We kept our schedule as flexible as possible for this trip, making many decisions on where to go and what to see the evening beforehand. We tried to make the trip a mix of tourist destinations and “local” living, with varying degrees of success.
One event we did schedule in advance was an owl encounter at the North Somerset Bird of Prey Centre [map]. This facility rescues animals in need or abandoned with a focus (as its name suggests) on birds of prey. They also have a selection of mammals and other animals.
Our encounter included close-up looks and interaction with five different owl species, some local to the area, some not. I’ve loved owls since I was a young child, and my wife and I both have a soft spot for raptors in general.
All the owls loved having their breast feathers stroked and were generally well behaved and in excellent health. These birds were rescued or rehabilitated and certainly have found a happy home at the Centre. Here are the owls we met, with lots of bonus shots of yours truly (a rare enough thing for this blog)!
After we all got to hold and interact with the owls, we each took part in a flight/hunt demonstration. Cherish was held by a volunteer on a perch a few dozen yards away, and we each held a piece of chicken in one hand and our other, gloved hand out as a perch. Cherish would then quickly fly and swoop up to take the chicken. This happened so fast that neither of us had an opportunity to get our cameras or phones out for a shot! Darn…
Bonus: Christmas Dinner at the Thomas’
When we returned home we had a lovely Christmas dinner with Ruth’s parents, Paula and Eric, in their downstairs flat. We had turkey (smoked on Darrens’ Kamado grill), roasted potatoes, Brussels sprouts and more. We finished with Christmas Pudding for desert and pulled open Christmas Crackers. It was festive and fun, and I can’t say enough how generous, sweet, and kind Eric and Paula are to have done this for us. They had also decorated the entrance to the house with the Union Flag and American Flag to welcome us.
A full stomach and a full spirit, what more can one ask for?
I had forgotten how much longer higher latitude days are in Spring. Even before the March Equinox arrives, the long twilights running up to dawn and lingering after sunset make for extended daylight. I was up early on our third day to checkout the local park.
Redcatch Park [map] is just a quick walk away from our flat (I’ve always wanted to say that! A flat!) amid proper football fields, a community center, a community garden, some tennis courts, and a playground. It’s a lovely patch of open space with copses of trees here and there, with nearby houses and gardens (what we’d call back yards, sort of, here in the USA).
As I walked to the park, Bristol’s urban dawn chorus was in full swing, with wood-pigeons, robins, blackbirds, chiffchaffs, and tits all singing and calling. I was happy to encounter most of these species in my walk through the park.
It didn’t take long after I arrived for people to start entering the park to walk or play with their dogs. Most were on leashes, and those that were not seemed to ignore the birds and the birds, no doubt used to the canine interruptions, gave the canines a slightly wide berth but generally went about their business.
As the sun grew stronger and the temperature rose up from 4 Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) more of the smaller birds became active, including Great, Blue, and Long-tailed Tits, and House Sparrows. Robins were already singing their beautiful thrush-like songs. Common Chaffinches started singing from treetops, the males’ rosy-chestnut plumage brilliant in the sun.
I got some looks at birds I couldn’t immediately identify, but determined later to be Black Redstarts (a bird in the same taxonomic family as the European Robin). There were also Eurasian Jays, Common Starlings, and Carrion Crows flying or walking about the park.
It seemed to me most of the birds were foraging – probably for nestlings or fledglings – or defending territory. This makes sense, given the time of year. The only courtship behavior I saw was between two Common Wood-Pigeons.
I made my exit and walked back to the flat to get ready for the day’s further adventures in and around Bristol.
I went back to the flat to meet with the others for our next day around Bristol. This time our focus was at the harbor and in particular to see an important piece of maritime and engineering history: The SS Great Britain.
It’s hard to underestimate the importance of this ship. It was the first large ocean liner and the first to be powered by a propeller (or ‘screw’) as opposed to paddles, as had been the case before. This ship performed many functions over the years after it’s luxury cruising days were over. Perhaps one of its most important was to help lay the first transatlantic telegraph cables.
Designed by engineering genius (and by many accounts, jerk boss) I. K. Brunel, the ship is a linchpin in the design history of maritime transportation and the turning point for how ocean travel would progress from that point. You can read about her history at the official SS Great Britain website.
The ship, abandoned and scuttled on the Falkland Islands was recovered, towed back to Bristol, and restored and rebuilt more or less to its days as an ocean liner. Important original pieces of the ship – including hull plates, rivets, railings, and masts – are cataloged and stored in the adjacent museum.
A clever bit of engineering makes the ship seem to float in water up to its waterline, but this is an illusion. Several centimeters of water is sandwiched between two layers of glass plate. This boundary is actually part of the preservation method for the ship’s hull.
On the outside, the ship’s detail are exquisitely recreated, including the stern decorations, and even the English coat of arms with unicorn and lion. “God And My Right” had been the English monarch’s motto since probably the 12th century. It signified the King (or Queen’s) divine right to govern.
Above decks, the ship is colorful has several access points to the cabins and stateroom below. I didn’t get any photos belowdecks, though. I think I was too busy experiencing the ship and kind of forgot about my camera! Sorry!
Great Britain is a long ship, and quite narrow in its cross-section. This was done on purpose to reduce drag and increase efficiency of the propeller drive.
Inside the dry dock, the environment is controlled to stem corrosion of the mostly original iron hull plating. In addition to “natural” rust and corrosion, there are a series of holes along the hull that were made to sink the ship in the 1930s.
The ship was eventually returned to Bristol in 1970 for conservation and restoration. The dry dock dehumidifier chamber is a marvel itself, both functional below and aesthetic above.
The ship was eventually converted to use sails as well, and a winch system was developed to raise and lower the propeller, rudder, and part of the shaft out of the water. That assembly is in the museum building were it is slowly losing a battle against corrosion (the air is not optimal for either the iron fittings or the wooden rudder).
The ship and museum are a definite “don’t miss” if you ever come to Bristol or SW England. The exhibits were top notch, and the ship itself is so accessible and present. It seems right at home in Bristol Harbour.
After lunch and a quick drive to the nearby Clifton section of the city to view the Avon Gorge and the suspension bridge that Brunel designed in the 1830s (but wasn’t completed until over 30 years later, with some changes).
The gorge is beautiful, with dramatic cliffs and forested hillsides. There is evidence of old landslides, and the cars and roads below are dwarfed in scale.
The area atop the cliffs has a large green-space and people were sitting and laying in the relatively warm sunlight. Birds were happily mingling with the people, mostly Eurasian Jackdaws. A few of the more shy Eurasian Magpies stayed closer to the trees.
A short drive and a walk away is the Clifton Observatory [map]. This building houses a camera obscura that renders a 360 degree view of the surrounding landscape onto a central viewing table.
Beneath the observatory is a long stairway down part of a cave system that opens up on the side of the cliff, about mid-way. A balcony has been constructed to give brave souls an amazing view of the bridge and gorge.
After the observatory and cave we drove around Bristol a little and then made our way back to the flat and settled in for the evening, ready for more adventures.
Our first full day in England started with slightly better weather – only a few sprinkles and some Sun amid the clouds. It made for a good walking day around the center of Bristol.
Darren dropped Ruth, my wife, and I off not too far from Cabot Tower, which sits at the top of Brandon Hill Park [map]. Completed in 1898 to commemorate John Cabot’s expedition to North America in 1497, the tower has over 100 narrow steps. For long-time Florida residents like us, the steep walk to the tower up Brandon Hill and then the steps was quite a trial by fire to the type of walking we’d be doing for much of our visit.
The view from the top level of the tower afforded lovely views of Bristol, including some places we’d visit either later that day or later in our visit.
The garden provides some good habitat for area wildlife, so it was not surprise to see and hear Eurasian Blackbirds and European Robins singing, and see a number of Common Wood-Pigeons and Carrion Crows flying around the tower.
We made our way down into the city below, including the storefronts along Park Street and surrounding areas. The University of Bristol is near this area, and there were many students walking, biking, and even skateboarding. The make up of that part of Bristol paints a dynamic scene, with old and new elements blended together.
Bristol is the home to street artist Bansky, and his art is found in several places in the city. One work was being shown by a guide to a group of Spanish language tourists who were overjoyed to be seeing and taking photographs of it. You can see it’s been “commented” upon a few times, too.
Eventually we walked up to Bristol Cathedral, one of many Gothic church buildings we saw on this trip. Also like many large Gothic buildings, it was built over many years, with the bulk of the church constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries. Here’s a selection of photos from this lovely church.
There is so much to see in the cathedral, the above is just a small sample. Feel free to explore more about it, perhaps starting with these sites:
Opposite from the cathedral, on the other side of College Green is the Bristol City Council building which had these spectacular golden 18th century unicorns adorning each roof end.
Walking east, we passed a statue of Queen Victoria on our way to the northern end of the waterfront of Bristol Harbor on our way toward Queen Square.
Just about anywhere you look in the center of Bristol, there is spectacular architecture. Walking toward Queen Square I caught a glimpse of this ornate tower, which it turns out belongs to St. Stephen’s, the Church of England parish for Bristol
The streets around Bristol (and many English cities) are narrow, but this close spacing seems endearing to many American eyes. Almost quaint.
Ruth told us that Queen Square is the only square square in a major city in Europe. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but you can look on the map and see how square this square compares to other squares.
I thought it was ironic that the statue at the center of Queen Square is actually of King William III, mounted on his horse. The history of Queen Square is quite telling, in that it was all but abandoned after the 1831 Bristol Riots as the more affluent Bristolians moved to Clifton. The square was nearly obliterated, with rail and road traffic crossing right through its heart. It was eventually restored in the 1990s and is now a beautiful and well used park.
We wound down the afternoon walking past the Old Vic Theatre and some other historic buildings near the River Avon.
It was a fun and exhausting day, and my knees and feet tried to complain, but there was so much to see and I was too busy having an amazing time.
After dinner is was off to bed and dreams for day 3.
My wife and I, after a couple of years of saving and a lot of planning, made a trip to Bristol, England to stay with friends for a couple of weeks. They took vacation (“holiday”) too, and we spent a lovely, if hard paced time, around southwestern England and Wales.
Staying at their flat and having them drive us around (2000 miles!) saved us money, allowing us to make this trip of a lifetime. Thank you Ruth and Darren, we can’t say enough about your generosity and kindness.
After flying to Gatwick, and feeling only a little bit jet-lagged, we stopped at Stonehenge [map] on our way to Bristol. It was almost surreal after reading and seeing so much about this ancient site, to actually be there. Buses take groups of visitors to the site from the nearby visitor center every few minutes. Even though one can no longer walk among the stones, the footpath allows for close views, and one can walk around the ditch that encloses the site on all sides.
The weather was cold, windy, and rainy – a proper English welcome – but the awe and delight at being there did not dampen our spirits. It’s hard to put into words, but the site is impressive yet somehow appropriately scaled. One can tell it took a monumental effort to move these stones in place, but somehow it seems easy to imagine humans building and using the site.
Although it is severely weathered and aged, one can still marvel at the skill evident in crafting these giant stones and the engineering that went into the design. The lintel stones don’t just lie on top of the uprights, but are fitted using a mortise and tenon design.
This trip was primarily for seeing the England our friends live in. While I had some bird outings planned, almost every bird I would see even incidentally would be a life bird for me. Three of the five resident corvid species were evident at Stonehenge: Rooks, Eurasian Jackdaws, and Carrion Crows.
I was also pleasantly surprised as a boldly patterned black and white bird landing right among the feet of a group of Japanese tourists. The White Wagtail is fairly common in Britain (I saw them in many places on this trip), but was a delight to see. This particular bird is probably used to handouts or getting food that people drop while marveling at Stonehenge.
As we rounded the henge and faced into the wind and rain, it did become a bit uncomfortable, so we made our way to where the bus would take us back to the visitor center. There are additional historical exhibits there and (of course) a gift shop. But it was all very respectful of this ancient site. We saw a few barrows in the surrounding fields and nearby fields of bright yellow rapeseed.
We then drove through the countryside, in and out of rain showers, to Westbury – about mid way to Bristol – to see another large landmark. The Westbury White Horse [map].
This large cliff-side carving dates from the 1600s. Several monuments of this type are known throughout Britain, at least one from late Bronze Age. We first went to the top of the cliff to see it from that vantage point. From above, I watched a Eurasian Hobby (a falcon) hunting below and a Skylark try to fly against the wind. The wind howling up the cliff face was biting and incessant, but the views were spectacular!
The horse is easily visible from the valley floor for miles. At one lower vantage-point I did get my first Great Tits and European Robin, but the horse was the star of the show, for sure.
From this vantage-point we got back on the road and on to Bristol, where we unpacked and settled in for the next two weeks. I’ll post more of our trip through the weekend and next week.
The title of this and the previous blog proved to be much more prophetic than I dreamed! It’s been a long hiatus, brought on by a conspiracy of circumstances. Let’s close out the previous year before we delve into some new and exciting adventures!
Toward the end of last year, as I was planning to meet with Annie and getting ready for another holiday season, I got an invitation from Mitchell Harris to help lead a team for the Cocoa Christmas Bird Count! This was exciting for me, and it felt good that someone with the birding caliber of Mitchell Harris wanted me to help out.
I assembled a team – Camille, Sarah, and Bella – and got my maps and lists organized. The dry run Camille and I did with Mitchell beforehand helped hone our plans and we were more than ready for the CBC day.
Our section of the CBC circle was mainly urban and high-density suburban, with a few parks. Getting the timing right for the birds we wanted to “get” was a little tricky, but we managed to work out a reasonable route with time enough to spend at high-probability sites like Rotary Park, Veteran’s Park, and a roadside rookery. The Merritt Island Rookery had so many hundreds of birds streaming in as the sun set, it was one part comical and one part awe inspiring. Bella was cracking herself up trying to call in the flocks upon flocks of species coming in, as I struggled to keep up the count on eBird!
I’ll post the checklists below. Feel free to map out where we went and how we did.
Our final count was 78 species for our section. The final circle count was 145 species. Not bad. It was an exhausting day, but we managed to work well together, help out with a long running (119 years!) bird census, and see parts of the county I’d not had an opportunity to visit.
Hello friends! It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll try to catch us up! Perhaps the most interesting happening (at least in my birding world) was the sighting of an American Flamingo in Brevard County in late October . The overall status of the American Flamingo in Florida is still being debated, but whatever fruits that argument bears doesn’t alter how rare a wild flamingo is for the Space Coast. But of course, that’s the real question, isn’t it? Where did this bird come from? It was non banded, but that’s hardly a foolproof indication of a wild bird. It’s possible it was stirred up from our southern neighbors by Hurricane Harvey and was taking an extended tour, or maybe someone had it as a “pet’ and “lost” it. There’s no way to know.
This severely cropped photo was the best shot I could get of the distant bird (it was seen much closer by others, but seemed to prefer to feed well away from the road to Playalinda in the afternoons it was with us).
In any case, it was a good reason to get out with Sarah and Bella Muro again and find this bird, as well as checking out part of the Buck Lake Conservation Area [map] with them. The birding was a little light, but we had a few good looks at the recently arrived Eastern Phoebes and a few warblers sprinkled in for good measure.
There was little time to rest before the Fall Florida Ornithological Society (FOS) meeting in Davie, FL the first weekend in November. I’d been looking forward to the weekend for months.
The sessions and keynotes were good, and it is always great to catch up with birding friends I haven’t seen in a while. I didn’t take too many photos, but the field trips were pretty good. Dave Goodwin, Jim Eager, Charlie Fisher, and I went out on our own on Saturday to Evergreen Cemetery in Fort Lauderdale [map]. We were hoping for some late migrants, but those were few and far between.
From there we went to Markham Park [map], which borders the Everglades. We were hoping for Spot-breasted Orioles, but after getting distracted at the canal overlooking the Everglades, we spent most of our time there, scanning the grasses for Grey-headed Swamphens and Purple Gallinules. We got a distant but long look at a White-tailed Kite, too.
The next day, I went to the soon-to-open Fran Reich Preserve [map], in Palm Beach County. It borders the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. They are separated by a canal and levee system, preventing any meaningful ecological continuity, however. Primarily scrub and open habitat, the main draw was the hope of some early wintering sparrows. It took some careful stalking, but eventually we managed to flush some Lincoln’s Sparrows, of which I got a good look at one!
Perhaps the bigger stars of the show were the non-avian friends we came across! First was a magnificent Green Lynx Spider, staking out her claim on a goldenrod plant (Solidago stricta, according to botanophiles).
The biggest oohs and aahs, particularly from the students we had along with us, were directed at a praying mantis. It was comfortable enough with being handled, that it even stopped to groom it’s legs, relatively unperturbed by all the humans crowding around.
The remainder of the FOS meeting was informative and entertaining, but it was good to get back home after a weekend away.
Later in November, I finally got to meet up with my friend Annie Otto and hike and bird one of her favorite places, Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTMNERR, or “Guana”) [map]. It was a beautiful day, if a bit windy (although the trees protected us from the brunt of the gusts).
The bird of the day had to be the Yellow-rumped Warblers, which had arrived with succeeding cold front in the previous weeks. Dozens of them would seemingly fall out of the sky into the trees, along with Ruby-crowned Kinglets, some Eastern Phoebes and even some late season migrants, like Blackburnian, Black-throated Blue, and Cape May Warblers.
Annie is the manager of the Tomoka Marsh Aquatic Preserve, and was fun to talk to about the area and some of her personal history as a conservationist and outdoors enthusiast.
The month of September is waning, and the best chance for songbird migration is ramping up. During this continuing lull (it has still been HOT), it seemed like a good opportunity to scamper to Miami and try to get a few species that are endemic or established there that we generally can’t find elsewhere.
I met up with Camille and we set out before sunrise to get to our targets. We were hoping for two species, both that have become sort of “nemesis birds” for both of us: the Mangrove Cuckoo and White-crowned Pigeon.
Our first destination was Black Point Park and Marina [map], where some Mangrove Cuckoos had been seen recently. This species is notoriously secretive, and though this time of year isn’t necessarily the best time, having a recent sighting in an accessible hotspot made it irresistible to attempt.
Unfortunately for our information regarding the birds’ location was a bit sketchy, and being unfamiliar with the area, we wandered a bit before finding the right spot. That meant the morning had worn on quite a bit. While we did see other birds, we never got so much as a hint of Mangrove Cuckoos.
In our wanderings around the marina, we took a paved path, closed to vehicles, that paralleled a canal. There were several heron and egret species, including several young Yellow-crowned Night Herons, like the one below. Like their cousins, the Black-crowned Night Herons, this species’ young are brown and streaked, which helps keep them camoflagued in the grasses and other vegetation near their nests. These birds were fledged, and will soon molt into their gray and black adult plumage.
Our first migrant of the day was a lone American Redstart in some trees near a small bridge, by a flood control structure. The same area had a huge amount of Black Vultures both on the ground and swirling above in a large kettle, probably due in part to the row of nearby dumpsters.
By the time we found the (likely) actual spot the cuckoos had been seen, the morning had well worn on, and it was getting hot. We hung around for a few minutes but to no avail.
We broke for lunch before making our way to the Baptist Hospital of Miami [map] and cruised around its grounds for any parrots – there were none – before heading into the Kendall area neighborhoods to find White-crowned Pigeons.
Predictably, bird activity was low in the heat of the day, but we did get a few pockets of birds as we worked westward through and past some parks and ball fields. We finally ended up at Indian Hammocks Park [map].
As we drove through the entrance and into the park, a female Scarlet Tanager flew into a tree on the right side of the car, and some small birds could be seen and heard in the tree tops. Camille pulled us over and we got out and scanned the vicinity, taking note of some Blue-grey Gnatcatchers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers. After a few more minutes, Camille drove to park the car while I stayed to investigate (this turned out to be somewhat unfortunate, as I left my camera in the car).
I tracked down a Yellow-throated Warbler and some more gnatcatchers before checking out the family of Red-bellied Woodpeckers, further from the entry road. Some movement high in a tree, under some dense canopy caught my eye: a White-crowned Pigeon! Happily, it stuck around (and another joined it in the same tree) until Camille made it back from the parking lot. This species has given us both fits over the past few years. It’s not uncommon, and any eBird search for it results in hotspots and personal spots peppered all across the Miami area with sightings, but until then the bird had eluded us.
After some high-fives, a couple of lifer dances, and a quick look at a Baltimore Oriole, we made our way further west to see if we could find the Zenaida Dove (and some shorebirds) reported over the previous week in some agricultural fields (known as the “West Kendall Agricultural Area” [map]).
Zenaida Doves are Caribbean endemics; they are rare vagrants to south Florida (though their similarity to Mourning Doves might cause some to have been missed in suburban settings). The bird hadn’t been reported for a couple of days, but it was worth our while to check it out. The only shorebirds in attendance were a great many Killdeer and several Least Sandpipers probing some muddy puddles for whatever morsels they could find.
There were a few Mourning Doves present, but as we walked over to the farthest “puddle” in the immediate area, a slightly redder dove, with white in its wings, was flushed up and quickly flew to the west – a Zenaida Dove! I was able to follow it a ways in my binoculars, getting a very good look. Unfortunately, Camille’s attention had been elsewhere and she never got a good look. We scanned for a while longer, and even after a Killdeer-filled ride further into the agricultural land and back, the dove was never relocated.
From there, it was off to the last stop of the day: the “Tamarac Exotic Duck Pond” in Palm Beach County [map].
For some reason, most of the ducks, geese, and swans found on this urban pond are countable on eBird, though not for ABA lists. It fairly obvious these birds were introduced, but they are still beautiful and were a treat for the end of the day. Here are a few of the birds we saw.
With the sun starting to sink low, we decided to end the day and head home. Getting several lifers (including the ducks) made for an exciting day.