Incidental and Serious Birding in Britain

I didn’t expect to do any dedicated birding on my first day in Scotland; however, since I stayed back at our Airbnb apartment, in case the delayed luggage was delivered, I passed the day watching birds in the garden and open space behind the apartment building where someone had placed seven different bird feeders.

During this time I was blessed to observe European Blackbirds (including juveniles), Eurasian Magpies, Chaffinches, Coal, Great and Blue Tits, Greeenfinches, Common Wood-pigeons (in addition to feral Rock Pigeons), and House Finches. Mid-afternoon, a Black-backed Gull (couldn’t tell whether Greater or Lesser) flew overhead. I had heard it calling earlier, but it wasn’t visible.

I missed seeing Edinburgh Castle again, but was able to reacquaint myself with common British backyard species I had seen in the past.

I recently read a book where the author described how he was ‘always birding.’  That is true with me. As I go about activities, my birding radar is always on – noticing birds flying by or hearing their songs and calls and ticking it away. So it was on my trip. When I had a few minutes I would jot down my observations.

The following day, while listening to our guide talk about filming Harry Potter, I noticed movement in the corner of my eye as birds darted about within my peripheral vision – Barn Swallows bringing food to their young in nests built in corners of the Castle’s nooks and crannies. Later before we left, I showed them to BJ and Lilli. As we passed the Alnwick Castle Garden on our way to the bus stop, I heard the deep melodic song of a Song Thrush.

While eating lunch on the rooftop patio at Stirling Castle, I was amused by the antics of scavenging corvids as a Eurasian Magpie came in to a grassy hill close to the patio,

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Eurasian Magpie – Stirling Castle

followed by a Jackdaw.

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While waiting for the bus after touring the Culloden Battlefield near Inverness, I noticed two Common Swifts glide overhead, then a Common Buzzard made surveillance flights over a nearby field, while Carrion Crows and Jackdaws foraged in the parking lot.

Herring Gulls perched on the rooftops of nearby buildings near our Airbnb apartment in Inverness and screamed back and forth to each other most of the night.

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Herring Gull

While visiting the Brodie Castle, we walked by their ponds and were delighted to see two Mute Swans and a cygnet,

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Mute Swans and cygnet – Brodie Castle pond

as well as several Mallards.

As we were leaving, I could hear song birds singing in the underbrush as we walked along one of the roads, but could never see who the songsters were. On the bus back to Inverness I took out my phone, pulled up my Collins Bird Guide app, and started to play the songs of some of the likely suspects to see if I could recognize what I had heard.

“Grandma!” Lilli admonished me from the row ahead after I played the second song. Clearly I was embarrassing her, so ceased my investigation.

I was mollified when I gazed out the window and saw a field of Greylag Geese foraging.

“Here are some possibilities of places you might like to visit while you are in the Cheltenham area,” my cousin Alan had written in early July. One of his recommendations was the Slimbridge Wetlands Centre. When I went to its website, a picture of a colorful Common Kingfisher was the featured photo.

I remember Alan being intrigued a number of years ago when I stopped to observe and photograph Northern Lapwings as we crossed the grassy field of the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve on our way to Holy Island in Northumberland.

“Does Judy often disappear like this?” Alan had asked my sister Chris.

“Only when she’s spotted a bird,” Chris had replied.

Clearly he remembered my passion.

“I would definitely like to visit the Wetlands Centre,” I replied in an email.

“Here is a list of the latest sightings,” Alan stated the night I arrived at their home – and handed me three sheets of paper he had printed off the Internet that day.

“I will have the grandkids tomorrow, but I will take them off and you can spend the time at the hides,” he continued.

When we arrived at Slimbridge the next morning, I was impressed with how extensive the Centre was, and the breadth of their educational exhibits.

“I checked this morning,” Alan relayed, “and the kingfisher has been seen near the Duck Hut.”

How thoughtful – clearly, Alan is a thorough researcher in everything he undertakes!

We decided to meet later in the morning at the Otter feeding demonstration and I took off towards the Duck Hut.

While there was no kingfisher, I was not disappointed. A juvenile Eurasian Moorhen ventured out from over-hanging bushes,

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juvenile Eurasian Moorhen

and then one of its parents arrived with breakfast.

At the first blind I found a good location to look out on the wetlands and opened the little glass door to give me a better view.

There was a Little Egret foraging near some Eurasian Coots.

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Eurasian Coots – Little Egret

Not too away was a Common Shelduck snoozing on the grass.

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Common Shelduck

After leaving the hide and was walking along the path, I stopped to watch a Blackcap singing on a branch over my head.

When I walked into the Rushy Hide, there was a row of birders with their scopes. Clearly this was going to be a good location.

Among my sightings was a Black-tailed Godwit,

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Black-tailed Godwit

a Green Sandpiper,

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Green Sandpiper

and a Northern Lapwing.

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Northern Lapwing

A flock of European Goldfinches flew into an area near me, their gold wing-bars and red face patches standing out against the shallow water.

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European Goldfinches

It was time to meet Alan and the grandkids.

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Interestingly, their exhibit featured North American Otters, although the park staff person talked about the recovery of the river otter in Britain.

And, then we parted ways again and agreed to meet at noon near the play area and food concession.

My next stop was a pond where the Wetlands Centre has been testing a special breeding area – a duck nursery of sorts,

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that they plan to use for their work with international partners on the endangered Baer’s Pochard from Madagascar. This year they tested it with Tufted Ducks.

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female Tufted Duck

Next I walked down to the Kingfisher hide.

Two couples were sitting on benches in key viewing locations.

“Have you seen any?” I inquired.

Even though they continued to sit patiently, one of them responded, “I don’t think we will see any kingfishers today since they are mowing the grass down below and it is making a lot of noise and disturbance.”

Disappointed, I moved on.

As I approached the area where I was to meet Alan, I heard a lot of bird chatter in the tops of the trees – like it sounds near a rookery, but I couldn’t see anything due to the dense tree canopy.

When I emerged near playground, I could see large nests in the tops of the trees.

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“I think I’ll hang around here,” I told Alan when he told me he was going to take the grand kids to the restaurant for a ‘proper lunch.’

I bought a sandwich and drink and found a bench where I could view the rookery. While I was eating, a juvenile Rook, clearly not intimidated by the crowds, walked close by where I was sitting.

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juvenile Rook

Later when I was reading about Rooks, I learned that they are indeed communal nesters – and thus the term ‘rookery.’ Duh! When we got back to their house, Alan’s wife Lizz told me that a neighbor had to severely prune one of his trees because the rookery had gotten so large and bothersome.

In the afternoon I watched a large gaggle of Greylag Geese prance in formation back and forth.

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Greylag Geese

And later while passing a large pond, I observed the ‘circle of life’ play out in front of me as two Herring Gulls took out a moorhen and dragged it to the shore to consume.

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Herring Gulls with prey (Eurasian Moorhen)

Black-headed Gulls were beginning to molt.

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Black-headed Gull

A flock of Greater White-fronted Geese were mingling with more Greylag Geese – evidently beginning to arrive for the winter from Greenland.

My last stop was to go up in the tower above the Visitor Center to get a birds-eye view of the entire complex.

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I had more serious birding opportunities when I met up with Kam, a Brodie cousin, in Exeter.

Last winter I had seen a picture of a White-throated Dipper featured on a UK Wildlife Facebook Page, and while investigating where they could be seen, discovered recent sightings in Exeter.

“I want to see one of these,” I had posted and suggested to Kam that when she visited her mum in Exeter she should check them out.

She clearly had remembered and researched where the best location would be for me to have a chance to observe one. While on holiday in Slovenia with her husband in late spring, she had been able to see one when it flew right in front of her while they were hiking along a river – and she wanted to help me spot one also.

“I think your best chance of viewing a dipper is along the River Otter,” she told me the first night. “We’ll take the bus to Budleigh and then walk along the trail to Otterton.”

After three bus changes, we arrived in Budleigh Salterton and then walked down the hill to the seaside, where we ate crab sandwiches near the shore. Kam had warned that they often have to guard their food to prevent the gulls from snitching some; but fortunately, the gulls were happily foraging over the English Channel.

Before heading north along the trail, I looked out at the coastline, which I knew was referred to as the ‘jurassic coast.’

Not too far down the path, we stepped out on a viewing platform where a Little Egret

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Little Egret

and a large group of gulls foraged.

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The path was hemmed in by dense hedge rows on either side. While I could hear many birds singing, I did not recognize their songs.

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Kam on the trail

Further along, I heard a flock of Canada Geese honking.

We founded a bend in the trail and noticed a couple looking inquisitively at the river. We stopped to find out why.

“Goosanders,” I replied, using the term in my Collins Bird Guide, when I saw the large raft of female diving ducks.  When I went to enter my sighting on eBird, I discovered that they are now referred to by the same name as in North America – Common Mergansers.

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female Common Mergansers

We passed a lot of other walkers heading south as we meandered north along the trail.

We trudged on. I was beginning to feel weary and later realized I was probably slightly dehydrated on the warm day. I had not brought extra water being concerned about whether there would be a place to ‘step off the trail’ – which there was not.

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When we got to a point where we could see bits of the village of Otterton ahead, we stopped to examine a mixed flock of tits in the trees on the far side of the river.

After arriving at Otterton, we noticed a sign next to the car park showing wildlife along the River Otter. Two of the featured birds were the ones I really wanted to see – Common Kingfisher and White-throated Dipper!

“Take a picture of the sign,” Kam encouraged, “at least you know they should be here.”

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I took the opportunity to examine the area where water rumbles out from under the mill building into the river below in the hopes that a dipper might be lurking nearby – sigh.

We sat in the shade of the patio at the site of the old mill and refreshed ourselves with a cold drink – then walked across the street to catch our buses back to Exeter.

The following morning I noticed movement out of our upstairs bedroom window at the B & B. Eurasian Magpies were exploring in the backyard.

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Eurasian Magpie

We also heard a Ring-necked Pheasant calling, as we would most mornings. It only occasionally raised its head over the top of the grasses.

The next day Kam’s mum accompanied us to Topsham, on the River Exe estuary, one of their favorite places.

As we walked along the ‘Goat Walk’ paved path, the tide was beginning to recede.

When we got to the end of the paved path, we followed a dirt path for a ways so Kam could show me the entrance to the RSPB (Royal Society for the Preservation of Birds) Bowling Green Marsh that had a blind.

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“I’ll take mum back to the Goat Walk while you visit the blind,” Kam told me.

From the blind, the only bird close enough to identify through binoculars was a Common Greenshank.

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Common Greenshank

Back on the Goat Walk, the tide had moved further out exposing a broad mud-flat

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where Black-tailed Godwits probed in the mud,

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Black-tailed Godwit

Black-headed Gulls pranced on the wet mud,

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Black-headed Gull

and several Common Shelducks whisked their bills across the mud in the same fashion as avocets.

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Common Shelduck

On my last day in Exeter we went to the Historic Quay along the River Exe in Exeter. Among the birds we saw during our visit included a large flock of Mute Swans floating placidly.

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Mute Swans – River Exe Historic Quay

On my final day in the U.K. I visited Windsor Castle.

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Windsor Castle

I stopped to enjoy a royal ice cream cone

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while sitting in the shade, and was treated to a Eurasian Wren who popped up on the stone wall nearby.

During my fifteen days in Britain, I experienced delightful ‘incidental’ birding, as well as a few days of serious birding, but I was ‘always’ birding.

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Incidental and Serious Birding in Britain

  1. What a great trip!
    Did you happen to see any Red Kites? I understand they made quite a recovery in recent decades, but I also read that lately they are frequent victims of collisions with wind turbines in Scotland and northern England.

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