Southern Britain: Birds and History Aug 03—14, 2008
This was our 11th year of running this special tour in a place that you might think isn't the most obvious venue for a VENT tour. The proximity to continental Europe is the key—for both the great birding and the rich history. For the birds, it is a natural migration route, and many species reach their most northerly limits here. For the history, it is a pivotal and strategic area for over 2,000 years of invasions, attempted invasions, repelling invasions, colonizations, and conversions in religion.
Our little group of four enjoyed the ability to stay in the same well-appointed hotel for the entire 10 nights—no moving and repacking. While I made suggestions and guided everyone towards what might interest them most, there was plenty of scope for individuals to call the shots, indicating what sort of mix they wanted, how long they wanted to be in the field each day, and places they wanted to visit. So the regular favorites were intertwined with new places that were requested, or popped up serendipitously: Hampton Court Palace—one of England's greatest historic buildings, full of references to Henry VIII and later monarchs, and all set in immaculately kept ornate gardens; Hever Castle (visited in a totally exclusive and private tour for our group)—picturesque and full of history and priceless heirlooms, paintings, and furniture, restored by the Astor family, and with immense amounts of historical value as the family home 400+ years ago to Ann Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife; and Darwin's house at Down, full of his heirlooms, and oozing atmosphere of those heady and revolutionary ideas of the mid 1800s. In amongst these "old favorites" we added the beautiful, historic, and ornate Sissinghurst Gardens, the marvelous naval and astronomical history of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and a visit to the idiosyncratic Finchcocks Musical Museum. Here, on our last afternoon, escaping from blustery weather, we were entertained by the eccentric owner with an accomplished ad hoc demonstration of his priceless antique pianos, harpsichords, and clavichords.
The birding was as good as ever, with most of the expected species showing up on queue at all my favorite places. Over 1,000 Black-tailed Godwits at Oare Marshes were a fine sight. We added a very unexpected summer-plumaged Purple Sandpiper to the tour's bird list here. Another birding highlight was a private visit to a friend's bird-banding station after listening to the weather forecast and arranging the visit only when everything looked set fair. We had a fine time here seeing a wide range of wonderfully obscure-looking warblers up close in the hand after banding—eight species in all, including Grasshopper Warbler. Our day-trip to France, mixing birds with World War II history, proved worthwhile. A good selection of species not found over the Channel beyond those "White Cliffs of Dover" included Zitting Cisticola, Crested Tit, Black-winged Stilt, and Eurasian Spoonbill.
Our weather throughout the tour was "changeable"—classic British weather with bright sunny spells interspersed with blustery showers, all passing within hours. The flexible approach to what we did and when we did it made any slightly poor weather no real problem at all, as we quickly adapted our program. By the end of the tour we had seen a very presentable 127 species and visited dozens of fantastic historical sites; everyone agreed that they'd fallen in love with this part of southern England—the "Garden of England," full of quaint countryside, winding country lanes, picturesque unspoilt villages, green fields, woodlands, ancient churchyards, and a wonderful variety of old houses dating back centuries.