Sunday, 1 June 2014

My patch from patch

My other half will tell you that I'm lucky to be with her, and she's right! I'm lucky for all the obvious reasons, but also, because my other halfs family are French, which means that I've had the pleasure of getting to know a particular little corner of France very well over the last few years. It's become my second patch.

It's an unremarkable part of the world (although admittedly, it's quite pretty!) - a km or so of road through rural south west Franceshire, but my one or two visits per year have thrown the odd surprise my way.

The regular breeding birds would be a mouthwatering list of goodies in the UK but is exactly what you'd expect for that part of the world. Serin, black kite, short toed treecreeper and cattle egret are all local breeders - and black shouldered kite are a mere 20 km away, but have so far avoided me on patch. Other nearby breeders wander my way from time to time and include honey buzzard, booted eagle, and hobby. It's outside the breeding season that the best birds occur, however.

On my first ever trip, in winter, I was delighted to find rock buntings hopping around in the stubble fields among cirl buntings, and big flocks of chaffinches and Brambling with the odd serin thrown in for good measure. Flocks of woodlarks went over occasionally and the odd hen harrier and Merlin spooked the masses. More recent winters have also delivered close encounters and some real quality time with hawfinches - a species I don't see enough if at home.

However, the biggest surprises have been during passage.  Being an east coast birder I'm familiar with falls, but I'd had no prior experience of them inland. After heavy rain in spring and autumn you can pretty much guarantee that there will be a smattering of interesting additions to the local black redstarts and blackcaps. I've a theory about why this happens - the proximity of the Pyrenees must play a role, blocking birds on their way south in autumn, and creating blocking weather for those that set off northbound from the sunnier side of the chain in spring. Why it happens is not too important though - it's just great to be there when it does! Nightingale, pied flycatcher, wryneck, melodious warbler are regular and can appear overnight in good numbers. More recent additions to the patch list on my last trip included whitethroat and red backed shrike, and other one offs have been golden oriole, redstart, Montagu's harrier, tree pipit, and water pipit. Not a bad selection for a few walks down a lane!

It was one of these stormy evenings that delivered the biggest surprise. I was sitting watching the rainclouds approaching when a familiar but unfamiliar call approached high up. Looking up I was struck by a long tailed shape whizzing over in a straight line. Up went the bins to reveal a bright green bird - which for some reason took what seemed like an age to compute. It was a ring necked parakeet! Fair enough, it could have cage hopped from just down the road, but it was doing exactly what all the pipits and wagtails had been doing before it, so I prefer to think it was on the move.

Do you have a second patch? Mine keeps me entertained on holiday, has given me loads of pleasant surprises, and made me think about the mechanisms behind migration and falls in a context far removed from that I'm used to. It's also inspired me to get into butterflies - which take up as much of my time as the birds do these days when I'm in France these days. Patching can add so much to your holidays, as well as your time at home!

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