31 Oct 2008

31st October 1988 - Flevoland

I'm not saying much here about the Dutch drainage systems and polder land development. There is probably more information around now, and I don't need to oik out all those old notes.

The Oostvaarderplassen

5,500 hectares of open water and reedbeds, said to be excel­lent for duck and raptors in winter, and breeding waders in summer. A bit of the intensively agricultural polderland that someone decided could stay as a wetland instead of being drained and ploughed. A dyke topped by a quiet backroad runs along the east side of the reserve and we spend several cold hours there watching the comings and goings of small parties of wildfowl: wigeon, teal, pochard, mallard, goosander, shelduck, pintail, shoveler, gadwall, greylag geese, bewick swans and cormorants. A rough‑legged buzzard is chased off by a common buzzard which in turn is mobbed by a sparrowhawk; and a peregrine drops in too. The surrounding reedbeds and wooded areas hold a collection of common farm and woodland birds, plus a reed bunting and another willow tit with a sore throat ‑ perhaps it's their local dialect.

Footpaths lead through the reedbeds to two bird hides, while a third hide lies a couple of kilometres away by road. The building we try has a thick thatched roof and is octagonal in shape ‑ more practical for school parties and clubs than the conventional oblong hide. We do not stay long; there is a bitterly cold wind blowing through and only shelduck to be seen outside.

While the Oostvaarderplassen has become a semi‑natural habitat, our next destination, the Lelystad Power Station, is entirely man‑made ‑ a concrete and steel structure in a lake that is now fresh­water, and next to land that been reclaimed. Power stations have a reputation for attracting large numbers of waterfowl to good feeding areas where the outflow from the cooling system warms the surrounding water. We find great-crested and little grebes, coot, tufted duck and pochard sheltering on the leeward side of the building, but not the expected concentration of feeding birds. A local birdwatcher explains that the cooling water is used to warm a series of fishponds (hidden from view by rows of trees) where fish are reared to stock waters all over the country.

A long line of forty greylag geese fly low over the water towards the Oostvaarderplassen. A few common and black-headed gulls fly along the shore, and also a first winter little gull with a leisurely tern‑like flight.

The Ketelmeer

The Ketelmeer is another artificial lake, one of the many open water areas between the 'old' land and the new polders. Originally polders were con­structed adjacent to existing land but this caused the old land to dry out, so the most recent polders are surrounded with open water and water levels in the new and old land can be controlled independently. A score of small islands of up to five square kilometres have been created in these lakes, and these, together with about seventy kilometres of reed‑fringed shore­line, provide breeding places for several species of waterfowl, including bittern and purple heron.
In autumn and winter the lakes, together with the polders, are an important moulting, resting and feeding area for huge numbers of wildfowl. Now, groups of tufted duck and pochard rafted along the shore, with smaller numbers of mallard, great crested grebe, goosander and goldeneye, and lots of gulls.
A large skua flew in low, landed on the water, and commenced a long preening session. It was quite a dark bird, with an even darker face and pale bill. The white flashes on the primaries were more prominent below than above the wings and there was marked barring under the tail but no tail projections. After consulting 'Seabirds' we agreed it was a juvenile pomerine skua ‑ it was quite a change to watch such a bird at fairly close quarters, having previously only seen them flying past Strumble Head (South West Wales) on migration.
A deep water channel ran through the Ketelmeer but there were other places where the water was only a few centimetres deep. For the last hour and a half of daylight we watched a stream of black‑headed and common gulls, several flocks of lapwing and curlew, a half dozen snipe and a few dozen shelduck congregating in the shallows to roost. A sparrowhawk flew over and put the lot up, the two thousand or so gulls looking like a snowstorm in the fading light, topped with a layer of lapwing. The curlew were the first to settle again, then the gulls and finally the lapwing. The snipe fluttered like bats to a great height then left. Two bewick swans flew in, and, perhaps looking for their own kind, landed near a small group of white domestic geese, but waddled off when they realised their mistake.

30 Oct 2008

30th October 1998 - Wildlife at last

Harderbroek Reserve

Harderbroek Marsh lies in the southern part of the Flevoland Polder just across from the town of Harderwijk. Turning left immediately after the bridge put us on a minor road running along the top of a dyke on the south side of the marsh. There are several stopping places from where we can overlook the extensive reedbeds and patches of open water. Plenty of waterfowl, gulls etc; also a ringtail hen harrier quartering the reeds.

About a thousand lapwing roost in a nearby ploughed field, mostly lined up along the furrows for shelter. At least two dozen golden plover and a handful of snipe (photo) are well-camouflaged amidst the sparse vegetation around the edge of the field. This is more like it - birdwatching, seeing new things. Well, there should be something new.

We stop near a garage where I go in search of a better scale map of the area. Meanwhile Jim scans the surrounding fields with the telescope. By the time I return, he has found a new bird. A buzzard flew across and stopped on the ground then later moved to a fence post. It has a pale breast, dark belly and a very pale tail with a dark term­inal band ‑ characteristics of a rough­-legged buzzard ‑ our first new bird of the trip and fortunately one that waited around for me to see it too!

Natuurpark Lelystad

Near Lelystad there is a Natuurpark which comprises landscaped woods, pad­docks, lake, footpaths, and drainage ditches. The paddocks hold a variety of animals from reindeer and moose to pinioned geese and cranes, while the star exhibit seems to be beaver. By the paddocks are information boards about each animal showing identification, tracks, distribution, etc. Three way‑marked walks of varying lengths take in different sets of paddocks. As it is nearly dusk we do the shortest (2km) route; there are few birds around but these include goldcrest, sparrowhawk, and a willow tit that sounds as if it had laryngitis.

According to our AA book of camping in Europe, there are a couple of camp-sites on Flevoland that should be open all year round. Off‑site camping is illegal in the Netherlands so we head for the nearest site. Unfortunately it is closed, but we are too exhausted to go looking for the other place ‑ and if one was closed perhaps the other one is too. We park by the gate, to show that we have at least tried.

A hedgehog trundles across the track ahead; there is something comforting about its presence.

30th October 1988 - the first morning

The first day on the continent doesn't get off to a good start. I felt out of place in the campsite, as the only ones I've stayed in before were fields for tents with basic facilities. This was more like a hotel where you brought your rooms with you. I couldn't work out how to get a hot shower - not last night, not this morning. So I had a cold miserable one.

And then we hit the road, having thrown out a few more things (pots and pans!) that we don't need to keep with us. Driving on the wrong side of the road is a nightmare. The road signs (some of them anyway) are unfamiliar, the roads have three different numbers so we're never quite sure which one we are on.

We didn't want to go to Amsterdam ‑ we don't want anything to do with driving through cities, whatever country we are in. We're looking for the open fields and lakes beloved of geese in winter ‑ but we end up in the city anyway. Thank goodness it's Sunday and there isn't too much traffic on the roads. Jim drives slowly and concentrates on keeping to the right; I look around desperately for road signs and trams ‑ our travellers' handbook says that trams take right of way over everything except emer­gency vehicles and they expect you to know that. It's all rather nerve‑wracking. Sudden­ly the town centre is left behind and we're on a road to nowhere ‑ it ends in a tramyard!

As we turn back towards the town centre, a car full of youths pull up and one of the occupants asks us a question in French. They don't seem to speak English any more than we speak their language but eventually we understand they want to know the way to Antwerp ‑ HELP ‑ we just want to know the way out!

We move on, but suddenly the side door of the camper slides open and a box of cassettes spews its contents into the road. The Belgian lads pass us again as we pick up the pieces; later we see them stopped in the middle of a crossroads with the boot up and belongings flying out. They wave cheerfully as we go past.

Eventually we reach the outskirts of Amsterdam, back on the road we had come in on. We want Lelystad, a reasonable‑sized town some 30 km from Amsterdam, however, as we now realised, the road is actually sign-posted to a bigger town on the next page of our road atlas. But at least we now have got it sorted out.

So why, at each of the subse­quent turnings, do we end up going in the wrong direction? This is the first day of a year of continental driving ‑ surely it won't all be like this ‑ we are already at each other's throats! If Jim doesn't like the directions I'm giving him, why doesn't he just look for the road signs himself!

Somehow the nightmare takes us into a small village with a grassy enclosure in its centre. Small children pass bread through the fence to the fallow deer inside. It's now early afternoon, so we stop for lunch and watch the deer. Then we grit our teeth and set off again.

After four hours of driving, we complete what should have been a one and a half hour journey to the Flevoland Polder. It's not been a good introduction, either to the Netherlands or to continental driving, but I dare say we would have a similar experience in whichever country we started.

29 Oct 2008

29th October 1988 - the crossing

We arrive at Harwich and join the queue for the boat. But nothing is ever straight-forward. Now I can't find the ticket. How can I have mislaid it? I bought it only three days ago!! It is no use, I have turned the camper upside down (well, it's contents anyway) but there is no sign of the ticket. So it is a case of buy another one, or not go. At the last minute, having exhausted all possibilities yet again, I give in and buy another ticket.

The weather is not suitable for travelling on deck. The rain and mist are disheartening, but what the heck . . we are starting on an adventure! We explore the passenger decks, and I am startled to see someone I know. But I can't for the life of me remember his name, except that he often signed himself Hunky Dory! He was my A-level geography teacher, and at this time of year he brings his 2nd year students on a field trip to the Netherlands to look at the polderlands. I didn't do the trip back then, but I do have all the notes stashed away amongst the books I left at a friend's house. Hunky Dory has a group of students with him now, he doesn't see me - typically he looks straight over my head as he is over a foot taller than I am.

There is not much to see through the portholes - too much rain, mist and wave splash. Sometimes a seabird drifts close enough - storm petrels (photo), guillemots, razorbills and a few gulls.

It's dark when we arrive at the Hook of Holland. We drive slowly off the boat and along the roads out of the port. The campsite is only a few miles north along the coast, but when you've never driven on the wrong (sorry right) side of the road before, it seems to take an eternity.

From now on, everything will be different.

October 28th 1988, the night before . .

After eighteen months of gathering information, selling belongings, adding every penny we could to our savings, etc, etc, we are about to have our last night in Britain for a year.

We have spent today doing last minute shopping, some last minute throwing-away of stuff that we really don't need or have room for in the camper, and also getting said camper through its MoT. The camper still has eight months left on its last MoT, but there is a risk that the insurance won't be valid if we have an accident after it runs out, and we also want to be legally on the road for the first day or so back in Britain this time next year. The only problem is that the horn doesn't work, and doesn't want to be fixed. But finally, at 5pm, we are given the necessary certificate.

Now we are in campsite not far from Harwich, ready for the sailing to Hook of Holland tomorrow. The weather is not very inviting - cold, grey and wet - so we are ready for an early night.