I've been an active birder for over 20 years, but I've never been to Europe before. All of my birding has been limited to the "lower 48" plus a single visit into southern Canada to see Boreal and Northern Hawk-Owls when I lived back on the east coast.
A business trip to Utrecht, the Netherlands, seemed like a great opportunity to see some birds I'd only been exposed to on PBS nature programs. My query to Birdchat for advice generated a few responses, which resulted in the purchase of Lars Jonsson's Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East (the most often recommended field guide), and a contact with a birding tour operator based in Utrecht.
My time for preparation was limited, so I only scanned Jonsson's book a couple of times, and made a list of those birds where the U.S. and European common names differed for the same species. Since this was a business trip, I limited my gear to just the field guide and my binoculars, leaving my spotting scope, tripod, and camera gear at home.
The friendly and multi-lingual people of the Netherlands made my visit to their country very easy. I had absolutely no problem with the airport, the trains, the hotel, the shops, or any other place for the five days I was there. Even the exchange rate of approximately 2 guilders to each dollar made it easy to deal with prices.
Other than the abundance of bicycles and the practical cars, I felt I could have been in any number of similar landscapes in the U.S., and the mix of flat farmlands and wetlands reminded me a lot of southern New Jersey -- a favorite birding locale that I miss here in the desert southwest.
On the negative side of the ledger, I found that Europeans are a lot less enlightened about smoking than people in the U.S. People smoked in the hotel lobby, hallways, and even elevators, the shopping mall, and every restaurant.
My guide was Rogier Karskens, a law student living in Utrecht. Rogier, Hein Prinsen, and one or two others have formed BINS: Birdwatching in the Netherlands. Rogier told me that they saw a lack of coverage for their country and formed BINS to address the deficiency. They have placed ads in various American birding publications; I see their ad in the current issue of Winging It.
In my e-mail exchanges with Hein (BINS_tours@yahoo.com), I informed him of my desire to spend a full day seeing the birds of the Netherlands, and left the decisions of what areas would be best for my limited time to him. I also left the matter of renting a car to Rogier, since it made no sense for me to rent a car and park it at the hotel for the duration of my stay. Besides, Rogier would know where he was going and would make a better driver. Rogier drove us to a pleasant woodlot near Utrecht, then to an extensive wetlands near Amsterdam. Rogier brought along a Kowa TSN1 scope and tripod.
Rogier was a fine guide and certainly made a big difference in what I saw and was able to identify. He knew his birds, and his knowledge of their calls helped make up for my own lack of that knowledge. I recommend Rogier (and BINS) to anyone looking for similar assistance, and I recommend a visit to the Netherlands to any U.S. birder wishing to see some European birds.
With Rogier's assistance, I saw the following 75 species. I've added modifiers to the names used in Jonsson's book for the benefit of American birders. However, my nine hour time shift has left me too exhausted to add Latin names at this time.
Lars Jonsson has produced a wonderful field guide. The artwork is first-rate, and I enjoy the variation in backgrounds from the plain white used in Peterson and the National Geographic guides I normally use. I know I will use this guide even in the U.S. for birds that occur on both sides of the Atlantic and whenever another nature program plays on PBS. The text is useful, and the translation into English is good. I had a bit of trouble with the range maps that accompany the text opposite the illustrations, partly because I'm not all that familiar with the Europe, but also because there are no political boundaries shown. Better preparation on my part would have helped out in this regard, and I urge anyone else visiting Europe for the first time to study the field guide and a good map as much as possible in advance.
For many of the birds illustrated that I know from the U.S., I prefer Jonsson's illustrations over those in U.S. field guides. But not every one. North American birds that occur in Europe only as vagrants don't look right to me: the Belted Kingfisher seems almost green in Jonsson's painting; the Yellow-billed and Black-billed Cuckoos appear too plump; the American Redstart looks too short; the Rose-breasted Grosbeak seems ill-proportioned. I assume these shortcomings to be the result of less experience with these vagrant birds, and they are certainly only minor complaints for use in the intended areas of coverage.
I was surprised at how easy it was to make the transition to birding in an entirely new country. I expected a lot more difficulty than I experienced. There is more difference between birding in Arizona and New Jersey than there is between the Netherlands and New Jersey in terms of the habitat, the weather and the basic birding experience.
Europe and the U.S. share many species in common, and a thrush is still a thrush in either place. Given good basic birding skills in one country, it isn't a big problem to bird in the other. I had the most trouble with the unfamiliar families such as the European warblers.
I found it great fun to see familiar birds in a new country, to see close relatives of birds I know from the U.S. and to see entirely new birds in their home territory. I also enjoyed talking about birds and birding on both sides of the Atlantic with Rogier Karskens. I recommend the experience to everyone who gets the opportunity.
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