Was the first Eastern Crowned Warbler Phylloscopus coronatus in October 2009 really Britain’s first, or the second after Heinrich Gätke obtained a bird that was shot on Helgoland in 1843? And was Germany’s first Cyprus Wheatear Oenanthe cypriaca, recently discovered after a bird collected on Helgoland in May 1867 was re-examined, not a British first instead?
Many British birdwatchers may not be aware of the British history of the tiny North Sea island of Helgoland. During most of Gätke’s active period, Helgoland was British. Only in 1890 was the island ‘exchanged’ for Zanzibar to become part of Germany. The seabird cliffs, with Germany’s only Common Guillemots Uria aalge, Northern Gannets Morus bassanus and sometimes even breeding Pied Wagtails Motacilla alba yarrellii, remind the visitor how close the island is to Britain.
Gätke’s pioneering work led to the establishment of the ‘Vogelwarte Helgoland’ in 1910. Having gathered more than 170 years of bird migration data, Helgoland is considered one of the oldest bird observatories in the world and is famous well beyond Germany as one of the most popular Meccas for birdwatchers in Europe.
Since Gätke’s magnum opus, Die Vogelwarte Helgoland, was published in 1891, rather little in the way of an updated avifauna of the birds of Helgoland has emerged, other than a short annotated species list published by Gottfried Vauk in 1972. In the late 1980s, two of the main authors of this new book, Jochen Dierschke and his brother Volker, together with Frank Stühmer, a keen young birder from the island, revolutionised birdwatching on Helgoland. In 1991, the ‘ornithological working group of Helgoland’ was formed, which published regular reports summarising (for the first time) observations on the island that were made outside the observatory. And now, Jochen Dierschke and other authors finally present a full account of the present knowledge of the birdlife of Helgoland.
It is not just about rarities, although they inevitably feature strongly. Chapters on habitats and the extensive history of the island are followed by chapters on the breeding birds, migration and wintering birds, before each of the 426 species recorded on the island to date are covered in single-species accounts. Almost all of these accounts are accompanied by high-quality photographs and by graphs depicting the phenology and changes over years and decades, the latter mostly the work of co-authors Ommo and Kathrin Hüppop, who started work at the observatory in 1988.
The authors have managed to assemble an enormous wealth of data and provide the reader with unique analyses of trend data over 170 years. Odd and always admired rarities range from the Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius from the nineteenth century and the Pale Thrush Turdus pallidus in 1986 to the Grey-necked Bunting Emberiza buchanani as recently as 2009. However, the real value of the book in my opinion is the trend data. Analyses of changes over the past 50 years provide trends for 66 species, of which 49 have decreased. Among them, not surprisingly, are Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur, Wryneck Jynx torquilla and Tree Sparrow Passer montanus, but also Bluethroat Luscinia svecica. Only ten increased, such as Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus, Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus, Wren Troglodytes troglodytes and Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita. Even longer-term trends, made possible by using the accounts from Gätke as well as Rudolf Drost in the early twentieth century, reveal the sheer numbers of mass migration and falls of literally thousands of birds, such as an estimated 2,000 Ring Ouzels Turdus torquatus in one October night in 1934, or thousands of Common Redstarts Phoenicurus phoenicurus on spring days with a southeasterly wind. There were 1,500 Common Redstarts in May 1940, but such numbers have not been observed since, pointing to overall declines of this once-common species. More intriguing are the fluctuations in numbers of the Shore Lark Eremophila alpestris over the past 170 years. Hardly known from before 1847, the species increased rapidly to thousands in autumn migration at the end of nineteenth century, declining in the early twentieth century but with hundreds again by the mid 1900s. After 1960 the species declined, increased again in the 1990s and has declined since 1999. The book reveals many more intriguing analyses of several species, drawing parallels with British birds, which readers will surely find interesting.
The text is mixed with thematic boxes on various topics and my favourite is the evocative description of nocturnal mass migration, again revealing the sheer numbers that used to be attracted by the lighthouse, at times estimated to be tens if not hundreds of thousands of birds with several thousand thrushes, Common Snipes Gallinago gallinago and Woodcocks Scolopax rusticola collected by the locals on some nights.
The overall total of almost 7,000 ring-recoveries is outstanding. Interestingly, a map of Europe leaves hardly any white spots in the UK. Only in the northeast of Scotland have no birds ringed on Helgoland been recovered.
Although the text is in German, there are extensive summaries of each chapter, each caption and each species account in English. The Helgolandic summary is missing, but most of the common names are listed in Helgolandic.
The stunning photographs, all taken exclusively on Helgoland and several of them with some gentle humour, together with the many references and parallels drawn to British birds make this book a must-read, not only for German readers but all those interested in bird migration in Britain and across Europe. There are inevitably a few spelling mistakes, hardly worth mentioning, and I can highly recommend this book. For its size and the number of pictures and graphs the price of €55.00 is reasonable. If you would like to support the work of the Helgoland Ornithological Working Group, you can order the book directly online from their website.
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