For the birder Holland and winter mean one thing: Geese. It is possible to find up to a dozen species among the hundreds of thousands which winter there, among them several otherwise difficult to see. Accordingly I organized a trip for the last weekend of January, 2009, tightly focussed on three targets: Barnacle, Taiga and Lesser White-fronted. I opted to hire a guide as I knew that the geese are highly mobile and move about. This turned out to be a good move as we were able to use the latest intel to zero in on the targets, and, truth be told, it was harder to get on the birds than I would have anticipated.
On day one we focussed on sites in the northwest, between Amsterdam and Den Helder, with our first goose stop yielding two of the targets: Barnacle and Lesser White-fronted, and incidentally, 8 Pink-foots and a lone Brant. In the afternoon, searching through hundreds of Tundra Goose yielded three Taigas, which, along with the common place Greylags and Greater White-fronts, made for an eight Goose day (not counting Egyptian Goose). In between we had a go at a vagrant Rosy Starling which successfully eluded us, but had better luck with Purple Sandpipers at Den Helder. Also in the "not a goose category" was a Jack Snipe that was kind enough to fly by.
On day two we surveyed some areas in the south where a Red-breasted Goose had been seen, finding an interesting bird which could be a Lesser/Greater White-fronted hybrid (there being an ongoing debate on the bird, see below). Since Red-breasted was not a target (thank you West Wittering!), and after a quick stop to peer at a distant resident Eagle Owl, we spent the rest of the day on an ultimately fruitless quest to see the vagrant Dusky thrush, last reported the weekend before in nearby (sort of) Belgium, picking up along the way a flock of Waxwings as a consolation prize.
Notes on the Geese. There is some confusion surrounding the wintering ranges of the recently split European "Bean Geese", compounded by the rather subtle identification involved. In Switzerland (where I live) each winter we see a few Tundra "rossicus", Taiga "fabilis" being a vagrant, so this is the one I know. This is the common one as well in northern Holland, so our job was to pick the fabilis out from among the rossicus. In the end the three we found were subtle, but distinct. Compared to rossicus they were ever so slightly larger, slightly longer necked and with a more slopping head profile accented by a slightly longer bill. More concretely, all three had a fine white facial edging to the bill and a subtle but distinctively different bill pattern: while the rossicus had a pinkish band near the tip, the fabilis had more extensive pink intruding further back on the lower mandible. Like I said, subtle.
Our Lesser white-front was a slam dunk: once spotted easily identified by its more dainty appearance, extensive white face, short, pink "triangular" bill, and prominent yellow eye ring. A second bird, seen the following day in the South was more of a puzzle. It was similar to the Greater White-fronts in general impression and size, but had an extensive white facial blaze and a very narrow yellow eye ring. The guides indicate that some Greater White-fronts have these features, however, it is also possible that there has been some hanky panky going on in the land of the midnight sun and some Lesser White-front genes have leaked into the Greater White-front population; at any rate, one for the experts.
I would happily recommend Pieter van der Luit/Birding Holland as a guide he both knows the sites and the birds, was fun to bird with, and developed and revised an itinerary that produced my target species.