No man is an island

What happened before the click...Photographers tell their story behind a special picture. This time: a small wading bird on a remote North Sea island and the war in Ukraine.

It is the end of August 2022 and I am on the beach on the island of Trischen where I have been working as warden since March: the heat dances over the dazzling white sand, everywhere there is the hurry and scurry, the hustle and bustle of hundreds of ringed plover and dunlin barely five metres distant. They chirp and cheep, preen and clean, a hive of activity like the images in one of those children’s pictorial puzzle books. One languidly stretches back its black leg. Yet another tries to free its foot from a shell that has clamped itself around its toe. I’m so close that I can even make out a tiny spot of blood on the white shell.

In the last few months on this tiny island, I have learnt to approach the flocks of birds quietly and patiently so that I almost find myself in their midst. What is important is to move steadily – it is the unexpected that spooks them. Even better is not to move, and best of all is if they come towards me. Then I really know that I am not disturbing them.

ringed dunlin from Ukraine

Ringed birds tell stories...

© Till Holsten
a card of Europe with Trischen and Mykolajiw

Once across the continent: Migratory birds like the Dunlin cover enormous distances, they know no borders.

And then I get my reward for keeping still for so long! My heart beat quickens – is that a bird with a ring on its leg? I work my way ever so slowly through the flock until close enough to take a picture to confirm my suspicion. A few hours later it is certain: the bird is from a ringing project in Ukraine. The ring on the bird’s thin leg throws up all sorts of interesting questions.

I heard from the ringer himself - his reply was unusual though: “Hello, yes, that is my bird. However, I am at war and have no access to the database.”

I take my hat off to this guy who, despite the extraordinary state of affairs in his country, checks his emails and tries to run a ringing project. The ringing headquarters in Kiew, which is amazingly still operating, was finally able to tell me that the bird was ringed in 2020 near Mykolajiw, a town marked by war. The bird had not been recaptured since.

At first, I had wondered if it was simply too ridiculous to report such a small thing in a time of war. But then I thought that the ringer on returning, hopefully alive and well, would be pleased to see a reward for his work. I hope with all my heart that the dunlin was a good omen.

It just shows that even on a lonely island you can never forget the world beyond. The enormous oil rig outside my front door, the gigantic container ships on the Elbe and the plastic waste on the beach all bring that home to me every day. But it had never been as clear to me as that evening when I got the message from an ornithologist who has had to give up his ringing to fight for his life with a gun.

bird warden at Trischen
© Christian Stielow

From March to October 2022 Dr. Till Holsten was the bird warden on Trischen, a small North Sea island managed by the Schleswig-Holstein branch of NABU. For several years Holsten was a paediatrician at a large university hospital and has been working for NABU Schleswig-Holstein since 2022.

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