To the Lobau

Notes from Nature: Oct. 2010

The coot, a native of marshy areas of Europe | Photo: Envis Centre

Though it’s only early September, autumn is already in the air. Over the Danube hangs a tinge of melancholy, fading, like an out-of-season seaside resort. Black-headed gulls, already arrived for the winter, sweep high and slow over the choppy-brown water. I follow the river south, away from the city, past empty bathing platforms and picnic tables towards the Lobau, the beginnings of one of the last remaining major wetland environments in Central Europe.

After a 30-minute cycle ride from the Innere Stadt, I arrive. Part of the Donau-Auen National Park, the Lobau provides an important habitat for various protected species including the massive white-tailed eagle, the European beaver and the fire-bellied toad (which, when threatened, rolls over to scare predators with its ferocious orange-black stomach). The park as a whole runs from the federal provinces of the city of Vienna into Lower Austria and along the Danube, all the way to Hainburg along the Austrian-Slovakian border.

I lean my bike against a tree, and stand quietly to watch a coot – a charcoal-bodied aquatic bird with an unmistakable white bill and fleshy frontal lobe – as it bathes. It thrashes and flutters in the water, oblivious to my presence. All about me is evidence of beavers: fallen tree debris and trunks that have been gnawed into conical stumps. And in the upper-most reaches of the woods across the lake – perhaps in one of the white poplars that thrive here, thanks to their ability to withstand flooding – is a middle-spotted woodpecker.

The soundtrack, however, is much more urban. Beyond the woodpecker is a steady stream of commercial airliners taking off from Vienna’s international airport, emitting a faint but incessant mechanical drone. The hum of traffic from the nearby system of busy roads is also constant and, in the distance, I can hear the rumble of a freight train.

I’m hoping to spot an osprey or a little bittern, perhaps. Across the water, I see something break the surface. Hurriedly lifting my binoculars, all becomes clear: It’s the arm of a lone swimmer performing a lazy backstroke across the lake. She spots me, and I avert my gaze. I am suddenly tempted to swim, despite the lack of a towel and the chill autumnal day – or maybe because of both.

As I cycle home along the Danube, a grey heron, its colour in keeping with the evening sky, lumbers down onto the river with hooked wings. My ears and hands are cold, and I’m suddenly glad I didn’t take that impromptu dip. I cross the Reichsbrücke to rejoin Vienna. The Lobau, just minutes away, is immediately crowded out of my consciousness by the humdrum of city life.

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