Adventures of an American birder in the British Isles
Text and Photos by Andrea Willingham
In the opening pages to Wild America, Roger Tory Peterson says that most visitors to the states come only to see the cities. “They are shown New York with its skyscrapers, Detroit with its acres and acres of cars in the parking lots outside the General Motors plant – these and other evidences of modern materialism,” he writes. Peterson took James Fisher, his British colleague, across the US to show him quite the contrary. Fisher saw the wild side of the country, the untouched, raw, natural, ancient wilderness that we cherish today.
The United Kingdom is almost the opposite. Rather than the great outdoors, most people go to England to see the old civilization – the museums of London, the ruins of Stonehenge, the castles of Dover and Warwick – and ironically, these are almost better preserved than the few wild places left on the island.
When I applied to study abroad in London for a semester this past spring, I was fully aware that most of my academics would be focused on the city and its history. I would be stepping outside my comfort zone, setting aside my Environmental Studies major and various birding endeavors for a few months to experience something totally unfamiliar. What I discovered, however, was that I didn’t need to put either of these aside – wild Britannia was almost everywhere I looked.
On one of my first weekends in London, I spent an afternoon in Hyde Park, one of the few remaining green oases in the city. Although it is one of the largest parks in London, it is far from natural; Hyde Park has been maintained for nearly 500 years, since the time of
Henry VIII. Nonetheless, it is one of the best places in the city for birding.
My first find there (aside from the ever-present pigeon), was a Green Woodpecker, unfortunately some distance away. Also in the area were Magpies, Black-headed Gulls, Great-crested Grebes, Red-crested Pochards, Tufted Ducks, White-fronted Geese, and a Pied Wagtail – all of them life birds. Admittedly, birding in a well-manicured park full of urban avifauna was not nearly as challenging as birding in a dense Florida swamp, but I had a blast anyway.
Although London itself wasn’t too conducive of good birding most of the time, a backpacking trip through Ireland made up for what England was lacking. In Dublin, I found Blue Tits, Long-tailed Tits, a Coal Tit and Hooded Crows in the city parks. During a side trip to the seaside fishing village of Howth, I added even more birds to my life list including Common Guillemot, a Redshank, and Brent Geese foraging along the steep rocky shoreline. Besides the fantastic birds, the Republic of Ireland itself was just gorgeous.
Working my way up the island by train, I finally settled in Belfast, Northern Ireland for the last few days of the trip. Here the environment was more rugged, with huge rolling hills, mountains in the distance, and wide expanses of undeveloped land. Exploring some of the local forest parks in the area, I found Chaffinches, a Grey Wagtail foraging by a fast-moving stream, tons of Wood Pigeons, and a beautiful Song Thrush sitting in perfect view. Surprisingly, although there were more natural habitats around Belfast, I found fewer birds; nonetheless, they were all lifers for me, so I couldn’t have been happier.
After my trip to Ireland, it was back to school for a few more weeks in London. I took another backpacking trip to Wales for spring break, which, although it didn’t have any new birds for me, was an incredible country. How can you not like a nation that has more sheep than people?
The last part of my semester was spent back in London, but I still added a few more lifers to my list in between classes and city explorations. In Kensington Gardens, I got my lifer Grey Heron and Mute Swan, and after getting lost in Hampstead Heath for an entire morning, I came back having seen my first Eurasian Jays, Grey Tits and a Great-spotted Woodpecker.
Needless to say, my adventures overseas were enlightening in more ways than one.
Although I was thrust into a completely new world and culture, I still managed to bring my passion along and see a ton of new birds under the circumstances. The opportunity in and of itself was simply incredible, and to be able to explore some of the natural environment and get to know the birds of the British Isles was an unforgettable experience.