Heaven in Hel

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
The Hel Peninsula is the heart and soul of birding in Poland. I'd wager to guess that it's the key reason the rarity finder scene is now as vibrant as it is, simply because Hel is the one place that makes such activity really plausible. A 35-km straight blade of pine-covered sand, sometimes only a hundred meters wide, protruding into the Baltic Sea close to the northernmost point of the country would probably catch your eye as an obvious migrant trap even if you haven't already heard about the list of rarities it has hosted. Just skimming quickly the logs since 2016, I see there were for example: Booted Warbler, Yellow-breasted Bunting, Audouin's Gull, Siberian Stonechat, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Pallid Swift, Blyth's Pipit, Iberian Chiffchaff, Western Bonelli's Warbler, King Eider, Subapline Warbler, Siberian Accentor, Desert Wheatear, Radde's Warbler, Black-winged Kite and, for me the most absurd record ever, Savannah Sparrow.

During this time, I have visited the peninsula seven times and surprisingly the only WP tick I ever made there was an (American) Black Scoter - which was in the port of Wladyslawowo, just a few hundred meters before the peninsula starts, but for the sake of story-telling I will include it in it, as it just makes sense. Yes, this spring, we have wallowed through the unseen hordes of Blyth's Reed Warblers, but we have seen on a year before in Warsaw. That used to be the Hel story for me - there are always good birds, but always just the ones I already have and never the ones I am looking for. Yellow-browed Warbler for example is so common on autumn passage that it does not even qualify for our (somewhat underground) rarity news service anymore, yet I have seen none through all my visits. In 2016, I probably walked within a few hundred meters of a Siberian Accentor at exit 66, but not knowing how to gain more specific location information at that time, the bird remained elusive to me. Lately, thanks to my Polish birder friend from work and the proliferation of online communication, we were able to put out finger right at the pulse if the Polish birding scene, learned that there are "rarity weekends" where people flock there in large numbers and got into the Messenger groups where such news are disseminated immediately. One such weekend was the one that just passed and I can tell you that my 8th visit really changed the pace of things!

Driving from Warsaw, Hel is 5-6 hours away, depending on the progress of the highway construction and the traffic jams caused by it, so we headed out on Friday morning already - a good number of Dusky Warblers have been reported, showing an unprecedented influx for a species with only ~20 records in Poland before 2020 and we hoped to try for some before nightfall. As we were entering the Wisla (Vistula) delta, a message bleeped from the "rarity service". Now you have to understand, that this does not immediately tell us much about the bird, because the name is in Polish and the location is just a name of a village we have never heard of, but a quick search has shown that the bird in question was the 2nd record of a Blyth's Pipit in Poland and the location was just about 20 minutes from where we were, so the decision to change course was immediate.

The SMS also always shows just the nearest village - luckily, one of the Messenger groups already had a link with coordinates, which we thus entered into Google Maps, only to find out that the road leading there was ... less than optimal. Alas, it was clearly too late to stop, because the mud would not let us get moving again, so I twisted the wheel a bit and after a few hundred meters of some pretty fun mud drifting (and less fun hoping we do not end up in either of the surrounding fields), I found more solid ground to stop.

Eventually we learned that the right approach to the bird is completely elsewhere, so we drifted back and reached the correct spot, but the aftermath of this little detour is still very clearly visible on our car, as the mud got even to the roof! In the second area, we even met the original finder, but the bird has been gone for an hour and thus after a bit of searching, we gave up and plowed on, as Hel was still over 2 hours away. Expectedly, about 40 minutes later, we received info that the pipit has been relocated, but frankly, a Blyth's Pipit in a large field isn't really the bird I would like to go far out of my way for, as I can imagine the observation being mainly frustrating distant views with endless doubts about the ID - which is a picture that all the photos from the twitch I have seen do confirm, so I am not even that sad we did not stick around. Instead we made two nice evening stops areas where Dusky Warblers habe been reported, but with no success.

On Saturday morning we walked from our rental apartment in the town of Hel (the clever name of which I have used as the thread title), the furthest one on the spit, to the “Cypel”, the very tip of the peninsula and the typical epicenter of the action. Again, we had a Dusky Warbler site ready, but we timed the sunrise a bit wrong, so first we just loitered around the place in twilight, not sure how things will go – until we excitingly heard the “ticking”! At this point I think some of the better birders would just accept the observation, but for my ear there is no way to say that this wasn’t a Lesser Whitethroat (or, frankly, something even completely different), so we really wanted to see the bird. That’s however easier said than done, as the habitat in question was dense bushes of roses and sea buckthorns - to the delight of my wife who loves the latter, but to the detriment of any visual investigation in it. Eventually, the bird got on the move, across the footpath to a smaller bush and around, so we got some fleeting views. However at that point also other birders started to appear and taking notice of the bird and sadly the Polish birders aren’t yet at the level of cultured behavior we saw at the few twitches we did in the UK, and so getting any more views become difficult and we moved on. I guess the large numbers of people present during the “rarity weekend” have advantages (in that a lot of birds are found) but also drawbacks.

Having accepted the tick, but feeling a bit unfulfilled due to the circumstances, we continued around the Cypel and soon we got swept by a wave of people rushing to a specific tree, where a Parrot Crossbill was sat. Even though it was in plain view, it was surprisingly hard to find (and I would have never noticed it hadn’t I known it was supposed to be there), but we eventually did. Here, the human flock however grew to really unexpected dimensions and thus we snapped a few pictures and went to socially distance somewhere else - at least this was a clear and straight up observation.

After a late breakfast, we got a message that another Dusky Warbler is showing well in trees in a nearby village of Jurata, which sounded appealing, despite the fact that birding in a village means compulsory mask-wearing, which we really try to avoid as much as possible. The bird was not there, but during the search, another message, proclaiming a Pallas’s Leaf Warbler just 5 kms west popped up. I think this was the moment I became a true believer in the magic of Hel. Hell, if you are faced with the hard choice whether to look for a Dusky or for a Pallas’s, you know you are in the right place! This theme then continued in a marvelous fashion, because when we arrived to the parking for the Pallas’s, we first heard a Dusky from a bush at the parking… The Pallas’s was lost in the meanwhile, the Dusky was not showing at all, but another Pallas’s was found in Wladyslawowo … madness!

Walking through the port towards the breakwater in Wladyslawowo, the aimlessly wandering groups of people gave us the right impression that the bird was lost, so after giving it a bit of search, we sat down and waited, entertaining ourselves with our phones – until a message appeared that it was re-found. “Where”, I somewhat absent-mindedly asked. “Where the crowd is!” - yep, rising up my eyes from the screen made that point pretty clear. A group of some 30-odd birders was chasing the bird up and down a narrow patch of grass along the breakwater. Again, I would have preferred if people stopped insisting on seeing the bird from the closest distance possible and let us all watch it in a more socially-distanced manner, but I got some reasonable views and pictures from far behind the crowd, so it was fine.

Having three new WP ticks in a day has not happened to us in a long time, especially not in Poland, so this was a superb day, but we were still a bit unhappy about the poor views and essentially no photos of the Dusky, so we went out to look for some more. First, we found one calling near the Jastarnia sewage works, which seemed great, as we were the only people there, but the bird remained safely hidden out of sight. Then we tried to view another next to the sewage works in Hel, but that one was surrounded by several over-eager photographers trying to get way too close to it and it looked a bit like a repeat of the morning.

So we just sat down and watched the spectacle of bird-mammalian interaction from a comfortable distance. Eventually, the photographers did drive the bird away and pursued, while we continued enjoying our nice spot, surrounded by the sea, dunes, rose bushes and small pines – until the bird came back and showed really nicely to us, rewarding us for our patience. I have to say that when I first saw birds like this in the Collins guide nine years ago, I though to myself “no way I am ever gonna tell all these birds from a Chiffchaff”, but now the Dusky Warbler actually seemed strikingly obvious. Coupled with the unusual call and almost aggressively skulking behaviour, it’s a pretty fun bird to watch, given the right conditions.

The rest of the stay did not bring any more extras. There were some Little and Lapland Buntings reported, but we already had both, so we did not really pursue them. Overall, we observed 84 species and especially in the mornings around the Cypel, the flocks of small passerines were quite impressibe. The decidedly “Baltic winter” atmosphere has been underscored by the flocks of Twites in the dunes and Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks and Velvet Scoters on the sea. A few Brant Geese made an appearance and we even got a Slavonian Grebe for our year-list on a brief after-sunset stop in the Jastarnia port.
 

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Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Staff member
Scotland
An interesting report. I did visit the area briefly and in the summer several years ago. It sounds an amazing place to be in the autumn.
 

opisska

Jan Ebr
Poland
An interesting report. I did visit the area briefly and in the summer several years ago. It sounds an amazing place to be in the autumn.

I feel sorry for the fact that your impression of this area is based on a summer visit, because that's simply horrendous - the hordes of people that flock there in summer are unbearable. You should really come in spring (1st week in June) or autumn, because it's so lovely without the people. It's just a gamble regarding the weather if you travel from afar, because it can also rain cats and dogs for a week straight in October if you are unlucky.
 

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Staff member
Scotland
I feel sorry for the fact that your impression of this area is based on a summer visit, because that's simply horrendous - the hordes of people that flock there in summer are unbearable. You should really come in spring (1st week in June) or autumn, because it's so lovely without the people. It's just a gamble regarding the weather if you travel from afar, because it can also rain cats and dogs for a week straight in October if you are unlucky.

Yes, it was pretty busy in summer. Early June might be a possibility one day - maybe next year!
 
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