July 2008

Pied Wagtails are unquestionably the finest birds that I didn’t get to add to my life list this trip.

I’d seen them three years ago, when the Inimitable Todd had first traveled to Scotland in quest of science fiction books and Scotch. Driving on the wrong side of the road through quaint loch-side villages and passes with names like Rest and Be Thankful (we did,) we were both enchanted by the landscape.

I hadn’t brought my binoculars, but a few birds make it so it doesn’t matter. Herons. Robins. And, when we stopped by the side of a loch to admire the landscape, a handful-sized black and white bird with a tail that could have served as the counterweight on a grandfather clock. (Well, a grandfather pocket-watch.)

This confiding little critter wandered up and down the rock wall practically to my feet, and even my seriously outdated Peterson’s left me with no doubt that it was a Pied Wagtail – the British subspecies of the White Wagtail Motacilla alba.

There is nothing in North America that really resembles a Wagtail – sure, we have ground-feeding birds, and birds with twitches (as opposed to birds that get twitched,) and birds that hang around paved areas scaring up food, but none of them has quite the sleek, natty put-together look of the Pied Wagtail. I hoped sincerely to see them again on my return to Britain.

Did I succeed? Stay tuned to my next installment, in which we learn just how awkward and autistic I can be while looking at the most graceful and elegant creatures on earth! (Those would be the birds – no offense, Charlie!)

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The better to get into the spirit of the thing, we took ourselves by train from London to Brighton.

It was a marvelous thing, Brighton; a sort of proto-Coney-Island, only you can see France. That is, I saw a blur that logically had to be France, off on the horizon.

We rented a couple of miserable rusty bikes from a man on the boardwalk. The Inimitable Todd had an idea that we were going to get to Beachey Head and re-enact the cover of 20 Jazz Funk Greats, so off we went.

At first it was lovely. The sun was shining, little birds popped up here and there and whizzed off across the road before I could spot them. We gained some elevation, and were soon biking on a convenient trail along the edge of a cliff – the perfect spot to spot a Kestrel. And so I did.

Kestrels Falco tinnunculus, like the American pocket version Falco sparverius, have a neat trick of hovering while searching for prey. Sometimes, indeed they are referred to as Windhovers. This should have been a clue. But we blithely went on, picking up my life Jackdaws (elegant in their black and grey) soon after.

We zipped along the coast, and through a small city, and over some sheep-strewn hills, and through another city, and across a small wildlife reserve rich with rabbits and Moorhens, and some more stuff that might have been a small city, and some more hills, and a sign warning us of badgers…

…. and eventually we realized that the if we went much further our chances of getting the bike back to the rental place before it closed would be in doubt. Stopping at a little bike shop to get some tire air and a map, we discovered that our quest… would fail. We were still an hour away from Beachey Head by the most optimistic estimate. So we turned around.

Then we learned what Windhover already knew: the wind was up. We’d noticed it in a general sort of way when it was a tail wind, but now we were traveling into its teeth. Highly unpleasant.

Thus, tragically, we were forced to stop at the wildlife reserve. It was quieter now; there was absolutely nothing birdwise behind the cunningly-designed bird blind that looked over the small tract of marsh, and the Moorhens had disappeared. I did spot what I was pretty sure was a Greenfinch, but pretty sure isn’t good enough to add a bird to the old life list when you’re unfamiliar with the avifauna of the entire country.

Shortly thereafter, I veered off the road and crashed into a fence.

Happily, the fence was not electrified and had no pointy bits. It was just a bit of wire strung through some weeds and fixed to posts. I didn’t sustain any serious injuries, nor did the bike. It did put a damper on my mood for the rest of the trip back, though.

We got our bikes returned just in time to find the bike shack still open, and just in time to restore ourselves to a civilized state through the judicious application of tea and little sandwiches. Also just in time to miss the last bus that would have taken us directly to our destination had we but known of its existence in the morning, instead of deducing it from passing it a dozen times on the road. Ah well.

There was still another bus that went within a few miles of the Head. It dropped us at the end of a bucolic road, with a sidewalk that quickly tapered out and left us walking through along the sides of vast fields full of shaggy, odd-eyed sheep, or rich stands of what looked like excellent hay. There were few cars, and where the road plunged briefly into the woods we passed a complex of slate-roofed buildings and a pair of large, rather dangerous-looking pigs. A vast crowd of assorted black birds circled overhead, accumulating for their evening roost. For the first time, I really felt England – farmland is flesh, and I finally had some under my shoes.

The great chalk cliffs rose ahead of us. A cheery little pub sat at the bottom, and a lighthouse at the top. Of course, the cliff in question still wasn’t actual goddamn Beachey Head, but the sun was going down, and what the hey? We climbed.

At the top, we got blown by the wind and we watched the sun set.

Not Beachey Head

On the way back to the bus stop, a Wood Pigeon called….

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If you grow up bookish in America, chances are you’ll know a lot about British birds and wildlife without really meaning to. You’ll read Beatrix Potter and C. S. Lewis and The Secret Garden and who knows what all, and before you know it you’re well-informed, albeit in a purely theoretical way about Skylarks and Mistlethrushes and proper Robins and Nightingales and Turtledoves, to say nothing of badgers. And dwarves. There are dwarves in Britain, right? I mean, I didn’t see any, but I assume they’re nocturnal.

So, okay, incidental knowledge from fictional tales is not enough. Someday, you’ve got to see the real thing. And thus, with high hopes, I tucked my binoculars and an ancient field guide into my bag as I packed and lugged them to JFK airport, en route to London.

We landed at Heathrow early in the morning, and after indulging the Inimitable Todd’s fancies with a breakfast at Wolseley’s, we staggered past Buckingham Palace. I already had my eye out for birds, and a good thing; I looked up in time to see a Sparrowhawk (an extremely sexy little accipiter) cruise over, apparently headed for Hyde Park. I hadn’t even put down my bags yet, and there was life bird #1!

The next day, we headed to the Museum of Natural History with something special in mind.



This gallant creature was stuffed in what I must say was a very archaic display of extinct birds, and almost totally overshadowed by the nearby Dodos. All the visitors kept exclaiming over those big silly doves. The IT got quite indignant on my behalf.

The other highlight of the case was a pair of Imperial Woodpeckers, the Ivorybill’s lesser-known and probably even deader cousin. The bird hall on the whole gave me mixed feelings – the ponderous, dark-wood decor and ranks of glass cases packed with specimens were quaint, and I was engaged because I dig that sort of thing, but I didn’t feel that it was well-calculated to capture the interest and much-needed outrage of the coming generation (or even the current one.) The displays on mammals were considerably better in this regard, particularly those on cetaceans. Still, as I said, I couldn’t help but feel a sneaking fondness for the retro case filled with albino and partially-albino birds, or the commendable honesty of the sad display packed with what looked like hundreds of faded hummingbirds who laid down their lives for a curiosity cabinet.

After the museum, we took a stroll down to the park and my bird-spotting began in earnest. Right off the bat, a gorgeous male Blackbird popped out of some shrubbery and provided excellent looks at his bright yellow beak and American Robin-like physiognomy. In the park proper, I soon spotted what would prove to be the thematic bird for the rest of the trip, in the same way that the Osprey was the thematic bird of the Palm Harbor trip.

I present… the Wood Pigeon:

These guys were everywhere. Robust enough to actually make me feel sorry for the Rock Doves, they nevertheless charmed my socks off with their white collars and rosy-gray waistcoats and classic throaty calls. The also looked, much as I hate to say it, remarkably edible.

The park also provided a plethora of Eurasian Coot and House Martins, as well as a troupe of feral Ring-necked Parakeets and a number of ducks of murky and disreputable origin. I was already five birds up, and the exciting part of my journey was yet to come…

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You know what’s another excellent non-extinct bird? The Pied Wagtail.