Birdwatching by foot

If you're planning to take up our #My200BirdYear challenge this year, you may want to try and complete it without the use of a car. In 2011, Bird Watching editor Matt Merritt did just that... here is how he got on competing a year's birding by foot. Pics by Tom Bailey

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I’ve never been one for New Year resolutions. Promises which sound highly plausible under the influence of an excess of festive spirit have a habit of losing their fizz entirely during the interminable cold, dreary darkness of January and February.

But for 2011, I decided to make an exception. For a few years, I’ve kept a ‘patch’ list, but it’s been a pretty liberal interpretation of the word ‘patch’. I got an OS map, drew a circle of 15-mile radius based on my house, and ticked all the birds I saw within it, which meant I always had a good variety of sites to visit.

In autumn 2010, though, I made a rash vow to myself. In 2011, I’d do as much of my birding as possible on foot. I’d tick only those birds that I saw within walking distance of my home in Whitwick, north-west of Leicester. That would leave me just three of my regular reserves to visit – Kelham Bridge LRWT and the neighbouring Sence Valley Forest Park (and both those would require a long trudge just to get there) and Charnwood Lodge LRWT.

There was nothing alcohol-inspired about this little scheme, but rather an excess of enthusiasm for writers such as JA Baker, Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker, who have a knack of mapping their immediate surroundings in such intricate detail that even the most mundane patch of town and country sounds like a wildlife paradise. Our own Dr Weedon had a hand in it, too – his epic bicycling bird races of recent years were a shining example of just how much you could see under your own power. Although, living in Peterborough, he never had to worry about anything as inconvenient as a hill.

First steps

If I was to leave the car at home, time was going to be of the essence. I live in a large industrial village, on the edge of a larger industrial town, but I’m lucky in that open countryside is a five-minute walk from my front door. 

So, my first task was to come up with a regular route or routes that would take in a decent range of habitats, but that could be easily fitted into a morning, afternoon, or a spring or summer evening.

So, at a far from early hour on New Year’s Day (no dawn starts or rushing round the patch ticking all and sundry this year), I wandered to the far end of my road, and on into what at first sight appears to be the sort of bird-desert that characterises modern farmland. I did have an inkling that it might be a bit better than that, because the two large farms on either side of the lane have, in the past, turned up the likes of Grey Partridge, and there was a nice stretch of deciduous woodland to complete the circular route.

The next day, I turned the other way after leaving the house, walked up through the village and past its quarry, and on over ‘The Forest’ to Charnwood Lodge. These two routes were to become my regular ‘beats’ for the year – taking roughly 90 minutes and three hours respectively, I did one of them at least once a week, much more once the days got longer.

Itching to twitch

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So far, so good. But before I go any further, it’s worth pointing out the one big drawback of this whole idea. Unless you live in north Norfolk, say, or backing onto Dungeness, your patch-walking does run the risk of being very low on rarities. I did have high hopes of coming up with something like Great Grey Shrike, or just a Short-eared Owl, but my cast list remained resolutely unstarry. It only became a problem once, as autumn drew on and all sorts of glorious birds started appearing around the country. The desire to go driving off on even a minor twitch became an itch it was nearly impossible not to scratch, and I did fall off the wagon once or twice – the Squacco Heron at Attenborough in November was impossible to resist.

I did manage one wholly pedestrian twitch, too. At Birdfair, a couple of local birders mentioned that Redstarts had bred at a site not too many miles from home (these days they’re usually just passage migrants in Leicestershire), so I took a day to yomp over for a look, in case they were still hanging around. There was a juvenile bird fairly close to the spot I’d been told they frequented, and a male bird a little bit closer to home. In late August, they could of course have been migrants passing through, but whatever the case, a Redstart is never a disappointment.

Look closer for birds

I’m glad to say, though, that the positives far outstripped the negatives. For starters, the lack of even county rarities to chase meant I spent far more time watching familiar birds, and closely, noticing things such as the sheer variety of feeding methods used by Chaffinches (a tree on one of my routes was regularly used as a perch by a little group who behaved like flycatchers throughout the summer), or the extreme sensitivity of the Swifts nesting next-door-but-one, who vanished for days at a time just ahead of the arrival of low pressure weather systems. In some cases, I even got used to identifying individual birds – a particularly confiding Robin with a rather tatty tail that sang from just above an old railway bridge, for example.

Or the Kestrels. The first ‘beat’ I described earlier included a lane that played a big part in starting me birdwatching as a child. At that time, we lived in the village at the other end of it, and on walks with my parents I caught the birding bug while watching a pair of Kestrels that hunted the fields alongside.

They’re no longer the UK’s most common raptor, having suffered worrying declines in recent years, so I’ll admit to something of a lump in the throat when, on one of my first couple of walks, that familiar cross-shaped silhouette appeared, stock-still against the sky, exactly where I’d first seen it more than 30 years before. Seeing the resident pair almost every time I walked that way, then watching their young hunting late in the summer, was as rewarding as anything my pedestrian birding produced all year. As if to prove they’re now Britain’s No.1 bird of prey, though, a pair of Buzzards regularly appeared along the same stretch of road, unthinkable 30 years ago.

A second big plus was that it got me in the habit of finding my own birds. When you’ve got a car handy, the temptation to ride the coat-tails of much better birders is very hard to resist. Now I was on my own. Sometimes it was easy enough – Charnwood Lodge could reliably be expected to get passage Wheatears and Ring Ouzels, for example – while at other times it was more difficult. I was only able to tick Yellow Wagtail after trudging down to the same muddy meadow half a dozen times in a week, to be finally rewarded by a single migrant.

Surprise, surprise

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Patch-walking had me enjoying a different kind of birding surprise to the “Good heavens – there’s a Grey Phalarope down at the gravel pits!” kind. Remember that farmland I talked about earlier? Well, even within the first week of the year, it became obvious that it held more than might be revealed by a cursory, drive-by glance.

Tree Sparrows, for a start. Their distribution in Leicestershire, as in much of the UK, is patchy, but although I knew of a couple of places where they could be easily found three or four miles away, here they were in good numbers almost within sight of home, clustered around a farm’s grain store and vehicle yard in the company of plenty of Yellowhammers. A weed-strewn field nearby also attracted good numbers of Linnets – I’d been used to seeing small flocks around one or two of the local reserves in the past, but here there were sometimes as many as 70.

Or Waxwings. Early in the year, large groups were being reported all over the county, as the UK enjoyed a bumper influx of the dandified Scando-Siberian berry-guzzlers, but I was determined I’d find my own. And I did, one Sunday afternoon, when a stroll down to Lidl to buy breakfast cereal turned up a handful in the car park. Seemingly to prove that they have no particular brand allegiances, another group were making merry in the Aldi car park opposite. Another valuable lesson from patch-walking – make use of any opportunity to combine birdwatching with chores and the daily grind.

There was even a surprise slice of habitat. I came across a little pool, screened by trees and an old railway embankment, that I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even known existed, previously. It held a few Mallards, Coots and Moorhens for most of the year, and was the regular haunt of a Grey Heron, but as the year progressed it received occasional visits from Cormorants and Teal, and it really came into its own in August when a Hobby twice appeared to pick off its dragonfly population.

Joined-up thinking

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Another lesson that birding purely on foot taught me, or maybe reinforced, is that conservation can only succeed where joined-up thinking is in place – if reserves are merely islands in a sea of degraded or disappearing habitats, they’re doomed to failure.

And although I became acutely aware of how even small changes to the countryside between reserves could affect birds adversely (why are councils so zealous about trimming roadside verges, for example?), the flipside was that even the smallest helping hand could be seen to have great results. Barely 200 yards from home, for example, the stream through the village is running freer and cleaner than for many years, as a result of flood alleviation measures, and Grey Wagtails were regulars there, even during spring and summer. Crop fields with weedy strips along the edge were noticeably more bird-rich than those without. It’s a message you’ll have heard before, but patch-walking might make you positively evangelical about it.

Fringe benefits

I’d like to be able to say I’ve learned a massive amount about other wildlife, too, but that would be stretching the truth. I did find a Badger sett, though, rekindled my childhood interest in trees, got to know dragonflies a little better, and enjoyed trying to ID some extraordinary mushrooms.

And there were two other little bonuses. I hadn’t realised quite how much petrol I used to use on weekend birding excursions, but the savings in fuel were very welcome, while I lost almost three-and-a-half stone in weight during the year. In part that was down to laying off the pies, but there’s no better incentive for getting out there and getting some exercise than birdwatching.

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