Helgoland 2021

Day 1: Saturday 9th of October.
From 9 till 13 October Hans Overduin and I visited the island. On the 2020 trip we had the worst weather you can imagine for migrating bird with rain and a strong wind from the northwest. This time we arrived with perfect conditions with a mild wind from the east, sun and about 15 degrees. The MS Helgoland sailed from Cuxhaven and in the calm conditions we had a constant passage of migrant crossing the north sea. The majority of the birds where Chaffinches and Meadow Pipits with an occasional Sky Lark. A Robin and Chiffchaff briefly landed on the deck between the unaware tourists. Besides these birds three Arctic Skuas passed by as did a Hen and Marsh Harrier.

After disembarking we walked to our accommodation and in the streets we had to step over the many Bramblings that foraged on the rowan berries. We dropped our luggage and only took our lens and bins with us. Not that we got far as we first spend some time photographing the finches in the street but after explaining what we where doing after the 10th time we left the scene.

One of the best birding a photographing spots off the Island in the north beach. The east quay and dike leading to this beach can also be interesting for birds that have just arrived and many vagrants have been found here. The dike was loaded with Meadow Pipits and Chiffchaffs showing birds kept on arriving. The beach is always productive as birds feed on the flies and maggots in the decaying seaweed. At the base of the pier you can always expect Snow Buntings and they didn't disappoint, two birds showed well and beside having hundreds of photos already you can never ignore these cooperative birds.

Our photo target for this trip where the Shore Larks. I never had the opportunity before to photograph these fantastic arctic birds so they topped my wish list for a long time. I was delighted when I heard their buzzing call on the beach and shortly after that six birds landed not far away from us. With some crawling and strategic positioning we got some fantastic shots that made the trip already worth it.

Beside the gulls and smaller passerines you can find another illusive bird here on the beach that you normally only see flying underneath your feet while wading through mud, reed or high grass: the Jacksnipe. One snipe was very relaxed and showing the "bobbing" walk before it got scared off by a Merlin chasing and catching a Chaffinch in mid air.

Day 2: Sunday 10th October 2021. At sunrise we started at the north beach to have to first light. A Northern Wheatear illuminated by the firs sun rays perched on a block covered in dark weed. Still many Brambling and Meadow Pipits hang around. Later more tourist arrived and the birds became more skittish.

Earlier we noticed that flocks of Siskins arrived on the island and soon we found the first birds foraging on herb seeds. The birds where very tame and while photographing these finches suddenly a larger bird perched on the fence. A juvenile Common Rosefinch sat right in front of us but as suddenly it appeared it also vanished again.

We had covered the northern part so after lunch we focussed on the south part. This part is less visited by birders especially the harbour. We walked through the grass fields and hope to flush something special. Three Jack Snipes was the result and at the east side we briefly saw the Great Grey Shrike reported here earlier. We tried to relocate it at Mittelland but in vain. While we walked up the hill I noticed a small bird catching insects in flight. When I got my binocular on it a juvenile Red-breasted Flycatcher was sitting out in the open. We quickly rushed to the edge of the crater for better light to photograph it. It only took about two hours before we got a shot we hoped for...

While waiting for the flycatcher another bird moved up the crater's edge down from Kringel. A "Siberian" Lesser Whitethroat sat next to us and allowed a couple of shots before heading further up the hill. Sadly it didn't call or showed the outer tail feathers so it's hard to say which subspecies it is, comments are most welcome.

In the last light we walked down to check the flocks of birds along the pier of Kringel. There where many Grey Wagtails between the blocks and a female Redstart posed in a nice setting. The flock of about 300 Chaffinches and Brambling got the attention of some Sparrowhawks and a Merlin last one gave a spectacular show speeding close by against the background of red cliffs.

Day 3 Monday 11th October 2021. Previous day the wind direction changed in the afternoon from east to west and picked up. Our strategy for the day was to start at Dune so at sunrise we took the ferry to be ahead of the tourist to have the beach for ourselves. Many waders where present mainly Sanderling, Turnstones and Dunlin with a single Bar-tailed Godwit and about a dozen Golden and Ringed Plovers. We laid down between the waders and within a couple of minutes we found ourselves in the middle of the flock. It's hard to choose which bird to focus on and I was lucky this Dunlin stretched it wings right in front of me.

Besides the waders there wasn't much else to see. The wind was too hard for any small birds so all kept hidden low in the vegetation. In the lee side of the island a single Golden Plover allowed us to get close for some time before it took off joining another plover that flew overhead. I tried to capture the feeding behaviour of the bird collecting larva from the sand resulting in many shots with only a single one with the larve in its bill and the sand thrown in the air.

In the center of the island we looked for some passerines but due to the wind they kept low under the vegetation. Two Razorbills had found shelter in the harbour and just before the ferry arrived got close to the dock with some nice low autumn sunlight on them.

You know when it's too windy when Northern Wheatears are blow over the football field and take shelter behind a brick. When we returned on the main island the wind was even stronger. Because of the high tide there was hardly any beach left and the salt spray is not the best for your camera.

We climbed the "Jagersteig" stairs to go to the cliffs. A flock of Shore Larks had settled out of the wind near the track and while we waited the approached us almost too close to focus.

For the rest the island was relative empty compared to the previous day. Only some Goldcrest and Bramlings where present at the cemetery of the "oberland" village. We headed back to the accommodation but got distracted by some Grey Wagtails in the harbour with the last light of the day (hence the high iso).

Day 4 Tuesday 12 October 2021. Same tactic today, but now we walked around Dune counter clockwise. A female Eider allowed us to take some close-ups which was to only mentionable we came across the shoreline.

At one of the ponds a Pallas' Leaf Warbler had been found and did show well, too bad we couldn't get any closer. So then a bird in its environment picture that also shows how well camouflaged this little birds are. So how many birds and do you see?

Previous day a Rustic Bunting had been found at a place we walked by. I always feel gutted when such a rarity is found on a spot I'd been earlier and seems to missed it but I realise you pass more then you find. Still when we arrived about 25 birders stood there gazing at the place it was last seen. Then I heard the bird calling and it sat right on the veranda which was a bit overgrown. I screamed out the bird sat there in the open and we got our lenses out like mad men. No response of the other birders that kept on looking to the ground. We started photographing the bunting and again pointed out it was right there! Still no reaction only when it returned to that spot on the ground the turned out to be life in the birders. This portrait shows the same look as the birders had themselves :)

With the last hours of light we went to the beach. The wind had decreased and the birds had returned including a flock of Shore Larks which where a bit more cooperative but got scared off by people walking when day finally came in our reach.

Beside the small birds many gulls find a banquet in the rotten sea weed. The majority are Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls but among them where a handful Caspian Gulls present.

To end the day with the species that gained most of my attention this trip was a dense flock of Brambling gathered in a couple of square metres. This shot resembles the high concentration of these birds on the island this trip.

Day 5 Wednesday 13th of October 2021. All was dull, grey and wet in the morning so we first had a proper breakfast and after we got out had to hide a couple of times for the rain. Luckily due to the wind it also passed by rapidly but there weren't any new birds. So we headed back to our trusted Shore Larks at the top of the rock for a very nice session where we spend the rest of the morning.

On our way back for lunch we passed the site of the Rustic Bunting. Again when we walked by I heard the bird calling but now from a maple tree. It sat there in the lower branch and same story as before. Yelled at the other birders, no response (Yes, in German) got out the camera, took the photos before it went down to forage on the ground...

After a beer with pizza to end the trip with we headed to the harbour. This takes you along Kringel and like last year we just had to go there for a final look. No Yellow-browed Warbler but again very cooperative Goldcrest to spend the last half hour on the island on. On our way back plans where made for next year, to quote German speaking celebrity: "I'll be back".