As Europe is approximately the 6th most interesting continent for birdwatching, no visitor would make it the primary activity on a three-week trip. In the cardinal household, however, all trips large and small involve lugging around the big lens and budgeting time to listen for chirping.
In fact, the birding component of this trip was wildly successful compared to previous trips. While I usually see the greatest hits (blackbirds, great tits, wrens, robins, etc.), I scored some deep cuts this time, gaining 46 new life birds. I want to reflect here on how that happened, with an emphasis on gratitude for the incredible tools available to modern birders, both technological and human. Sure, my skills have improved recently – but I had a lot of help.
Help from a professional guide
Amsterdam has enough activities to keep anyone busy for four days. Still, I convinced my wife to let me set aside half of one day to hire a bird guide – the first time we’ve done that in Europe. I found a company called Flevo Birdwatching that runs treks to top hotspots, and we booked a morning for Oostvaardersplassen, a sprawling wetlands area northeast of the city. Our fantastic guide was the company’s co-founder, Taco. (not this one, though he’s Dutch as well)
My top target was a bluethroat – a beautiful, reed-dwelling songbird – and our first stop was supposedly one of the best spots to see them. Unfortunately, it was quite windy, and we didn’t find much of anything in the reeds. The highlight of the first stop was seeing a common cuckoo in flight (no pic), finally removing it from my dreaded “heard only” list.
Later stops were more fruitful. Among the highlights were a pied avocet:
Eurasian marsh harrier:
And northern lapwing:
Still hoping for a bluethroat, we did encounter a different-colored throat: a greater whitethroat:
As we were winding down – in fact, we were nearly an hour over the time we paid for – he took us down one last path. Its sign had a familiar word on it:
I knew from my trip prep that this was the Dutch word for bluethroat. This isn’t a zoo, of course, so surely the sign wasn’t pointing to an actual bird, right? Perhaps the trails are just named for animals, as they often are in U.S. parks?
Well, whatever the case, we didn’t get more than a few yards past that sign before Taco excitedly whispered, “that’s it, singing!”
Not only did it put on a great performance, but the immediate area also yielded a fantastic look at a Eurasian spoonbill:
And common redstart:
Here’s the trip report that Taco posted, complete with an unflattering candid picture of me.
Help from Merlin Sound ID
I’ve been using the Merlin app’s miraculous Photo ID feature for a couple of years. Among other things, it has helped me yield dozens of new lifers from old trip pics. The Sound ID feature is newer, and it just recently added Europe’s most common birds.
According to the book of Avians, when God was giving warblers their color, she ran out of paint before she got to the Old World warblers. They all have the same dull look – and, to make identification even tougher, they are often elusive. (Note: Old World and New World warblers are in different families and have little in common beyond the name.) This was the best shot I could get of this drab fellow seen in Kinderdijk, Netherlands:
Fortunately, they each have unique songs, and Merlin is highly effective at distinguishing them. That one was a sedge warbler. And this German singer is an icterine warbler:
The sound app also helped with Europe’s interchangeable chickadee wannabes. Thanks to Merlin, I’m confident that this is a willow tit (Selva di Val Gardena, Italy):
Help from eBird
Most American birders are familiar with eBird, the citizen-science database that has revolutionized both ornithology and amateur birdwatching. While participation isn’t as widespread in Europe, travelers can still be clued into what to expect, and where, near their destinations.
For example, the site indicated spots in the Dolomites (the mountains of northeastern Italy) with alpine birds I wouldn’t see elsewhere. Sure enough, it led me to a yellow-billed chough:
And a white-winged snowfinch:
You can tell I didn’t bring the bird lens on our Dolomites hikes. It’s heavy, and I would rather use the camera for things like this:
Near the end of the trip, I wanted to break up our longest driving day with some quick birding. I found a rock-quarry-turned-nature-preserve called Plessenteich not too far off the
Audubon Autobahn near Ulm, Germany. It had several blinds facing a large pond, but my most productive birding was in the trees along a path. In less than an hour I got seven lifers, including the aforementioned icterine warbler, a ruddy shelduck:
Fieldfare, a pretty thrush that became my 600th lifer:
And this majestic red kite, which flew right over our heads as we were getting back into the car:
We used Munich as a travel hub, so we spent our last day riding bikes around the English Garden, an enormous park in the northeast quadrant of the city. While the park is mostly forested, eBird told me that a couple of my final targets – Mandarin duck and bar-headed goose – were common at one of its ponds. And eBird wasn’t lying:
We also got some good looks at a mute swan family:
Help from feeders and water features
Birding in the wild is like golf: most of the allotted time is spent walking or standing around, punctuated by quick bursts of action. This is true even in many of the hottest hotspots. That’s why human intervention is often necessary, especially if you want to see birds up close. I was grateful that our B&B owners in Delft and Bled, and a house near our B&B in Obertraun, Austria, had feeders and water features that assured a steady stream of commoners. They helped me get my best pics of a chaffinch:
Great spotted woodpecker. Frustratingly, it’s still the only Eurasian woodpecker I’ve ever seen:
European serin, a lifer in Bled:
Eurasian blackbird, the ubiquitous soundtrack of the trip:
And blue tit, my sentimental favorite Euro-birdie. I’ve seen one on all five previous trips to Europe, but the pics are nearly always crummy. This one is. . .almost in focus:
Help from a female finch of some sort
Our first stop on the trip was Hoge Veluwe National Park in a lovely, forested corner of the eastern Netherlands. It is mainly known for housing the small but impressive Kröller-Müller Museum, home of the second largest Van Gogh collection. However, I had an additional work of art on my agenda: Europe’s only titmouse. The Paridae family – long a favorite of mine – consists of chickadees (no crest) and titmice (crest). In Europe, they’re all just called “tits,” and the appropriately named crested tit prefers mature conifer forests, thus having a limited range in the Netherlands.
After the museum, we rode to a fancy blind with a water feature where the tits allegedly hang out, but we ended up seeing no birds (of any kind), just some snarly local birders (the Dutch are usually friendly and birders are usually friendly, so that was a fluke). We needed to catch a train to Delft, so we hopped back on our bikes and headed toward town. I wasn’t planning to stop again, but I saw a finch-sized bird I didn’t recognize on a tree trunk, so I pulled over and tried to get a picture. It ascended the tree, branch by branch, eluding my lens until it was in the canopy, where I then noticed a second, smaller bird. Amazingly, the finch – probably a female greenfinch, but I never got a pic – led me right to a crested tit! I got three shots and then it flew off. None were good, but the ID is unmistakable:
No theme in this heading -- I just wanted to show you some grebe fuzzies
Finally, here’s a coot’s nest in a filthy Delft canal, made out of all sorts of stuff including trash:
Thanks for reading! Let’s hear about your recent sightings, sitings, and citings.