This place is for the birds (Wadden Sea, Netherlands)

Deborah M. Buehler – Travel Chronicle

I recently moved to the Netherlands and a few weeks ago I had my first Dutch bicycle accident. It was a typically rainy afternoon and a pigeon that had obviously had enough of the Dutch weather decided to attempt suicide by jumping under my front tire. My bike jack-knifed and I was catapulted forward and slid across the wet pavement for a couple of meters before skidding to a stop. Not wanting to be labeled as a typical foreigner who can’t ride a bike I quickly hobbled to my feet and after a bit of repair work both the bike and I survived (the pigeon was OK too).

Bicycles are one of the first things that come to mind when most people think of the Netherlands. Cyclists and windmills on a flat countryside crisscrossed with canals, dikes and tulip fields make up a quintessential Dutch landscape. But north of the mainland a different world exists, a world full of far more interesting birds than city pigeons, where the landscape is one of dunes, beaches and rich mudflats flooded daily by the shallow waters of the Wadden Sea.

The Wadden Sea takes its name from the Dutch word “waden” which means “to wade” and is a shallow, semi-enclosed part of the North Sea, consisting of tidal mud flats, sand flats and salt marshes. The area is bordered by a series of barrier islands, and stretches along the North Sea coast from Den Helder, Netherlands to Esbjerg, Denmark. It is of international importance as a nursery for shrimp and fish stocks, a staging area for several million migratory birds, and home to many species of breeding birds and healthy populations of Common and Grey Seals.

One of the bird species that relies on the Wadden Sea is the Red Knot, a medium sized shorebird barely bigger than an American Robin yet capable of amazing migrations. Red Knots breed in the high arctic and as the short arctic summer ends they migrate to such diverse locations as Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand, West Africa and Western Europe. Just like I migrated to the Netherlands to study birds, “Canadian” knots that breed in the northern extremes of the Queen Elizabeth Islands migrate to the Wadden Sea to feed, rest and moult during migration. Different knots that breed along the northern coast of the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia also use the Wadden Sea en route to wintering areas in West Africa.

In a recent article in the National Post (July 10, 2004) Cleo Pascal described the plight of Red Knots in the Americas. Those knots belong to yet another group and are dependent on an abundance of horseshoe crab eggs in Delaware Bay to fuel their northward migration each spring. In the Americas knot numbers are in drastic decline – the birds are in trouble because horseshoe crabs are harvested before they can deposit their rich eggs in the sand. Tragically, the numbers of knots using the Wadden Sea may also be declining. Just as the North American knots rely on horseshoe crab eggs for food, knots using the Wadden Sea rely on an abundance of shellfish to fuel their migrations. The Wadden Sea has always provided this abundance, but in the past few years destructive cockle fishing practices have damaged some of the richest and most important areas of the Wadden Sea.

In the midst of this ecological drama scientists and volunteers are monitoring both shorebirds and their food. I visited the Wadden Sea as part of a research expedition with the Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ). Several times a year NIOZ teams set up half a kilometer of fine netting out on the mudflats. At night these nets are almost invisible and birds that fly into the nets are carefully marked and measured. By day the scientists walk the mudflats to take cores of mud. These samples are sifted through a fine mesh so that worms and shellfish can be counted.

The Wadden Sea is a very special place for scientists and tourists alike. You don’t have to be on a NIOZ expedition to see what the area has to offer. In the Netherlands both boating and walking tours are available to explore the wonders of the mudflats. My first night on the Wadden Sea serves as a perfect example of what visitors may experience. The water was perfectly calm and overhead millions of stars were visible in the moonless sky. In the distance I could hear the mournful howls of seals resting on a nearby sandbank and, closer, the soft calls of shorebirds on the mudflats were barely audible. A few lights from towns on the nearby islands twinkled on the horizon and reflected in the glass-like surface of the water – but something was strange – the sea was twinkling too! All around the water sparkled with a green luminescence. As our boat cut through the water the boat’s wake glowed, and later as we waded out onto the mudflat droplets of water from our feet twinkled as they splattered onto the ground. It looked like magic, like something had enchanted the water, but the real cause of the glow was tiny organisms called seasparkles, which are single-celled algae. Millions of these microscopic creatures were floating in the water and making the sea glow.

The sight of the Wadden Sea twinkling and glowing in the peace of a night was a wonderful experience. It is this type of experience that reminds us how important areas like the Wadden Sea truly are. These areas are sanctuaries not only for migrating birds but also for an amazing array of creatures from tiny seasparkles to lumbering Grey Seals. These creatures have shared the bounty of the Wadden Sea in a sustainable manner for thousands of years. Isn’t it time our species did the same?

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