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Bird Warden on Scharhörn Island

Hamburgs außergewöhnlichster Saisonarbeitsplatz

No running water, outdoor toilet

Hamburg's most unusual seasonal workplace is on a 150 ha island in the Wadden Sea. Since 1947, bird watchers have regularly lived on Scharhörn in summer - the rest of the year the small island is deserted. Their job is to count birds (in the past also ringing) and observe them; until the 1970s they also kept egg thieves away, today they also inspect stranded rubbish and guide tourists.

On the roof of the new living container, you can see as far as Helgoland on very clear days. At high tide it is only a few steps to the North Sea and parts of the island break away. Guests have to register and after an hour’s stay they have to return before the next tide. Scharhörn is located in the middle of the Hamburg Wadden Sea National Park and thus right in the centre of the World Heritage Site from Esbjerg to Den Helder. And Scharhörn is a bird paradise.

Scharhörn from above. The bird warden's shelter can just be made out. © Martin Elsen

The island became a nature reserve in 1939, and since 1990 it has been in the specially protected zone 1 of the national park. Reason: Scharhörn is one of the birdiest places in the entire Wadden Sea. In 2019, birdwatchers observed a total of 168 bird species-some only once (Hoopoe), others in the tens of thousands (Dunlin, Knot, Curlew, Bar-tailed Godwit). 24 bird species breed here, including rare ones like the redshank and short-eared owl. For several years, several hundred eider ducks have discovered Scharhörn as a breeding ground.

The very first bird warden came only briefly in 1938, then the Wehrmacht, which built an anti-aircraft position and banned people from entering the island from 1940. The Helgoland ornithological station made sure that at least interested soldiers recorded breeding populations. But they also helped themselves generously to the eggs of herring gulls and terns. The first official bird wardens of 1947 had to clean up first. There was rubble, barbed wire, blown-up bunker parts and broken glass everywhere from the destroyed flak position. The huts were damaged, the walls and roofs full of holes. Cooking first took place on an open fire in the open air. Nevertheless, bird keeper Friederun Jannasch’s diary is full of entries like this: ‘Back through the mudflats: lots of bright cockles in the sea grass like flowers in a summer meadow, blue tideways and the first clouds in five days, pretty little cumuli coming up from the mainland’.


Birdwatchers' shelter on Scharnhörn © Peter Körber

A normal birdwatcher’s day looks like this: Depending on the weather and the tide, observing and counting songbirds and other species at first light, often first from inside so that they don’t fly away immediately. Climb onto the roof of the container and continue with binoculars and spotting scope (special two-eyed observation telescope) in search of ducks, geese, cormorants and co. Into the salt marshes and dunes, looking for parents with young of hidden breeding species such as eider ducks and shelducks. Document litter at the representative count track and collect it all over the island. Guiding a group of visitors. Enter the day’s data online in lists in the evening. Do the same every few days on the neighbouring island of Nigehörn. Pay attention to the environment: When do which plants start to flower? Where does erosion work particularly fiercely?

Counting takes the most practice and patience. If clouds of birds appear, it is pure stress for new bird watchers. The trick is to memorise the circumference, the area of ten animals at the edge, then mentally scan through the whole flock and press the counter in your hand after each group of ten. The final result times ten gives the number of birds in the flock. Professionals do it with a few glances in a few seconds. After a few weeks, however, even the newcomers are professionals.

Sandwich terns on Scharhörn © Peter Körber

On Scharhörn, bird watchers are also rubbish collectors. Washed-up waste is documented, sorted and disposed of. The bird watchers regularly walk selected stretches of beach with clipboards and questionnaires – not everything is plastic, even dead or sick birds or seals lie in the sand. Largest item: fishing waste. Rubber boots, gloves, but above all net parts and remnants, which by now are coloured threads in almost every second washed-up tuft of seaweed. During a rubbish collection campaign in 2016, around 1.6 tonnes of rubbish were collected on Scharhörn and Nigehörn in one day.

Anyone applying for the job must first of all be fit, because the journey to Neuwerk, the larger, inhabited neighbouring island, takes around two hours each way. Then knowledge of the species is required: if you can’t tell the grey goose from the oystercatcher, you’re out of place on Scharhörn. Furthermore: patience. Here everything depends on the weather and tide-contacts, work, transports. Anyone who has problems with loneliness should not even think of Scharhörn. In thick fog or storms, the island can be inaccessible for days. Perseverance is important: volunteers work from the beginning of April until the end of October, until the last regular ferry leaves for Cuxhaven. And you have to like the simple life: drinking water comes in canisters, there has never been running water. The canisters have to be manoeuvred almost half a kilometre from the unloading point through dunes and damp depressions to the living container by wheelbarrow. The quiet room is an outhouse outside. We cook, sleep, live and work on 48 m². Groceries arrive every fortnight by tractor or when the waders bring guests, or they are fetched on foot from Neuwerk. 

Outdoor toilet on Scharhörn © Peter Körber

Who goes along with something like that? People who want to be bird watchers on Scharhörn have fallen in love with the coast and want to experience it longer, purely and if possible alone. Peace, space, nature, being able to do something completely different – that’s what counts most. Many use the months in the Watt as time out between training and work. In the past there were almost only men on Scharhörn, today there are more women. Those interested are getting younger. Since 1947, over a hundred bird wardens have been here, 13 twice, one even four times. They came and still come from all over Germany and occasionally beyond. The furthest away were home towns in Bavaria and Switzerland. The drop-out rate is low, says the Jordsand Association, which has been selecting, recruiting and supervising the bird wardens since the beginning.

Everyone says that the fascination of Scharhörn is the total contrast to the big city, routine, narrowness, hustle and bustle, empty skies and, for some, hills and mountains. This has been true from the first bird watchers after the war until today. In August 1948, bird warden Friederun Jannasch wrote: ‘On our way back at dusk, the sea and sand shine everywhere we go, we walk as if with silver steps, and the silver traces of our footsteps remain visible for a little while behind us. Fairytale beach.’ In slightly different language, everyone would still sign this without exception today. Scharhörn is Hamburg’s most unusual seasonal workplace.

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