Work your patch
How a chance sighting of two birds prompted one man to put pen to paper
Birding your own local area is not only fun, it can throw up all sorts of surprises
I’VE KEPT A life list ever since I got a notebook with my copy of Bird Watching magazine a few years ago, and have been keeping lists of the birds I’ve seen on my outings for more than a decade. But it’s only since I stumbled across an unexpected Nuthatch in a local park that I’ve ventured into patch listing. And it took a New Year’s Day revelation while watching a Bullfinch in my parents’ garden to tempt me into my first year list. I was admiring the splendid male Bullfinch as he perched on a feeder, and the thought just popped into my head – why don’t I start a year list?
I’ve been interested in birds since I was eight years old, and I’ve seen enough birds in my lifetime for it to be increasingly hard to add new ones to my life list. Lifers (the first time you encounter such a species) are without doubt the most illustrious and exciting birds, but the quest to find them can be extremely frustrating. The year list would add a bit of fresh impetus and extra incentive, proving there’s more to life than lifers. It’s a great way to value every species, as if seeing it for the first time, and not just the best-looking ones. When else would you get a
surge of excitement at spotting a Starling, or discovering a Dunnock? The year list means I get some kind of compensation for a day spent trying and failing to find rarities – something that happens to me all too often. For example, in May, I finally had an opportunity to go to Filey, one of my favourite spots on the Yorkshire coast, to see the Surf Scoter that had stayed for an incredible five months.
However, the day I visited was one of three days it had spent elsewhere, and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I moved on to Flamborough, another birding hotspot further down the coast, but thick fog descended and I hardly saw a thing. True to form, the cheeky Surf Scoter turned up again just as I got home that evening, as if to taunt me from afar. But all was not lost – I came away from my trip with Purple Sandpiper, Dunlin, Gannet, Linnet, Ringed Plover, Shag, Guillemot and Stonechat for the year list. Listing also offers a chance to delight in catching up with birds I don’t see very often. In the last few years, I’ve sometimes managed to see a Redstart or Pied Flycatcher on the coast on migration, but one thing I really savoured this spring was watching the males of each species in their breeding season finery. In Strid Wood at Bolton Abbey, I watched several male Pied Flycatchers darting out over the river to grab insects, then returning to a perch above the river bank. They were joined by an absolutely immaculate male Redstart – the kind that always looks improbably striking in a book but is even more beautiful in real life. Then there are those birds that play second fiddle to lifers, the ones I’ve only seen once, and possibly not since childhood trips with the Young Ornithologists’ Club (YOC) – birds like Bittern and Bearded Tit, which are well overdue a second viewing. I’ve managed three of those second-tier species so far this year – Wood Lark, Smew and Mandarin – adding spice to the year mix. One of the great pleasures of listing is that it evokes memories of where I’ve been, what I did and what I saw, especially the lists I make on each birding trip. I also note any interesting mammals, butterflies or reptiles that I see. My year list hasn’t involved a particularly concerted effort so far – no New Year’s Day or midsummer birdathon to ramp up the numbers. It’s just a low-effort way to note and celebrate what I see. But it leaves some scope to think bigger next year – a target to try to beat, if I fancy it.
The joy of patch listing
I’d always resisted the idea of patch listing, or having a patch in general. I didn’t think I’d be able to find time in my crammed, hectic life to regularly visit somewhere to look for birds. But I was walking through the park next to where I work one lunchtime, as I often do, when a Nuthatch suddenly dropped down from a nearby Strid Wood, Bolton Abbey
Listing also offers a chance to delight in catching up with birds I don’t see very often. In the last few years, I’ve sometimes managed to see a Redstart or Pied Flycatcher on the coast on migration, but one thing I really savoured this spring was watching the males of each species in their breeding season finery
tree to feed on the ground. In 10 years of walking round that park, I had never seen one. Was it a new visitor or had there always been Nuthatches lurking somewhere not far away? And it occurred to me that other birds might sometimes be popping into the park without me seeing them. That’s when it hit me – of course, I already had a patch!
Spare time birding
It didn’t have to be a nature reserve. It didn’t have to mean squeezing a birding trip into my day at some undesirable hour. I could regularly spend half an hour, or even five minutes, there and still have some chance of seeing birds. My patch list gradually started to build up. I knew from past experience what I was likely to see, and have gradually found most of the likely suspects. It’s taken a long time to find some of the birds I thought would be easy ticks. From a September start, it took me until the following May to encounter a Greenfinch, but the wait made me appreciate the handsome little fellow a whole lot more. I haven’t counted birds that I’ve seen before – just ones that I’ve seen since starting the list, and that’s meant there is still an element of challenge. One day, a Kingfisher might return to the pond. Perhaps another Jay will show up. Maybe next winter I’ll be able to find redpolls and Siskins again. Surely the habitat is ripe for a Brambling. There are also birds that I’d expect to turn up at some point but have never seen in the park. Waxwings have been known. Peregrines frequent York Minster, so it’s not inconceivable that they’d drift over to my part of town. I’ve seen Whitethroats and Blackcaps just a few hundred yards away on the river bank. The scrub around the far end of the park is perfect habitat for that pair. Up the road, at Rawcliffe Country Park, there are resident Tree Sparrows and Reed Buntings, and winter flocks that can include Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings. One spring, I saw my only Lesser Whitethroat, there. Might one of these make the short journey across a few fields to become one of my patch ticks? Spring and autumn migration bring fresh influxes of birds, and the potential for something unexpected to turn up. But there is one prize I have in mind above all others. I see a lot of Goldcrests on my patch. I love them. Every one is a joy to see. But if a Firecrest – probably my number one bogey bird – were to join them, well… A lifer on my own patch would be a pretty special hat-trick of list ticks.
My patch list started to build up. I knew from past experience what I was likely to see, and have gradually found most of the likely suspects
HOME COMFORTS Birding your own local patch can throw up ‘year list’ surprises
LUNCHTIME BIRDING Paul can often be found birding his local patch during his lunch hour
JAY Perhaps a Jay will turn up on Paul’s patch once again