Sunday 1 December 2013

You're going to Holland for an Owl? 30th November 2013

Friday 29th November dawned very early, too early for me. In fact it dawned for me over the Euston Road in London. I had to rise at 4am to drive into London to set up a stand for a one day Conference. Leaving any later and the traffic would be hopeless. Later that Friday night I was committed to drive with four birding colleagues to Zwolle in northern Holland to go and see a Northern Hawk Owl, arguably one of the most desired of the owl species for enthusiasts such as me and my friends.

Consequently at 1am that Friday night/Saturday morning circumstances found me making a somewhat haphazard rendezvous with my four friends, who had driven from Sussex, outside the Channel Tunnel Car Ferry at Folkestone. They would leave their car in the car park for a day, transfer their gear to the Black Audi and come 'sur le continent avec moi ' I had now been awake for more hours than I cared to recall.

Adam, Paul, Kevin and Matt crammed into the Audi and our adventure began

The lights of the train terminal building were bright, oh so bright, as we ordered something to eat and drink. The familar and surreal atmosphere of being up and wandering around brightly lit services at some ungodly hour when really you should be asleep, that all birders/twitchers experience at sometime in their travels, was all too evident. I was having to do things very slowly and carefully as the tiredness took it's toll but the lively company kept me going. Matt to much ribaldry announced he was training to be a steward on EasyJet.

The train inevitably was delayed (this is the UK for heaven's sake, what do you expect?) so our 2am departure time went back an hour to 3am with no word of explanation until we were on the train (technical issues apparently) and in fact we did not leave until after 3am but the crossing is only 35 minutes, going at a maximum speed of 140km per hour. You have no sensation of this speed however, cocooned inside your car in the transporter coach.

We were away from Calais rapidly and easily onto dark, unfamiliar continental dual carriageways and embarked on a four hour night drive to Zwolle. We had to cross a bit of northern France, drive across Belgium and then up into northern Holland to get to Zwolle. Dunkirk, Bruge, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam the signs came and went in the night as we drove ever onwards. Simple in theory. Matt (doors to manual) Eade took on the role of navigator and although appearing to be asleep a lot of the time managed to keep me on the right route which is no mean feat as the route signs are often ambiguous and change from country to country.

Dawn started to rise as we entered Holland and by the time we got near to Zwolle it was a dull, damp overcast early morning. Adam started spotting geese on the flat Dutch fields stretching away into the distance on either side of us. Very frustrating as I had to keep my eyes on the road and remember I was also driving on the other side of the road now. 

The Hawk Owl's favoured location in Zwolle was a line of trees located in an area of modern industrial estates, near a railway and by some playing fields. We soon came across birders staring skywards under a row of tall trees by the road and quickly parked the Audi on a slip road being used by the birders already present. The object of our desire was immediately apparent sitting calmly on a branch looking around and appearing a lot more alert than I felt after our marathon journey through the night.

The owl favoured the trees by the road
The owl's favourite trees
The trees it frequented lined a fairly busy road but the owl was seemingly unconcerned about this as indeed it was about everything else including the masses of birders, mainly Dutch, milling around below. It calmly sat in the trees twisting it's head around looking for prey and moving a short distance every so often in a swooping and hawk like flight to another location, to be followed by the hordes of admirers at ground level.

No comment!
Why it had decided this was the area to reside in only it could know. Anywhere less owl suitable would be hard to find. It was the fourth record of this species for Holland. As far as I was concerned I was just pleased it was here and it was all it was meant to be. Tired, dishevelled and out of sorts I forgot all about my troubles on perceiving this barred and mottled beauty that I had been thinking about all through the long night and now putting on a grandstand show in an unattractive and uninspiring part of Holland

I took some photos but the dull early morning light was awful. I did my best. My brain befuddled by lack of sleep and a four hour drive on the wrong side of the road was not properly functional but I clicked away, messing around with camera settings ever hopeful that something passable would be achieved. The owl moved to the other side of the road. Looking right when I should be looking left I still managed to cross the road without being flattened by a car or a Dutch person on a bike, of which there were many. The owl sat in a tree looking down. Impassive with fierce, piercing yellow eyes. A killer's eyes. Murder most foul was it's aim. Suddenly it swooped down and seized a luckless vole from the grass. Back up into the tree and in two gulps the vole went down it's throat head first. Impressive. I wonder if I could do that with a Big Mac? Maybe I will find out later as apparently that is what Matt lives on and he was already having withdrawal symptoms. The owl now full of vole and it's appetite sated retired higher up in a tree and contemplated life for a bit. We watched it in the scopes, binoculars, took photos and generally just enjoyed the occasion.

A senior moment when I lost the car keys but re-found them in the boot came and went with some hilarity. We left the owl sitting high in a tree and not looking like it would descend in the immediate future. All of us were happy with our experience. A short drive into the industrial area and Ronald Macdonald duly relieved us of assorted euros as we visited the infamous golden arches so Matt could allegedly utilise their free wi-fi and load up on all things laden with cholesterol, as did the rest of us. 

We decided to make the most of the rest of the day by going to look for other good birds that the Dutch Birding web site had suggested.We failed to find the Long eared Owl site at Swifterbant due probably to a combination of Matt and myself being overtired, incapable of interpreting a map correctly and/or the confusing road signs being just too much to handle. Never mind we headed for a woodland park at Hoenderloo which Dutch Birding suggested could yield Black Woodpeckers. It commenced to rain when we got there and needless to say we failed to find any sign of a Black Woodpecker, only three Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a nice, close Short toed Tree Creeper which obligingly fed at the base of a tree trunk in front of us for a good few minutes. Other goodies were a flock of around thirty Common Crossbills and some hundred Brambling but overall it was a bit of a disappointment. 

'Lets go see some geese, at least we know they will be there and we can actually watch something for an extended period. Might be some Lesser Whitefronts with them'. I suggested. No less than thirty Lesser Whitefronts had been reported from a place called Strijen in the week. I  handed over the driving duties to Adam and took to the back seat cuddling up to Paul and promptly fell asleep. Power napping possibly. Passing out from sheer fatigue more likely!

The drive to the geese was enlivened when we found two White Storks perched on high on the lights in the central reservation of the motorway we were driving on. After some confusion and finding lots of empty fields and no geese we threaded our way up a small road through some housing in Strijen and found ourselves coming out on some sort of minor road running between a huge area of open fields absolutely crammed full of geese.

This was more like it. We piled out of the car and got to it. The main attraction was the huge number of Barnacle Geese present. They were everywhere you looked, scattered all over the fields and there must have been at least 10,000 present. Greater Whitefronts were also there but in much smaller numbers, just a few hundred, and initially we could not see any sign of Lesser Whitefronts. Wigeon were with the Barnacle Geese in good numbers and Peregrines, Common Buzzards and Common Kestrels adorned various fence posts. Up to four Great White Egrets wandered around near some distant reeds.

Barnacle Geese
Greater Whitefronted Geese
Lesser Whitefronted Goose. It is - really!
Matt alerted us to the fact he thought he had found a Lesser Whitefront and indeed he had. An adult with it's petite bill, big white forehead blaze and yellow eye ring. Three other 'grey geese' with it also revealed themselves to be Lesser Whitefronts. Well done Matt. A lifer for him and a godsend for us older dudes who do not have the advantage of young eyes anymore.

Time was moving on and soon it would be time to head back to Calais for our 8.30pm train that evening. I had lost all concept of time, one day just seemed to have run into another which indeed it had. An abortive search for a Bufflehead on a lake came and went and finally we moved on to the coast somewhere near Den Bommel, adjacent to Rotterdam, to look for White tailed Eagles. This failed but was well worth the trip just for the sheer spectacle and variety of wildfowl that was evident on the sea in front of us. Nine Great White Egrets is pretty good and another surprise was a huge flock of Egyptian Geese, a lone drake Goosander and a Black Swan. Behind us a very large flock of Barnacle and Greylag Geese feeding on some fallow fields took off with a huge roar of wings and cacophony of cries, passing low over us to land on the sea in front of us. A suitably impressive spectacle and finale to a wonderful day out.

We headed for home or at least Calais and despite some navigational errors around Antwerp made our train with minutes to spare and were back in Folkestone at around nine thirty on Saturday evening. Thanks Adam, Paul, Matt and Kevin for your company and laughs all round.

Birds seen

Common Buzzard/ Northern Goshawk/ Peregrine Falcon/ Common Kestrel/ Merlin/ Northern Hawk Owl/ Herring Gull/ Common Gull/ Black headed Gull/ Great Crested Grebe/ Common Coot/ Common Moorhen/ Mute Swan/ Black Swan/ Lesser White-fronted GooseGreater White-fronted Goose/ Barnacle Goose/ Canada Goose/ Greylag Goose/ Egyptian Goose/ Mallard/ Gadwall/ Eurasian Wigeon/ Common Teal/ Northern Pintail/ Common Goldeneye/ Common Pochard/ Tufted Duck/ Red breasted Merganser/ Goosander/ Great Cormorant/ Oystercatcher/ Eurasian Curlew/ White StorkGrey Heron/ Great White Egret/ Common Raven/ Carrion Crow/ Jackdaw/ Magpie/ Jay/ Common Pheasant/ Woodpigeon/ Stock Dove/ Collared Dove/ Great Spotted Woodpecker/ European Nuthatch/ Short toed Tree Creeper/ Common Starling/ Blackbird/ Robin/ House Sparrow/ Common Chaffinch/ Brambling/ Common Crossbill/ Goldfinch/ Great Tit/ Marsh Tit/ Blue Tit/ Firecrest (h) 

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