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Two New Guides to Central Europe

A review by Rick Wright

A Birdwatching Guide to North East Germany and Its Baltic Coast, by Roger White

Roger White Publishing, 2015

148 pages, $39.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14502

Birding in Poland, edited by Adam Sterno

Oriolus Förlag, 2015

590 pages, $55—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14561

The historical reasons are more than obvious, but it’s still a shame that the Baltic coast of Germany and Poland is so poorly known to most of us. This lovely region’s mix of small villages, vast floodplains, and extensive agriculture recalls what so much of central Europe must have looked like before 1939—and so do its birds. Today, this is still the land of White Storks and Lesser Spotted Eagles, Common Cranes and Wrynecks, Corn Crakes and deafening flocks of wintering geese and swans.

The birder’s access to the westernmost of these captivating landscapes was made much easier in 2009, on the appearance of the third volume of Christian Wagner and Christoph Moning’s excellent Vögel beobachten. While that guide remains the gold standard for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, and Berlin, it has been less helpful—the excellent maps notwithstanding—for birders without reasonably good German, who have had to wait until now for an English-language alternative.

BINbuttonSuddenly there are two such alternatives, one for each side of the German-Polish border. Roger White has followed his well-received guide to birding sites in Berlin and the surrounding countryside with a volume describing 63 localities in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and on the island of Fehmarn. Easily reached from Berlin or Hamburg, these sites include some of the best areas in Germany to look for such specialties as the Black Stork, White-winged Tern, and Common Rosefinch.

Like the earlier Berlin volume, White’s Birdwatching Guide to North East Germany and Its Baltic Coast begins with a practical introduction to birding the area, including brief information about the landscape, local transportation, and lodging; the book also offers a concordance of select English and German bird names and a brief (and not unfailingly accurate) glossary to help the visiting birder with German terms on road signs and maps.

The site accounts are clearly written and nicely illustrated with attractive photographs and very helpful, mostly large maps. Information about entrance fees and admission times, recommendations for particular paths or blinds, and brief indications of the best weather conditions for a visit are offered where appropriate; White also provides very helpful advice on using public transportation to reach many of the localities.

Each account ends with a quick discussion of the most interesting species and spectacles to be seen at the site. Unfortunately, the reader looking for a separate discussion of the birds on her “most wanted” list—on the model of White’s Berlin guide—is cast upon the frustrating mercies of the index, which sends one to almost 20 scattered pages for the Common Rosefinch, more than a dozen for the River Warbler, and so on. The few extra pages required to accommodate a paragraph or two about prime sites for those and such other sought-after species as the Thrush Nightingale or Ortolan Bunting would be welcomed by most visitors.

In sum, though, Roger White’s new guide will prove immensely useful to English-speaking birders exploring Germany’s most out-of-the-way corners. And it doesn’t hurt that this, I am fairly certain, is the only bird-finding guide on my shelves to feature a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.

East of the Oder River, the Baltic Sea serves as Poland’s northern border for some 300 miles. Eighty pages are devoted to this region in Oriolus Förlag’s new Birding in Poland. Edited by Adam Sterno, with contributions from nearly fifty Polish birders and ornithologists, Birding in Poland lives up to its title, describing 119 sites—most over several pages—from Szczecin to Lublin and from Katowice to Białystok. The famous Polish localities are treated in rich detail, but the treasure trove for many visitors will be the “local” birding destinations within easy reach of Warsaw, Wrocław, Kraków, and other urban centers of commerce and tourism.

The numbered sites are organized geographically into 14 regional chapters; each chapter is introduced by a concise and informative description of the region’s landscapes and birding highlights, and the general birdiness of each site is indicated with a ranking system of one to three stars, making it easier for traveling birders to budget their time.

The site accounts begin with a short description of the area’s size, location, and habitats, including very helpful general information about parking and access; more precise directions to the site and advice on how best to cover it could be expected next, but that information comes only after the discussion of the area’s birds. Those discussions range from a generous paragraph to three or four full pages for some sites, presenting considerable information about the seasonality, abundance, and detectability of the species most desirable from western European and American birders’ perspectives. Naturally, the depth and precision vary depending on the author, but these paragraphs and pages do a very fine job of letting the visitor know more or less what to expect and more or less when; one is especially grateful to those contributors here who go beyond simple indications of “summer” or “winter” or “migration” to specify the months—in some cases even the weeks—in which certain specialties are most reliably seen.

The birding discussions are followed by segments entitled “Access” and “How to get there,” both of which could helpfully and intuitively have been placed nearer the top of each site account. Every account is also accompanied by one or more black and white maps, some of them decidedly busy and decidedly hard on the eye. Many others, though, are perfectly serviceable, and it seems unlikely in any case that these are the only maps the traveling birder would rely on.

Most of the accounts conclude with a miscellaneous note about plants and other animals of interest in the area; a few of Poland’s tremendous wealth of cultural sites are also mentioned. A bulleted list of helpful websites, books, and articles, in English and in Polish, concludes each entry.

BINbuttonThe book’s 40-page introduction is just as helpful, with everything from emergency phone numbers to instructions for reporting banded birds. It also includes profiles of two charismatic species with globally significant breeding populations in Poland: one, the White Stork, with more than 50,000 pairs, is virtually the emblem of the country’s agricultural landscapes; the other, the Aquatic Warbler, with about 3,000 pairs, is the bird birders think of when planning a trip to Poland.

At nearly 600 pages, Birding in Poland is a big book. Happily, it is designed with the user’s convenience in mind; each chapter has a gray thumb tab, and the footers thoughtfully identify both the chapter and the individual site treated on the page. There are even two ribbon bookmarks bound in—a nice touch indeed. The only serious flaw in the book’s structure is the inscrutable placement of the country map showing all 14 regions and 119 sites in the middle of the profile of the White Stork; fortunately, the same map is also on the rear flyleaf and pastedown, the first place most readers would look.

An appendix provides a complete list of Polish birds with both English and Polish names. Here, too, as in the German guide, the only way to determine where a given species occurs and where it is best seen is to consult the index, a time-consuming and frustrating necessity that could have been avoided by devoting a few pages to even the most telegraphic recommendations.

That aside, the Swedish publishing house Oriolus is to be congratulated for making available what is instantly the must-have title for anyone planning an expedition to see Aquatic Warblers and Great Snipe—or just looking forward to a day in the countryside in the course of a business trip or cultural vacation.

Yes, it’s taken a while. But at long last, English-speaking birders have the introduction they need to some of Europe’s most beautiful and most bird-filled landscapes.

– Rick Wright is the Book Review Editor at Birding magazine.

Recommended citation:

Wright, R. 2015. Two New Guides to Central Europe [a review of A Birdwatching Guide to North East Germany and Its Baltic Coast, by Roger White, and of Birding In Poland, edited by Adam Sterno]. Birding 47 (6): 79-81.

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Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews

Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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