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Serge and the birds

 Surprise (Switzerland) 14 June 2019

Surprise vendor Serge Furrer is an avid bird watcher. A good reason to send the part-time ornithologist on a surprise trip with a professional. (1632 words) - By Julia Konstantinidis

The drawn out cry starts softly, rises and then dies out again. It is unmistakable; the intruder has been discovered. Spellbound, Serge Furrer looks towards the cliffs which are basked in the evening sun, "I'd never have thought we'd have disturbed him from this distance".  Serge is a Surprise vendor and an expert in birds of prey and has been observing birds regularly in the wild near Basel since he was 14.  Now he has a peregrine falcon and its nest in his sights.  But despite a linear distance of about 200 metres and the fact they are separated by a busy valley road, the bird of prey spotted the watchers and took off from his perch towards the cliffs.

A couple of pairs of binocular lenses follow the bird, which flies across through the valley with quick beats of its wings and disappears over the observer's heads and over the treetops.  Marc Kéry stands next to Serge.  The biologist and professional ornithologist at the ornithological institute in Sempach, is just as enthusiastic about the discovery as Serge is. "That was definitely the female we saw. The male peregrine falcons are a lot shyer, that's why it would have surely left earlier", Marc thinks. In the wild, you can miss them really easily. Serge and Marc, however, already know this from years of bird watching, and in the first minutes of the Surprise trip it's clear: they're both passionate about bird watching.

It's a man thing

Because there's not much else to see on the cliffs at the moment, there's time for a bit of shoptalk.  Individual birds of prey's hunting methods are compared with one another according to head, body and tail shapes. In Serge's equipment there's a book about birds of prey and owls with important information about habitats and ways of dispersion and distinguishing marks; a blessing for the uninformed journalist.  As they take the photograph with considerable expert knowledge, it suddenly dawns on the "layman" that ornithology is its own world and a one in which Serge and Marc are completely absorbed in. And along with that is the correct observations apparatus. Serge shows off with a pair of Zeiss binoculars.  But his eyes light up when he spots the Swarovski telescope and binoculars from Marc Kery's brand, Marke.

Swarovski lenses to non-ornithologists are the manufacturers famous for unconventional tiny jewelled animals and jewellery among bird watchers are the ultimate. "I wish I had one of those too" Serge says and soon gives away another burning wish, "I'd think it would be really great if I could get to know a woman who also likes bird watching". The 32 year old often wanders alone for hours through the countryside around Basel, on the hunt for things to observe. Marc, somewhat older, has been in the ornithology business for 30 years, and brings the mood down on the trip. "You can forget it, there are no women who do this" he says laughing.  Today, even Marc is spoken for, but back in the day he often used to watch birds alone, in the meantime he'd also used to like going with colleagues to observe men of course.


From human males and females, the ornithologists keep coming back to the relationship between peregrine falcons.  The males are about a third smaller than female falcons, which is why they were called a "tiercel", taken from the Latin, "tertius", "the third". Both bird experts' enthusiasm about the discovery of the peregrine falcon and its nest is just as understandable, when you know that there are only 250 peregrine falcon couples in the whole of Switzerland. "Now they are not threatened with extinction, thank God", sighs Marc relieved.  For although the peregrine falcons are the most furthest and wide spread land-dwelling animals in the world, in the sixties and seventies, they were endangered nationwide or dying out altogether.  Marc says, "The replacement of insecticides poisoned the birds and influenced the continuance. "Because of the poison, eggs had a thinner shell and that's why they broke apart more quickly and often broke even under the weight of the brooding bird".

Meanwhile plant insecticides were banned, so that the existing peregrine falcons all over the world had recovered.  In Switzerland, birds today are a protected species. The location of the nesting place in Solothurner Jura should remain as much of a secret as possible so that wild animals don't feel disturbed because of too much observation, they clearly explained. And besides, birds have natural enemies such as foxes and martens who pounce on eggs and even unnatural enemies Marc reports; the "carrier pigeon keepers".  Falcons hunt other birds and even sometimes pigeons. "That's sometimes the reason why they are pursued by carrier pigeon owners", Marc explains. It's better they don't know which cliffs the falcons nest in.

The hunt

Serge is a bird watcher of the quiet type.  Patiently he keeps the cliff with the nest in sight and from time to time lifts up his binoculars to check out a supposed movement.  As a matter of fact, flying birds can be seen on the other side of the valley through the binoculars.  But wait, trained eyes like Serge's can see that there are no peregrine falcons flying around, but there's loads of wood pigeon.  Different from the ones we in the city, they nest in trees in the wild.  In this natural setting, this animal is suddenly not a flying rat any more as people in the cities perceive then to be, they are birds, which you could even mistake for a falcon.

Serge needs the same quiet conditions for observation such as outside in the field when he's at home, drawing his favourite animals, he draws birds from pictures almost photographically.  He does the drawings for himself or to order as birthday or Christmas gifts.  "I am really fond of nature" he says for it's not just the birds he's taken a shine too.  In the forests around Basel, he knows exactly the places where animals live, "If I set off at dawn, I see roe deer, foxes, and hares".

On the cliff there are no more falcons to be seen, so Serge and Marc decide on a change of position.  On the way up the hill, they both make an interesting discovery, "all pairs of steps lie between downy feathers on the ground as a specimen of a song thrush, than a blackbird"  "This is certainly a falcon's hunt" Serge speculates and Marc gives an explanation for it, "the peregrine falcon hunts other birds when in flight and plucks them off when they're sitting on a branch.

Nesting place

Rather than busying himself with the remains of the dead prey, Serge busies himself with the young falcon, and now he notices something happening in the distance on a rock. He quickly takes a look through Marc's telescope and recognises the back of a grown up falcon in the nest, there's also something else, "I think I can see something in the nest", he reports, stooping over the lenses.  Spellbound, the men look through the telescope and binoculars, in order to inspect the contents of the nest, it's difficult. The nest is well disguised against foreign eyes.  Marc is happy and he is not completely innocent, "it was me who did that".  There was an unprotected place in the nest which was always been raided by foxes and martens.  That's why he abseiled up the cliff himself ten years ago and formed a small edge with stones around the nest. "For a long time the nest was suddenly deserted, now the falcons are here again," Marc says happily.  The white dung tracks coming down from the nest down the cliff, is by the way a good sign for the falcons in choosing a nesting place, which means that life in this marked place is good.  Besides, the dung is particularly important, Marc smiles, "I once put down some white paint over the stones".

The peregrine falcons are the only ones who concern themselves with caring for their offspring and return to the backs of the observers. Their young even fly to the end of May and then they stay on for another month or two on their parents' patch. "They're independent by the end of July, August and the young birds often spend their first winter in the Mediterranean, before they return to their home region for the following breeding season", Marc explains.

Experiencing nature

Meanwhile, the evening sun has moved away from the cliffs, and twilight is setting in.  The atmosphere on the Jura hill is peaceful. On this kind of day and at this time of year, the air is filled with bird song, mating season is already underway and the males are trying to woo females with their throats.  Serge listens to the shouting and tweeting of blackbirds and chaffinches, and he hopes that perhaps a nocturnal owl will appear. For the owls, in addition to birds of prey, are Serge's second love. "In the blue chain, there was one owl, who I've observed many times," he explains to Marc. And who knows what Serge is talking about, "He's been living in a quarry for about 20 years, you could get very close to him."

A full, yellow moon rises over the participants in Surprise's trip, the air is moist and smells of the earth.  You can hear the animal world even better in the darkness. Time, telescopes and binoculars are packed.  The trip ends shortly before they leave the car park and before they recognised and located the call of the midwife toad. "When I'm outside, I always notice how beautiful the world is", Serge says before getting in the car to drive back to the city.


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Originally published by Surprise. ©


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