May 7, 2021
BIRDING WITH THE VIKINGS
By Rick Wright
Öland, Sweden’s Isle of Sun and Wind, lies in the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea just off this beautiful country’s southeast coast, at the end of what locals are proud to note was once the longest bridge in Europe. Stretching 85 miles north to south, but not quite 10 miles wide at its broadest point, the island acts as a leading line for Scandinavian migrants in autumn, when impressive numbers of southbound birds may pile up at Öland’s southern end, hesitating to take the next step of their journey to distant wintering grounds.
It’s a familiar recipe, closely resembling the geographic circumstances responsible for the impressive phenomena witnessed at Cape May, Eilat, and so many other migration hotspots around the world. In Sweden, only Falsterbo can rival the southern tip of Öland for birders eager to share in some of the best birding Europe has to offer. Thanks to generations of dedicated observers, Öland is now one of the best-birded sites in Scandinavia. Many of those observers have been associated with the Ottenby Bird Observatory, which has been systematically studying the movements of birds around the Baltic since 1946; more than 4,000 birds banded there have been recovered at distant sites, including a Little Stint discovered in South Carolina in December 2020.
One of the highlights of birding Öland is the chance to learn more about the work conducted at the observatory, and sometimes to participate in the banding, measurement, and release of birds captured in the nets and traps on the observatory grounds. On our most recent VENT tour, a lead-up to 2019’s Baltic Sea cruise, we saw birds in the hand ranging from the Wood Sandpiper to the Common Swift to the Icterine Warbler.
Even more fun, though, is birding around the island. Scattered small woodlands and the limestone plains known as alvars provide food and resting opportunities for residents and migrants including Common Cranes, Fieldfares, and Red-backed Shrikes, while European Honey-buzzards, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles ply the skies above. Barred Warblers continue to pass through until the end of September, overlapping with the arrival of the earliest wintering Redwings and Bramblings. On the beaches and marshes, Whooper Swans, Ruffs, and Spotted Redshanks are joined by a host of waterfowl and shorebird species; early September is also a prime season for jaegers and the less common gulls. All in all, nearly 300 species have been recorded on Öland in early September, accounting for nearly 3/4 of the island’s total list.
All of this ornithological wealth is displayed against a remarkable historical and cultural background. As Sweden’s gateway to the southern Baltic, Öland was a vital trade junction for many centuries. The island’s Bronze Age and Iron Age inhabitants left imposing monuments in the shape of barrows and enormous monoliths. By the year 1000, Viking farmers and warriors had settled on the edges of the alvars. They interred their dead in fields up to a mile and a half long surrounded by standing stones in the shape of a ship; Öland’s very few surviving runestones also date to this period. The atmospheric ruins of Saint Birgitta’s, a thirteenth-century seafarers’ church, dominate the beach at Kappelludden, one of the island’s best shorebirding spots. Wherever we go, traces of this rich past surround us: centuries-old windmills, storm-tossed lighthouses, the almost sublimely huge ruin of Borgholm Castle.
At the end of a day full of birds and experiences, we return to our delightful hotel, a handsomely refurbished farmstead where linnets and wagtails play on the lawns while we linger over a delicious dinner prepared by the hotel chef. Surrounded by the past, enjoying the present: that’s birding on Öland.
Sweden: Fall on Öland, August 28–September 4, 2022, with Rick Wright
Rick’s bio and upcoming tour schedule
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