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Birding Brits Abroad – part 2

October 28, 2012

This article was published in the October 2012 issue of Birdwatch magazine.

 In part two of his encounters with birding Brits abroad, Mark James Pearson visits two very different local patches on foreign shores, and hears why they’re so special from the ex-pats who chose them.

Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

Anna's Hummingbird

Anna’s Hummingbird

Anyone who’s visited the Pacific north-west, birder or not, can’t fail to have been overwhelmed by its natural beauty. It’s a truly magical part of the world, inherently wild and still largely untamed, with the sweeping landscapes, dramatic coast and swathes of wilderness that provide documentary makers with a font of beautiful footage.

It took us a little while to work out why it feels strangely like home there, but any self-respecting Brit knows – and even more so if you’re a birder – that it’s all about the weather. Temperate, damp, often overcast, and with winds and precipitation straight from the ocean, it’s easy to be struck by the parallels – although if there’s anywhere as heart-stoppingly beautiful on such a grand scale in Lancashire, I must’ve missed it (Blackpool excluded of course).

Harlequin

Harlequin

Which can’t have been lost on Jon Carter, ex-pat Lancastrian and resident of Vancouver Island. Well known in his native region through his long-standing involvement with the county birding scene, Jon made the big move a couple of years ago, relishing the prospect of a new challenge (despite its meteorological similarities): “The thought of going back to basics, learning myriad calls and songs, and becoming familiar with the local status of species, and the movements of migrants, etc. all combined to make the prospect a thrilling and overwhelming one”.

The island – a two-hour ferry ride from the mainland with a view that takes in snow-capped mountain ranges, the city of Vancouver skyline, and plenty of Glaucous-winged Gulls – is almost the region in microcosm; pretty much everything is there, from ancient redwood forests harbouring Pacific Wrens to the jagged, surf-smashed coastlines so beloved of Harlequins.

Wilson's Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Jon settled in the small city of Naniamo, quickly gravitating towards the habitat that naturally connected him with his birding back home, the river estuary. Soon turning up plenty of local scarcities (from Cinnamon Teal and Palm Warbler to Bullock’s Oriole and Mountain Bluebird), more importantly he was able to get to grips with good numbers of wildfowl, gulls, shorebirds, raptors and waders. “I was now seeing birds on a daily basis that I had spent hours travelling to see back in Britain!”

But while the move was made easier by the lack of language barrier, Jon admits that the fact that birding is “very much a minority pastime has made settling quite difficult at times”. Magazine racks reflect this only too clearly: “The shelves groan under the weight of publications dedicated to killing birds and animals using an extraordinary range of brutal weaponry.

The few birding mags that do exist are frankly naff. As a result one meets very few people with a passion for birding, and I often have awkward conversations with people who struggle to figure out why anyone would even be interested in birds”.

Wood Duck

Wood Duck

He shares a sentiment with plenty of other ex-pat birders I’ve come across around the world, regarding an element of our culture that we arguably take somewhat for granted while in the thick of it here in the UK, and which evidently becomes more valued with distance. As Jon explained: “I miss that sense of a large, coherent and active birding community that is easily found in many parts of the UK. People in Britain ‘get’ birds – they appreciate them as part of their daily landscape, and while they may not all fully understand the appeal of birdwatching they are at least aware of it as a popular pastime”.

At the same time, after a while scratching the surface Jon uncovered a small but thriving local birding community. “Thankfully, we now live in an era of blogs, Yahoo groups and forums, and as a consequence I was able to tap into local birding resources and figure out who was who on the local birding scene”. Having recently moved a little further south to Victoria, he received a warm welcome from local birders and settled in quickly.

Audubon's Warbler

Audubon’s Warbler

With a new urban patch close to home incorporating an area of largish area of Garry Oak bluffs (a now rare localised habitat) that’s already coming up with the goods, Jon is well occupied. In addition to a wide range of common residents, “Good numbers of flycatchers and warblers pass through, and in the year that I’ve been covering it I’ve been fortunate enough to find local scarcities including Lazuli Bunting, Western Wood-pewee, Western Tanager and Townsend’s Solitaire”.

His parting words of consolation: “At least when birding in the UK you don’t have to worry about coming face to face with things that might like to eat you, such as bears, cougars or wolves……..“

Jon’s exploits can be followed at britbirderinbc.blogspot.co.uk/

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Chestnut-backed Chickadee

Extremadura, Spain

In contrast, the expansive, sun-drenched Spanish province of Extremadura is about as far from an occluded front as you can imagine, and finding a tubenose here is probably more likely than finding a local who speaks English. Neither of which concerned Steve Fletcher in the slightest.

For various reasons, mostly work-related, ‘home’ became less and less valid both physically and figuratively, and it came down to a simple choice of not if, but where. Having birded in the region before and fallen in love with it, it wasn’t a hard decision for Steve, as anyone who’s been lucky enough to experience the region and its birds will easily appreciate.

Red-rumped Swallows

Red-rumped Swallows

Being based in a village nestling below the hills of the Sierra de Montanchez has its advantages, to say the least – as well as being ideally located and extremely pretty, it has rich and varied habitats on tap. Imagine the hill behind your house rising to over 3000 ft and holding three breeding eagle species, as well as very common birds such as Golden Oriole, Eagle Owl and Blue Rock Thrush, and you get the picture.

Being so close the the UK, exceptionally bird-rich (in both quality and quantity) and with pretty much permanently bright and clement weather, Extremadura has an almost unique combination that British birders understandably find hard to resist; and critically, the region’s agricultural methods are still very much of traditional nature, commonly involving small communities farming rich and fertile lands.

Hoopoe

Hoopoe

Having a birder in their midst provokes differing reactions from the neighbours. “They think I’m a bit strange, going out every day to watch and photograph birds – the only birds they see are through the sights of a shotgun, but they are gradually understanding why I do this. The kids bring me the nestlings that fall from the nest, broken eggs to identify, Praying Mantises, and of course snakes (not my favourite).”

But while the culture may be hugely different in some respects, overall Steve has found his new community to be especially accommodating. “The people here are very friendly – I’ve been welcomed with open arms, I’m invited to anything that happens here, and into people’s homes for meals – a high honour for a stranger”.

Thekla Lark

Thekla Lark

The birding community spirit lamented by Jon in Canada and other ex-pat birders around the world is just as distant for Steve, and the dearth of fellow observers in such a productive but large area makes for a solitary pursuit: “small numbers of local Spanish birders means anything rare has to be self found, and due to the lack of coverage many rarities must go unseen; but I’ve found Pallid Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard and Baillon’s Crake, so not doing too bad in a province twice the size of Wales.”

But with well over 300 sunny days a year, “life is very easy”, and the birding is exceptional. “Being the raptor capital of Europe, I’ve personally seen 23 raptor species in a day (and that was dipping a couple of easy ones); and in stark contrast, many species which are suffering in the UK – such as Corn Bunting, Nightingale and Cirl Bunting – are extremely common (but a Greenfinch will bring oohs and ahhs). Everyday sightings of Great and Little Bustard, Black-bellied and Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Squacco, Purple and Night Herons tend to make you a little blasé about the riches to be found here”.

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Spanish Imperial Eagle

Steve has an interesting perspective on the increasingly popular bird tours in Extremal, which evidently vary greatly in quality and relative benefits to the local communities. “April and May are the most popular months for the operators, and it does get annoying when a tour can be led by someone who has never even visited before, and yet there are sufficient local guides with expert knowledge and superb identification skills to be found here.

He’s heard through the local grapevine that guides will soon have to be approved and licensed by the Government, “which can only be a good thing for the local economy, and also for the customers paying a lot of hard earned money to visit this wonderful province. I’m sure their experiences here will be greatly enhanced.”

Steve’s excellent photo blog can be found at www.extremaduraphotos.webs.com

Mark James Pearson

All words & pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2012

Spanish Sparrow

Spanish Sparrow

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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