The Döberitzer Heide just next to Berlin and Potsdam is a former military training area and now an important nature reserve led by the Heinz Sielmann foundation (German: Heinz Sielmann Stiftung). The terrain of the Döberitzer Heide is not only home to a variety of plant and animal species, but also a popular recreational area for many city dwellers. Read more about my excursions to the Döberitzer Heide in the following blog entry.
The Döberitzer Heide
Picturesque open plains. A former declared species as “extinct in the wild”. Broom shrubs, birch groves and other botanical curiosities. The Döberitzer Heide is indeed a very precious treasure in the vicinity of Berlin and Potsdam.
I have been several times in the Döberitzer Heide and every time it was very special. I always felt so free by the vast landscapes and enchanted by all the little animals I found. The Döberitzer Heide became one of my favorite places close to Berlin this year. Although I haven’t found everything what I was searching for, each visit was unique. Or maybe this is the interesting part of the Döberitzer Heide, not finding every species someone like me is looking for.
The area of the Döberitzer Heide still hides many secrets and all visitors - I’m sure about that - can see the enchantment of the terrain.
For me the Döberitzer Heide was a magic place and I think visitors need there especially...
... time and patience.
... persistence for exploring the extensive landscapes.
... and an openness for all the curiosities to be found.
But what is the Döberitzer Heide?
The Döberitzer Heide is a former military training area which was transformed by the Heinz Sielmann foundation into a nature reserve. With an area of more than 3500 ha, the Döberitzer Heide is about 17 times larger than the Tiergarten in Berlin. It is home to a variety of plant and animal species. Including species like the Przewalski's horse, which was declared as "extinct in the wild" by the IUCN, but now lives in the Döberitzer Heide.
Interesting: Did you know that the Döberitzer Heide was used as a military ground for about 300 years? Fires, explosions and track vehicles contributed to all the vast and open landscapes which are, nevertheless, very important ecological sites. The Heinz Sielmann foundation bought the area in 2004 to secure an area for nature conservation.
There are many more animal species to be found in the Döberitzer Heide.
Not to forget are the European bison or the red deer (see below, photos taken in the wildlife park Schofheide). Or the wild bees and all the birds like northern wheatears, whinchats, European stonechats, European robins or the Eurasian hoopoe.
The large herbivores like the European bison or the Przewalski's horses act like "natural landscape designers" in the center of the Döberitzer Heide. In the surroundings (German: "Naturerlebnis-Ringzone") sheep, goats and cattle keep the grassy landscapes short.
Information: There are about one hundred European bison, twenty-five Przewalski's horses and ninety red deer in the Döberitzer Heide according to the official website of the Heinz Sielmann foundation. They primarily live in the center of the Döberitzer Heide and with luck can be observed on the meadows.
The Döberitzer Heide is a heath characterized by sandy and nutrient-deficient soils. Plant and animal species of a heath are adapted to an arid habitat low in nutrients. Most heaths in the east of Germany are the result of a military use of these territories for decades.
Hardy pioneer species like, for example, mosses, lichens, grasses or the common heather (Calluna vulgaris) are able to withstand heat, drought and nutrient deficiency, and thus, are the first ones to colonize a heath like the Döberitzer Heide (that’s why they are pioneer species). These pioneer species attract specific insects which in turn attract a variety of specific bird and reptile species.
But did you know that a heath like the Döberitzer Heide needs landscape preservation?
As a heath is a cultivated landscape by humans, more and more trees occupy the area and shadow the light-hungry pioneer species. Without landscape preservation a species-rich heath transforms into a forest. Meaning, without mowing and grazing (like with bison, sheep or horses) a heath like the Döberitzer Heide would grow to a forest.
That is very interesting, and actually, here I would be very curious about the views of different experts on that topic.
Should we as humans intervene in a heath?
If not, would species that are adapted to a hot and dry habitat be able to win through in another area?
Wouldn't it be better to have a forest? A forest which stores more carbon dioxide?
Interesting: About twenty years are necessary for trees like birches or pine trees to replace the pioneer plant species of a heath. Sometimes it might take even a shorter period of time.
Nevertheless, I was very, very impressed that a landscape like the Döberitzer Heide can develop so close to the capital of Germany. It is a fascinating and magic place. A place to spend a lot of time. A place to dream (although it was used as a military ground in the past...) and enjoy the beauty of the landscapes. Although it is a nature reserve, it is accessible for the public for recreational activities like hiking.
I think this is a good way by the Heinz Sielmann foundation to connect people with nature.
Searching for the Eurasian hoopoe
A long and thin tapering bill. An orange plumage with zebra-striped wings. And a crest which is usually held closed, but typically raised after landing. These characteristics are distinctive for the Eurasian hoopoe which can be unmistakably distinguished from other birds in Europe. Only the two other hoopoe species (the African hoopoe and the Madagascar hoopoe) are similar-looking.
There are probably several subspecies of Eurasian hoopoes distributed in Europe, Asia and North Africa.
The Eurasian hoopoes of Europe migrate to the south in winter. Thus, observing Eurasian hoopoes in Germany is usually only possible during the spring and summer season.
The bird prefers a bare or lightly-vegetated habitat like heathlands (see the Döberitzer Heide), but they also might occur in wooded steppes, savannas or grasslands.
As I have heard about the Eurasian hoopoe in the Döberitzer Heide and as I think it is an especially beautiful bird, I was hoping to see this year one of these magnificent birds.
It was not the wonderful landscape of the Döberitzer Heide.
Or the hiking trail.
Or all the other birds to observe in a heathland close to Berlin.
It was the Eurasian hoopoe, why I became interested in visiting the Döberitzer Heide.
From recordings I already knew its typical oop-oop-oop call. I also have seen the Eurasian hoopoe in the zoo of Vienna (see photo above).
But I have never seen one in the wild.
I was so hoping to see one this year.
I was waiting.
Practicing my patience.
And I pricked up my ears.
I couldn’t spot any Eurasian hoopoe this year.
Tip: There is an association (German: “Naturschutz-Förderverein Döberitzer Heide e.V.”) which supports the work of the Heinz Sielmann foundation and is active in the preservation of landscapes, conservation and education. Please visit the website to get more information about their work.
I know wildlife watching is like that. You never know what to expect. Maybe that is the most interesting part of it. Although, of course, I was a little bit disappointed not to have seen an Eurasian hoopoe in the wild this year. However, instead, I saw so many other wonderful bird species. And I know next year I can give it another trial!
Instead of a Eurasian hoopoe, I saw swarms of European starlings.
In the fields in the north of the ring zone I spotted several Eurasian tree sparrows feeding on seeds.
In the same area I found a white wagtail close to a hut.
I saw white wagtails at several places.
I heard a green woodpecker close-by, but I couldn’t spot it.
Nevertheless, I was so thrilled to observe a corn bunting perching on a twig of a bush.
Likewise, in the north of the Döberitzer Heide, I found some pile of stones. I immediately thought of a northern wheatear. I knew that northern wheatears prefer building their nests in cavities like in crevices among rocks. And as I have heard that northern wheatears occur in the Döberitzer Heide, I waited on the trail and hoped that one of these birds might emerge.
Luckily, I didn’t have to wait for a long time and a northern wheatear showed up and presenting me its beautiful appearance.
Just around that area I was surrounded by the calls of numerous barn swallows.
I had beautiful moments close to them.
Sometimes the barn swallows took a break and rested on some branches high up the trees.
In another tree I spotted a European goldfinch.
What a pleasure to see so many different bird species!
In another area further in the north of the Döberitzer Heide, but further east, I spotted many, many red-backed shrikes.
In that area I expected to see a Eurasian hoopoe, as someone told me that another person had seen one there.
I was not lucky (with respect to the Eurasian hoopoe), but instead, I saw red-backed shrikes perching on branches or moving from one wooden stake to the other. I even saw a young bird which was not shy and elusive at all!
I have visited the Döberitzer Heide this year three times (to improve my chances of seeing a Eurasian hoopoe). On my first two visits I hiked from Elstal to Dallgow-Döberitz. It is a rather forested area, but in between are smaller or larger open landscapes.
In one of those open landscapes, I spotted again northern wheatears. Just next to two northern wheatears was a European stonechat.
Although I was not at all lucky to see a Eurasian hoopoe, I saw quite many other different bird species. The Döberitzer Heide is a wonderful place and it was not the last time that I have visited this special place. And I’m sure, one day I will observe a Eurasian hoopoe in the Döberitzer Heide. I also have to admit that I was very late this year. I have visited the Döberitzer Heide in 2021 three times from August to October.
Hiking in the Döberitzer Heide
The Döberitzer Heide is not only a place for wildlife watchers. It is also an amazing place for hikers. All hiking paths together reach a length of up to 55 km. Even horses are allowed on about 13 km of the hiking trail.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, I hiked twice the path from Elstal to Dallgow-Döberitz.
I walked on sandy trails through open landscapes or trails surrounded by trees like birches or oaks.
Importantly, on the trail hikers are most of the time exposed to the sun and heat of the day. There are shady sections. But on a sunny and hot day don’t forget to carry sufficient water. There is no restaurant or café close-by.
There are about thirty picnic areas in the Döberitzer Heide. I found a small one on the path to Dallgow-Döberitz.
Important: Please remain on the hiking trails. There are still munition remnants scattered around the terrains, and thus, there is still a risk of injury off the official trails. Furthermore, cutting across country intrudes into the habitat of including endangered species.
Only the last section of the trail is more forested and shadier.
I very, very enjoyed the trail from Elstal to Dallgow-Döberitz. The only disadvantage I had was my camera and the heavy telephoto lens (it was a 150-600mm lens). But as I visited the Döberitzer Heide also to take photographs of wildlife, I had decided to carry the camera and the telephoto lens.
The path from Elstal to Dallgow-Döberitz is less than 10 km.
At the beginning of October, I hiked the circular path on a beautiful day together with a friend.
On that day I didn’t bring my heavy telephoto lens, as the circular path has a length of about 22 km.
According to the information in the Döberitzer Heide, hiking the circular path takes about six hours.
It is a long path, but the trail is easy to walk.
We passed several picnic areas.
And again, open landscapes changed with shady forests. Some paths are sandy.
Important: Please don’t pick scrap metal or bottles up! Remember that the Döberitzer Heide is a former military training area. There might be still explosive or toxic substances scattered around the territory. If you find something suspicious, please call a bomb disposal team or inform the Heinz Sielmann Stiftung about the finding and its location.
About halfway between the start and end point in Elstal of the circular path, there is an observation platform (Finkenberg) where it is even possible to see the television tower (Fernsehturm) of Berlin.
We took a break at the observation platform.
On most trails we were walking alone. There were not many people around. Just at the observation platform Finkenberg we saw more and more people walking on the hiking trails.
There are more entrances to the circular path. Elstal is not the only one. In the south of the Döberitzer Heide - in Krampnitz - is a parking lot. There is another parking lot in the east. Especially around these areas we encountered more people. Not all people entering the Döberitzer Heide intend to walk the whole circular path.
Nevertheless, on all three days I very enjoyed the vastness of the Döberitzer Heide. I loved the colors of the heathland in October. And it was so good not being surrounded outside by the noise of a big city.
By all means, it was not the last time that I have visited the Döberitzer Heide!
Information: It is allowed to hike with a dog. However, it is mandatory to leash a dog in order to protect wild animals, and vice versa, to protect dogs from the wild animals that live in the Döberitzer Heide.
How to get there
The Döberitzer Heide is easy to reach by public transportation.
At first, I took the city train S42 to the train station Jungfernheide. At Jungfernheide I got in the train RE4 which brought me to the train station in Elstal.
There is a bus from Elstal (bus line 668) to the entrance of the Döberitzer Heide. However, this is a path of about 2 km, and thus, should take less than half an hour by foot.
The RE4 also stops in Dallgow-Döberitz.
I paid 3,80 Euros for each ticket.
Links and resources
Do you know the Döberitzer Heide? If yes, what was your favorite place? Or do you know another heathland in your area? Please let me know in the comments!