With the ZEISS for a good cause

by Andrea Menzenbach

Three a.m.: the alarm mercilessly tears me out of a deep sleep. After a quick morning wash, having thrown on weatherproof clothes that did little for my vanity, and clamping a cold piece of pizza between my teeth, I grabbed my ZEISS (WHICH ONE? - PLEASE DESCRIBE!) in spine-tingling anticipation of a long day full of birds. “Birdwatching is not for wimps,” I thought to myself as I arrived at the agreed meeting point. My Birdrace team is already waiting: four laconic, unshaved men with binoculars around their necks. During the Birdrace, teams in different locations observe birds for an entire day throughout Germany in a competition. The team that observes the largest number of species in its district within 24 hours wins. It’s a lot of fun, at least once you’ve gotten over the early rising. And it’s for a good cause, as sponsors support the tams and donate a fixed amount per species established in advance. With 200 teams throughout Germany, this results in a nice little sum.

But that doesn’t interest me just now. The few grumpy words of treating from my team are abruptly silenced. “Hoo” sounds from the nearby pine tree. Silence, gesticulations, joy on the faces for the first time: a long-eared owl. It was nearly 4 o’clock and still dark, yet I can recognize the tiny feathers on the head of the slender owl in my ZEISS. After the European robin and the black redstart, it was the third species of the day. We head off into the woods. The sun was supposed to be coming up by now, but it was nowhere to be seen. It was raining. That didn’t bother the birdwatchers or the material; water was dripping off both. Two black woodpeckers spelling each other at their nesting tree can easily be seen with the spotting scope. By 6 a.m. we’d found 26 species. The morning hours passed. Songbirds were doing their name full justice; we were observing with our ears and giving the spotting scope a rest. Around noon the sun came out and transformed the damp landscape into a greenhouse. Beads of sweat appeared on our foreheads, and impressions of the rough-and-ready morning ablutions of my teammates wafted into my consciousness. There were reasons enough for the spotting scope to fog up but it didn’t, giving us fascinating glimpses of the flying skills of a sand martin that delighted the team with its aerobatics while drinking from a pond in a gravel quarry. Number 86. No. 100 was getting closer. The anticipation of reaching the magic number dissipated our fatigue completely. The sun was now burning down mercilessly. The search for circling birds of prey on the blazing horizon was inconceivable without sunglasses. I was grateful to ZEISS for the retractable eyecups that made it easy for me to detect the European honey buzzard on the horizon while wearing my sunglasses. It was number 98.

Another change of location to a bridge over the Main River, that stretched in both directions as far as the eye could see. A look through the spotting scope revealed a feathered diver on the water that wasn’t visible to the naked eye - a great crested grebe - and it was diving. It left a few circular waves in its wake that were also clearly visible through the spotting scope even at that distance. The day came to an end and darkness returned. Still no end in sight. Five weary figures were sitting tight at the edge of a clearing, flailing around oddly, enthusiastically received by a lively swarm of hungry mosquitoes, and hoping that a woodcock would make an appearance. It rewarded the blood tax with an extended courtship display. The long beak of No. 108 was clearly visible in the residual light thanks to the brilliance of the ZEISS, even in flight. Five tired birdwatchers returned wordlessly but happy to the meeting point. They enjoyed unforgettable observations with their spotting scopes, collecting over € 1000 for a good cause in the process. The spotting scope is now back on the nightstand next to the bed where the alarm clock was in the morning.