Birds

Birds inhabit familiar-looking terrain on Helgoland, an island off the coast of Germany. (Politikaner)

Summertime is often a time to travel. I just returned from a trip to my native country, Germany. After many days of visiting family and friends and eating bread and cheese, locally grown fresh asparagus and fresh strawberries, I was ready for a little adventure on my own. Linking the trip to more visits, I took a tour boat to the only high sea island Germany has, Helgoland. For me the trip was a sentimental journey to old haunts, because it was here that I spent several summers during my college years working as a diver for the Biological Institute of Helgoland.

Helgoland is a bright red, rocky sandstone Island a little over 40 miles off the North Sea coast with a long and wild history. Its layers were deposited in a prehistoric ocean which is since long gone. 65 million years ago a salt deposit underneath the layers of sandstone rose to push the Island to the surface. Since then glaciers, wind and waves have worked the plateau into what is now the island. Adjacent to the rocky part of the island and separated by a small distance of water is a sand dune, today the location of the campground and a tiny airstrip.

Many a sea tale exists about Helgoland being the hideout of early pirates. During World War II it was the base of a German submarine fleet. The British at one time attempted to bomb the Island off the map and today the surface is riddled with crater holes bearing witness of this attempt. Now a small herd of cows and sheep graze the lush vegetation that grows inside those craters, and when the wind blows over the plateau they use the craters for snug protection.

In summer, over 2,000 visitors come to the island on any given day. The visitors come on day trips from the German mainland. They visit Helgoland to fill shopping bags with spirits, cigarettes, butter, perfume, watches, binoculars and chocolates. Being on the high sea, Helgoland is tax exempt and shopping is duty-free.

To round off the experience the more mobile tourists also venture on a walk around the top of the Island and watch the birds nesting on the cliffs. The nesting cliff on Helgoland is the country’s smallest nature reserve with Germany’s only populations of birds that spend most of their lives in the high seas. Here, the largest and most striking of the cliff nesting birds are the northern gannets, a large and striking creamy white bird with dark wing tips, long beaks, blue eyes and feet, and all kinds of comical behaviors, as if they were giving a show for the onlookers.

Gannets show no fear and go about their routines a mere couple of feet away from people with cameras and leashed dogs. Unlike in the old days, nobody eats them today and the number of breeding pairs is rising, despite the deaths of several chicks per year due to marine debris. Tragically, the parent birds have a knack for decorating their nests with colorful string, seeking out plastic line and netting, sometimes to the demise of their offspring.

Interestingly, among the other birds on the cliffs I found several old friends. There were numerous murres, black-legged kittiwakes, fulmars and a few razorbills. Talking to one of the bird biologists at the local bird sanctuary about the common murre, I found out that our local murre die-off this winter had gone unnoticed in the Old Country and their murres showed no signs of trouble. In fact, 2015 had the highest population count in the past 10 years, with 3,381 murres on the Helgoland cliffs (and they do keep count of all their birds).

Next time I guide a group of German tourists around our Kodiak bird nesting cliffs I can tell them to take our birds’ greetings to their relatives in Germany. However, while we don’t have the funny gannets, which only live in the Atlantic, they don’t have our beautiful puffins. There is an Atlantic puffin, which is a different and slightly smaller species, but since they were all eaten by the pirates in the old times they have not returned to Helgoland.

Our puffins are two different species, which do not occur in the Atlantic. During the busy breeding season the air space near the puffin nesting cliffs hums with take offs and landings like the Franfurt airport. It is good to be back home.

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