birding-aus from your antipodes

Subject: birding-aus from your antipodes
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 03 Jun 1999 10:28:40 +0200


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 
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
in 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

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 on 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)

                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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