Then on to our lunch stop, this great little restaurant which served up a beaut chicken dish.  I really am going to need to go on a diet when I get 2 months!  I’ll be a barrel by then!  Luckily we had a bit of activity planned for the afternoon though, in the form of a bicycle tour of the local countryside.  This island is a real playground for the wealthy, with every second car being a Ferrari, and more Porsche’s than you can shake a stick at.  Good to know somebody can still afford these during the recession!  So it was onto the bikes we got and off down the road.  The guy who was running the tour was a real lark.  I don’t want to generalise when I say that Germans sometimes lack a sense of humour (sorry to my German friends!), but this guy was hilarious!  And seemingly after only minutes on the bike it was time for our first refreshment stop...with several different kinds of beer as the ultimate in thirst quenchers.  We then meandered through lovely little back streets past gorgeous thatched houses, picturesque fields, and wonderful seaside our next refreshment stop!  In all we covered around 11 miles before making our final refreshment stop with yet more beer, and a huge selection of pastries and cakes...ohhhh man!  With aching bellies we cycled the last kilometre to the waiting bus before heading back to the ship.

Next day was an absolutely beautiful sunny day in the Kiel Canal – a Panama equivalent that allows boats through from the North Sea into the Baltic.  We took on a pilot at about 0600 and were finally through into the Baltic by 1530 or so, but the scenery and views as we headed through the Canal were fantastic.  The canal is 61 miles long, and has something like 11 bridges on it, with picturesque fields and rural scenery for much of it.  Apparently it is the busiest artificial canal navigated by ships in the World.  We had pilots on right the way through the canal, and were following several other ships, which made for great photography.  There were pathways along the canals in most places and lots of people out walking and cycling as it was a Sunday.  When we got through the lock on the Baltic side we were into a very busy sailing area as apparently next week was going to be a very big yachting regatta, so there were yachts everywhere...only a couple of blasts of the ships horn necessary! An absolutely incredible sunset that night, but no green flash.

The next morning we arrived in Ronne on the west of Bornholm Island, a small island of Danish descent.  It was another beautiful little island with fields full of wheat, barley, rape seed, and other crops.  Lots and lots of skylarks, the odd marsh harrier and buzzard, and when we stopped at several spots lots of passerines singing.  At our first stop at a stone covered in runes there were garden warblers singing madly, yellowhammers singing, and I detected something different.  A couple of people came over and we had a few short snatches of nightingale song before it was time to get back on the bus.  We then headed to Hammershus Castle, apparently one of the largest brick buildings of its era, and did a short walk through the castle and then some of the surrounding area.  Again there was a lot of birdsong, with garden warblers again very common.  Jackdaws, rooks, and herring gulls were feeding in the fields nearby and yellowhammers again singing away.  So there was quite a bit to see, and we tallied up a few more species with chaffinch, both whitethroat and lesser whitethroat, great tit, and reed warbler, before heading back up towards the bus park.  But again I kept hearing something different and this time we had a stunning nightingale literally only 20m away singing his heart out.  What a fantastic song, so varied and covering such a wide range of notes.  They really are stunning little things to listen to, and I managed to catch a view of the drab little guy perched up in the hawthorn, with his bright orange gape visible as he sang.  Pretty cool addition to the list, and a bunch of people got to experience him.

It was then on to one of the round churches, before a beautiful lunch at Gudhjem.  Lots of local specialties including pickled herring and a lovely warm pig liver pate.  Seriously, we are going to need a crane to get me off the ship at the end of this!  I then spent a bit of time wandering the streets taking photos of the lovely little brightly painted houses, and then some time at the marina taking photos of the common eiders with their broods.  They obviously get fed a lot so were very confiding and got some nice photos, as well as some of a herring gull feeding its three chicks.  We then ran zodiacs back to the ship from near the port, before heading across to Christianso.  This is a tiny little island with about 110 residents, and a lovely little quaint fishing port.  Walled gardens filled with vegetables, lilac, and other flowering plants just made it a lovely place to wander and explore, and we had a very confiding pair of pied wagtails at the landing.  They had a nest in a stone wall and so were collecting insects for their chicks whom you could hear begging within the stones.  Got some great shots of them with their beaks full of insects.  Also found a small pond with some frogs on it, but the highlight was heading out around one of the offshore islets which had thousands of herring gulls, razorbills, and common guillemots nesting on it.  There were massive feeding flocks of herring gulls which came and went just off of the island, obviously feeding on fish driven to the surface in one spot, and then the next.  We got pretty close to these feeding flocks and in some cases could see the small silvery fish in the bills of the gulls.  Hundreds of razorbills and guillemots were flying back to the colony from sea, and so gave great opportunities for flight photography, and the light was just perfect.  Most seemed to still be on eggs though as only one or two birds were seen with fish in their bills.  We kept our distance well off the island to avoid disturbing the birds, but really didn’t need to get close as the action was in the air as the birds came back in.  Fantastic!  Had a nice cool beer at the local bar to celebrate, before heading back to the ship to sail for Gdansk, Poland.

So the next morning it was a tour of the Solidarity Square and museum.  As a kid growing up in New Zealand the whole Solidarity movement here in Poland and other parts of the Russian states was something we didn’t really get exposed to, so it was another one of those sobering experiences learning a little about the World (and reinforcing how lucky I have been to grow up in a country like New Zealand).  The monuments against the blue sky made it hard to connect with what it must have been like, but the museum did a very good job.  We had lunch back onboard and then headed back into the city for a walking tour of the city.  At this point I headed off to catch up on a little email and other jobs, so got to explore the city a little on my own.  The staff ended up having dinner ashore in a little Polish restaurant and the food was fantastic.  I had some local sausage with sauerkraut and it really was very good.

Next day we had a day at sea, another good opportunity to try and catch up with photos, rest, etc., and knowing that there was unlikely to be any birds of note to see at sea.  But it was time to hit another Baltic country, as we arrived in Riga, Latvia.  We spent the morning doing a walking tour of the city viewing all the spectacular Art Nouveau architecture of the city, and then heading to the St Mary’s Cathedral (The Dom) for a private organ recital.  This organ has something like 6700 pipes and man was it impressive.  The bass notes reverberated right throughout the Cathedral and the whole 25 minute recital was really impressive...even for a peasant like me!  I spent a lot of the rest of the morning photographing buildings etc and then we headed to the markets held in the old Zeppelin hangars.  Such a vibrant place with amazing collections of meat, poultry, fish, and fresh vegetables and fruit, plus cheeses, breads, and pastries.  The smells were incredible and we ended up getting a bunch of different sausages, salamis, cheeses, and breads, plus some Spanish red wines to try back on the ship.  Very nice!  We sailed from Riga at 1500 heading on towards Tallinn, Estonia, where we are about to dock.  Another country and looking forward to seeing the old town which I have heard so much about.

Kiel Canal on the North Sea side, entering the lock in early morning

Kiel Canal on the North Sea side, entering the lock in early morning

Kiel Canal on the North Sea side, entering the lock in early morning

Kiel Canal on the North Sea side, the two locks

Kiel Canal on the North Sea side, the first of the bridges heading east

Kiel Canal on the North Sea side, the first of the bridges heading east

The slow procession down the Kiel Canal

Ships ahead

Passing traffic

A lovely sunny day on the Kiel Canal

Lovely rural setting beside the Kiel Canal

The lock on the Baltic side of the Kiel Canal opening before us

Our first evening in the Balmy Baltic

Even tankers can look good

Our first sunset in the Baltic

Sunset playing off the wake of the ship

Hammershus Castle on Bornholm Island

Hammershus Castle keep

At the castle

A jackdaw flying past at the castle

One of the round churches on Bornholm Island

A portrait shot

Gudhjem on Bornholm Island

Eider ducklings

Eider ducklings

Female common eider

Eider ducklings

Following mum

The flock

Herring gull regurgitating food for its three chicks

The well fed chicks

Pied wagtail with a beakful

Heading up to the nest


Barn swallow in the sunshine

Razorbill heading back to the breeding colony


Common guillemot heading back to the breeding colony


The breeding island abuzz!

Feasting Herring gulls

Pied wagtail still with a beakful


Frog on the pond...need to look up species

Outside the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, Poland

A display shop as it would have been, in the Solidarity Museum

Not much on the shelves...


The Solidarity monument

From a different angle

The old part of Gdansk

Art Nouveau architecture in Riga, Latvia

Art Nouveau

Almost Art Deco?!

More Art Nouveau

And more...

And more...

Interesting faces

A cat perched

Riga, a colourful city

The Cathedral spire

Within the Cathedral

Wall art

Not sure what this was about?

At the Riga markets...fresh fresh fresh!

As we left Riga, Latvia

Coal stock piles and cranes


Loading coal

Colourful cranes

All in a row


  1. Think I'll stop trying to get the best sunset photo in the world now, Brent!
    As usual, awesome photos. We especially enjoyed the photos of Riga as we have a Latvian friend who lives in Riga, and we have seen lots of photos of Riga.
    I wish we were much younger and could go to all these wonderful places you are sharing with us. Thank you. Dot

  2. Thanks! I must admit I'm looking forward to a few more wild places though!