Friday 3 January 2014

Dutch Courage 2nd January 2014

c Terry Sherlock
Well here we go again! 

The ideal antidote to any excess on New Year's Eve. 

Yes, let's go to Holland to see a very rare owl!  

A Pygmy Owl to be precise, which had taken up residence in a wooded nature reserve called Ijssellandschap near Lettele in the north of Holland. The news first came out about the owl well before Christmas but after a few days it all went quiet and everyone assumed the owl had returned from whence it had come. However it later became clear the owl was still present and that the Dutch birding 'authorities' whoever they may be, had in their wisdom kept all sightings off the internet to deter too many people going to see the Pygmy Owl and possibly disturbing it. A bit extreme in my opinion and anyway it's now an open secret with anyone and everyone knowing where the owl is and if they have a mind to, going to see it.

So on Wednesday evening we left Oxford at 1130pm and early, horrifically early on Thursday morning, the three of us, Badger, Terry and yours truly driving the Black Audi, boarded the 3.30am  Eurotunnel train at Folkestone and then left Calais forty minutes later for a four hour drive to hopefully an appointment with the pint sized terror of the forest.

We drove north through the dark and rain, out of France, across Belgium and into Holland. It was a dull and somewhat sombre morning when we got to Lettele with dark rain clouds superceding the clouds of night but thankfully the rain stayed away and the wind's strength was only mild. Despite being given a hand drawn map by Chris, a colleague who had visited the owl earlier, we still contrived to make a couple of wrong turns down some narrow country lanes before we found a small car park by the woods with ten or so cars and a group of birders getting set to walk off into the wood. This must be it. Surely?

We parked alongside the other cars, we were the only foreign car there, and got ourselves sorted out with cameras, scopes, bins and suitable footwear for a walk into the wet woods. It was all a bit of a struggle after no sleep and such a very long drive but all things considered we kept it together remarkably well.  

Ijssellandschap-entrance sign to the wood
Badger walked off down the track into the woods with the map that Chris had drawn for us forgetting to take us with him. I spoke to three Dutch birders that were following Terry and myself down the track, asking if they could direct us to the Pygmy Owl. In my experience Dutch birders are always friendly and communicative so I have no qualms about speaking to them. One of them replied and spoke to us in perfect English. So embarrassing and he was really helpful too. 

'Come with us and I will show you where it is.'  

He asked about rarities we had seen in Britain and chatted about this and that as we walked along the track into the wood and came to a sort of crossroads of tracks. The Dutch birder told us this is where the owl was yesterday but it became apparent that it was not here today. 

Now what do we do?

In my mind I wondered where all the other birders had gone that we saw earlier in the car park? Did they know something we and our new found friends did not?

A Crested Tit flew across the track from one conifer to another as we stood around. Badger had wandered off further down the track looking for the other birders. I alerted Terry about the Crested Tit, for whom it would be a lifer, but he missed it. 'Never mind, we can find it later, what about the owl?' Just at that moment another Dutch birder appeared out of the bushes carrying one of those howitzer sized camera, lens and tripod set ups. We asked him if he had any idea where the owl was. 

'Sure' he said in gallingly perfect English 

'It's just along there, I will show you'. 

And he did. 

He ushered us a few metres up the less obvious narrow track obscured by some bushes and trees from which he had just emerged. The owl, still invisible to me, was apparently to be found high up in a maze of branches of some ash trees adjacent to the track. Incidentally, I now knew where all the other birders we had seen earlier had got too. They were looking at the Pygmy Owl from this track! 

One of our new found Dutch colleagues took my scope and focused it on the owl for me to save time. He must have felt sorry for me but I was not complaining as I looked at my first ever Pygmy Owl. I reciprocated his kindness by letting him and his two colleagues continue to look at the owl through my scope.

Tiny, the size of a Starling or possibly a tad larger. It was perched way up on a branch of a bare ash tree surrounded by other similar scattered trees and conifers. My initial impression was of a tiny owl whose upper-part plumage was dull brown with numerous white spots whilst it's underparts were dull white with brown streaking. It's tail was quite long and was brown with narrow, widely spaced, white bars. Bright yellow staring eyes in a small brown  head with narrow dark rings around it's greyish white face looked down on meIt had a preen at one point and stretched so we could see it's white feathered legs and white spotted wing feathers. We watched it for around two hours during which time it remained firmly rooted to the branch it was perched on, facing away from us into the light wind but constantly alert and often turning it's head to look over it's back at the slightest noise and giving the impression that it would not take much if you were a vole or small bird to receive it's unwelcome attention and become it's next meal. Some would call it cute and I suppose it was but those eyes when seen head on told a different story. This was another killer, albeit a tiny one, but lethal, make no mistake. 

Pygmy Owl c Terry Sherlock

c Terry Sherlock

Common Crossbills flew over us, calling loudly and another Crested Tit alerted us to it's presence with a rattling alarm call. A Marsh Tit called further away and Goldcrests, invisible in the dense conifer foliage betrayed themselves with pin pricks of high frequency calls.

Despite the well meaning concern for the owl's welfare by the Dutch 'authorities' everyone while I was there was perfectly behaved and maintained a sensible, discreet and muted distance from the owl to save any possible disturbance. There were indeed only about twenty birders present at any one time.

Dutch birders enjoying the Pygmy Owl
The Pygmy Owl was perched high up in the bare tree in the centre of the picture
The owl was, sadly, too small and too far away for me to do real justice with my lens but Terry and Badger with different equipment to mine managed to get some more than acceptable pictures of the Pygmy Owl and some of Terry's images grace this blog.

A Dutch birder chatted to Terry and asked where we had come from. He told him England and the Dutch birder was amazed we had come all that way for just the day. To be frank so were we but now that we were here we determined to make the most of it. A lifer for all three of us and only a few weeks after we had been to Holland  to see the Northern Hawk Owl which was still in residence only thirty minutes drive up the road at Zwolle. Indeed, Holland seems to be the place for displaced owls at the moment, as not only are there the Northern Hawk and Pygmy Owls gracing it's shores but now a Snowy Owl has been found as well.

Having felt we had done both justice to the Pygmy Owl and our huge effort to see it, we wandered back through the woods heading vaguely for the car park. Not long after leaving the owl we stopped at another crossing of tracks and surveyed some conifers and deciduous trees where a tit flock was feeding. This kept us on our toes for some time as various shapes of birds flitted annoyingly briefly in silhouette through the branches. Slowly as we got accustomed to the conditions their identities were revealed. Along with the commoner tits such as Great, Blue, Coal and Long tailed Tits we found another two Crested Tits and some Goldcrests feeding in the trees. One, possibly two Short toed Tree Creepers accompanied the tit flock and best of all a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker put in a brief appearance before disappearing, only for a female to be found by us a little while later. Flocks of presumably Common Crossbills were regularly flying over and we found one group of half a dozen or so perched high in a tree. A look through the scope confirmed that these five at least were neither Parrot or Two barred Crossbills, only Common Crossbills but none the worse for that.

We moved on and stopped further down the main track leading to the car park, where it bordered some grassy areas to our right. Badger had heard a Willow Tit calling. We walked across the grass towards some thick and tangled hawthorn bushes by a wet ditch and there we found at least three Willow Tits, their fawn plumage strikingly pale against the dark bare twigs of the bushes. A trio of Bullfinches called plaintively, the males sumptuous in their pink and grey plumage. A  flock of Siskins crossed the sky like a starburst, twittering excitedly and showered on high into the topmost bare branches of a large tree. Another Dutch birder, anxiety etched on his face came over to us. 

'You have the Pygmy Owl?

 'Sorry no.' I replied. 

He looked downcast. 

'We can however tell you where it is. Take the first turning right from this track and that will lead you to the location'. 

'Thank you so much'.  

'My pleasure.'  

At the end of the track a large flock of Chaffinches were now feeding by the small muddy car park but despite checking we found no Bramblings with them but over the road in a field of short grass a Green Woodpecker was busy hunting for ants and yet another Crested Tit suddenly appeared by the parked cars. 

Our window of opportunity in Holland was rapidly closing as was the weather. We had about three hours left before we needed to head back on the four hour journey to Calais. We decided to go for another look at the Northern Hawk Owl, still at Zwolle. It was, after all, only half an hour's drive from Lettele and we knew how to get there rather than probably getting lost looking for the elusive Baikal Teal at Driel which was an hour's drive away.

So back to Zwolle we went and the Northern Hawk Owl was not in it's usual place on the industrial estate. Nor were there more than a couple of birders present which was strange. Slight panic ensued. I enquired of one Dutch birder who was just leaving and he told me not to worry. The owl was only some two hundred metres away by the railway track. We walked up the road to the railway embankment and there were all the 'missing birders' admiring the owl which was sitting on top of one of the gantries over the railway line. 

It was now drizzling and getting unpleasant. I said I would go and get the car and bring it round to the others. I duly did so but on returning was told the owl had now flown back to where the car originally was! So we got back into the car. Before I drove off Terry noticed a tripod and scope stood forlornly on the bank. 

'Whose is that?' he enquired. 

'Yours Terry' we replied. 

So tired he had forgotten to pack it into the car. It gets all of us that way Terry. Spirit willing but flesh weak. I am sure anyone would understand.

I drove back the two hundred metres to our original point and the Northern Hawk Owl, now becoming somewhat flighty, gave us some photo opportunities but seemed to be getting a little fed up with the attentions of a minority of photographers who were getting too close. Not such good behaviour now from the local birders. The owl flew to perch high up on an electricity pylon before taking a wide flight around some waste ground and then departing back to the railway track where it once again perched on one of the gantries carrying the electric cables to power the trains passing below. It showed not one jot of notice to the trains even though they were very close and noisy as they passed only a few metres from it. Terry got a good picture of it perched on a cable and we watched it hovering like a Kestrel for some thirty seconds. 

The rain was now setting inwith a purpose.

c Terry Sherlock

Northern Hawk Owl
We left the owl still maintaining its vigil on the gantry and set off for home.

The drive home has been variously described as 'interesting, hair raising or an out of body experience' depending on who is recounting the journey. Suffice to say with no Satnav we contrived to get lost on more than one occasion. This resulted in a series of circumstances and conclusions, the first of which is that I will never trust the AA Get Routes service again. Nor drive such a distance (950 miles round trip) without sleep and which led to my having an imaginary conversation about root vegetables with Terry whilst approaching a place in Holland I cannot even remember. This then led to my sampling a large can of double strength Red Bull for the very first time at the suggestion of both Terry and Badger who were becoming concerned about my state of mind and lack of sleep. Combine this with the time lost getting lost, finding ourselves miles off course and even coming close to Gouda, home of the famous cheese with the red rind, and inadvertently ending up on the Rotterdam Ring Road going the wrong way at rush hour then what should have been an easy and stress free journey back to Calais resulted in a mad cap high speed chase to get to Calais in time for our booked train which we were under the impression was the last one of the night. We made it with ten minutes to spare and there were three extra trains. 

Just as well though as it took an age for us to get through Passport Control.

We were back in Oxford at 1030 pm on Thursday. The rest of me caught up a few hours later! 

1 comment:

  1. We all agreed...
    "what happened on the Rotterdam Ring Road stays at the Rotterdam Ring Road"