Netherlands, 1st-2nd February 2014
Several fantastic rarities have been wintering in The Netherlands so Rob Lee, Dave Norgate and I booked this weekend two weeks ahead with a view to seeing some, or hopefully all, of them. The advance booking ensured cheaper flights, but carried the risk that some of the birds would leave. But the Hawk Owl had been there all winter, the Pygmy Owl was settled and there was no reason why the Caspian Plover wouldn't stick around for the rest of the winter. There was also Brown Shrike available, a chance of Black Woodpecker and shortly after booking a very showy White-billed Diver turned up not far from the owls and shrike. It was looking like it would be a fantastic weekend.
In the two weeks between booking and going a Merlin consumed the Caspian Plover and the White-billed Diver disappeared. News of the Pygmy Owl was embargoed as it was in suitable breeding habitat but we thought it was still around - we should see that. The Hawk Owl at least would be as close to a dead cert as you can get - present since November it shows well every day, very easy to see and photograph. It would be worth the trip just to see that. The Caspian Plover's demise was a pity, but at least it meant we could concentrate on the east side and not worry about dashing from one side of the country to the other. Anticipation was strong and we set off in high spirits.
SATURDAY: A promising start
Up at 2.30 am on Saturday we headed off to Stanstead where we took a RyanAir flight to Eindhoven. Everything went smoothly and we picked up our rental car from Sixt without delay. Still in the outskirts of Eindhoven we managed our first good bird of the trip, a Rough-legged Buzzard close to the road. The car journey also provided most of the 24 Great White Egrets we saw today.
As Rob needed the shrike and it wasn't far off route we paused near Ulft next. It was raining but the Brown Shrike was sitting out and easy enough to see, even if a little too distant for good photos in the rain. A flock of White-fronted Geese flew over - we saw plenty of these and other geese along the roads.
Brown Shrike, near Ulft, 1st February 2014
Quickest route to both owls would be to head to the Pygmy Owl first and then the Hawk Owl, but we speculated that the Pygmy Owl might show better later when the weather had improved whereas the Hawk Owl should be easy any time. Also if we got the easy Hawk Owl out of the way quickly that would leave the remainder of the day to search for the potentially trickier Pygmy Owl. So we decided to go for the Hawk Owl first.
A turn for the worse
We thought we'd turn up at Zwolle and find the Hawk Owl easily. Everyone raves about how easy it is and how well it shows, nearly all of the time. But the birders on site hadn't seen it all morning. It had only just stopped raining though, so perhaps it would come out now. We spent a few hours searching the area but to no avail. A local informed us that the rain doesn't bother it, so that wasn't the reason for its non-appearance. This was bad. Very bad. Had it gone? Surely we can't be that unlucky?
We were keen to get to the Pygmy Owl before it got too late so we headed down there, exchanging numbers with an English birder at the Hawk Owl site in case it turned up. We arrived at the Pygmy Owl site where Crested Tits, Willow Tit and Short-toed Treecreepers were found. We had only just reached the site where the Pygmy Owl was supposed to be when I got a text from Zwolle saying that the Hawk Owl had appeared. Do we head straight back, or give the Pygmy Owl some time first? A passing cyclist pointed out the hole in which the Pygmy Owl had been seen so we gave it 10 minutes or so as we now knew we were in the right spot. Nothing was doing though, so we raced back to Zwolle.
As we got back the people by the cars weren't on the owl, but it had just been seeing flying in the direction of the space they were overlooking. We scanned round frantically and Dave picked up something on a distant aerial. Thinking he had got it he quickly found it in my scope to make sure - only to find nothing but the aerial. Assuming he had been mistaken we headed towards where it had been seen flying to, meeting a chap who informed us that it had dropped down from that same aerial a minute ago. Had Dave seen it? Probably, but it wasn't good enough for him and it certainly wasn't good enough for me and Rob! We rapidly went over to where it had gone down and found people there already looking. Nothing. Diddly squat. We scoured the area til darkness and beyond and the Hawk Owl was nowhere to be seen.
This wasn't going to plan. We had hoped to see both owls today so that we could concentrate on enjoying all the rich birding opportunities at a relaxed pace tomorrow. Never mind though, we now knew that the Hawk Owl was still present, the weather forecast was good and we would surely see it tomorrow. The Pygmy Owl area would be best early on - perhaps we would get this and Black Woodpecker too. It could still be a good weekend. A very good weekend. It was too early to despair. We could still see all of our main targets.
SUNDAY: Early morning dipping
We arrived at the Pygmy Owl site at first light, though we weren't the first birders on site. Given that we hadn't seen any other birders there yesterday we were surprised how many birders turned up today, though we later discovered that the Pygmy Owl shows best early on. Apparently it's easy to find when the tits and things are mobbing it. Shouldn't be too hard.
Well it was hard. Despite many pairs of eyes scouring the area, no-one saw it. Nor did we see any Black Woodpeckers, though we did hear one drumming and another calling (and Rob heard one or two more). A Goshawk flew over, a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker showed briefly and I flushed a Woodcock. But no Pygmy Owl and no visible Black Woodpeckers.
Disappointing, but although we thought we had a good chance of seeing the Pygmy Owl it was the one that we realised we might not manage to find. At least we've still got the Hawk Owl to see. And with that in mind we left to head back to Zwolle.
Crossbills, Lettele, 2nd February 2014
Hawk Owl hunt resumed
There were more people at Zwolle today but by mid morning when we got there they had not seen the Hawk Owl. But we knew where it had been seen yesterday so we would go there first, and find it. And that we did. Go there first, that is, not find it. Not find it there, not find it anywhere. And nor did anyone else. A couple more Short-toed Treecreepers were nice, but they weren't a Hawk Owl.
Short-toed Treecreepers, Zwolle, 2nd February 2014
leucistic Canada Goose, Zwolle, 2nd February 2014
Salvaging what we could
The prospect of spending the whole of the rest of the day not seeing a Hawk Owl in Zwolle was not appealing. We had already spent most of the weekend not seeing a Hawk Owl in Zwolle and we really wanted to go and do some proper birding somewhere. Somewhere where there were some birds. But if we went, would we miss the Hawk Owl? A tricky decision, but we decided to head up to Kampen. It was only 25 minutes away and we kept a close eye on waarmeningen for news of the Hawk Owl.
The river was heaving with birds. Really enjoyable birding and I wish we could have spent longer here. There were Smew everywhere, at least 50 in total, including no shortage of fine drakes. Lots of Goosander too, about 60, mostly in one big raft that also contained a single Red-breasted Merganser. Hundreds of Aythya duck, though we couldn't find anything unsual among them, except for a sleeping Ruddy Duck, probably fleeing from DEFRA's guns. A muddy island was full of Pintail and Teal with a flock of about 70 Bewick's Swans nearby. Another island further up was, Rob thought, the site where White-tailed Eagle has been seen regularly, but we could see no eagle there now.
Smew, near Kampen, 2nd February 2014
Goosander (left) and Ruddy Duck (right), near Kampen, 2nd February 2014
Buzzard, near Kampen, 2nd February 2014
We turned around and headed back down the river, stopping abruptly when Dave noticed a large raptor in the trees on the island. It was the White-tailed Eagle we were hoping for, and we watched it for several minutes before it got up and flew off, only to be joined by a second adult. As if that wasn't good enough a third White-tailed Eagle got up too. Well that was good, but time was ticking and if we wanted to have one last look for the Hawk Owl we needed to get a move on.
White-tailed Eagle, near Kampen, 2nd February 2014
White-tailed Eagles, near Kampen, 2nd February 2014 - the second bird joining the first
White-tailed Eagle, near Kampen, 2nd February 2014 - the third bird
Last ditch effort
We returned to Zwolle hoping that the Hawk Owl would have been found by now. Surely it would have been found by now? No, it hadn't. We needed to be heading off to the airport but we gave it as long as we dared. Nothing. Unbelievable. We really didn't think we'd miss this - showed so well for so long, so reliably and so consistently. We give it a whole weekend and we dip. Flippin' unbelievable.
The journey home was, inevitably, less full of joy than it might have been. But it was the first time I've ever been to a check-in desk and not had to queue, and hardly had to queue at security either. Eindhoven airport seemed a good place to fly in and out of and RyanAir didn't do so bad either. Just a shame they couldn't find us any owls.
As a postscript we were overjoyed to find when we checked waarmeningen the next day that on Monday the Hawk Owl had returned to normal and was seen well throughout the day. And on Tuesday. And on Wednesday. I expect it will show well every day now we're back in Blighty.
The following species were seen:
- Mute Swan Cygnus olor - small numbers various sites
- Bewick's Swan Cygnus columbianus - c. 70 near Kampen
- Pink-footed Goose Anser brachyrhynchus - several flocks seen in various places beside the road
- White-fronted Goose Anser albifrons - several flocks seen in various places beside the road, 14 over the Brown Shrike at Ulft, 56 over Zwolle at dusk and 1 near Kampen
- Greylag Goose Anser anser - many large flocks seen in various places beside the road
- Canada Goose Branta canadensis - small number of mainly small flocks seen; a leucistic individual with extra white on the head at Zwolle
- Barnacle Goose Branta bernicla - large flocks seen in the Kampen area
- Egyptian Goose Alopochen aegyptiaca - a few individuals and small flocks seen
- Shelduck Tadorna tadorna - a few near Kampen
- Wigeon Anas penelope - small number near Kampen; Dave also saw one near Ulft
- Gadwall Anas strepera - small number near Kampen
- Teal Anas crecca - moderate sized flock near Kampen
- Mallard Anas platyrhynchos - small numbers in many places
- Pintail Anas acuta - large flock (several hundred) near Kampen
- Shoveler Anas clypeata - small number near Kampen
- Pochard Aythya ferina - good numbers near Kampen
- Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula - large numbers near Kampen - several flocks along the river
- Goldeneye Bucephala clangula - a flock of 6+ near Kampen
- Smew Mergellus albellus - at least 50 near Kampen
- Goosander Mergus merganser - at least 60 near Kampen
- Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator - one drake among Goosander near Kampen
- Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis - 1 near Kampen
- Pheasant Phasianus colchicus - small number seen
- Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus- seen at Zwolle and near Kampen
- Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis - 1-2 at Zwolle
- Great White Egret Ardea alba - easily seen at many locations along the roads travelled with 24 seen on Saturday; seemed fewer next day but with 10 near Kampen the total wasn't far short of Saturday
- Grey Heron Ardea cinerea - seen at many locations
- Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo - most easily seen at Zwolle where they were resting on pylons
- White-tailed Eagle Haliaeetus albicilla - 3 (2 adults and an immature) near Kampen
- Buzzard Buteo buteo - common: seen at many locations
- Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus - 1 seen well beside the road on the outskirts of Eindhoven; Dave thought he may have seen a second bird further along this journey
- Goshawk Accipiter gentilis - a male flew over at Lettele
- Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus - a couple of singles seen
- Kestrel Falco tinnunculus - a small number seen
- Moorhen Gallinula chloropus - surprisingly scarce given the abundance of suitable habitat
- Coot Fulica atra - seen at several locations, often in good numbers
- Lapwing Vanellus vanellus - flocks seen at several locations
- Dunlin Calidris alpina - a flock on the muddy island in the river near Kampen
- Woodcock Scolopax rusticola - 1 flushed at Kampen
- Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa - 1 on the muddy island near Kampen
- Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus - common - lots seen at numerous locations
- Common Gull Larus canus - seen at numerous locations
- Herring Gull Larus argentatus - seen at several locations
- Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus - seen near Kampen
- Stock Dove Columbus oenas - 2-3 seen from the car
- Woodpigeon Columbus palumba - common: small numbers seen at many locations
- Black Woodpecker Dryocopus martius - 1 heard drumming and 1 heard calling at Lettele; Rob heard a total of 3 drumming but none of us saw any
- Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus major - common at Lettele - several drumming
- Lesser Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopus minor - 1 seen at Lettele
- Skylark Alauda arvensis - 1 heard at Lettele
- White Wagtail Motacilla alba - none seen by me but Dave and Rob had one at the petrol station not far from Eindhoven
- Wren Troglodytes troglodytes - a couple seen or heard
- Dunnock Prunella modularis - small number seen or heard
- Robin Erithacus rubecula - several seen at various locations
- Blackbird Turdus merula - common - seen at several locations
- Fieldfare Turdus pilaris - none seen by me but Dave saw a flock from the car somewhere
- Song Thrush Turdus philomelos - none seen by me but Dave had one at Zwolle
- Redwing Turdus iliacus - small flock at Zwolle
- Goldcrest Regulus regulus - heard calling at Zwolle (and I think also at Lettele?)
- Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus - seen at Lettele
- Marsh Tit Poecile palustris - 2-3 seen at Lettele
- Willow Tit Poecile montanus - at least 1 at Lettele - seen one day and heard the next
- Crested Tit Lophophanes cristatus - at least 2 at Lettele
- Coal Tit Periparus ater - 1 at Lettele
- Blue Tit Cyanistes caeruleus - common, seen at several locations
- Great Tit Parus major - several seen
- Nuthatch Sitta europaea - at least 2 at Lettele
- Short-toed Treecreeper Certhia brachydactyla - 1 at Lettele and 2 at Zwolle
- Brown Shrike Lanius cristatus - 1 near Ulft
- Jay Garrulus glandarius - common - several seen at Zwolle and Lettele
- Magpie Pica pica - very common - small numbers seen at many locations
- Jackdaw Corvus monedula - common: the most-seen black corvid
- Rook Corvus frugilegus - seen at Zwolle and between there and Lettele
- Carrion Crow Corvus corone - small numbers at several locations
- Starling Sturnus vulgaris - small flocks at several locations
- House Sparrow Passer domesticus - flock at Zwolle
- Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs - seen at Zwolle and Lettele at least
- Brambling Fringilla montifringilla - heard calling both days at Lettele
- Siskin Carduelis spinus - 1-2 at Lettele
- Mealy Redpoll Carduelis flammea - heard calling at Lettele
- Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula - a male flew over at Zwolle
- Crossbill Loxia curvirostra - at least 12 at Lettele - I thought they sounded different compared to the British ones I'm more used to hearing
- Red Squirrel Sciurus vulgaris - 1 at Lettele
- Brown Hare Lepus europaeus - a few seen in fields, e.g. near Ulft
- Roe Deer Capreolus capreolus - 5 at Lettele
- Spring Usher Agriopis aurantiaria - 1 at a petrol station not far from Eindhoven