Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Spring in Belgium and the Netherlands

I've been travelling a lot since my last post. Some of my trips allow time for a day added here or there for birding. That's been the case for travels I've written about already on this Blog, and it was the case when I was in America at the end of April, which I'll write about shortly. But there are other trips - and I had three during the course of last month, to Nairobi, Addis Ababa and Berlin, where you basically see nothing but the inside of hotels, Ministries and cars.

These trips have had me more away from home in Brussels than in it, and in these circumstances, where time with the family is at a premium, I've had limited scope for birding while at home. But I've been constantly aware of the passage of time - of the Spring coming and being on its way to going, and with me barely being able to stir outside Brussels to take it all in.

So it was with mixed emotions that I registered my first Common Swifts (Apus apus) on Wednesday last week (6 May), dashing over the grey rooftops of Brussels with exultant screams. The first reaction, of course, was delight:

They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come --
And here they are, here they are again

...as Ted Hughes put it, rather aptly.

But the second was deflation. Swifts are almost the last Spring migrants to reach us in North-West Europe, so if they're here it must mean that the rush is over and I've missed it almost entirely for another year.

I hadn't, of course. That's impossible if you keep your eyes and ears open; the first Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) singing in Brussels in the third week of March; the first Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) in the garden in the first week of April. But I've seen the migration in Montenegro in the Spring - a great press of birds tumbling over each other in their frenzy to feed and move on - Pied Flycatchers (Ficedula hypoleuca), Wood Warblers (Phylloscopus sibilatrix), Garden Warblers (Sylvia borin), Redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus), Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava)... the cast changing day-by-day but the numbers always defying belief, like a vast, disorganised production of Aida. I knew that wasn't going to see that sort of thing here, but I knew I was missing out nonetheless.

I did have one day's birding on the Southern Dutch coast near Antwerp on 10 April which had brought me a gorgeous summer-plumaged Black-tailed Godwit (Limosa limosa), my first Swallows (Hirundo rustica) in Europe this year and a couple of singing Bluethroats (Luscinia svecica) - my Dad's favourite unseen bird and always good for a thrill, ever since I first saw one in the wastes of arctic Russia in 1993.

My son standing on the sea wall at the Verdronken Land van Saeftinge where I took him birding on 10 April 

But, good as that day had been, I did still feel that I'd missed the boat. So, on Saturday, I decided to see if I was right and headed to Breskens, again on the Dutch coast, and a famous minor migration choke-point where migrants following the Flemish coast northwards concentrate to cross an arm of the sea between Breskens and Vlissingen (Flushing).

I started later than I wanted, and almost gave up when I realised it would be 0830 when I actually got to Breskens, but I was blessed with fog, which effectively delayed the dawn by two hours. And, my goodness, was the trip worth it. One of those days that seems satisfying at the time, but when you come to write it up later takes on some of the aspects of legend. It started with warblers; Chiffchaffs, of course, and a Blackcap in the trees below the sea wall. But that was definitely a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos) singing. And what about the varied song containing imitation of a Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)? An Icterine Warbler (Hippolais icterina), out and proud at the top of a tree, showing off his great orange gape. And next to him, a different, softer, sweeter song? Garden Warbler. And on top of the ridge, fluttering up and parachuting down? Common Whitethroat (Sylvia communis). A Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) arched between two trees. A Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) called in the distance. Overhead hundreds, probably thousands of Swallows, with a few of my first House Martins (Delichon urbicum) of the year. And over the sea terns - Common Terns (Sterna hirundo), of course, but with a few Arctic Terns (Sterna paradisaea) and even two Gull-billed Terns (Gelocheldon nilotica), rowing their way up the coast. My first for the Western Palearctic, these last, as I've only previously seen them in Africa. Then Spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia) overhead and couple of Golden Plovers (Pluvialis apricaria). A Hobby (Falco subbuteo) came and dashed around the Swallows before moving on, and a Marsh Harrier (Circus aeruginosus) beat his way northward out to sea. I left at 1130, ending the day with two Mediterranean Gulls (Larus malanocephalus) calling overhead, and, when I totted things up after I got home, I realised I'd seen and/or heard 69 species. That's no small number for this part of the world.

And another pleasure - there were other birders there; a small group from Tournai in Belgium, led by a fantastically knowledgeable chap called Jacques-Andre Leclercq, who's an expert on seabird migration. My birding tends to be solitary, and a lot of the time I like that. But part of the joy of birding is marking the passage of time, which is basically what this post is about. And to make the passage of time meaningful it needs to consist not only of personal, but also of shared experience. It's a point that one of my literary and birding heroes, Simon Barnes, makes repeatedly in his books and Blog on birding. So, though we didn't exchange numbers or anything, I've tracked Jacques down and hope we can occasionally coordinate our birding trips. I'm also hoping he can answer my question about how to access the port of Zeebrugge in the winter, which is, after all, only six months away now.

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