Saturday, September 12, 2015

Post #36 - Birding in Sweden, Part 1 of 2

Sorry for the extended intermission, but I am just now returning from 10 full days of lecturing and birding in Sweden. The trip actually materialized as a direct result of my Biking for Birds project last year. My blog was apparently quite popular in environmentally-aware Sweden, and, as a result, I was this year invited to visit the country and give a series of lectures about my eco-adventure. I was very much looking forward to this international opportunity, and I can say unequivocally that the trip lived up to my expectations in every possible sense, except one. The birds, the scenery, and, most notably, the Swedes were amazing; As a side note, the photography was very disappointing (more on this soon). In this post I will try to provide an overview of the trip and my general impression of birding in Southern Sweden. In a subsequent post, I will describe more of the specific sites I birded and the species that I encountered. I hope that the two posts together will show that Sweden offers some truly fantastic birding!

Wide view of my route

More detailed view of my route. 
I took trains and buses between these points.
I was hosted/escorted by local birders at each destination.

As you can see from the maps above, my visit was confined to the southern quarter of the country. My 9 full days gave me plenty of time to explore this geography. My route was planned around my lecture dates, and, as such, I am sure that a more bird-centric itinerary would easily better the 132 species I observed during my stay (I had another 10 'heard-only' or poorly seen that I did not formally count). I also had a few days of terrible, nearly unbirdable weather that cost me at least a few species. Here, I should be be very clear about 1 thing: trip lists from Sweden, like those from any high latitude, are never going to include comparatively huge numbers of species irrespective of how an itinerary is designed. Species density falls off as a function of distance from the equator, and Sweden is a LONG way from that reference point. With a modest 519 species on its cumulative list, Sweden hosts a mere moderate number of species. For comparison, Cameroon, an equatorial country of approximately the same size and at approximately the same longitude, hosts well over 900 species. Incidentally, equatorial Ecuador - granted a very different longitude - hosts nearly 1,700 species in an area just over half of that Sweden, but I digress. What made my time in Sweden so special was not the number of species but rather the circumstances under which I birded. 

My circumstances......

This is a view from one of the observations towers at Ottenby at the south end Öland, an island in the southeast corner of the country. Expansive coastal pastures separate the Baltic Sea to the east from ancient woodlands to my immediate west. Few, if any, signs of human interference (less the observation tower and the distant cows) are readily evident. The freeways, strip malls, loud picnics, military bases, traffic jams, helicopters, and skyscrapers that characterize my usual Southern California birding outings are notably absent from this idyllic scene. Birding under these decidedly more natural conditions was an incredibly welcome change and added an immeasurable amount of joy to the entire experience, an amount of joy that no species total - high or low - would ever influence. This, moreso than the accumulation of a lengthy species list, is what I call 'high quality birding'. 

More of my circumstances, this time at Tårken east of Linköping

These circumstances as depicted certainly result from avoiding the most populous areas, notably the capital Stockholm (home to 2.2 million people). However, outside of Stockholm, the entire country is generally sparsely populated. The country has only 10 million inhabitants total, most of which are spread through small cities are rural areas. As a point of reference, Los Angeles County, where I live, is home to a similar 10 million people (as is New York City)! Gothenburg, the second largest city in Sweden, has just over half a million people; Only 8 cities have over 100,000 souls. The point is that Sweden is significantly less developed than either coast of the United States. In fact, much of the inland areas of the country where I spent my time country looks like the upper midwest with rolling hills, lakes, family farms, and mixed deciduous/coniferous forests. I guess its understandable that many Swedes and other Scandinavian folks settled in the Upper Midwest when they reached the New Word (hence the Minnesota Vikings!)

The comparatively small population means that it is completely possible to find wild, relatively undisturbed birding areas. However, this can be attributed to more than a small population as the Swedes are some of the most environmentally-aware people on the planet. Small homes and cars dominate, environmentally-sourced food is commonplace, and their recycling regiment puts that in United States to complete shame. All of this is impressive, but the fact that litter of any sort is effectively nonexistent might be the most impressive environmental feature of the country. The coastline here is free from the old tires, plastic bottles, fishing/crabbing paraphernalia, balloons, fast food waste, and other assorted and offensive crap that washes up along most of North America's coasts. It was a really refreshing change. 

Even the trash at McDonald's is sorted - wake up USA!

Lastly, I do want to comment on the photographic situation here in Southern Sweden. In short, it is virtually nonexistent. I did not take a single decent photo in my 10 days in the country - and I consider myself a very capable photographer. The big problem is that the birds are are UNBELIEVABLY skittish. Gulls in the states tolerate people strolling past them. Here they take off the moment you round a distant bend in the beach. Ducks and shorebirds fly off at distance at which North American birds wouldn't pay an observer any attention. I am not sure why the birds here behave this way, but at least some of it can be attributed to the bird hunting culture in Mediterranean Europe  (DO READ THIS!!!!) where anything with wings is fair game for hunting. Any species that migrates through that area has learned that humans equal death, and as such they keep their distance from people at all points in their global wanderings. Perhaps the photographic situation would change further north or during nesting season, but I wouldn't even bother brining a camera to Southern Sweden if you come for spring or fall migration. If all you want is record shots (and bad ones at that), fine, bring a camera. If you want actual photographs, then forget it. It then goes without saying that a decent scope here is absolutely indispensable

OK, that's it for this post. Next post I will give a more detailed itinerary with the actual birds that I saw in each place. I hope folks found this post informative!


  1. Good post, and welcome back to the United States, Dorian (I think)! I live near a town with a religious community that follows the teachings of Emmanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish cleric and philosopher. Some of the members of the community are Swedish, and some are colleagues or friends, but really, I know nothing about Sweden. So, it's good to have your information.

  2. Sounds like an interesting journey. The landscape is quite beautiful there, and yes so different from southern California. Looking forward to reading about the birds you did see.