Southern Britain: Birds and History Jul 30—Aug 10, 2009
This unique and unusual short tour went very well this year. We were blessed with good weather, a good bird list, and all going much according to plan—not too surprising, as this is such a long-running, tried-and-tested itinerary. The group appreciated staying in just one place for all ten nights, a good hotel, and an "eat what you want when you want" policy. The daily mix of birds and historical visits hit just the right spot for our participants.
While it is often clear what the birding highlights were, it is often difficult to decide on the historical highlights, as the diversity of the history of this area is staggering—everything from the Roman Invasions right up to the Industrial Revolution. I think our own private and totally exclusive guided tour of Hever Castle must be high on the list. To wander inside this marvelous site before the public was let in was a real bonus. We were shown in an unhurried way through this picturesque castle full of history and priceless heirlooms, paintings, and furniture. It is a small, "cozy" castle, beautifully restored by the Astor family during the twentieth century, and with immense amounts of historical value 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!
Or how about the utterly overwhelming size, variety, and opulence of Hampton Court Palace, a short drive from Heathrow airport in London. This must surely be one of England's greatest buildings, full of references to Henry VIII and later monarchs, and set in immaculately-kept ornate gardens. Being the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne, there were all sorts of extra activities here this year. The quirky Historic Dockyard with its Ropery always surprises and fascinates.
The flexible approach to what we do is a great bonus as it allows us to add-in or drop-off visits to fit with the group's wishes. This year, by popular request, we visited the fine home of Winston Churchill at Chartwell and the glorious gardens of Vita Sackville-West at Sissinghurst. But it is often the unexpected delight of traveling through such classically quaint countryside that pleases every bit as much as the spectacular historical visits: driving winding country lanes, and passing picturesque unspoilt villages with ancient churchyards and half-timbered houses dating back centuries can give as much pleasure.
As for the birds this year, we recorded a good total of 130 species. This included "firsts" for European Shag and Common Raven, plus other seldom seen species such as Eurasian Golden Oriole, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Eurasian Spoonbill, Zitting Cisticola, and Cetti's Warbler. One event that always becomes a birding highlight (and certainly was this year) is a private visit to a friend's bird-banding station. We had a fine time here on the Channel coast seeing a wide range of those wonderfully obscure-looking warblers up close in the hand after banding. This year we saw nine species of warblers close up in this way, including Grasshopper and Cetti's. It was also fascinating to have impromptu talks with the guys working here, and to learn so much about migration strategies, the results of ringing, and the important international network that has built up around this unique enterprise.
One particularly memorable birding moment this year was towards the end of our day across the English Channel in France. Returning towards Calais from our visit to the impressive World War II German gun emplacements, we spotted great swarms of gulls in the air from ground level right up to thousands of feet above—almost thermaling as they swirled around. It was a hot day, flying ants had emerged, and the gulls were cashing in on this bonus feeding opportunity. On closer examination, we realized that they were largely Mediterranean Gulls. We spent a while by the roadside transfixed by this unusual spectacle being performed by such a lovely and "must-see" species.
I greatly look forward to leading our next tour on my "home-patch" of Southern England.