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Although renowned for its chocolate,beer and medieval cities, Belgium isalso home to some special birds.Amid the flat landscape bordering Hollandin the north of the country, the coastalreserve of the Zwin, an old estuary thatwas cut off from the sea a long time ago,is one of the best areas for wintering ducksand gulls, whilst the Damme and Uitkerksepolders near Bruges are better known forthe large numbers of geese that winterthere. From a historical point of view, theZwin estuary was also important in theMiddle Ages as it provided the only meansfor sea-going vessels to reach Bruges.In contrast to the northern part of Belgium,the Ardennes in the south is an attractivearea of hills, rolling forests and woodlandvalleys which are home to a number ofsought-after bird species. During our staywe will also be able to enjoy some ofBelgium's most important historical andarchitectural towns, including Bruges whichdelights millions of visitors each year withits medieval streets, meandering canalsand green ramparts and which, in 2002,acted as the Cultural Capital of Europe. Our holiday begins with a comfortableEurostar train ride through the ChannelTunnel to Lille in northern France. From herewe visit the Uitkerkse polders. Officiallyprotected since 1991, these offer a safehaven for many birds, in particular theflocks of geese that winter here in largenumbers. White-fronted and Pink-footedGeese are the species which are most oftenencountered, but we will search the mass ofgrey bodies for such vagrants as Red-breasted and Lesser White-fronted Geesethat turn up on an annual basis. Fromvantage points and hides we can scanother parts of the polders, looking for suchspecies as Bewick's Swan, EurasianWigeon, Hen Harrier and Short-eared Owl.A short distance away, the Spuikom, a largebrackish lake, usually holds a wide varietyof wintering ducks, grebes and divers. Alsoin the north, we will explore the coastalreserve of Het Zwin. Here the lagoons oftenteem with wildfowl and waders, whilst in thesurrounding coastal dunes and meadowsSnow and Lapland Buntings may be found,together with Avocet, Ruff and GoldenPlover; an avian extravaganza to appreciatebefore we opt for a change of scenery witha drive to the historic city of Bruges. After a night in Bruges we will have theopportunity to sample a little of itsexceptional artistic and cultural heritage.Our last stop in the north will be nearAntwerp, at the famous nature reserve ofBlokkersdijk. Although situated in a heavilyindustrialised area, this large reserveattracts masses of wildfowl in winter.Goosander, Gadwall, Eurasian Wigeon,Goldeneye and Smew are all regularly seenin large numbers, and rarer vagrants oftenappear among the rafts of duck.The last leg of our journey takes us to theArdennes. Here we will walk amongstsome of Belgium's finest woodlands insearch of woodpeckers, and inspect thecliffs of local quarries in the hope of findingan Eagle Owl. Our first stop will be in thefamous Hertogenwald where, near theBarrage de la Vesdre, we will listen for thedistinctive call of the Grey-headedWoodpecker, and search for Dippers alongthe small streams which tumble throughthe hills. Next, we ascend to the highestpoint in Belgium, Hautes Fagnes, whichlies at 694 metres. This region, consistingmainly of spruce forests andlarge open moorlands, isprotected within a very large naturereserve and, because of its high altitude,contains many plants and birds that arerestricted in their distribution such asCrossbill, Crested Tit and Nutcracker. Thearea also supports a small breedingpopulation of Black Grouse and, in good'rodent' years, there is an excellent chanceof finding the dapper Tengmalm's Owl,either during a spotlighting session in theevening or at one of the many nest-boxeserected especially for them. Returning towards the coast, we will visitthe Famenne region of the Ardennes. Herethe landscape is dominated by large tractsof beech and oak woodland and, walkingthrough these extensive woods, we willlook for both Middle Spotted and BlackWoodpeckers which are quite commonhere, as well as for Short-toed Treecreeper,Great Grey Shrike and Hawfinch. For thosewith an interest in mammals, the Ardennesalso boasts healthy populations of WildBoar, Red Squirrel, Red Fox, Pine Marten,and Roe and Red Deer.Our last morning will be spent in theArdennes but we will be fairly flexible,depending on what we have seen andthose species we have missed. Whateverwe see, it is likely to be a fitting finale to a satisfying and memorable holiday led by one of Belgium's top natural history tour guides.Belgium in WinterA 4-day winter exploration in search of wildfowl and Ardennes specialities. Friday 22nd February - Monday 25th February Cost: £595Book direct on 01962 733051or see page 284 for Booking InformationBELGIUMNETHERLANDSGERMANYLUXEMBOURGFRANCEENGLISH CHANNELBRUSSELSLILLEBRUGESHET ZWINANTWERPNAMURLIEGEFAMENNEHERTOGENFORESTOutline itineraryDay 1Eurostar train fromLondon St. Pancras toLille. Drive Bruges.Day 2Bruges and the polders. Day 3The Ardennes. Day 4Eurostar train from Lilleto London St. Pancras. AccommodationComfortable tourist hotels withprivate facilities. FoodAll included in the price, except formeals taken during Eurostarjourneys.GradingDay walks only. Grade A.FocusBirds, mammals and a little history!LeaderGerald Broddelez.Single room supplement£85.ExtensionsPre- or post-tour extensions inBruges or Brussels available onrequest.Web quick search: BEL0233Red-breasted GooseWhooper SwansBarnacle Geese

Although more associated with finechocolates than natural history,Belgium can boast many excellentwildlife reserves where the quality of theflora, birds and insect-life rivals thatattained by the national confectionary! Thisshort summer tour will introduceparticipants to some of these naturalattributes, focusing initially on the flatlandscape bordering Holland where theZwin Estuary, long since cut off from thesea by accumulations of silt, has createdan important maritime ecosystem. Fromhere we visit the historic city of Bruges,where we stay for a night, and severalother wetland nature reserves in northernBelgium before we travel south to explorethe legendary Ardennes region whichcontains the highest hills in the countryand many tracts of impressive forest.Our holiday begins with a comfortableEurostar train journey through the Channeltunnel to Lille in northern France. Fromhere we drive into Belgium and visit thecoastal reserve of Het Zwin, situated in theflat, fen-like countryside bordering Holland.Occupying some 125 hectares ofmarshland and lagoons, this reserveprotects a number of unique habitats andis particularly noted for the diversity of itsflora which includes a number of salt-tolerant species. The extensive carpets ofSea-lavender covering the saltings duringthe summer months provide a colourfulspectacle recalling the marshes of north Norfolk.We cannot visit northern Belgium withoutspending some time in the historic city ofBruges. This is a city that defiesclassification but in 2002 was awarded thedesignation 'Cultural Capital of Europe'.Exploring the network of cobbled streetstransports the visitor back to medievaltimes, but Bruges is not just anarchaeological antiquity and the moderncentre of the city contains a wonderfulselection of galleries, shops and museums,as well as countless tempting little canal-side cafés where some of Belgium'sgastronomic fare can be sampled!Continuing towards Antwerp, we visitBlokkersdijk Nature Reserve andKalmthoutse Heide. Although situatedamid a heavily industrialised area, theformer contains reed-fringed lakespatrolled by resident Marsh Harriers whichperiodically scatter flocks of wildfowl fromcover. Pochard, Gadwall and NorthernShoveler are among the ducks breedinghere and scanning the base of the reedswe may see Bluethroats emerge from thevegetation to hop across strips of exposedmud like garden Robins. The KalmthoutseHeide embraces pinewoods, moorland, fens and dunes, and this varied mix ofhabitats makes it a rewarding naturalhistory destination. The heathlands attractNightjars and Woodlarks, whilst HoneyBuzzards soar over the forests in whichBlack Woodpeckers can be watchedhacking away fragments of dead woodwith their massive bills, and Black Ternsswoop elegantly over the pools. Butterfliesabound here, and include the Map, as wellas a selection of other more familiar Britishspecies. Nearby Den Diel Reserve is notedfor the large numbers of dragonfliesfrequenting its flooded peat diggings and,if the weather is kind, we may be able tofind as many as half of the 48 speciesrecorded in the area. Among these couldbe such jewels as the Emperor Dragonfly(Anax imperator), Migrant Hawker (Aeshnamixta), Black Darter (Sympetrum danae),Vagrant Darter (Sympetrum vulgatum) andthe exquisite Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens). The final leg of our journey takes us to theArdennes. Here we will walk amongstsome of Belgium's finest woodlands,where White Admirals and PurpleEmperors defend their territories alongsun-dappled forest rides, and residentbirds include Black Woodpecker, Short-toed Treecreeper and Hawfinch. Much of our time in the Ardennes will beconcentrated on the limestone plateaux ofthe Famenne region. This is an area rich inbutterflies and we will be hoping to findsuch locally scarce species as Swallowtail,Purple Hairstreak, Chalk-hill Blue, PoplarAdmiral, Pearly Heath, Silver-washed andWeaver's Fritillaries. A sharp 'zit' call maybetray a bobbing Dipper along one of thesmall streams that irrigate these hills andmore dragonflies are likely to be hawkingover the waterside vegetation includingWhite-legged Damselfly (Platycnemispennipes) and the aptly named BeautifulDamselfly (Calopteryx virgo).During our stay in the Ardennes we willascend to the Hautes Fagnes which, at694 metres, is the highest point inBelgium. Spruce forests and moorlandexpanses protected by this very largenature reserve create a unique uplandhabitat within Belgium and this is reflectedby breeding birds such as Black Grouse,Crested Tit, Nutcracker and Crossbill, plusthe presence of Tengmalm's Owls duringgood 'rodent years'. Eagle Owls also nestin some of the quarries in the vicinity andfinding one of these magnificent owls mayprovide a suitable ornithological finale toour visit. Regardless of bird sightings, thewonderful flora of Hautes Fagnes, theclouds of butterflies, and the overallambience of these tranquil hills will ensure a memorable conclusion to aholiday that reveals some of Belgium'sbest kept secrets.Belgium in SummerA 5-day natural history exploration of the Belgian countryside in summer, focusing on thewetlands, the Ardennes, and a little of the history and culture of the medieval city of Bruges.Friday 14th June - Tuesday 18th June Cost: £795Outline itineraryDay 1Eurostar train fromLondon St. Pancras toLille. Drive Bruges.Day 2Bruges, the polders andAntwerp. Day 3/4The Ardennes. Day 5Eurostar train from Lilleto London St. Pancras.AccommodationComfortable hotels with privatefacilities. FoodAll included in the price.GradingDay walks only. Grade A.FocusBirds, butterflies, mammals and alittle history!LeaderGerald Broddelez.Single room supplement £95.Web quick search: BEL0134Call now or visit www.naturetrek.co.ukfor your free Trip ItineraryBELGIUMNETHERLANDSGERMANYLUXEMBOURGFRANCEENGLISH CHANNELBRUSSELSLILLEOOSTENDEBRUGESHET ZWINANTWERPNAMURLIEGEFAMENNEHERTOGENFORESTEagle OwlBluethroatSwallowtail