11.08.2020 – City & History

Lynx in Stadelhofen and beavers in the Limmat: the wildlife of Zurich

Text & Photos: Ueli Abt

Ever seen a deer? Urban nature observers Cornelia Hürzeler and Saskia Jenny use their wildlife cameras to capture what remains hidden from other city dwellers’ sight, helping these adaptable animals along the way.

Cornelia Hürzeler just missed out on catching a glimpse of a badger. She and her husband had got up at three o’clock in the morning to witness an astronomical phenomenon, the Blood Moon, from the balcony on the first floor of their family home.

That night, the wildlife camera captured an image of a badger for the first time. Cornelia could see from the time stamp that the camera had been triggered at exactly the same time as the couple were watching the moon. ‘We were looking up at the sky, not down into the garden. Otherwise we would have seen it,’ says the 59-year-old.

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Cornelia Hürzeler

Every morning, Cornelia makes a coffee, sits down at her computer in her two-storey family home in Albisrieden and looks at the photos taken the night before. ‘Every morning I wake up curious about what has been going on in the garden,’ she says.

She has set up three wildlife cameras on the lawn next to the terrace. There are various trees dotted around the garden – a hawthorn, elder, pear, white transparent –, a raised bed and a corrugated iron shed. Cornelia has positioned the motion-detection cameras so that they are directed towards a plant pot saucer filled with water: the wildlife hotspot of her garden.

Cornelia checks the camera traps in the morning.

She first put the saucer out three years ago. ‘It’s often difficult for wildlife in the city to find water to drink,’ says Cornelia. Hedgehogs are particularly dependent on these easily accessible offerings.

Cornelia, who works for a cultural foundation in the social sector, didn’t know much about the birds she was photographing using a conventional camera seven years ago – let alone about urban wildlife. But she started becoming more interested in the fauna in her immediate surroundings. ‘I guess it comes with age,’ she laughs. She read about the Stadtnatur (urban nature) association in a newspaper article and signed up soon after.

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Now Cornelia carries out lots of observation assignments – counting and identifying tree species in a defined area and helping to monitor the city’s fauna with her animal observations. She learns more about the animals and meets other urban nature observers in Zurich at the training courses and tours organised by the association. ‘I feel like I’m part of a community, which I really enjoy.’

A device can identify bat species.

‘Community education is very important to us,’ says Anouk Taucher from the independent guidance and research group SWILD. The group set up the Urban Wildlife Monitoring Project and the accompanying Stadtnatur association around seven years ago.

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According to Taucher, the project has several goals, starting with the monitoring carried out by volunteers to find out how and where the animals live. ‘If you know how the animals are faring, you can also take measures to protect them,’ says the 31-year-old. The association also aims to raise awareness of urban wildlife among city dwellers.

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Anouk Taucher

City-dwelling animals are constantly adapting.

The wildlife camera is just one of the tools used for recording and documenting wildlife. Last year, volunteers studied bats that live inside buildings. They used a small, palm-sized device to determine the frequency of the bats’ sounds, which allowed them to identify the species.

Urban nature observer Saskia Jenny’s territory lies in Friesenberg, the neighbouring district of Albisrieden, a few hundred metres from Cornelia’s house. The 49-year-old biologist works at the zoo, leading guided tours and workshops, and teaches environmental classes at schools on behalf of the WWF. Her voluntary participation in wildlife monitoring is a valuable addition to her professional work, which mainly focuses on exotic animals.

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Saskia Jenny

‘I’m fascinated by how opportunistic urban wildlife is,’ says Saskia. ‘They come to the city uninvited, where there is more than enough food. And they adapt to this – for example, by reducing their escape distance.’

Just because city dwellers rarely see the animals doesn’t mean they aren’t there. You can always spot traces of them, as Saskia points out on a tour of the neighbourhood: the grass is slightly trampled in the places where foxes are constantly slipping through – sometimes there are even signs of actual deer trails.

‘Wildlife cameras allow us to observe the animals,’ says Saskia, and that is what she finds so fascinating. ‘My 18-year-old daughter got a bit of a fright when she realised that a fox passes by two metres from her bedroom window at night.’

Animals are venturing into the city.

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Numerous observation reports from volunteers have shown that wildlife aren’t just sticking to the green outskirts of the city. There have been some sightings astonishingly close to the city centre, as can be seen on the reporting platform zuerich.stadtwildtiere.ch. A badger has already made an appearance on Langstrasse and beavers have been spotted at Platzspitz near the main train station. In 2003, there was even a sighting of a lynx in the Seefeld area between Stadelhofen and Tiefenbrunnen. Saskia, who spends a lot of time in the area, does see animals every now and then. ‘Managing to catch sight of a badger is definitely a highlight.’

Cornelia Hürzeler from Albisrieden is eagerly awaiting this magical encounter. She has photographed badgers many times. The Zurich local knows from the pictures that at least one badger is drawn to the water dish in her garden almost every night in summer. ‘First he has a drink and then he lies down in the bowl to cool down.’ Three of them have been captured in one of her photos from the camera trap. Cornelia calls this infrared photograph ‘Badger Parade’. ‘Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get to see him with my own eyes,’ she says. ‘And one day maybe even a lynx,’ she adds. She knows that’s not a particularly realistic ambition. But one can hope!

Info

The Stadtnatur association encourages volunteers to participate as urban nature observers. Wildlife cameras are available for rent.

Wildlife cameras are equipped with motion detectors and take a picture every time something moves in the grass. Infrared light means that images can even be taken when it is pitch-black to the human eye.

It may be worth buying your own camera. There are some suitable models available that cost less than 100 Swiss francs. There are also convenient versions that transmit the image data to your computer immediately without any contact with the camera. This allows you to follow what’s going on outside from a distance in real time.

The association advises that cameras should only be set up on private property so as not to violate personal rights by taking unintentional photographs of people. Depending on your situation, the association also advises that you check with the landlord or house owner and inform your neighbours before setting up a camera trap.

The urban wildlife project was launched in Zurich in 2013. Since then, it has caught on in other cities: similar projects are under way in St. Gallen, Bern, Lucerne, Chur, Winterthur, Vienna and Berlin. Comparable monitoring projects have also been set up in rural regions under the name ‘Wild Neighbours’.

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