My patch comprises Shieldhill Farm and some adjoining land, including the Bennan Loch and Lochcraig Reservoir, and lies close to the town of Eaglesham, in East Renfrewshire, around 15 km south of Glasgow. On the edge of the Eaglesham Moor, the farm is a mix of improved pasture, rough grazing, moorland and bog. Both lochs are reservoirs and water levels can vary considerably through the year, with both having nutrient-poor status and rocky shores. Monthly WeBS counts of both sites are carried out by local birder Gavin Baptie – possibly the only other recorder on my patch. Since 2011 I have recorded only 100 species but I’ve had many memorable birding encounters.
Although sightings are far from guaranteed, the farm is proving to be a good place to see raptors, and I have recorded eight species. Ospreys Pandion haliaetus are becoming increasingly regular in late summer, fishing in the lochs, while Merlin Falco columbarius, Peregrine Falcon F. peregrinus and Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus are occasional at any time of year. On 19th December 2016, a brief appearance by a Golden Eagle Aquila chrysaetos over the Ballageich Hill got my pulse racing, although this bird may have been an escapee. The farm road can be a productive place for finding owls at night: I’ve managed to see all four regular Scottish owls there (Little Owl Athene noctua is confined to a few spots in Scotland).
Birding on the farm is highly seasonal, with lots of activity through the breeding season, when Meadow Pipits Anthus pratensis and Skylarks Alauda arvensis abound; but being more than 30 km inland on the west coast of Scotland, with an altitude range of 220–290 m above sea level, it is typically a cold and wet place – if there will be rain, sleet or snow somewhere in southwest Scotland, it’ll be here. However, winter is a real highlight of the year for me as you get to focus on the few birds that are hardy enough to remain. Common Goldeneye Bucephala clangula and Goosander Mergus merganser stand out particularly well on the Bennan Loch on clear days, which lead to spectacular dusk skies of fiery orange. To round off a bracing day on the hill there’s nothing better than to sit and watch Woodcocks Scolopax rusticola leaving their day roosts among the spruce plantations as they head out to the pastures to feed. Getting into a good spot means that sometimes the birds fly so close I can hear their wingbeats! My best count to date has been 15 birds and usually the scene is accompanied by the ‘scaarping’ of Common Snipe Gallingo gallinago and the occasional bonus of fly-by Asio owls and Jack Snipe Lymnocryptes minimus.
One of the aspects of working a patch that I’ve really enjoyed is trying to predict what might turn up in the future and working out which areas to target for particular species. One such species I had hoped to see on spring passage was Ring Ouzel Turdus torquatus. I’d heard of records from nearby hills such as Loudon Hill and I had anticipated that the Bennan Hill could be a similarly suitable spot. And so it was on 9th April 2015, during a week of good ouzel passage across the country, that I finally got my bird, as it foraged in some rushy pasture at the base of the hill. I lay mesmerised and watched the bird for some time before it vanished among the rushes.
When the wader breeding season kicks off at the end of March, a strong easterly wind can make the warmth of spring seem a long way off and I’ve sat watching Eurasian Curlews Numenius arquata displaying over their territories of withered, wind-beaten grass and wondered if it will ever grow green again. I love lying up on the hill watching the antics of breeding Northern Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, as they start to defend territories, display and nest scrape – watching an incubating bird walk back onto the nest has to be one of my favourite sights. I remember vividly a day when I was doing exactly that, 4th April 2017, when a cloud of 200+ European Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria descended onto the moss about 200 m from me. It’s fair to say I got a little distracted by the newcomers, boldly marked birds, presumably on their way farther north.
The plover excitement of 2017 continued the following month: on 9th May, heading back to the farmhouse after checking up on the breeding waders, I came across a group of birds hiding away among some tussocks ahead of me. Initially I thought that they were Skylarks or Golden Plovers but I soon realised that they were Dotterels Charadrius morinellus and seven of them at that! A really special group of birds which offered incredible views over the next week, the final sighting being of six on 16th.
Another wader highlight of 2017 unfolded as I followed the nesting fortunes of the last remaining pair of Common Redshanks Tringa totanus on the farm. Each year I hold my breath waiting for a pair to return and, thankfully, so far, they always have. They’ve proved tricky to follow when breeding owing to the lack of good vantage points but I struck lucky and found a nest on 5th June, which I monitored over the coming weeks. My good fortune continued, as one of my scheduled nest visits coincided with the eggs hatching. Working my patch regularly allowed me to follow the family over the coming weeks until 25th July, when I watched a single fledged bird feeding independently on the Bennan Loch – that’s what birding is all about for me!
Patches like Shieldhill are never going to rival some of the top birding sites across the country but in my opinion they don’t need to. For me, working my patch is about getting to know how the habitat works for birds and getting to grips with what makes different species tick. I reckon there are ‘Shieldhills’ out there everywhere – all I can say is go and claim one as your own!