The new-look Zwin Nature Park: an international airport for birds


At the new Zwin Nature Park, visitors can explore the many aspects of birdlife, both virtually and in real life

From ugly duckling to beautiful swan

Het Zwin is a nature reserve covering 158 hectares, shared between Flanders and the Netherlands and extending along the coast for 2.3 kilometres. Thanks to the daily ebb and flow of seawater, the unique ecosystem of mudflats and salt marshes creates wonderful conditions for worms, snails and other tasty titbits, which nourish a wide range of birds.

The last time I visited, a few years ago, I was very disappointed. The antiquated buildings were in an abysmal state of disrepair, and the sight of wild birds in cages led me to write a letter of complaint. To say it’s undergone a makeover is an understatement. The ugly duckling has morphed into a beautiful swan.

It’s now called the new Zwin Nature Park: “the international airport for birds”. It certainly conveys the reality that Het Zwin is a vitally important hub for migratory birds constantly winging in and taking off. However, is an airport a place you want to be for any length of time?

Thankfully, this is where reality trumps the metaphor. The new visitor centre is not like an airport lounge at all. It’s a spacious, black wooden structure based on a Zeeland barn, where visitors could happily spend hours without getting bored. 

Adopt a bird for a day

Visitors are given a “passport” with a chip on the back, which allocates them one of 10 birds – the pied avocet in my case. Scan the passport at the different exhibition panels to discover details about your bird.

I discovered what the pied avocet eats, where it migrates to and from, its song and calls, mating display, predators, nest and eggs. I examined its feathers under a microscope. There was even a flight simulator that explained how it flies. Elsewhere you can wander around the Wonder Room, with its cabinets of avian curiosities, or watch a bird movie in the purpose-built theatre. The extensive interactivity of the visitor centre is a clever way to share the wonders of bird migration and explain it to the screen generation. 

The extensive interactivity of the visitor centre is a clever way to share the wonders of bird migration and explain it to the screen generation

After a while though, I was itching to leave the screens behind, get outside into the sunshine and actually see some real-life birds. The passport includes a map of the Zwin Park, with a trail that led along a footpath to seven themed cabins.

These cabins take interactivity to an intriguing level. In some, there was something very old-tech: a live, interactive person (referred to as a “flight attendant” in keeping with the airline conceit).

So in the Feeding Hut, my flight attendant identified the birds that were feeding right in front of us on the nut and seed dispensers (close-ups of a great spotted woodpecker). In the Laboratory Hut, someone was on hand to help me dip a net into a pond, and another to identify what I had caught (a young newt and a dragonfly larva).

In the Observation Hut an enthusiastic ornithologist pointed out and identified specific birds at the water’s edge – including the pied avocet. I was particularly pleased that he found a Mediterranean Gull for me – the first one I had ever seen. There’s also a stork tower. I climbed to the top and found myself looking directly into a stork’s nest – complete with a sunbathing storklet – at the top of a tree. 

All about sustainability

The guides are knowledgeable and friendly and work hard at communicating to an audience with vastly different knowledge levels. As one of the guides explained: “It’s difficult. I might be talking to someone who has a PhD in ecology or to a person who has never seen a wild goose before!”

After finishing the trail through the park, I took a circular walk around the Zwin plain. For an extra €2 there is a guided two-hour walking tour of the plain (in Dutch or French) with a Zwin nature expert.

The park is very child-friendly, and a visit with children or grandchildren might inspire them to develop a thirst for knowledge about birds.

Sustainability is key to the project – a joint initiative by the Province of West Flanders and the Agency for Nature and Forest, which manages the Zwin plain. The visitor centre, for example, is heated and cooled by a geothermal heat pump and built with fully sustainable materials.

The parking area is limited to 200 places, and visitors are encouraged to travel by train and bus. There’s an hourly bus to the park from Knokke railway station, and a B-Excursion ticket from NMBS covers the train journey, the bus connection and the entry ticket.

Photo courtesy Zwin