Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Christmas break in Germany

As the end of the year approached we had the happy opportunity of a few days unused holiday and an outstanding promise to visit some friends who live in Germany, in Biblis, a small town south of Frankfurt. So having agreed with our unsuspecting hosts in advance we scheduled to fly from Birmingham to Frankfurt on Boxing Day, returning on Wednesday 29th (it was literally a flying visit).

Sunday evening was spent catching-up over a fondue and beer, and Monday started with a promise of a trip to the Black Forest. It's fair to say we hadn't appreciated quite how far it is to travel to get there, so with feeding a family and getting them ready and then the drive, then a late lunch, we could only squeeze in a 45-minute walk before it was cake o'clock (a surprisingly important time, we discovered).

It was already quite late when we set out, but very atmospheric:

And the whole of the area we travelled through, including the short walk, was under a thick and early covering of snow:

After our walk in the forest, followed by cake in a very pleasant family restaurant, we visited a 'festival of light' in the town of Triberg, not too far from said cake retailing facility. This was the Christmas Tree:

There were also fireworks, light shows and fire-eating displays around the large waterfall in the town, with live music plus a Christmas market selling festive food and drink. It was, however, bitterly cold and very crowded, so after a couple of hours we headed back.

On the Tuesday we selected a Schloss (Castle) to visit and picked one not too far from the house, in Braunfels. We wanted what we felt was the classic combination of pointy bits, age and history. Braunfels delivered!

What we hadn't at first appreciated was the historical importance of the Schloss, being linked so directly to a line of Kings who ruled the United Kingdom and Hanover (though Hanover was annexed by the Prussians).

It really is quite a magnificent specimen. We were also delighted the young chap on the till in the cafe cum entrance shop put on an impromptu tour for us and a few other people who turned up, all English speakers as it happened. We really did enjoy our visit, it ticked all the Schloss boxes we'd wanted:

The view from the courtyard:

Having visited the Schloss we walked down into the surrounding town of Braunfels:

It's a very picturesque place filled with good cafes selling coffee and, indeed, cake! We headed from Braunfels to Weilburg, home to another Schloss, though this one more in the style of a country manor, plonked atop a hill with a town around it (none of the working battlements, canon and archery defences of Braunfels):

Weilburg itself though is another very picturesque spot and one worth a trip around on a boat, in the summer however when it isn't quite so cold!

We enjoyed our brief trip to Germany and will try very hard next time to visit in something other than deep winter, hopefully to fit in some birding too!


Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas Day 2010

We had a hearty if somewhat late breakfast then headed up to Pitsford reservoir, to enjoy the peace and quiet and the combination of the freezing temperatures and the sunshine. The car park was closed, which was surprising, my guess is due to the lack if grit and preponderance of snow.

It remains very wintry, though I'd guess there's less than half as much snow as at home, only a few miles distant!

The freezing temperatures mean that the nature reserve side is almost entirely frozen:

With unfortunate consequences for some, including a swan providing sustenance for a flock of Carrion Crows:

On the only patch of open water were clustered a group of Northern Shovellers:

And a group of Common Goldeneye:

Also present were my favourite duck, Smew, pictured here two distinctive drakes and one female to the left (also know as Redheads):

They were quite concentrated together you can see seven Smew in this picture:

In the trees winter Thrushes were mostly heard (Fieldfares) and sometimes seen, like this Redwing:

Having fed the assembled ducks, geese and swans with a couple of kilos of grain, and barracked a couple of complete idiots walking their dogs on the ice over the deepest part of the reservoir, we then headed to southern car park (also conveniently locked) for a walk towards a larger concentration of birds, as you can see here:

A real mix of birds, I focused on a Common Gull in the middle of this group:

We really enjoyed our trip out, although it was somewhat abbreviated by the weather, the only downer was that the war on nature was in full swing. It seems even Christmas Day can't persuade people to stop killing stuff for their amusement, the sound of gunfire as continuous and oppressive as ever. Sigh.

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter and Welney

It's already proving to be a hard winter even though winter doesn't officially start until Tuesday! A couple of weeks ago we had the first hoar frost I can remember in a long time. I snuck out of the house for a ten minute lunch break on the day as I couldn't resist the opportunity that the frost and the clear blue skies had presented. Oh for a few hours to play with!

You can tell the direction of the prevailing wind from this close-up:

As well as enjoying the hoar frost we've been digging a new flower and vegetable border in an area of the lawn. Unfortunately, freezing weather coupled with all the builders' rubble one-inch below the surface, is making it very slow going.
Rather than be trapped at home again this weekend, after the thankfully light snowfall, we decided to take a trip to Welney WWT as this also gave us an opportunity to catch up with an old friend, returned briefly from Taiwan for a Christmas visit.
We timed our arrival for opening time so got to enjoy a near empty main hide. As usual the swans were the stars of the show. Here a Whooper Swan adult surveying the ice (90% of the usual water was covered in ice):

A close-up to see the bill pattern:

A juvenile enjoying it's first winter at Welney:

Another regular winter visitor is the Common Pochard, this drake was fast asleep outside the window, waiting no doubt for the noon feed due a couple of hours hence:

As well as the Whooper and Mute swans that were in front of the main hide, two remote Bewick's were visible on a distant patch of free water. A closer but still reasonably distant bird, and the second we've ever seen, was this Tundra Bean Goose:

The sun, just two days from its lowest point, was remarkably weak, really struggling to penetrate even thin cloud, hence the temperature not rising above -5c while we were at Welney.

Before a warming cup of tea at the visitor centre and our drive to Peterborough for lunch, we enjoyed watching Meadow Pipits scurrying and sliding around on the ice:

We were lucky the snow hadn't trapped us in nor indeed affected our weekend plans. Fingers crossed then for our next trip!

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