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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”