Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Spring Part 3 - the Belgian coast and the Dutch delta

It's funny what can get you back on a horse after you've fallen off, metaphorically speaking. I haven't written a blog post since April, and it's not for a lack of material. Quite apart from the trip described below, I've had a sensational Spring break in Hungary, a weekend of birding in Uganda, and a family holiday on Mallorca, all with birds to report. And that's to say nothing of a visit to the Masai Mara in January, which I failed to write up at the time.

So, why the absence? The easy answer is busy-ness, and it's true enough. But the real answer is that, both personally and professionally, I've taken a few knocks over the past few months. When that happens you tend to want to share less of yourself, as a loss of confidence in one area leads to a loss of confidence across the board. But, inevitably, along comes a catalyst that shakes you out of your slough, and there's no predicting what it might be.

In my case it was an unexpected and delightful email from a retired former professor of biology in Canberra. I've never met him, nor, alas, do I ever expect to. I've driven through Canberra once, but there is precious little prospect of my returning there, or of David pitching up in Europe, any time soon. But he had read my blog, specifically the one on Sudan, and found it interesting enough to write to me about it. He himself had worked at the university in Khartoum back in the 1960s and in searching for up-to-date information on the natural history of the city and its surroundings, had stumbled upon my ramblings.

The specifics of his message matter less now than the shattering revelation that anyone actually reads this stuff. That is a less idiotic statement than it sounds. Of course I write a public blog. But I do so semi-anonymously, irregularly and on a relatively esoteric subject. And I've no idea whether or how to advertise what I do write. Under these circumstances having any audience at all is not to be taken for granted. The internet is, after all, a vast, virtual graveyard of unread material written by people who hoped it would project their voice to the world. So, as I wrote to David, receiving his message inspired me to get back into the saddle and start writing again about my random and marginal meanderings between diplomacy and ornithology. It's for myself, above all, but if it's interesting and pleasurable for others, which, apparently, it is - then so much the better for me.

The logical place to start is where I left off, which was preparing eagerly for that rare event in my life, a birding trip in the company of other birders. I had met Jean in Montenegro and taken contact details which allowed for us to arrange for day's birding at an old favourite of mine, Het Zwin, on the northernmost extremity of the Belgian coast.

A Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) near Nummer Een in the Netherlands in April
I was eager in anticipation, and early in arrival at our rendezvous, but the initial signs were not particularly propitious. It was mid-April but a freezing wind was blowing straight in off the sea, and sensible birds - and people - were hunkered down. Spring being what it is, song was in the air - Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos), Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita) and Willow Warblers (Phylloscopus trochilus) - but these songs were being delivered for the most part from deep cover, and I can't say I blame the songsters. It was chilly.

Jean arrived with two friends, Wulf and Peter, and comradeship is warming in itself. After my usual solitary experiences this was the birding equivalent of a night in the pub with the lads, and in these circumstances even a lacklustre day took on a certain quality. And lacklustre, honestly, it was for the most part. I was shocked at my seeming decrepitude when I was physically unable to hear a Grasshopper Warbler (Locustella naevia) until we were almost on top of it (though we still didn't see it). But apart from that the morning was notable only for a trickle of predictable year ticks, with the most notable being Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta) and Woodlark (Lullula arborea).

Things picked up a bit at lunchtime when we headed inland a little to a few ponds next to a vast second-world bunker complex in search of Belgium's only breeding Black-crowned Night Herons (Nycticorax nycticorax). We found them too, which given the wind and the cold was perhaps not to be expected. And in addition we stumbled upon a small fall of migrating wagtails - mostly nominate Yellow Wagtails (Motacilla flava), but with a few of the predominantly-British flavissima race. The original Yellow Wagtails, these were, for me - the ones I grew up with around Stodmarsh and Sandwich Bay in Kent.

The lads looking at Night Herons near Het Zwin. Note the cold weather gear, even though it's mid April.

Jean and his friends had to head back at lunchtime, after a short and windy visit to the front at Zeebrugge, but with their advice in mind I myself headed up to the beginnings of the Dutch "Delta" between Breskens, which I'd visited before, and the oddly-named "Nummer Een" (literally, "Number One", in Dutch - I've no idea where the name comes from). Here the edge was off the wind and a perfectly-placed hide on top of one of the dykes afforded great views of massed waders and roosting terns and gulls, including surprisingly large numbers of the increasingly inaccurately-named Mediterranean Gull (Larus melanocephalus), looking spick-and-span in their breeding plumage.

The well-appointed and thankfully shower-proof hide at Nummer Een

This whole area along the coast can be fantastic at this time of year - any time between mid-April and the end of May, basically - and if I'd had the time, the sense and the inclination I would have been back over the subsequent couple of weekends to fill in what I missed this time; Bluethroat (Luscinia svecica), for instance, which breeds in good numbers around here. But I didn't, so I missed them, and writing this towards the end of September I can say with some confidence that this is one of a few species that I will certainly now not see this year, as they don't winter in significant numbers in any of the places in Africa that I visit regularly.

I do hope, though, to experience the place in the autumn, for what it has to offer then. And to do so again this coming winter. I made no sorties to the coast at all in the first couple of months of this year, so I missed the mass of grey geese and any chance of Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus) and Bewick's Swans (Cygnus columbianus bewickii). That's for the coming period.

Looking across the delta at Nummer Een

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