The Zwin Nature Park is Belgium’s premier bird sanctuary, and thus the ideal place to go for some hardcore bird spotting. Trot Op! was invited to test the latest Swarovski Optik binoculars, and enjoyed a splendid afternoon.
It might come as a surprise to some, but I love the birds. Big birds, small birds, short birds, tall birds, exotic birds or birds next door: I simply want to catch them all. On camera that is. So when I got an invitation to the Zwin Nature Park to test the latest Swarovski Optik toys – one of the many perks of being a famous photographer – I didn’t hesitate. Swarovski not only sells jewellery and watches; they produce state-of-the-art binoculars as well. Essential stuff for all your birding needs. And because I hadn’t been in the Zwin since I was but a wee lad, this invitation seemed the perfect excuse to chase some bids at the beach. Yeah baby, yeah.
The Zwin: advanced birding on the Belgian coast
Before heading out to the fancy coastal town of Knokke-Heist and the park, I needed to download a few apps. The future is digital you see, and birding is no exception. The dG app connects your phone to the Digital Guide. This is the newest Swarovski binocular (monocular to be precise). More about it later.
“The Merlin Bird ID app on the other hand, allows you to identify every bird you see straight on your phone. No more being treated like a fool because you can’t tell which kind of seagull just took off with your fish and chips.”
The Merlin Bird ID app on the other hand, allows you to identify every bird you see straight on your phone. Take a picture of it and receive an immediate classification, or answer a couple of questions instead, for the app to guess the species. “Is it a big bird? Is it next to a pond? Is it violently chasing you while it hisses like a king cobra? Bam: it is for sure a goddamn goose! I tested this nifty app on multiple occasions, and I have yet to see a wrong suggestion. Lots of app-reciation for this little piece of technology – please kill me for making that joke.
I immediately spotted a healthy pair of “great tits” in a window frame across the street. Awesome!
The Swarovski Digital Guide: take a close-up look at the future
Confession: despite all of the childish birding jokes I just made, I know next to nothing about binoculars. When I go out animal spotting, I tend to look at them through my trusty 600mm lens (not used for compensation of any sorts by the way). Binoculars simply don’t allow you to take pictures, and as a photographer, this is quite a crucial drawback. Can’t use ‘em. End of story.
“The Digital Guide not only allows you to take pictures and send them straight to your phone, you can even livestream and make videos with it”
WRONG!! Quit living in the past! The Digital Guide not only allows you to take pictures and send them straight to your phone, you can even livestream and make videos with it. This lets everyone around you see exactly what you see through your lens, without having to leave your expensive new toy to the mercy of your clumsy six year old and his sticky little hands. What you see through that lens is exceptionally bright by the way. And because for some reason it’s a monocular, it can be used by both pirates and cyclopes without any discomfort. Best promo talk of ALL TIME.
According to the Merlin Bird ID App, this is a duck. And who am I to doubt its expertise?
There’s a new (z)wind blowing through the Zwin
Let’s talk about The Zwin now. Last time I was here, I was a snotty ten year old on a rainy summer holiday with my parents. I mainly remember it being wet, and the mud sucking at my tiny boots. In those days, they had a sad little zoo as well, showcasing all sorts of birds that didn’t belong in the region. Today – luckily – it is long gone.
“The Zwin changed a lot in twenty years. The zoo is gone, and in its place came a brand new visitor centre, nicely signposted hiking trails, lots of new viewing huts and a major extension of the park.”
The zoo was closed years ago, and there are no more cages to be seen. Instead, a modern visitor centre was constructed. Inside is an interactive exhibition on migratory birds that will keep your kids entertained. They can digitally learn how to fly like a bird and get to hatch an egg with only the warmth of their grubby hands. Another thing off the bucket list. On the roof is a large viewing platform with several telescopes, allowing you to see huge parts of the park from a single spot.
Birds, cows and picturesque walks
This is what happens when the stork arrives and your baby is too fat.
More things have changed in The Zwin. Just last year, the reserve was enlarged with an extra 110 hectares. The whole area is now 770 hectares in size and spreads out over both Belgium and The Netherlands. The walk I took last week didn’t lead through any of the wet tidal mud I remembered from my childhood, but instead took me through a lush grassland with little ponds and streams running through it. There were even cows grazing in some areas. Maybe it’s a seasonal thing or maybe I just took a wrong turn somewhere, but I didn’t recognise anything from 25 years ago. Memories can be deceptive.
The new park is a sight to behold though, and offers everything you would expect of a modern nature reserve. Nicely signposted walking paths, a new bicycle lane running through the park straight from Knokke-Heist in Belgium to Cadzand in The Netherlands, and a bunch of shiny new viewing huts – one taking you all the way up to the stork nests. Guides are everywhere and they will interactively sprinkle your kids with knowledge about the birds and the creepy crawlies found in the soil. There’s even a barefoot trail for them to enjoy, so they can splash their feet in the mud and lose some energy in preparation for the long drive home. A lot can change in 25 years, and sometimes for the better.
The Zwin Nature Park: practical information
Want to go for a visit of The Zwin on your own? Here’s all the info you’ll need: www.zwin.be.
Want to visit the Knokke-Heist beach instead? Click here: www.myknokke-heist.be.
Interested in Swarovski Optik? Click the link below. The Digital Guide sells for about €2.000. That’s quite a lot of money, but few hobbies remain cheap once you get invested in them. €2.000 is the average price for a decent professional camera body or lens. I know how it feels, believe me. www.swarovskioptik.com
Last but not least: a big thank you to the Glenaki Travel Angels for the invitation to my first official post (well, almost) corona event. Sorry for all of the silly jokes.
The pictures of me using various pairs of binoculars were made by Frederic Paulussen. www.fredericpaulussen.be
Want to discover some other parts of Belgium after your visit to The Zwin? Read my articles on Leuven, Gaume, Liège, Spa and Charleroi. There’s a lot to see and do in Antwerp, Bruges, Koksijde and Borgerhout as well.