This trip was primarily a chance to meet my wife's British relatives, so only a few days of birding will be noted. I had only one full day of birding and squeezed in mornings while William (age 2), Annie (age 14) and my wife, Mardie, slept in. In the text that follows I'll mention more unusual species from a North American's perspective, especially those that were lifers for me. I had 138 species including 47 life birds. A trip list appears at the end.
April 3-5: We stayed in Alfriston near Eastbourne, Sussex, with my wife's aunt at the Dawes House B&B (tel: 0323 870662), a very nice old country home just north of the village and Drusillas zoo park (a great diversion for the kids, with railway, shops, gardens and kids' zoo, 0323 870234). I birded along the country lanes and drove one windy afternoon to Firston Forest and Beachy Head, a prominent coastal spot for migrants. I also explored the preserve at the mouth of the Cuchmere River where Little Egret (increasingly common in Britain), Twite, and Redshank had been reported on the nature center bulletin board, but it was raining heavily, and I ran out of time [note: most nature centers and bird observatories seem to have a prominent white board with updated bird sightings, unlike the scrap paper list behind the counter in US parks].
Unfortunately, late March through April 20 is a dead time when the winter birds have left, and few spring migrants have arrived. Frequent storms also limited birding time. In the Alfriston area I saw my life Song Thrush (quite common and vocal throughout our trip), Long-tailed Tit, Linnet, European Goldfinch, and Meadow Pipit (2 as fly-by, but a very common and approachable bird later in trip; this species also breeds in Eastern Greenland). Dunnock was quite common in the hedgerows and far more active and vocal than I had understood from the bird guides. On April 4 I found three active, singing Willow Warblers along the stream just N of town. They are among the early spring migrants.
April 6: Took cheap Monarch airlines flight from Luton airport to Alicante, Spain. Drove through Murcia to Lubrin, a small town NE of Almeria, where some friends live 4 miles from the nearest phone.
Birding this far inland was somewhat limited to local breeding birds. The lack of raptors was striking. Also the extensive orange groves, most of which were filled with rotting oranges due to French preferences for importing cheap Moroccan oranges into the EC. Another striking feature of the arid hillsides were the abandoned cortijos: old stone country homes that are now used only once a year, if at all. Goat herding is so uneconomical that much of this area has been depopulated in the last decade. The few remaining goatherds are mostly older men who may not be replaced when they retire. The hillsides may be recovering from overgrazing.....maybe an analogous change will happen in the American West when grazing fees are not subsidizing herding on public lands.
April 7: Along dry stream beds (called ramblas in Spain) near Lubrin were singing Cirl Buntings, Spotless Starlings, Woodchat Shrikes and of course, lots of House Sparrows. I didn't check the latter carefully for Tree or Rock Sparrows. Sardinian Warbler was common in thick brush (call like a Bewick's Wren and song like a gnatcatcher). Red-legged Partridge flushed at a distance (they are a lot tamer in the UK, where they aren't hunted as relentlessly).
We drove to Almeria where Swift and Pallid Swifts swirled over downtown. Jose Manuel Lopez Martos, a self-taught naturalist with the national Agencia para el Medio Ambiente y la Naturaleza took us on a free tour of the salt pans west of town (Punta Entina to Punta Sabinar which are partially protected by the agency). He and other naturalists usually take school groups, but apparently if you seek out the agency headquarters in provincial capitals it is possible to arrange a tour for visiting birders. Jose Manuel claimed that due to Spain's backward economy and political isolation until the 1970s, many areas were left in a primitive state by default. However, the area near the coast is fast being built up with high rise apartment buildings. In the last ten years there has also been a boom of plastic greenhouses for the truck garden trade. In fact, El Ejido, a town NW of Almeria is one of the wealthiest in the country and is surrounded by low greenhouses to the horizon. This has led to decreased habitat for Stone Curlews (European Thick Knees) and other species, and to excessive groundwater withdrawals and salination, just like in the American West, southern Georgia, etc.
We went through locked gates to salt ponds with Greater Flamingo, Little Egret, Black-winged Stilt, Avocet, and all plumages of Audouin's Gull. There were some more isolated ponds with Redshank, Little Stint, Ruff, Spotted Sandpiper, Greenshank, Dunlin and other species. However, it was still early for rarer migrants such as Temminck's Stint. Short toed Lark, Black-eared Stonechat, Barn Swallow and Hoopoe were in the flats between the ponds. East of El Ejido was an old quarry with reeds (White-headed Duck, Little Ringed Plover, Little Grebe), but we didn't hear any warblers at mid-day. Interestingly, the introduced Ruddy Duck is interbreeding with the native White-headed Duck, and Europeans are trying to control the Ruddy Duck population.
April 8: Along hillsides near Lubrin, I saw Orphean Warbler, Corn Bunting, Northern Wheatear and lots of Serins, Bee-eaters, and Crested Larks. On the drive out of town a Little Owl boldly stood on a bridge wall (this species was introduced to the UK). The drive to Granada was devoid of road birds. I saw only one Kestrel (a lot bigger than our kestrel in USA). The Alhambra is architecturally amazing, and the gardens are enticing, with running water everywhere to cool the tree groves. There were a lot of garden birds singing, but none new for the trip.
April 9: The drive from Granada to Lubrin was uneventful: Crested Larks, House Sparrow, Bee-eater here and there. Over Lubrin a raptor took advantage of the thermals (Honey Buzzard?), but young William was so inconsolable we couldn't stop. A Black Wheatear flew by with an odd, jerky flight.
April 12: Back in England, we stayed on a friend's farm in the hamlet of The Shoe, Wiltshire. Two mornings I birded the wooded hillside south of The Ford. Chiffchaffs had begun to sing, and a Blackcap traveled with a mixed flock of tits. Speaking of tits, the Blue and Great Tits had a variety of calls and song which took a while to figure out. Robin and to a lesser extent, Chaffinch also had a varied repertoire that took time to sort out. I found a Treecreeper nest on a ten-foot tall, ivy-covered stump. The treecreepers were more approachable than our Brown Creeper and had a wider assortment of vocalizations.
April 15: My only full day of birding. At 5:45 I met John Archer (21b Radford Rd., Lewisham, London SE13 6SB, 081-244-3199), an environmental planner with what is left of the Greater London Council, who supplements his income by guiding birders. He drove to Landguard, the harbor entrance to Felixstowe, Suffolk. Three Greylag Geese (feral?) flew over farmland as we approached town. At the point, Linnets were everywhere. Two female Black Redstarts were the only rarities, and we missed the Ring Ouzel which the bird observatory volunteers had seen there for several days (change to mild weather may have offered good flying). A Eurasian Curlew flew overhead calling. Meadow Pipits and Red-legged Partridge allowed close approach. A single Fulmar flew overhead (these birds have undergone a population explosion in UK in the last century which some people attribute to feeding on offal).
We then drove to Minsmere, the premier RSPB preserve, which opens at 9 although the public hides near the shore are open earlier (closed Tues.; free admission with National Audubon Society membership card). Amazingly, there were no signs for the preserve on the roads. As we approached the parking lot, we passed an oak forest that grew in thin soil but had been toppled by a hurricane.
An elevated hide was now useless over the windfall. At the first hide, Sedge Warblers had just arrived and begun singing in the marsh (some song elements sound a lot like a Marsh Wren's). One fellow in the first hide said he saw a Marsh Warbler, but we never heard or saw it. A Reed Bunting sang from distant bushes in the marsh. Both Willow and Marsh Tits were in nearby woodlands, and a Stoat crossed the trail. John heard a Grasshopper Warbler in the distance, but it only sang once, and I could not pick it out of the chorus. A Fieldfare put in an appearance in a field where the Ringed Ouzel had been reported the day before, but not today. At the scrape (the central ponds), there was a lot of activity: displaying Lapwings, Oystercatchers, and Redshanks; feeding Black-tailed Godwits, Common Ringed Plover, Avocet, Garganey and other ducks. The Little Tern seen the day before did not appear. Along the beach dunes, there were Common Stonechats (Clements splits this species from Siberian Stonechat, the vagrant in Alaska), but the ocean only had 2 Black-headed Gulls. As we circled the scrape we heard a Bittern (a much more resounding, deeper call than the American Bittern's; 22 breeding pairs in UK in 1992). Several Meadow Pipits were in the area, and one bird sounded suspiciously like a Water Pipit (this split species winters in UK), but it only called once, so we didn't count it. A Green Sandpiper called and circled in the distance. It flew low overhead, kindly displaying its field marks, and landed in a ditch. We tried to approach on the trail, but it flushed at some distance. We returned to the hides closer to the visitor center and waited 20 minutes for brief looks at a male Bearded Tit that had been giving its strange "poing" call in the reeds. We also heard a Water Rail while we waited there.
We had a brief lunch in the car and decided not to look for the 8 Common Cranes at the Broads farther north since they might be hard to find if nesting. We drove on winding, poorly marked arterial roads to Weeting Heath reserve west of Weeting (one pound admission). At the eastern hide we met a birder from Cambridge and one from Cameroon. They had missed the Redwing seen earlier in the day and had not seen any of the 6 Stone Curlews reported at the reserve. The field was hopping with American Cottontails which kept the grass closely cropped and created a lot of false alarms. After much searching at the western hide, John found a Stone Curlew through his Kowa. It was sitting still and never rose as we watched.
As dusk approached, we drove 3 miles south of Brandon on B1106 and walked the forestry commission road (west of a small road marker labeled "10"), past some buildings (locally known as Mayday farm) and a transmitter tower to an area where the plantation pines were 6-10 feet tall. A forestry sign barred entry to the grove because of nesting goshawks, woodlarks and nightjars (a May arrival). A Green Woodpecker foraged on the ground like a flicker. Here we heard a song somewhat like a chat's, and after much searching, I saw a Woodlark land in the distance on an exposed branch. Some local birders were concentrating on finches at a water hole farther west, but by the time they reached us, they missed the Woodlark. One later flew overhead looking remarkably short-tailed (a good field mark until early summer when fledgling Skylarks also look short-tailed). We checked out the small waterhole. Brambling, Siskin, and Chaffinch came in to water. Crossbills and redpolls flew overhead (The call note definitely sounded different, more like a call type 2 in S. Appalachians; when Scottish Crossbills come south, John isn't always sure which is which, so there is some doubt about the split). Then a (Brown) Tree Pipit flew up and sang long enough for good scope views, including hind toe! We walked east of the transmitter tower to larger pines where we had heard Golden Pheasant calling (more like a cough than a call). They fled into denser small pines, offering a vague view -- but better than what many birders get after multiple trips.
As dusk approached, we waited for Eurasian Woodcock to display. John heard some shrews calling, but for the first time, my high pitched hearing loss (from my first factory job) cut me out of the action: I could only hear the sound of scurrying in the leaves. A Eurasian Woodcock gave a deep call, then a higher pitched call and began "roding." It displayed earlier at dusk than the smaller American Woodcock in North America, so it was possible to see its color as it flew at tree top level and out over the younger pines. The "roading" flight looked like an aerodynamic impossibility, at stall speed. The bird had a silhouette like a hatchet fish, and a jizz like an animal from The Beetles' movie, Yellow Submarine. They apparently were seen in North America, including Alabama in the nineteenth century but have become rare in the New World (perhaps there are just fewer of them in Europe, with habitat destruction). As we walked back to the car in the slowly gathering darkness (52 degrees North), a Tawny Owl called in the distance. John said they are a lot easier to find in city parks than in woodland. Since they are smaller than our Spotted or Barred Owls, they can find adequate forage and shelter in more fragmented woodlands, such as Regents' Park in London. A herd of native Roe Deer crossed the dirt road and grunted like incensed boar as they fled.
We had a Mars Bar for dinner and drove back to London, talking birds. I got stranded on the underground train when a switch broke down, but got "home" at 11, in time to sleep until 10:30AM.
April 17: Explored The Pens and surrounding woodlands and meadow in Richmond Park, an old royal hunting preserve. The gates are closed to autos at 6:30, but I could walk in. A mountain biker flushed a Snipe (?) from a ditch. Introduced Red and Fallow Deer allowed close approach. At the Pens ponds, a male Mandarin Duck was somewhat elusive (a feral population of 1000 lives south of London). A pair of Great Crested Grebes, a Red-crested Pochard and a Black Swan were there (origin?). A pair of Great Spotted Woodpeckers and some Green Woodpeckers were in old oaks. A Carrion Crow persistently chased an introduced Gray Squirrel around an oak trunk. In the meadow east of the lower pond, Meadow Pipits and Reed Bunting defended territories. As the drizzle began to intensify, I saw a Treecreeper in a row of isolated streamside trees.
Here is my trip species list for both countries. Contact me for more information on locations and dates (English names are Clements').
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis Great Crested Grebe Podiceps cristatus Northern Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo White-headed Duck Oxyura leucocephala Mute Swan Cygnus olor Greylag Goose Anser anser Canada Goose Branta canadensis Common Shelduck Tadorna tadorna Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope Gadwall Anas strepera Common Teal Anas crecca Mallard Anas platyrhynchos Northern Pintail Anas acuta Garganey Anas querquedula Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata Red-crested Pochard Netta rufina Common Pochard Aythya ferina Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber Little Egret Egretta garzetta Gray Heron Ardea cinerea Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis Great Bittern Botaurus stellaris Western Marsh-Harrier Circus aeruginosus Northern Harrier Circus cyaneus Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus Red-legged Partridge Alectoris rufa Common Pheasant Phasianus colchicus Golden Pheasant Chrysolophus pictus Water Rail Rallus aquaticus Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus Eurasian Coot Fulica atra Eurasian Woodcock Scolopax rusticola Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata Common Redshank Tringa totanus Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia Green Sandpiper Tringa ochropus Common Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres Little Stint Calidris minuta Dunlin Calidris alpina Ruff Philomachus pugnax Eurasian Thick-knee Burhinus oedicnemus Eurasian Oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus Pied Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius (Kentish) Snowy Plover Charadrius alexandrinus Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus Mew Gull Larus canus Audouin's Gull Larus audouinii Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus Herring Gull Larus argentatus Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus Common Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis Common Tern Sterna hirundo Rock Dove Columba livia Stock Pigeon Columba oenas Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus Eurasian Collared-Dove Streptopelia decaocto Common Cuckoo Cuculus canorus Tawny Owl Strix aluco Little Owl Athene noctua Common Swift Apus apus Pallid Swift Apus pallidus European Bee-eater Merops apiaster Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major Eurasian Green Woodpecker Picus viridis Eurasian Jay Garrulus glandarius Black-billed Magpie Pica pica Eurasian Jackdaw Corvus monedula Rook Corvus frugilegus Carrion Crow Corvus corone Common Raven Corvus corax Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator Eurasian Blackbird Turdus merula Fieldfare Turdus pilaris Song Thrush Turdus philomelos Mistle Thrush Turdus viscivorus Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris Spotless Starling Sturnus unicolor European Robin Erithacus rubecula Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros Common Stonechat Saxicola torquata Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Black-eared Wheatear Oenanthe hispanica Eurasian Nuthatch Sitta europaea Eurasian Treecreeper Certhia familiaris Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes Long-tailed Tit Aegithalos caudatus Sand Martin Riparia riparia Barn Swallow Hirundo rustica House Martin Delichon urbica Goldcrest Regulus regulus Sedge Warbler Acrocephalus schoenobaenus Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus Eurasian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla Orphean Warbler Sylvia hortensis Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala Bearded Reedling (Tit) Panurus biarmicus Marsh Tit Parus palustris Willow Tit Parus montanus Coal Tit Parus ater Great Tit Parus major Blue Tit Parus caeruleus Greater Short-toed Lark Calandrella brachydactyla Crested Lark Galerida cristata Wood Lark Lullula arborea Eurasian Skylark Alauda arvensis House Sparrow Passer domesticus White Wagtail Motacilla alba Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis Dunnock Prunella modularis Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs Brambling Fringilla montifringilla European Serin Serinus serinus European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris Eurasian Siskin Carduelis spinus European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis Common Redpoll Carduelis flammea Eurasian Linnet Carduelis cannabina Red Crossbill Loxia curvirostra Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella Cirl Bunting Emberiza cirlus Reed Bunting Emberiza schoeniclus Corn Bunting Emberiza calandra
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