Netherlands Anser birding Trip – The Wild Goose Chase

Thursday 9th February – Sunday 12th February.

Thursday 9th February

I met up with Martin, Bob, Rich, Jayne, Bettie and Anne at the air balloon pub at 7.15 am and we set off for the tunnel. A few Red Kites later and a short trip under the channel and we were heading across France. The first bird we saw as we started the journey across France was a Woodcock flying over the road and 2 more were seen on the journey. A Little Grebe flying along the main road next to us was a surprise and was our first sign that the weather was having a real affect. Buzzards and Kestrels were noted with a few Canada Geese in fields.

We made our first stop in Belgium which was well chosen as a nice area of mixed woodland was nearby. After downing a can of coke I was itching to look in the trees near the carpark and in just a few minutes had cracking views of two superb Crested Tit. They really are smart little birds. Why can’t they be all over the place in the UK? A single Short-toed Treecreeper, Goldcrest and Wren were also seen. Not bad at all. We hit the road again for a long slog and got down to some birding at Oostvardersplassen about an hour from our accommodation.

Here we drove around a few fields looking for geese as the light was fading. We first noticed a nice rough field with a Buzzard hovering over it and were delighted to get good views of a smart male Hen Harrier quartering with a ringtail nearby. Just a little further along we came across our first flock of Geese feeding in a field and braved the cold to scope the birds. They were mainly Tundra Bean Geese with around 3,000 birds seen along with a few Pink-footed Geese and wild Greylag Geese. These birds were noticeable paler than our feral birds. There were around 100 White-fronted Geese seen here along with 300 Barnacle Geese. A large group of geese took to the skies and as they dropped back in a white phase Snow Goose was seen with them. A very nice mixed flock indeed. As we were watching the geese we were given a great display by a huge flock of Stock Dove. Around 600 birds going to roost! We continued to our accommodation the Vigilante beach hotel near Makkum and after a beer or two hit the sack.

A distant record of the Snow Goose in with the Beans and Barnacle Geese

Friday 11th February

After a cracking buffet breakfast we were out of the hotel by 7.30 and headed to a nearby area to view the Geese coming off the roost. The weather was bright but very cold at around -5 degrees. It was awesome birding as thousands and thousands and thousands of geese left their roost out on the ice covered sea! They were mainly Barnacle Geese and White –fronted Geese with a couple of Bean Geese too. With the sun coming up it really was a special sight. Also seen was a ringtail Hen Harrier and a redhead Goosander circled us searching for an area of open water. Not a bad start to the day.

We continued driving around the nearby fields around the tiny village of Heislum and geese were filling the skies around us with large groups dropping in. The first flock we scanned through looked like 1000 or so Barnacle Geese but two smart Red-breasted Geese were in with them. The geese feeding here had almost a rotation system going on. A skein would be coming in and the birds feeding would lift up to allow them to drop in and feed before the next groups arrival. As all the birds lifted up I was lucky enough to have one of the Red-breasted Geese fly right over head. Top stuff. Also in the flock was a hybrid goose, possibly a Ross’s/Snow x Barnacle and an Egyptian Goose landed nearby.

Barnacle Geese going over and the smart Red-breasted Goose with them. 

 

Scanning further flocks of geese produced nice views of Pink-footed Geese and we had close views of a cracking group of White-fronted Geese. Two of the birds had neck collars and one bird appeared to be a hybrid Greater x Lesser White front. The bill was deeper pink, there was an obvious eye ring and just a different look to the head but the bird was just too big. We also had a nice flyby from a male Hen Harrier nearby.

White-fronted Goose flock

We headed to the village of Workum and on the village pond there was a Goldeneye and on a nearby canal which had a small area of open water there were Smew and Gooosander. The Smew were very tame but the only drake here was a little way off. The locals were making the most of the weather conditions by getting their skates out and using the canals as a huge, long rink. It was strange seeing people's heads moving along through the fields all over the place.

Redhead Smew on the ice

Locals embracing the conditions

Continuing our goose chase we were all out of the car quickly to get onto a Rough-Legged Buzzard and the bird drifted over and hovered over a nearby reed bed. A new bird for me. After looking through more geese we headed for the coast and it was a great sight on the areas of open water with 8-10 Smew on show with a huge raft of around 45 Goosander. There were Wigeon and Pochard and a single drake Scaup was spotted. It was an amazing sight, seeing the sea frozen and even icebergs on the horizon! Continuing to a nearby harbour we noted a Little Grebe somehow surviving in the freezing conditions and we finished the day watching huge skeins of geese returning to their roost. A great day.

Saturday 12th February

After a hearty breakfast we started the journey towards the Lauwersmeer national park about an hour away but it wasn’t long until we were pulling over for a very showy male Bearded Tit. It was feeding on the reed heads with a Reed Bunting in nearby reedbed and was totally unnerved by our presence. A smart bird indeed. Smew, Goosander and 2 White-fronted Geese were also nearby.

A fluffed up beardy

On the way we had another scan through the large White-fronted Goose flock, with Bean, Brent and Pink Footed in with them. Some geese were very confiding grazing on whatever grass was exposed.

My goose of the trip, these White-fronts were getting on grass right next to the road 

Arriving at Lauwersmeer we drove around the area and with no open water it was evident that finding a Sea Eagle was going to be a big ask as the conditions were forcing birds to move elsewhere to survive! We had a Hen Harrier over the road in front of us and at the next stop noticed 12 Hooded Crow and a flock of Fieldfare working through the hedges with a small flock of Chaffinch noted. We followed the coast road back towards the accommodation and at a local harbour we found some open water and hence birds. A selection of waders was present with Turnstone, Redshank and Dunlin seen with a single Purple Sandpiper and a flock of Oystercatcher sat on the ice. On the sea was a nice raft of Goldeneye with 2 female Eider and in the distance was thousands of Pintail with more Goosander and Shelduck. Again it was remarkable to see so much of the sea frozen! It really was bitterly cold here!

Oystercatchers on the Ice

Continuing on our way we stopped to get some real close up views of a flock of Brent Geese which held a few Pale bellied birds and scanned a field for Twite noting around 25 Skylark.

Dark and Pale-bellied Brent Geese

A flock of Barnacle Geese here were being waved away by someone who valued their grass! Along the road we stopped to look at a group of around c100 Bean Geese before moving to a nearby ferry port. Here we were treated to amazing close up views of some waders. Where the ice ended there was some exposed soft mud and the Knot and Dunlin were coming ridiculously close to the onlookers. Walking out across the ice we could almost reach out and touch the birds as they fed next to us. Lying on the ice to take some photos and appreciate the birds up close was magic! Around this area the effects of the cold was really evident as a dead Dunlin and Oystercatcher were found and the birds were forced to forget about humans nearby and feed!

Knot

Also here were Redshank, Bar-tailed Godwit and Shelduck. Flocks of Rock Pipit were getting up around us and scanning a likely area for larks and buntings produced two Merlin.

We made our way back and after looking at more monster goose flocks feeding, we went and watched the birds heading back out to roost. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me as skein after skein passed overhead and as we drove back there were thousands above us following the van.

Sunday February 13th

Today was about heading for Calais and home but we incorporated another search for Geese along the way. We found a large group of white fronts with Barnacle and Brent Geese and scanned through them in search of that elusive Lesser. We watched another Hen Harrier quartering a nearby field and Bob picked out a Cackling Canada Goose species in amongst all the geese. I have read about the various Canada Goose species/sub species and it was an interesting bird. We were unlucky when a dog walker flushed a nice looking group of White – fronted Geese and headed for Calais. A great trip and cracking birding with some really memorable spectacles with new birds thrown in. Definitely an area I will have to return to, maybe in the spring to see what it is like without all the ice. Thanks to Martin for organising a cracking trip and the whole group for great company and top birding in tough conditions!

The sun setting on some grazing geese