Lower Rhine valley and the Grebbeberg, The Netherlands, December 2012

12 December 2012 -  

The first snow of winter fell in the night and the sun rises into a clear, blue sky. The drifts come to our knees as we walk to the river and catch the ferry. The Grebbeberg, a 50 metre high glacial bluff overlooking the Rhine valley to the north, dominates the view with heavily wooded slopes. As we get closer, a buoyant, angular shape floats up from behind a hedge. A Red Kite, luminous in the silvery morning sunlight against the shadows on the snowy hill. As it passes, it turns its pale head towards us. The yellow eyes are clearly visible through the glasses as it changes direction by dropping a wing and turning and spreading the deeply forked tail. The rich red-brown, black and white plumage flash bright as it turns and catches the sun. A truly breathtaking view of a bird which is normally only seen on migration, and then only rarely, in this part of the world.

The oaks and beeches on the Grebbeberg are thickly covered with snow, each trunk and branch picked out by a skeletal line on the south side from which, unusually, the snow has blasted in the night. Huge pillows of snow rest among the branches and collapse periodically as the temperature rises. The wind has dropped and Blackbirds, Chaffinches, Blue and Great Tits are calling urgently, some way off, probably mobbing a Jay or Magpie. The pancake house is a lovely spot to warm up and take a rest.

Fortified by pancakes and tea, we head down to the bridge and re-cross the river, 4 km downstream of the ferry. Most of the snow has melted from the parapet but snowballs dropped 10 metres down into the smooth, brown flow reveal the unexpected speed of the current. As if to emphasize the point, a coal barge emerges below, labouring upstream.

The children sledge repeatedly down the summer dijk on the other side, and I walk to the river to watch Goosanders, gorgeous in the low afternoon light, their flanks creamier white than the snow, the white of their breasts suffused with a sheen of pink. A woodcock flies upriver, its improbably long looking bill and rounded owl-like wings flashing russet-brown in the golden light. A flock of White-fronted Geese is resting on the floodplain, unable to feed and awaiting the thaw. As I watch they take off, the harsh yet musical chorus of calls diminishing as they head away to roost. In the gathering dusk, a Little Owl calls in the distance, a cross between a mew and a yap repeated every few seconds in the cold stillness. At home we light the fire and savour the warm glow of faces and hands over excited talk of sledging, pancakes and birds.

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