[This report was submitted in four parts. I've left the four-part structure intact but combined them into one document. UG]
Chatters: Here's the first installment of Barry's and my trip report from our August-- September excursion to England... Gail
My husband, Barry, has always called his native country, England, "a green and pleasant land." Pleasant it may still be, but green it was not as our British Airways jet parted the clouds over Gatwick at dawn and readied itself for a landing. The rolling hills were tan -- it looked more like "golden" California than the expected green downland. All of Great Britain had been locked in a summer's long drought, accompanied by unusually hot weather, which had blighted crops, drained reservoirs and stunted gardens. There had been no rain at his mother's home in Hailsham, Sussex, for over a month.
After conversation at the Eurodollar car hire counter about global warming, of which the agent was now a believer, we snagged our car and dashed south. A stop at Weirwood Reservoir found it to be Weirwood mud flat, thus good for us as we ticked off SPOTTED REDSHANK, GREENSHANK, RUFF, COMMON SANDPIPER and some unhappy GREAT CRESTED GREBES in the small remaining open water. A few WILLOW WARBLERS and GREAT TITS fed in trees near the overlook. Driving on, we found the Ashdown Forest to be dry and quiet, but patches of summer heather were bravely in purple bloom.
We arrived at Barry's mum's house in mid-morning, unpacked and tried to rest for a bit. As usual that was of no avail, so we called nephew David and got the latest scoop on birds: don't bother with Beachy Head (Barry's old stomping grounds) -- the dreaded westerly winds have been on and no birds are moving through. The marsh pools on Pevensey are dry too, don't waste your time. However, some interesting quarry still lingered from the week before, of special interest a large number of Spotted Crakes and some other good birds at nearby sites.
Still a bit jet-lagged, we opted for an easy afternoon and took Barry's mum on a drive to the Cuckmere estuary, where a walk along the river yielded LITTLE GREBES, COMMON RINGED PLOVER, REDSHANK, and not much else. Instead of white sheep on green downland, dirty beige sheep searched for fodder on the tan hillsides above. A swing around Arlington Reservoir found water levels low, windy conditions and an officious Water Bailiff who wouldn't let anyone on to the old paths along the banks, now reserved for anglers. (What is that saying about a little power...?) Opting not to drag our weary selves around the outer path, we didn't see much but feral geese and some interesting butterflies. The highlight was ice cream from the omnipresent Mr. Whippy truck.
After dinner we collapsed -- we hadn't slept at all on the plane thanks to an overexcited and loud couple behind us who had exclaimed, as we landed, "Oh we're here already wow we didn't sleep at all!" to which I replied, sotto voce, "Neither did we..."
Up early and a big fried breakfast to fortify our trip to Rye Harbour. Across Pett Levels were lots of LAPWINGS, COMMON and BLACK-HEADED GULLS in the fields. There were several boot sales (flea markets) setting up and we nearly got shunted into one of them by an over-efficient traffic director. At Rye, the reserve sightings board showed a few nice birds in the last few days. We hurried out to the Tern Pool, pushing dozens of flocking YELLOW WAGTAILS from our way -- they at least were on the move. A few WHINCHATS sat on bushes and as we approached the beach, several WHEATEARS flew ahead.
The south hide was empty, and from it we scoped two LITTLE STINTS, Redshank, Ruff, Common SP, SNIPE, GREAT CORMORANT and a LITTLE EGRET (now a common summer visitor). Ducks included SHELDUCK, TEAL, one sleeping GARGANEY and a SCAUP (all in eclipse plumage). SANDWICH TERNS flew above. On the flats behind the dunes was a large flock of RED KNOT, several hundred OYSTERCATCHERS and a number of EURASIAN CURLEW, but no Whimbrel.
The east hide had other birders and we saw why: they were watching a fine WOOD SANDPIPER foraging right in front of the hide, a Least Grebe feeding a demanding chick, and a male RED-CRESTED POCHARD. The Wood and Pochard were new birds for me, so I was pretty happy. Back at the car we considered going on to Dungeness but realized that we would then be late for Sunday dinner, so settled on a drive by Pett Levels pools. There we saw CURLEW SANDPIPER amongst the 'shanks, a COMMON TERN, and got to talk to some other Sussex birders.
When we got home we called Birdline, which reported some good birds at Arlington that morning, so after dinner we drove over to brave the Water Bailiff yet again. It had gotten very windy and it was hard to scope the back of the reservoir, so around we walked. But we were rewarded with a juvenile LITTLE GULL and a juvenile LITTLE RINGED PLOVER, both good views, though we dipped on the reported Black Tern. Did I mention it was windy?
After that we drove into Eastbourne to look at the seafront and the gardens, now a bit tattered due to drought, but still lovely. It was even windier. A bad omen for the bank holiday tomorrow, when we had planned to meet Barry's old friend Mike Nolan for a go at the Spotted Crake in Kent.
It was still very windy. But we were up early and off NE to meet Mike at Sandwich Bay. East of Hailsham we met, going in the other direction, a long line of Mr. Whippy ice cream trucks hurrying to deploy themselves before the holiday makers from London arrived on the south coast. We joked about some high-tech computerized control center routing the trucks, "Okay, two to the Beachy Head hotel, two to the London Road, one to Arlington, our radar has tourists in sight, on the double now, scramble! scramble!"
After a lot of false starts (Sandwich is, well, an interesting town to drive through) we met Mike at the reserve office. From here we got directions to the Crake spot, a small pool on a farm, surrounded by reeds. When we got there we found this place to be VERY WINDY, about 35 mph gusts coming right down the bay. Naturally no crake or rail worth its salt would show itself under such conditions. But we waited patiently for about three hours, watching essentially nothing since no other bird was showing either. Finally our revery was broken by the arrival of a windblown juvenile CUCKOO into a bush next to us, where it struggled for a foothold. A beautifully-marked and barred bird, rather warm in tone, one of the highlights of the trip -- also, quite a late date for a juv!
We finally gave it up and retired to a telephone where we hoped Birdline would tell us of some staggering rarity close by. No such luck, the best close birds were Pacific Golden Plover at Sheppey and Lesser Yellowlegs at Dungeness, also a Red-backed Shrike. After some discussion we decided to hit the latter spot, in part because it was on the way home for us. I was wary of this choice, Dungeness invented the word "windswept" and I hate wind.
The Yellowlegs had been reported from the ARC gravel pit at Dungeness and the shrike nearby, so we parked where a lot of other birders' cars sat and walked in what we thought was the right direction. We started to meet returning, rather unhappy folks. "Nothing." "Gone, buggered off." "Didn't see it -- it [the shrike] flew away east, and no one's seen the Yellowlegs either." With this encouragement we staggered on into the wind. We saw LINNETS. We saw two EURASIAN TREE SPARROWS with them, which was nice. We saw little else. At the reserve, an adult Little Gull but none of the promised Garganey. Some people had seen some Black Terns at the "Patch" -- in front of the power plant -- but the day was drawing on, we were in a glum mood, Mike's car was getting a soft tire, so we decided to skip the oceanside and so we all bid adieu.
We tried to recoup later in the day with a nice dinner out and planning for our serious birding excursion which was to start the next day. We debated -- west to Portland or north to East Anglia? The weather report indicated that winds in the latter part of the week might be better for Norfolk (that is, from the northeast). So we opted to start off towards Dorset and then see where the birds took us. Tomorrow, we would start to get serious...!
Up before dawn, lunch packed, fried breakfast eaten, then out the door to the West, with a full agenda before us. We zipped west past Bristol, Arundel and (after a short stop to take a photo of a sign that has always intrigued us -- RACING WITH HORSEDRAWN VEHICLES IS PROHIBITED ON THE MOTORWAY -- we arrived at our first destination, a flooded gravel pit near Chichester, right along the A-27. Birdline had been reporting a WHITE-WINGED BLACK TERN here, with BLACK TERNS, and so there was -- the bird, a juvenile, was immediately obvious from quite a distance, with very pale wings and tail contrasting with a very dark saddle. A new bird for my British list and the first of that plumage I 've ever seen.
It was actually starting to rain slightly, a contrast from the weekend, when we arrived at stop two, Sidlesham Ferry Reserve. The Ferry Pool yielded three Little Stints, a large number of Ruff, Redshanks, Ringed Plovers, etc. but nothing new. We enjoyed the stints for a while (at crippling distances), then walked along the reserve path for landbirds. Fairly quiet -- DUNNOCK, GOLDFINCH and a few Chiffchaffs. Then on to Church Norton and Pagham Harbour, always an excellent migrant trap. Landbirds were scanty, best a SPOTTED FLYCATCHER and a few BLACKCAPs. Low tide at the Harbour was excellent for shorebirds, and we ticked BLACK-TAILED GODWITS along with several Little Egrets (boy, are these getting common). A walk though the churchyard was quiet (as it should be) but interrupted by a burst of serious rain which, however, did nothing to green the yellow grass.
Next stop at Tichfield Haven, where we discovered to our dismay that the reserve was closed until Friday -- although the wardens were there, they were quite positive about that fact. So we dipped on the two expected long-staying Spoonbills, a species that is starting to become an annoying blocker for me. No tears, however, but on to Farlington Marshes, RSPB reserve, right adjacent the motorway, and wedged between it and Chichester Harbour. Farlington had reported a Spotted Crake for several days, and there were a number of birders perched above the large pool patiently watching. We joined them in the vigil. The pool held Spotted 'shanks, two Curlew Sandpipers, this and that, but no obvious Crake. The reedbeds were filled with energetic REED WARBLERS. Someone thought they might have seen an Aquatic Warbler early, but if so, it remained hidden. After a decent interval, we wandered back through the reserve, eating the ripe blackberries but not seeing anything unusual. It was, for landbirds, remarkably quiet. We hope the change in weather would start stirring migration a bit, particularly since we planned to be spending the night at Portland Bird Observatory, a famous migrant trap -- in the right weather.
Still forging West, the motorway through the New Forest traversed spectacular acres of blooming purple heather. Finally we entered Dorset, and turned south to Weymouth and Portland. Traffic was heavy and slow and we slogged along, the boredom enlivened by bursts of adrenalin (mine) as Barry executed various interesting overtaking manouveurs.
Eventually we reached Radipole Lake RSPB Reserve, literally in the middle of Weymouth. This is an excellent site for Cetti's Warbler, Water Rail, Kingfisher and others but we were torn -- it was now afternoon and on Portland Bill waited two very good birds, still there according to the Observatory, a Melodious Warbler and an adult Rose-coloured Starling. Hmmm. Finally deciding that two birds in the hand were worth a lot more than flocks in the reeds, we left Radipole for the next day and drove out to the granite monolith of Portland Bill. A glance at the map shows that Portland Bill juts out from the coast further than any point of land to its east (even the Isle of Wight) and its barren, quarry-pitted top is famous for rarities.
A short stop at the observatory to confirm our arrival and get the gen on the birds. Leaving the car, we hiked over to the nearby Pulpit Pub, not for a pint but because the Melodious was in the scrub behind it. Several birders stood on the opposite side of a large bramble patch, looking intently but not intent enough to demonstrate that they had the bird in sight (you know the look). As we carefully circumnavigated the brambles, a small yellowish bird flushed and sat up, briefly, to look at us. It was the MELODIOUS WARBLER! We had just enough time to absorb the Hippolais jizz, pale yellow wash on the underparts, lack of yellowish wing panel, and large beady eye in a plain face, when the critter flew. And flew. Practically over to the other birders, who were getting agitated as they suddenly realized THAT WAS IT! Well, that had taken all of 30 seconds but we needed better looks, especially Barry whose view had been too oblique to see the face well.
Luck was with us, as the bird moved to an isolated elderberry bush at the end of the scrub, and proceeded to feed, sit out, preen and generally give a wonderful show until we all tired of it and started to think about going after the Starling. That was supposedly showing well at an abandoned quarry behind the Eight Kings pub (is there a connection here?). When we arrived we found a group of some ten birders standing rather dejectedly -- the bird had been out earlier but had moved deep into an enormous elderberry bush next to the quarry edge and hadn't shown for an hour. We joined the group.
After about 30 minutes of standing, a young boy about 12 who was with his parents suddenly called out, "oh I just saw it!-- it hopped across a hole -- pink and black!" His parents shushed him but he was insistent. His father warned ominously, "don't be so sure, so you remember the ----" but the boy was certain. And rightly so, because a few minutes later the bird again showed briefly. We managed to miss it, though. The wait resumed. After about another hour the sun was starting to sink over the rooftops, and one by one the others drifted away. Barry and I remained.
Finally, Barry walked over to the bush. In an atypical burst of frustration, he clapped his hands loudly a few times -- and completely unexpected, the ROSE- COLOURED STARLING came zooming out of the bush, like a pink and black bullet, straight up to a nearby TV aerial, where it sat calmly (with common Starlings) and preened! We were able to get it in the Questar and, for over 15 minutes, studied the pale bill, jazzy crest, pale pink and black plumage. Every so often, it would bicker with its more vulgar congeners, and once flew briefly to another perch before resuming its pre-roosting activities. Finally, it took off with the other Starlings, flew in great loops over the housetops, and then dived (with them) into a large Chestnut tree next to the pub. The show was over. We were both elated and relieved. Barry also felt a little guilty about his proactive approach -- but he never thought that it would actually produce an effect (never has before!).
A celebratory meal and pint (or two) in a local pub, a check in to the birdlines (Hmmm, Thrush-nightingale showing well at Felixstowe) and then back to bed. The weather was clear, wind coming round to the NE, maybe something new would arrive overnight.
Up again before dawn, and out into the early light. There weren't many other birders that night at Portland, and everyone else seemed to be still asleep. One of the first birds we saw was a PIED FLYCATCHER, then another, very good indicators of a movement of birds. In fact, the little observatory garden was filled with Pied Flies, as well as Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs, the odd Spotted Fly, and one or two REDSTARTS. Back up the road to a scrub clump, we flogged it pretty thoroughly: SEDGE WARBLER, WHITETHROAT, LESSER WHITETHROAT, Blackcap, and one very interesting larger bird which we only saw in flight, which in jizz looked like a Barred Warbler, not relocated unfortunately. Argghh.
At the obs, Martin had the nets opened and had ringed over 8 Pied Flies. We did the perimeter, enjoying the bright day and all the nice birds. Whinchats and Wheatears on the fence wires. Behind the pub, the Melodious flushed briefly for us. We noted a couple of TREE PIPITS, separated primarily on call because in fall, the common Meadow Pipit also sports a buffy garb. We walked over to the very tip of Portland Bill and sat for about an hour doing a mini-seawatch. Not too much, several NORTHERN FULMARS, two ARCTIC SKUAS, perhaps a dozen GANNETS and two alcid sp. ROCK PIPITS on the rocks, natch, also PIED WAGTAILS and one GREY WAGTAIL flying over, calling.
Back then for a quick breakfast (the observatory is cook-your-own) and a confab. After some thought, we decided to head out, do Radipole or perhaps Lodmore reserves, and then make the long haul NE to Felixstowe and East Anglia. The wind was turning NE and it was starting to look good for vagrants in that quarter. Bidding Martin and the observatory goodbye, we briefly stopped at the Starling Spot -- the bird was back in his bush, according to the waiting birders -- and drove north. Martin had warned us that because of the drought, in an effort to save its reedbeds, Radipole had put in a temporary dam which was keeping water levels high in the reserve. This was good for the habitat, but not so good for birders, so we opted for nearby Lodmore.
The sightings board at Lodmore indicated some good birds, and soon we had ticked up a beautiful MARSH HARRIER, flying low over the reeds, as well as Little Egret, Common and Wood Sandpiper, Dunlin, Grey Plover, Snipe, Little Grebe. As we walked the pleasant paths in the warm sunshine, we met an older gentleman and his wife sitting on a bench. When we got even with them the man said, "We're waiting for an interesting stint to reappear -- I had it in the scope but it seems to have disappeared. But I swear it had yellow legs..." Uh oh...this was very interesting indeed! After some scanning, we managed to relocate the bird a bit further away and got it in the Questar. It was, definitely, a TEMMINCK'S STINT! One of our most-wanted birds this trip.--.yes, yes!
Everyone took long looks at this unusual migrant, noting the yellow-ochre legs, the distinctive scaly pattern of the scapulars and coverts, the rather plain face. In the Q, the unique subterminal dark lines inside the feather edgings could be seen quite well. Once, when the bird was harrassed by a larger Dunlin, it flew a short distance and, upon landing , spread its tail so that the white outer tail feathers were obvious. By this time, a small crowd had gathered and everyone was enjoying this unexpected treat. There were a lot of high fives and happy faces, it was a lifer for several. The bird's finder eventually left to call Birdline, and we reluctantly departed as well, as the morning had drawn to a close and we had a long drive ahead of us.
Despite finding a few shortcuts, we cleverly managed to hit the M-25 at rush-hour, so it was very slow and nasty all the way around London to our junction with the A-12. We stopped beyond Chelmsford for petrol and a very unpleasant meal at a McDonald's (yes, they ARE everywhere) filled with little screaming kids (yes, they scream in England too). The motel at this service area was filled, so we wearily hit the road again, and didn't stop until we reached Felixstowe, on the North Sea coast, at sunset. We luckily found a B&B with a vacancy, and an owner who knew where the Languard Bird Observatory was, our target for the morning.
It was sprinkling when we walked to the phone box to call Barry's mum, David and, of course, Birdline. The Thrush-nightingale was still there, showing well (for a T-N, that is) at sunset. And -- there was a "very obliging" Spotted Crake at Minsmere -- just up the road! Seems as if we had made the right choice. By the time we went to bed, it was pouring. The drought was over!
Chatters -- this is the penultimate chapter -- gotta finish the finale! Gail
The town of Felixstowe sits hard against the North Sea; south of town lies Landguard Point. West of this point is a huge container shipping terminal, and at its southern end stands an old fort. In the middle lies an area of shingle beach, dune, dune scrub and brambles. This is the Languard Point Nature Reserve, a perfect trap for the migrant and the vagrant. It was our destination for the morning, because several days ago a Thrush- nightingale, a rarity in Britain, had been trapped, ringed and released at the reserve. It was located a day or so later near the trapping site, and had been delighting twitchers ever since. The bird had been showing well the evening before, and the rainy night had undoubtedly kept it around.
So it was with high hopes we arrived at first light at the car park, and started to scout the area. We soon met the warden, who was also looking for the bird -- he pointed out where it was usually seen skulking (in a low brambly area near the road, below the dune crest) and we three stood and waited for the grey wet morning to brighten. The only birdlife of interest was a BLACK REDSTART, flying across the road to its home in the container port (they seem to prefer industrial sites). Other birders started to arrive, several glancing at their watches, "hope I see 'im soon, I gotta get to work..." But the weather gods weren't cooperating, it started to rain and then really pour. Scopes went back into the car, and birders drifted away. We decided to hit the B&B for breakfast and come back in a half hour.
This was a good decision, because by then the rain had stopped and the sky lightened. About 40 birders were scattered over the area, most standing and watching likely spots. We walked around a bit, then separated. I found a wonderful moth on a bush -- a Garden Tiger -- and was admiring it when I noticed that Barry and two others, down below us in the hollow, were intently watching something deep in a bush. Doing a quick end run, I carefully tiptoed down the dune about 30 feet away, and hid against a large bramble. Barry made a little "it's in that bush" motion. And sure enough, in about 30 seconds, the Thrush- nightingale came hopping out into the open -- on my side of the bush! It looked more thrush-like than I expected, grey breast faintly streaked, rather cold brown upperparts but warmer tail color, pale markings about the eye. It stood straight up, wings drooping slightly, and flicked its tail once or twice -- intent on the three birders on other other side of the bush. Then it flew upslope, over the dune and into a huge tangle of scrub. Wow!
My spousal unit, however, was not happy with his obstructed view, so the watch continued. And sure enough, after about a half-hour, the bird came back, flying down into the hollow, hopping in and out of the dark areas beneath bushes, and giving Barry all the looks he needed to tick this, for it was a lifer for both of us! The timing was good, for it had started to rain again. We left, surprised that it was only 9:30 am. We felt like we had been birding all day.
It was a relatively easy run up to Minsmere, in the rain all the way. No one at the visitor's centre knew if the Spotted Crake had been seen that morning, so we hurried off to North Hide to look for ourselves. As we scrambled into a seat, we asked two other birders if the crake was around. "Oh yes, just over there..." Barry struggled to get the scope adjusted. "No need to panic, it's been out all morning...bloody cooperative...amazing!" So we finally and at long last saw the dreaded SPOTTED CRAKE, mincing its way along the muddy edge of a reedbed in company with Moorhens twice its size. Like a rather dull, spotted Sora, with buff undertail coverts and unexpected white wing patches. Also on the mud were BEARDED REEDLINGS, and a good selection of shorebirds including Curlew Sandpiper, Ruff and Green Sandpiper. It was raining hard, thank god for the wonderful British hides. Good weather for crakes too, the little guy never hid itself but walked out in plain view until even we tired of it. After sharing a few celebratory chocolate Digestive biscuits with our new friends, we made the decision to leave and head for the north coast. Minsmere is a wonderful place, but not in a downpour.
The rest of the day was not as successful as the start. The rain stopped and the NE wind began. We dipped on long-staying Barred Warblers at Winterton-on- Sea, the duneside elderberries being windwhipped and silent. After a long walk out onto the fenlands at Horseley, we managed to see two COMMON CRANES flying away from us in the distance, bugling. Barry has never seen a Crane on the ground and refused to tick these distant unsatisfying birds. We then proceeded westward, the wind gathering strength, and stopped briefly at Sheringham cliffs for a short seawatch. A couple of Arctic Skuas, one KITTIWAKE on the beach with Common Gulls, and a fly-by distant alcid, probably GUILLEMOT were our scanty reward.
Finally, in late afternoon, the little town of Cley-next-the-Sea. No room at the George and Dragon, but no birders either (where were they?). Finally a nice spot at Holkham, in a B&B right off the main road. Then back to Cley for an evening jaunt around the hides. PIED AVOCET, Black-tailed Godwits, Ruff, a fine male Marsh Harrier on the ground, many many SWIFTS (but no rare ones) and then rain in off the North Sea, sending us back to the car. Dinner at the George, a look at the birder's "bible" on its stand in the pub, and then to bed.
Rainy at dawn. We grabbed a supply of Digestives and headed for the Dell at Holkham, an area of silver birch and scrub next to the sea, and bordered by a huge pine woods to the north. Over the years many good birds had been found here, and with NE winds, one might expect...well, anything. Unfortunately, the rain and clouds had stayed over us all night, so it was unlikely that Continental migrants would have been moving. Still, it was worth a try.
The trick at the Dell is to find the mixed tit flock, as many times the warblers and other migrant passerines will be with it. This is sometimes a challenge, and although we heard the odd bird calling, we couldn't seem to find more than a few Blue and Great tits here and there. The rain stopped, and the sun came out over the North Sea, forming a Hawaii-style rainbow to the west. Birds were rather scarce, but we found GOLDCREST, TREE CREEPER, GREEN WOODPECKER, YELLOWHAMMER, as well as a fine pair of JAYS sunning on the ground. The warblers were the expected Sylvia and Phylloscs, unfortunately (Blackcaps, Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, and so forth). After a while, hunger drove us back to the car park, where we called the bird tape (nothing new, yet) and then to the B&B for a great breakfast.
After breakfast, we drove to Holkham Hall, a stately home whose grounds are recommended for Lesser Spotted woodpeckers and other unusual species, in the great old oaks, beeches and chestnuts. It was somewhat windy and cool, however, and we found no woodpeckers, but did grip NUTHATCH, SONG THRUSH (these seem to be rather scarce in recent years) and a few EGYPTIAN GEESE (countable) with feral Canadas on the vast lawn. This looks a ideal place in spring to look for birds like Hawfinch, as well as Lesser Spotted and other 'peckers.
Next stop, Tichwell RSPB Reserve, where the impoundments are well-managed for both wildfowl (high water) and waders (mudflats). We enjoyed watching a large flock of GREATER GOLDEN PLOVER, many still in summer plumage. Over 40 Ruffs waded the shallows, and the mudflats hosted several Little Stints, as well as expected Dunlin, Ringed Plover and Redshanks. In the back of the north pool was the now-famous BLACK-WINGED STILT, a rare visitor to Britain but now into its second year at the reserve! The reeds held lots of Bearded Reedlings, including several immaculate males. Ducks were staring to arrive, and the south pool hosted good numbers of TUFTED DUCK, TEAL, WIGEON and the odd POCHARD.
From Tichwell we went westward to Holme, which is a reserve and an independent bird observatory. "Dull" could not adequately describe the scene there. It was now past noon, full sun, NE winds and there was not a warbler or migrant in sight! (Sometimes Continental birds seem to arrive on NE coast about this time of day, after struggling over the North Sea). We chatted for a while with the observatory warden, and admired the many butterflies frequenting the Buddleia in full bloom in front of the visitor's center. I spent some time taking photos of these little gems, some of which were themselves migrants. After purchasing a few books at the shop, we reluctantly left. It was time to head south and back to Sussex. We had an ominous feeling that tomorrow was going to be the GOOD day...
On the way back we stopped briefly to check a Golden Oriole site along the A-10, but the poplars were windblown and empty -- it looked like autumn already. The best bird was a MARSH TIT, more common in East Anglia than to the south. Supper on the way home at the Bicycle Arms pub, back in Hailsham by 8 pm, tired and a bit disappointed that we had not dipped in on a fallout of migrants. But we had, nevertheless, seen some excellent birds in our little circuit, including lifers for both of us.
Here is the final installment, other than the trip list, of Barry's and my British birding holiday last September. Soon after we left, the drought broke and in fact, September was a wet month with a lot of flooding here and there.
Up early, stuffed down a big fried breakfast, then out the door to meet nephew David at Beachy Head. Barry's brother John had just returned from a four-week trip to Madagascar, and was still recovering -- we would see him on Sunday. We had called Birdline, cringing at the not unexpected news of Greenish Warblers, Red-backed Shrikes and other goodies falling out all over East Anglia. Maybe the SE would get lucky as well.
The sky was sunny -- what else? -- as we drove over the downs, past Black Robin farm (now advertising as a B&B) , past the Beachy Head Hotel and then our friends' farm Hodcombe towards Belle Tout Woods. Wheatears and Whinchats on all the fences, what fences still remained as the downland is being recovered and the fences are coming down all over Beachy. Halfway to Birling we passed David rushing in the other direction so we put on the anchors. We both backed up -- "Hi!" -- and it was as if we had never been away.
We three decided to go back to the top and do Whitbread Hollow and Cow Gap, as we had to leave early to visit Barry's other brother later that day in Surrey. Not a tremendous amount of action -- Willow Warblers, Blackcaps, Lesser 'throats and Common 'throats, one or two nice REDSTARTS darted away, then a Spotted Flycatcher and then another. No groppers (Grasshopper Warblers) this year. GARDEN WARBLERS in number on elderberries in Cow Gap, also a few Reeds. A Grey Wagtail flew over calling -- (they always fly over calling, I have never seen one on the deck in England).
At the ringing station, Bob Edgar had some Whitethroats and Great Tits to show interested walkers, nothing exciting so far this season but migration was just starting. Up over the hollow and we came upon a nice group of Spotted Flies in a little clearing, but unfortunately no rarities met our seeking eyes. The field across from the car park was also pretty dead, but a nice SPARROW HAWK darted away as we approached the back end.
Down at Belle Tout Woods, there was more wind than birds, but we gave it a try and then stood a while to chat to David before packing it in for the day. He was going to do Chap Vale across from Hodcombe and then also call it done. We agreed to meet John and him the next day, got into our trusty Ford and buzzed off.
On the way to Surrey we stopped again at Weirwood Reservoir, aka Weirwood Mud Flat, and saw a nice selection of waders including a TURNSTONE, a good record for this inland location. Then north to the M-23. No more birding that day. When we returned late in the evening, David had called -- a Wryneck had been found in Chap Vale and he had, after two hours, managed to see it. Okay -- our target for the morrow!
Our last full day. We hesitated to call Birdline but did it anyway (you know the feeling) -- all the NE goodies were still there augmented by even better birds. Oh double Argghhh! Oh well, we grabbed a store of Digestives and then off to find the elusive Wryneck. Barry hadn't seen a Wryneck at Beachy for 20 years so this would be a real treat if we could pull it off.
At Chap Vale we were the first into the car park but soon another couple arrived. They went north and we went south. The bushes were alive with birds -- certainly the best numbers so far this trip. Dozens of Whitethroats and Lesser 'throats, Blackcaps, Willows, a few Chiffchaffs, Whinchats, Stonechats, a few Redstarts. We carefully examined everything because this is when the least expected shows up.
As we were coming around to the main path, we noticed the other couple making strange gesticulations -- strange, that is, unless you are a birder and know they are signalling you to get the hey over here as quickly as you can! Trotting up we saw that they had the WRYNECK sitting out on the tip of a branch, sunning itself, looking less like a Wryneck than some bulky warbler like a Barred. In the scope you could see all the detailed intricate markings of this odd woodpecker, the soft greys, browns and mauve of its plumage. We watched it for about 10 minutes, then it flew over our heads to some elderberries, where it disappeared.
About this time we noticed David, his brother Terry and dad John in the car park, John hobbling slightly from a toe injury incurred in Madagascar. The limp vanished when he realized we were also doing the "get here quick!" dance. When we all made it over to the elderberry bush, it only took a minute for us to locate the Wryneck at the base of the plant. We had crippling views in the full sunlight until it decided to leave us, but we followed its flight and were able to relocate it for another scrutiny. Then it made a serious flight and was lost into the scrub. Success!!
What followed was a lot of birding and talk, mostly about John's very successful foray amongst the birds and beasts of Madagascar. After a while John and company decided to drive up to the hotel to do the Gap, but we went over to Belle Tout to wait for Barry's friend Tony Quinn. Tony soon arrived, having just seen the Wryneck which was out and showing again, and we then hurried after the rest of the Coopers. On the way to our cars, the Wryneck couple pulled over -- the woman with pager in hand -- "Are you twitchers? There's a Semipalmated Sandpiper at Farlington Marshes." Uh, been there, done that but we thanked her and drove off uphill.
We soon caught up with J, D and T, and resumed our conversations, interpersed with some serious birding which unfortunately failed to reveal any rarities. After about 20 minutes, I remembered the Sandpiper and said to John, "By the way, does anyone here need Semi-P Sandpiper -- there's one this morning at Farlington." John said, "Oh...really?" but David turned slowly with the sort of stricken expression which obviously meant that HE, at least, needed Semi-P BAD and time was awasting! After a hurried confab, it was decided that John et al. would leave for Farlington at once and we would postpone our visit that afternoon pending developments. And then they were gone...
Barry, Tony and I looked at each other and then resumed birding. We paid a another visit to the ringing hut, bade goodbye to Bob E. for another year, wished him good luck and then back to the car. At the carpark, another birder said that he had seen the Wryneck and there was a Wood Warbler in Belle Tout, also an alleged sighting of a Barred. So back we went! The Barred sighting may have been duff, but the WOOD WARBLER was real enough, albeit very late for one - - after a lot of struggling eagle-eyes Tony saw it in the top of a beech and we all enjoyed this beautiful Phyllosc. It was an adult in crisp bright plumage and I was pretty happy, as it was a lifer for me!
A brief visit at Hodcombe with the Charlwoods was enlivened by some nice leps in their sunny garden, including a Hummingbird Hawk Moth. They had had a Camberwell Beauty earlier that week, a real rarity in England but a number of sightings in autumn 1995 made even the bird tapes.
After Sunday dinner at Mrs. Coopers', we all (including Barry's Mum) left for Pett Levels to try and see a long-staying but elusive Pectoral Sandpiper and a just-reported Temminck's Stint. We joined a lot of other hopefuls but to no avail. So I would have to wait to add Pec SP to my British list. Back home, we bade goodbye to Tony for another year, unless he should make it over the pond.
A call to John's revealed the three were still on the road so we shelved the evening visit this time. Instead, Barry and I did our favourite walk over Pevensy, to watch the sun go down over the broad marshes and to listen to the Lapwings and Curlews. A little drainage ditch had a number of birds going to roost in scrub: Reed Buntings, Reed and Sedge Warblers, and they flew about as we pished. Last looks, probably.
The moon was rising and bats were about as we made it back to the car. Tomorrow we would leave and we both felt rather downhearted. A call to John later that night revealed that they had dipped on the Semi-P; the bird had flown out from the pools onto the mudflats and was not relocated. They also got soaked in a sudden downpour. We didn't dare call Birdline. Knackered, we packed our suitcases and hit the sheets.
We had a noon flight from Gatwick, so had time in the morning to do some birding. After some last-minute photos and a last real fried British breakfast, we drove off -- first stop, Arlington Reservoir, where a Black-Necked Grebe was reported. When we arrived the gate was locked, but we climbed the fence (carefully watching for the Water Baliff) and set up the scope by the water's edge. Lots of Great Cresteds. No Black-Necked. Wait, what was that smallish lump floating half-way across? Head tucked into wings, it could have been anything. But the birding gods were beneficent -- a Crested Grebe swam straight up to the lump, poked it hard with its bill, and the lump unraveled to show us a nice BLACK-NECKED GREBE. This was a new bird for my Brit list, though (in its alter ego as Eared Grebe) a common enough American bird.
Back over the fence, attracting curious stares from folks waiting for a bus, and then on to Weir Wood. There we were able to find a male -- alas, in eclipse plumage -- MANDARIN DUCK for me. Apparently the feral population of this duck in Britain is a considerable portion of the world population and thus of considerable genetic importance in efforts to preserve this beautiful species.
A last look around and then we packed the scope, the bins and the rest of the truck floating around the car. This was really IT! On to Gatwick, where EuroDollar was relieved that this time we had not totalled their automobile (well, last time it wasn't our fault, but we still feel guilty). Through security, a real hassle nowadays, and then onto the plane.
The golden hills were starting to show green again as we lofted west. Once again it looked like England. Goodbye! Goodbye!
(I will do an annotated trip list separately.)
Gail Mackiernan, University of Maryland, firstname.lastname@example.org
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