Earlier this month – and it seems like an age ago already – we treated ourselves to a short break in Belgium. It may surprise you to learn that I have a few interests outside of things that tweet, crawl, flit, chirp and bound, and that we were going primarily to look at pleasant assemblages of medieval architecture. But since I had unfinished continental birding business from our day trip to France on May 31st (ably described in this guest blog), I didn’t see why I couldn’t sneak in a bird or two. So to get birding out of my system before our immersion in purely manmade delights, we planned to do the ‘nature portion’ of the trip first, and aimed for an expanse of sand dunes, coastal grassland and lagoons known as ‘The Zwin’ – one of the most renowned nature reserves in the country.
The reserve is situated in the top right hand corner of the country (more accurately known as the northeast, I suppose). Once you get to the Zwin, that’s it, as far as Belgium goes. Following our directions, and mostly failing to follow Dutch signage, we headed from the Dunkerque ferry into Belgium, and after a brief detour round a road closure in the Bruges area aimed northeast towards our destination. At least, I could have sworn we’d only headed northeast. So how on earth had we arrived back at a town? Instead of a natural oasis, by lunchtime we found ourselves passing into a seaside town calling itself Cadsand. Something had gone horribly awry.
I took in our surroundings. Clean, modern apartment buildings lined clean, modern roads; rows of tulips nodded their heads in the breeze outside. Healthy-looking families were cheerily cycling back and forth on dedicated cycle lanes alongside a broad canal which traversed a flat landscape, peppered with windmills. The penny, or should that be the eurocent, finally dropped. “I think we’re in Holland!” I exclaimed. Yes, so fluid are European borders that it’s possible to cross from one nation to another without even noticing. You probably have to pass through more security to get from Kent to Sussex, for example. At least the Kentish border is marked by a sign. So we had lunch in Holland, which, I must say, was very pleasant. And our directions hadn’t led us so astray after all, as it turns out a stretch of the Zwin reserve crosses the border.
The Dutch side of the reserve backed onto a popular beach, but was by no means ruined because of it, criss-crossed by well-maintained paths whilst the dune flora clearly remained in good health – helped out by the rather handsome grazing beasts pictured below. For the most part, birds present were reassuringly familiar, just with a kind of Dutch flavour. Dutch oystercatchers* mingled with Dutch redshanks and curlews on a mudflat, upstream from a colony of Dutch black-headed gulls breeding alongside common and sandwich terns. Dutch blackcaps sang from dense vegetation whilst Dutch pipits called somewhere out in the grasses.
Then, on the way back to the car, an unfamiliar warbler came into view on top of a bush before diving for cover. It called, a kind of click and whistle, and I realised that this was a Hippo – a warbler in the Hippolais genus, that is, rather than a large aquatic mammal. It was only likely to have been one of two species – melodious or icterine, the same duo that caused us quite a headache on the Pas de Calais. But this time it showed a clear enough view of a pale wing panel and lemony yellow colouring for me to be more certain of an icterine warbler, and it helped that on checking their respective distributions I noticed melodious warblers probably don’t make it that far along the North Sea coast. With a satisfying conclusion to that particular continental identification conundrum, and icterine warbler safely life ticked, perhaps now it was time to put birding to rest for a few days?
The rest of the trip passed pleasantly enough, a flurry of architectural and artistic delights interspersed by purchases of chips, beer and chocolate. (Food is eye-wateringly expensive in Belgium, I warn you! Or possibly much too cheap in Britain.) But we did sneak out for one more walk, around Damme**, the closest town to the farmhouse bed and breakfast where we stayed. It was largely uneventful, but atmospheric. The occasional reed warbler was singing alongside the canals, and a single marsh warbler too. And speaking of the B&B, being based on a farm it boasted the odd bird itself, including the family of swallows below which were nesting outside the breakfast room – the young birds were in the process of fledging during our stay, and by the end had mostly left the nest.
So did I ever stop looking for wildlife and just enjoy the man-made delights on offer? In a word, no.
I can admire a cityscape as beautiful as the one in Ghent pictured, but as I gaze raptly upon it, I’m secretly hoping a black redstart might pop up onto the cathedral roof and complete the view. You can take the hatbirder out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the hatbirder!
*I often suspect birds of having regional accents – Rebecca reckons Dutch oystercatchers say ‘Klijp! Klijp!’ Which looks about right.
**A never ending source of jokes: “There’s the Damme bookstore”, “Oh look, a Damme cat”, “Get off the Damme road!”, “Can you recommend a Damme restaurant?”, etc. Oh, and of course not forgetting the local football team, “Damme U.”…