I work in a big office building in Niederrad, the business district of Frankfurt. It’s not residential at all, and to many people it’s probably one of the most lifeless places in the city. Nothing opens on weekends. Before the morning commute, after the evening commute and between commutes you’ll hardly see a soul out walking. You notice every time you pass a dog walker or a mother with a pushchair because it’s so odd, and you’ve forgotten just how odd it is.
But Niederrad has its upsides. The things that make it so devoid of people make it peaceful for the local wildlife. Big office buildings in Niederrad are surrounded with trees and gardens, spaces for its workers to look out on or wander through at set times of day to make the office job seem not that bad. For the vast majority of time, they’re empty of people.
Walking through Niederrad on the way to and from work are some of my favourite times of day, and not just because I’m not at work. Working in the same place and keeping roughly the same hours gives you a sort of temporal focus point from which you can watch the interplay between the seasons and the space.
Birds are by far the most common non-insect wildlife in Niederrad (anyone who’s ever foolishly tried to eat outdoors in glorious summer will know the necessity of the qualifier) and it’s through them that you can track most of the changes. The same species return at the same times every year. Some of them stay year-round, and you can start to recognise their songs. Even if they’re playing hard to get, it’s nice to know that the blue tits are awake or the chiffchaffs are close by.
So, what can a prospective nature watcher expect to see on a ten minute walk from Niederrad Station to the office?
New ways of seeing old friends
Everyone’s familiar with sparrows and blackbirds, crows and magpies. But being in the same place at the same time means you can get more familiar with their habits. In spring the magpies start congregating in flocks (or tidings) of numbers too big for the folk rhyme to interpret, rattling like smoky old men and scaring the smaller birds off. After days or weeks they start pairing off – the group gets smaller again and maybe the local crows start harrying them once they lose their strength in numbers. If you’re lucky (and if you like that kind of thing) you might see some real fights.
Blackbirds may look pretty boring, but if you catch the male at just the right time, as the sun’s setting and the evening’s coming in, you can hear him singing his heart out. He’ll often perch high in a tree, a true divo, so everyone can hear him. It’s easy to recognise the song – if you hear quite a low-pitched, rich birdsong that sounds almost infinitely varied, it’s probably a blackbird.
Another evening pleasure for me is seeing the woodpigeons coming in to roost when the trees are still bare – fat, fluffy lumps in the branches all ready for bed. Once the leaves start budding you might hear their frantic flapping before you see them, as they try desperately to perch on branches that are patently too small for them.
A bird in the bush
Birds that hop about in trees and patter about under bushes, so omnipresent that it’s easy to forget they’re there, can be the hardest to spot.
Birds you’re likely to see without having to look too hard include blackbirds and great tits (easily the most common bird in Frankfurt in my experience), blue tits and black redstarts. Great tits are incredibly noisy and quite bold – they’ll happily sit in full view for you. Their backs are slaty yellowy grey, and can look bluish when they fly away. Their heads are black and white and their undersides yellow. The easiest way to know you’re looking at a great tit and not another similar bird is by the unbroken black line down the middle of the underside. Their most common song is a sawing high-low high-low succession of notes that they will repeat for hours outside your bedroom window, but they do have a variety of songs. Something to bear in mind is that if you hear a loud, repetitive birdsong you don’t recognise that doesn’t match any other bird you know… it’s probably a great tit. Sorry.
Blue tits are easy to identify, being bright blue. They’re singers as well; listen for two or three higher, longer notes followed by a rattling descent. You’ll spot them hanging acrobatically from branches and hopping around energetically. Blue tits and great tits are year-round sights, so your commute never has to be a lonely one.
Black redstarts don’t overwinter, so when you see them you know it’s really spring. They’re small, slim robin-sized birds, and they hold themselves like robins too, flicking their tails on the backs of benches. They have a grating call and a fluttery flight. The male is black and grey with a white flash at the base of his tail and the female brown. The tails of both sexes are distinctly rusty red, so even if you see a female you can be sure of her species.
If you turn your eyes to the grassy lawns outside the office buildings, along with the blackbirds you might see fieldfares gathered in quite large flocks. They look very thrushy with a pale speckly underside, and are blackbird-sized. You can tell them apart from other thrushes by their grey heads and odd song.
Another almost blackbird-sized lurker in the grass is the green woodpecker. They’re bigger than blackbirds but smaller than crows. They don’t always look green either, depending on the light and the colours around them, and at first they might just look like a slightly wrong blackbird. It’s when you see them fly that it becomes obvious what they are, because their flight is textbook woodpecker – low and bounding – and they tend to go right for the nearest tree trunk to strike a classic woodpecker pose. Once you’ve seen them and identified them once, it gets easier to ID them down in the grass, where you’re most likely to see them. They’re bright green and sport red caps, but they’re surprisingly camouflaged on trees.
Birds you’re more likely to hear than see (or birds you might find it hard to get close enough to on a quick walk to work) include goldfinches, blackcaps, chiffchaffs and greenfinches.
Goldfinches are gorgeous, striking little birds with red faces and yellow flashes on their wings when they fly, but they tend not to show themselves except to fly overhead from treetop to treetop. They hang around in gangs (charms, if you want) and shout at each other. They sound… well, how to describe this? Like endearing malfunctioning robots? They seem to show up in spring.
Blackcaps are spring arrivals too, I think – we’ve seen them as early as March but I’ve never heard them in the winter. They’re really difficult to spot, as they’re just greyish-brown with a black cap on the fellas and a reddish cap on the ladies, but their song is loud and quite lovely.
A bird with a slightly less lovely song is the chiffchaff – another little brown job (brown on top, paler underneath, with a faint yellow stripe above the eye), this is one of those birds that’s allegedly got an onomatopoeic name (in German it’s a zilpzalp) but nothing about it really sounds like it’s saying “chiffchaff”. The call is a series of clearly articulated notes, almost like water drops or weary hammering. Decide for yourself what it sounds like.
The greenfinch is (surprise) green and well-hidden in leaves, and though it sometimes sits high up in trees where it’s quite visible, you’ll most likely hear the distinctive drilling part of its call from afar.
Another bird which sings from high up is the serin. This is quite a treat for me, coming from the UK, because we very, very rarely get them there, and I’d never even heard of them before coming to Germany. They’re streaky finches, recognisable by their obvious yellow tinge if you can get a glimpse of them. Otherwise, you’ll have to go by their high-pitched twittery song. There’s one that sits regularly at the top of a tree very close to the station, if you’re lucky and pass by at the right time.
Chaffinches are very loud and colourful but quite shy. They blend into the bushes surprisingly well, and even the grass. You have to be lucky to see one, but don’t worry, they’ll make themselves known audibly to you.
If you work high up in a tall office building then be sure to look out of the window from time to time. Not just for the birds, of course, but for your eyes. If it’s a hot, clear day then you might easily see a buzzard riding the thermals, flying in wide circles. Buzzards are big birds of prey (many people mistake them for eagles) and brilliantly common. You might mistake them for crows at a glance out of the office window, as there are so many crows about, but you can tell the difference by colour if you’ve got a good view – buzzards are generally brown (they can be almost any colour from white to brown to black – helpful for ID’ing them…). You can also tell by the way they soar in those circles, only very rarely flapping. The office district is so full of rabbits the buzzards must think we made it for them on purpose.
With the river being so near, and with the allotments close by on both sides, you can sometimes see ducks and geese flying over, even cormorants and herons. Water birds have distinctive silhouettes when flying, with their wings set quite far back so it looks like they have very long necks. They have to flap a lot more because of this. The geese that fly over are usually the Egyptian geese that are ubiquitous in Frankfurt, and the ducks mallards. Cormorants look similar in the air but are much slimmer, both body and wings. Grey herons are huge. They fly with their necks tucked in, so if you see something that you think really might be an eagle, it might be a heron on its way to plunder someone’s fishpond.
Some flyovers are consistent – migrating geese will always honk across the sky in autumn even if you can’t see them, and back again in the spring. I don’t know what kind of geese they are (they might be proper flyovers what come from somewhere exciting), but I can tell you that common cranes fly over the area on their migration and if you’re lucky, in the right place at the right time, you might hear them overhead. You might not see them, but their trumpeting calls are loud and different from the sound of geese.
I’m sure there are more birds than that in Niederrad. I’ll keep an ear and eye open and update this post with more birds to spot.