The Lauwersmeer in winter

It was cold, bitterly cold.  The Dutch birdwatchers apologised for the cold – it wasn’t usually like this in November.  The gas stove in the camper froze overnight and I had to wait for the sun to warm things up, just to get a cup of coffee. But, it was the cold that brought the barnacle geese southwards to winter here.  And that was what I had come to see. (November 1989)

Why the Lauwersmeer in winter?

  • 68,000 barnacle geese
  • 25,000 white-fronted geese
  • 33,000 greylag geese
  • 650 Bewick swans
  • 2,450 pintail
  • 1,350 shoveler
  • 5,700 gadwall
  • 2,350 black-tailed godwit
  • 1,200 spotted redshank
  • 380 Eurasian spoonbill

The spectacle of the geese alone is enough of a reason to visit, but there is plenty more to see. Those listed are present in internationally important numbers, and the numbers are the average peak between 2006-2010.

This has also been designated a ‘Dark Skies’ area, so if there is a reasonably strong aurora borealis, there is a good chance of seeing it here in winter – if there is no moon or cloud.

History of the Lauwersmeer

With much of the Netherlands at or below sea-level, repeated flooding was a common occurrence throughout history, especially as sea levels have changed naturally.  The Lauwerszee formed after a flood in 1280, and took its name from the river Lauwers that used flow through the area. Since Medieval times, farmers have reclaimed bits of this flooded landscape on a piecemeal basis. It was only after the disastrous floods of 1953 that a large scale scheme for the area became a reality.

The options were to reinforce the existing 32km of dykes around the Lauwerszee, or to build a new 13km dam to separate it from the vast mudflats of the Waddenzee.  Local people preferred the latter (more expensive) option. The new dam, incorporating a new harbour at Lauwerzoog, was closed on 25th May 1969.

Since then, it has been called the Lauwersmeer, which is more appropriate for a freshwater lake.  New flora and fauna moved into the site, and to protect this new nature area, the Dutch authorities declared it a national park in 2003.

Teal – Anas crecca

Ecological development

Within a few years Salicornia had covered over half of the of the 5000ha of sand-flats around the Lauwersmeer.  This provided a huge stock of food for autumn waterfowl. Up to 60,000 teal Anas crecca (photo above), 65,000 wigeon A penelope, and 50,000 barnacle geese Branta leucopsis took advantage of the bounty each autumn in the 1970s.

In addition to providing food for wintering and migratory wildfowl, the Lauwersmeer has become an important breeding area for many waders.eg lapwing Vanellus vanellus, avocet Recurvirostra avosetta, black tailed godwit Limosa limosa and redshank Tringa totanus, and for raptors such as kestrel Falco tinunculus, short eared owl Asio flammeus and marsh harrier Circus aeruginosus.

As the level of salt in the soils fell, so the vegetation changed. Perennial grasses replaced much of the Salicornia by the 1980s.  In autumn this provided food for the 30,000 greylag geese Anser anser (below) which pass through on migration. They strip the seed-heads but left the grass blades untouched.  Then they moved on south, leaving the grasslands to the barnacle geese.

Greylag Geese – Anser anser

Some of the brackish areas were extensively colonised by Phragmites and Salix as they dried out. Nowadays management is aimed at a fairly constant high water table with much of the area flooded during the winter. Waterfowl and breeding waders don’t like this taller vegetation, so cattle graze the area to to keep the vegetation open and low.

As the creeks and channels of the old inlet became fresh water, water plants such as Potamogeton pondweeds start to colonise. Coot, wigeon and gadwall consume the leaves and seeds of this submerged vegetation. Then, in mid October, up to 600 Bewick swans Cygnus columbianus (below) arrive in the area to feed on the tubers, before moving on to farmland to feed on the remains of sugar beet and potatoes after harvest.

Bewick/Tundra Swans (Cygnus columbianus

Arrival of the Geese at Lauwersmeer

Now, in November, huge flocks of barnacle geese begin to arrive from the north.

The Barnacle geese had previously wintered in western Germany, despite being hunted there.  However, increased disturbance plus drainage of their traditional wintering grounds forced them to move.  Damming the Lauwersmeer created a large area of suitable grazing, so the geese, sensibly, moved to the Netherlands, where they were protected.

The geese can recognise the most nutritious vegetation, perhaps by its colour, and so large flocks will descend on the best fields available.  You’d think you were looking at a domestic flock in a field surrounded with wire netting. . . . Until they take flight.

Barnacle geese, with their small bills, graze on short grassland that is regularly cut or grazed in summer.  They like the fine leaves of meadow grasses, but feed principally on stolons of clover (starch rich storage roots), probing their short bills into the mat of grass stems for the stolons lying beneath.

Barnacle Geese – Branta leucopsis

Geese of all species commonly graze young sprouts of autumn grown cereals, moving onto such fields as soon as growing shoots are a few centimetres high.  After a few days a field appears brown, but the crop is not destroyed –  the shoots sprout again, often more strongly than if geese had not been there. Sheep grazing and mechanical rolling have the same effect, so the geese are saving the farmer a job!.  If grazing takes places later when the plants are taller, the crop can be set back permanently but, fortunately, geese are less attracted to taller growth.

When the other species of geese have finished with arable crops they, too, switch to grass. As the grass is hardly growing at this time of year, they cause little damage, but it is common practice for farmers to fertilise a few fields each winter to encourage early growth.  Such fields look brighter green and the geese recognise them as good feeding, then there is conflict between farmer and goose.

It is not easy to assess damage to crops; experiments use domestic geese penned on plots to simulate effect of wild flock.  The results show no measurable differences when the crop starts growing again. Much of the vegetation passes straight through the bird and back onto the ground, with only a small amount digested and the rest recycled as fertiliser. 

Often several thousand geese occupy in a single field, though counting is next to impossible when you are faced with such a seething mass.  They keep up a constant bickering, threatening any neighbour that comes too close.  The birds on guard duty (usually males) watch carefully as other large birds flew overhead. They believe in safety in numbers, so if one bird is spooked, the whole flock is spooked.  It is much more difficult for a predator to pick a victim out of a moving flock.

Barnacle geese in flight.

Watching Geese at the Lauwersmeer

It is possible to drive all the way around the Lauwersmeer, sometimes in sight of the water, sometimes just through farmland. However, the geese spend a lot of the day on the fields, away from the water, so can usually be seen quite easily from the road.

And if you are on the road across the dam, look out at the Waddenzee to, as the mudflats teem with birds – probably best watched on an incoming tide.

Other skeins of barnacles flew in, the groups getting larger as the light faded. Eventually the cold got the better of us again and we prepared to leave.  Suddenly the noise increased and half the flock took to the air in a swirling cloud, victims of their own nervousness.  Within a few minutes, they settled back into the field to feed again.


Lauwersmeer: resources for visitors

Bookshop

A Birdwatching Guide to the Netherlands

With information to over 100 sites, this is a complete guide for birdwatchers visiting the Netherlands.

PS. I haven’t seen this book myself, but it is the only one I can find in English. And also www.birdingholland.com recommended it on their facebook page.

Note: Buying books through these links brings me a small commission (at no extra cost to you) which helps with the costs of maintaining this website.


Other Barnacle Goose winter sites

  • Barnacle geese breed in four main areas: Svarlbard, Greenland, Arctic Russia, and the Baltic.
  • They move south in winter with the main areas being the Waddensee (including Lauwersmeer) for the Russian birds.
  • Other populations head for the Solway Firth (eg Caerlaverock) and Islay in Scotland, the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve in Wales, and the north-west of Ireland. 
  • You can also see smaller numbers elsewhere in Britain and Ireland, and across the northern and central Europe.