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Micro-birding: 9 years working my patch

I almost never go birding any more but I can’t bear to let myself become a non-birder. So for the last 9 years I have been diligently working my local patch on an almost daily basis: my garden. It’s basically a bog-standard garden in bog-standard countryside but it’s been incredibly rewarding over the 9 years we’ve lived here. I’ll tell you why.

From the start, in August 2004, I’ve followed Graham Hirons’ advice and kept a list for each and every month. It gives me the impetus each month to record all the common species and means that I’ve always got my eyes peeled and my ears tuned. I don’t actually make a special effort to go birding other than to take my coffee-breaks in the garden, with my bins, and always to look out of the window while I’m on the phone in the office, again with my bins handy.

I was woken at a cruel hour this morning by the junior member of the household, so we sat out in the garden together while I drank a couple of pots of coffee. I added 6 birds to the August 2013 list: Bullfinch heard, Raven heard, Herring Gull over, Goldcrest, Chiff-chaff and best of all my second Tree Pipit heard going south. That takes this month’s list to 48, though there’s still a long way to go to match my best ever August tally of 57 in 2009.

Bird totals by month, cumulative over 9 years

The downside of choosing my garden as a patch is that nobody else is really that interested in what I see. Find a Slavonian Grebe at Tring Reservoirs and loads of people will go out of their way to see it. Find a Treecreeper in my garden and a few people will say “That’s nice, Mark”. I’d like to be able to say that the upside is that there aren’t any other birders around to grip me off but that wouldn’t be true. I returned from Papua New Guinea in 2008 to find that Jo had seen an Osprey over the garden! Grrripped. Luckily, I only had to wait till the following year before I saw one myself. On that occasion, I had to drop the phone, and later apologise to one of Britain’s top coleopterists that I’d needed to grab my binoculars in a hurry.

Before we moved here I was incredibly envious of Richard Thewlis’ 100+ garden list in Cambridge with quality birds like Nightingale, Quail, Rough-legged Buzzard and Red-footed Falcon. It seems amazing that I now have a garden list of 109. The rarest birds, all once-only, have been Little Gull, GBB Gull, Kingfisher, Mediterranean Gull, Shoveler, Turtle Dove, Hawfinch, Ring-necked Parakeet, Tree Sparrow, Mandarin, Lapland/Snow Bunting, Woodcock, Tufted Duck, Green Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Teal, Treecreeper and Oystercatcher. You will realise by now that my ‘garden’ list is a list of everything seen or heard from the garden, even if they are distant flyovers. The point of my garden list is just to keep my birding skills sharp, not to be a meaningful record of the avifauna of the garden. Of that list only two birds actually came and fed in the garden …

Treecreeper in the garden, 16th Feb 2013

We watched the Woodcock feeding in the snow under the willow with the last of the light on 23rd December 2010, then saw its footprints and beakholes the following morning. Pure magic.

Other rarities with two or more records include Greylag (2), Marsh Harrier (2), Wigeon (3), Common Tern (7), Little Egret (3), Lesser Whitethroat (4), Osprey (2), Yellow-legged Gull (4), Merlin (2), Barn Owl (2), Crossbill (2), Whimbrel (2), Waxwing (2), Grey Partridge (6), Tree Pipit (2) and Common Whitethroat (2).

What’s amazing to me is how much I’ve learnt from micro-birding the garden. Nine years ago, I’d never heard of vismigging (visible migration watching), and I was nowhere near as good at identifying birds in flight or on call only. I’ve had to learn to identify birds on whatever calls or views I get. It may seem lazy that I didn’t already know this stuff, but garden birding has spurred me to learn the calls of Corn Bunting, Mandarin and Barn Owl, to learn the difference between Grey and Red-legged Partridge calls, to learn how to identify large gulls (some of the time at least) without seeing the upperside, and to learn the silhouettes and flight actions of the finches.

I’ve also learnt a lot about migration, which is after all the most awesome thing about birds. Somehow, being brought up as a twitcher, I’d always believed that autumn migration started in late September. But in and over the garden, autumn migration delivers surprises from [Raven just flew over!] early August at least. This month has already produced a Crossbill over, a couple of Whimbrel over, a calling flock of Oystercatchers one night, Hobby, a few Yellow Wagtails, Willow Warbler, etc. I’m sorry to see the last of the Swifts (none since 12th) but there’s lots of bird migration to look forward to between now and November.

Sitting in one spot also forces me to look at whatever there is to look at rather than legging around hunting for something rare. For example, until I started micro-birding, I didn’t know whether the wing-clap of a Woodpigeon was made by clapping their wings together over their backs or under their bellies. Now I’ve watched them, I know it’s neither! I’m also fascinated by my resident Woodpigeon (called Woody-Dangler), with a distinctive dangling right leg who is present all year round and I’ve been seeing since about 2007, even on late autumn days when high energetic ‘power-balls’ of hundreds of migrating Woodpigeons are racing southwards overhead. Does totally sedentary Woody-Dangler really share all the same genes with the power-ballers?

Regrets and near-misses: there’ve been a few possibles that I just couldn’t nail. It’s inevitable with such restricted views of the sky. My biggest regret was not chucking the phone down when I saw what I still reckon were two Shelduck going high south. I was talking to Dave Allen, setting up a survey contract which secured my mortgage payments for the next three years. Massive error – Dave would’ve totally understood. So be warned if you’re on the phone to me – you may suddenly hear the receiver hit the carpet!


  1. Mike Bird says:

    Enjoyed reading this Mark. Thanks for sharing it in an entertaining and interesting way.
    Best wishes,

  2. markgtelfer says:

    Thanks Mike – appreciated.

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