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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.