A Summer in England (rain included)

As promised, one blog about my “summer” in the UK.  (Sorry, I had to edit your posting of the URL.  We do not “advertise” for that site.  We have members of our blogs who do not post anything but pitches for that site.  They get deleted, so I need to be consistent.  The backstory is too long and unnecessary to relate.) 
So, for various reasons (business, pleasure, family) I found myself in the UK for 10 weeks this summer.  Actually, it was only 9 weeks as I spent 5 days in Paris, but that’s another story.  The weather in England (for that’s my specific home country) is often pretty miserable.  Someone said it’s a bit like Seattle, but having never been there I couldn’t say.  But this year (2012) it was not only the worst weather I’ve ever experienced, it was also the worst weather in recorded history.  Maybe some of that came across in this year’s Olympic coverage, but as I don’t like sport and I don’t have a TV, I don’t know that either.  What I do know is it rained 67 days out of 70, so that gives you some sort of idea how grim it was – which was a shame.  Anyway, despite that, the fact that I had work to do (which didn’t get done at the rate I was hoping for because of the weather) and some last minute ill-health, I still managed to do a little birding each day.  Somewhere in the database of eBird it claims I submitted 71 species, but it seemed more like a dozen to me which shows how disappointed I was with my outings.  Anyway, I’ll fight my natural English tendency to grumble and blog on!
 
When we arrived at Gatwick Airport (London) the cloudbase was so low that the first I knew we were coming in for a landing was when I felt the wheels hit the runway.  I couldn’t actually see the wingtips through the murk.  The temperature was 13’F (that’s 55’F) but two days later I saw 36’F (2’C) on the thermometer and that was in June!  Oh well.  Despite that, I wrapped up like a Floridian does, um, never, and got in an hours birding.  I guess I should mention that where I was located is East Anglia (invaded by the Angles [and Saxons] in about the 5th Century AD) and is the bulbous bit that sticks out (to the east) a little above London.  Mind you, as the whole of England will fit inside the State of Florida, being on the east or west coast isn’t that great a geographical difference. The region is mainly agricultural (as is my home) so I pretty much have fields surrounding my house – wheat one side and pasture the other – not that there are many cows left these days with the triple-whammy of BSE, Foot & Mouth Disease and an imploding economy.
 
So, onto the birds.  They were a little surprised to see me I think (having not been ‘home’ for three years) and I was pleased to see that my local family of [Winter] Wrens had built their usual nest in my barn.  I was also saddened to see that, for the first time in living memory, and for no obvious reason, my Barn Swallows hadn’t nested.  I also heard from a family member that ‘her’ House Martins hadn’t arrived at her home for the first time in 45 years, so something unfortunate had happened along their migration route?  I also had a Sparrowhawk nest in my spruce woods.  I was able to watch (and hear!) him branch about 6 weeks later.  I was also privileged to see the Wrens fledge.  There were three in total and my wife and I sat one evening in the barn watching them try to take their first, pathetic flights, and keep a vigil against anything that might want to eat them.  Happily I can report that they all made it through toddlerhood and up to Junior High without any tragedies!
 
My first serious birding yielded a Ring-necked Pheasant, Jay, Great Cormorant, Wood Pigeons, Chaffinch, Great-tits, Blue-tits, Long-tailed tits, a Coal-tit, and a Kestrel.  All relatively unsurprising for England, but not something you see much in the Sunshine State – except the Kestrel – and not something I’d seen for three years, so it was nice to be ‘home again’.  Pictures of these birds can be seen in my photo album “England [Norfolk] 2012”.  Feel free to take a look.
 
Because of work and really bad weather, it wasn’t until about two weeks later that I was able to get out and go for a dedicated birding walk along the river.  There I saw a Great Crested Grebe, Greylag Geese, a Mute Swan, Pied Wagtails (now renamed White Wagtails) some Whitethroats and a Cetti’s Warbler.  That last one is somewhat ‘rare’ in England, so you might need to look that up.  It has the loudest and most ‘explosive’ call I’ve heard of any bird – even the Wren!
 
The 1st day of summer came, and it was a lousy one.  66’F and grey, rainy and miserable!  Oh to be back in Florida.  Oh wait, what’s that, the US is having the hottest summer for decades!  What’s wrong with the weather?  Well, it seems to be down to the jet-stream.  So, what’s wrong with the jet-stream then?  A few days later (60’F) I saw some European Goldfinches sitting on the overhead wires.  They look nothing like (and perhaps more attractive than) the US Goldfinches – but not especially ‘golden’.  They love thistles, and the one thing my land (‘neglected’ for three years) has in abundance is thistle!  As a result (of 1 million thistles) I usually have a field full of butterflies (about 19 or 20 species).  This year however, I saw almost none.  It must be that the cold, wet weather has killed off the eggs or larval stage.  I hope this isn’t the thin end of the wedge?!
 
The next day (62’F) I saw a flock of four Grey Herons.  These are very similar to the US ‘Great Blue Heron’ but are not the same species.  I also saw a Blackcap – a very pretty warbler-type bird.  It was at this point that my wife was able to join me in England.  Rather than pick her up at the airport (tricky without a car) she opted to take the train.  If there’s one thing more unreliable than the British weather, it’s British Rail!  I warned her (not entirely in jest) that her train would be dirty, be late, breakdown or crash (or a combination of some or all of the above).  As it turned out, she was thrown off the train for having slightly the wrong ticket (what?!) and then everyone else had to get off the train as it broke down!  You couldn’t make this stuff up!  By some strange trick of good fortune, her arrival coincided with a sudden change in the weather and she was greeted with temperatures of 78’F and lots of sunshine.
 
The next week (July) saw a fall of temperatures.  At one point there was a night time temp of 48’F and a daytime hail-storm!  The Silverstone F1 Grand Prix was so waterlogged that the organisers told people to stay away, even if they’d bought a ticket.  The Wimbledon tennis final between Murray and Federra was presumably held under canvas, but the plucky Brit still lost.  On the birding front, I went to Buckenham Marsh and saw a Marsh Harrier (rare), a Great Cormorant, Avocets, a Redshank, Oystercatchers, a Reed Bunting, Canada, Greylag and Egyptian geese, Swans, Ducks, Gulls and a Sedge Warbler.
 
The 16th July (prolonged heavy rain, grey and cold) saw the fledging of the three Winter Wrens.  They tend to spill out of the next this time of year and then flop about on the ground for about half a day before they figure out how to use their wings.  After that, they’re up and running!  During this evening fledge, I put a ladder near to their nest as they kept flying in a low, weak arc back to their nest, but falling just short of the required height to get back home.  They’d land on an old car and slide down the windshield unable to grip onto the glass.  By putting the ladder there they could have a halfway house or stepping-stone to help them.  Whilst carefully encouraging them to return home, one of them flew up to me and landed on my head!  Obviously impressed by my nest-like, warm hair, it decided it was done with flying for the night and cuddled up for a well earned sleep!  I eventually had to lift it off and put it back in the nest manually.  The parent Wrens were frantic at first, but after a while seemed to grasp that I was not a threat to their babies and just watched carefully to see all their chicks got back into the nest!  The following day, the Sparrowhawk chick fledged (or branched?) but unlike the wrens, it didn’t sit on my head.  It did however screech loudly for the entire afternoon.
 
OK, nearly done I promise!  So, after that, we went to Paris for five days and then it was back to ‘Blighty’ for our final fortnight in the UK.  I went to Salhouse Broad (a ‘Broad’ is a kind of lake, connected by the river).  They were thought to be naturally occurring until someone discovered they were all dug out by hand by the Romans!  Anyway, they’re a nice place to go birding.  I saw a couple of Common Terns there and, as is often the case with bird species containing the word ‘common’ aren’t that common at all.
 
The following Saturday (having rented a car for our final five days – and so we could get to the airport 153 miles away without having to go anywhere near a British Rail train!) we drove to the delightful Norfolk town of Briston.  Now, here comes proof that the world is a very small pace!  My family has lived in Norfolk since the beginning of time and my wife is an American citizen (born in CT).  However, her Great Grandmother came from England.  It turns out that she also came from Norfolk and grew up about 20 miles away from my place of birth – Norwich.  So, after a long and interesting series of lives, my wife’s Grandmother’s ashes ‘came back’ to her ancestral home and were scattered in Briston.  Even stranger, the other side of her family came from the other side of the country from the city of Bristol!  So that’s just one letter different!
 
Whilst there, we did a little birding and I saw (for the first time ever) a swift land on something!  Whilst enjoying a quick pint at the Green Man pub, I saw a swift fly up under the pan tiles and into a nest.  I waited for a very long time (finger on shutter) for it to fly out, but it refused to budge until the second I relaxed my grip!  All I can say is that they’re a well-named bird, as it was a speck on the horizon before I could get my finger back on the focus button!  Needless to say, it poured with rain.  Later that evening I went looking for some Barn Owls down by the river where we’d seen three at once before, but none showed up.  Shame!
 
The following day (the day before the Mars Rover landed) we went to Norwich and saw the Peregrine Falcon land on the Cathedral spire!  No Peregrines have nested there for 200 years so I was very lucky to see, hear and photograph the bird (and to be back in the UK for the “summer” of 2012).  On the way home, I managed to nab one of the remaining species I was hoping to encounter.  Being a big ‘corvid’ fan, I was really hoping to see a Jackdaw and I was very pleased to see two milling around by the river at Thorpe Green.  And that concluded today’s lesson on British birds, British Rail and the British weather!  😦
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