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, http://www.birdinglondon.co.uk.  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.

 

 

9 thoughts on “London, Birding With An Ally

    1. It was indeed birding with a friend and an ally. My sincere condolences to you and your countrymen on this day of the attack on Westminster. It was even more shocking for us, having so recently walked that bridge and those very streets. Warm wishes from the U.S.A.

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  1. Birding and poetry … do try and get hold of “Flights of Imagination: an illustrated anthology of bird poetry” compiled by Mike Mockler. My copy was published by Blandford Press in 1982 but I see it was also distributed in the United States by Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. ISBN 0 7 137 1164 7. Finding a copy will be worth the effort.

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    1. The guide worked out wonderfully, taking me to places I would have never explored on my own. I highly recommend Jack and his company if you ever go back. Thanks, I’ve gotten mixed reviews re: the poetry.

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