I walked my patch last Friday. Small birds abounded in the hedgerows, which was just as well – I had to give up on finding that mega rarity in the fields (or perhaps the golden plover of a couple of weeks before, which in my dreams has metamorphosed into something distinctly more American, with a buff-coloured breast) as a wall of condensed water droplets – that’s fog to you, had descended over the countryside. There’s nothing like not being able to see far to sharpen the senses: mist brings things closer, gives the land an air of mystery, intimacy almost. I absolutely love it, but then, I quite like a clear, ecstatically sunny morning, or the darkening threat of a heavy downpour sending you dashing for cover. It’s another reason I go outside I suppose; I’m still a weather geek, even after years in the meteorological wilderness.
The beating of a great tit’s wings rattled my eardrum first as a tit flock scattered in front of me, defiantly louder than a distant tractor’s rumblings, or the village cockerel calling a few late risers out of bed. Chiffchaffs have been everywhere recently, and several were flicking restlessly through the hawthorns, calling me down the path with every gentle ‘hueet’.
Not far down the byway I found a marsh tit, seeking breakfast some 2km from the nearest decent patch of woodland and potential colony site – they’re not known for great feats of dispersal, but this little chap, and two more further down the path sneezing away to each other, had clearly availed themselves of the opportunities on offer along the Harrow Way hedgerows and tree lines: habitat connectivity in action perhaps.
Countryside near White Horse hill, Oxfordshire. In need of patch champions?
Birding a local patch. It’s the in thing. In an age when good environmentalists like us suffer from ever increasing carbon footprint angst, it’s hard to justify petrol-fueled listing mania. Nurturing a patch is like tending a garden, too, or so I’m told – over time, your relationship with it will grow, and it may reward you with untold wonders. Perhaps you’ll find a mega rarity, and the kingdom, the power, and the glory will be yours. For five minutes or so. The ‘Urban Birder’ David Lindo is pretty evangelical about the subject, probably because his patch, Wormwood Scrubs in west London, has hosted 138 species since 1980, including little and Ortolan buntings, a Richard’s pipit which I believe he found himself, and such London oddities as oystercatcher, whimbrel and white-fronted goose. Not too shabby. I suppose birds in that part of the country have few other places to go, so that does make things somewhat easier.
I’ve moved around rather too often in the last few years to develop a patch of my own that sizzles with excitement in quite the same way, but in North Hampshire I think I’ve hit a little gold mine. I haven’t been around here for long, but my patch list already boasts rough-legged buzzard, long-eared owl, red kite, stone curlew, quail, wheatear, yellow wagtail, lapwing and golden plover. I cheated a little bit by adopting it after seeing those first two rather fantastic birds, but it is only a few miles away, so I think I’m justified in claiming it. My even more local patch just outside the village has healthy populations of linnets, yellowhammers and house sparrows, and red kites are again frequent visitors. We’ve seen barn owls, hares, bats and stoats around the village and lanes. In other words, wildlife here can be pretty brilliant, and I’d be surprised if any random part of the country didn’t host something worth looking at.
After 30 early mornings, 58 site visits, and 281 bird spot counts, part one of my surveying blitz in the Hampshire countryside is over. Six weeks of the dawn chorus – peaceful mist covered fields and ancient woods, cool in the morning air and damp with dew, rich in birdsong breaking out into the stillness of the morning. For the first few hours of each day the only other mammal life I’d see, before the dogs with their owners ventured out for the first walk of the day, would be deer, rabbits or hares, bounding away at the surprising site of the only wakeful person for miles around. In short, it’s been absolutely magical. Putting aside getting out of bed almost as soon as I’d got in (try 3:30am!), I wouldn’t have changed this experience for anything, and having got this practice in I’ll be sure to get up for dawn at least once every spring from now onwards.
I’d like to be able to say that with such a wealth of wildlife sightings to report, and the countless scenes of natural beauty that unfolded before me as the sun rose each morning, that the countryside is in excellent health, the doubters and pessimists are wrong, our rarest birds are once more flourishing, wildflowers abound, all is completely well. But I’m rather afraid that what I have seen has been wonderful not so much in that it remains totally vibrant, but in what it reflects of a past much more abundant in life.