Wednesday, 25 November 2015

How to bird a modest patch


We cannot all live at Dungeness, or Spurn, or even back onto a reservoir or sewage farm, so for most of us living at (or very close to) a top birding spot is going to remain the stuff of dreams - although living next door to Staines Reservoir would be the stuff of nightmares for me!

So what do we do? The most obvious course of action would be to get into the car and drive somewhere. When I used to regularly visit Beddington SF and Holmethorpe SPs, they both involved a 25 minute car journey, even though they were a handful of miles away, thanks to the traffic-choked roads of suburbia. I have always wanted to have somewhere properly local, and by that I mean walkable from my front door. To be quite honest, I didn't need to look at an OS map to know that there wasn't a proper 'birdy' place that fitted that bill. Or was there?

It takes me 20-25 minutes to walk to Canons Farm (above) and Banstead Woods. Maybe 20 minutes to stroll up to Epsom and Walton Downs. Neither exactly on my doorstep but then again neither necessitating a car journey (and my green credentials get a boost as a consequence!) To describe Canons Farm as 'non-birdy' is a bit harsh, as I have personally seen such delights as Dotterel, Hen Harrier, Goshawk, Honey Buzzard and Quail there. Epsom and Walton Downs don't have such pedigree, although there are records of Great Grey and Red-backed Shrikes from there, it's just that the best that I have managed is a Peregrine and a Barn Owl.

After plenty of birding over the years, around the hot-spots of the UK, plus several recent long stays at Dungeness, the trick is to be able to turn off the mindset of such birding and switch onto a different way of thinking when walking to these modest patches. I now have some rules...

Manage expectations
It is no good going out with the whiff of rarity and glory in your nostrils. It just isn't going to happen - or at least, it is highly unlikely. It's hard enough to find the goodies when you are at one of the proven hot spots. So accept that, on a good day, you might come across a Ring Ouzel, and if you do, treat it like a Bluetail. Everything is a bonus.

Count
The chances are that you will visit such patches on a regular basis (or at least irregularly with regular bursts!), so build up an intimate knowledge of what is present and the best way of doing that is by counting. Count everything. It gives you something to do on dull days (there will be plenty of those) and it can make an ordinary day seem special. If I get my highest Carrion Crow count for the site I celebrate it like I would a good migrant. It also gives form to what you are doing.

Vary visiting times
Always birding the same place at the same hours will ensure that you will miss some aspect of the patch. Never going late in the day can result in not knowing about roosts. Some visible-migration movements can be over in the first two hours of daylight. Some great hirundine movements don't start until early afternoon. I've had chats arrive mid-morning (and mid-afternoon). So mix it up.

Diversify
Just looking at birds means that you miss out on wondrous things. Not everything else is difficult to identify! Butterflies and flowers are serviced by excellent field guides - there are not many species of butterfly to confuse you and flowers stay still! Embracing other orders can take you as deep as you want to go, and will enliven quiet days, especially during mid-summer

Enjoy
If you find the patch getting a bit stale, that your heart isn't quite into it, then take a break. Go somewhere else, even if that does mean getting into the car. You will come back to it refreshed and appreciative of it. I know that for a fact.

16 comments:

  1. You describe perfectly what getting enjoyment from the countryside and a, "one's own patch" should and can be about. Unfortunately too many blogs and bird reporting sights these days seem to be about people trying to out-bird or out-photograph each other. Everything seems to be about challenging each other and there is little interest or mention of the ordinary any more.

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    1. Derek, I suppose patches are a bit like a partner - you need to keep things fresh for the relationship to survive (I hope my wife doesn't read this!)

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  2. So true! I'm only really interested in seeing birds full stop. The idea of hunting for rarities never occurs.

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  3. In the 15 years I lived in Rickmansworth, Herts, I had the Colne Valley just 10 minutes walk away. Stockers Lake was nearest, but there were other more modest gravel pits adjacent. Off the top of my head I can recall Ring-necked Duck, Blue-winged Teal, Gannet, Red-necked Phalarope, Hen Harrier, SEO, Cattle Egret, Bittern, Hawfinch, Ring Ouzel, Smew, Common Scoter, etc, all within easy walking distance. Oh, and Willow Tit of course! Inland patches can be amazing, and I suppose virtually anywhere can spring a huge surprise! It's a very rare day when there isn't something worth putting in the notebook.

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    1. I can see the influence of water there Gav - neither of my patches has anything beyond a puddle when it rains, which is a limiting factor. But, as you say, the notebook still gets written in.

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  4. Steve, I've been married three times so I guess that makes me a stale old sod, as well as miserable.
    Water does make a huge difference to a site.

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  5. Hi Steve, yes water of some sort is a must really. It gives focus. Without it inland countryside becomes too random. Sure, the same birds have to pass through it, but finding that focus to see them is a needle in a haystack.So, what can you do with out it? Its definitely a case of monitoring the local species, embrace diversity and hope for noteworthy weather to shuffle things up a bit! How about having several patches, in a pattern like a clover leaf with your village in the centre. That way when one gets boring you can move on to the next for a year ? Blue sky thinking eh :-/

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    1. Hi Stewart, water will always be a major absence close to my home. To walk is to accept dry birding! My frequent trips to Dungeness make up for it though, and eases the low expectations to be had locally. However, the butterflies and plants are excellent, truly to a national scale - all within a short walk - so I cannot complain and cannot have it all. Are you up for a repeat patch challenge in 2016?

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    2. Oh this time we can use this years total as the base line, so we have to improve our own patches!

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    3. Agreed! I might still add a couple of species this year, my resolution is still strong...

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  6. I think I might be about done here? I usually save Little Auk till last but they had fallen by Feb this year! I could do with Scaup ( very rare on patch, northerly seawatch reqd), Gadwall is poss, RN, GC and Slav Grebes, but my biggest and most worrying miss of 2015 is Merlin, once a bird seen almost daily from August to December if you put a day on the coast here.
    Watch the weather forecast....

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    1. Already planning for next year Stewart. If I were smart I'd back away from trying to kick up a Woodcock and so keep next year's target figure lower. But I won't.

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  7. Oh I haven't had a Ringed Plover this year!

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