Southern Britain: Birds & History May 16—27, 2015

Posted by Andrew Whittaker


Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker, a senior member of the VENT staff, has led VENT tours since 1993 throughout Brazil, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Panama, Europe,...

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

European Goldfinch

European Goldfinch— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Based from the same comfortable countryside hotel, the Mercure Maidstone, this entire tour is always a blessing, and was greatly appreciated by all. The ample forested grounds rewarded us with many cool birds too, right on our doorstep, including Green and Great Spotted woodpeckers, Long-tailed Tit, Spotted Flycatcher, Blackcap, Mistle Thrush, European Goldfinches galore, and Mediterranean Gull.

Spring migration, as we all know, is a truly wonderful time of the year, with that magical expectation of never knowing what species one might find. At Rye, we were in the right place at the right time to find an amazing 7 stunning summer plumaged Little Stints. Phil’s phone call to the warden had him running to the hide as we left! Certainly this was the birding highlight for both Phil and me this year.

Charles Darwin house

Charles Darwin house— Photo: Andrew Whittaker






Every day we enjoyed an exciting mix of birding followed by stepping back in time to enjoy the staggering wealth of English history, visiting many of the most famous historical sites. Historic highlights included Hampton Court Palace, where we observed 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 on November 24, 1859, it described his theories of evolution and natural selection which are now widely accepted as the foundation of evolutionary biology. Finally, we visited the charming Leed’s Castle and its wooded grounds and excellent birding.

The birding was great too, and we recorded 137 species! I know you all just loved our visits to an amazing number of premier nature reserves, each protecting distinct and important habitat types and their fauna, and also catering so well to the needs of birders. We marveled over the well-kept trails and the marvelous, comfortable hides (blinds) that enabled close-up studies of the birds’ intricate behavior without any disturbance. Each reserve also had great educational posters and art work about the unique flora and fauna to be found at that location. 

Pied Avocet pair

Pied Avocet pair— Photo: Andrew Whittaker




We kicked off our first morning at the wonderful Stodmarsh Nature Reserve, a little dull, and the blinds kept us dry. However, it provided a great introduction to the UK avifauna.  Many memorable moments here were nest-building Western Marsh-Harrier and a male exchanging food with the much larger female; Common Cuckoo; and a Water Rail and a Great Tit nesting in one of the hides! We visited several other exciting wetland sites such as Oare Marshes where we got spectacular looks at the striking and popular Pied Avocet and cool-looking Northern Lapwing, as well as wonderful close-up studies of breeding plumaged Black-tailed Godwits, Green Woodpecker, and Redshank. Less common shorebirds of the trip included Little-ringed Plover (nesting), Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, and Bar-tailed Godwit.

We all marveled at the magnificent array of colorful enigmatic tit (Chickadee) species we saw birding the rich woodland reserves, including the cute Long-tailed, Eurasian Blue, Great, and Willow tits. For extreme beauty, however, the magical scope studies of Common Kingfisher won hands-down! Other neat woodland experiences were 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). 


Northern Lapwing

Northern Lapwing— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Ashdown Forest, with its beautiful scenery of rolling chalk downs and heath land characterized by the wonderful yellow flowering Gause, also produced several cool birds: a magnificent Dartford Warbler; Stonechat; Woodlark; Common Redstart; Lesser Redpoll; Eurasian Linnet and several warblers with Greater Whitethroat; Willow Warbler; Chiffchaff; and a lovely male Yellowhammer.

Our day-trip across the English Channel by ferry to France was a great success with highlights including Eurasian Spoonbill; Black-winged Stilt; Gray Partridge; scope looks at Common Kingfisher; Firecrest; Hawfinch; Short-toed Treeceeeper; Eared Grebe (in breeding plumage); and lots of Black-legged Kitiwakes and Northern Gannets on our sea crossing.

Dartford Warbler

Dartford Warbler— Photo: Andrew Whittaker














In stark contrast, we visited two amazing pebble spits, Dungeness being the largest in Europe and also 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 observe a cool singing Black Redstart (a rare breeding bird in the UK), hunting Eurasian Hobby, Pochards, and localized Tree Sparrow.

Not surprisingly, visiting many exciting marshland habitats wildfowl was a constant delight with dazzling Great Crested Grebes; Barnacle and Egyptian geese (with such cute young); Eurasian Wigeon; the unbelievably bright colors of the majestic Mandarin Duck through the scope (certainly one of the most beautiful ducks in the world)—we watched multiple males perched together on floating branches; but let’s not forget the multiple lovely Common Shelduck seen almost daily.  I have to say, I really enjoy wagtails; they have such character. My favorite, though, has to be the stunning Yellow Wagtail, a summer migrant from Africa—we enjoyed great looks.

Yellow Wagtail

Yellow Wagtail— Photo: Andrew Whittaker


Another trip highlight was when Phil treated us to a marvelous visit to his home patch, the Panel Valley Nature Reserve, where we were lucky enough to be able to get in-the-hand close-up views of many great birds including several migrant warblers and a stunning male Bullfinch being ringed.

I’m sure all of us will also 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, and 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.