Dancing Great Bustard (Otis tarda) at dawn. That must be a great photo project. The courtship is an incredible spectacle. The male Great Bustard transforms himself into a large, white ball of feathers. To do so, he turns the brown, patterned flight feathers out so that the white underside and the white feathers of the elbow face upwards. Than the tail flips up to the back and shows only the white down feathers. On a morning in mid March everything seems perfect. After a period of bad weather, it had cleared the day before and the weather forecast had announced freezing temperatures. When I left early in the morning, the sky was filled with stars. Not a cloud covered the sky and of the temperatures were in the minus degrees – as promised. One of the areas for the Great Bustard is a good half hour away from the my home town. The morning sun had cast a strip on the eastern horizon as I approached the hiding site, which is an observation tower right on the river banks of a small stream. Wide drainage ditches pull along the edges of the vast, grassy area.
The air was filled with the rattling song of Corn Bunting (Miliaria calandra) and in the distance you could hear the Northern Lapwings (Vanellus vanellus) with their acrobatic air games.
Great Bustards were however not be seen right away. It’s better that way, because these birds are very shy and it is better to approach the hide unrecognized in their vicinity. Suddenly the first Great Bustards flew in. Immediately they started to display their courtship game. The cock transformed into a large, white ball of feathers. The Bustard turned the brown, patterned flight feathers out so that the white underside and the white feathers of the elbow face upwards. The tail flips up to the back and shows only the white down feathers. The long beard feathers stand straight up. The transformation is swift and complete. The puffed up neck makes the cock seem even bigger.
Easily visible from a far distance, the male Great Bustards attract receptive females at a great distance. In small, isolated groups the hens fly over 10 kilometers, to approach the male at the next breeding ground. To brood they return to their familiar territory, as the cocks have no duties during the brooding and upbringing times whatsoever. It was previously thought that the hens usually bred within a five kilometre radius of the mating ground. According to the latest results from Spain, the breeding grounds are on average 8 kilometres from the mating ground, but can be up to a maximum of 54 kilometres away. The choice of partner is made by the hens. They choose one of the strongest cocks for the fertilization of their eggs. For this reason the older hens are more likely to procreate.
In the 1970s and 80s successful breeding of wild bustards in Brandenburg was already extremely rare, although there were still a few hundred individuals. Many clutches of eggs fell victim to the frequent work processes on the farmland, and where chicks did hatch they became trapped and then starved in the high, dense, and insect-poor vegetation. Causes for the decline of the Great Bustard were e.g. the increase in mowing and other work processes in combination with an intensive fertilization and use of pesticides
This way, the time for breeding and rearing the young was no longer sufficient. In addition, the changes in land use contributed to a decline in invertebrates – both in number of species and in biomass. Only extensively utilised meadows, arable land and fallow ground offer enough food for Great Bustard chicks. Additionally high, thick, intensively used grassland is particularly poor in insects.
The long life expectancy of the older birds alone was enough to delay the population reductions. In today’s agricultural conditions in Germany suitable habitats for the Great Bustards can only be retained in reserve areas with largescale, extensive land use and specially designed cultivation schemes.
There are 3 reserves for Great Bustards in the state of Brandenburg, which is the surrounding state of Berlin, the german capital. One of these sites is a protected nature area in the Havellaendisches Luch between the towns of Nauen and the town of Rathenow approx. 70 km west of Berlin centre. A small remnant population of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda) survives here. They can be watched from tower hides, which are nicely located right in the middle of the agricultural land, where the Bustards breed and live. The display of the Bustards is best observed from March until May.
An excursion to the area in the North-West of Berlin is always rewarding. During fall migration it is possible to see thousands of Eurasian Cranes. Other possible species to be observed during this trip from the tower hides are in late winter or in spring Eurasian Marsh-Harrier (Circus aeruginosus), Northern Harrier (Circus cyaneus) and Rough-legged Hawks (Buteo lagopus). The Great Bustard is spotted frequently not only in the Luch but also on the surrounding arable lands.
There are already many airlines which use the Airport of Berlin. An alternative is to take a flight to Frankfurt/ Main, the international hub for Germany, and drive with a rented car in roughly half a day to Berlin and enjoy the landscape while almost flying over the autobahn.
Access to the reserve is not difficult. There are other places in the nearer surroundings where access is a bit tricky. Please contact via the contact form if I can give further directions or even guide you!