I haven't really started exploring the Ardennes yet, though I'm looking forward to doing so, hopefully in the early Spring for the Black Grouse (Lyrurus tetrix) lek. The coast I'm more familiar with, and it's here that I came yesterday for my first day's birding of the New Year. I default to a tried and tested location; Het Zwin, at the northernmost point of the Belgian coast, on the border with Holland. In comparison with many of the larger sites further north in Holland itself, this place is no doubt small beer, but most of the rest of the Belgian coast is so developed that it's considered here to be an oasis of wildness in a long line of concrete. As a consequence it's popular, and not just with birders, so being an early bird pays dividends.
But as noted above, Het Zwin isn't exactly close to Brussels. It's a one hour and 45 minute drive when there's no traffic, and most of that is along the mind-numbingly boring E40 highway. But with the sunrise now about as late as it gets in the year (0845) it wasn't too much effort to make it there for first light, and thankfully almost everyone else seemed to be sleeping off the night before.
|Het Zwin - not that close to Brussels, but often worth the trip|
|Het Zwin - the various habitats|
I parked at the northernmost end of the nearby town of Knokke and started first with the beach. I do this every time I visit, because it's popular with dog-walkers and runners, and with the tide coming up I was worried about them frightening away all the birds before I had my chance. The sea was calm and desperately quiet. The only birds I saw on it were a small flock of Wigeon (Mareca penelope) and a few Great Black-backed Gulls (Larus marinus). But the tideline was more productive, with a few clockwork Sanderlings (Calidris alba) and flighty Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus).
|The beach - look closely enough and you'll pick out a couple of Sanderlings (Calidris alba)|
|It's a Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), honestly.|
After a late breakfast overlooking the quiet lagoon, which added only a solitary Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula) to my list, I walked through the woods towards the freshwater polders. As I sauntered along there was a small tit flock including a couple of Short-toed Treecreepers (Certhia brachydactyla) and two Goldcrests (Regulus regulus) working its way through the poplars. And then, as I emerged, a lovely female Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) - perhaps my favourite passerine - settled nicely in a treetop for me to admire its perfect glossy black cap. I had a superb year for Bullfinches last year so it's pleasant to see this one starting off in the same vein.
|A female Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) looking only slightly less dapper than the male. Not my photo, as you'd probably guessed.|
|Sunlight helps - a fine Shelduck (Tadorna tadorna) at Het Zwin on 1 January|
It's also worth checking the flocks of Barnacle Geese in the autumn. I did this - again in November - and was rewarded with a true stunner; a Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis), a few of which migrate through this part of the world with the Barnacles each autumn.
|Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) and cows (Bos taurus) - but no Red-breasted Goose (Branta ruficollis) this time...|
So the new year list begins with a start-up figure of 52 species in the bag already. Not bad, all things considered. But then, on the other hand, my first bird last year was a Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) seen over palm trees from our then flat in Nairobi. My first bird this year was a Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone) seen flying over the E40 Highway near Ghent. We thrive on difference, of course, but I suspect it's not hard to choose which species you'd rather wake up to.
|Hadada Ibis (Bostrychia hagedash) vs Carrion Crow (Corvus corone corone): which one would you prefer to wake up to?|