Birding On Board — Netherlands Trip Notes

tufted ducksFirst there are gulls – there are always gulls.  Of course, if you are near the water anywhere in the world, you will see gulls.

Black Headed GullWhen you are on a river boat cruise, you spend a good portion of your time either on the boat or on a walking tour of the towns where you are docked for the day. And I found out that you do not spend as much time birding as you might have planned to do back months ago when you were planning the trip. Prior to the trip, I had ordered guides for the area from® – actually I ordered three guides.  Now that might seem like it is at least one guide too many but I have never been known to walk away from a good deal. I found two great deals on used guides at Amazon….when you can get a used guide for less than $5, then you pretty much just have to buy it just in case you might need it…and think how much money I saved by buying three discounted guides rather than one at full-price (Joannie logic for sure).  One turned out to be too technical with not enough color photos but the other two turned out to be just right – right size, right number of photos, right amount of technical information for a more casual birder like me. So those two went into the suitcase and were carried on the trip with me.*

I also went online to and tried to make contact with birders in Amsterdam.  We had a free day before the ship sailed and I was looking for a little help in doing just a little birding and asked for suggestions of places to go to in/around Amsterdam.  I sent several messages but, alas, got no responses.  So my first experience with birdingpal turned out to be… not so good.  But, knowing that even common birds in Europe would be new to my husband and me, we decided to wing it (pun intended)….when it comes to birds, you mostly have to wing it anyway and timing is everything.

Tracking IdeaBefore I move on, one little travel hint.  I have a little trick I use to keep track of the birds I see while on a trip.  I tuck little Post-It® flags in with my guidebook and when I see a bird, I add a flag to the photo and description in the guidebook.  I add the date and location of the sighting.  Later when I am back at the hotel room or, in this case, the boat, I can go through the guidebook and note down all the birds I have seen that day and check descriptions against the photos I might have managed to take during the outing.  Ultimately, when I am back home again, I can flip through the guidebook and prepare my trip bird listing and I remove all the little flags from the book before stowing it away until next time.  Now, I know that more serious birders would have already uploaded their daily lists to eBird and may not need this hint but it is a little trick that I have found helpful for me when traveling.

But getting back to gulls, we didn’t see as many as I thought we would see.  Or at least, I didn’t see as many different kinds of gulls or other seabirds as I thought I would see.  For the most part, there were Black Headed Gulls (Lorus ridibundus) which were new to me and therefore okay by me.  I am more used to Laughing Gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla) with black heads back on the east coast in the States so getting to know another gull with a black head was just fine.  I did see quite a few Herring Gulls (Larus argentatus) which were very familiar to me and a few Greater Black-Backed Gulls (Larus ridibundus) but there just didn’t seem to be as many other kinds as I would have expected when taking a river cruise.

Wood pigeonThere were tons of pigeons and, being pigeons, came in all shapes and sizes (mostly big) and were absolutely everywhere.  Every tour guide we met seemed to have a complaint about the pigeons. Among them were Wood Pigeons (Columba palumbus) and Collared Doves (Streptopelia decaocto), both new to me.  Although people complained a bit about the number of pigeons in the cities, I just tried to enjoy the view and pick out the ones that were different from the rest and were new to me.

barnacle gooseBirding while cruising turned out to be rather difficult considering the boat is moving down the middle of the rivers, channels, waterways which was usually some distance from the shorelines where most of the birds were hanging out.  Add the 6 knot cruising speed of the boat…which sounds very slow until you try to focus on a bird on the shore before it is long gone…and you have a challenge.  But we did okay in spotting birds notwithstanding the difficulties.  We got distant views of a good sized flock of Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) and closer looks at several Oystercatchers (Haematopus ostralegus) that were spotted on a grassy area near a lock along with numerous other Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), Coots (Fulica atra), and other ducks.

Gr Crested GrebeNow, the Mallards are pretty much the same as those we have back home in Maryland although there seemed to be quite a few hybrids.  This is not unusual since Mallards are known to breed with American Black Ducks (Anas rubripes) but the Mallards here seem to have intermixed with domestic ducks so we saw many brown splotched Mallards. It reminded me of the pigeons with all the variation on basic colors possible.

OystercatcherOn the other hand, the Coots and Oystercatchers were very similar to their American counterparts but were different enough that you can tell they are an old world species.

Speaking of Coots, don’t you love the blue feet on that bird?  I cannot remember ever seeing a Coot out of water, so was very surprised at the size and color of their feet.

Coot with feet

It was the same with the Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea) which looks remarkably like the Great Bearded Heron (Ardea herodias)  in America but is decidedly different when photos of the two birds are viewed side by side.

Grey HeronMost of our birding luck on the trip came in the towns when we managed to squeeze in time before or after a walking tour.  I have written already about our visit to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden several weeks ago in the post, Birds in a Garden, so I won’t go back over the birds we saw there in this post. (Except for adding a photo of the Ring Necked Parakeet (Psittacula krameri), of course.)

Ring Necked ParakeetWe did manage to find birds also along the way as we followed the tour guides through the towns but one of our best birding moments came in the town of Hoorn when we found a wonderful park by a canal totally by chance when we sort of got lost looking for something else.

The day before we left for the cruise, I had spent some time working in our garden back home and was tackling the removal of some Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) that had gotten totally out of control and was rambling about everywhere.  Now, what I didn’t realize was that Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) had grown up in the Creeper and was hiding there like some sneaky snake ready to pounce on those of us who are most susceptible to its evil poison.  Only I could get a poison oak rash the day before I left on vacation….and then not realize that I had it.  So, about the second day of the trip, I found out that I had a nasty rash in several places on my hands and arms and a day or so after that I figured out what it was exactly.  Fortunately, it was a relatively light case so I wasn’t totally miserable and didn’t need a doctor.  But I am in Europe with poison oak and I am not even sure that they have the plant over there, let alone any idea of whether or not they had anything resembling calamine lotion with which to treat it. And who takes calamine lotion on a cruise?  Nobody, that’s who.

After about three days, I am thinking I need to find anything that might help the incessant itching.  We found ourselves with a little time after the walking tour of Hoorn but before we had to be back to the boat for lunch and decided the time was right to find a drugstore, or an Apotheek as the locals call it.  We got directions to go down a half a block and turn left and proceed for a couple blocks and the pharmacy would be right there  – has a big green cross on front of the building — couldn’t miss it.  Have you ever noticed how local people have no real idea of distances when it comes to their home town?  Everything is just right there, not far at all, and you can absolutely never miss it, whatever it is.  Well, we went down the block and turned left….so far, so good.  But the distance to the next intersection of any size was more than just a couple blocks; it was more like 1/2 mile.  And, of course, the pharmacy wasn’t just right there – well, it was but it wasn’t exactly what we were expecting.  We stood there a bit before realizing the store was on the corner but just wasn’t obvious…it didn’t look like a pharmacy…it looked like just another building.  Having found it, we went in and inquired about calamine lotion and somehow or another made the pharmacist, who was perhaps the only person in the Netherlands we met who didn’t speak English, understand what we were looking for and why.  Turns out they did carry calamine lotion and had a single bottle left in stock which we happily purchased for 9 Euro – not cheap by any means but I would have gladly paid more at this point. (Note:  I just found out by looking at that poison ivy/oak is a North American native plant and is non-existent in Europe. Now I am wondering what they do with calamine.  Oh well, I am just happy they had that one bottle when I needed it.)

JackdawAs we left the pharmacy and headed back to the docks, we noticed a lovely park that ran along a canal and backed up to the houses and back gardens of the houses along a parallel street. And where there is water and there are gardens and, more importantly, where there is open space, there are birds.  We took the long way back through the park and we did get lucky with views of a Jay (Garrulus glandarius), Jackdaws (Corvus monedula), and a Redwing (Turdus iliacus) and more views of Magpies (Pica pica), Great Crested Grebes (Podiceps cristatus), and Coots (Fulica atra).

JayNow a Jay is one bird you would never get confused with an American Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)….totally different birds.

Mission accomplished with several new life-birds on the list and a bottle of calamine, we headed back to the boat, promptly got lost following my finely honed sense of direction, then got back on track when the husband took the lead and we made it back in time for lunch. But don’t tell him that I ever admitted that I got us lost and he got us back on track…..I might never hear the end of it.

Song ThrushAll in all, without really looking or doing any serious birding, we saw 42 different species that we could affirmatively identify.  We saw several hawks overhead and from a distance, plenty of gulls that were not close enough to see discriminating marks, and other birds we just couldn’t identify so we do not include them in the count. Since this is the first time we have looked for birds in Europe at all, most were life-birds and added to our combined life list quite nicely.  Notably missing from the list were woodpeckers.  We just did not see any woodpeckers although we did hear a bird that sounded very much like a Red-Bellied Woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) from back home.

I also expected to see Starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) everywhere since they are very invasive in the States but I was surprised by how few we did see in the Netherlands.  There were Starlings at the airport when we arrived in Amsterdam but we never encountered them elsewhere. The birds might have been everywhere else….we just didn’t see them anywhere else.  Maybe the pigeons keep the starlings in check. Finally, I expected to see more migrating birds, especially waterfowl but, other than the flock of Barnacle Geese, we did not see large flocks of any ducks or geese although the area is in a migration flyway.

Trip ListIt was an excellent trip and we did see awesome birds although that wasn’t really the purpose of the trip. I do wonder how many new species we would have seen if we had actually gone birding with a guide, found a few more parks and gardens, or had more than 10 days in which to look……something to think about and to plan for on future trips.

unidentified heron

*  Guidebooks:

A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Britain & Northern Europe”; Peter Goodfellow & Paul Sterry; Beaufoy Books; 2010; (purchased from®)

Birds of Britain and Europe, Photographic Field Guide”; Jim Flegg & David Hosking; New Holland Publishers; 1990; (purchased from®)




An Urge to Bird (July 10, 2013)

Yeopim CreekIt feels like forever since we have gone birding.  Of course, we are always on the look out for birds and notice sparrows and cardinals and blue jays along the way as we take care of chores around the place.  The feeders always have some bird or another hanging out taking a little nut and seed break.  And there’s a particular northern mockingbird that always sits on the hedgerow along the road leading out of our neighborhood and we look to see that he is still standing sentry there by the road as we head out to work every day.  So seeing birds around is not really the issue.  The urge to bird is more about getting out in the woods and seeing birds in a different habitat even if they are the same birds.  I seem to have missed most of the spring migration this year and I am not really sure why…it just seemed to have passed me by somehow.  I read reports of warblers here and red knots there and osprey returning and snow geese departing but we just didn’t seem to get out there too much to scope things out.

And time is fleeting – you get just a glimmer of spring like a gentle breeze through the trees offering just the faintest kiss on your skin and then is gone leaving you with no trace it was ever there.  It is the same with everything.  You roll through your life and stop one morning to get your bearings and find that your kids are grown and friends you thought would be with you forever have moved on to greener pastures.  The small potted hydrangea you planted and figured would not live a season is now a giant shrub covered with pale blue snow balls and the dogwood is now shading out the roses you knew were the only thing that could grow in that much sun.

Bob WhiteSo I found myself in hot steamy June pondering the passage of time with a gallon-sized yen to head out into the woods or somewhere to look for some birds.  It was time to take a “time out” to head to a spot where I knew we would see good birds.  It was past time.  A few hours’ drive south and we are soon in familiar territory. Even driving up the road to the house reveals a lone Bob White Quail running out ahead of us keeping just far enough ahead for him to feel safe but thereby preventing my every attempt at getting a good look at him or a good photograph.

Yellow FlyNow here I am sitting on an old wooden pier in dark water wetlands watching my husband motor away up the creek in the john boat as he heads out to fill his yen to do a little fishing.  I sit quietly in the warm sunshine with my binoculars at hand and a camera just in case I get lucky enough to get a good photograph or two.   The yellow flies are in season and they do try to take a little blood now and then but the mosquitos are not so bad down here by the water.  I sit and let the peacefulness of the place soak into me like the black water slips silently in at high tide and fills the wetlands.

 Protonotary WarblerI wait and the birds come to me – some I know well like the Carolina Chickadee and the White Breasted Nuthatch and the Tufted Titmouse.  But some are relatively new to me like the Protonotary Warbler whose “sweet sweet sweet” echoes up and down the creek making him difficult to spot until he comes clearly into view like a golden dollop of butter with blue-grey wings.  I have taken to calling this bird “Butter Baby” in my mind because of its beautiful color.  However does the bird live in a muddy black water swamp and still keep its bright golden plumage so clean?

A Carolina Wren has built a nest on the top of the pier post between the piling and the boat lift supports.  Mama Wren flies in with a big fat green caterpillar for the babies, sees me, and commences to lecture me with her witchety ratchety buzz saw mama song.  She flits from tree to piling to lift cable to tree again until I get the message and hold my hands over my eyes so I cannot possibly see her or her babies.  I must admit that I cheated and spread open my fingers just a little so I could watch her slip into the nest.  Quick as a wink, babies were fed and she was out again and back on the hunt.

A little later, we take the boat up creek to look around and I see birds that are very new to me.  I strain to focus my binoculars so that they show things just a little bit more clearly.  I desperately try to take pictures that will be blurry but might just show the bird clearly enough that I can check it against the guide book I have left back at the house.  I call out field markings and colors in hopes that my husband or I will remember the words I say later even when we forget exactly what we saw.

Blue Gray GnatcatcherA pair of Blue- Gray Gnatcatchers has stopped on a branch over the water to do a little preening.  Another grey-green bird with a roundish head, light wing bars, and a short pointed beak flies by and makes me think flycatcher although I cannot fathom what kind he would be.  A little further up the creek and we are startled as several Green Herons burst out from a Bald Cypress tree and fly upstream.  Just as we are congratulating ourselves for being in the right place at the right time for once, four more herons shoot out of the tree and head up stream behind the others.  Seven herons in all – what a beautiful sight!  I strain my neck looking back to the tree wondering if there is a rookery there but I see no signs of a nest anywhere.

Green HeronWe have pimento cheese sandwiches and diet Dr. Pepper® on the pier and listen to the plaintive but incessant call of a Pileated Woodpecker perched high up in a cypress across the creek.  We decide that he is a juvenile who somehow got out of the nest and got stuck in the tree and now calls frantically for mama to come guide him to safety.  I notice he is way too timid to leave the tree but not so much so that he cannot break bad on a Northern Flicker who lands on a branch nearby.  I zoom the camera lens as far out as I can to try to get a photo but know that the bird is just too far away for a clear shot.  Towards evening, Mama Pileated shows up and both birds fly out across the wetlands and away to the north.

Blue Tailed SkinkSo many beautiful birds to see in this place….and more.  As we head back to the house, I spot a Blue Tailed Skink on the deck boards and finally am glad that some creature stops long enough for me to take a decent picture.  We sit on the front porch of the house while my husband tells me about the large-mouthed bass he caught, describes the iridescent colors of the sun perch and notes how plentiful the white perch seemed to be this year.  I spot the chestnut back and white tail of a deer sprinting across the field and heading for the safety of the woods on the other side.  An Eastern Bluebird flits from the electric wires along the driveway over to the Purple Martin house looking for a good meal of bugs.  No martins have ever lived in the house to my knowledge but bugs and wasps have made it their home over the years.  I tell myself we need to take the house down and clean it out so that maybe martins will move in one spring but neither one of us wants to hike through the high grass filled with chiggers and deer ticks to get to the house.  Late spring just isn’t the right time to get the job done.  By the time winter comes and the grass is relatively chigger free, we have usually forgotten about that we intended to clear out the martin house way back last spring.  Time flows on and chores we think are important get lost somewhere in the current.

Eastern BluebirdAs dusk sets in, I notice a pair of Meadowlarks inspecting the newly mown field perhaps looking for good nesting sites or maybe just hoping to spot a fat grasshopper for supper.  My weekend birding list is coming together nicely. Across the way, I hear the “pee-o-wee” of an Eastern Wood Peewee but never can seem to zero in on the location of the bird.  No problem.  I’ve seen good birds and had a good time…..found time.  Time we carved out — time that we didn’t know we had to do something we really needed to do.  Or more correctly, time to do “nothing” that we didn’t know we needed but now realize was very important indeed.

“The trouble is, you think you have time.”*

*Attributed to Buddha but actually appears to be from “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book” by Jack Kornfield (1994).