You would have to have been living under a stone in recent years to be unaware of the urgent need for all of us to play a part, however small, in reducing carbon emissions and contribute to limiting global climate change. With travel and birding abroad possible again post-pandemic – conveniently coinciding with Interrail's 50th anniversary half-price sale earlier this year – I decided to introduce my two youngest teenage kids to some European travel by train, extend my three-year no-fly success by another summer and hopefully pick up some birds along the way.
No doubt many readers have fond memories of Interrail adventures from times gone by; it introduced me to a world beyond the banks of the River Tyne in my late teens with adventures in Spain, France, Switzerland and Italy.
Travelling light, with a single rucksack and mostly staying in big cities, this two-week trip was a low-carbon family holiday that would take us from rural Northumberland to Uppsala in Sweden, via Brussels, Berlin, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Stockholm. With no 'scope or tripod and little by way of prime bird habitat in the cities, I knew from past experience that I needed to keep my expectations in check.
Hooded Crow was one of the more frequently seen birds from train windows during Alan's rail trip around Europe (Oliver Smart).
Birding from trains can be super- frustrating; brief, split-second views that disappear behind trees or embankments are the norm. Fieldcraft-free, momentary glimpses requiring instant identification or consignment to the bin of missed chances are the staple diet of train-travel birding.
Despite the brevity of viewing time as you whistle past it is possible to pepper your journey with a decent array of avian additions to any 'train list' if you spend enough time watching the world go by the carriage window. Here are a few ideas and thoughts based on my recent experiences that might help you get the best birding possible from any train journey.
Big is better. It's common sense that larger birds are easier to identify, especially with brief views. Some distant passerines lifting from a field or flying over treetops may be doable if you're a decent 'vis-migger', but accept you're going to have to let many go.
Slow trains mean prolonged views. Trains occasionally running slowly might normally be frustrating, especially if you have connections to catch, but for the train birder they offer the best chance of getting longer views and clinching the identification of many species.
Mid-distance is the place to view. Trying to focus on anything within 30 m of the train is extremely difficult at high speed. Birds on the ground or in the air at a middle distance of 50-250 m offer up to 10 seconds of viewing time.
Learn to appreciate corvids and Woodpigeons, because you're going to see an awful lot of them on any typical journey! Park the frustration. It's inevitable that some birds will elude identification; don't sweat it.
My family holiday birding-from-the-train list may not win any awards, but it was peppered with a small number of sightings that added colour and character to the journeys. Whether it was the first trio of several low-flying White Storks in Germany, the brief glimpse of an Osprey over a pine-fringed Swedish lake or the early morning pairs of Common Cranes that patrolled trackside rough fields (again in Sweden), there was always hope in the next vista to appear beyond the window.
Hooded Crows were a staple from all the continental trains. Several Red Kites, Common Buzzards, Common Kestrels and a single Western Marsh Harrier in Denmark provided much raptor interest throughout the journeys, though many more were seen and left unidentified.
Despite the frequent misses, train birding can be rewarding and affords a fun opportunity to hone those split-second identifications. Just be honest with yourself as there's no one else to kid. The pair of distant divers in low sun on a lake in central Sweden will only ever be 'diver species' on my train list, even if they were postcard-perfect and probably Black-throated ...
- This column first appeared in the October 2022 issue of Birdwatch magazine.