Although renowned for its chocolate, beer and medieval cities, Belgium is also home to some special birds. Amid the flat landscape bordering Holland in the north of the country, the coastal reserve of the Zwin, an old estuary that was cut off from the sea a long time ago, is one of the best areas for wintering ducks and gulls, whilst the Damme and Uitkerkse polders near Bruges are better known for the large numbers of geese that winter there. From a historical point of view, the Zwin estuary was also important in the Middle Ages as it provided the only means for sea-going vessels to reach Bruges.
In contrast to the northern part of Belgium, the Ardennes in the south is an attractive area of hills, rolling forests and woodland valleys which are home to a number of sought-after bird species. During our stay we will also be able to enjoy some of Belgium’s most important historical and architectural towns, including Bruges which delights millions of visitors each year with its medieval streets, meandering canals and green ramparts and which, in 2002, acted as the Cultural Capital of Europe.
Our holiday begins with a comfortable Eurostar train ride through the Channel Tunnel to Lille in northern France. From here we visit the Uitkerkse polders. Officially protected since 1991, these offer a safe haven for many birds, in particular the flocks of geese that winter here in large numbers. White-fronted and Pink-footed Geese are the species which are most often encountered, but we will search the mass of grey bodies for such vagrants as Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted Geese that turn up on an annual basis. From vantage points and hides we can scan other parts of the polders, looking for such species as Bewick’s Swan, Eurasian Wigeon, Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl. A short distance away, the Spuikom, a large brackish lake, usually holds a wide variety of wintering ducks, grebes and divers. Also in the north, we will explore the coastal reserve of Het Zwin. Here the lagoons often teem with wildfowl and waders, whilst in the surrounding coastal dunes and meadows Snow and Lapland Buntings may be found, together with Avocet, Ruff and Golden Plover; an avian extravaganza to appreciate before we opt for a change of scenery with a drive to the historic city of Bruges.
After a night in Bruges we will have the opportunity to sample a little of its exceptional artistic and cultural heritage. Our last stop in the north will be near Antwerp, at the famous nature reserve of Blokkersdijk. Although situated in a heavily industrialised area, this large reserve attracts masses of wildfowl in winter. Goosander, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon, Goldeneye and Smew are all regularly seen in large numbers, and rarer vagrants often appear among the rafts of duck.
The last leg of our journey takes us to the Ardennes. Here we will walk amongst some of Belgium’s finest woodlands in search of woodpeckers, and inspect the cliffs of local quarries in the hope of finding an Eagle Owl. Our first stop will be in the famous Hertogenwald where, near the Barrage de la Vesdre, we will listen for the distinctive call of the Grey-headed Woodpecker, and search for Dippers along the small streams which tumble through the hills. Next, we ascend to the highest point in Belgium, Hautes Fagnes, which lies at 694 metres. This region, consisting mainly of spruce forests and large open moorlands, is protected within a very large nature reserve and, because of its high altitude, contains many plants and birds that are restricted in their distribution such as Crossbill, Crested Tit and Nutcracker. The area also supports a small breeding population of Black Grouse and, in good ‘rodent’ years, there is an excellent chance of finding the dapper Tengmalm’s Owl, either during a spotlighting session in the evening or at one of the many nest-boxes erected especially for them.
Returning towards the coast, we will visit the Famenne region of the Ardennes. Here the landscape is dominated by large tracts of beech and oak woodland and, walking through these extensive woods, we will look for both Middle Spotted and Black Woodpeckers which are quite common here, as well as for Short-toed Treecreeper, Great Grey Shrike and Hawfinch. For those with an interest in mammals, the Ardennes also boasts healthy populations of Wild Boar, Red Squirrel, Red Fox, Pine Marten, and Roe and Red Deer.
Our last morning will be spent in the Ardennes but we will be fairly flexible, depending on what we have seen and those species we have missed. Whatever we see, it is likely to be a fitting finale to a satisfying and memorable holiday led by one of Belgium’s top natural history tour guides.