August 6, 2014, mid-morning. I left Kelowna, my hometown in British Columbia, bound for London, England. I arrived at terminal 2 at Heathrow, cleared customs, gathered my luggage and emerged into the arrivals hall where my old pal Richard Mooney was waiting for me. Rich and I hadn’t seen each other in 9 years, but we picked up right where we left off nearly a decade ago. It was a lovely sunny day in London today (Aug 7), and just as I thought, ‘phew, we’re going back to Rich’s place for a much-needed rest’, Mooney exclaimed we were going to twitch a Red-backed Shrike nearby! Mention of a Red-backed Shrike certainly piqued my attention and I was all for this ‘chase’, even though I’d previously seen the species in South Africa a few years earlier. As we zoomed along the highway I added a few lifers including several Red Kites! What a great bird. We found the small town of Quainton, full of old stone buildings and nicely kept gardens, and we could see a radio tower on top of a hill north of the town. This hill was where the shrike was said to have been seen.
A couple of birders came happily trudging down the hill back to their cars so we asked them for directions. We followed their directions, finding out they were inaccurate and we had to come back down the hill and climb it all over again. In the process we did have some fantastic birds, many of which were lifers for me. Included in this list was my first ever European Robin, a lovely male that sang from high in a large deciduous tree. My first Blue Tit appeared, then a brief view of a Chiffchaff followed. Rich excaimed ‘Redstart’ and yes, I got my first look, albeit brief, at a European Redstart. Another nice bird! Finally we found the spot where the Red-backed Shrike had been seen. We searched for a few minutes and then I spotted the shrike atop a hedge. The following photo was taken by Rich Mooney.
As we made our way back down the hill to our car, we saw another exciting species, a pair of Bullfinch! They were a little distant, but the male and female Bullfinches were great to see nonetheless. An area of Scots Pine near Rich’s place in Woking called Ockham Common provided us with more lifers this afternoon. Tiny Goldcrests flitted high in the trees above, along with Blue Tit, Eurasian Treecreeper, Eurasian Jay, Coal Tit and a Great Spotted Woodpecker! Out in an area of heath we had good looks at up to 4 Greater Whitethroats, and another Chiffchaff. An immature Northern Wheatear sat on the trail in front of us for several minutes, allowing nice views. On Lake Boldermere we had good numbers of Eurasian Coot as well as a couple of female type Tufted Ducks.
After a chilly pint at the Anchor Pub we carried on with our birding. This time we visited a lake in Cobham Park where Mark, Rich’s brother, was doing some fishing. Much like Mark hoped to land a giant carp, Rich and I hoped to land a smashing little bird called the Eurasian Kingfisher! It didn’t take us long to see the bird, brilliantly blue, as it zipped over the water and headed into the trees. Also here were numerous Eurasian Moorhens, some Rose-ringed Parakeets flying overhead, a laughing Green Woodpecker and my best look yet at an Eurasian Jay. The scenery at the lake was not too shabby either, with a multi-million $$ mansion overlooking the whole scene.
To finish off our day of birding we visited one of Rich’s childhood birding locations, Papercourt Water Meadows. As the light fell, we spied a pair of Stonechats in the weedy field. Up to 4 Greater Whitethroats were seen, as was a Chiffchaff, 2 Common House-Martins, up to a dozen ubiquitous Common Wood-Pigeons, and a pair of Eurasian Kestrels. I hadn’t slept in about 24 hours now so I was getting a bit bleary-eyed. We headed over to Rich’s place, called Lavender Cottage, in Woking where we should have gone to bed immediately. This of course, didn’t happen, and instead Rich pulled out some Ptarmigan Scotch, insisting we had a drink to toast the first day of our birding adventure.
Ahhhh, sleep. It felt great to finally get some rest after having been up and traveling and birding for over 24 hours the previous day. We didn’t sleep in this morning, in fact we got up before 6 AM, because there were more birding adventures to be had. We filled up our mugs with coffee and loaded up into Rich’s car for the drive out to another popular location, Dungeness. The area of Dungeness appears to be a rather windblown, storm battered, nuclear waste-zone along the coast, but there are some good birds to be had here. Before we even left the parking lot, a pair of Black Redstarts were watched for half an hour as they foraged.
We watched the sea for a while, tallying hundreds of Black-headed Gulls, along with Lesser Black-backed, Great Black-backed and Herring gulls, Sandwich, Common and Black tern, Great Cormorant and at least one distant Northern Gannet. Along the shore were Sanderling and Ruddy Turnstone. Rich spotted another Northern Wheatear along the shore.
Next stop was at the fantastic Dungeness RSPB preserve. We arrived in the parking lot and at the feeders Rich pointed out a small number of Eurasian Tree Sparrows. We headed for an area known as the ‘screen’, a hide from which we watched some very cool birds from this morning. Best of which as a family of Water Rails, with two adults and at least two fluffy black chicks scurrying about. We watched the adults catch numerous tiny frogs and take them to feed to the young.
Also out on the water were a few shorebirds, or waders as birders in the UK call them, including Common Greenshank, Little Ringed Plover, Common Ringed Plover, Common Snipe, Northern Lapwing and Common Sandpiper. Three or four female type Garganey were a treat to see as well. In the bushes outside the hide, birding continued to be excellent. A male Greenfinch showed off nicely and we had excellent views of both Greater Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat side by side. Both Eurasian Reed-Warbler and Sedge Warbler put in appearances as well and I had fantastic views of yet another Sylvia warbler, Blackcap!
We walked the trails of Dungeness, finding a field full of cattle where Rich said we could get Yellow Wagtail. The man was correct and within minutes we were scoping through a flock of Yellow Wagtails beneath the cattle. Most were rather drab immature birds, but there was at least one nicely colored bright yellow adult mixed in with the flock as well. Just then a larger bird flew in and both Rich and I got very excited…it was an immature Common Cuckoo! This was a bird Rich had warned me would take some real luck to find, so I was awfully excited that we found one and had extended views through the scope.
We made our way to Rye Harbor, where after a pint and bite to eat, we visited the Rye Harbor Nature Reserve. This open, rather barren area produced some spectacular sightings for us. Perhaps the best of all for me was a flock of up to 60 European Golden Plovers that flew about in circles and then landed in a field right in front of us.
Scanning through fields produced several Northern Wheatears, and yet another lifer for me, Meadow Pipits. Shallow pools had a number of shorebirds present including my lifer Pied Avocet, as well as lifer Common Redshank! Nothing like getting a lifer shorebird, in my opinion. Amongst 200 Dunlin, I picked out our one and only Little Stint of the trip. As we made our way back to Rich’s place, another lifer zipped across a roadway known as the M-25..a Sparrowhawk!