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®)




Wind and Water – Netherlands (May 15, 2013)

In a previous blog I stated that “all” of the Netherlands is below sea level.  Well, that was a windmill 1bit of an exaggeration that I will correct with this entry.  I looked it up – yep, I googled it – just to get a fact or two straight.  Per Wikipedia 1 (whatever did we ever do without Google and Wikipedia?), about 20% of the total area of the Netherlands is below sea level with about 50% of the land being less than 1 meter (about 3.28 feet) above sea level and 21% of the population living below sea level.  There is a mountain named Mount Vaals (Vaalserberg) that is 322.7 meters (1,059 feet) above sea level.  Mount Vaals is shared by Germany and Belgium so it is not totally within the boundaries of the Netherlands but it does mark the high point for that country.  To give you some perspective on that, Mount McKinley in Alaska (highest point in North America) is 6,194 meters (20,320 feet).  Closer to home here in Maryland, Sugarloaf Mountain is 391 meters (1,282 feet).  So, if you have visited Sugarloaf, you can imagine that it is slightly higher than the highest point in the Netherlands.  And Mount Vaals is not representative of most of the landscape in the Netherlands…there is a reason the Netherlands are call the Low Countries.  Most of the land that we saw on our recent visit was below sea level or just at sea level and all of the towns visited were filled with canals and dikes.  It was definitely a case of “water water everywhere”.  So what do you do if all, or most of the land, available for living and farming, is either underwater or very, very wet? If you’re in the Netherlands, you build dykes and you harness the wind to help you move as much as you can.  Which windmill 2brings us to two of the three reasons anyone might visit the Netherlands, namely to see windmills, check out the dams and dykes, and to see tulips.  I am sure there are other reasons to visit, maybe buy some diamonds, but, for me, these are the big three – windmills, dykes, and tulips.  And if you want to see windmills, you go to the UNESCO historical site Kinderdijk where there are 18 windmills still working and you can learn everything you ever thought you might want to know about them.

Before I go further, this blog is not intended to be a tutorial and I am certainly not the authority on anything related to the Netherlands or my big three interests from my visit there.  I only share some of the things I learned from the trip, most of it gleaned from the information provided by the various tour guides and from my aforementioned sea level data check using Google and Wikipedia on the Internet.

Growing up in the south, I am very familiar with grist mills and have visited a few that are preserved – some still working grinding meal for tourists to see — over the years. I suppose, in my mind, I associated windmills with grist mills and somehow figured that windmills would be pretty much the same.  Of course, that is nowhere near the truth.  Grist mills in the US are water driven mills whose function is to grind grains, mainly corn, into meal to be used for cooking bread.  But windmills in the Netherlands use the wind to power screw technology to move water from one area to another.  About the only similarity is that the mills use natural power sources, wind or water, to provide the power.  I do believe the Dutch also used a type of windmill to grind grain but they mainly used windmills to remove water.  And they were doing it from way back in the 13th century.

windmill 3But, back to windmills… noted, as early as the 13th century, windmills were being used to pump the water from one area (usually a lower lying area) to another area (a river or lake).  The land that was created is a polder which seems to be an island that is below sea level.  As more land was cleared, the polders became bigger.  A row of windmills would be built on the dykes to keep the water cleared from the polders.  As one canal became filled with water and prone to overflow, another row of windmills would be built at a higher level with another canal or man-made lake until the water could be pumped to the main river and eventually out to sea.  As such, the windmills are built on tiers of land so that the water is gradually raised to the sea level and can flow out to sea.  Although the old windmills are not used today (except those at the UNESCO site at Kinderdijk) for this purpose, there are modern pumping stations that still use the old Archimedean Screw  2 technology to keep the land dry.  Essentially, the technology involves the use of a very large screw which is placed inside a hollow pipe.  The whole thing is placed in the water on an angle with the bottom of the screw in the water and the top of the screw at the higher level where the water is to be dispensed.  As the screw turns, the water is pulled into the bottom and moves up the screw until it comes out at the top.

windmill 4While the Archimedean Screw is still used for pumping water, the windmills are not.  The industrial revolution brought in the use of steam engines and, now huge diesel engines provide power to the pumping stations.  But, with all the wind still readily available for use in the Netherlands, no one has given up on the use of windmills. They just changed the design and function.   Huge modern steel windmills dot the landscape generating electricity.  Having used windpower for hundreds of years, it was probably a no-brainer for the Dutch to graduate to generating electricity using the technology….and from the number of windmills in the countryside, I do not believe there was as much controversy about using the new windmills in the Netherlands as there has been in the US.

windmill 6One final thought about windmills.  Like lighthouses where the keeper lived inside the lighthouse, the miller also lived inside the windmill.  The accommodations were pretty tight and pretty rustic considering that the parts of the windmill pretty much filled the windmill.  The windmills at the UNESCO site are also inhabited by the “millers” who operate them.  However, I do not believe the millers actually live solely within the windmills; I suspect that the furnishings we saw in the windmill were for our benefit and the miller and his family live in the outbuildings nearby.  The guide told us that there are 2 professional millers at Kinderdijk and the rest were in training.  She mentioned that there was a waiting list to become a miller and to live in the mills and operate them.  We were lucky enough to see a windmill operating (at tremendous speed) and to see the miller come by to stop the mill before he left for the day.

windmill 5Okay, that’s windmills but what about those dams or dykes?  The Dutch had “water management councils” or waterschappen from as early as the 12th century.  We were told that the “water manager” for a town was much more important than any other Government official for the farmer’s livelihood and even the lives of the people depended on the keeping the water at bay.  The mayor might have thought he was the big cheese but he pretty much did what the water manager told him to when it came to the dykes and the windmills and keeping the town dry.

Basically, water management consisted of the dikes, canals, and pumping stations (windmills).  The earliest water management methods consisted of trying to block the water from coming in from the North Sea and the Zuiderzee or Southern Sea.  At first, I think it was a case of a little here and a little there…..block this stream, build up that bank, add a little dirt here and a little there. Smaller and simpler dams were built in the beginning and made bigger and stronger as time passed.  Dykes were connected to create much bigger dams.  Canals between the dykes were built to allow water to flow out at low windmill 7tide but blocked to prevent water from coming in again at high tide.  Dams were high ground so people settled and built their homes on the dams.  And so you have Amsterdam which was built on the dam on the Amstel River. And, yes, that is the river which has a beer named after it.  Similarly, you have Rotterdam which was built on the dam(s) on the Rotter River.   In Amsterdam, the main part of the original dam is called the Dam Square.  And all the trams run through it and all the tour groups meet there.  After a long day of walking on uneven cobblestones, it is not unusual to hear the tourists walking around lost going up one canal street after another looking for that “damned square”….then again, maybe it was just me that said that.

Clearly over the years the bigger issue was not allowing the water to go out to sea with the low tide but stopping it from coming back in with the high tide. And over the years, the dykes failed and had to be rebuilt which was made more difficult because every time the tide came in while the dyke was being repaired, it breached the dyke again.  This went on for centuries.  And each time the land was flooded with salt water, it took years for the land to become suitable for the plow and growing crops again.  I found myself wondering if this is why the Dutch say that they “reclaim” the land implying that they had to keep clearing the same land of water over and over again.  The windmill 8last big natural flood was in February 1953. Prior to that some areas of the southwestern part of the Netherlands were flooded by the Allies in their efforts to stop the advance of the Nazis in World War II.  I’m sure it made sense to the Generals and tacticians to breach the dykes and flood the land but it must have been devastating to the people trying to survive anyway to have their farms and fields flooded leaving them without homes during this war.  Then, less than 10 years later, they’re flooded out again with hundreds lost and drowned when natural forces broke the dams.

Today, there are two main systems of dykes in the Netherlands.  The Zuiderzee Works on the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) in North Holland and the Delta Works in South Holland and IMG_5697Zeeland.  The Zuiderzee Works was built in 1932 in the north and created the IJsselmeer (IJssel Lake).  Interestingly enough, we were told that the water in the Ijsselmeer is fresh water and that closing the lake off to the tides of the Zuiderzee effectively destroyed the fish and seafood industry in that area. The water runs into the lake from the rivers and streams and is carried out to sea with the low tide but blocked from returning with the high tide so it remains essentially fresh or only slightly briny.  The Delta Works in the south was begun in 1958 and finished in 1997. It was the Delta Works dykes that we visited and photographed.  You can see on the photograph included that the dykes consist of a series of gates that can be opened in different combinations to control the flow of water into and out of the area.

While we were touring these areas, I just could not help thinking of the islands in the Chesapeake Bay that are slowly being eroded away and wondered if the Dutch would not have taken a different perspective on whether or not to let nature take its course.  I also pondered whether or not New York City and particularly Manhattan Island would be the metropolis it is today had it been originally settled by some group other than the Dutch East India Company.  It is New Amsterdam Mapmy understanding that the southern end of Manhattan Island was originally very swampy and prone to floods of the surrounding rivers.  Where other colonists might have seen too much swamp and not enough landmass, the Dutch were probably not the least bit put off by the marshes and wetlands.  They had access to the Native Americans for fur trading and access to the sea for shipping the furs….what better place to build a town.  I found this photo of an old map on line – check out the canals — of course they would build canals; it was technology they knew well.  And they called it New Amsterdam, what else?

If you’re still interested and looking for way more information on dams and dykes and windmills –