Author: John Cammidge

Which shorebird can be blown across the Atlantic to make very rare appearances in Britain?

Which shorebird can be blown across the Atlantic to make very rare appearances in Britain?

Long-billed dowitcher Early during my bird watching career,  I recorded mainly everyday species around my home near York, but at the start of the 1960s, at the age of 16,  I took my first journey to Spurn Point. Here my ornithological expectations quickly changed. I 

The whitethroat, weighing half-an-ounce (14 grams), flies 2650 miles (4100km), twice a year, between its breeding grounds and wintering location

The whitethroat, weighing half-an-ounce (14 grams), flies 2650 miles (4100km), twice a year, between its breeding grounds and wintering location

                                                                Male whitethroat The whitethroat is a bird I became acquainted without knowing its name. I must have been eight years old, and riding a two-wheeler bicycle when I fell into a bed of stinging 

Was it a Merlin, the smallest member of the falcon family, or did I see something else?

Was it a Merlin, the smallest member of the falcon family, or did I see something else?

Falcons have long, pointed wings and fly with strong, rapid wing-strokes. Hawks have rounded wings and in flight alternate between several rapid wing-beats and a short glide. As a result, even before I left primary school in the UK, I could recognize a kestrel from a sparrow hawk. Both species were common around the farms on which I lived. Kestrels would hover above me, waiting to catch their prey, whereas sparrow hawks would fly by, low and fast, in pursuit of some unfortunate bird.  And then one day at school, I had the opportunity to trade a yellowhammer’s egg and one from a tree pipit for a rusty brown egg, about the size of a wood pigeon’s egg, and was told the egg belonged to merlins. My school friend claimed it was a taken from a nearby nest, and the exchange took place only weeks before the 1954 British law forbidding egg collecting was implemented.

European kestrel European kestrel

Sparrow HawkSparrow hawk

My friend assured me the merlin was nesting in a tree close to his home and was using an abandoned crow’s nest for its purposes. He invited me to come and look at it at a place called Redhouse Wood, near to the River Ouse on the west side of York. The wood itself was largely coniferous. I saw the nest and I tried to convince myself that I spotted the parent. The problem was, back then, in the early 1950s,  there were only a few merlins nesting in Britain, and the nearest one  should have been miles away on the North York Moors. These  are supposedly ground nesting birds in the UK, and only appear on the lowlands during winter. Nonetheless, the egg looked very much like a merlin’s according to the illustration in my Bird Book. Some of my earliest early bird watching experiences are included in more detail in the early chapters of my most recent novel She Wore a Yellow Dress. This particular story is referenced in chapter one, titled The Abandoned Cuckoo.

Historically, during the Middle Ages, the merlin was the falcon of choice for important European noblewomen such as Catherine the Great and Mary Queen of Scots, and nicknamed the “lady hawk”. It was used in their sport of hunting skylarks. Even today, some merlins are kept in captivity and are bred to hunt small birds. They fly fast, just a few feet above the ground, in pursuit of songbirds on the wing, and utilize their speed and element of surprise.

Merlins eggsMerlin eggs

Merlins are small, fierce falcons, preying on birds ranging in size from sparrows to quail. It is the smallest falcon in the UK, but in North America, where it is  colloquially named the “pigeon hawk”, it is slightly larger than the American kestrel. The male merlin has a slate-gray back and underparts that range from buff to orange-tinted and streaked with black to reddish brown. The female is brownish-gray above, with whitish below spotted in brown. Today there are approximately 1300 breeding pairs in Britain. While their population in my early days of bird watching was fairly stable, despite being persecuted by landowners, their numbers were subsequently reduced  significantly by the introduction of agricultural pesticides. As these chemicals are now banned, and new laws protect the bird and its eggs, the population has increased.

I had to wait until I arrived in California to see my first authenticated merlin. Here the species are winter visitors and can be observed along the Marin Headlands in Northern California. More recently, I thought I had spotted a merlin sitting on a branch a couple of feet above my bird feeder, but on closer inspection, it turned out to be a sharp-shinned hawk.  In North America the population of merlins is estimated to be around 1.6 million, and 3.2 million worldwide. They have an extremely broad geographic range and are present across all of North America, Europe and Asia. Many migrate for winter, as far south as South America, and to Southern Europe and North Africa. In Europe, the UK is on the southern edge of the merlins’ European breeding range.

Merlins range map

Merlin range map (yellow: breeding/ blue: winter)

Land use change is their greatest threat, especially in their breeding areas, but the species seems willing to adapt and live wherever there is sufficient food and nesting opportunities. Britain considers the merlin an “endangered” species, especially because of global warming that is likely to push the breeding range northwards, with only the Scottish Highlands remaining a refuge for the bird.  It has been added to the Red List of birds facing severe decline and in need of urgent conservation action.

In the United States, it is classified as of “Least Concern”, with its population stable. Here the species is expanding its breeding range south for unclear reasons, and adapting to live in urban and suburban areas so long as there is a food supply and the space to chase down its prey. A merlin will eat as many as 900 birds each year. It may also be following crows that increasingly rely on human habitation for protection and food, and when they abandon their nests, the merlin quickly makes use of them.

I will never know if I truly saw a merlin back in the early 1950s but I still have the egg in my birds’ egg collection. However, it is embarrassing to think that back then I would take birds’ eggs and trade them at school, and give no thought to the consequences.

Welcome to my Bird Blog: Stories from a Lifelong Birder

Welcome to my Bird Blog: Stories from a Lifelong Birder

My Bird Blog is a series of “then and now” stories that combine my experiences as a juvenile birdwatcher in Britain during the 1950s and 1960s with my knowledge of the same species in California today. Each month I publish the details of a bird 



Download as PDF 5. Early Revelations Several weeks later, back in Novato, California, Hilda was increasingly apprehensive about whether or not the woman in the Land Register would fulfill her commitment. Six weeks had passed, and the lady promised a reply within four. An irritated 



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4. The Vienna Connection

The trip to Dresden took over three hours on another bright and warm day, and the tour participants arrived at their destination during early afternoon. On the way, the tour guide lectured them on the present-day economy, culture, education, and politics of a unified Germany. After checking in at the Hotel Martha, the tourists walked over the river bridge to observe the reconstruction of a city that was in rubble after the Second World War. They visited such places as the Church of our Lord, the Zinger Palace, Opera House, and the Furstenzug Mural, before everyone was released to spend time on their own.

The following morning, the group departed for Prague, stopping on the way at the fortified town of Terezin that had been converted into a concentration camp during 1941. It seemed to Hilda that wherever she went, she could not avoid the history her parents lived through and survived.

During dinner in Prague, Hilda captivated fellow travelers with her stories from Berlin. They wanted to know more about the family connections with Vienna. She told them her father was born and grew up in the Austrian capital, was imprisoned for about eighteen months during the late 1930s, and after his release from prison, organized an escape to Shanghai for himself and Hilda’s mother at the beginning of 1941. It had been a harrowing time for her parents. They were required to visit the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, organized by Adolf Eichmann, to secure exit permits, and received them only weeks before the Nazi government banned all Jewish emigration. Her mother talked about being chased around a table by an expatriation official, but never knew what he wanted.

Hilda told her audience how her grandmother chose Vienna as the place to move to during late 1937, believing it was safer than Berlin and that it would allow her son-in-law to open a bookstore. Although he had a young wife and two infant daughters, there were other members of his family living in Vienna, and they would help take care of the four-year-old and the baby who had just turned one. At first, the family lived comfortably, pawning valuables they brought from their home in Berlin, but after Hitler invaded on March 12, 1938, these resources were quickly exhausted, and the son-in-law was detained in prison for selling illegal books. Anti-Semitism flourished in Vienna once Hitler arrived, as its citizens sought to destroy Jewish prosperity and force Jews to leave the country. The son-in-law’s family returned to Berlin with some of its relatives about a year later, leaving him in prison. Hilda’s grandmother and mother stayed in Austria.

During October 1938, Hilda’s father, Walter, was required to replace his Austrian passport with a German one, printed with a red “J” for Jew on the cover, alongside a swastika and a German eagle. According to Walter’s wife, he always refused to wear the yellow Star of David, and escaped to Shanghai before wearing it in public became compulsory.

About the same time in Vienna, Ellen received an invitation from her cousin, Gertrud, who she had played with as a child, offering to sponsor a visa for Ellen to move abroad to Britain. She declined, preferring to wait for her fiancé to be released from prison. As funds ran out, she moved to a Jewish orphanage where she lived and worked. At the same time, her mother was lodged in a care home and forced to scrub the streets of the city. She died penniless, grief-stricken, and broken-hearted on May 1, 1940, the same day that Ellen’s husband was released from jail.

Thereafter, Ellen lost contact with her cousin until after the war, when she learned Gertrud was living in London. Gertrud told Ellen that her own mother and an aunt and uncle had been deported during the war from Berlin to the Riga ghetto in Latvia, where they perished.

Hilda’s father was imprisoned for eighteen months but always said he was well looked after. The family speculated he received special attention from the guards because his deceased father was a well-known doctor who treated patients who could not afford to pay. During November 1939, prison officials accompanied Walter to City Hall where he married Hilda’s mother. Afterwards, Ellen returned to the orphanage and he went back to jail.

The reason why Hilda’s father was imprisoned was never announced. Allegedly he tried to smuggle valuables out of the country to help his mother relocate to New York after she remarried. Her new husband had relatives living in America who sponsored their visas. But charges were never filed. Hilda’s father was also a Jew and a journalist, both individually good reasons for imprisonment.

“He must have hated his home country?” someone asked.

“No, he didn’t,” answered Hilda. “In fact, he disappointed my mother by always loving his Austrian heritage. She hated Vienna and never forgave the people there for their treatment of Jews. She said it was a very sad time in her life and she cried a lot.”

The conversation by now had turned somber, and the tour guide intervened to redirect the discussion to the topic he had assigned the group during the bus journey from Berlin to Dresden. He paired each person with a “buddy” and asked everyone to discover three things of interest about their partner. Two would be true and one false. Each person was asked to present, and members of the group would try to identify the story that was false. Hilda volunteered herself as a dancer, dog lover, and cosmetics salesperson; the last activity was not true. John put forward bird watching, architect and author, with the middle one made up. It was late in the evening before the quiz was over.

As Hilda returned to her bedroom, a travel colleague asked what had happened to her grandmother’s other siblings. “I’m not sure,” she replied. “I believe a brother died due to medical conditions, a sister disappeared and turned up in the United States after the war, and the youngest child, a brother, escaped to Shanghai.”

A few days later, after an overnight stay in the Czech town of Cesky Krumlov, the tour group arrived in Vienna. As with Berlin, it was Hilda’s second visit to the city, the first being with her mother during the early 1990s. She was shown the city but could not remember much about it. She knew from her parents’ passports that they left Austria during early February 1941, with travel visas allowing them to pass through Germany, Poland, Lithuania, the Soviet Union, Mongolia, Manchuria, Japan, and curiously, into Santa Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. There was a currency stamp in her father’s document permitting him to carry a small amount of German Reichsmark.

Her parents never told Hilda why they ended their journey in Shanghai. Travel papers suggested their ultimate destination was the Dominican Republic. The Asian route was far safer than sailing across the Atlantic with its U-boat risks. Maybe they met people in Shanghai they knew. Whatever their reason, their departure from Austria was just in time. Hilda read about the mass railway deportations from Vienna that began a few days after her parents left the country. Within eighteen months, forty-five thousand Jewish men and women were deported to ghettos, extermination camps, and killing sites. Hilda’s mother heard after she left Austria that the children in her orphanage were killed.

Hilda recalled that the most memorable event from her first visit to Vienna was while traveling with her mother on a trolley bus. Several elderly passengers started to scold a group of misbehaving children. Her mother scowled and whispered to Hilda that it was the adults who should be scolded and be ashamed of their treatment of Jews many years earlier.

Hilda enjoyed the sightseeing during the two days in Vienna. With her travel colleagues, she visited the Vienna State Opera House, the Museumsquartier, Belvedere Palace, St. Stephens Cathedral, and Schoenbrunn Palace. At the end of the two days, it was time to say farewell. Her friends wished her success with the investigations, and a Canadian collected everyone’s email with the promise to circulate the list after he returned home. Unfortunately, the list never arrived. Hilda booked an extra three nights in the hotel and resumed her family inquiries.

Her first goal was to locate the apartments her father and mother had lived in before they were married. Addresses were on their marriage certificate and she was surprised how easy it was to find them. They were drab buildings with unremarkable architecture. There seemed no point in trying to enter.

The following day, she visited several research organizations to see if she could discover records about her father’s family. She had no success. No one seemed interested. It was as if the people she spoke to had forgotten what happened during the Second World War in Vienna, and were not eager to be reminded.

On the final day of the vacation, Hilda and John took the train to Salzburg to hear about another Jewish family who had been displaced just before the war, the von Trapp family. The difference was these people had reached the United States, not Shanghai, and were given care and protection. It was the best day of Hilda’s stay. The scenery was fabulous, the town of Salzburg charming, and the local Sound of Music landmarks exhilarating. She even enjoyed the sing-along on the tour bus with the escort dressed in his lederhosen.

But now it was time to return to San Francisco. The sightseeing had been enjoyable, celebrating her birthday at the Vienna Opera was memorable, and discovering the winery on the outskirts of Vienna that she thought her mother took her to visit many years earlier was unforgettable. She was disappointed the Austrian people generally acted aloof, and appeared uncaring and unwilling to admit their country’s involvement in National Socialism. To them, it apparently never happened. They were “occupied” by the Germans, and like many other parts of Europe, claimed they were not guilty of anti-Semitism.

By contrast, the Berliners acknowledged the actions of their ancestors and consistently tried to be helpful. Her confidence speaking German had improved, she had learned how to prepare the wiener schnitzel that her mother cooked for her, and she created several new friendships among the tour group. Most importantly, she was confident that the lady at the Charlottenburg Land Register would deliver on her promise. She would be patient; it was only two weeks since the visit to the District Court, and soon she would learn about the years her family owned the property that she had gazed at in Berlin.




Download as PDF 3. The Land Register Hilda slept soundly Sunday night, excited that the organized tour was beginning, and she would visit the District Court on Tuesday morning. Carlos had asked her to share the Court experience with the rest of the group during the 



  Download as PDF 2. A Surprise Welcome The unwillingness to speak German was the one thing threatening Hilda’s plan, if the shopkeepers didn’t understand English. She decided to communicate in German, even if it embarrassed her, since at least she could apologize and laugh 



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1. Going Away

Hilda Stein sat relaxed and cross-legged on the sofa in the front room of her single family townhouse, in Novato, Marin County, California. She stared with satisfaction at the tightly closed, carry-on suitcase, which days earlier, during May 2016, had arrived empty via Federal Express. Now it was stuffed with clothes, European travel books, and personal belongings, ready for a two-week trip to Berlin, Prague and Vienna. The exception was her toiletries. These she was giving to her friend John, who would accompany her. The plan was for John to check in his luggage to simplify the process of passing through airport security.

This was Hilda’s first tour with the Rick Steves organization and she was not certain what to expect since the itinerary emphasized walking and mingling with the local community. It would be her second time in Berlin. The first took place during the early 1990s when she traveled with her mother to see her mother’s childhood home. Hilda’s Austrian-born father did not accompany them; unfortunately he had passed away of natural causes several years earlier. Now in her sixties, Hilda preferred vacationing in faraway places.

Previously, most journeys were to various parts of Northern California, close to where she grew up in San Francisco. Her mother was laid to rest during late 2006 after a long illness, making it easier for Hilda to explore, and freeing her from eldercare responsibilities. She resigned from a career in banking and now relied on leasing residential real estate as the primary source of income. She was an only child, though she herself had raised two sons and a daughter. They were grown up, living in Sacramento and Oakland, California, and New Jersey. Although Jewish, Hilda’s parents always encouraged their daughter not to flaunt her Jewishness. She was happy her friend John would accompany her on the travels. They met during 2010 in a local Starbucks coffee shop, and had grown close. Yet each gave freedom to the other to be self-supporting and remain independent. He was a few years older, and had lost his wife to cancer. He lived nearby, and retired from being a Human Resources executive shortly after they met.

It had taken two days to decide what to pack. If she’d kept count, she probably would hold the world record for the number of times a suitcase could be packed and unpacked during a forty-eight hour period. Her main concern was the weather. It was late May, and in Northern California the climate was already sunny and hot. In Europe, she would experience rain and temperatures well below those she was used to. The flight to Berlin was scheduled for the following afternoon, flying Scandinavian Airlines through Copenhagen to Berlin.

She was excited by the itinerary for this second visit. One of its purposes was to find the five-story apartment building she had been shown by her mother during her first stay. It was where her mother was brought up, and had been owned by her grandparents. The building represented the livelihood of the family prior to the Second World War. From memory, Hilda recalled it as an imposing building, with its floors subdivided into about twenty apartments and several shops located on the ground level. It was situated in the prestigious neighborhood of Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf in West Berlin.

Standing outside the building many years before, she’d heard about the privileged upbringing of her mother, the servants who looked after the family, and how her mother Ellen, as the youngest child, would spend hours playing with friends in the courtyard. She also talked about sliding down the wooden banister of the building’s interior staircase.
Hilda’s maternal grandmother was the eldest of six children, and had received a favored upbringing from her father who owned a successful publishing company. Her education was completed at Finishing School in Bonn during the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. This prepared her for Jewish society and marriage to a suitable husband. In turn, she expected her own daughters to develop into refined ladies and marry well.

The youngest daughter was a disappointment as a child, preferring life as a rebel, and enjoying fun with friends, rather than playing with dolls and being concerned with her physical appearance. She spent much of her spare time with the only child belonging to one of her mother’s younger sisters. The family lived nearby, and the two girls frequently played together in each other’s homes. As the more senior of the two by one year, Ellen believed it was her right to take toys she did not have from her cousin, smuggling them home in her underwear. Consequently, both mothers regularly searched her clothing at the end of each playtime. They agreed a strategy of buying the same playthings for the two daughters, but even this process sometimes failed. There was the occasion when a bicycle was stolen, causing Ellen to ride off on her cousin’s bike. Nonetheless, they remained the best of friends during their adult years despite living thousands of miles apart. The independence and self-determination displayed by Ellen during her childhood proved invaluable in helping her cope and outlast German National Socialism.

Hilda was determined to find the home where her mother lived as a child and teenager. Additionally, she wanted to discover details about Berlin during the time of her mother’s upbringing, and understand how Jewish life was so forcefully altered by Hitler. Most everything the family possessed was lost during the Nazi years.

Hilda’s intention was to use the two days before the organized tour to find the property, and take the Berlin Hop-On, Hop-Off Tour bus to get there. A friend of the family in London gave her the family address. She hoped to recognize the building by the florist’s shop on the ground floor that she’d heard about. She hadn’t thought about what she’d do once she found the building. It was fair to say Hilda preferred to act without thinking, and deal with the consequences as they arose. But sometimes her impetuousness resulted in pleasant outcomes.

After deciding that the U-Bahn and tram transport systems were too difficult to navigate, she and John each purchased a two-day excursion ticket. While she understood German, she didn’t speak it. Growing up, German had been the language at home, but once she attended school, English became her speech of choice. She wanted to discover how many years the property had been family-owned, and what happened during the mid-1930s when it was acquired by someone else.

It was a warm, dry, Friday afternoon, as Hilda and John arrived at the Berlin Tegel Airport. She was annoyed that the airline insisted on her checking her luggage in Copenhagen. The bag arrived on the same conveyor belt as her companion’s full-size suitcase. She also worried about petty theft that friends had warned her of in Berlin. She’d heard a story concerning a disappearing suitcase at the airport baggage claim and a snatched purse on the bus to the hotel. For once, she decided a taxi was worth the extra euros. The talkative Turkish cab driver took the opportunity to practice his English and explain the recent transformation of Berlin into a thriving international city. He dropped his two passengers outside their hotel in the former East Berlin, and they checked in for five nights. The hotel was small but comfortable, and made Hilda and John feel welcome. Walking the avenues of East Berlin that evening, Hilda found she understood the Germans who spoke to her, and soon developed a sense of belonging. John spoke French, so was of no help, although he appeared Germanic, and often Hilda would ask the question, and the person would look at John and answer in German.

The streets were alive and vibrant with people sightseeing, shopping, eating, drinking and socializing. The grey, depressing architecture of East Berlin was nearly unnoticeable behind the brightly lit shop fronts, restaurants, and beer gardens. Hilda ate her first Currywurst, a sliced sausage coated with a preparation of curry powder, ketchup, and onions, and presented alongside a portion of French fries. She liked it for the experience, but didn’t ask for a second serving.

The next morning Hilda and John returned to the streets of Berlin, mapping their way on foot to the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus stop in Alexanderplatz. They had chosen the Classic Tour which would take them within a mile of her mother’s property. From the bus stop, they would need to walk, but the hotel had kindly provided them with a street map of Berlin. The bus traveled slowly, stopping frequently to permit passengers take photos of sites such as Museum Island, the boats on the River Spree, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Victory Column, and the Charlottenburg Palace. This leisurely progress annoyed Hilda and John, who had no intention of taking photographs until their organized tour began. As the bus passed through the upscale shopping district of the Kurfurstendamm, they knew it was time to disembark and walk the remainder of the way to the apartment building. This was a lengthy distance down a residential boulevard, but eventually they found the side street they were looking for. After a brief discussion over direction, they turned right, and a few minutes later Hilda was in front of her mother’s former home.

She gasped with astonishment. It was much larger and more magnificent than she remembered, neat and attractive in appearance. She was sure this was the right address because the florist’s shop was on the ground floor. The florist greeted Hilda, listened patiently to the family story, and then took her to the back of the store and showed her the building’s interior courtyard. Hilda remembered the area from her visit with her mother. She asked if she could go inside the building but was told it was private, and strangers were not allowed. She could have argued, but sensed her host was rigidly disciplined and would stubbornly refuse to allow her to gain access.

Returning to the street, she and John inspected the resident occupant list alongside the front door bells. They had the urge to press any of them but resisted the compulsion. Maybe if they stood there long enough, someone would leave or enter the building. Unfortunately, it was a quiet Saturday, and no resident appeared. To Hilda, it was irritating and disappointing that she was standing outside the place where her mother grew up, but she was not able to go inside.

She walked over to the jewelry shop on the street corner, and once again asked about entering the building. The reply was the same. Other shops could be visited but it was likely the answer would not change. It was early afternoon and the day continued warm and dry. Hilda crossed the road and turned to stare at the second-floor balcony where she knew her mother spent many summer evenings. She imagined waving at her from across the street. What could she do now? It wasn’t time to give up. Hilda was pushy and persistent, and had been taught by her mother to confront challenges and not walk away from difficult situations. Here, however, she needed to find someone willing to help. She would visit every shop. Her idea was to use humility and her innocent looks to persuade someone to assist. John decided to trail behind her, and watch as she prepared to implement the scheme.







Abandoned in Berlin, invites the reader to decide if anti-Semitism in Germany ceased at the end of the Second World War or was concealed by a new set of West German laws. The story reveals the history of a prestigious block of Jewish-owned apartments in