I just got home from attending the Zeiss Victory SF Experience tour, a press event celebrating the release of their new world-class SF Binocular for birding and general nature observation. Zeiss took us on a tour of their factory in Wetzlar, Germany, where we got to see how they assemble their new Victory SF binoculars and the extensive testing they do that ensures a high level of quality control. It was all very impressive! Between that, travel time and a lovely walking tour of the beautiful old town section of Wetzlar Germany, we had little time for birding our first day. Much of the birding time we had involved common hedge and garden birds that are old friends to anyone with much European birding experience. Since I’d not previously been to continental Europe, many of these common birds like Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Black Redstart, Short-toed Treecreeper, Fieldfare, Serin and others, were pleasantly new to me. It was also a chance to get to know my fellow trip participants. There were a lot of really good birders on this trip, and I benefitted greatly from their experience and knowledge.
After the one full day in Wetzlar, we were whisked off to the Frankfurt airport, where we saw our only Red Kites of the trip, sadly at near impossible distance, and flew to Vienna, Austria. The bus ride to our lunch stop on the grounds of a lovely little winery, seemed to last forever (that could just be my impatience talking), and oddly, we crossed the Danube twice on the way! But there after a quick buffet lunch, Zeiss handed over the Victory SF binoculars that we field-tested over the next 5 days. We will be doing a full review of this excellent binocular when we receive a production model from Zeiss, but suffice it to say that this is a superb optic, and that a product like this is a joy to review.
We checked into our hotel in Vienna in the early evening, which left enough time before dinner for several groups of us to catch taxis to the large city park surrounding the Schönbrunn Palace, the Hapsburg summer residence. This was our first birding experience with the SFs, and we got off to a roaring start. One group (sadly not mine) found a Tawny Owl on the grounds. Here we had a trio of woodpecker species with an adult and a juvenile each of Great Spotted, Syrian and Green Woodpeckers. Green Woodpecker is just a beautiful bird, but separation of the Syrian and Great Spotted Woodpeckers is not trivial, especially with the sub-adults, so it was great to be able to compare them side-by-side. We also had a close encounter with a family group of Great Tits. These are a big chickadee if you will, grayish olive on the back and yellowish on the chest, with a black line vertically bisecting the chest. At one point, it seemed like we were knee-deep in Great Tits, and it turns out that this was all a single family group. Evidently, with Great Tits, broods of 10 fledglings are not uncommon! There were times when the noise and the motion suggested the presence of many more birds than that.
Another gorgeous little creature we encountered in the Hapsburg Palace gardens was this handsome tassel-eared, Eurasian Red Squirrel. Although it looks a lot like our Red and Douglas Squirrels, this squirrel belongs to the genus Sciurus, like our Gray and Fox Squirrels. Interestingly, the only North American tassel-eared squirrels that I can think of, the Abert’s Squirrel and its endangered subspecies, the Kaibab Squirrel, are also members of genus Sciurus. But like those, this one is distinctly smaller and more delicate looking than either the Gray or Fox Squirrels, averaging only 7.5 to 9 inches in body length, where Gray Squirrels and Fox Squirrels can be about twice that size overall. This was the only place I saw these squirrels during the trip. They are seasoned beggars, and will boldly approach visitors in the gardens, indicating that visitors there routinely disregard the signs asking you not to feed them! All too soon, we had to return to the hotel for dinner; it was hard to tear ourselves away.