Overseas Travel and Urban Birding — Part 1: England

April 17, 2016. Departing for London, England

Liz and I are preparing to head to Europe to visit friends and family and to do a little birding. We are excited about what we will experience, but for now we are busy with last minute annoyances (like realizing that my luggage is 2 inches too long for the current rules for airline carry-on bags).

We started our trip with a long night in the McCarran International Airport (Las Vegas). Our international flight departed at 5 AM, so we needed to be there by 2 AM (they say to arrive 3 hours early for international flights). We decided to take the last city bus (which would get us there by 11:30 PM) and just spend the night in the airport.

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Liz sleeping in the airport

April 18, 2016. Traveling to London, England

We caught our standby fight at 0510 hrs headed to Chicago. We were the last two standby passengers to get on, and they made us check baggage because the overhead bins were full. However, I forgot and left my lithium camera batteries in by now-checked luggage, a violation of federal law these days. On the flight, which was uneventful, we sat separately with Liz several rows ahead of me.

In Chicago, we recovered our bags and extracted the batteries, but had to go through security again, which is always annoying. After some food and time to relax, we got on our London-bound flight.

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Signboard in Chicago — only three standby passengers

The flight to London departed at 1625 hrs and was only half-full, so we had no trouble getting on except that the gate agent never called standby passengers and we almost missed the flight. During the flight, it was fun watching the landscape, and darkness overtook us as we bid farewell to the coast of Labrador and started out over the Atlantic.

We sat in the first row of coach, so we had a flat bulkhead in front of us and little leg room, but at least nobody laid their seat back in our faces. During the flight, they played movies all night, and we were so close to the screen that the light kept us awake most of the night.

April 19, 2016. London, England

We arrived London about 0630 hrs, made it through customs and immigration, and took the Underground (Mind the Gap!) to within walking distance of Cathy and Peter’s (my sister and her husband’s) flat in an older part of London.

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After resting a bit, Liz and I walked down to St. Paul’s Cathedral and then crossed the Thames River to the south bank. We visited Shakespeare’s Old Globe Theater, walked along the river, went into the Tate Art Museum, and got a take-away lunch to eat in some little park. We saw lots of birds. Dinner in a delightful, small Italian place a 15 minute walk from the flat.

Birds of the Day:

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St. Paul’s Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral–Willow Warbler (1), European Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, European Blue Tit, eastern gray squirrel

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Thames River

Thames River–Lesser Black-backed Gull 5; Great Black-backed Gull 1; Carrion Crow, Feral Pigeon

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Old Globe Theater

Globe Park– Herring Gull 5; Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 5; Common Wood-Pigeon 2; Eurasian Magpie 1; Eurasian Blue Tit 2; European Greenfinch 2; European Goldfinch 1

April 20, 2016. London, Kew Garden

The morning was brisk, in the 40s, when Peter took Hulky and me for a morning walk. We saw some nice little urban parks with a few birds including European Blackbird, Feral Pigeon, Dunnock, and European Wren. We also walked by their old flat.

Later, Cathy, Liz, and I took the subway to the Kew Royal Botanical Garden, a bucket-list item for Liz. We stopped and picked up some great sandwiches (salami and brie on fresh-baked roll) before entry. We walked a long ways on the grounds and visited two greenhouses, George III’s summer house, and the tree-top runway. We saw lots of cool plants and birds. Perhaps the most interesting plant was a cycad potted in 1775. Peter cooked a nice pasta dinner for us.

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April 21, 2016. London, Downtown Parks

Liz and I took the bus downtown to where we had turned back on our previous river walk (April 19th). From the bus stop, we continued upstream under the London Eye and across Westminster Bridge past Big Ben. We thought about visiting Westminster Abbey, but it cost about $30 each, so we decided instead to visit the smaller St. Margaret’s Church (free). St. Margaret’s was constructed in the late 1000s (late 11th century) and has been fixed up several times, but it remains similar to the original. People liked to be buried inside the church, and nearly every space is given over to crypts. All of the walls have crypts, and even the isles between the pews are crypts. With people walking on the floor over the centuries, the names and dates of people buried below often are nearly worn smooth.

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From St. Margaret’s Church, we continued across Parliament Square and walked to St. James Park. We spent several hours watching native and non-native waterfowl and recorded a total of 36 species. Among the Queen’s collection of waterfowl, we saw lots of ducks and geese, including Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Graylag Goose, Barnacle Goose, Canada Goose, Red-breasted Goose, Mute Swan, Black Swan, Egyptian Goose, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Red-crested Pochard, Common Goldeneye, Smew, and Hooded Merganser. We also saw a few native species of waterfowl, including Common Shelduck, Mallard, Common Pochard, and Tufted Duck that all come in to live with the captive species.

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We saw some fun species of water birds, including Little Grebe, Great Crested Grebe, and Great Cormorant, White Pelican, Gray Heron, Eurasian Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Herring Gull, and Lesser Black-backed Gull. Land birds included Common Wood-Pigeon, feral Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Long-tailed Tit, and Eurasian Blackbird.

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Towards the end of the day, we wandered over towards Buckingham Palace, but it was so crowded with tourists that we used our binoculars to observe from afar (preparations for the birthday of the Queen). Eventually we started for home via Trafalgar Square, visiting cultural sites along the way. We stopped to see the statue of the explorer Captain Cook, the Admiralty Arch, and Trafalgar Square.

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We eventually took the city bus back home. After a quick takeout dinner, we all headed back downtown to St Martin’s Theatre to see an Agatha Christie play called “The Mousetrap.” It was a fun murder mystery. The Mousetrap opened in 1952 and has been running continuously since then, so it was a real fixture in that area.

April 22, 2016. London to Dover, England

Cathy, Peter, Liz, and Jim took a trip to the southeast coast of England and the town of Dover, stopping to visit Canterbury Cathedral along the way.

We took an early train to Canterbury Cathedral and the town of Dover. Long-distance trains in Europe run really fast, to 150 mph, so the trip to Canterbury took only about an hour. It was fun seeing the urban area of London graded into rural areas and then farm lands. We looked for birds along the way, but the train ran so fast that were only able to identify Carrion Crows and a Little Egret (looks like North American Snowy Egret).

We packed light for the weekend, but we ended up getting off the train in Canterbury and hauling our luggage through town and the cathedral. We had hoped to check our luggage at the train station, but it turned out that we departed from a different station.

We walked through Canterbury to the castle gate. It was interesting to see modern buildings (many restored to look historic) set up against the exterior castle walls. I guess it has been like this since the beginning, but from a US perspective, it was unexpected. In fact, the castle walls were, for the most part, buildings with businesses facing the street.

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Passing through the Cathedral Gate, we deposited our $15/each and headed onto the grounds. The central feature is the Cathedral, but there are many other buildings inside the walls. We proceeded directly into the cathedral and did our own walking tour. It was interesting to see the stained glass windows and architecture. The first cathedral was built here in about AD 597. Wars over the centuries damaged parts, which have been rebuilt, but most of the older stuff seems to date from about AD 1070.

Lots of people are buried inside the Cathedral, perhaps the most famous of whom is Thomas Becket. He was murdered inside the Cathedral in 1170 in an attempt by King Henry II to assert supremacy of the monarch over Church affairs. Supporters built a shrine inside the Cathedral that stood from 1220 until it was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538, but now only a candle burns on the floor where the shrine stood. Other cool dead people in the Cathedral include the Black Prince (Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales) who died in 1376 and would have become King Edward IV if he had survived his father. King Henry IV is buried here, too.

The Cathedral has an extensive collection of historical books. In the crypt below the Cathedral, we got to view a rarely seen 17th century book of Shakespeare’s works , the Second Folio, containing 36 of the 38 plays attributed to Shakespeare (printed in 1632).

One thing that struck me was the graffiti inside the Cathedral, and apparently I only saw a little of it. We work hard at home to protect historical sites from damage, and seeing graffiti scratched into the wall here during the 1600s really annoys me and makes me want to work harder to protect treasures at home.

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Graffiti dated 1667 and 1670 — We don’t remember who TH and RW were, but we curse them to this day!

We departed Canterbury on the train to Dover, another short journey, and as I recall, on a commuter train this time. In Dover, we hauled our luggage downtown looking for a late lunch, but we were between traditional lunch and dinner, and few places were open. We stopped at The Beano Cafe, which had a fair crowd inside. We might be excused for expecting Mexican food, but it was British food cooked by Middle Eastern immigrants. An online TripAdvisor review reads: Eat where the locals eat! Good value. We had fish and chips it was not amazing but still we enjoyed. £5,5 for Cod, chips and peas. I could have written this myself, except to add that the cod was one huge slab of fish.

After eating, we walked up to the B&B: Bleriots Guest House (Bleriot’s Belper House). This was a simple, quiet, and pleasant place to stay, and our room had a wonderful west-facing view across the backyard into a tall tree that was a magnet for birds, especially Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, and European Goldfinch. We also had nice sunset views from the room. Other birds in the B&B yard included Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), European Turtle-Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, and Dunnock. Not a bad list for not really trying.

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In the evening, we ventured out in a light rain to a basement pub for a couple of beers and live music.

April 23, 2016. Dover Castle and White Cliffs of Dover

We started our day with a great breakfast at the B&B. We had quite a few choices, but I took the “full English breakfast,” which included  bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried bread (more like toast dipped in lard and deep fried), sausage, baked beans, coffee, and I’m sure something else. It was a lot of food, and the B&B also provided yoghurt, cereal, juice, milk, and other breakfast foods.

We departed on foot and hiked up to Dover Castle. It turned out that the weekend of April 23-24 is St. George’s Festival where visitors can witness the “ultimate showdown as gallant St George takes on his arch nemesis in England’s most legendary battle.”

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Unfortunately, the morning was bitter cold, with temperatures hovering just above freezing, and windy, so we didn’t spend much time outdoors where we would have “gasped as the lances shattered in the medieval joust; felt the earth tremble as the Norman warriors of 1066 marched to their arena; marveled as feathers flew in the falconry; and chortled at the cheeky jester.” We also didn’t watch fearsome fellows battle it out in the Clash of Knights or visit the Roman gladiator’s arena for displays of courage and might [with some grammar edits].

We did, however, “immerse ourselves into the sights, smells, and sounds of this historical extravaganza.” Perhaps the most notable things we saw were the medieval actors in the cooking and pooping section. These people were real pros and lived the history. The medieval foods lady gave a great talk, put on a grand show, and answered all the questions – in character. The “poop guy” works on internal parasites and put on a memorable show and wide-ranging discussion about poop in the middle ages. Did you know they used urine to make gunpowder?

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Scat-ologist. This guy was a real gem: smart, funny, well educated, and very enthusiastic

After visiting the main castle building, we walked across the grounds to the Roman Lighthouse. This structure, one of a pair, is about 80-ft tall and was build by the Romans in about AD 50, soon after their invasion of England. The outer structure is original, but the lighthouse innards were converted to be used as a bell tower for the adjacent Saxon church (St Mary in Castro) that dates from about AD 600 (although heavily restored to current conditions).

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Roman Lighthouse dating from the first century (note Liz at bottom of lighthouse)

We could have spent all weekend inside the castle, and never even looked at World War II modifications, but we pressed on to our other goal for the day: a walk along the White Cliffs of Dover. We caught a cab from the castle to the White Cliffs trailhead where we were assured we could get a cab for the return trip.

We started off on what would be 4.5 miles of hiking atop the White Cliffs of Dover. The wind was down a bit and the afternoon temperature was up a bit, but a brisk pace was required to stay warm. The trail was well worn as hundreds of people per week walk here, and initially, a well maintained, 5-ft wide gravel trail ran 0.4 miles to a nice overlook with views up the coast along the white cliffs and across the English Channel to France in the distance.

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From there, we continued along the cliffs heading northeast all the way to South Foreland Lighthouse. At the lighthouse, we took an interesting tour of inside. Our guide was very knowledgable about the lighthouse, the history of shipwrecks in the area, and the war history.

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South Foreland Lighthouse (view northeast)

We walked back to the trailhead hoping to relax and warm up with a cup of coffee only to find the facility closed. We also discovered that the city bus had just left for the last time (nobody mentioned that earlier?) and we couldn’t get the taxi to come out. One worker did come out and told us how to walk back to town using a foot trail that was more direct than what the taxi had taken. We were tired, but at least it was all downhill to the harbor. We hailed a taxi there, but the guy refused to take us because of some rules regarding in-town vs. out-of-town taxi rules, so we walked on.

We had intended to go out to a pub in the evening for dinner (The White Horse), but it happened that we walked right by it, so we stopped in to relax and have a pint. This was the pub where everyone who swims the Channel can stop in for a free pint and write their name on the wall. We were surprised by the number of names: they were written everywhere, and some had several dates.

Birds of the day: Northern Fulmar, Great Cormorant, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon), Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Eurasian Jackdaw, Carrion Crow, Sky Lark, Eurasian Blue Tit, Great Tit, European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Dunnock, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, Hawfinch.

April 24, 2016. Dover to London

After another great full English Breakfast without the deep-fried lard bread, we departed on foot heading downtown. Our first stop was the Dover Museum where a lot of history is packed into a fairly small building. The ground floor was mostly ancient history and the Roman Invasion. It is hard to believe that the Romans brought war-elephants across the channel on boats when they invaded England.

The most interesting artifact, however, was a bronze-age boat that dates from about 1550 BC. Yes, that is a wooden boat that is about 3,500 years old! The exhibit and explanations were great, and I was impressed by how complicated the structure was — those people were pretty smart.

After touring the museum, we walked to the waterfront and got aboard the Southern Queen for a 40-minute boat tour of the harbor. We endured a bitter-cold wind and even got a bit of snow and hail on the open-air boat, but it was fun and gave a different view of the White Cliffs of Dover.

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After the harbor tour, we stopped for lunch in a nice restaurant. I forget the name of the place, but the food was tasty and I’d give it a good review. We then caught a cab to the B&B, recovered our bags, and continued to the train station.

Heading towards London on the train, we watched the scenery and the birds pass by. Following along a river, we saw Black-headed Gulls, Gray Herons, and a few ducks, but overall it was another study in changing landscapes: this time from agricultural to rural to urban. After a fun 3-day weekend, it was nice to be “home” with Cathy and Peter.

April 25, 2016. London Parks, Museums, and City Life

After the weekend, Cathy and Peter both headed off to work, and Liz and I rode the city bus towards downtown. We stopped at Hyde Park, an enormous city park, to do some walking and urban birding. They had some nice water features and lots of trees, and for not really trying, we made a pretty good list of birds in Hyde Park: Canada Goose, Mute Swan, Mallard, Tufted Duck, Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Moorhen, Herring Gull, Rock Pigeon, Common Wood-Pigeon, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Eurasian Magpie, Carrion Crow, Eurasian Blue Tit, and Eurasian Blackbird.

We eventually wandered over to the Wallace Collection, Liz’s brother’s favorite museum in London. It was a classy place: (edited from the Wikipedia page): The Wallace Collection is an art collection that includes a range of fine and decorative arts from the 15th to the 19th centuries with large holdings of French 18th-century paintings, furniture, arms and armor, porcelain, and Old Master paintings. The museum was established in 1897 from the private collection of Richard Seymour-Conway (1800–1870), who left it to his illegitimate son Sir Richard Wallace (1818–1890), whose widow bequeathed the entire collection to the nation. So, during the 1800s, Wallace’s old-man gathered a grand collection of stuff, then Wallace created a museum to show off his inherited collection.

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From the Wallace Collection, we wandered through town looking for some fabric that Liz needed to help Cathy with a minor sewing project.

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Liz in her element: a small, independent fabric shop

During this time, it rained heavily on us, but in one little fabric shop, we were directed to the Liberty Shopping Center, a grand Tudor-revival building built in the 1920s and filled with high-end fashion and luxury homeware. It also had a  large fabric shop. While Liz inspected the wares, I was fascinated by the handmade window frames and window-opening hardware. Looking at the glass and handwork, I was surprised to learn that the building was only built in the 1920s as it seemed much older. The main timbers in the building, however, were reclaimed from two old sailing ships.

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The Liberty building, a faux Tudor-style shopping center built in the 1920s

Back at home, Liz was tickled to join Peter on a walking-trip to their local grocery store. Liz has a great fondness for grocery stores, and it is always interesting to see how other people solve the problems of life.

April 26, Tuesday.  British Museum

Again, Cathy and Peter both headed off to work while Liz and I rode the city bus towards downtown. This time, we went directly to the British Museum and spent all day visiting only a small fraction of the holdings.

We started on the ground floor and visited the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman exhibits. Liz was excited to see the Rosetta Stone, and of course I enjoyed the Greek and Roman goddesses. Much of the large-scale artwork depicted scenes of warfare and power, reinforcing the notion that the history of humanity is the history of war.

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Later, we visited the upper floor where we visited all sorts of collections, including the Mesopotamia Room (6000–1500 BC), the Ancient South Arabia (mostly Yemen) Room (1000 BC–500 AD), Britain and Europe Room (800 BC–AD 43), and others to the modern era.

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In the evening, Peter and Cathy took us out to a great little Indian restaurant. We rode the bus out, visited a bookstore, ate dinner, and walked back to the flat.

The story continues as: Overseas Travel and Urban Birding — Part 2: Germany