Watching geese in Holland

Just a 45-minute flight away from central London lies a birding secret. Tens of thousands of wild geese feed in the fields of this flat land in the winter. They are the star attraction. Thousands... tens of thousands... even hundreds of thousands of Barnacle, Brent and White-fronted Geese stretch for distances that defy belief, making for a very noisy experience. Add to these species Bean, Pink-footed, Greylag, Canada, and Pale-bellied Brent Geese and you have a veritable feast of Ansers and Brantas. In February, when I visited, I saw Barnacle, Brent, Pink-footed, Greater White-fronted, Greylag, Bean and Canada. Also apparently present but evading our keen eyes were Lesser White-fronted, Red-breasted and Ross’s.

Leading my three-day whistlestop tour was Pieter van der Luit of Birding Holland. His 20+ years of Dutch birding experience was a massive help to a visiting birder like me. It was late on our first day – and it was cold. Very cold. The nearby sea was frozen as far as the eye could see, and there was nothing to stop the biting wind from chilling us to the bone. But we waited. Very soon, those huddled masses would be heading for their roosts and we wanted to be there to see it happen. We didn’t have to wait for long.

As one, a group of 25-30,000 Barnacle geese took to the sky, swirling in a loop until every one of their number was present. Then, just as we’ve seen Starlings do in life or nature documentaries, they moved as one noisy, swirling black mass, over our heads. While the Netherlands may not boast a massive bird list, dripping with endemics, nor feature exotic, outlandish species, a world away from our own birds, what it does offer is an unforgettable experience. There was a bit of a twitch going on, just a short drive from Rotterdam airport when I arrived. A White-headed Duck had arrived the day before. So, shortly after my touchdown in a Dutch town (I thangyoo) I was joining in. The White-headed showed obligingly for the many camera-wielding birders, all of us wrapped up well against the bitter cold. This lakeside stop also saw us tick Black-necked Grebe, along with a host of familiar duck species.

From there it was a short hop to a local woodland, where Pieter said we had a good chance of seeing Tawny Owl. This was the first of many times when it was clear Pieter really did know his patch – hidden from the view of many walkers, in a spot where only someone with massive local knowledge would find it, was indeed a Tawny Owl. For the first day of our trip we were joined by ace Dutch photographer Menno van Duijn ( who not only took some brilliant photos of the birds we saw, including the Tawny Owl, but knew a thing or two himself and was happy to share his knowledge.

Next stop: Amsterdam. Most visitors to the Netherlands don’t make it any further than Amsterdam, which is a shame, but understandable, as the Dutch capital’s charms are well documented. For birders, Amsterdam is gull city – and one gull in particular stood out from the crowd when we got there. Among the raucous Black-headeds, Commons and Herrings skating on the partially frozen canals, was a calm, creamy-coloured, white-winged bird: Iceland Gull. While gull-watching is the Amsterdam birder’s main pastime, the greys and whites are brightened up by flashes of luminous green; London isn’t the only European capital swarming with Ring-necked Parakeets. From the bicycle-laden streets and frozen canals of Amsterdam we headed north to the region of Friesland. While we’re travelling, let’s clear up the whole Holland/Netherlands thing. South Holland and North Holland are just two regions in the west of the Netherlands. Amsterdam is in North Holland, which is why it’s ok to say you’ve been to Holland if you’ve been to the capital, but not if you’ve been to Arnhem, which is in Gelderland. Still with me? Good.

Friesland is a land of agriculture (Frisian cattle, see?) and its many vast, flat fields are the perfect base for grazing geese and swans. Mute, Whooper and Bewick all allow close-up views, giving a great opportunity for some ID exercises, as well as the incredible spectacle described earlier. The following morning we hit the road again, and once more Pieter’s guiding expertise came to the fore. As if the Long-eared Owl we photographed at one of Pieter’s trusted spots wasn’t enough, as we made our way back to the car, we got a tantalising glimpse of a Firecrest and the unexpected bonus of a soaring Goshawk. A town park held a thriving population of Hawfinch and Siskin, and we then drove to a woodland where we stood a fairly good chance of seeing Black Woodpecker and Crested Tit. These were two birds I had told Pieter I would really like to see, but he warned me that a sighting of either was far from guaranteed. The drive was a long one, and tense, as we also waited for news of any Waxwings passing through. Nevertheless, as with all the drives on my trip, there was plenty to look at. Buzzards were everywhere. At times it seemed like every other streetlight and tree was occupied by one.

So then, these woodpeckers... I tried not to get my hopes up, but I failed. I just can’t get enough of woodpeckers, and Black Woodpeckers just looked so good in my fieldguide. As we walked quietly through the woods, Pieter gave a couple of calls – doing a remarkably good job of imitating the birds. They called back and we upped our pace, heading in the direction of the sound. As we stood in a clearing, ears cocked to the treetops, a little movement caught my eye and there, on an overhanging branch was a cheeky little Crested Tit, twitching to and fro with its rockabilly quiff. Then came another, closer woodpecker call, then a flash of black and that glaring red crown, and we faced a dash to find out where the bird had gone before the dark set in and it retired to its nesthole for the night. We peered round a tree trunk, trying to breathe as silently as possible, as both male and female Black Woodpecker put on a great show for us, hopping up trunks, drumming, and flying back and forth. A magical bird. Our final day was another goose-fest, as we returned to the open fields to get up close to this spectacle of nature. What we didn’t bargain for was a very rare encounter with an incredibly secretive bird. In a ditch at the side of the road stood a Jack Snipe, bobbing and feeding as if starring in a documentary on Jack Snipe feeding behaviour. It was a real treat to see such a skulking bird in the open and just one of many memories that will live with me for many years to come.


Jack travelled with Birding Holland