Although more associated with fine chocolates than natural history, Belgium can boast many excellent wildlife reserves where the quality of the flora, birds and insect-life rivals that attained by the national confectionary! This short summer tour will introduce participants to some of these natural attributes, focusing initially on the flat landscape bordering Holland where the Zwin Estuary, long since cut off from the sea by accumulations of silt, has created an important maritime ecosystem. From here we visit the historic city of Bruges, where we stay for a night, and several other wetland nature reserves in northern Belgium before we travel south to explore the legendary Ardennes region which contains the highest hills in the country and many tracts of impressive forest.
Our holiday begins with a comfortable Eurostar train journey through the Channel tunnel to Lille in northern France. From here we drive into Belgium and visit the coastal reserve of Het Zwin, situated in the flat, fen-like countryside bordering Holland. Occupying some 125 hectares of marshland and lagoons, this reserve protects a number of unique habitats and is particularly noted for the diversity of its flora which includes a number of salt-tolerant species. The extensive carpets of Sea-lavender covering the saltings during the summer months provide a colourful spectacle recalling the marshes of north Norfolk.
We cannot visit northern Belgium without spending some time in the historic city of Bruges. This is a city that defies classification but in 2002 was awarded the designation ‘Cultural Capital of Europe’. Exploring the network of cobbled streets transports the visitor back to medieval times, but Bruges is not just an archaeological antiquity and the modern centre of the city contains a wonderful selection of galleries, shops and museums, as well as countless tempting little canal-side cafés where some of Belgium’s gastronomic fare can be sampled!
Continuing towards Antwerp, we visit Blokkersdijk Nature Reserve and Kalmthoutse Heide. Although situated amid a heavily industrialised area, the former contains reed-fringed lakes patrolled by resident Marsh Harriers which periodically scatter flocks of wildfowl from cover. Pochard, Gadwall and Northern Shoveler are among the ducks breeding here and scanning the base of the reeds we may see Bluethroats emerge from the vegetation to hop across strips of exposed mud like garden Robins. The Kalmthoutse Heide embraces pinewoods, moorland, fens and dunes, and this varied mix of habitats makes it a rewarding natural history destination. The heathlands attract Nightjars and Woodlarks, whilst Honey Buzzards soar over the forests in which Black Woodpeckers can be watched hacking away fragments of dead wood with their massive bills, and Black Terns swoop elegantly over the pools. Butterflies abound here, and include the Map, as well as a selection of other more familiar British species. Nearby Den Diel Reserve is noted for the large numbers of dragonflies frequenting its flooded peat diggings and, if the weather is kind, we may be able to find as many as half of the 48 species recorded in the area. Among these could be such jewels as the Emperor Dragonfly (Anax imperator), Migrant Hawker (Aeshna mixta), Black Darter (Sympetrum danae), Vagrant Darter (Sympetrum vulgatum) and the exquisite Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens).
The final leg of our journey takes us to the Ardennes. Here we will walk amongst some of Belgium’s finest woodlands, where White Admirals and Purple Emperors defend their territories along sun-dappled forest rides, and resident birds include Black Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper and Hawfinch.
Much of our time in the Ardennes will be concentrated on the limestone plateaux of the Famenne region. This is an area rich in butterflies and we will be hoping to find such locally scarce species as Swallowtail, Purple Hairstreak, Chalk-hill Blue, Poplar Admiral, Pearly Heath, Silver-washed and Weaver’s Fritillaries. A sharp ‘zit’ call may betray a bobbing Dipper along one of the small streams that irrigate these hills and more dragonflies are likely to be hawking over the waterside vegetation including White-legged Damselfly (Platycnemis pennipes) and the aptly named Beautiful Damselfly (Calopteryx virgo).
During our stay in the Ardennes we will ascend to the Hautes Fagnes which, at 694 metres, is the highest point in Belgium. Spruce forests and moorland expanses protected by this very large nature reserve create a unique upland habitat within Belgium and this is reflected by breeding birds such as Black Grouse, Crested Tit, Nutcracker and Crossbill, plus the presence of Tengmalm’s Owls during good ‘rodent years’. Eagle Owls also nest in some of the quarries in the vicinity and finding one of these magnificent owls may provide a suitable ornithological finale to our visit. Regardless of bird sightings, the wonderful flora of Hautes Fagnes, the clouds of butterflies, and the overall ambience of these tranquil hills will ensure a memorable conclusion to a holiday that reveals some of Belgium’s best kept secrets.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip with Gerald Broddelez to Belgium. A first rate tour leader makes all the difference and Gerald was absolutely great - knowledgeable, considerate and with a great sense of humour. Many thanks to him. There were so many highlights on this trip that I hardly know where to begin - birds and butterflies galore - 6 Hawfinches in Gerald's telescope and Honey Buzzards flying overhead, whilst we were dazzled by Purple Emperor butterflies amongst clouds of other butterflies on the path just at our feet. We were all amazed at the way Gerald managed to find us an Eagle Owl perched a long way away in a cavity in a vast wall of rock. Incidentally this sighting was immediately followed by that of a Goshwak just above our heads, which was (unsuccessfully) chasing a Wood Pigeon. Amazing! Finally the magical hour and a half spent watching a pair of Beavers swimming along the river - only about 10 metres at the most - in front of us, together with their very cute baby (who fell off the river bank at least twice!). All this plus the bonus of a Muskrat swimming along and also climbing a little way up the bank whilst a Kingfisher flew by! We really enjoyed the included tour of Bruges - it is nice to have a bit of culture!
Gerald was delightful - combining genuine expertise with an infectious sense of humour. I was also impressed by how my gluten-free requirement was handled, too.
An excellent holiday with a small group of like-minded people led by a very good Belgian guide. I would highly recommend this holiday to any of my friends. The tour leader, Gerald Broddelez, was well informed on the local wildlife and a cheerful and humorous leader.
I appreciated the special stop to buy Belgian chocolates at a reasonable price which proved to be very enjoyable!
It's difficult to say what the highlight was - there were so many of them!!
A very well run and organised tour. I was very pleased and would come again. Gerald is an asset to your company and we all were able to get something from the tour in terms of species and having an enjoyable time.
This was an excellent trip, good company and very well organised by Gerald who had an extensive knowledge of the wildlife on show and we got to see plenty.
T & S N.
We enjoyed the holiday very much. What did we like about it? Being able to travel by train rather than flying, Gerald's cheerfulness, the good company, the flora and fauna, and Gerald's tireless expertise in the field.
This was a good holiday and Gerald was excellent, knowledgeable and relaxed which all helps. I would actually rate the hotel at Salmchateau as excellent and would have liked another night there!
The hotels at Salmchateau and Nismes were excellent. The inclusion of a tour on foot of central Bruges, with a local guide, was a splendid idea, and I say that although I tend to take culture in rather small quantities!