By Josie Hewitt
Inland Hampshire does not immediately spring to mind as a prime birding location, but that’s the thing about patch birding: it doesn’t matter. For me, patch birding is the simple enjoyment of birding somewhere very familiar, recording what’s about and occasionally being surprised by something unusual. I got into birding as a result of long-term illness when I was nine years old, and my interest was fuelled by the addition of a dog to the family. Since then I have regularly plodded around my nearest green spaces, which also happen to be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Local Nature Reserves (LNR), and form part of the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA).
My patch covers all of Castle Bottom (a small LNR), the West End of Yateley Common (SSSI and SPA), the disused portion of Blackbushe Airfield and a few pools that are the result of quarrying activities on Eversley Common. Nothing about my patch is particularly special: the majority is lowland heathland with patches of scrub, quite a lot is birch or mixed deciduous woodland, and the pools are fairly open and surrounded by a mix of gravel and sand, supporting up to 12 Little Ringed Plovers Charadrius dubius at peak migration time and 4–5 breeding pairs, although the breeders are tricky birds to keep tabs on.
Over the years, I have recorded just over 100 species on my patch. Most of these are fairly bog-standard birds that you’d expect at an inland heathland site, but there have been a few special encounters that put a massive grin on my face. One particular moment from 2015 is imprinted in my memory – it was late afternoon on 7th April, and I’d been watching a pair of Woodlarks Lullula arborea displaying and feeding – always lovely to see – when I spotted a large raptor in the distance, heading straight towards me. I tried to get my scope on it but it was moving too fast. Before I knew it, the bird was right in front of me: Osprey Pandion haliaetus! I shouted to my mum, who was nearby with our dog, and she managed to glimpse it, but as quickly as it materialised it disappeared again, behind the trees and out of sight. The adrenalin was in full flow and I just couldn’t believe my eyes! For years I had imagined seeing an Osprey on my patch, but never did I think it would actually happen.
Fast forward to 12th May 2016 and my next heart-stopping moment – a casual walk around Castle Bottom was going well, with the usual suspects: Dartford Warbler Sylvia undata, Stonechat Saxicola rubicola, Woodlark, etc., when an odd-looking bird of prey drifted over. Having never seen a Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus before, I was slightly doubting myself, but the distinctive wing shape and dark carpal patches meant it couldn’t be anything else – not only was it a patch tick, but also a full-blown lifer – excellent!
The spectacle of migration is something that most birders look forward to, and while this means falls of migrants and blinding rarities for some patches, inland Hampshire delivers autumn with a far more laid-back approach, though of course there is still much excitement – it’s all relative after all. On 31st August 2015, I started at the pools, with 65 Canada Geese Branta canadensis, 45 Lapwings Vanellus vanellus, 22 Mallards Anas platyrhynchos and three Swallows Hirundo rustica… pretty average really. The pools are divided in two by a fenced footpath that I had always imagined would be perfect for an autumnal Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe to perch upon but, alas, the picture in my mind had never materialised. Heading over the road from the pools and down the bridle path towards Castle Bottom, still picturing a Wheatear on every post, I was quite shocked when one suddenly hopped out onto the path, proceeded to catch a few insects and then flew up onto a post right in front of me. Perfect, I thought, that’s autumn sorted… but straightaway I noticed another bird hopping about further along the path – another Wheatear! Phwoar, autumn was really hotting up now! I made it about 10 m down the path when two Common Redstarts Phoenicurus phoenicurus appeared in a tree to my left; yet before I even had time to get my bins on them, I heard the snapping of a flycatcher’s bill from deeper in the woods. With a bit of patience, I managed to find the culprit in the dense pine plantation: a Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata – the icing on the cake and the perfect trio of autumnal species.
Although I love my patch at all times of the year, summer is undoubtedly my favourite time. I really enjoy wandering around the pools on a warm afternoon, hearing the calls of Little Ringed Plovers and Woodlarks, followed by a glimpse of a Dartford Warbler’s long tail disappearing into some heather and the chakking call of a family of Stonechats all around. Within the Castle Bottom reserve there are two benches overlooking the heathland, and there is nothing better than sitting there for half an hour as the sun goes down, as Nightjars Caprimulgus europaeus begin to churr and clap their wings, the bats begin their nightly feast and, if you’re really lucky, a roding Woodcock Scolopax rusticola drifts over, squeaking. Such an evening’s entertainment is, for me, pure bliss and I am incredibly fortunate to be able to experience this just a stone’s throw from my house. In fact, I have even had Nightjars hawking over the moth trap in our back garden and heard them churring when I was lying in bed – I bet not many readers can say that!
Patch birding is a privilege – seeing the same area in all weather conditions and at every season, never quite knowing what you’ll see, but remaining endlessly optimistic. Who knows what birds I miss while I’m away at university in Norwich, but one thing is for sure – my patch will always have a special place in my heart and I always look forward to wandering the heath whenever I’m home.