Southern Britain: Birds and History Aug 06—17, 2006
Posted by Peter Roberts
Although we have operated this unique tour for 10 years, we still find new birds and interesting places every year. The 130+ species seen is about average, though it varies much more each year with this tour than any other in Europe, because the amount of birding versus history varies with the interests of each year's participants. Being based at just one location for all 10 nights on this 50-50 mix of birds and historical visits is always greatly appreciated by our groups, who really enjoy not having to pack and repack. And the "eat what you want, when you want" approach for all meals is a great bonus!
The weather this year was more classically "British," with some good, warm, and sunny weather mixed with rain and cool?often all within the space of an afternoon or morning. But we managed to dodge all the really wet spells by rescheduling our program for indoor events when the weather was poor.
The huge complex of Hampton Court Palace is always our first port of call after meeting at the airports. This must surely be one of England's greatest buildings, full of references to Henry VIII and later monarchs, and all set in immaculately kept ornate gardens where our birding account was opened with such exotica as Egyptian Goose and Rose-ringed Parakeet?introduced species, but with large, viable feral populations. Henry the VIII was one of England's most notorious kings and he pops up often in our historic ventures.
Hever Castle is a small, superbly picturesque place full of history, priceless heirlooms, paintings, and furniture. It is famed as the family home 400+ years ago to Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, and the first to lose her head in the process! I arranged an exclusive and private tour for our group before the public was let in?a real bonus to be shown this gem in an unhurried way. This year, as usual, was a lovely intertwined mix of birding and history with close-up nesting Great Crested Grebes on the ornamental ponds and Goldcrests, Eurasian Nuthatches, and Treecreepers in the beautiful surrounding parklands. Henry in fighting mood was amply displayed in our visit to the squat, formidable battle station of Deal Castle?superbly engineered and built in just one year to repel an anticipated invasion of the French that never materialized.
Invasions (most of which never actually happened!) were another recurring theme of this tour. Apart from visiting the sites of successful invasions by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and, of course, the Normans in 1066 at the Battle of Hastings (the last successful invasion of Britain), we also pondered numerous fortifications to repel the French at various periods through history, and latterly the Germans in both World Wars. All of this was in great birding country and at a good time of year for migrants.
Our day-trip to France was an eclectic mix of birds and history, those huge German gun emplacements still sending a shiver down the spine. The birds were great with Zitting Cisticola added to our trip list and Snowy Plovers with chicks especially pleasing to see. On our full day of birding at Minsmere we tried hard for Great Bittern, but were unlucky; our consolation was obtaining good looks at the rare Dartford Warblers on scenic Dunwich Heath and stunning scope views of the tiny, jewel-like Common Kingfisher. We also had magnificent looks at Water Rail?normally very skulking.
But perhaps the best birding experience of our tour was a private visit to a friend's bird-banding station. Keeping a flexible approach to what we did each day allowed us to opt for the best early morning weather to visit this very special place, experience the thrill of seeing a whole array of small migrants in the hand, and learn about the place, migration, and the species. This year, apart from no less than eight warbler species (including scarce Grasshopper Warblers), there was a splendid little Bearded Reedling. However, "Bird of the Trip" status went to a phenomenal Eurasian Wryneck, caught and showing beautifully how it got its name. The bird made various sinuous, snake-like writhing movements?literally "wrying its neck"! Nobody is quite sure why it does this?perhaps a defense response?but it is weird and totally unique! For sheer potential rarity value, I suppose Great White Pelican must take the number one position. We heard about this on the local birder's hotline and saw it well. Whenever this species has been seen in the UK it has been dismissed as "escaped." This individual was one of several wandering Western Europe after exceptional weather in eastern European breeding grounds, and it may be the first accepted record for the UK.
Apart from the great historical sites and exciting birding moments, I am sure it is often the simpler things such as driving down winding country lanes, picturesque unspoilt villages with ancient churchyards and half timbered houses dating back centuries, and soaking up the atmosphere of London with all its amazing history and architecture at every turn that gave much pleasure. I look forward to leading the next tour on my "home-patch" of Southern England.