in search of the White-backed Woodpecker. Lest this sound like a snipe hunt, let me assure you that such a bird does indeed exist and we found it! We never would have seen it had it not been for our new friends Sebastian, Christian and Franz.
Let me start at the beginning! Shortly after we moved into our flat, we noticed an odd set of buildings just behind the Villa. We could see a building that looked something like an office but behind it was a covered fence. People seemed to be at this building most of the day, on weekends, sometimes at night. Occasionally, we could hear hammering! We discovered a sign outside “Wildtiere in Not” or wildlife in danger/great distress. (You see the word Not also on trams, buses, and airplanes, by the emergency exits and emergency stopping devices.)
Eventually, internet sleuthing led me to a webpage and from there to a contact email, which I utilized to inquire what was going on behind us! I mentioned that we would be interested in seeing the rehabilitation facility, and if they were building an aviary, that we were very interested in birds!
Weeks went by. Then, I received an email from Sebastian, who had been forwarded the email. Turns out he is a lifelong birder, bands birds for the rehabilitation center, and would be willing to take us birding. The email arrived at an especially busy time for us, so I set it aside for later reply. We eventually were walking again on the Roseggerweg, the path behind the villa named (we presume) for the famous Styrian author Peter Rosesegger, and ran into two people trying to capture a crow that was hopping around on top of cars parked at Wildtiere in Not. They were the coordinators of the project and invited us in! While we were there, Sebastian called and we had a nice conversation.
A week later, he called to invite us to go birdwatching with him and his friend Christian. We accepted right away! So, last Friday, we got up before the crack of dawn — you know birdwatchers like to start
at a time everyone else thinks is crazy early — so we could walk down to Karl Franz U. to meet Sebastian and Christian at 7 a.m.
When Sebastian said he was a life-long birder, I was prepared for someone in his 40’s at least. I think Sebastian might be 30, if that. He’s studying biology, with specialization in avian biology, at KFU, part-time and has to be one of the most knowledgeable birders I’ve ever met! The others being Franz and Christian, who were retired, and also life-long birders. Sebastian speaks almost perfect English, knows all the English names for the Austrian birds, (was using the same bird guide we had) and knows all about New World birds as well!
We climbed into Christian’s car along with Sebastian and Franz and off we went to the Hochschwab area, north of Graz.
We drove up through Bruck an der Mur, the steel town of Kapfenberg, and through sleepy little villages and farm towns. The day was warm, clear, and the scenery was incredibly beautiful! This was our first up close and personal view of the Styrian countryside, other than from a train window!
We spent quite a while seeing lots of other birds — most of which were new to us — before we headed to the woods. That’s typical birding. It takes an hour to walk half a kilometer! We were lovin’ it!
The compact Leicas we brought with us are not too bad, but I was really wishing for our good ol’ Zeiss 10 x 40’s, left behind to conserve weight. Fortunately, we had two scopes with us courtesy of Sebastian and Christian!
The woods where we were looking for the White-backed Woodpecker was an old stand of mixed beech and spruce. The w.b.woodpecker is one of the rarer woodpeckers for Styria. It prefers the older growth forests and eats wood-boring beetles. (Hey, we need it in W. Montana!). It requires areas that are undisturbed by forestry operations, so is greatly threatened. Woods here are mostly private woods, but are open for anyone to go into. (Hunters of course must ask permission, but bird watchers are welcome!) We walked quietly, listened and looked for quite a while. We saw and heard a lot of other woodpeckers – the more common Great Spotted – but no White-backed!
Fortunately, there is always a lot to see when you are out in the woods. The wildflowers were just emerging. The woods were full of these!
Bill was particularly interested in the deposits of gravel all over the woods. You can see the gravel in the photo above, as white patches. These were deposits from avalanche chutes! There were whole sections of the area ploughed up by avalanches! We heard several smaller ones while we were in the area, and saw numerous rock and snow slides!
There were many wildflowers to look at while we were waiting for the woodpecker to appear!
Finally, we decided the woodpecker was too shy for visitors today and turned to go. As we picked our way through the debris and flowers, we heard the ping-pong ball-like drumming that is typical for the White-backed. Sebastian imitated the call, and pretty soon, into view it came! Mission accomplished. Only we weren’t done yet!
Our new friends decided that we should look next for the Golden Eagle nests, located on the other side of the Hochschwab. There ensued a discussion of whether we should take the road OVER the mountain or if it would be better to drive around to the other side. Early spring = probable snow and road impassability. Around (and not over) it was!
The area where we were birding is one of the primary sources for drinking water not only for Graz but also for Vienna. Water is collected here and piped, to supplement (at least in Graz) the municipal wells in the city. The water in Graz is delicious and safe to drink!
(notice the sign below!)
So. Back through the picturesque villages to Kapfenberg and around to the other side of the mountain we went. But not before we viewed a Gämser on the rocky cliffs of the Hochschwab. Pretty soon we could see a whole herd of them, spooked by some hikers up on one of the snowfields.
Gämsers are like a cross between what we call pronghorns or antelope and sheep. They are incredibly agile on the mountainous slopes! We were excited to see our first large mammals in Austria. There are also deer, red deer (more like our elk), and others. No bears, no wolves.
At the next area, there was a small stream, and a beautiful lake that appeared to be fed by springs in the area. This is where we ate lunch.
We managed to get a good look at the Gold Crest which is the smallest of European birds. It is a cousin to our Ruby Crowned Kinglet.
The wildflowers in this area were equally stunning! Erika was the new one….used here frequently to decorate graves.
This whole area reminded us of northern Florida, with its extensive limestone-formed springs. In fact, the geology of this Styrian area is replete with limestone!
We walked further in toward the cliffs of the Hochschwab, passing another stream along the way.
And finally to the Grünersee (Green Sea) which is another spring-and-snow-melt-fed body of water. It was at its low point, but if you look here, you can see why it is of special interest especially at maximum snowmelt. This is definitely worth a trip back in May or June!
Franz and Christian were disappointed that we couldn’t see the ‘see’ at its maximum, and kept apologizing but there was nothing to apologize for. Every bit of what we were seeing was simply eye candy!
In the summer, the high meadows, called alms will be filled with sweet grass, and farmers will lead their dairy cows upward to feed. You can take a gondola up to the top or near the top, and hike along to these alms, where there is invariably a small hut offering at least cheese, and sometimes fresh yoghurt, cake, or…..beer! We encountered these delightful oases of hospitality in Switzerland when we were there in 2005, and we look forward to trying the Austrian version!
Oh, and what about the Golden Eagles? We looked for at least a half an hour at the cliffs, not seeing any nests, but observing plenty of other avian species – peregrine, common buzzards (which are like our red-tail hawk), ravens, all enjoying riding the updrafts of the high mountain.
Once again we started toward the car, defeated in our specific quest, but not dismayed. However, Franz, who has the – ahem – eagle eye, called us back. He had spotted two golden eagles soaring high above the towering peaks. They were specks in the sky, but with the scopes we could see the unmistakable size and configuration of their feather tips.
Christian said of Franz and Sebastian that these are the best birders in all of Styria, maybe in Austria – the old(er) and the young! We felt so honored to be with them!
Our day was not yet over. Sebastian needed to visit the place which first brought us into contact: the Wildtiere in Not in order to band (in Austria, it is called ‘ringing’) several rehabilitating birds.
This bird had had an unfortunate run in with an auto, and probably injured in the head, as the rest of the body and wings seemed intact. The balance was a little off. I was thinking here of my friend, Kate Davis, who has taken in so many birds at her Raptor Ranch. Most of the birds (and animals – rabbits, and bats, mostly) at Wildtiere in Not will be released, if they are sufficiently rehabilitated. The center has numerous folks and some students from the biology department of KFU who volunteer their time.
It was absolutely refreshing to be in the company of people who not only pursue birds for their lifelist but also who bring their passion for birds into caring for them in ways that are life-giving. I am pinching myself to make sure I am not dreaming.
Again, gratitude abounds!