Lower Rhine valley, Kesteren The Netherlands, late March 2013

28 March 2013 -  

This winter seems never-ending. The wind has been in the east for over a month and it has frozen hard every night. We cycle along the south bank of the Neder Rijn on a golden afternoon. The shallow lakes on the floodplain are edged with ice and busy with birds. There is some evidence of migration despite the cold, and waterbirds in particular are clearly on the move.

The dabbling ducks are spectacular in the gorgeous light. On one pool, a dozen Teals are resting in the shallows with two pairs of Gadwall and a pair of Shoveler. All the drakes are alert in fabulous spring plumage. The raised green and chestnut heads of the Teals contrast with finely marked grey bodies, and metallic green and white specula flash in the sun when they extend their wings. The Gadwalls are subtly grizzled with fine vermiculation and streaks in grey and brown, setting off more solid blocks of black and grey, with glimpses of shining white wing-panels as they move and stretch. The drake Shoveler is most spectacular of all, his bright yellow eyes the focus of a metallic green head shot with blue and purple, the snowy white breast setting off the brick red flank panel, topped off by that oversized bill and a mantle of loose black feathers over the back and upper wings. The ducks are alert but rather inactive, possibly tired from migrations which may have brought them from as far afield as Iberia or even West Africa.

Further on, another shallow lake is graced by eleven Black-tailed Godwits, four Redshanks and a pair of Lapwings. The Redshanks call their Dutch name, “tureluur”, and the Godwits feed busily in the shallows, their chestnut-red underparts perfect in the afternoon light, long legs and bills stalking and sweeping the shallows. As the light fades and shades of gold turn to red, a pair of Pintails is preening busily on the shoreline. They contort themselves into extraordinary postures as they oil and comb their plumage, presenting unexpected stripes and blocks of colour, zipping and unzipping wings and tail in concentrated bursts of activity.

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