Sunday, 29 March 2020

Mid-Winter Bird Watching Highlights from Holland

As a Western Palearctic lister I count myself incredibly lucky to live and birdwatch in Cornwall. Every year we have the chance of American Vagrants gracing our shores, sea birds passing our headlands from all corners of the globe and in the right condition’s Eastern vagrants as well. Don’t get me wrong you have to put the effort in to chance upon a “goody”, often sacrificing lie-ins on days off, the comfort of a warm and dry living room when sea-watching in hurricane like conditions and even physical fatigue after slogging the numerous valleys of West Cornwall hoping for something a little different when that weather pattern is just too good to ignore! But eventually that pays off and the “Biggy” that you have been hoping for materialises and all is well in your world for a week or two.

Sometimes however things are a bit samey and the weather looks settled and unlikely to introduce anything new or interesting to aim for. I had such a period in January and found my internet searches broadening to other countries rare bird news pages. The star attraction in Europe at the time was the Little Curlew that had been seen daily in Northern Holland. I started to investigate the feasibility of the travel, how easy it would be to get around the country and most importantly what else was on offer for an avid lister and birder. I was pleased with what I had found and the potential in a short trip!

I spoke with Bob to see if he was keen which was a bit of a stupid question really as like any other birder, he was ready to jump in the car and set off there and then! But the reality was that he couldn’t commit to making the trip for a couple of weeks due to prior engagements, but he wanted to go. Long story short two weeks later we are in the car at 4 15 am and on our way to Exeter Airport.

Day 1

After a good flight into Amsterdam Airport, a bus trip to the car hire, the collection of local birding hero Roy Slaterus and the necessary unpacking of optics and cameras we set off! Before I continue with our recap, I would like to sincerely thank Roy for his hospitality, time and superb birding skills. After spending the weekend with him it is no wonder he is held in such high esteem within the European Birding and Ornithology scene. His natural abilities as a birder are unquestionable, yet his eagerness to ensure that Bob and I had a successful and rewarding trip in his home country was exceptional and I will be eternally grateful and hope I get to repay the favour one day. To keep up to date with his adventures check out his blog here:  

We had three days to see as many of our targets as possible, but the Little Curlew had not been seen for several days so we aimed for a couple of other “mega” Western Palearctic birds that were high on the agenda. The most important of these was a Dusky Thrush that had been residing in Belgium about an hour and a half from our location. With most of the morning already gone it was time to push on and try our luck.

There had been no news on our journey to the location so as we drove up the wooded lane it was with some trepidation and wonderment! We commented on arrival of the randomness of the location for such a rare bird to show up. Essentially, we were presented with a couple of well grazed horse paddocks nestled inside surrounding woodland. It just goes to show that just about any location can throw up the goods and that any flock of birds are worth checking through for something a little out of place. As we exited the car a couple of the local birders quickly ushered us over to look through their scopes. Among the flock of mixed Thrushes, the Dusky could be seen putting on a fine show as it foraged and fed in the paddocks. Apparently, we were extremely lucky as it had not shown all morning and only just put in an appearance for the 30 or 40 birders that were present. There is no doubt that it is a striking bird with its bold eye stripe, double breast band and Common Whitethroat wing pattern! After nearly an hour admiring this Asian delight, we needed to make tracks in order to get to our 2nd target.

A short clip of the Dusky Thrush foraging in its favored paddock with a variety of other Thrush species.

The long staying Pygmy Cormorant in Brussels wasn’t going to be straightforward, so we needed to ensure that we had plenty of time to locate it. A further hour and a half’s driving and we had reached the location. On arrival a typically regal urban park and ponds could be seen. The only problem was that all this great habitat was located the other side of a fence with no way in! We started to pace up and down the fence line, peering into the pools wherever a suitable break in the foliage allowed but to no avail! That self-pity feeling that you get in the bottom of your stomach when things aren’t going your way started to consume me. Was it there and we couldn’t see it or was it absent completely? I was consoled by reminiscing about the Thrush and reminding myself that I couldn’t see every bird that I wanted to Twitch; It was just the nature of the bird watching beast! I pushed on and decided to go to the furthest end of the pools and leave Bob and Roy scanning the other end of the area in case it popped out! When I neared the furthest point, I caught glimpse of a compact dark mass fluttering behind a sunken tree. I raced to find a better vantage point and low and behold there it was, wings open and drying off just like its larger cousins that I am so used to seeing back home in Cornwall. A real treat to see this adult as it was starting to show the white flecking in its plumage as it moulted into breeding plumage.

It was lovely to see an adult coming into breeding plumage evident by the white flecking on the breast of the bird. 

A short clip of the Pygmy Cormorant.

Daylight had started to dwindle so we headed back into Holland, pleased with the result of the days ventures. On the way back we stopped for a much-needed meal and to hatch tomorrows plan!

Day 2

After a discussion with Roy over our evening meal about where we should be heading next it became obvious, we needed to be in the North. There were a lot of targets for us in the area firstly we would have been foolish not putting some time in at the Little Curlew location but there were also several species of Geese on the cards that Bob and I both wanted to see! So, just before first light we were once again in the hire car and on the road.

After a 30-minute drive we were in the area that the Little Curlew had been frequenting but sadly after a pretty extensive search we couldn’t locate it. There is literally miles upon miles of suitable habitat so knowing where to start and stop was a real conundrum! But we enjoyed our time here and it was good to get a feel of the potential this country has to offer. Hopefully we will have the opportunity to go for another one in the future as it would be a fantastic addition to our Western Palearctic lists!

One positive that came from our unsuccessful mornings hunt was that our hunger to check more Geese flocks had grown as it seemed that every field held vast swathes of Greater White-fronts, Grey lags and Barnacle Geese.

Our next stop was Hippolytushoef which was located at the very north eastern tip of the North Holland province. It was a legendary place for Geese and all of our target species had been seen here in recent days and weeks. As we neared and came off the highway, we knew we were in the right location as there appeared to be a swirling sea of Barnacle Geese on the nearby fields. It was a literal blanket of pale grey as far as the eye could see! We wanted to get out of the car and scan but knew now wasn’t the time as 100 meters down the road was another flock of birds that grabbed our attention and deserved a check before we got stuck into scanning Barnacle Geese! We crept along in the car and neared our intended quarry; not in such numbers as the Barnacles but still as exciting as it may have harbored one of our targets. As the car gently came to a halt and we started to scan it didn’t take long to clock an interesting Brent type Goose among the 80 or so Dark-bellied’s. At the back of the gaggle a distinctive individual could be seen. Though similar in size and structure to the neighboring Dark-bellied Brent Geese, it appeared more robust and had a large, rather angular head. It also showed a very strong black-and-white plumage contrast, and a strong and deep white neck collar. The upper and rear flanks were strikingly bright white, whilst the belly was very dark brown/black, it contrasted little with the black breast and the upper parts. The upper parts were also very dark brown/black with no grey hues. Without doubt we were looking at a Black Brant and were delighted by it!

Black Brant was a most welcome start to our day! 

A short clip of the Black Brant

We spent a couple more hours scanning the flocks of Geese in the locality and although mesmerizing nothing unexpected had grabbed our attention, so we decided to try some other nearby spots. On route between these locations I wanted to stop and check on a tip Roy had given us in the center of town and boy was I pleased that we did. Situated in a fairly normal looking suburban street with the expected traffic and pedestrian activity that comes from such a spot stood a large pine tree. Nothing seemed abnormal or out of place on arrival until we took a closer look at that Tree! Nestled among the foliage fiery orange eyes could be seen peering out at us and the more I looked the more I realized that there were not just one or two inhabitants! I had never witnessed a Parliament of Owls before, but it took my breath away as at least 15 Long-eared’s could be seen in this surreal location. I was in shear awe and yet slightly baffled by the obviously preferential choice of roosting location the Owls had chosen. It was a real highlight of the trip for me!

Sub-urban roosting Long-eared Owls were a shear delight to see. 

A short clip of the Long-eared Owls in their favorite roadside tree. 

After scanning and searching several more pockets of Geese in the area, yet having no joy tracking down any more target species we assessed the situation and realized the clock was ticking and we needed to move on to pastures new! We headed 40 minutes south to Camperduin, another favored spot that held swathes of Geese. On approach to the feeding grounds it dawned on us that we had our work cut out as again there were literally thousands of Barnacles, Greylag and White-fronted Geese as far as the eye could see, it was a real job knowing where to start!

We pulled off the main road into what appeared to be some sort of drainage system and gently started to work our way through the nearest flock of Greater White-fronts. I scanned from right to left with nothing grabbing my attention so started panning back the other way. As I worked my way back, I thought I glimpsed a color-ring so stopped and checked again. A bird that had been out of view in a hollow in the ground then started to trundle back out and into view, it was clearly showing an extended white angular blaze that reached the fore-crown and on closer scrutiny (it was quite distant) a clear yellow orbital ring around the eye. The bill was pink and short, and I knew at this point that I needed to get Bob on it! As I was calling out directions it joined up with another bird showing the same characteristics! Bob had by now located them and confirmed that my identification was correct they were Lesser White-fronted Geese. I was so happy that we had found them as we discussed other features on the bird such as the restrictive barring seemingly only on the belly and not extending onto the flanks such as that of a greater White-fronted Goose. A very short while later a Lady decided that she was going to walk right next to the Geese without a care in the world! It was heart breaking seeing them flying off without getting any decent record shots and we came up with some new names for that Lady, the most popular rhymed with “plucking hat”! We jumped in the car and headed in the direction we seen them going and soon got back on the flock. After a quick scan we were relieved to pick them both up again and being a bit closer I managed to get some half decent shots and even read the color-rings! Such a pleasing result and more to the point we were on a role! Knowing we had to make the most of this purple patch before it dried up we took a gamble as the afternoon was quickly dwindling and our next target was over an hour away! We hit the road and headed even further south.

Lesser White-fronted Geese sporting color-rings.

A short clip of the Lesser White-fronted Geese.

We were heading to a location called Groeneweg Schiedam which was just north of Rotterdam. If nothing went wrong on our journey and we fond the location quickly we would have just enough daylight to see another of target species. Although the journey seemed to take an age and it felt like every traffic light and cue was set against us we actually made good time and had some daylight left to play with. This was going to be easy!

We then arrived at the location and realized that we had been proper idiots to think that this was going to be a breeze! As we pulled up the area seemed ginormous, and everywhere we looked seemed the right habitat for our intended quarry. I drove around trying to find some high ground which was a pretty futile thought process in the flat country of Holland! After panic had set in and the sun seeming to drop at an accelerated speed Bob messaged Roy and told him of our plight! A new set of directions were pinged over and we were 10 minutes away. I was soon roaring up a road barely wider than the car itself and Bob declared we are nearly there! I must admit I didn’t have much faith and thought our luck had run out as the light was dwindling so quickly. As Bob declared that we were here and we stopped the car to the right of me a solid white lump of a bird could be seen with some Greylag Geese! Could we really have pulled this off after such an ordeal? Yes, sure enough in view was a long staying Ross’s Goose widely accepted by Hollands rarity committee as a genuine wild bird! What a beauty and what an end to our day!

Sadly the failing light and distance meant that any decent photographs were not on the agenda!

However, Bob did manage to film this short clip that does it a little more justice!

Day 3

Our final day was upon us and we still had a whole host of targets to aim for! During another recap with Roy the previous evening we came up with a plan. Out of the list discussed one particular species kept grabbing our attention and Bob and I both had a strong desire to make a particular effort for it. So shortly after dawn we were already on route to Goedereede situated in the province of Zeeland. It was no surprise that we were going to be checking through a myriad of Geese again for our intended target. We arrived at the location and it didn’t take long to find the birds we wanted to count; Roy had given us superb directions once again. But perhaps even more beneficial was that the flocks of Barnacles we wanted to check through were flying in for their morning feed! They seemed to be splitting into two distinctive groups so naturally we headed for the flock nearest to us and started scanning meticulously through the swathes of little grey beauties. We knew we needed to be cautious as the prize we so hoped to glimpse could be notorious for going missing in such vast flocks. We scanned and concentrated hard but to no avail! Something spooked the flock and they burst into flight, but soon settled again to carry on grazing. We could see nothing on the deck, and we couldn’t pick anything different out in the air! Bugger, it wasn’t looking good and we knew we needed to move on.

We headed in the general direction of the second flock that we had seen heading in. After a little bit of driving and scanning with the bins every few hundred meters we located them nearby. Not as substantial as the first flock but still big enough to get a little excited at the prospects of what else was with them! We pulled the car into the safest spot we could find on the side of the road and started to scan with the scopes. I must have worked my way through the flock 3 or 4 times before something caught my eye and the pulse started pumping! Did I really just glimpse a deep orange patch on one of the geese or was it just wishful thinking! I paused and adjusted the scope back to where I thought I seen it. Nothing! I waited patiently to see if I could shed light onto the sighting. Was it just a piece of litter that had caught my eye? I needn’t have worried as a few seconds later a pristine Red-breasted Goose waddled into full view. What an absolute mind-blowing bird, just sublime! Bob was soon on it and the video-scoping commenced. We enjoyed every minute of it and exhaled cheers of joy as we packed up to head on to the next target.

A short clip of the magnificent Red-breasted Goose

Our next target was just 20 minutes north and although was being regularly seen could be in a number of local spots and there were lots of them! It was in a substantial town called Bleiswijk. Long story short we hunted high and low throughout the town and nearby areas that it had been seen with no luck. I referred back to Roy’s guidance notes and was still drawing a blank! Now what would you do in this situation at home I thought to myself? Obviously I would go online and check the latest local sightings detail. After a quick internet scan I realized we were 20 minutes away from its last locality. I asked Bob want he thought we should do. The bird was only a lifer for me and was already on his list. Thankfully, he agreed that we should make the effort as we had such good fortune with the Geese that we still had plenty of time in the day. I didn’t even ask if he was sure and I laid pedal to the metal and hightailed it to the spot.

The location was a typical “village green” size pond and I knew it was a case of s##t or bust. It was either going to be a momentous occasion for me or a waste of 2 hours! As we pulled up to the location I frantically scanned the pool with no luck. I was disappointed and deflated. What a waste of time and fuel! A few minutes later Bob said “hmmm, I have just seen something dive near the far bank that could have been it”! My ears pricked up and I started gazing in the general direction. Sure enough, up bobbed a delightful Hooded Merganser! What a cracker that made the effort so worthwhile. We enjoyed the bird for 20 minutes as best we could in the cold stiff breeze but knew we still had some more species to target and the day wasn’t getting any younger.

The Hooded Merganser gave us a bit of a run around but was well worth the effort.

He seemed particularly fond of the local Mallards too! 

Believe it or not our next stop was for yet another species of Goose! As the afternoon dawned we headed to nearby Reeuwijk, in the hope of seeing some genuinely “tickable” Bar-headed Geese. On arrival we were presented with a massive lake and a huge complex of water ways and fields full of Geese. Where do you start we thought to ourselves? We started walking and both decided to split up and scan different areas in the hope that we could cover all the ground and not waste to much time. The clock was ticking, our flight was due in a few hours and we still had other quarry to chase down whilst we had the light! We gave it as long as we dared but sadly didn’t connect. A real shame but a good reason to head back to this beautiful country in the near future.  

Never mind on-wards and upwards! The day wasn’t over yet and we still had some plastic fantastic to aim for! I am not going to lie, I was starting to feel the effects of the last couple of days driving and the hardcore birding and was getting tired. This had nothing to do with the alcohol consumption from the night before, it was purely down to the birding! I needed something a little easier to keep production and moral high! What should we do? Bob had the perfect plan lets go for the Parakeets.

Roy advised us to avoid the main strong hold for Alexandrine Parakeet located in the center of Amsterdam as the traffic and congestion could be a real nightmare and we didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize us getting on the flight home after having such a lovely time up to this point! Instead he suggested that we head to the nearby town of Amstelveen which was easier to navigate and held less risk of getting caught up in serious congestion. The only issue was that the Parakeets were not so guaranteed,with less than ten found in the vicinity. We arrived at Broersepark and I had a fifteen-minute nap to freshen myself up ready for the remainder of the day. Bob was happily listening and looking from the car and before long said that he was pretty sure that he was hearing them. The call was very similar to that of the nearby Ring-necked Parakeets but to the discerning ear could be separated. We headed off in the direction he suggested and a few minutes later we stumbled across an individual merrily chewing the bark off a tree and giving the occasional harrowing squawk to ensure the world knew it was still here! It soon became obvious he wasn’t alone and we had reached a total of five before we departed. I know these birds produced mixed feelings in the Ornithological world but there is no doubting that their cheek and volume result in an endearing quality!

These Parakeets were noisy and clearly destructive but I couldn't help enjoying seeing them going about their daily antics.

The afternoon was waning away, and it would soon be time to drop the hire car back and prepare to fly home. But there was one more species we felt we needed to try for as it was the only place in the Western Palearctic that they were deemed “tickable”! Luckily the location we needed to head was on the way back and not that far from the airport so we would have been silly not to make an effort.

We followed Roy’s directions once again to Haarlemmerliede but were warned it was a large area and the birds were often missed! After some message exchanges Roy said he would come and meet us as he had finished work for the day and knew the area like the back of his hand as it was his local patch growing up! A short while later he hopped in our car and took us on a tour of the area to all the likely places that we were most likely to bump into our desired target. It is always fascinating to talk with any birder that is on their local patch and regale in some of their memorable moments down the years; Roy was no exception! By now the weather had taken a turn for the worse (the only time during our stay) and the rain was now pretty hard making us car bound. We drove around for the best part of an hour and had given up hope. Not to worry we had already done exceptionally well and we had succeeded many more times than we expected too during the trip. We arrived back to Roy’s car and started saying our farewells. Roy started explaining that he was really surprised that we hadn’t connected as it was such a good spot for them right where we were parked. He pointed to a small grassy area surrounded by reeds and explained that more often than not the species can be seen grazing and sleeping right there. Roy had one last scan with his bins and then he would be on his way. “I think I just seen the head of one through the reed stems” exclaimed Roy. Bob and I were quickly scanning and sure enough the deep red bill and Black head could be made out in the distance. We had connected with one of Hollands Black Swans! 

We were all delighted and Roy was glad that he could get us one more bird on our exceptional visit! We finally said our goodbyes and sincerest thank you to Roy and he went on his merry way. Bob and I discussed our route back to the airport and realized we had 15 minutes to spare so it would be silly not to trundle over and take a few snaps of the Swan seeing as we were here! Despite the rain it was nice to get out the car and make the most of it and seemed like an apt way to end the trip. Whilst watching the Swan we commented that considering the miles we covered that it had been plain sailing with no hiccups. It was time to head back to the car and pack the optics away. Except there was a problem! As I turned and we started heading back I could see two men standing next to our car and peering in the windows. Behind them was a big white car sporting big blue lights on the roof and the words POLITIE printed down the side. No prizes for guessing the translation! We got back to the hire car and the two officers were concerned why tourists were in the locality and what we were up to? Thankfully like most people we met on our trip they were really friendly and after a brief explanation why we were in Holland and that we had been taking photos of the Black Swan they were happy to let us on our way! I am pretty sure one of them may have won a small bet against the other as he fist pumped the air when we exclaimed we were bird watchers. “I knew it” he yelled!

Fitting so much into three short days was tough! We covered some miles and birded hard every minute that we could, but boy was it memorable. The species that we ticked and the rarity value for our Western palearctic lists was exceptional! But as I sit here typing and reminiscing about our stay the memories that stand out for me the most was the shear volume of birds on show at this time of year. In every location magnificent flocks of Geese and Wildfowl seemed prevalent and it is heart warming to know that those sights and sounds still exist in this world. Lastly, the generous hospitality from the locals (especially Roy) was second to none. These reasons alone are enough to guarantee that I will be back again really soon!   

No comments:

Post a comment