Sunday, September 30, 2018

New Birds in the Old World: Europe, Part 1: Edinburgh and York

For the past several years we’ve been taking an epic, breakneck, jam-packed vacation during our summers. Last year was a two-week roadtrip all up and down California where we visited half-a-dozen National Parks, which, <agonized groan>, we haven’t written any posts about. This year it was back to Europe, where we spent a week in the UK, followed by a week in Finland. It wasn’t all birding while we were over there, but I wager you’ll agree that we did okay for ourselves.

Common Kingfisher

A view of Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden

Lesser Black-backed Gull - the default gull throughout much of Edinburgh

Our journey began in Edinburgh, where we spent our first morning at the Royal Botanic Garden, strolling the grounds with a college friend and her husband. The gardens were lovely (fit for a queen, as the name suggests) and contained a variety of habitats, albeit heavily manicured. Our first lifer of the trip was a late Common Swift on our way in, the only one we’d see the entire trip.

Common Swift - the only one during our trip!

Another view of Edinburgh's Royal Botanic Garden

Eurasian Blackbird

Possibly the ugliest bird I've ever seen

Common Wood-Pigeons were easy to find here, as at most parks. They’re quite a bit larger than feral pigeons, and were more abundant around Edinburgh than either feral pigeons or Eurasian Collared-Doves.

Common Wood-Pigeon

Me, totally crushing a Common Wood-Pigeon

A narrow strip of wetland in the gardens was home to a Eurasian Moorhen family, including several babies and their oversized feet. They all came right up to the edge of the water, so close that most folks were able to get photos with their phones. These are nearly identical to the Common Gallinules we get in America, and the differences are subtle. In the photo of the adult below, you can make out the narrower, more rounded red shield, as well as the more extensive yellow on the lower mandible.

Eurasian Moorhen moorhenlet

Eurasian Moorhen expressing its love for water lillies

The bird we were probably most surprised and excited to find that day hadn’t even lived in nearly two hundred years. After lunch we headed to the National Museum where they have a really top-rate natural history collection. Among it’s most famous residents is Dolly the Sheep, but equally notable is a Scaly-throated Earthcreeper collected by Darwin himself, during his voyage on the HMS Beagle!!!

Dolly the sheep!!
Scaly-throated Earthcreeper, collected by Charles Darwin himself in Chile, 1835
Black-headed Gulls

Black-headed Gull

Our plan for the following day was to wake up earlyish and start birding at Holyrood Park. The plan was also for it not to rain all goddamn day, but it did anyway. We tried to wait it out by touring Holyrood Palace first, and ended up finding our lifer Jackdaws while walking the palace gardens. We didn’t make much headway into the park but navigated to the nearest body of water, hoping for Whooper Swans. No Whoopers, but quite a number of Mute Swans. We also managed our best looks of Tufted Ducks and a brief flash of Gray Wagtail.

Mute Swans... countable Mute Swans!

Tufted Ducks

Tufted Duck

We explored Edinburgh Castle later on. Not a birdy place, by any means, but we looked out past the castle walls at one point and found a Eurasian Sparrowhawk getting mobbed by at least eight magpies. Or were the magpies getting chased down by the sparrowhawk? They seemed to go back-and-forth, alternating the roles of pursuer and pursued. The melodrama played out for several minutes without any conclusion forthcoming. I should note that I was lugging around our big lens (150-400mm) all day, which got wet despite hiding under my raincoat most of the time. Some moisture got under the glass and started fogging up the inside of the lens. This caused us no small amount of panic, and put the lens out of commission for long stretches while we packed it in rice. It took a couple of days, but eventually got it back in working order.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk engaged in battle with a mob of Eurasian Magpies

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

Eurasian Magpie

Orkney was next on our itinerary. However, since that definitely deserves a post of it’s own, I’ll skip ahead slightly to York. I spent three months here doing a term abroad way back in 2001, well before my birding days. We started our first morning in the Yorkshire Museum Gardens and I was able to discover all the birds I could have seen when I lived here, had I only thought to look. Besides Blue Tits, Great Tits, Dunnocks, Robins, Blackbirds, etc. we found our lifer Song Thrush – and all within view of St. Mary’s Abbey.

European Robin

Graylag Geese - not domesticated geese, like they are in the U.S.


Eurasian Blue Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit

Our best bit of Yorkshire birding was Staveley Nature Reserve. Unfortunately, the rain never let up here either and we decided to leave our gear in the car, rather than risking a repeat of our earlier misadventure of the waterlogged lens. It was chilly and our binoculars were fogged up, but we were able to settle down in a bird blind, and that’s when our fortune changed. Shorebirds started settling onto a mud patch separating to two halves of a pond that used to be one big pond before this summer’s drought. Eventually we had a European Golden-Plover, a couple of Ruffs, and a dozen Northern Lapwings. A Common Pochard was visible at the very farthest edge of the water. A bad look, but unmistakable among the native waterfowl. Best of all was a Water Rail that popped out from among the cattails, which alternated between skulking and sudden bursts of activity out in the open. Of course we don’t have photos to show for any of this, so you’ll have to take our word for it.

On our way out of Yorkshire we made a final stop in Whitby, along the coast of the North Sea. Near the abbey ruins we found this European Goldfinch with a half dozen others.

European Goldfinch


  1. Glad to hear your lens is okay. Looking forward to part 2

    1. Thanks, Jacquelin! It was a tense few days waiting for the rice to do it's job, but it all turned out okay in the end. Looking forward to sharing highlights from the rest of our trip!