Friday, January 02, 2015

Kicking off the New Year - Het Zwin

Belgium, it must be said, is not really a birder's paradise, and Brussels in particular is caught in limbo between the contrasting interests of the coast on the one hand, and the Ardennes on the other. So, although there are some reasonable forest and valley lake sites not far from the city, if you want a more complete day's birding, you'll be spending a few hours in the car and/or staying the night somewhere else.

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
There are four principal habitats at Het Zwin - a sandy shoreline with a largeish brackish lagoon draining through a creek at the northern end; some saltmarsh and freshwater flooded polders (the latter now being restored as habitat); some coastal woodland, mainly poplar and planted pines, but again being restored to something more diverse; and finally the scrub and grass duneland immediately behind the beach. With this mix in rather a small area there's a reasonable chance of seeing a good spread of species if your luck is in and the weather's good. I reckon I was pretty lucky yesterday.

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)
The beach is protected by a series of stone groynes, which attract roosting shorebirds - a mixed bag of Ruddy Turnstones (Arenaria interpres), Grey Plovers (Pluvialis squatarola), Rock Pipits (Anthus petrosus) and Oystercatchers, but with a scattering of three Purple Sandpipers (Calidris maritima) mixed in. This species was one of my fantasy birds on family holidays on the West Coast of Ireland as a child, though we never saw it there, so catching it always makes me think of my father who I think has never seen one himself. I myself have seen it only once before, also at Het Zwin in 2007 and 2008 so this sighting perked me up. I tried my hand at photographing one of these - with the results you can see below. I reiterate my point of yesterday's post; Digiscoping is a skill, and I'm in the process of acquiring it, in the same way that a newborn baby is in the process of acquiring the skills of speaking and walking.

It's a Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), honestly. 
After scouring a small but unexciting gull flock by the creek I struck off into the silent dunes, on a short walk enlivened by only two birds; a skulking Robin (Erithacus rubecula) and an explosive, briefly-viewed Merlin (Falco columbarius), which bombed low over the dunes like a Spitfire and scattered Turnstones and Dunlins (Calidris alpina) in every direction on the far side of the ridge. Along with Purple Sandpiper this was one of two species I saw today that I'd missed last year - which was my Big Year, in case I'd forgotten to mention it. So, altogether, not a bad start.

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.
The polders were thick with Geese - almost all Greylags (Anser anser) but with a few White-fronts (Anser albifrons) and a large flock of Barnacles (Branta leucopsis) mixed in. And there was good coverage of most of the common smaller wildfowl as well - with only Gadwall (Mareca strepera) making its absence felt. A flock of Swans overhead caused frustration. They had less wing noise than I'd expect from Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) and seemed to have predominantly black bills, but they were behind trees before I could see them properly and I couldn't relocate them. I haven't seen Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus bewickii) since I was in my early teens and would dearly love to see them again. Another bird I didn't see today was Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus), but Het Zwin is normally a reliable location for this species and I saw flocks of hundreds here in November.

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...
By the time I'd finished at the polders the world had woken up to the New Year and was walking off its collective hangover, so I packed my kit and walked back to the car for the long drive home, with only a stentorian Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) singing its heart out like a five gram Pavarotti in the scrub on the way back.

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?

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