Friday, 4 January 2013

Patch of the Day - Patch birding (over rather too many years) – Alastair Forsyth

I’ve pretty much always been a patch watcher, I don’t have the temperament for twitching it seems, finding the whole activity frustrating, irritating and usually (in my case) futile, I rarely seem to see what I go to twitch.
My first proper patch was Bough Beech Reservoir in Kent, but that was a patch which belonged to other folk too. I also spent a lot of time at Dungeness but that didn’t really seem like a patch (despite it having The Patch). Then I moved out of the South of England again and I was asked to do some survey work on a corner of the Derwent Ings. That was more like a patch, and although I didn’t visit it that often, it was a special place that was rarely birded by anyone else. I found a Firecrest there one day, that was the birding highlight, but I best remember it for the stoat family I watched playing in front of me for half an hour one sunny afternoon, they were almost running over my legs at times, and for the roe deer fawn that I chanced upon one evening.
I moved to Leeds, then spent a year and a half in Kathmandu. Our Patan roof top was ace for raptor watching, and then when we moved into the city itself our tiny garden held gems like Blyth’s Reed Warbler, Dusky Warbler and Olive-backed Pipit, but I wasn’t there long enough to really establish a patch.
We came back to Yorkshire and bought a place in the valleys, near Hebden Bridge; and this is where the madness began. For some reason I decided I would put in most of my birding effort in the area I could walk to around our house. For eleven years I birded Withen’s Clough.  Towards the end of this time I did venture further afield, weekends at Filey and Flamborough, and vismig at the nearby Baitings Reservoir but for the first five years at least, other than the odd trip abroad, I was birding Withen’s Clough.  And what, you might be thinking, was the outcome of this lunacy, what were the star birds? Over eleven years I watched Tree Pipit and Whinchat populations crash, although Ring Ouzel remained steady (they’ve subsequently pretty much gone I’m told). I enjoyed nesting Merlins from our kitchen window. I got excited about the occasional Marsh and Hen Harriers, I watched Raven and Nuthatch colonise and Yellowhammer hang on. I discovered breeding Grasshopper Warblers, Long-eared and Short-eared Owls. My best migrants were Spotted Redshank, Jack Snipe, Bar-tailed Godwit and a brilliant trumpet tooting Bullfinch. One winter we were swamped with redpolls but I just could not nail the Arctic that I was pretty certain was amongst them. And one magical afternoon my gull roost served up a Caspian Gull (which I was asked to submit and it was then summarily rejected; rarity committees, pah! I ask you…), this before the days when carrying a bird snapping digital camera was really possible let alone my habit, as it is today. So that was Withen’s Clough. The thing was the patch was around our home, everything I saw “counted” and rarity was relative. There is something very attractive about birding like this.
We moved to North Yorkshire and I established three  patches, one around our home again, one at Kettleness on the coast and one at Scaling Dam Reservoir. Now this was a bit more like it you’ll be thinking. Well yes it was in many ways. And the full story can be read here:  because by then blogging had come along. The house and garden patch was especially interesting, probably more for invertebrates than birds, I just wish I’d bought a proper moth trap. The birding  garden list got to 71, and included Great Grey Shrike and Goshawk, and the tetrad to 90.
Four years in North Yorkshire and the feet got itchy. The birding was pretty good, but maybe we could do better. A chance came up to work on Orkney and we went for it. Louise chose our home patch, because she came up and bought the house whilst I stayed in Yorkshire working and looking after the girls. I just saw the pictures and reckoned it would be ok. I don’t think I could have chosen better, well something on Start Point might have been good but getting to work might have been tricky. Although we’re as far from the sea as you can be on Orkney, about 8km, we’re in a sheltered spot with mature Sycamore trees, mostly in our neighbour’s garden, and a great view over several lochs and lochans. We have the moors behind us to the north, and the wetlands and grazing below us to the south. Despite the distance from the coast, the trees bring the migrants in, our feeders hold birds here and bring them to view, and the lochs and lochans provide plenty of good habitat to search for waders and ducks. I also have a patch on the coast, Palace and the Brough of Birsay, and I’ll define that for the Patchwork Challenge too as I’m going to give that a bit of welly next year. It has huge potential, despite being on the north-west corner of Mainland (Orkney), but it is seriously underwatched.
Despite the number of rare birds found on Orkney each year they do not generally just fall into your lap. The impressive lists of super-rares on North Ronaldsay and South Ronaldsay, in particular,  are a testament to hard graft. Most of Orkney has high potential but there are relatively few observers for a place with a lot of choice spots for birding. The reason that I’ve seen some pretty decent birds from my home patch is that I’m giving it regular scrutiny and the bins are never far from hand. Also, making the effort to drive the 10 or 15 minutes to Palace and The Brough when the weather is right, or even when it isn’t, and then spending time about does bring results. This year’s been pretty good, and that’s with some quite significant lapses, so I’m gearing up for a patch race with myself between my two patches, and with the rest of you in 2013.
My full Orkney birding story so far is told here:

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