Part 1: A May Birding Weekend in Norfolk, England,
May 15-16, 1999
I left my home town of Tromsø, N.Norway in mid May, just after the last snow had disappeared from open areas in the lowlands. All fields were brownish with old grass and herbs, and the only signs of new growth were the Coltsfeet in the road verges and the "pussycats" on some of the willows. Otherwise all the trees were still bare, and many of the common song birds had not yet arrived.
What a difference then to come to Holland and England, and suddenly arrive in the middle (late middle, even) of spring, with everything in full flower in the fields and many meadows already mowed for the first time. The low marshy meadows and ditches were alive with young Moorhens and Coots, and the diffuse but penetrating sound of newly fledged starlings was everywhere. The difference between 55° and 70°N is never so clear as in mid and late May.
I had an invitation to come and bird a weekend in Norfolk, an area I had heard and read so much about, but never seen, while Riet and I planned to spend Whitsunday in a borrowed cabin in the green heart of Friesland, the singularly beautiful and special province in the NE of the Netherlands, where one almost feels abroad, because the Frisian language --widely spoken here-- is unintelligible even for me, who knows Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages, as well as English.
In these first impressions I'll talk about the north Norfolk coast, in the second part about Friesland, while the third part will contain the lists of birds seen, with a comparison between the two areas.
Suzanne and Claude, my hosts in England, fetched me from the airport at Stansted and drove under threatening skies north through East Anglia to Norfolk, where we occupied a cozy small cottage in Thornham, close to our main birding destinations, Titchwell and Cley marshes.
First impressions were of course "green green green", "leaves on the trees" etc., but soon after I noticed more particulars, such as the large numbers of black birds: starlings, blackbirds, rooks, crows and jackdaws, the predominance of Black-headed Gulls in the freshly mowed fields, and the amazingly high density of pheasants everywhere. Swallows and swifts were numerous, and kestrels common here as in my native Holland, but I never saw a single Buzzard, a species that has become widespread and common everywhere in the Netherlands again during the last decades.
The mowed fields looked generally better than in Friesland, with none of that sickly "chemical greenish-yellow", but there were nevertheless fewer meadow birds: the Black-tailed Godwits are largely absent, and the oystercatchers much more exclusively coastal than in the Netherlands, where it is a common meadow bird all over the country.
Our first aim were the marshes at Titchwell, and here some other characteristics soon become evident. One was the excellent organization and facilities at this and other nature areas, with large roomy hides, clear sign-posting, paths often with facilities for wheelchairs, and large nature centers. Another the enormous popularity of serious birding: everywhere one looked, there were birders toting heavy scopes, from MC-youths to little old ladies. And judging from the comments I overheard, the general level of knowledge was also high, although I also surprised a family who eagerly scoped the reed beds, leafing through the pages of woodpecker pictures!
This first day at Titchwell the scene was suitably troll-like, as fog formed over the lagoons in the brisk wind and chilly weather, making the flotillas of mute swans appear and disappear as if by magic, and giving an extra dimension to the spotting of faraway smaller birds. A hunting Barn Owl, surprisingly white at a distance, fitted well into the atmosphere -- even though it is such a common sight here that it had deserved its own sign: "Look here for the Barn Owl!" The same field also gave me the chance to renew my acquaintance with the Red-legged Partridge, a bird I had not seen in ca 40 years!
The first impression at the many shallow and maybe somewhat brackish lagoons was of "pied days", a feast of black-and-white birds. Black-headed Gulls were of course much to the fore as usual, also acoustically (never mind that their hoods are in reality not black, but chocolate brown). Also terns were common, mostly Common Terns, but also a few Sandwich and Little Terns, no doubt because this is a coastal site.
Pairs of the large and beautiful Shelducks were sprinkled over the area, and everywhere sounded a most welcome call from my youth in Zeeland: the mellow "kluit kluit" of the Avocets (what we of course call Kluut in Holland, where many of the birds are allowed to choose their own name). There is almost no bird in the world more graceful than an Avocet, and no Avocet more simply wonderful than this one, where nature has renounced on red heads and other "unnecessary" decorations and created a stunning symphony in black and white only. The avocets here were highly stressed, as the first young were just out, and so could be watched to our full advantage.
Suddenly I heard a different yapping among all the avocets, and discovered still another and quite unexpected black and white bird, a Black-winged Stilt on its ridiculously long thin legs. This excited me greatly, so I was disappointed when Suzanne and Claude reacted only with a: "Oh, so you found it?" Turns out that this particular Stilt has hung out at Titchwell already for three years, and is invariably to be found during a visit to this area! In fact the next day I found the bird on the open sandy beach, where it looked still more out of place than in the lagoons. (Nor was that the end of stilt adventures these holidays. On 28 may Riet and I visited her mother in Zeeland, and on the way back, we stopped at the Krabbekreek, one of the many new nature reserves resulting from the Delta-works in this area. To my utter surprise, we kept finding stilt after stilt there, until we had counted a minimum of 12 birds, clearly organized in a loose colony and probably breeding---they chased the ubiquitous crows very fiercely. Stilts are irregular nesters in the Netherlands, and clearly this is one of those years!)
A final member of this suite of black-and-white birds, and one I do not see all that often in Tromsø (although they are common in Finland) is the Little Gull, that diminutive gull that manages to look tern-like on broad rounded wings, and forages much like a marsh tern while tirelessly quartering the lagoons. All the birds we saw were, somewhat surprisingly, in winter plumage, so the white predominated heavily over the black. Larger gulls were also present, but in small numbers only.
Not all the birds in the lagoons were black and white. There was a considerable number of geese, mostly Greylag (with small young) and Canada Geese, but with the inevitable Egyptian Geese present also here, although far from as common as in the Netherlands as yet. In the sea dunes a late flock of Brants still lingered, before undertaking the long flight to their arctic summer-haunts.
There were many Coots and Moorhens, often with young, adorable young moorhens and somewhat peculiar-looking red-headed young Coots. Maybe fewer ducks than I had expected, but still quite a number of various species, among them a beautiful drake Garganey in front of one of the hides.
Grey herons stalked along the shores, but we listened in vain for the Bittern's booming, that would have fitted in so wonderfully in the foggy troll-atmosphere.
Not all that many shorebirds, in fact. Redshanks and Lapwings were common enough, a few Common Sandpipers and Black-tailed Godwits were present, and the second day we found two Ruffs, but either there were few other sandpipers and stints or we overlooked them altogether, except a few splendid black-bellied and silver-backed, but as always dejected-looking Grey Plovers.
The second day we came to the beach at ebb tide and then found quite a lot of small shorebirds on the clay and peat banks along low water; mostly they were Sanderlings, some already in their full summer finery, but also numbers of Turnstones and Ringed Plovers.
In the reed-beds there was a good opportunity to study the songs of Reed and Sedge Warblers (once more properly sign-posted): the conversational "erre erre orre" of the monochrome Reed Warbler (called the karekiet in Dutch) against the enthousiastic, high-speed but often somewhat scratchy performance of the striped, eye-browed Sedge Warbler. These latter are often so carried away that they break out in a short dancing song flight -- no Reed Warbler would dream of such extravaganza! The other common songster in the reed beds is the beautiful black-headed Reed Bunting, a much less shy bird, whose stuttering little song strophe is everywhere.
In the brook forest there are many more warblers: European warblers may be on the average much drabber than your American Parulids, but they can warble! Some of them, like here the Blackcap and the Willow Warbler, are among the most melodious voices in the bird chorus, while the cozy Common Whitethroats make up by sheer enthousiasm (another song-flighter) what their somewhat abrupt short strophes may lack in finesse. Still better songsters are of course the thrushes and chats, here represented by the sonorous European Blackbird, the always exciting "shouting" Song Thrush, and the European Robin, "a genius with a somewhat too narrow throat", so that its wonderful silvery cadences often sound a bit "squeezed out with some trouble".
On day two we went to the famous marshes of Cley next the Sea, and saw there of course basically much the same scenery and birds, once more most impressively packaged by the nature authorities. On arrival a Common Crane circled the area, impossible to miss as a battery of scopes was following its every move. The reed beds here yielded also the "Chinese ink drawing" elegant Bearded Reedlings, although they did not allow close observation this time around. Wheatears near the sea wall, and the once more very black and white British form of the White Wagtail, the Pied Wagtail, fitted quite well into the general impression of "pied days". And as at Titchwell, Marsh Harriers ceaselessly quartered the area and were almost never out of sight.
A lunch in the dune forest of the commons gave us the chance to hear the famous Nightingale sing. By that time we had noted down some ninety-something birds, and this awakened even in my not very twitchy heart the desire to round this off to 100 before we had to return to Cambridge. A pair of displaying Great Crested Grebes on the way back fulfilled even this desire and rounded off a wonderful weekend. Tusen takk, Suzanne and Claude, for much hospitality and expert guidance!!
(The bird list will appear in part 3)
Part 2: Whitsunday Weekend in the Green Heart of Friesland,
The Netherlands, May 22-26, 1999
From 22-26 May Riet and I once more had the chance to borrow the cabin of my niece in the centre of Friesland; we had been there once before, during a stormy and "white" Easter two years ago. This cabin lies at the Hooidammen, near the village of Eernewoude W. of Drachten, in a quintessentially Frisian landscape of low-lying green meadows and a network of waterways, ranging from ditches through broader canals to lakes and complexes of shallow ponds where peat has been extracted in earlier times. It is an eldorado for water-sport, and especially in the weekend a neverending stream of sailing and other pleasure boats passed in front of our little cabin, many mooring at the restaurant that was our nearest neighbour.
This waterland is not all that suitable for cars; a Sunday bicycle trip of ca 10 km to a nearby little town would take more than 40 km for a car!! We had brought bicycles and largely used those during our stay. This area has many small bicycle ferries, enabling us to exploit also the areas without access with cars. (The most central areas are only accessible by boat, however.)
So, evenings in the cabin were very peaceful, with the only sounds those of nature (Including all night every night the incessant "unoiled barndoor" begging of a trio of recently fledged young Long-eared Owls in the grounds). The absence of man-made sounds is such a rare commodity in overpopulated Nederland, that few people from elsewhere will be able to understand the balm of this peace and quiet. The cabin lies in a riparian alder-thicket directly on the banks of the Ee. At night the dominant sounds besides the owls are the clearly very much night-active oystercatchers. In the mornings there is a veritable concert of songbirds: European Blackbirds, Song Thrush, Robin, Blackcap, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Great Tit, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Wood Pigeon, and interestingly even a Lesser Whitethroat. Cuckoos are ubiquitous, and every now and then the Black-tailed Godwits of the meadows on the opposite banks make a loud round over the cabin. On the water Coots, Mallards, Cormorants and Great Crested Grebes abound, with Grey Herons stalking the shore, and Swallows, Common Terns and Black-headed Gulls flying past.
The meadows glowed in wonderful colours: reddish from Sorrel, yellow from buttercups, light pink from Lady's Smocks and reddish pink of Lychnis floscuculi; these colours appear to come out still better under the dramatic cloudscapes and low horizons of the Dutch landscape.
After mowing, the picture is often much less appealing, as then the great problem of over-eutrophication shows up clearly in the artificial looking sickly yellowish-green colour of many fields. That does not prevent masses of meadow birds to forage and nest here, though. The glory of the area are the many many Godwits (Grutto's), that sit haughtily elegant in the fields or on fences, springing into the air every so often to chase crows, gulls or also us, or to fly displaying in duos or trios. Their "weeto weeto" to my ears is the sound of the green heart of Nederland.
Of course this implies the presence of the other birds, the ubiquitous Lapwings and the loud Oystercatchers that here are not confined to the coast at all and are as much an integral part of the meadows as the nervous Redshanks and the stately Mute Swans. Skylarks also belong here, and fortunately they (and Meadow Pipits) are still quite common, although not as abundant as in the coastal marshes of Norfolk. Further meadow birds are Mallards, Coots, Moorhens, Crows and Jackdaws, and of course the Starlings. The vague din of the large flocks of recently fledged Starlings, and the angry complaints of the parents underly all the other sounds; there are too many starlings also here, but somehow I admire these tough opportunists, and I certainly would not wish all to disappear. The country would not be the same without them! Swallows, swifts and House Martins, here and there also Bank Swallows, abound.
One bird that had almost disappeared, but that is making a miraculous comeback in this area is the White Stork. Numbers are inflated here, it is true, by the proximity to a "stork village" in Eernewoude, where storks are "grown". At any rate it is great to regularly see these beautiful birds wheeling overhead or thoughtfully stalking through the meadows. It is a sight that I feared lost forever in this country!
The reed beds are full of Reed and Sedge Warblers, and Reed Buntings, just as in Norfolk. Much wind made for not quite optimal conditions to listen for the scarcer denizens of the reed marshes, and we missed many of them, i.a. strangely enough the Grasshopper Warbler. But several times we came across that other "secret traveling alarm clock" of the reeds, Savi's Warbler, and a few times even saw these not all that spectacular birds sing from the top of bushes, before diving back into the reeds. ("Just a little brown bird", judged Riet).
She never says that about another songster of the wetlands, i.e. the Bluethroat, as that bird is as spectacular to look at (and singing birds are often very cooperative in that regard) as to listen to. It is great that the numbers seem to be ever increasing in the Netherlands. We never heard the Bittern boom here either, but I had the luck to watch one spooked by a gang of young crows, and winging to safety in the reeds. And we were also treated to a full-scale squealing concerto of a Water Rail at our feet, although we never saw the bird itself.
The wetlands contain many ducks (a lot of Gadwalls and Shovelers in addition to the many Mallards and Tufted Ducks, with some Pochards in the larger waters), and terns. I grew up near the sea, and still find Black Terns a sort of contradictio in terminis, but here these elegant snatchers were as regular as the Common Terns, and we saw them several times foraging over haylands, snatching insects from the tips of the grasses.
The humid thickets were full of songbirds, mostly the same as in Norfolk, although in my opinion with the Chiffchaffs much more numerous than there; but also with Marsh Warblers and Icterine Warblers, two species that put a lot of mimicry in their songs, which make them still more fun to listen to. Nightingales also here, by the way.
Friesland has always been far ahead in bird protection, and It Fryske Gea has during the last years erected many bird hides and other facilities. Close to our cabin a polder has been "redestabilized" and turned into a diverse wetland, with a roomy birdhide with close views (in the afternoon, in fantastic light) of a colony of Black-headed Gulls and Common Terns, and always the chance of something new.
Many geese here, the expected Greylags and Egyptians with young, and as always here, a flock of White-fronted Geese, of uncertain origin, and some Barnacle Geese. Later that week we saw many more Barnacle Geese, also with small young, in Zeeland; clearly another feral population starting up. (There, we also watched two Bar-headed Geese with the Greylags.) This time I missed the Eared Grebes and Little Gulls that I watched from this hide at an earlier occasion, but we saw a beautiful close drake Garganey, a Ruff (getting rarer also in the Netherlands) and as almost always, a few Temminck's Stints among all the wagtails. Harriers were common, as well as Buzzards, and just as last year one of the buzzards repeatedly hunted by hovering, just like a Rough-leg.
In Eernewoude there is also a wonderful nature reserve under construction, with several hides and screens, and long paths, not only through reedland and marshes, but also through humid thickets ringing with bird song. Parts of the area are still a bit "raw", but in some years this will no doubt become a fantastic birding area.
These quiet days in Friesland were in so many ways balm for the soul, for
Riet primarily maybe because of the peace and quiet, for me also because of
the fullness of spring, which at 70°N is extra eagerly awaited. (As I
write this on June 3, temperature here in Tromsø is again 3°C,
fortunately +3!). Tusen takk, Anja and Tjitze, for the loan of the
cabin 't Sprink!!
Part 3: Birdlists Norfolk and Friesland and a
Norfolk Friesland Little Grebe Tachybaptes ruficollis + + Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus + + Cormorant Phalacrocorax c. sinensis + + Bittern Botaurus stellaris - + Grey Heron Ardea cinerea + + White Stork Ciconia ciconia - + Mute Swan Cygnus olor + + White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons - + Greylag Goose A. anser + + Bar-headed Goose A. indicus - (+) Canada Goose Branta canadensis + + Barnacle Goose B. leucopsis - + Brent B. bernicla + - Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiacus + + Shelduck Tadorna tadorna + + Wigeon Anas penelope + + Gadwall A. strepera + + Teal A. crecca + - Mallard A. platyrhynchos + + Garganey A. querquedula + + Shoveler A. clypeata + + Pochard Aythya ferina + + Tufted Duck A. fuligula + + Marsh Harrier Circus aeruginosus + + Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus + (+) Buzzard Buteo buteo - + Kestrel Falco tinnunculus + + Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa + - Grey Partridge Perdrix perdrix + - Ring-necked Pheasant Phasianus colchicus + + Water Rail Rallus rallus - + Moorhen Gallinula chloropus + + Coot Fulica atra + + Common Crane Grus grus + - Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus + + Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus + (+) Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula + + Grey Plover Pluvialis squatarola + (+) Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus + + Sanderling Calidris alba + - Temminck's Stint C. temmincki - + Dunlin C. alpina + (+) Ruff Philomachus pugnax + + Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa + + Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus + (+) Curlew N. arquata + + Redshank Tringa totanus + + Wood Sandpiper T. glareola - + Common Sandpiper T. hypoleucos + - Turnstone Arenaria interpres + - Mediterranean Gull Larus mediterraneus - (+) Little Gull L. minutus + - Black-headed Gull L. ridibundus + + Common Gull L. canus + + Lesser Black-backed Gull L. fuscus graelsii/intermedius + + Herring Gull L. argentatus + + Great Black-backed Gull L. marinus + (+) Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis + - Common Tern S. hirundo + + Little Tern S. albifrons + - Black Tern Chlidonias niger - + Rock Dove Columba livia (feral) + + Stock Dove C. oenas + (+) Wood Pigeon C. palumbus + + Collared Dove Streptopelia decaocto + (+) Turtle Dove S. turtur + - Cuckoo Cuculus canorus + + Barn Owl Tyto alba + - Long-eared Owl Asio otus - + Common Swift Apus apus + + Great Spotted Woodpecker Picoides major - + Skylark Alauda arvensis + + Sand Martin Riparia riparia + + Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica + + House Martin Delichon urbica + + Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis + + Meadow Pipit A. pratensis + + Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava + + Pied/White Wagtail M. alba + + Wren Troglodytes troglodytes + + Dunnock Prunella modularis + + European Robin Erithacus rubecula + + Nightingale Luscinia megarhynchos + + Bluethroat L. svecica - + Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros - (+) Redstart Ph. phoenicurus + + Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe + - Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula + + Song Thrush T. philomelos + + Mistle Thrush T. viscivorus (+) - Savi's Warbler Locustella luscinioides - + Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus + + Reed Warbler A. scirpaceus + + Marsh Warbler A. palustris - + Icterine Warbler Hippolais icterina - + Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca (+) + Whitethroat S. communis + + Garden Warbler S. borin + + Blackcap S. atricapilla + + Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix - (+) Chiffchaff Ph. collybita + + Willow Warbler Ph. trochilus + + Goldcrest Regulus regulus + - Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata - + Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca - + Bearded Reedling Panurus biarmicus + + Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus + (+) Willow Tit Parus montanus + + Blue Tit P. caeruleus + (+) Great Tit P. major + + Nuthatch Sitta europaea - (+) Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla - + Jay Garrulus glandarius - (+) Magpie Pica pica + + Jackdaw Corvus monedula + + Rook C. frugilegus + + Carrion Crow C. corone + + Starling Sturnus vulgaris + + House Sparrow Passer domesticus + + Tree Sparrow P. montanus - (+) Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs + + Greenfinch Chloris chloris + + Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis + + Linnet C. cannabina + + Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella + + Reed Bunting E. schoeniclus + +The crosses in parenthesis concern birds that were seen in England, cq Nederland, during this holidays, but not in Norfolk or Friesland.
Basically the two lists are very similar, no wonder as both are from low-lying wetland areas on the shores of the North Sea basin. A number of the differences are in addition quite accidental: of course there are Jays in Norfolk and Blue Tits in Friesland. As so often before, I stand in danger of excluding from a too meagre material. Still, it is fun to compare the two lists.
The Norfolk marshes are much more coastal, and this accounts for the presence there of coastal shorebirds (Turnstone, Sanderling, Grey Plover, Avocet) and terns (Little Tern, Sandwich Tern), as well as the Brents. Red-legged Partridges do not occur in Nederland (and have been introduced to Britain in historical times).
On the other hand the rich meadow avifauna of Friesland differs from similar areas of Norfolk in the common occurrence of Black-tailed Godwits and inland Oystercatchers, as well as the return of the White Stork as a breeding bird. There also appear to be a number of songbirds that are quite common in Nederland but that never reached Britain as regular nesting birds: examples are Bluethroat, Savi's Warbler, Marsh Warbler and Icterine Warbler. The Black Tern and the White Stork are in the same category.
Some differences do not show on the list, as it gives simply presence-absence. As earlier mentioned, it seems as if the British are cranking out pheasants in enormous numbers; this is a common bird in Friesland too, but not in those amazing numbers. On the other hand, I got the definite impression that at least in the areas I visited (Cambridge suburbia in addition to Norfolk), the Chiffchaff was much less numerous than it is in Holland, where its song can be heard almost everywhere, even in small village gardens as Riet's. Time to stop, before I draw too many conclusions from too few data!
A few old friends are becoming harder and harder to find. The Great Reed Warbler used to be a quite common bird in the right habitat in the Netherlands. No longer! Skylarks, while still joyfully numerous in the Norfolk coastal areas, are now patchily present only in the Friesland meadows. And although the Yellowhammer is on both lists, it is on the basis of one observation in each country only, and during an afternoon of bicycling in the village of my youth in Zeeland, where Yellowhammers used to be among the most numerous songbirds, I did not hear or see any trace of them at all.
There are also many positive developments, though. Here I can only talk of the Netherlands, where I grew up. in my youth Buzzards were uncommon and declining, because of poisoning i.a. by seed dressings. Now almost every coppice has its nesting pair of Buzzards, and their mewing is a common sound everywhere in the country. Similarly, after the Ijsselmeer polders and the Delta works created many new wetlands and large reedy areas, birds like Marsh Harriers, Bluethroats and Bearded Reedlings have become much more common, and geese have once more started to nest in many places in the country. Only the Greylag is indigenous here, but other species clearly are developing feral populations, and especially the Egyptian Goose is rapidly becoming a nuisance.
Still, with more than 14 million people on such a small piece of real estate, it is truly amazing that the Netherlands still has managed to maintain such a rich and diverse avifauna. They have all reason to be proud of their successes in nature protection and the creation of new wildlife areas, even in the teeth of the ever increasing pressures of too many people and too much manure.
Return to trip reports.