Southern England: Birds & History May 08—19, 2018
Posted by Rick Wright
No matter how often we Americans visit Britain—and it must be true the other way around—we are struck anew, in equal measure, by the similarities and the differences between our countries. The food, the language, the driving culture all reveal our shared roots even as they make clear the fascinating ways we have grown apart over the past four centuries. Baked beans for breakfast, hides and lorries and Eton mess, and those devilishly narrow country highways to be navigated from the wrong side of a devilishly wide vehicle were all signs that we were indeed abroad, no matter how close the connections historical and cultural.
Natural historians, of course, pay attention better than most people, and our perceptions of sameness and difference extended inevitably to the birds. Our delightful days together in the field turned up a number of species common to both sides of the Atlantic—Ruddy Turnstones, Northern Shovelers, Peregrine Falcons, Bank Swallows, Fulmars—and, perhaps more interestingly, a wide range of “replacement species”—Common Magpies rather than Black-billed, Little Grebes rather than Pied-billed, Gray Herons rather than Great Blue, Little Ringed Plovers rather than Piping or Snowy.
And then there were the striking birds without obvious counterparts at home: huge and colorful Red Kites; huge and colorful and bolshy Northern Lapwings; horologically correct Common Cuckoos; and all those “warblers,” now spread over a number of different families just to make it a little more challenging. The beautiful strawberry-breasted Stonechat, too, corresponds to nothing in the American landscape, and though it is in the same family as our abundant Horned Lark, the stubby-tailed, sweet-voiced Wood Lark could hardly be more different in its habitat choices and behavior; one of the clear highlights of our days was the chance to watch this bird, so scarce in England, above the heather of the Ashdown Forest. Over nearly all of North America, wagtails are equally “foreign,” but dashing Pied Wagtails—so different from their continental brethren in their subdued Quaker grays—provided the regular mealtime entertainment on the lawns of our comfortable hotel, and the Gray Wagtails (poorly named indeed) nesting in the rocky ruins of Bodiam Castle took us back in time as thoroughly as the crenellated walls themselves.
Read Rick’s full report in his Field Report.