How I twitched away my summer vacation
(published 8-18-09)

I’m no different than most birders—the thrill of discovery is a big motivator, and so is the satisfaction of building my life list. I’ll gladly visit the local sewage treatment plant if that’s where the birds are. And sometimes that is where the birds are.

Nicer destinations are required when other family members are involved. They are not birders. So in July we splurged on two weeks in London, Ireland and Northern Ireland. It wasn’t Costa Rica, still my dream trip, but it wasn’t the backyard either, which can be kind of slow in mid-summer. New birds awaited me in the land where birders are known as twitchers and where common birds like robins, goldfinches and jays look nothing like the ones in DuPage County.

Our first five days were in London, my first time there as a birder. Early each morning I slipped out to survey the local birdlife in the big city parks. Hyde Park was a short walk from our hotel, as was a smaller one called Green Park, near Buckingham Palace. A third park, Regent’s, was an easy Tube (subway) ride away and offered the best birding.

When so much is new, the birding is bound to be great. A few of my favorite sightings were great-crested grebe, little grebe, long-tailed tit (along with blue tit, great tit and coal tit), blackcap and jay. Two species, green woodpecker and great-spotted woodpecker, caught me by surprise. They were not in the small field guide that I’d studied on the plane. No wonder—the book I had was for Ireland’s birds, used on a previous trip. Turns out these woodpeckers, while common in London, hardly ever cross the Irish Sea.

I needed a field guide for British birds, so I headed over to Foley’s. What an eye-opener that was. The store had a section labeled Ornithology. I counted 28 shelves of bird books, 18 of them devoted to field guides for other countries. I’ve never seen a display like this in the U.S. and it spoke volumes, literally, about the depth of England’s birding culture.

More clues were in Birdwatch, a London-based journal. It’s published monthly—unlike any birding magazines we have here—and from the content it’s clear that the Brits take their birding seriously. Really seriously. My favorite piece was a closing column called “punkbirder,” where the unidentified author—pictured only in silhouette, with spiky hair, peering through a spotting scope—extolled the many virtues of birding one’s “local patch.”

I’m not planning a change in hairstyle but I might shout “blimey!” next time I find a rare bird.

Ireland was a peaceful contrast to bustling London. That was nice—quiet birding in beautiful surroundings is hard to beat. My partially Irish eyes were especially eager for the spectacular rocky coastline and the birds that call it home.
But first, some good inland birding awaited in places like Enniskillen, Rathmullen and Glenveagh National Park. At the latter, in County Donegal, a peanut feeder outside a small nature center was swarming with chaffinches (supposedly the most common bird in Ireland) and siskins. I was most interested in the siskins, which are quite different than the pine siskins we have here. A staff naturalist told me that grey wagtails were on the grounds too, but my brief search for that species was unsuccessful. In Donegal Town, I spotted my first goldcrest (related to our kinglets) and willow warbler, an abundant summer resident.

In Northern Ireland, in the little whiskey town of Bushmills, I found my grey wagtails. Actually a pair. The next day we ventured to the Giant’s Causeway, the famous rock formation on the north coast. We were blessed with nice weather and that surely aided my bird quest. Oystercatchers and curlews were feeding on the rocky beach, and huge gannets soared over the open water. As we walked, a bird I’d never seen before landed on some nearby boulders. It was a whinchat, and soon some stonechats appeared as well. Life birds each of them, along with a rock pipit for good measure.

Further down the coastal road we stopped at another popular cliffside attraction. Soon I was eye-to-eye with northern fulmars, a gull-like species I’d observed at the Cliffs of Moher back in 1996. This time the birds seemed close enough to touch. I could clearly see their tube-shaped nostrils, an adaptation for excreting excess salt.

The red-billed chough, a rare member of the crow family, eluded me. (As the Punk Birder would say, I dipped on it.) I’ll need to go looking again someday, hopefully with enough Euros in my wallet to hire a local guide who knows exactly where to search. Maybe he can show me a corncrake and a lapwing, too.

For the entire trip, I spotted 65 species of birds. Of those, 25 were “lifers”—certainly more than I’d been expecting. Then again, I put in a lot of hours. Maybe I should have seen even more. Hey, wait a minute, I did! This wasn’t just about the birds, it was about all the things I saw in London and in a half-dozen Irish villages when most of the locals were still asleep.

I’d have missed a lot if I wasn’t a birder. For all of us, isn’t that the bloody truth?

Copyright 2009 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.