Sunday, 29 March 2015

South Limburg 20 - 23 March, 2015

Having missed a few species in my previous trip to south Limburg in May/June 2013, I opted for an early spring trip to the Netherlands' southernmost province in March 2015.

Leaving Nottingham on an early train to Grantham, I took the Virgin train first class to London.  The service on the train was first class in every respect with unlimited coffee and a scrummy cooked breakfast all in the ticket price of £79.  Yes expensive by European standards, but feeling oddly good value for money with the comfortable seats and expansive leg room, wifi etc.

There was a nice connection in London, meaning I could check in immediately on the Eurostar after the short walk from king’s Cross to St. Pancras International.  I travelled Standard Premier, which is only slightly better than standard and includes a light continental breakfast and coffee with refill, plus extra leg room.  Probably worth the upgrade (just).  Had the croissant, roll and Danish been warm it would have been perfect, but there you go.

I changed trains in Brussels, Liege and Maastricht, which sounds more arduous than it is and was birding in Valkenburg by 3pm with my good friends Wietze and Jonathan Janse.  Valkenburg is a delightful little town, in the hilly district of south Limburg.  It has retained its mediaeval charm with ruined castle and quaint streets.  There is a plethora of restaurants and basic amenities.  Good birding is available on its doorstep around Geulpark and Ingendael, about which more later.

We headed south of the town into a flat arable area with scattered hedgerows near the village of Sibbe.  Here we located a Corn Bunting among 20 Yellowhammers, plus Redwing, Common Gull and an obliging Kestrel.  Corn Bunting is now a tricky species in the Netherlands and this was a good one to get under the belt.  Unable to improve on the species list beyond the basics, we headed back to Valkenburg and parked at the castle carpark at Oud Valkenburg, which has an old watermill and excellent tea rooms. 

Walking along the wooded footpath by the river Geul we quickly added the stock woodland species, including Marsh Tit, Nuthatch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Short-toed Treecreeper.  A little further on, by the bridge we bagged a very nice male Grey Wagtail and a Kingfisher.  On our return route I spotted a couple of woodpeckers, which on brief views looked ‘different.’  A short wait and the birds picked their way along a trunk and we got good but fairly brief views of a pair of Middle Spotted Woodpeckers.  The species is increasing in south Limburg, and March is the time to see the species when the trees are bare and the birds are active and calling.

After a super three course meal at de Munt in Valkenburg, we said goodbye to Jonathan, who had work the next day and I had an early night.

The Saturday like the previous day was cool with overcast skies but birding in the forest as we had planned didn’t require nice weather.  Wietze and I  headed for the Belgian border and the extensive forest of Vijlenerbos.  These are ancient forests of oak, beech, spruce and Larch.  Leaving the car we had a Common Crossbill overhead and then set about finding our target woodland species.  There is a network of paths and without GPS or someone who knows where they’re going, one could get seriously lost.  

Over the next three hours we logged around 30 Great Spotted Woodpeckers, 40 Nuthatch, 1 Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, three Middle Spotted Woodpeckers, one Firecrest and at least one macrodactyla Eurasian Treecreeper, which showed extremely well.  Short-toed Treecreeper were also present, with Goldcrest, Marsh Tit and Coal Tit etc.

With the sun threatening to show through we stopped off at the lovely water mill at Volmolen Geudal near Epen.  Here we had nice views of a female Black Redstart and more Marsh Tit, which are remarkably abundant in the area. 
South Limburg is famous among other things for its vlaai; a moist tart of various fillings.  We found a nice little restaurant, with views over the hills towards the Belgian border and I had a scrumptious piece of pineapple vlaai with my cappuccino. 

Warm and refreshed we headed for Maastricht via the scenic route and parked up at the reserve at Eijsder Beemden, which has a number of lakes by the huge river Maas.  This was a productive spot.  We explored the area on foot and we added, on the outward route, a pair of Willow Tits, Great Crested Grebe, Little Grebe, Common Pochard, Gadwall and a Caspian Gull.  The river itself was unremarkable for birds, so we made a big loop around the pools, where we saw four Garganey – including two drakes, several Teal, a Pintail, single Common Snipe and an awesome ringtail Hen Harrier. 

We returned to the car just in time to avoid a huge deluge and crossed the river near Maastricht and made our way to the hill at Sint. Pietersberg.  This is home to a pair of Eagle Owls, which breed in a cave above the quarry there.  With the sun now beaming down, we had excellent scope views of a bird sitting on the edge of its cliff.  We watched the bird for half an hour, along with yaffling Green Woodpecker, a perched Common Buzzard and Long-tailed Tit.

The rain set in again, mixed with hail and we sought shelter near Valkenburg near Ingendael, an area of wooded hillside with nature trails.  The excellent Villa Warempal supplied an awesome Dutch apple pie with cream, ice cream and coffee.   The place is an old guest house now a pension and tea rooms, done out in an old fashioned style with rustic charm.

Replete, we set off up the hill and had amazing, prolonged views of a Middle Spotted Woodpecker. Wietze had a single Waxwing here, although I didn’t get on to it.  There were a few Redwings here also, the obligatory Marsh Tit plus Goldfinch and Greenfinch.

We returned to de Munt for dinner and I had escargot and fillet steak, washed down with the Affligem Dubbel, a dark but mellow beer at 6.8% abv. The restaurant has an excellent selection of local beers, some coming in at 13% abv!

We were out early again after breakfast on the Sunday, this time heading north to the German border at Brunsummerheide  This is an area of mixed woodland and heathland.  It was cold and birds were slow to rise.  However, we had a Black Woodpecker giving the distinctive krik-krik flight call, two pairs of Wood Lark and totally mind-blowing views of two male Crested Tits in full song.  We also saw Kingfisher by the car park, as well as Siskin.

Wietze needed to be back home by the evening, so after coffee and apricot vlaai at the castle tea rooms at Oud Valkenburg, he left me to my own devices.  I decided to explore the hills to the south of the village.  It was now sunny and raptors were beginning to do their thing and I had three Common Buzzards, displaying Goshawk, Sparrowhawk and Kestrel.  In the woods I had a drumming Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.  Returning to Valkenburg, I did a full circuit of the river and lake at Geulpark.  I was rewarded with close views of two Hawfinch, a pair of Garganey and another male Goshawk.  There had been a big arrival of Chiffchaffs and I counted 10 singing birds.

After watching the first episode of the Stonehenge series on BBC2, I dined at de Munt yet again and had the fresh trout.  All meals come with either a chips or fried potatoes, fresh vegetables and a side salad. 

I had a quick breakfast on the Monday, noting a singing male Black Restart en route to the railway station. 

Accommodation was at Hotel Riche, Neerhem 26, Valkenburg.  I was charged 120 Euros for three nights bed and breakfast via booking.com.  The continental breakfast at the Riche was particularly noteworthy.  They don't cut a dash in bedroom furniture but it was clean and adequate.  

London St. Pancras International to Brussels return was £190 Standard Premier or £130 standard.  But note: prices vary daily.  Travel time was 2 hours.  Brussels to Valkenburg return was 56 Euros.  The travelling time was two hours and thirty minutes including changes at Liege and Maastricht.

Species list
Mute Swan
Greylag Goose
Canada Goose
Barnacle Goose (ouo)
Red-breasted Goose (ouo)
Common Pochard
Tufted Duck
Gadwall
Mallard
Pintail
Garganey
Teal
Cormorant
Grey Heron
Great Crested Grebe
Little Grebe
Hen Harrier
Goshawk
Sparrowhawk
Common Buzzard
Kestrel
Water Rail
Moorhen
Coot
Oystercatcher
Lapwing
Common Snipe
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Caspian Gull
Stock Dove
Wood Pigeon
Collared Dove
Eagle Owl
Kingfisher
Green Woodpecker
Black Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Middle Spotted Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Jay
Magpie
Jackdaw
Carrion Crow
Goldcrest
Firecrest
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Crested Tit
Coal Tit
Willow Tit
Marsh Tit
Woodlark
Skylark
Long-tailed Tit
Chiffchaff
Eurasian Treecreeper
Short-toed Treecreeper
Wren
Starling
Blackbird
Song Thrush
Redwing
Mistle Thrush
Robin
Black Redstart
Dunnock
House Sparrow
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Meadow Pipit
Chaffinch
Greenfinch
Goldfinch
Siskin
Common Crossbill
Hawfinch
Yellowhammer
Corn Bunting

ouo = of unknown origin


A few photos from the trip

Apricot vlaai

Chiffchaff at Geulpark

Crested Tit at Brunsummerheide (Wietze Janse)

Dunnock

Feeling happy after good birds and Dutch baking

Garganey at Eisjder Beemden (Wietze Janse)


Middle Spotted Woodpecker at Ingendael (Wietze Janse)

Hen Harrier at Eisjder Beemden (Wietze Janse)

Pineapple vlaai

Sparrowhawk at Valkenburg

River Geul in valkenburg

Valkenburg

Valkenburg

2 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great trip! I live in Holland myself, but I haven't been down south for many years. Good to get some tips for my own country from a Brit:)! Thanks for sharing this on Birdforum.
    Kind regards,
    Peter

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Peter. It's appreciated
      Andy

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