Sunday, July 18, 2010

Observations on birding in Britain

I recall once, in southwest Michigan, standing no more than five feet from a singing Connecticut Warbler (Oporornis agilis) and still being unable to see the bird.  So frustrating!  I didn't know when to walk away. If I stayed for another two minutes, would the bird come into view?  I have seen female and juvenile Connecticut's, but to this day, have never seen an adult male.

I was reminded of the singing Connecticut Warbler experience when, at Titchwell RSPB, a burst of song actually startled me as I walked on the trail right next to the bushes from where the song came.  Then, silence and no sign of a bird.  I walked away and behind me, again, the same burst of song.  A Brit walked by and knowingly said, "Cetti's" - turns out, a hard to see little bird, Cetti's Warbler  (Cettia cetti).  Later at Minsmere, with the help of Malcolm's patience, I finally did get a couple of brief glimpses of the Cetti's.

I sent a postcard to my young birding friends, Harold Eyster, and his sister, Artemis, in which I wrote "birding for little birds is hard in England."  Thinking back on this statement, I'm not sure it is exactly accurate.  The beginning of June is well past spring migration and the passerines were into their nesting and fledging of birds.  Many may have already started on their second brood. With one exception, the tits, I guess a more accurate observation may be that it just seemed difficult. The tits, like our chickadees, were commonly heard and seen moving with and feeding fledglings.  But others, like the Cetti's, Sedge and Garden warblers, Chiffchaff - were most often heard only.  Still others, like Wood Warbler, Willow Warbler, Grasshopper Warbler, Goldcrest, Whinchat and Common Redstart that, by their range maps seem well-distributed, were neither heard nor seen.

Others, like the Gray Wagtail and the Yellow Wagtail, certainly seemed like they should have been possible somewhere in all the places we visited.  But I need to keep in mind that, with the exception of my weekend with Malcolm and Angela at Minsmere, where we had time to find birds properly, the other parts of my trip were not focused on finding small birds.  This is how habitat specialists get missed.  One needs to take the time to find them in the right habitat.

Birding for inland gulls, terns, waders and waterbirds is done from uniquely well-designed "hides" such as in the photo above.  The hides have ledges where a spotting scope with a specially-designed monopod with an clip can be attached.  In every RSPB location a hide was available at the best viewing vantage point for that particular pond. Even the local county parks near Leamington Spa we visited had viewing hides.  From these hides, we also saw Marsh Harrier, Kestrel and Hobby hunting over the marshes.  For our Minsmere weekend each hide we entered was typically very crowed.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is an impressive organization with an extraordinary array of birding and wildlife sanctuaries located throughout Great Britain.  The popular BBC television show Springwatch is anchored from the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve and one of the show's hosts is Kate Humble, the currently appointed president of the RSPB.  We were able to watch two Springwatch episodes during my visit and each show was excellent. While I would not recommend the Pensthorpe Nature Reserve to the hard core birder; Great Britain has, for such a small country, certainly made a consolidated and impressive effort to preserve and reserve valuable land for the protection of birds and wildlife.  And, with the Springwatch television show, they bring the conservation and importance of Britain's wildlife to the public in a very tangible and accessible way.  I wondered if the Audubon Society hosted such a series on PBS, would it be so eagerly watched and so popular?  There are many important lessons that the innumerable and splintered conservation groups in the United States could learn from the RSPB.  I think about this as I open my mailbox daily to find my tenth request of the year to financially support X, Y or Z conservation organization.  I have often wondered, given the confusing madness of American conservation organizations, if we really make any significant headway toward saving habitat or otherwise helping birds and wildlife.

Final comment about RSPB reserves:  the larger reserves have full-service cafes and gift shops.  The few small souvenirs that I bought home were purchased at one or the other of the gift shops.  The best cream of asparagus soup that I do believe I have ever eaten was from the Minsmere cafe on Sunday, our final lunch there.  No kidding!

Great Britain, being small and densely populated, has a lot of roads. Additionally, as is famously known, they drive on the left side of the road.  The roads are designed and structured very differently and, surprisingly, relatively little of the driving we did was on motorways. Brits, if they travel much on the continent, are skilled right side-of-road drivers.  Angela and Malcolm frequently take their small caravan (RV) for vacations on the continent, and when Malcolm was here I noted that he was a very capable and confident right side-of-road driver.   Cliff and Joy have lived in the United States and Joy, at least, would rather drive in the States.  It's hard for me to imagine that the same would be true for American birders visiting England.  It's just too different.  I can think of only one birder, Karl Overman, who might be successful. Check out Karl's website and click on his Oman trip report for why I suggest this.

So, for the visiting birder, the challenge is getting around the country safely, in a time efficient manner and not getting lost enroute.  Even having a GPS is not a guarantee to getting from one location to another. Joy and Cliff would get mad at their GPS and turn it off.  So, as was my luxury, it may be best to have a Brit doing the driving.

Here we often bird from the side of the road and every birder I know will pull off the road in a New York minute if they see reason to do so.  Not in England.  First, the roads are just too crowded.  No matter how remote you think you are, you are never the only car on the road.  And, because the Brits are comfortable driving on small narrow roads, they drive fast on these roads.  I was frequently amazed to see cyclists also riding on the narrow roads - often without a helmut.  I don't know what the car/cyclist mishap rate is, but it must be significant.  Secondly, there is no where to pull off the road.  There were a few times when I saw quail-like birds (possibly Common Quail or Gray Partridge) in a field or at the side of the road and would have loved to pull off to scan with my binoculars.  It was just not going to happen.

Another reason RSPBs are so popular for birders is because all of the other open land, (other than county parks, walking trails and coastal paths), is private property.  Here, under normal circumstances, most birders I know do not trespass on private property.  But, I think there are situations when we all might trespass.  I don't think it's the same in England.  Private property really means private property and I don't think they trespass.

Other than one Scottish crossbill species, Great Britain does not have any other endemic species.  A world lister would do just as well to visit the continent.  But for an anglophile like me, birding in Great Britain offered a special opportunity to see the countryside and charm (cliched as it is, England and Wales have charm to export) of such a small, yet beautiful country.  The opportunity to bird with friends also made it more enjoyable for me.  I had visited Great Britain five times before (twice for extended stays), but not more recently than nineteen years ago.  This year may be my last time there to reconnect with friends and to see a country that has changed enormously and continues to change right before your eyes.  But, as much as it has changed, it also seems to manage to retain that which makes is so uniquely appealing.

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