Belgium and The Netherlands: Western Europe’s Winter Waterbird Spectacle

As skeins of geese and other waterfowl blanket the polders of northern Holland in winter, we will search through the flocks of hundreds of thousands to seek out stunning Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted geese in one of Europe’s greatest birding spectacles. In addition, we shall enjoy all things Dutch, such as cheese, stroopwafel, delft and clogs. The Netherlands roughly translates as “low country“, a name not undeserved as around half the country sits at just three feet above sea level, and a quarter below sea level. This short tour explores the vast wetlands and marshes created and protected by the country’s epic sea defense barriers, shielding the country from otherwise certain flood by the frigid North Sea.

In deepest winter the frost-cracked and ice-sheeted landscape is dominated by the sound of hordes of geese of a wide variety, the low chest-beating boom of Great Bitterns, the metallic “plinking” of Bearded Reedlings, and the occasional cacophony of thousands of shorebirds taking flight as a Peregrine or Marsh Harrier disturbs them. Holland, as the Netherlands is also known, and Belgium, are small, close, modern Western European countries, which can be easily combined to mix exciting birds like Europe’s largest woodpecker, the gigantic Black Woodpecker with birds like Middle-spotted Woodpecker, and yet more waterbirds, the latter at their highest concentrations at this time of year.

Day 1: Arrival in Brussels (Belgium); onto The Netherlands. We arrive today in the classic European city of Brussels, the capital of Belgium, and gateway to our lowland adventures. We’ll travel north towards Antwerp, stopping at a local nature reserve along the way to search for Middle-spotted Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper and perhaps witness a robust Northern Goshawk barreling through, terrifying everything in its wake. We’ll then make the simple border crossing into neighboring Netherlands, where we’ll drive over a series of bridges and onto the waterlogged island of Schouwen Duiveland to begin our search for wintering waterbirds. White-tailed Eagles, reminiscent of flying barn doors, may distract us from the task at hand as we sift through the countless Pink-footed, Tundra Bean, Graylag, Greater White-fronted and Barnacle Geese in the search for their rarer brethren among them: Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted Geese. We’ll overnight on Schouwen-Duiveland.

Red-breasted Goose is the prize of this winter birding tour
Red-breasted Goose is the prize of this winter birding tour (Adrian Pingstone)

Day 2: Schouwen-Duiveland We’ll spend much of today on the island of Schouwen-Duiveland, searching the seaward surf for three species of loon, Red-necked, Horned and Eared Grebes, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, Common and Velvet Scoter, and Red-breasted Merganser. The shores of the enormous dam also play host to a wide variety of shorebirds at this time of year, and will include Red Knot, Dunlin, Sanderling, Black-bellied Plover, Eurasian Oystercatcher and Black and Bar-tailed Godwits among others. We’ll also likely see more elegant Marsh Harriers and colossal White-tailed Eagles during the day. A second night will be spent on Schouwen-Duiveland.

Huge skeins of Pink-footed Geese will be a regular sight
Huge skeins of Pink-footed Geese will be a regular sight (Stefan Berndtsson)

Day 3: Goeree The wide-open and expansive grasslands of neighboring Goeree-Overflakkee will be our focus on this day. Once we’ve crossed the five-mile Brouwersdam bridge, we’ll start working our way through the flocks of thousands of Brant, and Tundra Bean, Graylag, Greater White-fronted, Barnacle, and Pink-footed Geese in search of the rarer, more desirable geese of this area: Snow, Lesser White-fronted and the stunning Red-breasted. All the while, we’ll admire yet more Western Marsh and stunning spectral Northern Harriers, low-flying Short-eared Owls, and watch as one of the many local Peregrines put up flocks of thousands of Ruff, Dunlin, Eurasian Curlew, both godwits, Black-bellied Plover, Red Knot and other shorebirds.

Blue Tit is a common sight throughout Europe
Blue Tit is a common sight throughout Europe (Francis Franklin)

Day 4: Oostvaardersplassen & area We’ll have time this morning to search for any of the rarer geese we’re missing before making our way north-east to Flevoland, and more specifically the huge Lepelaars and Oostvaarders Plassen Nature Reserves. Here, reedbeds are alive with the sound of ‘booming’ Great Bitterns and ‘plinking’ Bearded Reedlings, whilst the local White-tailed Eagles cause havoc among the bountiful waterfowl. Once again, geese are positively abundant, as are Bewick’s, Whooper and Mute Swans, and the dams hold flocks of Common Merganser, Long-tailed Duck, Common Goldeneye and the much-prized Smew.

European Robin is very common but superb all the same
European Robin is very common but superb all the same (Francis Franklin)

Day 5: Friesland This morning we’ll visit the vast nature reserves once again to catch up with any birds we’re missing, and to enjoy the busy cacophony of winter wildfowl, before heading a little way south toward the city of Arnhem, the scene of some fierce fighting in World War II. The woods around this city hold our targets for this afternoon – the second largest woodpecker in the world, Black Woodpecker, and the diminutive but charismatic Crested Tit. We overnight near Arnhem.

Day 6: Departure We’ll have time for a few last stops to pick up any missing birds this morning, before making our way to Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport to catch our flights home, or making our way into the city for those that wish to linger and experience more of the Dutch way in Amsterdam.

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OPTIONAL EXTENSION

Flanders Fields Historical Extension (Belgium) 2 days.

The Belgian countryside is quaint, peaceful, and idyllically “European”. Roadsides are flanked by expansive farmland, orchards, and men in hats. Every now and then though, propped up against one of the many trees on these lined-avenues, are relics from a past age – the remainder of bombs and shells from two devastating World Wars. Now more than 100 years on, it is somehow easy to forget, given the revived, re-built and modern towns that are now scattered throughout the Belgian countryside, that this was a land once embroiled in the two most vicious conflicts in history. These wars undeniably shaped Europe and altered its course, and many visitors wish to pay homage to the fallen by visiting the countless battlefields, memorials and cemeteries that pepper the countryside.

This overnight trip to western Belgium visits Ypres and Flanders Fields, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting of the 20th century where we’ll visit the most painstakingly-preserved trenches available anywhere to see the conditions in which the “great” battles of Europe were fought.

Red Poppies at Ypres
Red Poppies at Ypres (....)

Day 1: Brussels to Ypres We’ll leave Brussels, and take a drive west to the beautiful Belgian city of Ghent. Worthy of our attention here is the 10th Century fairy-tale-esque castle of Gravensteen, medieval in every inch of its appearance, right down to the traditional moat.

Onwards, we’ll arrive in Ypres this afternoon. Studying archive photographs of the town is flabbergasting, revealing a town that by the end of World War I consisted of nothing but dust, rubble and some pillars unrecognizable as the intricate Ypres Cloth Hall, but the town has been entirely, and respectfully, re-built and revitalized in the century that has followed, forging this vibrant Belgian community. There’ll be plenty of time this evening to taste the beer and chocolate that this small country is World famous for, and we’ll visit the Menin Gate memorial for the daily 8pm Last Post. We’ll overnight in Ypres.

The sobering American Cemetery at Flanders Field
The sobering American Cemetery at Flanders Field (...)

Day 2: Ypres to Brussels We’ll spend much of today touring the main historic sites of Flanders Fields. We’ll first make an early visit to the immersive Sanctuary Wood Trenches, where we’ll see the battlefield from the same perspective as soldiers did 100 years ago and explore the trenches to get a feel for how harsh the conditions were. We’ll then visit Tyne Cot cemetery, a seemingly endless military cemetery of pure-white graves, often unnamed and unclaimed. We’ll also visit Hill 60, the site of an underground mine and counter-mine war, making it one of the more remarkable sites near Ypres. The tone throughout these sites is peaceful, quiet and respectful, and the focus is on education, understanding and remembrance, so it is perhaps not as solemn and sad as one would expect. However, it can often be an emotional journey.

We’ll make our way back to Brussels this afternoon, arriving in time for dinner in this rather attractive city, ready for the main tour to begin the following day. We’ll overnight near Brussels Airport.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed. Later starts are the norm, with the sun only rising at around 7:30am in winter. Breakfast is typically taken at the hotel before the birding day at around 6:30 – 7am. Birding is a mixture of on foot and from the vehicle, which we will frequently use as a blind to achieve great views of our target birds in the open landscapes. Driving between bases is typically fairly short with stops along the way, the longest being around 2.5 hours from Brussels on the first day. Several lunches are likely to be packed or picnic style, and there is a chance that we may take packed breakfast on at least one morning.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks and you can expect to walk around 2 miles (3.2 km) per day on average. This tour is suitable for anybody with a reasonable general level of fitness.

CLIMATE: Winter is fairly cold, and throughout the tour the temperature is likely to sit between 32°-43°F, 0°-6°C. The weather is somewhat unpredictable, and we are likely to encounter rain, snow and icy-cold frosty mornings.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will find worthwhile opportunities especially in the vast flocks of geese and often-approachable wildfowl.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of a large number of countries, including the US, Canada, UK, Australia and all EU European countries. Visas are currently required for citizens of many countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to lodge/restaurant staff; accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 5, and the nights of days 1 and 2 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from lunch on day 1 to lunch on day 6, and from lunch on day 1 of the extension to breakfast of day 1 of the main tour if also taking the extension; reasonable non-alcoholic drinks during meals; safe drinking water only between meals (tap water is safe and you will be expected to fill your bottles when able); Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 6, and on days 1 and 2 of the extension if also taking the extension; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); flights; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.