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A Report from

Friesland (The Netherlands), 22-26 May 1999,


Wim Vader, 9037 Tromsų, Norway

This report appears with the permission of Graham Mee, Southend RSPB Group pages. (see links)

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 never-ending 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 Tromsų is again 3°C, fortunately +3!). Tusen takk, Anja and Tjitze, for the loan of the cabin 't Sprink!!

Birdlists 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                    
Egyptian Goose            Alopochen aegyptiacus            
Shelduck                  Tadorna tadorna                  
Wigeon                    Anas penelope              
Gadwall                   A. strepera              
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               
Ring-necked Pheasant      Phasianus colchicus            
Water Rail                Rallus rallus                   
Moorhen                   Gallinula chloropus             
Coot                      Fulica atra                     
Oystercatcher             Haematopus ostralegus            
Black-winged Stilt        Himantopus himantopus           
Ringed Plover             Charadrius hiaticula              
Grey Plover               Pluvialis squatarola             
Northern Lapwing          Vanellus vanellus                
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               
Mediterranean Gull        Larus mediterraneus    
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                  
Common Tern               S. hirundo                   
Black Tern                Chlidonias niger         
Rock Dove                 Columba livia (feral)       
Stock Dove                C. oenas                       
Wood Pigeon               C. palumbus               
Collared Dove             Streptopelia decaocto    
Cuckoo                    Cuculus canorus           
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         
Eurasian Blackbird        Turdus merula          
Song Thrush               T. philomelos        
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           
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 rich meadow avifauna of Friesland results 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. In Holland, the Chiffchaff's song can be heard almost everywhere, even in small village gardens as Riet's. 

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 are now patchily present only in the Friesland meadows. And although the Yellowhammer is on the lists, it is on the basis of one observation 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.e. 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.


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