In general I find county birding rather frustrating. Especially in a land-locked county such as Oxfordshire where the winter months can drag on. Finally, come spring you get all exciting about the mouth-watering Rares that are going to come your way but instead of course all the really good stuff is found on the coast. And don't get me started on the frustrations of a county list - I find it really difficult that one can go so long without a county tick even when, as a relative new comer to the scene, one is languishing near the bottom of the county league table. And then when you turn your back (or go down to Cornwall in my case) that's inevitably the time when all the good stuff goes through. I even keep a list (to torment myself) of what I've missed in the county through being away. Currently I'm on three gettable ticks missed for being in Cornwall (Red-necked Grebe, Purple Sandpiper and Red-throated Diver) and one because I was out all day with my VLW (Manx Shearwater).
I have this theory that the smaller the birding area that one is considering, the more frustrating it can all be. For example, if I really want to get a new tick on my UK list then I can at present relatively easily do this if I put in sufficient time to travel to twitch something. On the other hand, for my county list, there's nothing I can do to increase it other than to try to find something myself. And as for a patch life list, I don't even keep one: that way madness lies I feel. I'm reminded of Johnny Allan, a mad keen Surrey patch lister who packed it all in after missing the first Long Tailed Skua for Surrey which turned up on his patch, whilst he was there and he didn't see it - it's enough to push anyone over the edge. I generally like lists that you can keep ticking along easily so a patch year list is a good one that I work hard on. I include sightings from other people (i.e. a pan observer year list) so that there's less of an issue if I personally miss something. Thus it is that I have sought solace from the pain of county life listing in the world of Patch birding. I can get excited about finding a good bird for the patch which is why, if there's nothing exciting elsewhere in the county, you'll generally find me on Port Meadow wandering around looking to add that Patch Year Tick. The advantage of this is that I do put in a large number of hours per week on the patch and so I do manage to find the occasional good bird when it does turn up. Fortunately the patch is good enough that it will attract the occasional Scare or Rare and it's this outside chance as well as the Patch Year Ticks which keeps me going day in and day out.
I suppose that there is another issue which is the "maturity" of one's list. What I mean by this, is that I can easily go and find a new bird for my national list because I've not been birding that long so there's plenty I still "need". For seasoned birders this isn't the case and I expect that, like me for my county birding where my list is more "mature", they're waiting around for something they need actually to turn up. By that argument you'd probably expect a Patch life list to mature even more quickly so there'd be longer waiting around but as I don't actually keep one I can't really comment on this.
Anyway, time to talk about some actual birds. This spring has been a rather unusual one. The horrible cold weather that stuck with us for so long clearly held back the early spring migrants so that now that it's finally gone there's been a wave of migrants hitting the county with the normally early migrants coming in with the later birds all at once. This has, dare I say it, actually made for some quite good county birding as well as some fantastic Patch birding. Pied Flycatcher is a really hard bird to get in Oxon, sure a few are reported each year in the county but they are almost all untwitchable. Last year one finally stuck around at Farmoor for lots of county birders (including myself) to get it on their list (see my write-up here). Thus when Tom Wickens found one by the Thames behind the Oxford ice rink on Thursday evening, it wasn't quite the huge deal that it would have been last year but nevertheless a very nice bird. As it was so late, only a few people twitched it that evening and I think that everyone (including myself) just assumed that it wouldn't be there the next day. So it wasn't until mid afternoon when two keen student birders (Alex Martin and Liam Langley) decided to check it out that it was discovered still to be there, happily flycatching away. They kindly gave me a call and I came down to have a look. It had found a convenient tree that had recently fallen into the water which made an ideal perching spot from which to make flycatching sorties and it was remarkably confiding, unconcerned by people standing around watching it. As it was constantly on the move it was hard to photograph but I managed a few successful shots with my Canon SX30 camera which came out OK.
After I put the news out a few more people managed to twitch it and even some people surprisingly high up the county league table managed to add it to their county list. In fact I was chatting to Ian Lewington about it and he confessed that before this year, where as County Recorder he was called to a private garden to check one out, he'd only ever seen one in the county which he'd found himself so they really are county Megas from a twitchable point of view. It just shows what an unusual spring we're having that there have already been three separate ones reported in the county. Incidentally Wood Warbler has the same untwitchable county status as Pied Fly so I'm formally putting in a request to the Birding Gods for one now.
Later that same afternoon I went for my daily check of the Patch. I'd met up with Tom Wickens, who is doing a county year list (it's getting quite competitive with Peter Law hot on his heels). In addition Tom does some sort of strange month listing where the average across all months of the year should be more than 100 birds or something. Anyway, he was keen to get a Redstart on both these lists and mirabile dictu Port Meadow was actually the place to get this species this year. Redstart is certainly less than annual on the Patch and in fact until this year I'd not personally actually seen one on Patch at all. But this year there'd been a wave of inland passage across the country and fortunately Oxon was getting in on this action. Burgess Field, the former tip turned nature reserve that adjoins Port Meadow, has always looked great for this species but up until now has never delivered on this promise. However, this year there'd been four found in one day and several other days of one or two which might be different birds so it was suddenly producing them in spades. So there we were looking for Redstarts and in the company of Liam Langley we soon found one at the apex of what I call the Triangle field, a triangle-shaped area bordered by hawthorn hedges on two sides. Shortly afterwards we found a second one half way down the field and then I spotted a Pipit sitting as calm as you please in the hedge. It was very cooperative, showing down to about 10 yards so we gave it a good grilling and I tooks some snaps. The upshot of it was that it was a Tree Pipit, again not by any means a rare bird but they no longer breed in the county and usually are only seen as a calling fly-over in the spring or autumn so it was great to get such close views and also to have the opportunity of wrestling with an ID problem as without calling you have to know what to look for to separate it from Meadow Pipit. So three great birds all within 50 yards of hedgerow.
The Tree Pipit
For those who are keen on the ID points they are:
1). Breast streaks get finer down the flank - this is the diagnostic measure that I usually use in the field
2). Two toned underparts: yellowish breast and flanks vs. white underbelly
3). Pinkish tone to the legs cf. yellowish for Meadow
4). Median coverts with strong whitish tips
5). Hind claw wasn't particularly long in the field though hard to see in the photo.
6). Quite a strong bill compared to the more delicate bill of a Meadow Pipit.
Incidentally, I recently purchased "Advanced Bird ID Handbook" by Nils van Duivendijk which is great for things like this. It doesn't have any illustrations but it's very useful for listing all the key ID criteria. Well worth getting.
So, a good day's county birding all within five minutes of my home. Going back to my original theme of national vs county vs patch birding, as I've been writing this up I've realised that of course the key to all birding is the relative scarcity: Redstarts aren't that big a deal in the county but I get really excited seeing one on my Patch; Pied Flycatcher and Tree Pipit aren't rare birds in the country but they're localised and happen not to occur in Oxon so one can legitimately get excited when one does see one. This of course extends to national birding: Hoopoes for example are always exciting birds to see in the country but on the continent they're not that big a deal. Birding all boils down to relative scarcity: how unusual is it to see that bird in that location. "No Shit, Sherlock!" I know but it puts it all into perspective. In fact I think it was Badger who said that Balearic Shearwater is probably the rarest bird globally that we seen in this country. By that measure, seeing a Balearic Shearwater on the Patch would be the pinnacle of birding achievements!