Birding: The Complete Guide to Local Patch Birding
What Is a Local Patch?
A local patch is basically somewhere close to where you live that you can visit on a regular basis and get to know the birds that live there. A local patch can be anything, whether it be your local park, a small patch of woodland, a lake, gravel pit, estuary, a stretch of coastline or even the top of a mountain. The only real rule when it comes to a local patch is that it has to be local to you e.g. within a mile or so of your home. After all, there's not much point in having an excellent patch half an hour way that you can only visit every other week. A local patch should be somewhere that offers easy access so that you can visit regularly, at least once a week at various times during the day right throughout the day.
Local Patch Birding in London
How to Choose a Local Patch?
For some, choosing a local patch is easy, as they may live within close range of a variety of superb bird habitats. For those lucky few, the only problem they may face is perhaps the presence of other birders. If however, you fancy a challenge, why not be a pioneer and try somewhere new off the beaten track.
Most of us though aren't lucky enough to live near prime bird habitat so choices are somewhat limited. If, like me, you're stuck slap bang in the middle of the suburbs of a major city then the best thing to do is to look at a map of your area with your home as the focal point and then pinpoint potential local patches within easy walking distance- so, about a mile or so. Look for a self-contained 'island' habitat full of common birds, but also attracts passing birds, such as a disused gravel pit, small woodland or park.
Start off by making a few reconnaissance visits at different times of the day and make a note of the species that occur there. Make sure that you note down the number of individual birds too. Keep an eye on the time that it takes you to cover the patch. Ideally, it should be about half an hour to an hour, so that you can make early morning visits before you go to work and late afternoon/early evening visits once the working day is done.
The Benefits of Local Patch Birding
Local Patch Birding has a multitude of benefits. First and foremost, with it being local you need not rely on transport to get you there. You won't have to rely on being able to drive, or owning a car, or knowing the bus schedule. In other words, you can just walk there. Moreover, if your patch is small, then you can easily cover all of the important areas in a short period of time. So, even when faced the prospect of a long day of work you can either set yourself up with a nice gentle walk around the patch or alternatively unwind at the end of the day.
The more you visit your local patch you will inevitably build up a knowledge of the local birds; not just in terms of identifying them, but also their behaviour and habits. You will gain a detailed picture of both the resident and visiting birds. Throughout the year, with each passing season, you'll notice the subtle changes, as birds come and go. You'll soon come to regard these 'birds' as yours and you'll take an active interest in their lives, especially during the breeding season.
Over time you will get to know which areas of your patch are best for certain birds. For example, if your patch contains Gorse or Blackthorn then there's always the chance that it could attract an European Stonechat, or maybe even a Whinchat during Spring or Autumn migration. Even a relatively small area of parkland always has the potential to attract passage birds such as Meadow Pipit, Eurasian Skylark, Northern Wheatear or even a Ring Ouzel. If something really unusual appears, then you're more likely to notice it as you'll be familiar with the regulars.
Local patch birding doesn't just have benefits for you, the birds too can benefit from your presence. For example, imagine a scenario where your patch is threatened by building development, well, your detailed records could end up saving the day. Your records could reveal, for instance, the presence of a rare or sensitive breeding bird such as a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. So, when you have chosen your patch, make sure you keep detailed records of all that goes on.
The Pitfalls of Local Patch Birding
Local Patch Birding at its best can be totally exhilarating, but at its worst, it can be utterly monotonous and frustrating. You will undoubtedly have those days where you literally see nothing, or just the same old regulars- although seeing the regulars isn't all that bad. More likely the frustration with your local patch will often materialise in the form of other people. These people will likely be non-birders and using the patch for other reasons, whether to play football, walk their dogs or simply mess about etc. Either way, if these people interfere with your patch birding in one way or another then it can leave you feeling annoyed or even angry.
For example, your patch may have a lake with good numbers of Wildfowl, and noting the species and their numbers, as well as recording their behaviour throughout the year gives you an enormous amount of pleasure. However, birding at a lake that the public has access to will always carry the risk of you becoming annoyed or angry at the actions of certain people.
For example, many people still feed Ducks, Swans, Geese, Coots and Moorhens, etc. bread. This is despite the fact that information about bread's unsuitability for Wildfowl is widespread; not to mention the fact that uneaten bread can cause pollution. Soggy and mouldy bread you see can result in higher concentrations of algae, which can block vital waterways and decimate an ecosystem. People feeding Wildfowl bread happens regularly on my local patch, despite there being signs plastered all over informing people not to. I've often been tempted to march over and tell people off, but have never done so, as I highly doubt that people would listen, and all it would do is create more hassle for me.
Dogs can be another problem, especially in and around a lake. Many people often see a park and its accompanying lake as nothing more than a playground and swimming pool for their canine companion. I hasten to add at this juncture that I love dogs and have had one in my life right from the beginning. My little Jack Russell Marley often accompanies me on birding trips, and largely for his own safety, he remains on a lead. He's not an aggressive dog by any means, but by keeping him on the lead, it means that he doesn't disturb wildlife, other dogs or anybody else for that matter. I'm often out for a few hours at a time, so there's no danger of him not getting enough exercise.
However, on my local patch, I have often seen instances where irresponsible owners have failed to control their dog. By the lake, I've seen owners encouraging their dog to go for a swim, which in turn flushes almost all of the birds in the vicinity. I've often had dogs come bounding up to me from out of nowhere either to say hello to me or Marley. From a personal point of view this is fine, but it's worth bearing in mind that not everybody likes dogs, so the sight of one bounding up to them wouldn't be very pleasant at all, in fact, it would be frightening. I've heard reports from other birders of dogs jumping up at them and muddying their clothes, or at their most extreme being bitten by them. On my local patch last year, the Mute Swans sadly lost all of their cygnets due to them being attacked and killed by a dog.
The Overall Picture
The pitfalls of local patch birding are often frustrating, but overall it is an enthralling experience. Especially, if you do spot something rare or unusual. By keeping detailed records, it enables you to look back and recall the exact date, time and even place that you saw the bird, so on future visits to your local patch you can either check that same place for more rarities, or simply remember the past encounter and smile.
That being said, I would never recommend that you rely solely on local patches for your birding fix. Variety, they say is the spice of life, and that phrase is especially true in this case. For the full birding experience, I would recommend doing a mix of garden birding, patch birding, taking trips to famous birding sights and taking trips to see rare birds that you need for your life list, in other words 'go on a twitch'.
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© 2018 James Kenny