Saturday, February 28, 2015

Getting my geese - Uitkerkse Polders, Blankenberge and Zeebrugge

16 January 2015

I'm beginning to realise that the activity of trying to photograph birds is quite different from merely trying to see and identify them. It's much more time-consuming, you move much more slowly, and you have to be much more sensitive to the birds' behaviour. None of these are bad things. On the contrary. But if, like me, you have hitherto been a member of the "observe-identify-record-move on" school of birding, then shifting to photography involves an abrupt change of pace. During the course of today I kept on finding myself wondering what was going on around the corner while I laboriously adjusted the light settings on my camera for yet another shot of a Wigeon (Mareca penelope)

Eurasian Wigeon (Mareca Penelope) at Uitkerkse Polders

But it is motivating, as learning any new skill can be, and it makes you think a lot more about what you're doing. It also, in my case, has made me seek out new birding spots to test my newly-acquired equipment and woeful lack of capability. And it has even, for only the second time ever, brought my elder son onto the margins of the birding world on the basis that he's passionate about, and interested in, photography rather than birds. Both these things were played out when he and I took a trip to the Uitkerkse Polders near Blankenberge on the Belgian coast.

Jovan looking dapper while teaching me how to use all that technical stuff

The Polders are not easy to find, and the road signs (at least if I understood the Dutch correctly) seem to indicate that you can't drive into reserve. You can. And it's worth it. The most impressive thing about this place is the sheer number of birds. Huge flocks of geese and ducks, and a reasonable number and variety of other species as well. It's worth taking the time to imagine that the entire coastline of Europe - from the northern tip of Jutland to Calais - must have been like this not too long ago. The numbers of birds must have been staggering. The very first goose I saw, oddly alone on a flooded meadow, was the species I'd missed a couple of weeks earlier at Het Zwin - a Pink-footed Goose (Anser brachyrhynchus). Strangely this species did not seem especially numerous elsewhere among the vast flocks of White-fronted and Greylag Geese (Anser albifrons and Anser anser), which had a good smattering of Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) thrown in. But I did get another species of wildfowl I'd missed on 1 January - Gadwall (Mareca strepera). I don't know about Belgium, but when I was growing up in the UK, this was not a particularly common species and in recent years it seems to have exploded in numbers.

One of thousands of White-fronted Geese (Anser albifrons) at Uitkerkse Polders

The bird of the day, though, across a field full of geese, was a glowering great Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) on a fencepost. I managed only to get a blurry record shot of this bird before it flew, but what a stunner.

Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) at Uitkerkse Polders. Note its size in comparison to the Geese in the foreground

Moving away from the polders themselves, which will be well worth exploring for warblers and other juicy things in the Spring, we moved briefly onto the beach at Blankenberge, a clean and well-maintained stretch of coast with consequently little wildlife. The groynes supported the usual cluster of Turnstone (Arenaria interpres), Dunlin (Calidris alpina) and Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus), with Sanderlings (Calidris alba) on the beach, and there were the usual Gulls too, but nothing of great note except for a smattering of Purple Sandpiper (Calidris maritima), which I'm beginning to realise are a good deal more common on this side of the Channel than they are on the other.

Just because it's a nice photo - amazingly taken by me. An Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) at Blankenberge
Moving onwards in exploratory mode we made a quick loop around the small nature reserve on the northern side of the port of Zeebrugge, adding a Bar-tailed Godwit (Limosa lapponica) by the sea and a surprising group of three Avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta) in flight over the port. I'm told that there's a nature reserve inside the port with good numbers of breeding terns in the summer, but I could see no indication of if and how you can access it. Presumably the port is also good for "white" gulls in the winter, so any advice on how you can get into it would be very gratefully received.

Another nice photo, by Jovan of course. A Eurasian Robin (Erithacus rubecula) at Blankenberge

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