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...
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.
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.
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
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.