Cranespotting in Nauen and Linum

Linum, about 50km north-west from Berlin, is a small village famous for its role as a “pit stop” for tens of thousands of cranes as they migrate from Northern Europe to the South in fall – and vice versa in spring (and, but this is not what this post is about, during the summer as a paradise for nesting storks).

As weather this Saturday proved to be a significant improvement over the rainy and stormy beginning of October, we finally got a chance to go on a long-planned bike trip to visit Linum and its feathered visitors.

Cycling from Berlin to Nauen is a pleasant ride, as small side roads and cycle paths loosely following the main highway B5 allow for swift and peaceful travel. About half way from Spandau to Nauen, the bike route crosses right through the main plaza of a rather bizarre “Designer Outlet” in Elstal. After riding our bikes through the most beautiful fall landscape, it is quite a stark contrast to pass through a shopping street where thousands of tourists and Berliners engage in discount fashion shopping, but at least this provided us with a convenient location for visiting free washrooms and have lunch at a take-out place selling delicious fish sandwiches.

Passing through Nauen an hour later, we – in true bike touring tradition – decided it was time for dessert: stopping at a local bakery we treated ourselves to a piece of cake and took some more along for later.

Image caption: First indication that we are entering the Nauen/Linum crane rest area: a small flock of cranes passing over the calm and peaceful alley street just outside of Nauen – these roads are an absolute delight to cycle on.

It was only about 15 minutes after Nauen – yet again riding one of the sheer endless tree-lined alleys Brandenburg has so many of – that we would encounter the first cranes. First up, just a few birds grazing in the fields here and there.

Image caption: A small formation of cranes, on their lookout for the next corn field to eat up the remainders of the harvest.

But it wasn’t long before we came to a spot where several hundreds of cranes had found a harvested corn field to feast on leftovers on the ground. It was a fascinating view. Yet after a while, the calmly standing birds all of a sudden started to take flight. It is obvious that they were disturbed by something, maybe a big flock of starlings that had just flown into the same field (ourselves, we took great caution to keep our distance way above the recommended minimum of 300 metres, as cranes are very easily disturbed and every time they get scared and fly up they use up valuable energy they should preserve for the long continuation of their migration ahead).

Nonetheless, seeing these hundreds of birds taking flight, with their characteristic trumpeting sounds, was a sight to remember – we both would later agree this encounter was  the highlight of the day.

Image caption: And then, they all took flight. Our camera equipment is sadly underpowered for this kind of situation, but this shot still gives an indication of just how great a show we were presented with.

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We pushed on after our little bird spotting break, continuing our travels along the beautiful and utterly flat country roads of Brandenburg. The destruction from storm “Xavier” a good week ago, however, was disturbing the otherwise settled nature: almost constantly, we would see trees down by the road, often with the traces of their obvious removal from the street in those days after the storm. It must have been really difficult to move in this area after the storm, probably every single road had been blocked by several fallen trees, the remains of which now remind the passer-by of the force these winds had brought over Northern Germany. 2 million trees, it is estimated, had been destroyed in the state of Brandenburg alone – the scars of Xavier will still be seen for a long time.

Image caption: Just one of many instances where fallen trees have simply been cut up to make the road passable again, now waiting at the roadside to eventually be picked up. The traces of storm Xavier from nine days ago can literally be seen everywhere.

We had chosen to approach Linum on a slightly more western route than “as the bird flies” (pun intended, if admittedly a bad one) to visit one of the more extraordinary sights the Brandenburg countryside holds for its visitors: not far from Linum, a the Hakenberge victory column commemorates the great victory of the Brandenburg army against the Swedes in the outgoing 17th century. The monument itself, erected for the 200 year anniversary of that victory, feels utterly displaced here in the middle of forests and farmland, but this also makes it a wonderfully quirky location for eating up any cake leftover a cycle tourist may still find in their panniers. Which is, you guessed it, exactly what we did here (and we did not share any with the annoying black cat begging for food).

Image caption: The war memorial in Hakenberg does remotely resemble the victory column in the centre of Berlin – different artists but from the same era, and both featuring the goddess Victoria.

Just a good ten minutes down the road and we entered what turned out to be a bit of a tourist circus: the tiny village of Linum was filled with parked cars and tour buses, crowds were checking out small shops and cafes, and this somehow felt like it would be a bit less of a romantic nature experience than one could expect.

We soon found the information centre run by the nature protection NGO NaBu, where people were assembling to take part in one of the “sign-up required” walking tours to watch the nightly arrival of the cranes. Obviously, by the time we had called to inquire for free spots three days earlier all tours were already full – but actually this allowed us to just briefly wait for their departure and only then explore the interesting small exhibition accessible for a small donation.

A nature photographer selling postcards here was kind enough to point us to a few good locations for watching the cranes’ arrival, and after short deliberation we decided to head for a slightly less crowded location accessible only by foot, as compared to what apparently is the most popular spot right down the road from a big parking lot. We really had not biked all these kilometres to hang out with hundreds of car tourists fighting for a few front-line positions in an overcrowded viewing area.

Image caption: Even without many cranes, this view easily wins over a crowded public viewing area by some parking lot, doesn’t it?

The photographer had already warned us that on weekends the cranes often assemble on more remote locations than normal, due to the tourist circus in the village. From what we could observe, this is exactly what happened. We still got a decent view with the binoculars, but the close-by experience we had hoped for did not materialize. Instead we got to witness a magical sunset, as the sun finally started to peek out after a day of overcast, and in addition to large groups of cranes in the distance, we got to observe geese, swans, starlings and other birds.

Image caption: No bird photos from the evening, but we got plenty of shots like these instead!

After the show was over (both with the arrival of the cranes and the departure of the sun), we decided it would be a good idea to have some food before returning to Berlin. The small restaurant in the centre of the village was all full, but we comfortably got a table at a quirky little fish restaurant not far from where we had been standing during the evening. We refuelled on delicious veggie/fish paddies with rosemary potatoes – and enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere at the place – people were even sitting outside by a bonfire, and one could hear the cranes creaking from their sleeping areal on the other side of the water.

Refuelling was an important task since we would once more encounter the aftermath of storm Xavier. As is quite obvious when watching a nature event taking place at sunset, the way home would inevitably coincide with nightfall. For cyclists, this usually means an 11 km ride on a calm country road (with the only traffic pretty much that of motorized visitors heading home from Linum) to Kremmen, from where a train takes bicycles all the way back to Spandau or central Berlin. The storm, however, had damaged parts of this train line so badly that it hadn’t been reopened yet. And since the workaround option of taking the train from Kremmen but switching three times to get anywhere near our final destination, we instead opted for the 22 km ride back to Nauen – this time on a more direct route – from where an hourly train connection reaches Spandau in less than 20 minutes. We came well prepared, of course: decorated with reflectors like xmas trees and with powerful head- and rear lights this actually felt even safer than riding these same roads during daytime.

Opting for this 90-minute night ride, it turned out, was a brilliant decision. With the streets being almost completely deserted (and drivers being able to see us from hundreds of metres away, as we could judge from oncoming cars dimming down their headlights and those coming from behind slowing down long before they would come anywhere near us), this was a great experience. Just rolling through the pitch-dark night on mostly super-smooth asphalt, above us the stars and around us endless fields or forests, this definitely was the second highlight for me after our first bird encounter earlier. For about half of the way, there would have been a separate bike path following the road as well, but – you guessed it – this is where broken-off branches and fallen trees from the road had been stored to await their pick-up, rendering it useless in large stretches.

Image caption: Not so easy to take photos in the dark, but this street lamp at an intersection at least provided a backdrop for a silhouette shot. To showcase the reflectors, we would have needed another light source from behind. But, believe us, when your headlights hit us, there is no way to mistake us for anything but cyclists.

We arrived at Nauen station with a good 20 minutes to spare (always good to have a buffer in case of mechanical issues), the train was perfectly on schedule, and by 22:30 we were back home, where we had set out from some 12 hours earlier.

Total moving time 5h 55min, 88km in total at our usual average touring speed of 15 km/h. Most notably, apart from a few rolling hills between Spandau and Nauen, this tour is almost entirely flat. If you are looking for a shorter loop, consider starting from Nauen and return to Berlin from Kremmen, 11km east of Linum.

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