Godalming area birds

Godalming area birds


Friday, 18 November 2016

Northern France & the Netherlands - day 2

This is the second of 3 blog posts covering my trip to northern France and the Netherlands from 16th-19th November 2016. A full trip report can be found here, on Cloud Birders.

Day 2 - Netherlands: Zuid-Holland, Noord-Brabant & Utrecht provinces
Zuid-Holland in a bird - Barnacle Geese, in the 10's
of 1000's, these ones at Oudeland van Strijen

After a largely non-birding day on the Thursday, Friday 18th was when I'd scheduled to see most of my targets, including the main one, Lesser White-fronted Goose. Thus, we started not long after dawn at the site for this rare species, the captivating Oudeland van Strijen polder fields, a little more than 12 miles SW of Dordrecht, in Zuid Holland. Polders are areas of low-lying land, reclaimed from the sea or a river, and protected by artificial channels. They're characteristic of the Netherlands. Indeed, when we arrived, the typical Dutch winter birding scene was spread out in front of me, as far as the eye could see. Tens upon tens of thousands of wintering Geese, predominately Barnacle, fed in the patchwork of fields, their yelping calls filling the air. 

The other most populous Goose here was White-fronted, of which there were at least a few thousand. 3 other Geese speciess and many dabbling ducks were also viewable almost everywhere, with big numbers of Mute Swans, Grey Herons, Curlews, Lapwings and at least 10 Great White Egrets. Approaching from the village of Strijen, to the east of the polders, I didn't really know how to begin my needle-in-a-haystack search for the Lesser White-fronts. I decided to methodically work my way around the entire area, before cutting through a north-south track, Vlaamseweg, in the middle, checking each flock of Geese. The magic of the area was pushing me on, and the first hour flew by. The problem with the polders is the unevenness - the many dykes and ditches mean distant Geese can disappear easily, making targets even harder to pick out. 

The drake Bufflehead at Barendrecht
By about 10 o'clock it became clear this was not going to be an easy job. It was very hard to pull myself away, but I decided that it would make sense to move on, and try again later. With Geese still flying in from roost, I figured another thorough search in the afternoon was the best idea, and we headed north to Barendrecht, where the next target of the day was located. Remarkably, the drake Bufflehead on Gaatkens Plas, at Koedood, was back for his 13th winter, and had been reported fairly consistently in recent days. This smart duck has been accepted as wild by the Dutch authorities, and only a few minutes after pulling up we were looking at the Bufflehead, as it dived and displayed with a small flock of Tufted Ducks along the southern shore. This was the easiest bird of the trip, and after enjoying some fantastic views we had a bite to eat in the car, before heading back past Dordrecht, to the Zuid-Holland/Noord Brabant border, with the next target ready to be looked for.

Great White Egrets were common
- over 40 were seen on the 18th
The Nationaal Park De Biesbosch is a habitat like nothing I have seen before. Situated on the eastern side of the Hollands Diep river, it's one of the last extensive areas of freshwater tidal wetlands in Northwestern Europe. For miles and miles, flooded fields, small networks of rivers, partially sunken forests, wet grassland and reeds could be seen, with a simply huge amount of birds present. As with seemingly everywhere in the Netherlands, access is easy, and you could drive through this marvelous area, a simple car ride turning into a avian safari. The cast was similar to Strijen, though with many more ducks and a staggering amount of Mute Swans, with at least 150 present. However, my main target here was a category C bird, Black Swan, with a family party reported a couple of times in the past week. However, despite cruising through the entire area we had no joy, but this disappointment was completely wiped away by the stunning scenery and cast of birds. 2 ringtail Hen Harriers were a nice treat, with good views roadside, and nearby the only Water Pipits of the trip were feeding in the grass. It would have been nice to spend the day here, but I had other targets, and after 2 'dips' the pressure was on, as we made our way east to Culemborg.

One of the Ringtail Hen Harriers at De Biesbosch
Another category C bird was the target, this time Bar-headed Goose. In Josh Jones' 2015 report he mentioned a flock of 73 birds along the River Lek here, with the species said to be populous along this stretch of water. After a 50 minute drive we pulled up on a road that overlooked the river, but to my disappointment I could see no Bar-heads, just Barnacles and White-fronts. Naively, I was confident I would see this species here, and hadn't researched a back up site, much like I had with the Black Swans. I began to worry that I would perhaps miss out on 2 species, far from ideal, and it became clear the need to check Waarneming.nl for the most recent sightings would be crucial for landing the birds I needed, bar a stroke of luck. After a quick check further up the river valley we decided to head back to Oudeland van Strijen, where it was time to really hammer the Geese. As we were driving back, news came through of one of the wintering Red-breasted Geese there, and I was determined to pick that individual out too.

Oudeland van Strijen - flat, vast, and uneven habitat
makes hard birding
A couple of roadside White Storks were a nice surprise on the ride back, and we got to Oudeland van Strijen at about 14:15. I had only a couple of hours, maximum, to find the Lesser White-fronts, and I decided to try and find the Red-breasted Goose first of all. The bird had been reported to the west of the Vlaamseweg track, in a big, bumpy polder called Dwarsche Vaart. After a couple of pull ins and scans along the Vlaamseweg, at the third one I decided to get the scope out, and work my way through what must have been at least 300 each of Barnacle and White-fronted Geese. I could see nothing of note, but when I looked even further, beyond the flocks, the clear colours of a Red-breasted Goose filled by telescope view! The bird was far off, and feeding behind a metal gate with Barnacles, and I had just a couple of minutes with it before showing my girlfriend. The deceptive nature of the polder then came through, as the Goose vanished, seemingly into a dyke. It wasn't seen again, but I was now strongly motivated to find the main trip target.

We moved further up the track, and I scanned a big flock of White-fronts. As I moved the scope to the right, 5 Geese shot to my attention. Having tried to turn a few White-fronts into Lessers earlier in the day, these birds had me pretty sure from the off, with the extensive white blaze over the crown, the short stubby bill, slightly darker colour and size very clear. Any effects the biting wind had soon evaporated as the adrenaline kicked in. I wanted to nail the eye-ring, to be sure, and after finally managing to hold the scope steady I could see it clearly, certainly on the 3 right-hand birds. Finally, Lesser White-fronted Geese! Amazed, relieved, and delighted, I beckoned my girlfriend over, and she attempted a few phone-scope shots of the right hand birds. The 2 others had seemingly vanished, and after watching the 3 for a few minutes, suddenly, they took flight. They landed not far to the west, but after about 10 minutes of trying to relocate them, I gave in, still over the moon to have got a bird I had desired for a very long time. This was proper birding - picking a species out among thousands if similar ones, in a vast and testing habitat. 

A pointless picture, but of a birding
moment that will live long in the memory -
3 of the 5 Lesser White-fronted Geese
Remarkably, 22 we reported later in the day. This remains the highest figure reported all winter, and by some distance, so it certainly seems a little odd. These extremely rare birds are from the Swedish reintroduction programme, but with Dutch wintering numbers surpassing the amount of birds in Sweden, clearly others are coming from somewhere. I was chuffed to have seen them, and with little sunlight left we decided to head to the far south of the polders, where a Bar-headed Goose had been reported earlier in the week. We had no joy, but the thrill of getting the main target certainly outweighed any disappointment of missing the category C birds. When we got in, fortune seemed to shine down on me, as I learnt of a flock of 13 Bar-headed Geese on the way to Amsterdam, where we were headed tomorrow. I would have a final chance with these birds. Another target was waiting for me in the Dutch capital, but it seemed Black Swan was going to be very hard to get.