Our trip was a mixture of visiting family and friends, but we birded almost every day. In planning another trip, I would try to avoid this time slot of late July/early August, as it's the height of the tourist season in Britain, when all the schools are closed for their 6 week summer vacation. It was also fairly quiet birdwise, but we saw an average of 21 species per outing, giving us a total of 91 species for the trip, which included 33 lifers.
In planning the trip we used the Internet, helpful suggestions from other Birdchatters, the book: RSPB nature reserves - a visitor's guide, published by The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, 1997 (ISBN 0 903138 96 4), and the article "Over Hill, Over Dale", in the July 98 issue of WildBird magazine. We had 2 pocket guides to the birds of Britain, but have now bought ourselves a much more comprehensive book: Birds of Europe, by Lars Jonsson (ISBN 0-691-026483)
The first week we were based with family in the market town of Penrith, Cumbria, on the eastern side of the English Lake District in the north of England. The second week was spent travelling south through Lancashire, into Wales and then finally to Dorset where we spent the final week with family, near Poole.
21 July - Leave Houston on British Airways
22 July - Arrive Manchester - pick up rental car.
This is a favourite walk, taking in part of the Pennine Way (a walk stretching the length of England's mountain backbone - the Pennines). We saw 20 species including our life Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus) and Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe). Good looks at a flock of Goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) feeding in a stand of alder trees, also Coal Tits (Parus ater) and Long-tailed Tits (Aegithalos caudatus) in the trees along the Pennine Way. Pied (White) Wagtails (Motacilla alba) were very common. Strange to see an Oystercatcher in the middle of a field, so far from the coast.
Tel: 01729 830363. Visit the webpage on the area. For additional information, see WildBird Magazine, July 98, p. 58. As we were only there for the day, we didn't have time to see everything mentioned in the article.
We began at the National Park Visitor Centre in the village of Malham, where we learned that a pair of Peregrine Falcons had had a successful nesting season on the cliff face of Malham Cove, but unfortunately for us, they had already left the area. There were House Martins nesting on the cliff face, and we saw our life Green Woodpeckers (Picus viridis), nearby - 2 juveniles with 2 adults, digging for insects on the hillside. At Malham Tarn and vicinity, a short drive away, we saw the following life birds: Little Grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis), Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) and Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava). On and near the tarn (small lake) there were Eurasian Coots, Mallards, Tufted Ducks, Great Crested Grebes, Little Grebe, Common Swifts (Apus apus), Eurasian Kestrel, Northern Wheatears and Common Redstarts. On the north side of the tarn, near the Field Study Centre, there is a hide in the woods, overlooking the tarn. Total of 24 species for the day.
(The wall was built across the N of England by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.)
This was not really a birding day, but we stopped at several places along Hadrian's Wall en route to visit friends. The most birdy place was "Walltown Quarry Recreation Site", on the B6318, near Greenhead, east of Carlisle. Here we got our life Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), along with a family of Common Pheasants (Phasianus colchicus), 3 Oystercatchers, Pied Wagtails, House Martins, swifts and swallows. 16 species for the day.
Tel: 01387 770200. See this URL for locations.
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust have a nature reserve at Caerlaverock, south of Dumfries, in southern Scotland. The weather was very poor, but the reserve has 20 hides (blinds) and 3 observation towers, which helped to keep us out of the pouring rain. They had a live 'birdcam' watching an active Barn Owl nestbox, and the visitor centre overlooked a small lake where we saw our life Whooper Swans (Cygnus cygnus). The reserve is famous for the large number of wintering wildfowl, such as Barnacle Geese. 21 species for the day.
Another favourite walk. Great looks at Goldcrests (Regulus regulus), Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris), European Nuthatch (Sitta europaea) and Eurasian Kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) - the 4 kestrels appeared to be 2 adults and 2 juveniles who were practising hunting skills on the hillside. Near Smardale Hall we saw Blue Tits and Great Tits (Parus caeruleus and P. major). 24 species for the day.
Haweswater is a reservoir for the city of Manchester, and is located on the eastern side of the Lake District. England's only resident pair of Golden Eagles can be found in this area, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), maintains a viewing hide (blind) and security watch during the breeding season. We hiked to the RSPB hide from the carpark, seeing our 6 Goosanders (Mergus merganser) on the lake and our life Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and Common Sandpiper (Actitis hypoleucos) on the shore. Further up the valley we saw Ring Ouzels (Turdus torquatus), at the top of some crags and Mistle Thrushes (Turdus viscivorus) on the ground - both lifers. We stayed at the RSPB viewing site for over an hour, searching the crags through the scopes provided, but unfortunately the Golden Eagles were playing hide-and-seek, so we left as the weather had closed in, and we didn't think we'd see anything in the misty rain. Later we met some folks who had waited and been rewarded by a sighting of the eagles after the rain cleared up - oh, well, maybe next summer! 18 species for the day.
29 July - Non-birding day, though we did see our life Dunnock (Prunella modularis) in the gardens of a country house.
Whilst staying in the north of England, we also visited the Lakeland Bird of Prey Centre, which is a rehabilitation sanctuary as well as offering falconry displays daily. I don't like to see birds kept in captivity, but it was fascinating to get close-up looks at an Snowy Owls, an Eagle Owl, a Merlin, many Peregrines, a pair of American Bald Eagles (actually bred in England!), and many more. This centre is near the village of Lowther, about 5 miles south of Penrith, and is open daily from March to Oct. (Tel: 01931 712746). There is also the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre, at Thurstonfield, about 5 miles west of Carlisle (Tel: 01228 576889), but we did not go to this one.
Website on the Lake District.
Tel: 01524 701601.
Today we headed south on our way to Wales, spending about half the day at this nature reserve in north Lancashire. It incorporates the largest remaining reedbed in NW England, with shallow lakes and fringing sedge and woodland. There are 5 large hides (blinds) and a visitor centre with restaurant, if you plan to stay all day. About 25% of the 20 pairs of breeding Bitterns in Britain can be found here, but unfortunately we didn't. Also missed the elusive Bearded Tits and Water Rails, but up to 3 pairs of Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) breed at Leighton Moss, and we were lucky to see a male and female circling over the reedbeds, also a male Pochard on the water - 2 lifers. 23 species for the day.
We were surprised to see Ruddy Ducks (Oxyura jamaicensis) on the reserve - this N. American species has spread over Britain and Europe since escaping from WWT Slimbridge in the 1950's, and is causing problems in Southern Europe where they are interbreeding with the closely-related White-headed Ducks (Oxyura leucocephala). About 18 months ago the British government suspended plans for a cull of Ruddy Ducks, on the grounds that practical difficulties made it unworkable. However, a White-headed Duck Task Force has arisen from the UK Ruddy Duck Working Group and is currently reassessing options for population control measures of this alien species. This information comes from the editorial in the Oct 98 issue of the British magazine, Birdwatch.
We had never visited the Dee Estuary before, but there is an excellent write-up on the WWW, listing several good birding spots on both the English and Welsh sides of the estuary. My thanks to the organisation maintaining this website.
We decided to walk out to the Hilbre Islands, from West Kirby, as the tides were in our favour for the day (this is very important, as its takes over an hour to walk across the mud flats, and you don't want to risk getting cut-off by a rising tide on the way back). At the first island - Little Eye, we saw about 20 Linnets (Carduelis cannabina) on the rocky outcrops, our first life birds of the day. On Hilbre Island itself we got our life Rock Pipits (Anthus petrosus) and also 3 juvenile Northern Wheatears, a Wren and a Eurasian Kestrel. We also saw a brown bird which we couldn't find in our pocket bird guide, but may have been a rare juvenile Woodchat Shrike which was caught and ringed (banded) a few days later (reported in Bird News, North-West in the Oct. issue of Birdwatch magazine, p. 54)
On the mud flats between the islands there were many shorebirds, including our life Dunlins (Calidris alpina) and life Common Ringed Plover (Charadrius hiaticula), plus approximately 300 Oystercatchers, 30 Black-headed Gulls, Great Black-backed Gull, Ruddy Turnstones, Eurasian Curlews, Herring Gulls, Common Redshanks and a Grey Heron.
After returning to West Kirby we drove a short way up the coast to look for the Red Rock Nature Reserve, Hoylake, which is maintained by the Cheshire Wildlife Trust. It's a 10 acre site of brackish marsh and sand dunes open to the public, and provides a breeding area in the reedbeds for Sedge Warblers (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus) and Reed Warblers (Acrocephalus scirpaceus), both of which we saw here as life birds. Total of 18 species for the day. The rare Natterjack Toad can be found here, too.
Tel: 01492 584091.
Our drive from the Dee Estuary along the north coast of Wales was rather depressing in the pouring rain, but fortunately it had cleared up by the time we reached this nature reserve. It was created by the RSPB following the construction of the tunnel under the River Conwy. It has a visitor centre, 3 hides and nature trails ranging from 1/2 to 2 miles in length, affording views of the shallow pools along the Conwy estuary, which attract ducks, geese and waders. We saw a variety of waders and waterfowl, including our life Common Shelducks (Tadorna tadorna) and also our life Common Whitethroat (Sylvia communis) amongst the passerines. 21 species in the reserve.
Later in the day after finding a seafront boarding house in Llandudno, we went for a walk on Great Orme Head, nearby. Got a great look at a female Eurasian Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) perched on the crags above the footpath. Also seen on the walk: European Robins, Dunnock, Linnets, Eurasian Jackdaw, Starlings, Meadow Pipits, Wren and unidentified seagulls! Total - 30 species for the day.
2 Aug - Non-birding day - took a trip on the Festiniog to Portmadog preserved Steam Railway.
In atrocious weather we stopped briefly at an area of mudflats on the south side of the Menai Straits, near Bangor, on our way out of N. Wales. Here we got our life Greenshanks (Tringa nebularia), along with 57 Mute Swans, Oystercatchers, Curlews, Shelducks, Mallards, Great Cormorant, Moorhens, Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, Black-headed Gulls, Grey Heron, 3 Willow Warblers, Robins, Blackbirds and Chaffinches.
The first B&B we stopped at had no vacancies, but the gentleman offered to call around other B&B's in the area, and found us a lovely old farmhouse B&B, just outside the town of Rhayader. When we told the proprietor that we'd come to see the Red Kites, she advised us to visit Gigrin Farm the next day. The whole area around the B&B farmhouse was very birdy! House Martins (Delichon urbica) were nesting under the eaves of the farmhouse, and Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) were flying in and out of the barns. We also saw Robin, Blackbirds, Grey Wagtail, Dunnock, Chaffinches and Siskins (Carduelis spinus). On our way out to find dinner at the local pub that evening we saw our first Red Kites (Milvus milvus) - 5 of them, just soaring in the stiff breeze blowing up the valley - a wonderful sight after driving through all the rain. I think they were enjoying being out after being grounded all day, too! They are big kites, and it's wonderful to see this native population making a comeback after being almost wiped out in the 19th century. Total of 24 species for the day.
We started the day with a wonderful view of a Red Kite as it flew straight towards our bedroom window and then right over the farmhouse!
Our first stop of the day was the RSPB nature reserve at Dyffren Wood, just south of Rhayader on the A 470, but it was not very productive. It's just a trail through the wooded hillside, though we did see Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo) and Common Ravens (Corvus corax) on the hilltop above the woods. So we headed for the Red Kite Centre at Gigrin Farm (Tel: 01597 810243). It's on the south side of the town on the A470 heading towards Builth Wells, and signposted with a brown tourist sign. The old farmer, Mr Powell, operates a kite feeding station there from mid-October to mid-April, daily at 2pm, so the kites stick around all year and are breeding in the area. He also has B&B, camping, self-catering cottage to rent and a small nature reserve, with a badger-watch cam. There's a small entrance fee to the centre, but it's well worth it. The Nature Centre has a video showing the feeding of the kites in the winter, and the previous night's badger watch replays all day. We saw several Red Kites, and also Greenfinches (Carduelis chloris), Chaffinches (Fringilla coelebs), Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus) and the ubiquitous House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) at the feeders on the farm.
A few miles away, we stopped for lunch at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre, an educational facility run by the Welsh Water Authority and then drove the 5 mile trail along a series of reservoirs. Not many birds except for 6 Goosanders on the second reservoir. After the last reservoir we could see 2 Red Kites soaring on the thermals at the head of the valley. We were able to walk up to the top of the hill and spent a pleasant 30 minutes watching 5 Eurasian Kestrels hanging in the breeze and diving down into the grass, but it wasn't possible to see if they caught anything. On returning to the B&B we saw our life Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula), a beautiful male with red breast and black head. Total - 18 species for the day.
Driving south through Wales and across the Severn Estuary, the weather improved all the way, and we arrived at Poole on a nice sunny afternoon. On an after-dinner walk along the seafront, we saw a female Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator) and various gulls, including the Common Gull (Larus canus). Many Canada Geese (Branta canadensis) were flying across to roost on Brownsea Island, situated in the middle of this large natural harbour (see 8 August).
Tel: 01305 778313.
The RSPB has a nature reserve right in the middle of the old harbour town of Weymouth. It has a visitor centre, nature trails and one hide. Radipole has the largest reedbed in the south-west of England, providing special habitat for the rare Bearded Tits and Bitterns - still didn't see them! Radipole is also the home of the year-round resident Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti), which we did manage to get a brief glimpse of, skulking low down in the reeds. Whilst we were there a vagrant Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea) had dropped in, and we were able to get a glimpse of it when it was flushed from the reedbed - 2 life birds. Other birds seen at the reserve: Great Crested Grebes with young, Great Cormorants, Mute Swans, Mallards, Grey Heron, Moorhens, Coots, Magpies, Wood Pigeons, Greenfinch, Willow Warbler and Reed Warbler.
There is also another RSPB reserve, 1 mile north-east of Weymouth on the A353. It has a circular 2 mile nature trail and 2 hides, which look over the saltmarsh, interspersed with shallow pools, fringed by reedbeds and scrub areas. We visited late in the afternoon and saw our life Little Egrets (Egretta garzetta) and Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa). There were also Lapwings, Shelducks, Dunlins, Common Sandpipers, Common Terns, Sandwich Terns, plus other waterfowl and gulls. 26 species for the day.
Not really a birding day, but we explored the gardens in the centre of Bournemouth and came up with: Robin, Goldcrest, Blue Tits, Great Tits, Coal Tits, Long-tailed Tits, Black-billed Magpies, Blackbirds, Wren, Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius) and Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) - the only one that we saw on the whole trip, as they are now an endangered species in the UK. Garden insecticides are thought to be to blame. 11 species for the day.
Tel: 01202 707744.
Brownsea Island is a 500 acre island owned and maintained by The National Trust, and this is where the Boy Scout movement began. There is a memorial to Baden Powell on the south side of the island. Brownsea incorporates a 248 acre Nature Reserve on the north side of the island, run by the Dorset Wildlife Trust. In April, May, June and Sept. you can take self-guided tours from 10:30am-1pm each day, but during July and August there is only a guided tour available at 2:45pm daily. Special access at other times can be arranged, and we found our membership of the National Audubon Society to be very helpful here. To get to Brownsea, there are ferry boats running regularly from Poole, Swanage and Bournemouth, but do make sure you know the time of the last return boat! It's advisable to take your own packed lunch, as the National Trust restaurant is expensive. The Nature Reserve has several hides overlooking the lagoon which was full of waders and waterfowl, and the north end of the lagoon had some manmade islands constructed for nesting terns. We observed Common and Sandwich Terns. The Pied Avocets (Recurvirostra avosetta) were our only life bird of the day. On the rest of the reserve we saw the usual woodland birds and had good looks at 2 Common Buzzards (Buteo buteo) perched in a dead pine tree. 22 species for the day.
Bradbury Rings is an ancient earthwork dating back to Neolithic times. We went exploring on a beautiful sunny morning and enjoyed watching a flock of about 20 Goldfinches feeding on thistle seed-heads on the banks of the inner moat of the earthworks. Also seen that morning: Black-billed Magpies, Chaffinches, Blue Tits, Wren, Carrion Crows, Rooks, Jackdaws and Kestrel.
At Kingston Lacy House and Gardens (built in the 17th century) we wandered around the ornamental gardens, picking up Chiffchaffs, House Martins, Greater Spotted Woodpecker (lifer), Wood Pigeons, Spotted Flycatchers, Goldcrests and Eurasian Treecreeper. On our way home we stopped by the River Stour hoping to find our nemesis bird of the trip, Britain's beautiful Kingfisher, but no luck today. We did see, however, Britain's only poisonous snake, the Adder, swimming across the river!
10 Aug - Drive to Epsom, Surrey, on the south side of London.
Our final day was spent at these beautiful gardens, near Cobham, on the south side of London. While it was not primarily a birding day, we did see 17 species of the usual garden birds, including good looks at a pair of Green Woodpeckers in the conifer garden. The weather was hot for England - reaching almost 90°F - just getting us ready for our journey back to Texas the next day!
12 Aug Flight back to Houston.
South of Weymouth is the Isle of Portland (which is not an island as it is linked to the mainland by the Chesil Beach), definitely worth a visit. There's a Bird Observatory and Field Centre at the southern end of Portland, which has hostel accommodation at very good rates. Tel: 01305 820553 for more details. Chesil Beach is good for shorebirds. Also in Dorset, Studland Heath is worth checking out for the Dartford Warbler, which can also be found at Arne RSPB Nature Reserve, near Poole.
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