I recently returned from a trip to Germany where large churches and cathedrals seemed to be a dime a dozen and meat, potatoes and soft pretzels dominated our gastronomical adventures. Add in many beer gardens (I am a wine drinker myself) and this sounds like a typical American tourist trip to Deutschland.
While I experienced all of these things, my focus was on something a bit more ambitious. I wanted to see what Germany had to offer in the wildlife department. My wish list was modest. A few birds would be nice. Red squirrels would be really nice (they are photogenic stars with their cute tufted ears). Larger mammals like deer, chamois (a goat antelope), badgers, boars and foxes would be awesome.
Let’s just say that I fell a wee bit short of my expectations. Actually, I felt like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel to be brutally honest.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. We (there were nine of us in a Toyota minivan) covered a lot of territory, mostly in Bavaria and Franconia. Habitats varied from large lakes to the Black Forest to huge swaths of agricultural lands.
Everyone in the van was on the lookout for me. We spotted a number of herons and buzzards (here at home we call them hawks while Europeans call them buzzards). Naturally we were doing Autobahn speeds when we saw most of them so forget the photo ops. At one point, we did stop for a picnic lunch in a cow pasture where I managed to grab a few fuzzy pictures of a lone buzzard.
I had very high expectations for the Black Forest where I was absolutely sure I would at least spot some red squirrels. Alas, it was not to be. Maybe miles and miles of dark, densely packed straight-as-a-rod conifers scared them (the Black Forest name really fits). Maybe they were hiding in the deep recesses of the Forest to get away from nuisance humans like me.
Maybe I need to send some of our homegrown squirrels to Germany!
The closest I got to a red squirrel was buying a plush stuffed one, tufts and all, at a children’s toy store in Nordlingen (a great little town somewhat off the beaten tourist path). I named him Nordie (after the town) and he turned out to be one of our mascots for the trip. He rode shot gun on the passenger side of the van while another stuffed squirrel buddy rode on the driver’s side.
I had a bit more luck when it came to a few other birds. On a day trip to a lake at Tegernsee about an hour south of Munich, I spotted a family of ducks I had never seen before. They turned out to be Great Crested Grebes, which are common now in Europe, but were hunted to near extinction in the UK for their head plumes to decorate ladies’ hats and undergarments.
By far, the cutest member of the family was the young duckling with its distinctive black and white stripes on its body. I watched the dad retrieve a fish for it only to have the mom snatch it out of his mouth and take off to enjoy the snack herself. So much for her maternal instincts!
And then there were the white storks (they are mostly white with black on their wings). While I did see two on the far side of a field one day, it was their nests that really intrigued me. It’s not uncommon to see huge nests (some can weigh as much as 550 pounds) on the roofs of large buildings and medieval gate houses and churches.
The Germans consider them to be good omens as do many other cultures. They purposely build artificial platforms on rooftops to attract them, where the nests are used year after year (so that’s why they get so big!).
If you ever wondered where the origin of storks delivering babies came from, look no further than German folklore for this, too. Legend has it that storks found babies in marshes and caves and delivered them on their backs or in their beaks to eager parents. Storks knew where to make deliveries by sweets left for them on windowsills.
I spotted several large nests during our travels and saw some late season stragglers in a nest one night. The Germans love them so much that there is even a German Stork Route, or Deutsche Storchenstrasse, where people can follow them from town to town as they migrate back north from Africa to breed from March through September.
Though my walk on the wild side in Germany was not as successful as I had hoped, I now see how their rich scenic and wildlife heritage has spread around the world in fairy tales and folklore.