Over the years I’ve traveled to Europe over a dozen times, always finding time to bird while there. I’ve done pretty well, but I was never able to find a Black Woodpecker until I went birding with Pieter at Birding Holland. He not only showed me my first Black Woodpecker but also some other long-time targets: Black Stork and Red-crested Pochard.
During layovers on a family visit in Northern Ireland during this past holiday season I managed to fit in two and a half days of birding in the Netherlands. I contacted Birding Holland again, and gave them my flight schedule along with a list of target species, and they suggested a birding itinerary.
There are not too many possible lifers for me in the Netherlands any more, so after some debate we decided to focus on:
· White-tailed Eagle
· Ferruginous Pochard
· Parrot Crossbill
· Red-breasted Goose, and
· Eurasian Eagle Owl
With the exception of the Smew, these are rare birds, so I was delighted that we missed only one, and that was more than compensated for by an unexpected bonus!
The weather was mostly dry with temperatures varying from 28 to 52 (Fahrenheit).
Birding Holland suggested two hotels, both very nice. One is close to Schiphol airport and the second is a Bed and Breakfast in a suburb of Nijmegen, a city in the east of the Netherlands.
All logistics were taken care of by Pieter, the owner and one of the guides of Birding Holland (www.birdingholland.com). He picked us up at the gate of Amsterdam International Airport twice and he also got us back there in plenty of time for our flights.
We birded all day, from first light until nightfall, except for the first day when we only had about 6 hours between flights.
Apart from birds Pieter is also very knowledgeable about the Netherlands (I now finally know the difference between “Holland” and “the Netherlands”), its history and its mammals (we visited a hamster reserve!).
The total number of species for the trip was not particularly high, but that was by choice. We travelled fairly long distances in order to see some unique rarities, rather than going after a big list.
Monday, December 31st 2007
Northwest Airlines flight from Memphis to Amsterdam. After clearing customs Pieter met us at the gate. Because we (my wife Pauline joined me for this trip) had to catch a flight to the UK later that afternoon we had only a few hours of birding.
A Ferruginous Pochard had been reported in Naarden-vesting, an old fortification town close to the airport. This being the last day of the year, fireworks were popping everywhere, scaring us and the pochard too, apparently. Not the best conditions and no pochard to be found. So we headed to the next site to look for Smew and White-tailed Eagle.
On the way, Pieter spotted a large group of Tufted Ducks and Common Pochards in a golf course pond. We parked the car, entered the course, and started scanning. Pieter eventually picked out the bird resting with its head tucked-in. Not an easy id, but fortunately it looked up briefly to give us a good look at the white eye. One down, two to go!
The Oostvaardersplassen is a huge wetland area that can be circumnavigated by car. There are some hides and lookouts, but very few roads actually penetrate the reserve. Scanning the lake from the first hide, I spotted three distant white ducks that could only be Smew. Lifer #2 and all gorgeous males!
On to the first lookout where we spent 15 or 20 minutes scoping open prairies, marshes and leafless trees. Plenty of geese and deer, then Pieter located a very, very distant perched bird that “could be the eagle”. We watched it hoping it would fly, and within a minute it did just that, showing its white tail as it took off - an adult bird. Three out of three of the day’s target lifers in under two hours! We watched it fly across the open fields, tracking the wave of panic it spread through the huge flocks of geese.
With no possible lifers left for the day, we decided to slow down and went for lunch in a nearby town. It was a welcome respite as we’d been travelling for many hours and Pauline and I were both tired.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent birding on the other side of the reserve, trying to up my yearlist a bit (I finished the year with 1373 species). Highlights were Hooded Crow, Northern Goshawk, a group of 6 Smew and Water Pipit.
Pieter drove us back to the airport and dropped us at the terminal where we boarded our flight to the UK. We spent the next few days in Belfast where we did very little birding, but, to my amazement, Pauline and I did find a flock of about 20 Twite (my first) in the vacant lots at the Belfast docks.
Friday, January 4th 2008
Because of heavy snowfall in Belfast, our plane was delayed for over an hour. We were glad to see Pieter still at the gate to pick us up. He drove us straigth to our lodgings, about 25 minutes from the airport. We agreed to try for the Parrot Crossbill site at first light the next day, so planned a pick-up at 7 AM.
Saturday, January 5th 2008
Parrot Crossbills are difficult birds to find, almost anywhere in the world. They don’t normally occur in the Netherlands, but over the past few weeks two different groups had been reported, one group close to Alkmaar and a second group close to the city of Amersfoort.
We arrived at the site “Den Treek” at 8 AM and quickly located the exact spot.
It had been freezing the past few weeks and the crossbills had been coming down to drink from some puddles that local birders kept open for them. Unfortunately the temperature had been above freezing for the two days before we arrived and the crossbills visits were becoming irregular. As we waited more and more birders arrived until finally about 25 were watching the puddles. Someone with excellent ears identified a flyover as a Parrot Crossbill, but the view was uncountably brief.
Eventually we decided to walk through the area instead of just standing and waiting. Pieter asked some other birders to give him a call should the Parrot Crossbills show up, and we took a nice ramble, finding Mistle Thrush, a flying Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Nuthatches, Eurasian Goldfinches and some Goldcrests. On returning to the puddles we were shown a Northern Shrike in a nearby tree, but the crossbills weren’t cooperating. Since it was well past their normal 9:00 AM drinking time, we needed to think about moving on.
In the Netherlands birders can be part of a pager rare bird alert system that will notify subscribers of rare birds as soon as they are reported. Pieter has a subscription to this system and throughout the morning we’d hear his beeper sound, then he’d cross-check the number with a reference list to see what had been found. The first few alerts were of only modest interest or very far away, but then came notification of a Little Bunting! I needed that bird and it wasn’t too far away. So in spite of the fact that it seemed likely we could go to the spot and thrash through the bushes all day without finding the little skulker, we adjusted our planned route and immediately went to the Little Bunting site, about an hour away. In the car Pieter called local birders to find out more about exactly where to look. The bird had been found on a soon-to-be built-up area near Katwijk and it had a favourite perch. If it was not on this particular perch, we would have to start looking for it, walking through the mud, hoping to flush it….
We could tell we’d gotten to the site by the small groups of birders, scopes and cameras in hand, wandering about the fields. They didn’t look like they had the bird. But I had barely gotten my scope out of the car when Pieter, looking into the bushes not 10 feet away said, “this is it….THIS IS IT!” No trudging and absolutely BRILLIANT views of Little Bunting, what a prize!
We now had three hours of daylight left and once again adjusted our plans. On our way to our final site for the day, close to the bunting site a Taiga Bean Goose (a recent split from Bean Goose) had been seen, along with a few of the more common Tundra Bean Geese. We not only found these two species in the group, but also added four Pink-footed Geese.
The final site was the “Noordhollands Duinreservaat” near Castricum, an area of dunes and small patches of water, where a Greater Short-toed Lark had been present for a few days.
Parking proved to be very difficult, so we dropped Pauline at the entrance and Pieter and I started looking for a parking spot. When we met up with her again it turned out she had seen a Bittern, a bird we would not see again on this trip… This is par for the course, she’s a casual birder, but one of the best bird finders on the planet.
The lark was feeding in plain sight and didn’t appear to be bothered by the birders looking at it from a close distance. A short walk away one of the infiltration ponds held an extremely rare bird for the Netherlands: a Canvasback (only one accepted record). Fortunately for us there also were several Common Mergansers, Goldeneyes and Common Teal present as well.
The walk back to the car yielded hundreds of Fieldfares and some calling Water Rails.
Because we had a long drive to the south ahead of us the next day, Pieter had advised us to spend the night in a small Bed and Breakfast in a different town, closer to the sites.
Sunday, January 6th 2008
After a comfortable night and an extra hour of sleep we went for my number one target: Red-breasted Goose. Several of these rare and beautiful small geese had been reported recently and Pieter’s planned itinerary allowed us two chances. Should we fail to see it at the first site, we could continue to the second target bird for today, Eurasian Eagle Owl, and try a second site for the goose on the way back.
The first Red-breasted Goose had been reported near Heusden in one of the southern provinces of the Netherlands. On arrival at the site we discovered about 1000 geese and a mixed flock of Bewick’s and Whooper Swans in a nearby field. After multiple passes through the flock of geese with the scopes we had found only Greater White-fronted Geese, and a single Barnacle Goose. And the process was discouraging. If the target was at the back of the flock with its head down we could easily have missed it.
We decided to drive through the surrounding area looking for more flocks to scan. No problem, soon we had another flock of geese, a huge flock … We estimated it to have at least (!) 10,000 individuals, mostly Greater White-fronted. Looking through my field guide it had seemed that finding a Red-breasted Goose might not be too hard (I can spot a Ross’s among hundreds of Snows), but now it was beginning to seem hopeless – one small target in a flock of 10,000 backlit geese! Pieter had warned me it could be difficult.
Our first vantage point was close to the geese, but the sun was in our faces. Driving around to the other side of the flock did give us good light, but boy were they far away, and it was pretty cold too. Pauline decided to wait in the car (smart girl). We scoped on, and then, there it was! It was on a berm in the middle of the group. Pieter saw it as well, but by the time Pauline looked it was gone. As it turned out, the goose had popped up for a few seconds when by good fortune I was scanning just that spot. And when it started feeding again (head down) it disappeared. It took 15 minutes of intense searching to find it again, at the exact same spot I had first found it…
Realizing how very lucky we had been, we drove to the extreme south of the Netherlands to a spot near Maastricht where Eurasian Eagle Owls have a daytime roost in a quarry. To my delight only 90 minutes after seeing the Red-breasted Goose I found myself looking at two Eurasian Eagle Owls! Three birds of a lifetime in 24 hours!
On Pieter’s recommendation Pauline explored the city of Maastricht in the afternoon (she loved it), and Pieter and I continued birding in the southern Netherlands. We dipped the Dipper, but a group of 22 Common Cranes flying overhead made up for that.
After picking up Pauline it was back to our original lodgings in time to pack for our flight home.
Monday, January 7th 2008
Pieter picked us up at 9 AM and drove us to a Long-eared Owl roost near the city of Leiden, a 20 minute drive from the hotel. Long-eared Owls usually roost in densely covered trees, but these owls are an exception to the rule: they just sit in the open in leafless trees, allowing for superb views. A perfect bird with which to end the trip!