The quest for owls and tiger bingos

A wild goose chase... in winter, in Holland? Caroline Dilke took her binoculars to woods near Harderwijk
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
"What made you decide to come on this holiday?" Suddenly, like birds with sharp eyes and beaks, the others in the party had turned their attention on me.

"Well, I've always been a keen amateur naturalist - and this seemed an exciting thing to do in December. And I'm learning a lot - about how to look for them, as well as how to identify them, and about migration ..."

None of this seemed to satisfy my companions. They'd noted, of course, my small, lightweight binoculars, my non-regulation birdwatching outfit of blue padded coat and trousers (real "birders" wear dark olive green) and, above all, my lack of a telescope.

It had taken me a while to pick up the basic vocabulary: "bins", "scope", "raptors", "passerines". I am deeply thankful that, on the first afternoon, when the phrase "tiger bingos" was on everybody's lips, I was too cowardly to ask, "What's a tiger bingo?" (It's so obvious ... A taiga bean goose is one that's spent the summer in the taiga of the far north, rather than the tundra.)

The five-day holiday had been advertised as "spectacular winter birding within an hour's flight of home". Spectacular it certainly was. Our leader, Arnoud van den Berg, a famous Dutch ornithologist, took great care that everyone (including me) got as good views as possible of the birds he charmed out of the woods with a wild, hissing call, or drove us miles across polders and along dikes to scan across wintry, ruffled wastes of water, where thousands of wildfowl bobbed like grains of pepper.

Some of our sightings, I believe, would have thrilled the most blase. The long-eared owl who stared back at us with golden eyes from a roost in a fir tree 10ft away (we'd invaded a suburban garden); the trip to a wood at dusk to watch the nesting hole of a black woodpecker and wait for it to fly around us with its eerie, mewing call, before climbing in for the night; the white-tailed eagle that put up a cackling flock of 3,000 geese, then it soared above us, as menacing and huge as a wolf with wings.

On the other hand, some of our expeditions were strictly for serious birders. One afternoon we drove hundreds of kilometres through endless, grey-green fields - their monotony broken only by an occasional glasshouse glowing weirdly through the drizzle- hunting the elusive lesser white- fronted goose (there are only 20 in Holland, apparently), scanning flock after flock of other species to detect the white eye ring and slightly curved white facial plate which would distinguish our quarry from the ordinary white-fronted goose (of which we saw countless thousands, grey geese with sooty streaks on their bellies, as if they'd flown over embers and been chargrilled). That afternoon I'd rather have had a walk in a wood to look for more common birds - particularly as we never did find the lesser white-fronts.

Our working day was from 8am to 5pm, the hours of daylight. So after breakfast in our comfortable hotel in Harderwijk (which used to be a port, before the land north of it was claimed from the sea), we'd have a quick look for tree-creepers in the square outside, then set off in a minibus with our bins, 'scopes and a packed lunch.

Our leader would have caught the latest bird news beforehand, so we'd find ourselves visiting the casualty bay of a large hospital (crested larks) or a motorway service station (rose finches); or stopping in a tiny village where he unsportingly played a tape of a little owl's call, and brought a cross, feathered face to the door of a nesting-box.

Back at the hotel, after dinner came the task of doing "the list". The travel company had helpfully provided a checklist of 189 bird species that we might possibly see during our stay. We saw - some of us saw - 112 of them, plus two rarities that weren't on the list.

What constitutes a "tick"? This was an interesting moral question. If you sight a little bird flitting quickly past, and the leader of the party says it's a hawfinch, do you tick hawfinch? Or do you wait until you've definitely seen for yourself the outline of the stout bill and the white flash on the wings? Clearly, different people drew this line in different places. The Scotswoman in our group was particularly rigorous: "Well, I'm not ticking that."

A related question was: what's the distinction between "birding" and "twitching"? Would any members of the party admit to being a twitcher? Their answers were defensive.

"I wouldn't drop everything and go, no. I didn't go to see the harlequin ducks at Girvan. But when the buff-breasted sandpiper came to the coast I did go to see that."

"I never twitch outside the county. But I do listen to Birdline. And I'd take the morning off work to see a good bird. My life list for Northumberland is 329."

"My list for this year is 320."

"I don't know what my list is. I've never counted. I just enjoy looking at birds."

Everyone disapproved of the pure twitcher, who clocks a rare bird, then immediately departs. A "birder" will stay to relish the details of plumage and behaviour, hoping to get a good view of something he may never see again.

"Americans come to me with a list," said Arnoud. "So they have to visit in spring, when I know the nesting sites."

Of course, interesting birds may be seen here all year round, but in winter, geese make for the area in their countless thousands. The government generously compensates farmers for the damage they do (each goose can eat half a kilo of grass a day, as well as treading down and ruining other crops), and about half the Dutch population contribute money for conservation areas. As well as birds, the naturalist can see impressive herds of Przewalski's horses and aurochs - "wild" cattle re-bred from the gene pool of zoo animals.

Who were we, on this trip? The group included a stockbroker, a scientist with his own biotech business, a retired engineer, a man from "the banking world", the wife of a university lecturer, and a journalist. All but one had a partner - whom we'd left at home. Not because they weren't interested in birds, but because they weren't seriously interested in birds. Not serious enough to go on a wild goose chase, anyway.

Would I go on a similar trip again? Yes. But not just yet. I'll save up for a 'scope instead, and maybe invest in a less embarrassing birding outfit.

Caroline Dilke travelled with Limosa Holidays, which organises trips all year round to various places, including India, Majorca, Hungary and Africa. Details from Suffield House, Northrepps, Norfolk NR27 0LZ (01263 578143). The five-day trip to Holland, which included British Airways flights and everything except drinks, cost pounds 725.