Monday, May 20, 2013

Birding for Scholarships

Every May, in recent years, I have enjoyed staying connected to Earlham College (where I got my B.A. degree) by participating in Birding Big Day. Donors pledge money per bird species and alumni from all over the world go out to try to find as many bird species as they can over graduation weekend.

This year's birding big day was a lot of fun since we are in Europe and I'm trying to learn the birds here. I don't have a handle on European birdsongs yet so nearly all of these birds were ID'd by sight.  We were enroute by bicycle through the Baltics over the BBD weekend so this list encompasses northwestern Latvia through much of Estonia. The weather didn't cooperate with us (our most promising spot along the route, a migratory bird area on the Latvian coast, was completely socked in with fog when we passed through) but we still managed to see birds here and there in other places.

As it happens, my bird guide is in German (a translation of Hayman and Hume's 2009 guide)! Luckily Markus knows all the birds by their German names anyway so we just used those and I actually don't know the English common names for a lot of these birds.  We sent the list below with latin names - thanks to Bill Buskirk for adding English names to the list!
Feldlerche (Alauda arvensis)  Skylark
Weissstorch (Ciconia ciconia)  White Stork
Bachstelze (Motacilla alba)  White or Pied Wagtail
Kranich (Grus grus)  Common Crane
Elster (Pica pica) European Magpie
Graureiher (Ardea cinerea)  Gray Heron
Stockente (Anas platyrhynchos)  Mallard
Kiebitz (Vanellus vanellus)  Northern Lapwing
Buchfink (Fringilla coelebs)  Chaffinch
Kohlmeise (Parus major)  Great Tit
Braunkehlchen (Saxicola rubetra)  Whinchat
Wiesenschafstelze (Motacilla flava ssp. supercilians) Western Yellow Wagtail
Brandgans (Tadorna tadorna)  Shelduck
Lachmoeve (Larus ridibundus) Black-headed Gull
Rauchschwalbe (Hirundo rustica)  Barn Swallow
Nebelkrahe (Corvus cornix)  Hooded Crow
Saatkrahe (Corvus frugilegus)  Rook
Grunfink (Carduelis chloris)  Greenfinch
Haussperling (Passer domesticus)  House Sparrow
Eichelhaher (Garrulus glandarius)  European Jay
Amsel (Turdus merula)  European Blackbird (of 4 and 20 fame)
Loffelente (Anas clypeata)  Northern Shoveler
Hoeckerschwan (Cygnus olor)  Mute Swan
Neuntoeter (Lanius collurio)  Red-backed Shrike
Wacholderdrossel (Turdus pilaris)  Fieldfare
Ringeltaube (Columba palumbus)Wood Pigeon
Kuckuck (Cuculus canorus)  Common Cuckoo
Stieglitz (Carduelis carduelis)  European Goldfinch
Singdrossel (Turdus philomelos)  Song Thrush
Blasshuehn (Fulica atra)  European Coot
Rothalstaucher (Podiceps grisegena)  Red-necked Grebe
Rohrweihe (Circus aeruginosus)  Western Marsh Harrier
Weissrueckenspecht (Dendrocopus leucotos)  White-backed Woodpecker
Star (Sturnus vulgaris)  European Starling
Mausebuzzard (Buteo buteo)  Common Buzzard
Graugans (Anser anser)  Greylag Goose

Markus has been doing a lot of bird-related photography, though without a zoom lens we are limited in what we can capture. Here are a few from birding along our route (Big Day and otherwise) as well as from our continued work with Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation to document roadkill observations.

Haubentaucher (a grebe) we saw in Finland. We have seen these all over Europe, but didn't see one during Birding Big Day!

Creative and impressive White Stork nest

Roadkill Gruenfink (Greenfinch) we spotted this morning in central Finland

“Paldies, Latvija” (Thank You, Latvia)

On May 4th, we arrived in the Baltic States by ferry from Germany knowing next to nothing about the languages and cultures of these three little countries: Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. What we found were birch trees, Soviet apartment building relics, flat and expansive farmland, windy coasts, and wonderful people. And while we enjoyed all three countries during the 9 days and ~600 kms. we cycled across them, the incredibly friendly and helpful people of Latvia left the biggest lasting impression. A few stories…

In Lithuania, the miles flew by on flat, well-paved roads with the wind at our backs. When we crossed the border into southern Latvia around 6pm on May 6th with a plan to cycle another 30 kilometers or so before camping, we were surprised to find that nearly all the roads were unpaved with the exception of the heavily-trafficked highway. So we set off onto the dusty, washboard-like roads to the town of Auce. By the time we arrived around 9pm, the sun was setting and we hadn’t seen any good places to camp. Markus asked some young folks standing outside the supermarket whether there were any places in town to camp or to stay and a woman pulled out her phone and started calling around town for us. After a few minutes, she said “You can sleep where the students sleep” then hopped on her bike to guide us through town to the student dorm. The woman who supervised the dorm wasn’t there, so our new friend told us to wait and bicycled off to find the woman and bring her back. They got us all settled into our own room with fluffy pillows, use of the kitchen and showers for just 5 bucks per person. It was an awesome place to stay after a long day and a great act of generosity by those 2 women to help us out!
Morning in the Auce student dormitory
Two days later—after cycling past farms and national parks, camping in a boreal forest, and seeing our first moose in Europe—we arrived in Riga ready for a little city time. The best budget accommodation looked to be Riga City Camping, just a couple kilometers from the old town. When we arrived, there was no one else there and no one in the reception but the friendly security guard at the gate (which was a dual entrance for both the campground and a company) gestured to a grassy area where we could set up our tent. After discovering that the shower building was locked we realized the campground was still closed for the season. But that didn’t matter to our new friend, the old man who guarded the place. He was there the whole time we were! He watched our bikes and tent while we were out on the town that evening, thanked us profusely for the crème brulee we brought him that night, and stuck his head out of the little security shack when we woke up to wish us good morning. He spoke no English and we spoke no Latvian, but communicating in smiles and gestures was enough. What a nice guy!

Our well-guarded bikes in Riga

The third story from Latvia is certainly the most memorable. Markus was the star of this one, using his computer technology skills and ability to charm people he’d just met who didn’t speak his language to help me out one afternoon. Here’s the story from him:

Friday, 10th of May – an important day for Karen since there was a job interview on her schedule. All we needed was an internet connection and a couple hours for her to talk via Skype. It sounds easy, especially since we have her Mac with us on our bike trip. However, the Wifi is kind of broken because the Mac usually tells us that there is “no airport card installed”. We tried to fix this a while ago but none of the forum solutions worked. The solution is a LAN cable connection but the problem is that in this "WiFi Day of Age" a LAN connection is hard to find.

The plan was to role into a good size town by early afternoon to leave us enough time to figure out the an internet solution for the interview at 5pm our time. We arrived in Salacgriva and went straight to the tourist info to find out about internet cafes and potential places to stay that have internet. There was none and the next accommodation was 3 km out of town and definitely out of our budget price range with no guarantee we could connect via LAN. However, the local library was right across the street from the tourist info. The small library consisted of 2 room with one room having 4 computers which had internet. 

Karen went in first to check if the connection was good, which it was. Then she was watching the bikes and our gear while I was trying to figure out a solution to our internet need. First I was asking one of the 2 ladies that were working at the library if we could rent a room with Internet connection for a couple hours to do some work. It was tricky since they didn’t speak English or German but two teenage girls, who were hanging out at the library, were able to help with their basic English. The answer I got through the girls was the “Internet was everywhere”, meaning Wifi, which I tried to explain doesn’t work for us. No luck, so I decided to make it work with the computers at the libery since us skyping there was OK (at least that was my impression and understanding ;-). Parallel to that I tried to set up the MAC so that at the end at least one computer would work out for the interview.

The library computers had Skype installed but no camera, speaker, mic or headset and a couple of Plug-ins that were important for the interview conference software were missing. On the other hand, the MAC had some issues with the security certificates. All these pieces are kind of important for using Skype ;-). The mac has all the hardware so I tried to plug in the LAN from the library computer into Karen’s MAC and connect – no luck there! So I had to explain to the girls that I need a headset from the ladies. After what sounded like a harsh discussion between the girls and the ladies a headset appeared. OK, basic skype w/o camera now worked on the library computer. The interview could now at least happen. I continued to play around with the MAC to see if I could get it to work. After the second restart the wireless suddenly started to work and we were able to connect to the library WiFi. Great! The MAC would be the interview computer and the desktop PC would be backup.

During all this Karen also got ready for the interview and I shuttled all of our gear into the library and locked the bikes. I returned to work on the setup at one point when one girl stopped by and put the below note on the desk and left immediately. These compliments made us laugh and feel okay about taking over the library for awhile.

Karen’s interview was on for a several minutes when two young boys came into the library to use two other computers. I noticed that they were playing some games and they were pretty intense and “hard on the keyboard”. One of the library ladies went to the boys and I think explained to them that they needed to be quieter because of us. However, a couple minutes later the boys were in full action again so I decided to bribe them with the last Latu (Latvian money) we had so they could go and buy some candy at the store (and would leave). It worked and the boys were happy and when I saw them later outside again they were still saying “thank you” and were still quite happy. During the interview another young man came in and talked to the library lady with a whispering voice. He obviously wanted to use the Internet too and after a while came over to me and asked me if it would be OK to use one of the other computers. We “talked” and he went on to use it. During the interview I was sitting behind a row of books behind the PC aisle next to the library entry and when he was leaving he came over and said “Thank you”. I felt like the guard of the computers and the library ladies were my allies…how cool it is, super friendly, in a different country, and we were using their resources…we invaded their space, one out of two library rooms, and they were so supportive. I went dinner shopping during the interview and got the ladies a bottle of Russian champagne. When I gave it to one of them she was the happiest and smiliest person in Salacgriva for that moment.

As a result, we have a great story to tell about the people in Salacgriva and overall had a good time again ;-).

Thursday, May 9, 2013

UEFA Champions League - das muss sein !!!

Die besten Clubs aus Europa spielen jedes Jahr um den Gewinn der Champions League, den hoechsten Titel in Sachen Vereinsfussball in Europa. Dieses Jahr haben wir Deutsche mit Borussia Dortmund und Bayern Muenchen gleich zwei Teams im Halbfinale, die auf die spanischen Clubs FC Barcelona ("in den letzten Jahren die beste Mannschaft Europas") bzw. Real Madrid ("Die Königlichen") treffen. Diese, von meiner Seite mit Spannung erwarteten Spiele, konnte und durfte ich nicht verpassen. Es musste eine Loesung her! Die Mittwochsspiele waren im ZDF, also ein Fernseher irgendwo sollte es schon tun. Die Dienstagspartien wurden dagegen nur im Bezahlfernsehen uebertragen, was die Sache etwas schwieriger machte.

Das erste Spiel am 04/23 war Bayern gegen Barcelona. Diese 4:0 Gala der Bayern konnten wir leider nicht live sehen doch dafuer war das 4:1 des BVB gegen Real am naechsten Abend nochmal so schoen. Das Lewandowski-tor-spektakle konnten Karen und ich live in Riesa mitverfolgen. Nach einem 80+ km Tag entlang der Elbe sah ich einige Sportsfreunde des Riesaer Schiffvereins auf dem Balkon des Vereinsgebaeudes. Nach kurzer Ruecksprache, und Sicherstellung das hier heut CL geschaut wird, stellten wir unser Zelt neben der Alten Faehre auf. Die besorgten paar Bier und Chips rundeten den Fussballabend ab.

Graal-Müritz ist eine kleine Stadt an der Deutschen Ostsee und der Ort an dem wir gestrandet waren fuer das Rueckspiel zwischen Real Madrid und Dortmund am 30. April. Nach nur 25km von Warnemuende entschieden wir uns hier halt zu machen. Der Grund dafuer: Eine SKY-sportbar! Nach Ruecksprache mit der Bedienung, und Vergewisserung, dass das Spiel gezeigt wird, war das keine schwere Entscheidung. Zumal die naechsten zwei Orte auf unserer Strecke nur ja ca. 1000 Einwohner hatten und sicherlich keine SKY-sportbar. Zudem war ein Campingplatz gleich um die Ecke was fuer den spaeteren Heimweg von Vorteil ist ;-). Auf dem Weg zum Campingplatz sah ich Egon in seinem Garten. Wir hielten an und wir kamen ins Gespraech. Als ich ihn nach einer Weile fragte, ob es moeglich waere bei ihm im Garten zu Uebernachten sagte er "da muss ich mal mit meiner Frau reden." Nach einer Minute kam er und Imke zurueck und wir konnten in ihrem Fereinhausgarten unser Zelt aufstellen. Die gesparrte Campinggebuehr konnten wir nun spaeter in "Fluessiges" eintauschen. Zudem hatte ich auch das Gefuehl das unser Besuch Egon ganz recht kam da er somit eine "Entschuldigung" hat auch in die Bar zu gehen um Fussball zu schauen.
Die Bar war voll! 150, im Herzen schwarz-gelbe, Fussballfans fieberten mit Dortmund an diesen Abend in Graal-Müritz. Drei Leinwaende und 4 oder 5 Fernseher ueber der Bar sorgten fuer eine Bombenstimmung. Man konnte gut spueren als beim 1:0 die Spannung stieg und als dann in der 88. Minute auch noch das 2:0 fuer Real hinzukam, war es jedem anzumerken das es jatzt nochmal so richtig eng wird. Als dann nach 5 Minuten Nachspielzeit der Schlusspfiff kam waren alle erleichtert und begeistert - Dortmund ist im Finale!

Die Bayern hatten am naechsten Tag eine noch bessere Ausgangslage. Barcelona brauchte mind. 4 Tore, nicht unmoeglich vor heimischen Publikum, ohne ein Gegentor der Bayern zuzulassen. Dieses Spiel haben wir im Wohnwagen von einem sehr netten aelteren Paerchen aus Luebeck auf dem Campingplatz in Groß Kordshagen gesehen nachdem wir das halbe Dorf nach einer Fernsehmoeglichkeit gefragt haben. (Zwei Wohnwagen waren schon auf dem Campingplatz, und zum Glueck hatten die Luebecker Fernsehn dabei!) Das Speil lief wie geschmiert fuer die im Moment richtig starken Bayern. Sie konnten die Spanier kommen lassen um dann auf ihre Chance zu warten. Und das taten sie. Die erste Halbzeit unterhaltsam und zur zweiten Halbzeit drei Tore fuer Bayern. Souveraen! Das erste deutsch-deutsche Endspiel der CL-Geschichte. Bayern-BVB in Wembley, das wird spitze! Es wird nicht nur um Fussball an diesem Aben am 25. Mai gehen. Weitere hochbrisante Themen werden der Goetze Wechsel, sowie die Zukunft von Uli Hoeness und Lewandowski sein. Bleibt nur zu hoffen, dass zumindest ein Sender in Finnland das Spiel uebertragen wird! Wenn nicht, gibt es ja zum Glueck noch das Internet!

Mein Tipp: 1:0 fuer den BVB
Fotos kommen spaeter...