London, Birding With An Ally

Guide Jack Fearnside at Chobham Commons


Was taxation without representation really that bad that we had to split from these good people?  I certainly felt right at home this March in the U.K., now our greatest ally.  They may talk a little funny and drive on the wrong side of the road, but otherwise this was a wonderful visit to the Motherland.

Chobham Commons

Birds and climate in Britain are influenced greatly by the warming currents of the Gulf Stream.  It may come as a surprise to many that temperate London sits at the same latitude as Newfoundland and Labrador in the western hemisphere, veritable ice boxes on our side of the pond.  Gulf Stream or not, our visit was too early for the Spring migration; most migrants arrive in the southern U.K. later in March or April.  I was content seeing the wintering birds in London alone but decided to seek the help of a guide to sample the surrounding countryside.  Good decision.

Red Kite, Milvus milvus                             click on photos to zoom

I booked a whole day with Birding in London, an English guide company,  They escort individuals or small groups to various sites in and around London.  Whenever you hire a guide you take some risks, however, I have never been disappointed and was not this time.  Jack Fearnside picked me up at 6:30AM sharp at my hotel in Kensington and we spent a productive day in the countryside to the west of London.

Reed Bunting, Emberiza schoeniclus

Our first stop was Chobham Commons, a picturesque 1400 acre preserve of lowland heath and blooming yellow gorse with scattered islands of birch and pine.  The area was initially cleared by paleolithic farmers eons ago and has remained unspoiled, even through military encampments during two world wars.  I realized that Jack knew his stuff when he started identifying birds by their songs, even in the carpark and despite the traffic noise from the nearby M3.  I was treated to seeing 20 species here including Woodlark, Goldcrest, Stonechat, and the unusual Dartford Warbler.

Stonechat, Saxicola rubicola

Even in early March the over-wintering British birds are pairing up and beginning nest-building, although most egg-laying commences in late March or April.  The Long-tailed Tit takes 3 weeks to build its intricate nest so it needs an early start, but  early nest-building and egg-laying is a mixed dilemma.  It’s great to stake out a territory and get an early start before the migrating hoards arrive.  This allows the possibility of multiple broods in a season but also raises the risk of cold temperatures and meagre food sources in early spring, just when parents and hatchlings need nourishment most.

Long-tailed Tit, Aegithalos caudatus

Our second stop was Windsor Great Park, a 4800 acre gem, first set aside in the 13th century.  The area was hunted by William the Conqueror one thousands years ago.  Victoria and Albert picnicked on the shore of its Virginia Water in the 19th century and I was lucky to traipse these same grounds this March.  You’ll find that European birds are more skittish than their New World cousins and usually don’t respond to phishing.  Many of my photos therefore are distant views taken at 400mm.  Even at great distance, however, Jack was able to point out the electric green of the Eurasian Kingfisher on the lake’s opposite shore.  We saw 28 species at this historic site including Great-crested Grebe, Red Kite, and Eurasian Siskin.

Caretaker cottage at Windsor Great Park

I sensed that Jack really wanted me to see and hear the Skylark for the first time.  We heard him high overhead during his peculiar hovering flight long before we saw him diving down into the green pasture, and then rising again, all the time singing his melodious and incessant song.  This was at our third stop, Woodoaks Farm, a quaint working dairy farm dating back to late Saxon times, 1000 years old.  The lanes and barnyard were muddy from recent rains but the stop was well worth it giving up 16 species including the Eurasian Kestrel, Mew Gull, and the memorable Skylark and song.  Here’s a verse from “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

Higher still and higher

From the earth thou springest

Like a cloud of fire;

The blue deep thou wingest,

And singing still dost soar, and soaring ever singest.

Chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs

Our last stop was Stocker’s Lake in Hertfordshire, an old 90 acre gravel pit which has been flooded and now serves as a wintering ground for numerous waterfowl and springtime stopover site for migrating passerines.  The lake is surrounded by a hiking path and numerous “hides” (blinds, in American English) and narrow canals with colorful canal boats serving as residences.

Canal Locks at Stocker’s Lake

There is a large Heronry on the shore and several islands and floating rafts serving as nesting sites.  We added more 32 species at this site for a total of 59 for the day.  The sun was setting and light becoming problematic for photography when Jack called out a flock of Northern Lapwing landing on an nearby island, another life-bird for me and a fitting ending to a great day.

Tufted Duck and Eurasian Wigeon, Aythya fuligula and Anas penelope

Birding London also arranges guided tours to the Dorset coast to the south, the channel coast to the east, and other sites.  I highly recommend Jack and his company and plan to hire him again if I ever make a return visit to the U.K.  For you poem-loving birders here is the last stanza of “To a Skylark”:

Teach me half the gladness

That thy brain must know,

Such harmonious madness

From my lips would flow

The world should listen then, as I am listening now.



Urban Birding in London

St. James Park


A New World birder recently visited London and for a short while became an English twitcher.  It’s with some fear and trepidation that I submit this posting as I was birding on historic grounds in a country filled with sophisticated twitchers.  But I’ll “keep a stiff upper lip” and press on.  Early March may not be the ideal time for birding in the U.K. but it’s when I visited with dear friends and spouse, primarily to sample the theater and dining options in this great city.

Greylag Goose, Anser anser

We were queuing up to visit Churchill’s War Rooms at Westminster when I noticed beautiful St. James Park and pond with obvious bird activity just across the street.  Even with no binoculars, a mere cell phone camera, and a wife more interested in Churchill than birds, this was too inviting to pass up.  My excitement grew when several of the ducks and geese, and also the giant White Pelicans were new birds for me and listed as rarities here by eBird.  But “something was rotten in Denmark”.  I later learned that these “rarities” were in fact pinioned birds, non-tickable, and transported here for the public’s enjoyment.

Great Tit, Parus major

St. James Park was set aside as a hunting ground for Henry VIII in 1536.  The White Pelicans, or more correctly their ancestors, were a gift from the Russian ambassador in 1664.  In 1834 the Ornithological Society of London erected a bird keeper’s cottage next to the pond, still standing today.  Apart from the pinioned birds I did see some tickable species including Red-crested and Common Pochards, Tufted Ducks, Golden-eye, Eurasian Wigeons and Coots, and Barnacle, Greylag, and Canada Geese. Unfortunately the cell phone shots don’t meet my photographic standards for public viewing.

Egyptian Goose, Alopochen aegyptiaca

Each morning in London started cool and damp, with a threat of rain.  “To bird or not to bird, that is the question.”  Blessed with a spouse that likes to sleep in, and a well-situated hotel in South Kensington, just a hop, skip, and jump from Kensington Gardens, that was an easy question to answer for this Hamlet.  This time I was ready with binoculars, a real camera and lens.

Mandarin Duck, Aix galericulata

You’re treading on history in this Royal Park.  It sits on the west side of Hyde Park, at the site of the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World’s Fair.  Kensington Palace was the birthplace of Queen Victoria and a grand monument to her husband Albert stands just to the south.  Crisscrossing paths, ancient trees, and Serpentine Lake make for excellent urban twitching, even among these historic icons.

Common Wood Pigeon, Columba palumbus

I learned that there were recent sightings of Tawny and Little Owls in the Gardens, apparently pairing off and preparing for nesting in the old tree cavities.  Owls always get my attention and were my primary goal that morning, however I was able to see and photograph numerous duck, geese, and passerines along the paths.  Day one produced no owl, but as a famous Brit once said about a time and situation much more serious than this, “never, never, never give up”, so I took his advice and returned to the Gardens several days later to renew the effort.

Song Thrush, Turdus philomelos

This morning I stumbled upon a fenced-off woodlot with the Gardens with several stocked feeders drawing in Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, Nuthatches, Wrens, Chaffinches, Robins, and even a Great Spotted Woodpecker.  This was a bird photographer’s Mecca.  The chore was to catch the birds away from the feeder in the morning’s low light.  While working on that a young Brit walked up and asked the usual question, “seen anything good?”  He obviously knew his birds and the Garden and graciously escorted me to the very tree where he had seen a Little Owl earlier that day.  Thanking him I aimed my lens at the hole, checked out all the exposure settings and waited for the bugger to peek out. And waited, and waited, and waited.

Little Owl, Athene noctua

Tired of waiting and again resigned to a no-owl day I was preparing to press on when I noticed the eyes peering down at me from another tree, off to the right.  What a hoot; exhilaration that only another birder understands; it was the Little Owl, probably watching me for the last half hour.  A hundred pictures later I returned to the hotel satisfied.  In addition to the owl I saw six other life birds in St. James Park and Kensington Gardens, including the Barnacle, Egyptian, and Greylag Geese, Red-crested and Common Pochards, and Tufted Duck.

He’s still watching

The urban birding I did alone, but hired an excellent bird guide to take me to sites and additional new birds outside the ring road.  I plan to describe that in a later post.  In the meantime, “stay calm and bird on.”