Birdwatching in Oland, Sweden

By Göran Andersson of Visitoland.com

Öland, the long island in the southern Baltic Sea, has everything the visitor needs to ensure a steady stream of new encounters with birds.

Eventually, it begins to dawn on any visiting birdwatcher that ornithological interests alone are not enough in this multifaceted cultural landscape with its colourful, historical origins and breathtaking geology.

Before long, the ornithologist becomes absorbed in everything and understands that here the saying "Carpe diem" has run its course.

On Öland, people do not seize the day... they are captivated by the unfolding of every new day and are compelled to return time and time again to the island to experience tomorrow!

The southern part of the island is not at all like the northern part and the east coast is wholly different from the west coast. The Great Alvar, the barren limestone plain typical of southern Öland is unique, as is northern Öland's mosaic landscape and the fantastic Mittland Forest in between.

One day the high tide reaches the coastal meadows... the following morning the coast's clay beds are exposed by the low tides and are alive with resting Waders.

This kaleidoscope of steadily shifting environments guarantees plenty of exciting encounters with the island's birdlife.

The island has its own unique weather system, and few meteorologists have mastered the art of making a conclusive forecast, which is essentially impossible. They, and the people of Öland, know that Öland's weather is almost always extremely localised and fluctuating.

However, if you discuss the weather with a farmer or fisherman on the east side, you will often be given an exact current forecast and a trustworthy two-day outlook.

Pics by: Tommie Skoog, Lars Lundmark, Hans Olsson, Eva Aubke, Markus Tallroth and Martin Rodensjö.

An ice-free, green winter on the island creates the conditions for a completely different kind of birdlife than when the Baltic Sea is covered with ice and high pressures from Russia cool Öland down.

If a mild and snow-free December continues with the warm low pressure systems of the Gulf Stream heading north-east in January, then the first spring birds arrive, early "weather migrants" such as Greylag Geese, Common Shelducks, Golden Plovers, Northern Lapwings, Eurasian Skylarks and Starlings.

Yes, the experiences of one spring, when the Atlantic low pressure systems keep arriving over southern Sweden, differ significantly from the bird sightings that are reported when easterly winds blow in over the Baltic Sea.

And just as the final, heat-loving migrants arrive during the last half of May, e.g. Marsh Warblers, Icterine Warblers, Barred Warblers, Greenish Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes, Eurasian Golden Orioles and Common Rosefinches, the spectacular and drawn out migratory bird autumn begins.

As early as this, last year's Common Shelducks and female Eurasian Curlews head south west and as the tourist season kicks into action in June, the Green Sandpipers, Spotted Redshanks, Common Greenshanks and Wood Sandpipers are resting during their journey south.

The strange thing is that the autumn route south can continue into midwinter. For example if there are harsh, cold easterly winds at the start of January after a mild start to the winter... then the Baltic Sea empties of thousands of Little Gulls, often along the south-east coast of Öland.

Or in February, when the ice begins to make serious progress in the Gulf of Finland, and in Estonia and Åland's archipelagos... a steady stream of Common Gulls, European Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls leave the Baltic Sea in a south-westerly direction via Öland.

And if these, the last of the autumn migrants, head for milder low pressure winds over southernmost Sweden, they may meet Lapwings, Starlings and Eurasian Skylarks flying north-east.

Despite Öland's maritime climate it is a sunny and fairly dry landscape, which is good company for a birder.

The southernmost part of Sweden, perhaps mostly the highlands of Småland, provide a "rain shadow" for the island: precipitation falls from the damp low pressure fronts in the west before reaching Öland.

On the other side when the Baltic Sea offers an ice-free winter, one of the meteorologists' favourite expressions is born, "snow cannons", from the dry, biting and icy north-easterly winds. They have their origin in the powerful, Russian high-pressure fronts and create curtains of snow on their way to Öland.

Sometimes the island experiences the special and fascinating but dangerous snow storm - the Öland Fåk! To experience a real "fåk" under safe conditions, is a spectacular experience for the humble human.

In combination these create Öland's eight seasons, the foundation for a landscape with a rich fauna.

The ultimate birding year consists of four "normal" seasons, linked together by four in-between periods of fluctuating weather.

When these meteorological conditions are then combined with ornithological magnificence, such as:

•     routes of migrating birds,

•     gatherings of migrating birds on the headland of the north and south,

•     traditional resting places where the whole of Öland is a refuge in the routes of migrating birds,

•     the marshes of the Great Alvar and wetlands that blink in the otherwise fairly barren habitat,

•     smallholdings in the alternating mosaic landscape and

•     the grazed coastal meadows beside the Baltic Sea,

yes, it is a mathematical truth... Öland is a completely unique place for birds.

Most of Sweden's birds have been seen here and wherever you find yourself between March and July you will hear the Skylarks singing. Yes, nowhere else in the country is there such a high concentration of Skylarks!

The limestone plains, look like misplaced alpine heathland. But when you look out across the Great Alvar or hike along the Alvar-clad limestone floor, the experience almost approaches a verdant "inland sea".

This lyrical and slightly desolate ocean of growth has its own special brand of horizon, a thin line between land and sky... like a counterpart to the distant blue horizons of the Baltic Sea and the Kalmar Strait.

Merlins, Golden Plovers and Eurasian Curlews nest here.... and where the juniper has crept onto the plain, inside the kingdom of stone walls, there are species such as Red-backed Shrikes, Common Whitethroats, Common Linnets as well as Whinchats and Northern Wheatears.

Öland, for a birder, is a magical landscape all year round. My own annual cycle often begins with overwintering Golden Eagles on the limestone plains and huge gatherings of White-tailed Eagles along the coast.

Migrating birds, such as Common Snipes, Meadow Pipits, Song Thrushes and Redwings remain and along the banks of seaweed or in some industrial area, Black Redstarts spend the winter.

The Horned Larks and Sanderlings return to a sandbank by the sea.

If there is a really harsh winter, it doesn't arrive until February. Then there is a chance of seeing Steller's Eiders and Purple Sandpipers, who often remain as spring and early summer creeps over the island.

For me, the real sounds of spring are the coastline's laughing Common Shelducks and screeching Black-headed Gulls, along with the parasols of sound that span the landscape and the limestone plains, like unpredictable Eurasian Skylarks and Northern Lapwings that hover over those who take the time to see and listen.

For a few nights in May I am offered a starter to the summer, a dish that makes its way straight to my heart and soul: Corncrakes, Nightjars, Common Quails and Thrush Nightingales. After that everything around us, Öland's birders, deepens and grows, so there is barely time to see everything. There are, quite simply, just too many birds here.

The loveliest period of the summer comes in August along the east coast of Öland, especially during late afternoons and evenings. The sea is warm now and the shallow, stretching beaches and the exposed sea beds produce food for migrating birds.

Here we can sit with the sun on our backs and just enjoy the Arctic Wader migration, perfected by Parasitic Jaegers, Dippers, Black Terns and the unbelievably fascinating migration of Common and Arctic Terns, but also by episodes of Caspian, Little and Sandwich Terns!

And then, one dawn as September becomes October, hundreds of thousands of European Robins and Goldcrests arrive on Öland, after a night migrating across the Baltic Sea.

They are everywhere. They strum and sing from every square metre of solid ground and you are captured and enchanted by this "magical, great migration" experience.

After that experience, nothing again seems the same in your ornithologist's life. You will always return to Öland, whether it is in your thoughts or in reality.

And then comes the great day of Common Cranes... or the day of the Rough-legged Buzzards. Days of Greater White-fronted Geese and Barnacle Geese, before November turn the paraffin lamp's flame down to its lowest.

Finally, in the last light on the afternoon of New Year's Eve you see a male Common Blackbird rummaging through autumn leaves.

Click here for the Visit Oland website