My birding wife and I, as well as our two non-birding sons, recently spent eight nights in England and Scotland on a combined birding/sightseeing trip. Day by day summaries and a species lists are below. First, some general thoughts on birding in the UK, from the perspective of Minnesota birders that had never been there before.
Being something of anglophiles, we’ve been wanting to do a trip to Great Britain for many years. We chose the summer time frame for several reasons; the convenient work holiday, having kids out of school, and the maximal daylight hours. The drawback, of course, was that mid-summer birding isn’t all that great. We went with our expectations appropriately adjusted, knowing that we would not return with hundreds of new lifers.
Our specific itinerary included Surrey (west of London), London, Warwick, and the East Lothian region of Scotland. This latter site was chosen because it is the most proximal part of Scotland, and we wanted to keep travel time low, and because it features some very good birding along the Firth of Forth, the North Sea bay where Edinburgh lies. We used trains and subways for most all of our transportation, with no problems at all. Everyone was quite friendly and helpful, the scenery and history were fantastic, and the rain was not as bad as we expected. We had showers on all but one day, but birded with umbrellas in spite of it. Heavy downpours were very rare, and the birds ignored the lighter rains. Relative to what we are used to in Minnesota, the insects were not even a minor nuisance (I think I was bit by something once, and hardly noticed) and the temperature was always mild.
The two biggest drawbacks of the trip were: the relative paucity of summer species to be found; and the high costs of transportation, lodging, and eating. I should say very high cost, and not just on London. Be prepared to spend as much as twice what you might expect. With these two considerations combined, the cost-per-bird is quite high. We ended up with 86 species total, 52 being lifers for me.
We arrived mid-day and stayed in the nice little town of Staines, near Heathrow airport. We birded both along the Thames River as well as the nearby Staines moor, both within easy walking distance from the center of town. Highlights included most of the common UK birds such as Common Wood-Pigeon, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Dunnock, Eurasian Wren, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Common House-Martin, Common Chiffchaff, Long-Tailed Tit, Common Swift, Eurasian Coot, Eurasian Goldfinch, Sky Lark, Eurasian Jay, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, and Gray Heron.
We were picked up by Bill Haines of West London Birding at 5AM, and we went first to Chobham Commons, a lowland heath with several specialties. We were able to get good looks at Dartboard Warblers and Stonechats, as well as Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Linnet, Goldcrest, and Blue Tit, among others. We then spent an hour or so at Wraysbury Gravel Pits, which produced Eurasian Greenfinch, Common Chiffchaff, Common Whitethroat, and Sedge Warbler. We also checked out Staines Reservoir and found Great Crested Grebe and Pied Wagtail in addition to other common birds seen elsewhere.
We arrived in London later that afternoon and birded a few hours in Hyde Park. This is a great site within the city and there is (relatively) affordable lodging just north of the park, between it and Paddington Station. There are a number of large parks in the city, many having good birding reviews, but none had as many as Hyde, per my research before the trip. We were not disappointed with it.
Hyde Park provided Red-Crested Pochard, Common Pochard, Tufted Duck, Graylag Goose, Gray Heron, Common Swift, Eurasian Jay, Rose-Ringed Parakeet, Common Chaffinch, Great, Blue, and Long-Tailed Tits, Eurasian Reed-Warbler, Gray Wagtail, Blackcap, Eurasian Nuthatch, Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, and other common birds.
Birded for several hours in the morning again at Hyde Park. The afternoon was devoted to sightseeing, including the Tower of London, where we found a Eurasian Kestrel.
We spent the bulk of the day at the fabulous London Wetlands Center, which is in the Hammersmith area. It is a great birding location, within the city, with a variety of ponds, mudflats, and lots of blinds. Be aware that they keep many captive waterfowl, however… when we first walked in and saw Barnacle Geese we were very excited… then we saw the clipped primaries. Otherwise, nice finds included Stock Dove, nesting Common Tern, Northern Lapwing, Little Ringed Plover, Common Kingfisher, Green Woodpecker, and Little Grebe. Our guide from a few days earlier, Bill Haines, was at the park doing some banding, so we enjoyed some intimate looks at birds like Great Tits and Common Chiffchaffs, too. If you only have time to bird one place in London, go here.
Took a train up to West Berwick, Scotland, which is a twenty minute train ride east of Edinburgh. We spent about seven hours total en route. This is a small coastal town, amenable to walks along the beach in search of various interesting birds. Without a scope, we found many Common Eider, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Great and Lesser Black-Backed Gulls, and Northern Gannets.
In the morning we headed west to Aberlady Bay, where a nice variety of rocky coastline, mudflats, heaths, and trees provide lots of good birding. It is also home to the headquarters of the Scotland Ornithological Club, and they have a fantastic visitor center there. The staff on hand were all experts on Scottish birds and quite helpful and friendly. They also had an exhibition of wildlife art there that was lovely. Some nice birds in the area included Yellowhammer, Reed Bunting, Sky Lark, Common Shelduck, Greenshank, Redshank, and Coal Tit.
Later that day we returned to North Berwick. This is the home of the Scottish Seabird Center, which offers boat tours to several nearby islands, including the famous Bass Rock, where you'll find the world’s largest breeding population of Northern Gannets. This site is not to be missed. We were told that it is estimates that over 150,000 birds breed on this island. There are so many of them that from the mainland coast, this huge grey rock appears white. Not from the guano, but because it is literally covered by nesting Gannets. Even from shore it was possible to see, with binoculars, the churning and white plumes of water as scores of them plunged into the North Sea.
Other nice birds seen on the tour of the islands included Atlantic Puffin, Eurasian Shag, Common Murre, and Razorbill.
July 4 and 5
We traveled from Scotland to Warwick, again by train. The attraction here was the famous castle, which the kids wanted to see. It is impressive indeed, although it has been turned into something more like a theme park. It was also home to the worst birding of the trip. We saw very, very little, and nothing that was not found at the other sites. Don’t go to the town of Warwick to bird in the summer.
More birding in the Staines area, returning home later. Along the Thames we picked up a lovely Red Kite in flight. This, and the Kestrel seen in London, were our only raptors of the trip.
Great Crested Grebe
Little Ringed Plover
Great Black-backed Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Common Wood Pigeon
Pied (White) Wagtail
Common House Martin
Sand Martin (Bank Swallow)
Eurasian Collared Dove
Eurasian Reed Warbler