New England Seabirds
My almost eight month tour of Europe began in Paris on May 2, 2003 and ended on December 13 in Athens, Greece. I visited 15 countries and the Rock of Gibraltar. This was not primarily a birding trip, but a birder is always a birder. The best birding was done on the seabird islands off the coasts of Ireland and Wales and on the Orkney and Shetland Islands of Scotland. This report covers these locations. I am also grateful to my old Digital friend Mike Bowman for some fine birding in the Alps around Geneva.
I am a birder who is also interested in history, archeology, art, architecture, music and just anything different. For the birder with other interests or a non-birding travelling companion, I include some sites that anyone may enjoy while visiting the seabirds.
Seabird Breeding Colonies
I actually visited my first seabird breeding colony, the Gannets of Bonaventure Island, years before I took my first pelagic birding trip. As fascinating as seabirds are at sea, they are even more interesting on the breeding grounds.
A major goal of my birding in Europe was to visit the breeding colonies of the Manx Shearwater and the Great Skua. The Manx Shearwater formerly known as the British Shearwater breeds primarily off the coast of Wales and Ireland. There is a small known colony of Manx Shearwaters in North America in Newfoundland. Many Manx Shearwaters visit our New England waters during the summer. My best Manx Shearwater experience was on Skommer Island.
The Great Skua visits our New England waters only in winter. Your best chance of really experiencing these birds is on the breeding grounds in Europe or Iceland. My best experience was on the Shetland Islands.
I also visited colonies of Kittiwakes, Razorbills, Murres, Atlantic Puffins, Fulmars, and Northern Gannets.
Hostels and Getting Around
I traveled by train, bus, ferry boat, rental car and plane. This was not an easy trip. Usually I arrived at the train station and had to figure out how to take public transportation to the hostel. In Berlin this required taking a train two stations, transferring to the subway for a long trip across town, and then taking a bus. Of course I had to haul my own luggage.
For the most part I stayed in youth hostels affiliated with Hosteling International and cooked my own food. The hostels are not just for young people these days (except in Bavaria, part of Germany that includes Munich). In Europe they are used by adults, families with children, school groups, and young adults. They charge per person and range from the equivalent of $13 to $25 per night. You can make reservations on the Internet or within a country one hostel will usually make reservations for you at the next HI hostel. They all take credit cards.
You must adjust to sharing with strangers. Hostels offer common bathrooms and dormitories or rooms for 1- 4 people with or without attached bath. Most dorm rooms have 2-8 bunk beds. Some have up to 20 beds in one room. The beds are usually hard and narrow. Some have rooms for couples. At some hostels you get a locker for which you provide the lock. All require you to have your own towel. Most include clean sheets and a pillowcase. There may be a small extra charge for sheets. Usually you are handed the bed linens when you check in and you make up your own bed. If you don't get a locker you have to be prepared to carry your valuables with you. I always protected my camera, binoculars and wallet by carrying them with me all the time in a backpack. I never had any trouble with anyone getting in my luggage left in a dorm room, but this remains a risk. I usually locked my suitcase to the bed while I was gone. This would not prevent anyone from getting into it, but at least it would be difficult to take the whole suitcase. Most people staying in hostels quickly adjust to shared living. You will too if you try. Snoring and people coming in late can be a problem so learn to use ear plugs.
The hostels are clean and safe. Common areas provide cooking facilities, dining rooms, television, games, and Internet connections. Most European hostels have meals (usually very starchy) at extra cost. The best part of staying in a hostel is that you meet other travelers from all over the world, exchange information and make some wonderful friends. Americans and especially birders should consider hosteling as an inexpensive alternative.
Luggage - Less Is Better and American are notorious for having much stuff
Eight months on trains and buses and you understand why it is called "luggage". My stuff consisted of a medium sized rolling suitcase and a daypack. I carried only a small point and shoot digital camera, the Cannon PowerShot G3. I was also severely limited in the number of books I could haul around. For every country I needed a general tourist guide in English. I was forced to buy these books as I moved and discard them by donating them to the hostel as I left each country. I also carried a small European bird book and made it even smaller by ripping out all the pages except those that described the birds.
Even as light as I traveled I managed a severe injury to my shoulder. Travel light. Leave hair dryers, telescopes and anything you think might come in handy at home. If you really need something you can buy it there. One guide suggested that before you leave home, gather up your luggage and walk up about 3 flights of stairs and then down again. Then repack leaving out anything unnecessary. Test the stairs again. One thing I can promise you is that an extended trip will improve your physical conditioning.
Here are some luggage suggestions. Forget fancy luggage. Buy a rolling duffle bag at Walmart $15 and a medium size backpack for a carry on (binoculars, camera, wallet, prescription drugs). Buy a cloth body safe to wear under your clothes. In it put your passport, backup credit cards, money, drivers license, plane ticket. In your backpack carry only a few Euros and one credit card. Be ready to phone the credit card company if it is stolen by having the phone number in your body safe. Have a second card in your body safe to start using immediately. Don't let your trip be ruined by losing your wallet. I rented cars in several countries and never needed anything other than my New Hampshire drivers license and my passport.
Limit your clothing even your underwear.
Each night wash out your clothes and hang them up to dry.
Once in a while run a load of laundry at the hostel. Remember a
baseball cap identifies you as an American.
If you are leaving the next day and want to take a shower in the morning, take the pillow slip off of your bed and use it as a towel so that you do not have to leave with a wet towel the next day. They are going to wash the pillow slip anyway.
In most hostels you will have a wooden
locker which you secure with your own lock. Many hostels
are closed from 10 AM until 3 PM and everybody has to leave.
If you don't have a locker you will have take all your valuables
with you so leave the telescope at home. I never had my
stuff bothered with in any hostel. If the day's activity
is to tour the Louvre and you don't have a locker, you will have
to carry your binoculars all day.