Spring in Viroinval – Kristien Van Acker

Posted at: March 21, 2024

In the southern Belgian province of Namur, near the French border, lies the beautiful municipality of Viroinval. Largely covered by the Viroin-Hermeton reserve, this area is a paradise for nature lovers. Kristien Van Acker has lived here with her husband, Bert, for almost 15 years. She shows us what spring looks like around her hometown.

“I know Jan through my husband Bert – they’ve been longtime friends since they were in the youth movement JNM together,” Kristien recalls. “Bert and I have been married for 32 years. He is an ornithologist, so when I met him, I got to have my private ‘maestro’. He has nurtured and deepened my love for nature, and now we practice nature photography together.”

Last October, Kristien retired after a very intense medical career. “I am a diabetologist with expertise in diabetic foot disease. I have led worldwide projects in cooperation with the WHO and was founder of D- Foot International. Between us, Bert and I  have 7 kids and 11 grandchildren – so I really gave a lot. Nature photography helped me to stay balanced. Making a great image takes a lot of patience and total concentration, and it always clears my mind.”

First flowers in bloom

In Viroinval, the Eau Blanche and the Eau Noire flow together to become the Viroin River, crossing the valley. It’s known for its calcareous grasslands, filled with wild orchids, rare insects, and reptiles. “It’s such a beautiful place to be when nature starts to bloom”, says Kristien. “When I look for the first signs of spring, seeing snowdrops is always a breakthrough. It’s one of the first signs that nature is waking up. You see them everywhere, soon accompanied by squills, Easter flowers, and wood anemones. The first bumblebees join them to celebrate the return of spring. I love macro photography of flowers; it captures the fragile textures and bright colors so well.”

“In March, birds have left the feeding table, so we look out for the cranes to return and pass over our area. Jan monitors this intensely; he often signals us about their passage. Just over the country border, about 25 km from here, I also photograph storks and red and black kites. And as a special treat, I have access to a private domain about 3km from my house, where grey herons are breeding. I take the floating hide and observe them while they fish and wade.

The nearby city of Couvin is also great to visit; it has its own eagle owl. The female has been breeding here for several years. She just started preparing her nest again this week.”

Orchids and butterflies

In April and May, nature really explodes, and choices must be made about what to photograph. “I’m a big fan of butterflies and orchids, especially here in Viroinval. Lacs de L’ Eau d’Heure is also nearby, a fine place to observe birds. Virelles, near Chimay, is another beautiful area for birds and butterflies.”

Floating hide photography is my favorite kind of nature photography – even though it demands a little bit more organisation and routine. You enter the water just before dawn and wake up together with nature. If you revisit places, you learn when and where some birds will wake up and can observe them. You are all alone and one with nature, and you can get an incredible spectacle of mist and the morning sun, shimmering on the water, while the birds wake up and start wading. And the low perspective is truly unique.

I have Mr Jan Gear’s Floating Hide, which has lots of Velcro pockets to stow away batteries, extensions, and memory cards. I also use The Suit now, which is much more comfortable than the classic wading suits I used to have, which often scooped water. In The Suit, you don’t have to think about your clothing; you have complete freedom to wade. And Jan is always on standby when repairing is needed.

I use The Boris for my land trips, which is very spacious and handy. You choose your own organisation method, and it’s very ergonomic to wear. Sometimes, I also use the Lens Carrier for an afternoon of nature photography.

For now, I look forward to my first trip with Jan in May, when we will join to photograph purple herons in Les Dombes!

All images © Kristien Van Acker

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