Tulips or Bust — Netherlands Trip Notes (June 12, 2013)

Photo1 Garden with textLet’s face it – going to the Netherlands in the spring is about tulips. It is what it is. You can talk about the canals and the red light district and smoked sausage but pretty much everyone who goes to the country in spring is looking for tulips…and their counterparts, the daffodils and the crocus. And we were certainly no different.  We had dreams of seeing fields of tulips like gigantic impressionist paintings spread across the landscape…..Monet or Van Gogh in dirt, if you would.  And we had planned and checked and cross-checked and scheduled so that we would be in country when the tulips were in full bloom. But it was not to be. Although the tour company had assured us that the first week in April was the optimum week for visiting to see the best and the most tulips, Mother Nature had other things on her mind in 2013. Things like blackberry winters and whirling snowstorms in Europe in late March.  There is nothing like a late cold spell with freezing temperatures and snow to keep the bulbs dormant, snug and warm underground.   As we flew over northern England and noted lingering patches of snow on the hills, I had a sinking feeling about our chances for tulips but I had high hopes nonetheless and it didn’t do to fret over it too much….when you’re flying over England and the North Sea, it is a bit late to change your travel plans.

Photo 2a flower market w textAnd so, we continued.  We spent time in Amsterdam and saw wonderful old buildings and canals and some birds and enjoyed cool Amstel lager and a very expensive margarita but there were no tulips or daffodils or crocus.  We did see an herb garden growing in a sunny window and the largest, if not the only, floating flower market in the world.  We went to Kinderdijk and saw beautiful windmills and geese and lots of rain.  We traveled in layers – long sleeve shirts with sweaters and jackets – because it was still very cold in country and you never knew when the sun would come out and bless you with a little warmth allowing you to strip off some of those layers.  We visited a lovely town called Hoorne – more canals, more birds, a lovely visit with a former mayor…but, again, no tulips or any flowers to speak of except maybe a few lonely crocuses (croci?).  We visited a former royal palace, Palais Let Hoo, with beautiful formal gardens but not a blooming flower in sight.  So, you can imagine how excited we were to go to an actual tulip farm. Hallelujah, we are finally going to see some tulips. Or not.Photo 2 No tulips with text

The farm was a wonderful experience.  We got lucky and our guide for the farm tour Photo 3 Five together greenhousewas the farmer’s wife – no one would know better what’s going on at the farm than the farmer’s wife – her business to keep up with absolutely everything. (Do notice the down jacket.)  We were advised that the Dutch think of the farms as “bulb” farms because what they are growing as a sellable crop are the bulbs.  Hmm.  I hadn’t thought of it that way but it makes perfect sense.  So, they grow tulips in order to harvest the bulbs and sell them all over the world. In the fields – some of which, unfortunately, were under plastic in an effort to warm the fields and allow the tulips to grow in spite of the cold weather – the tulips are planted in the fall for harvest the next summer. When the tulips come up in spring and bloom, the blooms are cut off to allow the plant to recapture all the nutrients in the stems and leaves to be absorbed back into the bulb and to prevent the loss of nutrients by producing seed heads after the bloom.  So, in fact, there is a limited viewing period for blooms in the fields under any circumstances.  They actually have a tractor that goes through the field removing the blooms and capturing them to be used as compost.  It seems a bit of a shame to have all those glorious blooms just whacked off and thrown away…but their money-maker is the bulb, not the bloom.   In the fields, that is.

But there was a second line of business for this tulip farm and that is for cut flowers.  So there were huge (and I mean huge) greenhouses that were used to grow tulips to sell in the flower market in Amsterdam.  The season for cut flowers is from December until May so we were visiting at the end of the season.  This farm sold about 6 million cut flowers per season, all tulips. Yes, I said 6 million with an “m”. The whole farm was quite an operation but the scope of the greenhouse operations was very impressive.  I cannot keep saying “gigantic” and “huge” but “large” just doesn’t describe the operation there.  The cold storage unit was probably bigger than our house back home.  The “fridge” as relatively empty at this point but we were assured that the space was not wasted – in autumn when they bring in the bulbs to plant, the unit is packed to the gills – floor to ceiling –  with hundreds of thousands of bulbs.  Some of the bulbs will chill in the coolers to give them time to go dormant to be grown in the greenhouses over the winter to sell as cut flowers.  And the rest will be planted in the fields where they will rest throughout the winter waiting for spring to become next year’s bulb crop.

But back to the greenhouse business…… fascinating.  I am often reminded of how many details there are to running a successful business and how most of us take it all for granted and, perhaps, think that tulips (or automobiles or houses) just pop up out of the ground and it’s all so easy and no one has to work at all as things just sort of happen on their own.  But that is far from the truth, of course.  Even on a farm where things, like tulips, do literally pop up out of the ground, there are a million and one details that have to be attended to in order to get to harvest.  The bulbs are planted in the greenhouses on a staggered schedule to provide for cut flowers throughout the winter. When the plants are at the bud stage, they are inspected and sorted by a specialist whose job it is to know from Photo4 Rejected Tulipjust looking at the bud, whether or not, the bloom will be beautiful and full or not.  The sorter picks the flowers (pulls it up by the bulb) that pass inspection and leaves the rejects – blooms too early or too late or has a virus or is mal-formed – to become compost.  Yep, lots of composting going on at this farm.  The bulb is sliced in half and the stem is plucked from inside so that every inch of the stem is available as part of the cut flower.  It seemed strange that they would go to so much trouble to get an eighth of an inch more stem but that mystery was solved when we were advised that the flowers are sold by the inch.  While an eighth or fifth of an inch doesn’t sound like much and would only bring in an extra tenth or so of a cent per individual stem, the fractions can add up when you are selling thousands of the flowers per day.  Let’s see, six million cut flowers multiplied by a fraction of a cent….well, you get the picture, those quarter- inches can add up to real money by the time all is said and done. The farm employs about twelve workers for the process of processing the cut flowers, which are really just buds at this stage.  The flowers are harvested at the tight bud stage so that they will be fully opened as blooms at your local florist and not an hour before.  The flowers are packed by the dozen and transported to the flower market every afternoon to be sold at market opening early the next morning.  By noon, the next day (less than 24 hours after picking), the flowers are on their way to all parts of the world.

Photo 9 Plastic fields w textOne final note about the tulip farm in North Holland. The farm is a family farm that has been passed down for several generations but is on “reclaimed” land – that is, land that used to be under the sea.  It has been “reclaimed” several times over the past few hundred years.  The farmer’s wife told us that they used small “kennels” to irrigate the fields – turns out she was saying “canals” but I kept hearing kennels and trying to figure out if it had something to do with dog runs. Just a little loss of communications there for a moment. At any rate, she said that occasionally the salt would come up out of the ground in spots and they couldn’t plant there for a season or two.  It seemed as if the sea is always ready to reclaim the land from the Dutch who are always ready to reclaim it from the sea. For hundreds of years this battle has been going on and I suppose it will continue as long as there are crops to be planted and people to plant them.

So we got a taste of tulips and the overall industry but we still hadn’t really seen any tulips to really write home about.  We had one last shot at seeing great masses of tulips – the Keukenhof Gardens at Lisse, Holland.  And we couldn’t wait – finally we are going to see tulips.  Or not.Photo 7a Greeter w text

Keukenhof Gardens are only open during the spring every year (mid-March through mid-May).  The Keukenhof is a private flower garden – the world’s largest, I am told –  that is open to the public for tourists and visitors but the primary purpose of the gardens was originally to allow growers to exhibit their flower bulbs and dealers and buyers to see the all the varieties of tulips and daffodils and crocus in a garden setting.  According to the guidebooks, there are about 7 million flower bulbs planted over 32 hectares – or about 79 acres.  (Just in case you find yourself trying to figure out hectares and acres someday, there is a converter on line at http://www.asknumbers.com/HectaresToAcresConversion.aspx.)

Photo 6 pavilion iwth textIn the very beginning, the garden was set up to grow herbs for the kitchens for Countess Jacqueline of Hainaut, hence the name related to the kitchen gardens.  The garden is set up to display the flower bulbs and there are also pavilions showing the flowers in more of a “display” setting with information about the varieties and their availability. And, finally, the garden is set in the midst of farms and fields where the tulips, etc. are grown.

We visited in the rain, of course, and it was cold, again, so we spent a good Photo 5 crocus field with textbit of time in the pavilions where it was warm and dry.  And where there were lots of tulips and daffodils and amaryllis and every other bulb plant you could think of.  And they all were quite lovely and I took tons of photos to bring home to show everyone we had, in fact, seen tulips. We also did a little bit of birding in the gardens – why waste an opportunity to do so when birds do love gardens too?  And we only got lost once and we almost missed our ride back to the ship but that was because I was buying souvenirs and that is another story entirely.

According to the Keukenhof’s website (http://www.keukenhof.nl/), 2013 was a good year – Very successful Keukenhof season. The 64th edition of Keukenhof ended successfully. It was a year of extremes. The first 3.5 weeks were extremely cold, followed by a sunny May vacation and ended with a park that still bloomed exuberantly until the very last day. This year 848,984 guests visited Keukenhof.”

 Photo 7 Gardens with textUnfortunately, we were there during those initial 3.5 weeks but maybe we’ll get to go again in the future….. but maybe we’ll hold off until the first week in May next time…..maybe Mother’s Day or thereabouts…make sure it is a little warmer for us and for the tulips.  But, all in all, we did see some tulips in full bloom and we did see some daffodils and crocus and tulips in the fields although not as many as we had envisioned.   And I did get some ideas for adding some more bulb flowers to our garden at home. Unfortunately, the flowers I liked were the more expensive ones. Guess you cannot have too many flowers to grow in your little piece of the earth.

Finally, the farmer’s wife did tell us that, if we wanted to see a bulb farm in the States, we should try to visit Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (https://store.brentandbeckysbulbs.com/) near Gloucester in southern Virginia.  Now that might work.  No planes and no snow in April in southern Virginia – at least I hope not.Photo 8 four tulips together

Birds in a Garden – Netherlands Trip Notes (May 26, 2013)

26May Photo 1 GardenEveryone has, or should have, a place they go mentally, spiritually, or physically to relax and find peace – a place that you call to mind when you close your eyes, slow down your breathing, and calm your mind of all the clutter and chaos you’re bombarded with on any given day.  A place to bring your soul to stillness.  For me, that place is a garden – not a particular one – just bits and memories of many gardens I have visited, gardens I have seen on television or in books that I would like to visit, and even flower beds I have planted and nurtured over the years.  The Bible traces our beginnings to the garden of Eden where all creatures, great and small, lived out their lives in harmony and beauty.  This I know —  where there are trees and flowers and plants of all shapes and sizes, there are also bees and butterflies and foxes and raccoons and salamanders and there are birds.  So it should not come as a surprise that, finding ourselves as “stranger[s] in a strange land” [1] and wanting to do a little exploring and maybe a little birding, we would find a garden and head out for some peace, serenity, blooms, and birds.

The Amsterdam Botanical Garden is not listed or described in the guidebook that I 26May Photo 2 Swanpurchased for our trip.  I found the garden by looking for green squares on the street map of the Canal District that was given to us by the concierge at the hotel.  The “green” had all the right characteristics – It was in the old town area; it was relatively close to the hotel, i.e., within walking distance for even me; and, it was located on a main street and canal and the directions were pretty straightforward, i.e., not too many turns.  We set out about mid-morning on a sunny but still chilly April day. Who knew it would still be so cold in April? We had a few hours between checking out of the hotel and boarding our cruise ship so things seemed pretty much perfect for heading to the garden. It was still very early in spring so I didn’t expect we’d see too many flowers but that was okay – our objective was to see birds, pure & simple – not religion or culture – just birds and maybe a few tulips or crocus or daffodils.  Set your expectations broad enough and you are rarely disappointed.

26May Photo 3 CootWe had seen Mute Swans (Cygnus olor) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) and thousands of pigeons on our walking tour of the district and were now hoping for something more – birds that were a little more “native” to Europe and that would be “new” to us.  We had also seen quite a few Coots (Fulica atra) around the river basin.  The Coots looked quite similar to the American Coots (Fulica americana) and I found myself checking the bird books to make sure they were actually different species.  Yep, they are and when you check the books, the differences are easy to see.

I have to stop and add a note about pigeons.  They seem to be everywhere on earth and they seem to come in all colors which might imply that there are thousands of different varieties of pigeons.  After all, it takes a birding expert (as far as I am concerned) to 26May Photo 4 Pigeondifferentiate between a Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis) and a Black-Capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla) with some experts only willing to firmly identify a Black-Capped if they hear the song.  And these are recorded as two different species.  On the other hand, there are pigeons that look absolutely and radically different in terms of coloring and plumage but they all seem to be lumped into the category of pigeon.  I asked some members of the local bird club why they did not “count” the pigeons on their bird walks or, if there were people who specialized in pigeons and pigeon watching who did note the differences or see them as different bird types.  I was told that there were people who did this but most folks just call them pigeons.  At any rate, I note that the guidebook we used on our trip (mostly), “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Britain & Northern Europe” by Peter Goodfellow and Paul Sterry [3] included the Rock Dove (Columbia livia) and noted that it was the ancestor of all domestic pigeons. And I believe I have found my answer – most pigeons we see are probably domestic pigeons that escaped their confines on farms and rooftops and multiplied exponentially and now inhabit every city and town in most parts of the world.  And, although some birds that “escape” and become “non-native invasives” are still counted and photographed and added to life-lists and reported to eBird in regional reporting, most pigeons do not seem to be counted and added to life-lists.  But, having said all that, we did spot what we thought was a Wood Pigeon (Columba palumbus) which is similar to a mourning dove in coloring but decidedly bigger…and is called out separately in the guide book.

As we neared the Botanical Garden, we 26May Photo 5 Egy Goosespotted our first interesting birds of the day – a pair of Egyptian Geese (Alopochen aegyptiacus). These waterfowl were totally new to us and exotic looking to say the least.  Checking a different guidebook later, “Birds of Britain and Europe” by Jim Flegg and David Hosking [4], I noted that this too was a domestic bird gone rogue.  That guide lists an “escape” as a domestic bird or pet that has been accidently or deliberately released into the wild. I am sensing a theme here and probably not so unusual for urban birding.

Next up, a delightful Magpie (Pica pica) – a common bird here in Amsterdam but another life bird for me and another check mark on my list. Awesome!  We had spotted our first 26May Photo 6 magpiemagpie on the way in from the airport a couple days previous but here we had an opportunity to see one relatively close up and for some minutes before he flew on up the canal.  Of course, every time you see a new bird, you have to stop and ponder and study and check the guidebook and try to get photos…..only to find later that you will begin to see them everywhere.   I think once you notice something, it becomes common.  It is not that there are more of the birds about; it is just that you have noticed them and become sensitive to them and you begin to see them more.  Such is the case with the magpie – our initial delight faded into complaisance such that by the end of our vacation, we were apt to say, “Oh, there goes another magpie,” and hardly stop to notice.

The Amsterdam Botanical Garden is a place of study of all things botanical and associated with the University in Amsterdam but does open for visitors.  Although the 26May Photo 7 Birdsgarden itself was not too large, it had attracted quite a few visitors on this Sunday morning.  We found our way to the entrance, paid the fee, and headed inside, only to be stopped in our tracks.  The garden was filled with birds this fine morning, only not the type of birds we were expecting. These “birds” were of a different feather altogether and had definitely flocked together in the garden this morning.  No bird species name for these….they were good old Homo sapiens – maybe with a sub-label as “transgender morph”?  They were true to spring mating behaviors with elaborate and brightly colored plumage as they “fluttered” about near the coffee bar and enjoyed their morning rituals.  Yes, this is Amsterdam where there is a culture of tolerance and you can expect to see anything here, I suppose, but this was quite an unexpected surprise.  After taking a few photos (and they were quite cooperative) and gathering our wits about us, we headed on down a pathway and further into the gardens.

As we moved past the tropical green house, we spotted a pair of beautiful green Ring-26May Photo 8 ParrakeetNecked Parakeets (Psittacula krameri) – yet another example of a domestic pet that has been released into the wild or somehow made their way many miles north from their native territories in Africa.  At some point, it definitely occurs to me that the theme for the day might be about these escapees or transient migrants.  We were seeing birds (not just the avian kind) that had previously lived in cages, whether physical or emotional or cultural, that were now “set free” to wander happily throughout their chosen gardens for the remainder of their lives.  And why shouldn’t they? The world is made more beautiful for every bird and every creature in it regardless of how exotic or common they may be. Of course, I have to retract that statement when I start thinking about the European Starlings that have become quite invasive in America…and I’m sure there are quite a few problems associated with those pigeons that roost on buildings everywhere.  But this day, I am feeling open-minded and thinking a few more birds in the garden won’t hurt anything.

26May Photo 9 Mallard XBut where were the native birds?  We had spotted mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) but these too seemed to be a mixed breed with coloration similar to domestic ducks, possibly a Blue Swedish (Anas platyrhynchos domesticus) considering the brown and white patches on their breasts and around their heads.   And where do mallards originate anyway? They are pretty much found everywhere too.

Finally, we spotted a small bird that looked very similar to a chickadee but with different coloring.  I chased the bird through the garden, past the beehives, across a bridge, and through the hedges trying to get a good look and a decent photograph.  I was only partially successful.  Do understand that “chasing” a bird means I’m moving slowly and stealthily trying not make a sound as I creep closer and closer only to find the bird is way too quick and sits still barely for a 26May Photo 10 Titmoment and then dives deep in the tree or bush leaving me with the barest glimpses and totally blurry pictures.  I know for a moment there you visualized me as running around like a crazy woman waving my arms frantically and screaming, “bird, bird, bird” but it is not the way it goes. We were able to identify the little bird as a Great Tit (Parus major) so all was not lost. That sounds a lot bigger than a chickadee, now doesn’t it? I often wonder at the names that were given birds.  The same folks probably wanted to call a California Condor a “little vulture”.

We sat on a bench enjoying the sunshine and a couple mallards swam over, hopped up on the bank and came close, possibly hoping for a few crumbs of bread of which we had none.  We had cameras, cellphones, and binoculars but no cookies – of what possible use were we to those mallards?  They gave up on us, probably doing duck sighs and wondering why we would head out for a day trip without any cookies or granola to share.  They waddled on back down to the canal and soon were back to business as usual ducking and diving looking for tidbits here and there.

26May Photo 11 Blackbird maleWe strolled around the garden enjoying the few flowers and birds that we saw pausing quite often to sit on a bench and contemplate the peacefulness in spite of the many people also enjoying the day there. We admired a brown bird that looked and acted similar to an American Robin (Turdus migratorius) from back home (only without the red breast) scratching the dirt looking for bugs and worms.  She (and I say she now that I have looked her up in the book) was later joined by a Blackbird (Turdus merula) which clinched her as his mate and not some sort of weird European robin.  We tracked 26May Photo 12 Blackbird femalethe pair across the garden or, maybe, they were tracking us…probably the latter since they would be so much better at it than we are.

The stork nest on the institution’s chimney was empty (alas) as it was still too early for the storks to have migrated back to the area.  I would have loved to see one of those but I contented myself with taking several photographs of a gull, the familiar Herring Gull (Larus argentatus) perched nearby and several pigeons, what else?  Then it was back to trying to sneak up on the Tit again which turned out to be another Tit entirely – this one a Coal Tit (Periparus ater). Both looked quite a bit like a Chickadee as noted previously, but the former having a lemony breast and the latter having rust colored sides.  We watched the Coal Tit as he flitted back and forth between trees near the tropical green house.  He patiently bided his time until someone opened the door and left him an opening – then like a flash he was inside.  It seems that some birds like to escape their cages and others look for the opportunity to go back inside where it is warm on a cold day and possibly safer.  We had not intended to go inside but, 26may photo 13 bird of paradiselike Alice following the white rabbit down the rabbit hole [2], we followed him inside hoping to get that elusive photograph.  We lost him in the foliage inside but did see our first real blooms of the day.  Appropriately, it was the “bird of paradise”.

One last look around the garden and we headed out and back to the hotel and our cruise ship.  Stopping along the way at a pub for lunch, we didn’t see too many birds but did enjoy a burger and some iced tea.  As we walked back down towards the docks and rounded the river basin, we were provided one last treat – a beautiful Great Crested Grebe (Podiceps cristatus), another life-bird and a great ending to a good day of birding in a very nice garden.

26may photo 14 grebe[1] Bible, King James Version, Exodus 2:22 –And she bare him a son, and he called his name Gershom: for he said, I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

[2]Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”; by Lewis Carroll; 1865

[3] “A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of Britain & Northern Europe” by Peter Goodfellow and Paul Sterry; Beaufoy Books; 2010

[4]Birds of Britain and Europe” by Jim Flegg and David Hosking; New Holland Publishers; 1990