Trip Report: Scotland and England, May 7-20, 1998
Or: Birding: UK vs. US

Joan Dziezyc, College Station, Texas, USA;


Birds of Europe by Lars Jonsson


I recently returned from a two-week trip in the UK. The trip was a business/vacation/visit in-laws trip with a non-birding husband and two children. So not much traveling to bird, per se. Also, I am not much of a lister, so I don't have a complete list of birds seen. However, the birding I did was so much fun, I must share it with all of you in cyberspace.

National TV news

What does this have to do with birding? Nothing in the US. But, Nick was watching the evening national news and yelled at me to come see the birders. I caught the last two seconds, so gathered no information, but Nick said it was a piece on a vagrant bird that had been spotted. I asked him what bird it was. He said, "the blue-faced curlew." So, some kind of curlew .... UK birders could probably tell us. Which of course, is not the point. Who has ever seen a story on a vagrant bird on CBS's evening news? [Editor's comment: This report probably refers to the possible but controversial Slender-billed Curlew, one of the world's rarest birds, seen at Druridge Bay, Northumberland, May 4-7, 1998. UG]

Greenbelts and public footpaths

The UK does some things poorly, but they also do some things very well. Greenbelts are farm areas that will remain farm areas because no one can build on them. The building of a house, never mind a subdivision, is very closely regulated. The most dramatic example for me was on the outskirts of London. On the left side of a road was a neighborhood with lots of houses. On the right side of the road was farmland - no gas stations, no stores, just fields. Totally the opposite of Houston, TX, where zoning doesn't exist, and urban and suburban sprawl is everywhere. I realize this is anathema to many people in the US. However, it does provide vast tracts of land without a building on them. Of course none of this is unaltered habitat, but many farms have hedgerows which do make for interesting habitat. And certainly great for walkers and birders. Which brings us to .....

Public footpaths

Which are just that -- hundreds-of-year old paths that anyone can walk on. They are often signed, at intersections with roads, and are marked on ordnance survey maps. They mostly go through private land, but because they are so old, everyone accepts them. Landowners allow the public to walk through their land. Of course the walkers are meant to stay on the trail, not damage anything, and close gates. In many cases gates are unnecessary because of all the stiles. We walked through sheep fields in Cumbria using an ordnance survey map. In some places the footpath was obvious (including one farmer's driveway). Sometimes, when going through a field, the path was not obvious. However, when we got to a stone wall, we always knew we were on the path when we saw a stile built into the stone wall. These were long pieces of stone that projected on either side beyond the wall itself. This provided steps up one side of the wall and down the other. Other stiles were very ingenious: wooden gates that allowed a human through, but not a sheep or cow.

Vane Farm Nature Reserve RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) on Loch Leven, Kinross, Scotland, was quite a lovely place for birding. They had great hides near the lake, with plenty of slots for scopes. There was a trail up the hill behind their headquarters building for woodland birds. And in the building were several scopes permanently mounted to scan the lake (with chairs - very comfortable), as well as a little restaurant and gift shop. Memorable birds were a Marsh Harrier, Circus aeruginosus, Goldeneye, Bucephala clangula (same species as North America), Tufted duck, Aythya fuligula (same species as NA), Shelduck, Tadorna tadorna, and many Greylag Goose, Anser anser, and Pink-footed Goose, Anser brachyrhynchus, a number of whom had waited for me to see them before taking off for summer territory.

Backyard birds

We spent a week in half a house we rented (through a wonderful company who publishes a phonebook-sized catalogue of houses to rent in the UK) in Cumbria. This is in north-central England and adjacent to the Lake District and Yorkshire. The weather was fantastic, and I spent hours sitting in the garden with a novel and my binoculars. The bird songs were great. Many more birds, and much more singing than I experience in spring in Texas.

Garden birds are colorful as well. The English Robin, Erithacus rubecula, is ubiquitous and cute. The Goldfinch, Carduelis carduelis, is exquisite. Greenfinch, Carduelis chloris, were feeding young. Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, seemed to be everywhere. Of course there were plenty of House Sparrows, Passer domesticus, and Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, who seemed much more benign on their own territory. I saw several Dunnock, Prunella modularis, and took forever trying to figure out what kind of sparrow they were (they are not).

In Texas I am used to only one black corvid in the skies. In England I had more trouble. There were Jackdaw, Corvus monedula, Rook, Corvus frugilegus, and Carrion Crow, Corvus corone. Our Carolina Chickadee and Tufted Titmouse are wonderful little birds but English tits are much more colorful. The Blue Tit, Parus caeruleus, is everywhere. In addition, I saw Coal Tit, Parus ater, and Great Tit, Parus major. Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos, Blackbird, Turdus merula, and Mistle Thrush, Turdus viscivorus, were common. Their Swallow is our Barn Swallow, Hirundo rustica; House Martins, Delichon urbica, have very visible white rumps; and their Swift is Apus apus. Woodpigeon, Columba palumbus, and Collared Dove, Streptopelia decaocto, were the dove representatives in the garden.

One exception to the colorful birds was the warblers. I do not bird by ear very well, and this made ID-ing the little brown jobs very difficult. I'm fairly certain I saw a Wood Warbler, Phylloscopus sibilatrix, given the description of his song in the field guide, and a Garden Warbler, Sylvia borin. I was not so sure on the Willow Warbler, Phylloscopus trochilus, and Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita. Next time I will have to buy a recording of bird songs for the UK.

Other memorable birds

A Treecreeper, Certhia familiaris, who was acting just like our nuthatches. A Pied Flycatcher, Ficedula hypoleuca, who was a lovely little black and white bird making forays for insects from a tree branch in a very busy little park. A Northern Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe, was very handsome, but it took me forever to figure out what kind of bird it was (where do I look in the book? It doesn't fit any categories I know.) I got to see my first Skylark, Alauda arvensis, displaying and singing high in the air above the fells (hills). Buzzard, Buteo buteo, and Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, were fairly common in Cumbria.

I couldn't get used to the fact that Curlew, Numenius arquata, and Lapwing, Vanellus vanellus, were present and common in the sheep fields. They should be near the shore, in my mind.

I will reiterate something a birdchatter said recently regarding birding in another country. Everything is new! Much fun to pick up several lifers each day without trying. And even if the birds I've mentioned are all common, it was OK, because they weren't common to me.

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