Work your patch

How a chance sight­ing of two birds prompted one man to put pen to pa­per

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: PAUL BROOK

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

Red­start

JAY Per­haps a Jay will turn up on Paul’s patch once again

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