An Australian birder in England
Philip Maher
Trip Report
1 April — 12 May 2012


1 April 2012
The Qantas plane touched down at Heathrow in a timely fashion early Sunday, 1 April. The immigration queues weren’t as bad as the British media would have it and after not recognizing the many ways my name might be spelt, I finally connected with the Carlton Cars driver who was to take me to Bromley on the Kent/Greater London border, some 12 miles from Central London.Trisha, ensconced in Bromley for a month when I arrived, was there to look after our granddaughter, one year old Olivia. Maternity leave was up for our daughter Amber. I was the second of five antipodeans on the Team Olivia relay. It was my first visit to the Old Country; hopefully I'd also get some birding in.

Trisha had put bird feeders in the pear tree in the backyard. During my six week stay, blue and great tits, green finches, robins and house sparrows came in to feast on mixed seed, fat balls, meal worms and peanuts. Collecting the fallen seed were dunnocks, wood pigeons, blackbirds, house sparrows, magpies and rock pigeons, and on one occasion each, song thrush and mistlethrush. The green finches were great scatterers of seed. Trisha reckoned they were in a symbiotic relationship with the wood pigeons but I suspect they were fussy about their seed and dispersed it until they found their favourite. A wren could often be seen near the corner of the house. A pair of grey wagtail appeared one morning on the lawn, probably on migration. Grey squirrels were enemy number one, devouring the fat balls and demolishing the peanut feeder. Amber's dog, Poppy, refused to traverse damp grass, so the excitement generated by my order to "skitch 'em, Poppy" stopped short of her leaving the path.
Blue tits
Green finch
Minutes after I arrived a pair of jays flew into the pear tree. They broke off sticks, rejected small ones and flew off with one to the required specifications. Trisha had only once seen jays in the garden on this visit and not at all in March 2011 so we took this as a good omen for my stay.

With the family on board we drove over to nearby Beckenham Place Park, 200 acres or so of public parkland that includes woodland and meadow. I was delighted to see lesser spotted woodpecker, which I was later to learn has become an uncommon bird. This one was the only lesser spotted seen for the entire trip. My first goldcrest, long-tailed tit, jackdaws and treecreeper, and a pair of kestrels, one with a vole in its beak, were duly noted. Later in the day Amber dropped me over at Norman Park in Bromley and I saw my first blackcap. A woodpecker poked its head briefly out of a hole, presumably a great spotted.

Olivia and grandpa off to look for a 'biirrd"

Monday 2 April
With Olivia in her baby carrier and Poppy the dog straining on her lead we headed to Bromley Park for a play (i.e, swinging, slippery-sliding and see-sawing). In the bordering woodland I got a brief look at great spotted woodpecker, plus moorhen and mallards in the narrow canal that dissects the sport ovals. We saw another goldcrest and long-tailed tits in nearby Churchill Gardens.

Good Friday 6 April
With Amber, Olivia and Poppy the dog on board we headed to the village of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast where we’d rented Tinker’s Cottage from Suffolk Holidays. Minsmere RSPB Reserve, one of the most popular reserves in the UK, was about an hour’s walk away and fifteen minutes by car.

Saturday, 7 April
I set out on foot the first morning, getting en route redwing, mistlethrush, songthrush, willow warbler, green woodpecker, great spotted woodpecker and herring and black-headed gulls and curlew. Minsmere Reserve is comprised of deciduous woodland, heath and open farmland but most notably, freshwater reedy swamps beside the North Sea. It was like some kind of parallel universe with hundreds of birders. It also has a great shop and café. From the North Hide I got gadwall, northern shoveler, teal, wigeon, shelduck, greylag goose, Canada and barnacle geese, avocet, ruff (adult male in part breeding plumage), redshank, black-tailed godwit, sandwich tern, tufted duck and turnstone. In the woodland there were chiffchaffs and marsh and coal tits.

Easter Sunday 8 April and Monday morning 9 April
A birder I met while crossing the Dunwich Heath took me to a spot where we saw Dartford warbler, stonechat and linnet, as well as skylark and a herd of thirty or so red deer. I joined up with Richard, another birder at Minsmere, (these Brits are a friendly lot) and together we saw wheatear before taking a pew at Island Mere hide for what turned out to be a spectacular view of a bittern, which came out of the reeds and stayed for a record-breaking time. The photographers went berserk. Trisha had arrived by this point and got a reasonable look at bearded tit but alas not me. We saw lesser black-backed gull, sandmartin and swallow. A couple of pairs of marsh harriers were displaying over the swamp. In the afternoon I set off on a walk along the Dunwich shoreline to some partially drained swampland. As well as a few meadow pipits, some great looks were had of a snipe and a broody pair of avocet that were making soft clucking noises and chasing gulls away. I caught some dreadful lurgy on the flight over and it would have been wise to take it easy. Wisdom not being my strong suit, I ploughed on. Heading back to Minsmere on our final morning in the coldest and wettest conditions (which by mid May, we called normal) I added Mediterranean gull, a pair of pintails and brent goose and all but put myself out of action for two weeks. On the positive side, if I hadn’t gone back to Minsmere on that last morning, I wouldn’t have met Dave and Eddie.

Brent goose

Saturday 14 & Sunday 15 April
Wisdom still not prevailing but medicated, Trisha and I headed to Dungeness on the most south-easterly promontory of the Kent coast. A more austere landscape is hard to imagine. Dungeness is an important landing place for migratory birds undertaking the short distance over the Dover Strait. We stayed at The Watch Tower, a B & B in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. As Australians, we found that a tad surreal. Such is the importance of the area’s shingle beaches, gravel pits and reedbeds that it has not one birding reserve but two. Both the Dungeness RSPB and a Bird Observatory co-exist on this shingle promontory and all within the Dungeness National Nature Reserve. Amazingly, this barren, desolate area holds one-third of all plant species occurring in the United Kingdom. With a fierce wind blowing off the North Sea not too many migratory species were venturing across the channel and who can blame them; I have never been so cold in my life. The weekend’s highlight may have been the haddock and chips from the Britannia pub. From the Sea Hide we saw great crested grebe and gannet. A flock of common scoter flew by, way out to sea. At the RSPB Reserve we saw wheatear, yellow wagtail (full breeding plumage), whimbrel (not so common over there) and more great crested grebes. While we retreated to Bromley early, the image of the Dungeness landscape is forever seared in our memories. We’ll be back!

Sunday 22 April Sightseeing in Oxford
From the window of the train as we headed up to Oxford we saw flocks of red kites hunting over the fields. This was our only new species for the day although we saw plenty of sad looking stuffed specimens in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The museum boasts the world’s most complete skeleton of a dodo.

Tuesday 1 May
My sister Susan, the third of the antipodeans, had arrived in Bromley for the handover of Olivia, which freed us up to go further afield. We took a day trip to Canterbury, which was largely spent sightseeing, the cathedral monopolizing the bulk of our time. Before heading back to Bromley, we spent a couple of hours at Blean Woods on the southwest edge of Canterbury. The sun was out and birds were singing. Best birds were nightingale, female redstart (which I had a lot of trouble identifying), willow warbler, long-tailed tit, coal tit, goldcrest and an immature sparrowhawk. Homeward bound, a buzzard was seen above the highway.  

Thursday 3 May
Local birders Mary and Graham (whom I’d met on a plains-wanderer excursion a few years back) kindly offered to take us birding in their patch. The weather was against us but we had a great day nevertheless. Mary and Graham collected us from Amber’s place and we drove to Sevenoaks Wildlife Reserve, about 30 minutes away. Good birds included a white-fronted goose, which was either late migrating or an overwintering bird. We had great views of a pair of recently arrived garden warblers in low scrub beside the lake and a pair of chiffchaff. Other birds seen included sedge warbler, reedwarbler, long-tailed tit, reed bunting, little ringed plover, common sandpiper and a late migrating snipe. This reserve had big numbers of swallows, swifts and both species of martin feeding over the lake. Graham saw a bullfinch but it was away before we could get onto it. Our next port of call was Bough Beech Reservoir, about seven miles south. Cold weather was discouraging the passerines from calling. Still, we managed some good birds; the highlights being hobby, kestrel, great spotted woodpecker, mandarin, lesser black-back gull and common tern in breeding plumage. A cuckoo called but didn’t show. Mary found a blackbird’s nest with young in a shelter.

There was a covey of birders seated on their folding chairs along the narrow footpath that edged the road dissecting the lake. Rugged up against the cold and thermos at the ready, you sensed it was business as usual for those guys. They got an osprey flying over when we had walked further on.

What a treat to be taken out for a day’s birding; I start to see the attraction!

White-fronted goose

Saturday 5 May Minsmere revisited
With only a week left in England Trisha and I hired a small Vauxhall and a navigational device from Sixt Car Rentals in Bromley and headed back to Minsmere RSPB Reserve. It was a bank holiday weekend and accommodation in the Minsmere area was pretty much booked out. Consulting the Birds of Britain website we found Bankside B & B at Uggeshall, the tiniest of hamlets about half an hour from Minsmere. Dave, whom I had met during my Easter visit and who worked for the RSPB, took me out in the late afternoon for some birding. Wryneck and ring ouzel were on offer. Needless to say the weather was bad but we found the wryneck in good time. No luck with the ring ouzel. Dave soon located a pair of stone curlew in open farmland. For the most part, England’s stone curlews migrate from Northern Africa and Southern Europe in the spring. Quite a few pairs breed at Minsmere each summer. The RSPB erect a portable electric fence around each breeding pair to protect the young from foxes. Surprisingly, the fence doesn’t need to be particularly high for it to be effective. Their stone curlew is quite a bit smaller than bush stone curlew and lacks the bold, contrasting markings of our bird. A couple of foxes were seen, as were red deer and a multitude of rabbits. The deer and rabbits keep the grass short, which is what is needed for successful stone curlew breeding. Returning to Bankside B & B I saw a barn owl, in daylight, hunting over a field of canola. The markings on its back were much more contrasting than its Australian counterpart.



Sunday 6 May Minsmere
Eschewing the breakfast at Bankside, I returned to Minsmere early to meet up with Dave and Eddie. I had no sooner pulled up en route at the ring ouzel spot for some muesli when the bird itself came out for breakfast. A late sighting for ring ouzel. The cold April weather in England was having an impact on outgoing and incoming migrants. Connecting with Dave and Eddie, we walked over to some mature deciduous woodland near the Minsmere works depot and soon had a single nuthatch carrying food to young in a nest hollow in an oak tree beside the road. We also had good views of stock dove in a nearby tree. Leaving the visitor centre we headed to farmland, some of it with wooded lanes edged here and there with tall shrubbery. With the improving weather birds were breaking into song. We had no less than four nightingales serenading us. The nightingale is equipped with a massive voice box and when singing opens its bill very wide. It’s really something to behold. Further along a dozen or so late migrating fieldfare were feeding in open farmland. This late sighting surprised Dave and Eddie and pleased me — I thought I’d missed them. Moving on, we drove to an area of heathland, some of which had been mown. This is the preferred habitat of woodlark, a declining species in Britain. We searched for half an hour before a woodlark suddenly flew in. The woodlark in flight and shape is reminiscent of our Horsfield’s bushlark but without the stout bill. A pair of yellow hammer was seen in some nearby shrubbery. A firecrest had been seen at Greyfriars Wood near Dunwich in the week or so before; we took a look but no luck. Saying goodbye to Dave, who had to get to work, Eddie and I headed south of Minsmere to Sizewell to yet another nuclear power station — seemingly the preferred breeding site for black redstart. There was a cool breeze whistling in from the North Sea and it took a good hour to get on to a male black redstart. By this point, Eddie would have been persona non grata at home as he was late to collect his mother for her 80th birthday lunch.

Ring ouzel

Trisha and I headed to the seaside village of Southwold for lunch. The Blyth Hotel seemed a reasonable bet. I had the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which was okay 'though the Yorkshire pudding was a tad dry (but what would I know, I'd never seen one before). It wasn’t exactly a vegetarian haven so Trisha had a glass of red (Domain la Roche Syrah and Grenache) and a coffee that gained entry into her ten worst coffees of all time. We strolled down to the pier and mused what a hardy lot the Brits were. They weren’t actually swimming but clearly thought it a good day for the beach. It wasn’t. Then we couldn’t find where we left our vehicle. (The fact that I had already returned to the car once to get my camera without a problem made not being able to locate it a second time all the more stupid). Returning to the Blyth Hotel (with the help of some local lads) and retracing our pre-lunch steps, we reconnected with the Vauxhall and headed south to the wee hamlet of Shingle Street.

Dave and Eddie had given me directions to a farmland spot where short-eared owl and hen harrier had been seen just days before. Immediately on arriving in the late afternoon we saw the owl hunting over reedy drains in broad daylight. Short-eared owls roost and nest in grass and heath, not unlike our grass owl. Bracing against the cold wind, I walked along the drains and for my trouble got the hen harrier (also late migrating), reed bunting of both sexes, linnet, gadwell, lapwing and oystercatcher. We returned to Uggeshall.

Monday 7 May
Trisha hadn’t seen nightingale so we stopped along a lane leading to Minsmere for her to find one while I ate my cereal. Trisha, believing that the second B in B & B stands for Breakfast and not Birding, went back to Uggeshall and later bemused herself at the Suffolk Game and Country Fair. In the meantime I’d returned to Minsmere and met up with Dave and Eddie. Some of the trails were still flooded from the heavy rain in April so it was good of Dave to organise gumboots for me. We came upon a group of birders who had their binoculars, telescopes and cameras trained on the wryneck we had seen two days before. A sharp-eyed American birder spotted a pair of lesser whitethroat feeding quietly in nearby low shrubbery. A pair of black-winged stilt flew over and appeared to land in swampland further on, causing Dave’s pulse to quicken and a flurry of texts and phone calls. Black-winged stilts are rare in Britain and it was only the second record for Minsmere Reserve. Within an hour up to thirty birders were searching the marshes (successfully). It was interesting to note the difference to ours, theirs having no black on the head of the female and only smudgy black on the head of the male. The serious drought in Spain is thought to have caused an influx into Britain. Lots of whitethroats were singing atop of bushes. We searched for a gargeney that had been seen recently to no avail but there were plenty of good birds about. Four hobbies hawking insects, four Cetti’s warbler with their rich chestnut backs were singing; a few reed warblers, sedge warblers doing their display flights ... A couple of water rail called but refused to show but a dunlin in breeding plumage was spotted. Other Minsmere highlights included little gull, Brent and barnacle geese, reed bunting, northern fulmar, kittiwake and pochard. An impressive peacock butterfly was also noted. Saying farewell to Dave, Eddie and I only had one more bird to find — the bearded tit, missed on my Easter visit. Bearded tit mission accomplished. The birds we watched were probably feeding young as there was a lot of flying across and diving into the reeds.

Black-winged stilt
Barnacle geese

Trisha came back to get collect me and saying our goodbyes to Eddie we headed off to Bolton Abbey on the Yorkshire Dales. Our prime targets: dipper and red grouse. Dave and Eddie had given me a lot of information on Yorkshire sites. (Didn’t I say it was worth almost killing myself returning to Minsmere Easter Monday). With no accommodation booked, we were winging it. The Devonshire Arms was the first hotel we came to at Bolton Abbey. It looked expensive but as it was getting late Trisha went in to check it out. We drove the six miles on to Skipton and had some great fish and chips at Bizzie Lizzie’s and made a pretense of looking at accommodation places but we were always going to return to the Devonshire Arms. Trisha had glimpsed heaven as soon as she’d walked in the door. She’d also seen the connection with the Mitford sisters. The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is Deborah, the youngest Mitford. (The Dukes of Devonshire owned everything around here before the 11th Duke transferred the estate to a Trust). We booked for one night. Breakfast was included in the tariff and my missing it wasn’t an option. By the time I’d eaten a great breakfast, complete with black pudding, Trisha had booked another night.

Tuesday 8 May Bolton Abbey
Setting off on foot from the hotel, I headed along the River Wharfe and had not gone far before I had my first dipper. Goosanders were seen soon after, including a female with one young, followed by a couple of pairs of mandarins. Lots of nuthatches were feeding young in nests and bathing in pools on rocks along the stream. Treecreepers were common; goldcrest was noted. Disappointingly, I was seeing no pied flycatcher or redstart. On the advice of some birders, of which there were many, I crossed the river at the aqueduct and quickly had several pairs of pied flycatcher attending nest boxes. Getting further advice on redstart, I soon had a nice male. At a shelter along the track, birders were putting out birdseed, which allowed close up views of nuthatches and coal tit, as well as the more common great and blue tits. Continuing to bird along the river, I pished up a superb, male wood warbler, singing — a scarce bird in Britain nowadays. Other good birds on the walk back included great spotted woodpecker, long-tailed tit, and on the lawn near the café, jackdaw (we’d seen plenty of jackdaws but not so close). Curlews were doing display flights over the farmland. This was an exhilarating morning. Dipper, what a bird!

Wood warbler
Goosander with young

Late in the afternoon we headed out to look for red grouse on the moors. After seeing our first grouse Trisha turned back, bested by the icy wind sweeping across the moors. Persevering with both the chill factor and the grouse, I managed better views although they generally remained on their guard except for one bird that came up behind me over the crest of a hill and started leaping into the air, calling loudly. The males do this to mark their territory. I couldn't detect the ‘go-back, go-back’ call this species makes when displaying. (Trisha obviously had because she’d done just that). The Bolton Abbey Estate covers 30,000 acres, practically all of it within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. While very beautiful, it is not like the Australian model of a national park. Traditionally, red grouse is hunted for four months from 12 August. The heath, managed for red grouse, is kept short by annual burning off, which promotes fresh shoots; and containers of grit are put out for the grouse, either for parasitic or digestive purposes, or perhaps both.

Red grouse

Moors Yorkshire Dales NP

A cuckoo flew way out across the heath, landing for a moment on a rock. Later I heard him call away in the distance. Curlews were also calling over the moors. Other notable sightings included a lapwing with three tiny chicks, a short-eared owl hunting, oystercatcher sitting on a drystone fence, and quite a few pairs of meadow pipit, one of which seemed to come off a nest. Driving back to the hotel, I briefly glimpsed either a merlin or hobby hunting low over the stone fences. That evening I drove out to a forest near the village of Timble, close to a Fewston Reservoir. The word from the Bolton Abbey birders was that woodcock, tawny owl and long-eared owl could be had there. A woodcock flew over, roding a few times, but the light was poor. A tawny owl called but couldn’t be located and a long-eared owl may have called but it was too distant to be sure.

The next morning I showed Trisha the dippers along the river walk. To the previous day’s list we added sand martin and a pair of siskin — a bird that looks like a miniature gold finch without the red face. Also seen were three pair of grey wagtails, some of which were feeding young in nests, and four common sandpipers. A more beautiful spot in England is hard to imagine but we had puffins to see and headed east to the Yorkshire coast, bound for Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve.

Bempton Cliffs, East Riding, Yorkshire Puffin Video

A few kestrels, an unidentified falcon and at least one sparrowhawk was seen along the way. Again winging it, we started to look for accommodation, finally settling after nightfall on Crab Pot Cottage B & B in the High Street of Flamborough. We dined at the Royal Dog and Duck pub. I had some fairly ordinary fish and chips and Trisha had cauliflower dish with chips that was good. I couldn’t leave England without having a beer so drank an on-tap Bombardier — an acquired taste I suspect.

Wednesday 9 May
The morning was overcast but not raining. Leaving the Crab Pot early we arrived at Bempton Cliffs hours before the RSPB visitors' centre opened; fortunately the gate was open that gave access to the cliffs. The first bird seen was the now scarce tree sparrow near the visitors’ centre. Down at the cliffs we saw hundreds of guillemots and razorbills and smaller numbers of puffins, as well as many hundreds of gannets and kittiwakes building nests. About eight northern fulmar were perched on the cliffs and flying and a few herring gulls were nesting. It was awesome in the true sense of that overused word.

Walking south along the cliffs my first peregrine falcon in England materialized. Then more reed bunting, linnet, skylark, wheatear and a lovely adult sparrowhawk that sat on a fence post, allowing a view of its very dark mantle; quite different to our sparrowhawk. A shag cruised by.

A pair of hares was seen cavorting in a field and a barn owl was flying about near the visitors’ centre, as was a short-eared owl but not seen by me.

Heading away from Bempton I was on the lookout for corn bunting and soon scored a pair in a field of canola east of Buckton. On the A1, heading home to Bromley, a red kite and a buzzard were seen overhead. We were able to pull over for the buzzard, getting a decent look.

Gannets Gannet video

Friday 11 May Sissinghurst Castle 
The day before we departed England, Susan, Olivia, Trisha and I headed down to the National Trust property, Sissinghurst Castle near Cranbrook in Kent. Not so much a castle as a large house with a world famous garden, designed in the 1930s by author, Vita Sackville-West and her husband, Harold Nicolson. It is a mecca for those interested in English gardens. Trisha had visited with Amber and Olivia in early March so saw the garden in both its early and late spring guises. While not my kind of garden, it was impressive. A blackboard with recent bird sightings listed some good birds. My best birds were nuthatch and chiffchaff. Homeward bound we had buzzard and kestrel overhead.

Olivia, Susan and me at Sissinghurst

12 May
Last day. No birding. Trisha went in to Soho early to have her hair cut and a final cup of the best coffee in all of London at Flat White cafe in Brewster Street, run by a couple of lads from the antipodes. Susan and I, both partial to a good brash band and a bit of pageantry, went in to see the Changing of the Guard at Buck Palace.

12 May 2012 Buckingham Palce

Who knew that England was such a great country in which to bird? I can’t thank enough Mary and Graham in Kent and Eddie and Dave at Minsmere for their time and all the generous birders I met along the way for their help. Birders often asked me where in Australia I hailed from and I was chuffed with the number of birders, when told, that responded with “plains-wanderer country!” Hopefully I will get a chance to repay some of those British birders for their kindness.

Report by Philip Maher, assisted (enormously) by Patricia Maher
Australian Ornitholgical Services Pty ltd

More photos: Minsmere area Bolton Abbey Bempton Cliffs RSPB Reserve Sevenoaks area of Kent
Videos on Youtube Please paste this URL into your browser if this Youtube link does not work.

Reference material:
Where to watch birds in Britain. Harrap, Simon and Nigel Redman
Collins bird guide: the most complete field guide to the birds of Britain and Europe. Svensson, Lars, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom and Peter J. Grant
Kent: A Birdwatcher's Site Guide. Bradshaw, Chris and Simon Busuttil
Kent Bird Report
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website
Birds of Britain website
Birdguides' newsletter
Other websites as sited in the report
We joined the RSPB before we left Australia and Trisha jointed the National Trust UK.