Back in Holland again 3. Krabbendijke, then and now

Subject: Back in Holland again 3. Krabbendijke, then and now
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 03 Jun 2004 14:44:10 +0200

                                3. KRABBENDIJKE, THEN AND NOW

I was born in the village of Krabbendijke, in the southwestern province of
Zeeland in the Netherlands, in 1937 and lived there till I started as a
student in Leiden in 1954; shortly after my parents also moved to a village
in Holland, Pijnacker, and I did not return all that often to Krabbendijke
(except for two years as a marine biologist in nearby Yerseke 1963-65,
prior to my emigration to Norway.)  But in the latest years I have returned
several times to the village, as Riet and I could borrow the house of her
brother Danker, who still lives in Krabbendijke, where Riet and her family
also grew up; we went to secondary school together, in fact, and were
classmates there. This gives me a chance of comparing the village and
surroundings as a birding area then and now, and to reflect on the possible
causes of the considerable changes I have noticed.

The village itself has changed surprisingly little, even though there are
many new streets and Krabbendijke now even boasts a chinese restaurant!
When I lived there as a boy, there were ca 2500 inhabitants, and now there
are probably 1-2000 more, I should guess. The village is situated on the
narrow eastern part of the former island of Zuid Beveland, where the
distance between the dikes of the Eastern and Western Scheldt sea arms is
no more than maybe 5 km, criss-crossed by polder dikes, as the area was
wrestled from the sea in small bits and pieces. (In fact, wrestled back is
a better term, as large tracts were lost to the sea in disastrous flood in
the late Middle Ages and both the  Eastern and the Western Scheldt have
large tracts of saltmarsh and mudflats called 'Verdronken Land' (= Drowned
Country), containing the remains of a number of villages and the small city
of Reimerswael.) The tides are considerable, 5-6m tidal amplitude, and at
low water large tracts of mudflats are uncovered. The orchards have changed
a lot, from the tall trees of my youth to the small and almost
articificially 'fruitful' trees (many of the branches have to be supported
because of the weight of the fruits) of today; there is very little
undergrowth, as herbicides are used also here. The sea-dikes have been
enforced and enlarged a lot since my youth ; as you may know, we had
disastrous floodings in 1953, killing thousands of people; although the
centre of Krabbendijke remained dry, the water stood all around, and only a
few hundred meters from both my own house and Riet's parents farm-- all the
minor dikes saved us. The Ramp (=The Catastrophe), as it still universally
called here, led to the enormous Deltaplan, which effectively closed off
most of the sea armes in the SW deltaic area of the netherlands. The
Eastern Scheldt remained salt, however, as the dam there contains usually
open sluices, only closed in case of extreme high floods, while the Western
Scheldt is of course the seaway to Antwerp and thus can not be dammed

The village is dominated by a very conservative brand of Calvinism: many
people go to church for three 2 hour long services on Sundays, and they do
no work at all that day, often even eat no warm meals. All sports are on
the Saturdays, and even the homing pigeons---a very popular sport here---
are 'zaterdagsvliegers', they are flown in such a way that they have
returned on the Saturday. Agriculture is the main occupation on the heavy
sea-clay of the area; partly this is classical agriculture of grains,
potatoes, flax and sugar beets, but the village is also a centre for fruit
growing, mainly apples and pears. The farmers (most farms are large, and
most people in the village labourers on these farms) used and use very
modern methods, and they are also often far too liberal with insecticides
and herbicides, while the hedges around the orchards are shorn by large
machines and with mathematical precision, and look always more or less
mutilated. Most of the fields are large, and the ditches hold slightly
brackish water. Wetlands are very scarce, apart from the saltmarshes, but
the area has the remnants of a few old creeks.

One thing I always note with dismay, not only here, but everywhere in
Holland, is the loss of diversity of the roadside and other vegetation.
There are lots of flowers, in fact many more than 10-20 years ago, when
herbicides were used much more extensively on road-verges; but the flowers
seem to be the same everywhere you go in the country, while earlier we had
many specific 'fluviatile', 'dune', 'Haf' (western low-lying areas),
eastern and southeastern plants; no longer, it seems to me. Even though the
diversity of the birds seems to be largely the same as before, I am almost
sure that such is not the case for the vegetation. In addition, there is
far too much nutrition in the air and the water, so that the heath gets
overgrown with grasses, the dunes with brambles, and the woodlands with
Galium aparine and nettles; this last problem is nevertheless less urgent
in the Krabbendijke area, as this always has been very eutrophic.

As a boy I was already very much interested in nature, but I had no real
teachers, and no field glasses until I started my studies in Leiden. From
my 12th birthday I became a member of the NJN, the famous Dutch Youth
Nature study clubs, with members between 12 and 23 (when you were kicked
out) and went on bicycle excursions with the nearest other members, in Goes
where we also went to school, some 20 km west of Krabbendijke. I learned a
lot there, but without field glasses (and quite nearsighted as I was
already then) my main interests at the time were the plants and marine
life. Therefore my recollections of the birdlife at that time are often a
trifle vague and may not always be 100% correct either, esp. for the more
difficult birds.

Still, many things I remember well, and they are still there, virtually
unchanged. The large fields contain, besides many hares, also always
Pheasants and Partridges, although the number of the latter may well have
decreased ; as a boy I used now and then from the house to see large coveys
entering the garden under the hedge and walking along the edge of the
garden until again slipping out through our Ligustrum hedge. But of course,
now I visit the area in the early summer, when the birds are in pairs
rather than coveys.

Other characteristic birds of the fields were Skylarks (now unfortunately
become uncommon also here, except on the saltmarshes), Meadow Pipits and
Yellow Wagtails, these latter two are still quite common, esp. on the
potato and sugarbeet fields.One bird that has almost completely disappeared
and that was common everywhere in my youth is the Yellowhammer; this year
we saw nor heard a single one. In the shallow ditches full of reed
Phragmites the croaking song of the Reed Warbler still dominates, almost
every ditch seems to have its pair. As everywhere in Holland, Common
Buzzards Buteo buteo have staged a comeback and are now common, where all
raptors except Sparrow Hawk and Kestrel were rare in my youth. (but I have
proudly found and watched both Osprey and Sea Eagle here in my youth)

On the saltmarshes the character bird is the Redshank, together with gulls
of several types, with Black-headed and Herring gulls dominating, Mallards
and Shelducks. I have the impression that the number of Shelducks may even
have increased, they are everywhere now.  Lapwings nest on the higher part
of the saltmarshes, Oystercatchers spread over the entire area, and Ringed
Plovers run around among the Salicornia in the lower parts. Now in summer
the birds on the mudflats are dominated by Bar-tailed Godwits and Grey
(Black-bellied) Plovers---I am sorry to say that this is one of the points
where my memory is somewhat hazy as to the earlier situation. But I do
remember the Brent Geese from my early youth---and the old man, who once
explained their local name to me, and added: "Ze bin nie lekker!" (='They
don't taste well!'). Common Terns fish over the shallows, and generally the
picture is as I remember it from before. The only definite newcomer here is
the Marsh Harrier, now regularly seen quartering the saltmarshes both in
the Eastern and the Western Scheldt, and also the fields in between; I am
almost ccertain they were absent in my youth.

In the low-lying meadows and creek-remnants the situation also seems
virtually unchanged: Redshanks and Lapwings are numerous, Mallards and
Shelducks common, and Oystercatchers and a few small plovers, mostly
Ringed, but occasionally Kentish also nest. The star denizen here, in my
eyes, is nevertheless the super elegant Avocet, one of my favourite birds
since early youth, a symphony in black and white (And more stylishly
beautiful still, in my eyes, than the more colourful American and
Australian Avocets). The Kluut (as so many Dutch bird, this one has been
allowed to name itself; the Redshank is the Tureluur, the Lapwing the
Kievit, and the Black-tailed Godwit the Grutto. The Black-crowned
Night-heron too is called the Kwak in Holland, and I was pleased to learn
that the Falklanders too called this cosmopolitan bird the Quark) is a
quite common bird in this region, as it was in my youth, and that is a
great pleasure.

There were definitely many more tall and dense hedgerows, mainly of
Hawthorn Crataegus, between the fields and on the sides of the many dikes
(there were also many stately rows of large Elms on the dikes themselves,
all fallen as a result of the Dutch Elm disease since), but there are
enough remnants left to feel a little of the glory of these rich bird
habitats. I did not know all the bird songs in my youth, so can not compare
all that well. But I definitely think there are many more Chiffchaffs now,
and also Blackcaps, and maybe less Garden Warblers. Willow Warblers still
occur, as do Robins, Chaffinches and of course thrushes (Blackbird, Song
and Mistle Thrush). And I now have learned to recognize icterine from Marsh
Warbler Song and can tell you that both are still quite common, as is the
abrupt Common Whitethroat, while the Lesser Whitethroat still is
considerable less common here, but does occur. Turtle Doves still murmur in
many hedgerows or farm plantations (I never hear them around Odijk), and
Wood Pigeons still occur in incredible numbers; no wonder they are most
unpopular with the farmers. And of course newcomer Collared Dove (I just
can remember I saw the first one in the area shortly before I moved to
Norway) is now one of the most common birds everywhere here, particularly
in the village itself and on the farms. Swallows are fortunately still
quite common, although not as numerous as before, and Swifts still nest in
the houses in the village. Also here a newcomer, though: during three of my
last four visits a male Black Redstart sang from the same shed-roof in the
middle of the village, and this is a bird that during my youth only
occurred, and quite sparingly, in the east of the country.

In the orchards there are fewer birds than before, because the agriculture
is still more intensive and the trees smaller. But even here there are a
few newcomers, this time from the more sandy and woody areas a some tens of
km further east, in Brabant. Jays I remember as a rare bird in my youth;
they are now definitely much less rare, though certainly not numerous. And
the Green Woodpecker has discovered and conquered the polders here as many
places elsewhere in Holland. Also Goldfinches are more common than before,
again a nation wide trend.

There are thus many changes in the avifauna of the Krabbendijke area, even
though the overall flavour is still the same. Some of the birds I may
simply have overlooked earlier (Marsh Warbler, probably also the Spotted
Flycatcher that now every year nests in Danker's garden.)
Some of the changes are fairly easy to understand: The raptors have
recovered everywhere, because of cessation of heavy persecution, and the
better management of insecticides and seed-dressings. There are fewer
sparrows and swallows because of changed agricultural practices, less
horses (although more here than most places still), less flies and other
insects (the farms no longer have their large 'mesthoop', where all the
manure was collected outside.) The Skylarks and Yellowhammer have no doubt
fallen victim to changed agricultural practices too, although I fail to
understand why the Yellow Wagtails have been so much less affected. And the
Collared Doves are a newcomer that swept all over Europe in some tens of
years (as it now sweeps over the US); the ultimate cause of this is still
unknown, but its presence in Holland is not at all enigmatic, given its
general increase everywhere. (By the way, I can not see that any particular
bird has suffered because of the Collared Doves arrival; the Turtle Doves
seem to be as common as before in this area)

Other changes are much less easy to understand. The Green Woodpecker, the
Goldfinch, and probably also the Chiffchaff and the Blackcap (and I think
also the Greenfinch) have become much more common in this area, and I am at
a loss to see what may have caused this. (In N.Norway we think the
Greenfinch may have profited from conifer plantations and plantings in
gardens, but here such have been always present to a degree.).

As I said, my memories may not always be completely reliable, but I thought
it may be nevertheless of some interest to try to make the comparison
between Krabbendijke then and Krabbendijke now.

                                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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