Helgoland  magical migrant trap

On 19 April 2015, a Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris was photographed at sea north of Helgoland in Germany. On 21-23 April the bird visited the seabird colony on the island’s northern cliffs, like it had done on 28-29 May and 4-5 and 12-13 June 2014 (Krug et al 2014). Again, it gave awesome views, perching between the local Northern Gannets Morus bassanus and patrolling the cliffs. Predicting its return to Helgoland, however, proved difficult, to the disappointment of many visiting birdwatchers; for most of the time it went missing, presumably as it was making long foraging trips at sea. In 2014, the same bird had for example also been recorded around Skagen and Hirtshals in Denmark on 25-26 May and 17-18 July and most likely it was also seen at a few other locations.

Albatrosses are known for their seemingly effortless long-distance flights over vast stretches of open ocean (except the North Atlantic). As I had always hoped to see one, the whereabouts of this particular bird made me quite nervous. Although I realised that connecting with it would not be easy, I was now determined at least to give it a shot. My plan was to visit Helgoland on 3-4 May. I had already spent some days on the island in 2007 and 2008 and I absolutely loved birding there. Thanks to its strategic location in the German Bight and small size, Helgoland acts as a true migrant trap, where many species are relatively easy to locate and observe. Species I have seen include Black Guillemot Cepphus grylle, Little Auk Alle alle, Yellow-browed Warbler Phylloscopus inornatus, Hume’s Leaf Warbler P humei, Barred Warbler Sylvia nisoria, Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris, Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva, Red-throated Pipit Anthus cervinus, Common Rosefinch Erythrina erythrina and Little Bunting Emberiza pusilla. Obviously, the number of migrants strongly depends on the season and the weather; on many days new arrivals are scarce but every now and then magical falls occur. I could never sum up the long birdwatching history of Helgoland but its fantastic reputation seems justified to me!

So what about my plan? In the last week of April there was no sign of the Black-browed Albatross. With each day passing by, I began to believe more and more that I might indeed get lucky. I was after all convinced, that the bird would show up again sooner or later. Meanwhile, however, Julian once more picked up ‘daycare germs’ and shortly afterwards Jonelle and I were feeling sick too. So, on 2 May, I decided that now was not the time to leave home. Of course, you do not need a crystal ball to see that on 3 May we were all feeling better and on 4 May the albatross returned to Helgoland… Ouch!

That night, the mouth-watering albatross photographs made by Helgoland-based Jochen Dierschke kept me awake. Driving all the way to Cuxhaven to catch the ferry for a day trip was the only sensible thing to do now, so I figured. Early in the morning of 5 May I left the house, feeling tense but optimistic. Then, after about 375 km, I ended up in a horrible traffic jam, which I would have avoided if I had not missed an exit. A nerve-racking 110 km followed, as time was ticking away. Though as luck would have it, little after 11:00 I arrived just in time at the quay and 90 minutes later I set foot on Helgoland. Together with Sietse and Petra Bernardus, Karel Hoogteyling and a handful of others, who all arrived with the same ferry, the search began. Believe it or not, one of the first birds we saw, once we had reached Oberland, was the majestic Black-browed Albatross. We were as happy as a dog with two tails!

It was great to be back on Helgoland, even for only 4.5 hours. Of course, I would have loved to stay much longer. Birds I would have very much enjoyed seeing that occurred on the island within the next three weeks were for example a Common Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis on 6 May, a Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla on 10-11 May, a Collared Flycatcher F albicollis on 11 May, a Red-rumped Swallow Cecropis daurica on 12 May, a Red-breasted Flycatcher on 13 May, a Thrush Nightingale Luscinia luscinia on 15 May, an Eastern Subalpine Warbler S cantillans on 20 May, a Melodious Warbler Hippolais polyglotta on 21 May and a Western Bonelli’s Warbler P bonelli on 23-24 May. In the same period, the albatross performed again only on 14 May. 

Helgoland Black-browed Albatross intobirding.com

Black-browed Albatross on Helgoland – thrilled doesn’t even come close!

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Published 6 March 2018