Southern Britain: Birds & History May 17—28, 2014

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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Kent, the “Garden of England,” offered a daily mix of exciting birding and the enthralling history of the UK, from Roman times to the present. This combination resulted in a tremendously successful tour! Running this tour for the first time in spring ensured we found England at its best. Migration was in full swing; the birds in their smart breeding plumage were singing and displaying; hedgerows were ablaze in color; woodlands were carpeted with bluebells, while fiery poppies and yellow primroses lined the edges of the fields; and to top all this, we were blessed with mostly spectacular sunny weather.

Being based from the same comfortable countryside hotel, the Mercure Maidstone, during the entire tour was greatly appreciated and worked wonderfully. The ample forested grounds rewarded us with many cool birds right on our doorstep, including Green and Great Spotted woodpeckers, Long-tailed Tit, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Mistle Thrush, European Goldfinches galore, and Mediterranean Gull.

Baillon's Crake

Baillon’s Crake— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Spring migration is truly a magical time of the year when you just never know what species you might find. At Oare Marshes, we were in the right place at the right time to experience a famous British “Big Twitch,” as a mega-rarity to the UK turned up. This resulted in all of us getting stunning looks at a Baillon’s Crake. As it skulked out of the reeds into view and then flew across the dike, we also heard its frog-like song! Amazingly, I have since learned that there was a single North American record in September 2000 from Attu where one of my friends saw it. Certainly this was the birding highlight for both Phil and me.

Every day we enjoyed an exciting mix of birding and the staggering wealth of English history. Highlights of our historic site visits included Hampton Court Palace and the magnificence of Henry VIII’s favorite royal residence; Canterbury with its Roman ruins and famous eleventh century cathedral; Hever Castle; Roman ruins of the famous Port of Richborough; and the spectacular medieval Dover Castle founded in the twelfth century and described as the “Key to England” due to its defensive significance throughout history. My favorite was Down House, the charming home of Charles Darwin. As I walked through its exquisite gardens, looking back at his study I easily imagined the wonderful tranquility that had inspired this great man to have written such a masterpiece as On the Origin of Species. Published November 24, 1859, it described his theories of evolution and natural selection which are now widely accepted as the foundation of evolutionary biology.

Bearded Reedling

Bearded Reedling— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

The birding on this tour was great too, and we recorded a record number of 144 species! We all loved our visits to an amazing number of premier nature reserves, each protecting varied types of important habitats and fauna, and also meeting so well the needs of birders like ourselves. We marveled over the well-kept trails and the comfortable hides (blinds) that enabled close observation of the birds and their behaviors. Each reserve had great educational information on its unique flora and fauna.

Our day-trip across the English Channel by ferry to France was a great success with highlights including 4 Eurasian Spoonbills; 5 wonderful Garganeys (not always easy to find); Red-legged Partridge; scope looks at feeding Common Snipe; European Turtle-Dove; a very confiding Common Nightingale that showed us why it’s often said to be one of the world’s best songsters; both Little and Eared grebes (in breeding plumage); Common Cuckoo; Icterine Warbler; Greater Whitethroat; and lots of adult Northern Gannets on our sea crossing.

Black-tailed Godwit islandica

Black-tailed Godwit islandica— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Stodmarsh Nature Reserve provided the number one bird of our trip, a wonderful in-your-face encounter with a stunning male Bearded Reedling feeding two young. Other memorable moments here were spectacular aerobatic displays of feeding Eurasian Hobbies as they agilely caught dragonflies on the wing over the marsh; an uncommon Wood Sandpiper; nest-building Eurasian Marsh-Harrier pair; and a Little Owl on a day roost. We visited several other exciting wetland sites such as Oare Marshes where we got spectacular looks at the striking and popular Pied Avocet and Northern Lapwing, as well as wonderful close-up studies of hundreds of breeding plumaged Black-tailed Godwits. Less common shorebirds of the trip included Little Ringed Plover (nesting), Little Stint, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, and Bar-tailed Godwit.

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

We all marveled at the magnificent array of colorful tits we saw in the rich woodland reserves, including Long-tailed, Eurasian Blue, Great, and Marsh tits. For extreme beauty, however, the magical scope studies of a family group of Common Kingfishers won hands down! Thanks also to Julia for finding a nesting pair of the enigmatic Eurasian Nuthatch. Other neat woodland experiences were provided by the dazzling Eurasian Bullfinch; Common Chaffinch with its fine song; European Green Finch; oddly, an introduced parrot, the Rose-ringed Parakeet; Eurasian Treecreeper; and the tiny Goldcrest (UK’s smallest bird). Ashdown Forest with its beautiful scenery of rolling chalk downs and heath land characterized by the wonderful yellow flowering Gause also produced several great birds: Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Stonechat, Woodlark, Common Redstart, Lesser Redpoll, Eurasian Linnet, and several warblers—Greater Whitethroat, Willow Warbler, and Chiffchaff.

In stark contrast, we visited two amazing pebble spits: Dungeness—the largest in Europe, and Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. At Rye we were delighted by amazingly close studies of an active colony of Sandwich Terns, as well as breeding Little Tern and Northern Wheatear. Dungeness produced some interesting sea watching where we could compare many species of gulls and terns and marvel at a pair of Black Redstarts (a rare breeding bird in the UK), localized Tree Sparrow, and Little Gull.

Great Crested Grebe

Great Crested Grebe— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

Wildfowl were a constant delight on our visits to many exciting marshland habitats, with dazzling Great Crested Grebes (one even caught an eel in front of the hide), Barnacle and Egyptian geese, Eurasian Wigeon, the unbelievably bright colors of the Mandarin Duck (certainly one of the most beautiful ducks in the world), and the lovely Common Shelduck. We were also blessed with some of my best studies ever of Great Bittern fishing; we even saw one catch a good-sized fish. I have to say, I really enjoy wagtails; they have such character. My favorite is the stunning Yellow Wagtail, a summer migrant from Africa that gave us great looks.

Another trip highlight was a visit to Phil’s marvelous home patch, the Panel Valley Nature Reserve, where we were lucky enough to get in-the-hand views of many great birds, including several migrants being ringed.

I’m sure we will all fondly remember the unexpected delight and pleasure of traveling through such classically quaint and stunning English countryside, along narrow winding country lanes with vivid green hedgerows, passing picturesque villages dating back centuries. I’m already looking forward to leading our next UK tour. Thank you all for traveling with VENT. I hope to see you again in the near future on another exciting VENT trip.