WHITSUNDAY WEEKEND IN THE GREEN HEART OF FRIESLAND, THE NETHERLANDS
>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 an
neverending stream of sailing and other pleasure boats passed in front of
our little cabin, many mooring at the restaurant that was our nearest
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!!
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
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
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 complains 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 for ever 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 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. (When I
write this, temperature here in Tromsø is again 3°C, fortunately +3!).
Tusen takk, Anja and Tjitze, for the loan of the cabin 't Sprink!!
The bird list will come in part 3.
Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
9037 Tromsø, Norway
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