The Netherlands in Winter: Birds, Art & Dutch Culture Jan 03—12, 2016

Posted by Machiel Valkenburg


Machiel Valkenburg

Machiel Valkenburg was born in 1982 in a southern province in the Netherlands where, encouraged by his parents, he began birding at an early age. During his teens he studie...

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This first ever VENT trip to the Netherlands started in the capital of the country, Amsterdam. We all met in the lobby of our hotel, the four-star Banks Mansion Hotel, for an introduction and dinner. During our introductory talk, we enjoyed a glass of wine with some well-known Dutch cheese threats in this centrally located all-inclusive hotel. This tour was not predominantly about birds, but had an emphasis on nature, art, and Dutch culture. On our first excursion day we started with a visit to the National Museum (Rijksmuseum), which holds many worldwide known masterpieces. The newly restored building is a must-see as well, built in 1885 and designed in a mix of gothic and renaissance styles—a fascinating building! A very knowledgeable guide showed us around and shared many interesting insights on the paintings of Vermeer, Van Halst, van Gogh, and Rembrandt. Then we enjoyed two hours of free time to explore the museum ourselves. In the afternoon we savored the Amsterdam city center during a city tour showing us the city’s development during the Dutch Golden Age and the great wealth that coexisted in that time.

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn

The Nightwatch by Rembrandt van Rijn— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


After leaving Amsterdam we set sails towards the Zeeland Delta, starting with a visit to “the Biesbosch.” This national park has grown significantly over the last 10 years; agricultural lands are bought and given back to Mother Nature. Common birds such as Tufted Duck, Common Pochard, Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, and Eurasian Blackbird were easily found. We had good scope views of a couple of Reed Buntings, and in a little harbor we were excited by a Great Bittern and the quick passing of a Common Kingfisher. Our first visit to the village of Strijen rendered no Lesser White-fronted Goose, although the village holds a small wintering stronghold. Graylag and Barnacle geese were seen in the thousands. We arrived in the early evening, but already in the dark in the fortified city of Willemstad, named after the murdered prince William of Orange. Before advancing our travel we made a visit to the Mauritshuis (house of Maurits), which is the current city hall of the municipal, built in 1623 by Prince Maurits, the son of William of Orange.

The Mauritshuis at sunrise in Willemstad

The Mauritshuis at sunrise in Willemstad— Photo: Machiel Valkenburg


We drove away and had our first drops of rain, and it rained most of the day. We did our best to bird from the car, but this proved to be difficult. On one of the dams of the famous Delta Works, we birded in the cover of the car which produced Common Goldeneye, Eared Grebe, and a Red-throated Loon foraging on the North Sea. On the shore we found several Purple Sandpipers, Sanderling, and Eurasian Oystercatchers, with large groups of Herring Gulls showing birds of all ages. Our second day in the Zeeland Delta started with a perfect and promising blue sky. On the North Sea dyke we scoped a large group of gulls and found a wonderful winter plumage Black-legged Kittiwake alongside Greater and Lesser Black-backed gulls. Unfortunately, at the moment when Machiel found a Yellow-legged Gull, the group flew up and disappeared. In Westkapelle a small walk showed us our first Blue Tits and Great Tits. On the lake we found a Common Loon, which is a rarity in the Netherlands and was a first for leader Mike; always fun when a leader gets a new bird! Lunch was enjoyed in a restaurant on the beach with most of us loving the traditional Dutch pea soup. During the rest of the day we were in search of the extraordinary Red-breasted Goose, but were unlucky in locating one of these beautiful rare geese. However, we did very well on all other interesting species. A visit to the Prunjepolder, an inland estuary, was good for many species of ducks, with Smew being one of the highlights. We estimated there were around 30,000 European Golden Plovers present, and a single Black-tailed Godwit is also worth mentioning.

European Golden Plovers

European Golden Plovers— Photo: Mike Hirschler


In the early evening we arrived in the historical and well-preserved town of Bergen op Zoom. During every evening on this tour we went out for dinner in a local restaurant. But now, entering the province of Noord-Brabant with its Frankish people, we would focus on the Burgundian lifestyle of the locals. This meant large meat dishes, malt beers, and a general good time on the town. Relocating into Noord-Brabant also meant that we had left the delta and accompanying waterbirds and exchanged them for woodlands and forest birds. After a small city walk along the old city gates and prison house, we drove towards the woodlands of the Oude Buisse Heide where the father of Machiel joined us for a day of birding. Because of the time of year, birds were not defending their territories but instead were moving around through the forest in groups.

Machiel explaining about the Turfvaart.

Machiel explaining about the Turfvaart.— Photo: Mike Hirschler


This meant that at times the forest was very silent until we came across a group of foraging birds. In the morning we encountered several of these groups, giving us good views of Short-toed Treecreeper, Eurasian Nuthatch, Common Chaffinch, many European Robins, Great Spotted Woodpecker, the skulky Eurasian Wren, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Long-tailed Tit, and the cute Crested Tit. In the forest we lunched in a charming little old café where soups and pancakes with ham, cheese and mushrooms were delicious! In the afternoon we started immediately with one of the best sightings of the trip; first Machiel heard the soft call of a Eurasian Bullfinch, and not long after, a male and female were found at a distance of 50 yards. The couple gave great scope views, and all of us had extended views of these wonderful birds. Furthermore, we found some distant Fieldfares, and several Common Buzzards were seen on some posts. In the evening we stayed in the forest, and when it got dark we searched for one of the largest owls of the Netherlands, the Tawny Owl. We played the call of the owl and had some distant birds calling. We walked into the direction of the birds and a single female came closer. Unfortunately, we did not see the bird and could only appreciate its goosebumps sound! After the owling we returned to the café in the forest and enjoyed a traditional Dutch winter meal with stamppot (potatoes mashed with cabbage or sauerkraut) supplemented with meatballs, smoked sausage, and gravy.

Red-breasted Goose (between Barnacle Goose and Brant)

Red-breasted Goose (between Barnacle Goose and Brant)— Photo: Mike Hirschler


A visit to the Oostvaardersplassen was scheduled, but as we had already found Smew, we could follow an alternative route, as both top geese had not yet been found. After leaving the hotel we drove towards Sint-Philipsland where a Red-breasted Goose was recorded by some Dutch birders. The first large group with a thousand or more Barnacle Geese resulted in no sighting, but a Merlin gave some distant scope views. The next group of geese, however, was successful. After some time scanning the group, both Machiel and Mike found the Red-breasted Goose and, with the light at our backs, we all had wonderful prolonged views of arguably the most beautiful goose in the world (according to Machiel THE most beautiful goose on this planet). Our next stop was once again in Strijen, and on our third visit to this spot we found rather quickly a small group of these enigmatic birds. The Netherlands is one of the best places in the world where this vulnerable goose is rather easily found in its winter quarters. It breeds in remote places in northern Russia and winters as well in Mongolia and central China. We all had good views, with some of us even being able to view the yellow eye ring. This success was followed by a long drive towards the city of Deventer; here we visited a site where White Storks breed in the summer. No storks for us this time, but we did see a couple of Eurasian Jays. After this we drove towards our hotel, which is a beautifully restored quaint villa in the middle of the woods.

Our group in front of the watermill in Deventer.

Our group in front of the watermill in Deventer.— Photo: Mike Hirschler


Our last day in the field was predominantly a culture day. We started with a guided walk at the IJssellinie. These Dutch defense works were created to defend the heavily populated cities in the west from the Russian Red Army after the Second World War. The Dutch army was very small and could never hold the Russian army if they had invaded, but the idea was to slow them down for two days by flooding the east of the country, giving the English and Americans time to come and help the Dutch. In the woodlands we viewed more Short-toed Treecreepers and Eurasian Jays. At a camping site we found two Long-eared Owls roosting, and a beautiful Dunnock showed itself well. Peter and Ellen found a Eurasian Siskin, which gave walkaway views for all of us. In the afternoon we visited a watermill near Deventer where the miller gave an excursion and showed us every aspect of work that was done in the past using his mill. We returned to our villa earlier than usual, so we had time to pack for our flight a day later to the US. In the evening we were delighted with our final dinner, and we toasted to a fantastic first tour in the Netherlands!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the participants for their enthusiasm and attention. You were great, and I hope to meet you all again soon on another tour somewhere on this beautiful planet!