Monday 25 November 2019

The Road Less Travelled

Around 1970 or '71 my paternal grandparents retired to Norfolk, buying a bungalow in Temple Drive, Weybourne. I have many happy memories of holidays there as a young lad. Although I didn't know much about birds, and had no-one to teach me, I was certainly interested. My first Nightjar was a bird flushed in the daytime while exploring Muckleburgh Hill. I must have been about 13 or 14. My sister and I followed it down onto Weybourne Camp, and eventually worked out what it was. Occasionally I was dropped off at Morston Quay to catch the boat out to Blakeney Point, and I'd spend the rest of the day ambling back along the coast to Cley or Salthouse, slowly being bent double by my ex-army 7x50s. Although I mostly didn't know what I was looking at, one thing I did know: North Norfolk was brilliant for birds. So when I got really keen soon after marriage, it was obvious where the new Mrs NQS and I needed to go.

Our burgeoning list soon included many gems from those early trips to the Cley area: Buff-breasted Sandpiper, Black Guillemot, Dotterel, Spotted Crake, Red-backed Shrike and so on. We quickly broadened our horizons to include Minsmere, Walberswick, Sheppey, Portland etc, adding more and more new birds. Then twitching became a thing, and I was off all over the country. Then there was Scilly...

I would imagine that many new birders begin in similar fashion. Lots of visits to well-known birdy Meccas, a bit of twitching here and there. Hopefully there will be some local birding too, but most likely that too will be to popular spots. And quite possibly many birders are happy to continue in this vein until they drop! Well, the purpose of this post is to suggest an alternative direction. Maybe not straight away, but when you have a little confidence in your own abilities. That alternative? The road less travelled...

What does that mean? It means going where other birders don't. Okay, but why bother? I'll answer that shortly.

First, let's talk about what it means. To illustrate, I'd like to relate some of my own experiences in this area. As a very part-time birder, this is going to be somewhat low-key, but you'll get the idea...

When I first moved to Seaton as a lapsed birder, I had never heard of the Axe Estuary. I knew Portland to the east, and Dawlish Warren to the west, but nowhere in between. Yet there is rather a lot of south coast between Portland and Dawlish! Of course, some of it is actually quite well covered. But not all. And so it was in the Seaton area. There were indeed a handful of keen birders watching the Axe Estuary and adjacent marshes back in the early noughties, but nearby Beer Head, a couple of miles to the west, was virtually untouched. I made a few exploratory visits in the late autumn of 2004 and saw Firecrest and Ring Ouzel, which was enough to make me earmark it for proper effort the following year. I loved it. I basically had Beer Head to myself initially, and though the rewards were modest at first, there was almost always something to make a visit worthwhile. A few Wheatears, common migrant warblers, the odd Redstart. It genuinely felt - in a small way - like pioneering. A twitchable Dotterel was the watershed bird I think. After that I often had company. Beer Head has since been quite well-birded, with 2 Ortolans, Iberian Chiffchaff, Great Spotted Cuckoo, multiple Wrynecks, Red-backed Shrike and many other goodies to its credit. But those early days were special. That feeling of doing something a little bit different gave me a taste for it.

Unfortunately I don't have any photos from 2004 or '05 (pre-digital for me) so here are a few later ones...

Typical Beer Head fare - a nice autumn Wheatear
Wheatear again
Less typical! Wryneck
X marks the spot. Wryneck woz 'ere.
2009. Another X. Another spot. Can't bring myself to torture certain birdy friends with any more than that...

I realise that living on the coast puts me in the fortunate position of having excellent birding right on my doorstep, but I would think that most birders could nevertheless apply the principle from this. Look at a map, pick somewhere that you think might have potential, and where nobody goes, and try it. Not just once. Give it a fair crack. Perhaps you're used to going to that regular hotspot for your autumn jollies, where a Yellow-Browed Warbler or Ring Ouzel is pretty much guaranteed - you know, the same birds that everyone else sees. Well, why not try somewhere completely new? Maybe you'll find your own YBW or Ouzel. Or maybe you won't. Or maybe you'll find something even better! For me, there is simply nothing to beat the buzz to be had from doing that, and then being rewarded with a surprisingly good bird. It happens.

If you want a good example of what can be achieved, take a look at Matt Knott's blog birdingexmouth, where you will see his results from regularly working Orcombe Point and nearby farmland. It's not a reserve, there are no hides or boardwalks. No, it's just a bit of the south coast. One of many, many bits. But Matt's list of finds is simply amazing.

So, whether you're a grafter, like Matt Knott, or a part-timer like me, I will guarantee this...

If you try the road less travelled, you will find good birds, and you will have fun. And you will grow as a birder.


  1. Wow, you're certainly getting into your stride now with the quality of your postings, great stuff.
    The road less travelled certainly describes my birding history. I took it up aged 12 and for the last 60 years have done it all here on Sheppey.

    1. Thanks Derek, much appreciated. From what I can gather, your Sheppey birding has given you many exciting finds over the years. A great recommendation for the road less travelled.

  2. Hi Gav - many thanks for your kind mention. There's nothing better, in my opinion, than working a new area and finding new birds. I've never been particularly drawn to the big name sites though I used to pop in to Bowling Green fairly often when I used to drive past it to and from work. I'm extremely lucky in Exmouth as I almost always have Orcombe to myself, and if it's rubbish I can check the seafront or river. I can do it after work pretty safe in the knowledge that nobody else will have looked at it. As a kid I was given Bill Oddie's 'Gone Birding' for Christmas and found it inspirational. He describes the highs and lows of watching a fairly ordinary patch beautifully, and was instrumental in discovering Upton Warren in Worcestershire. I'd recommend it to anyone who's dependent on chasing the next 'good bird' for their twitter feed! Thanks again and please keep up the regular posts! All the best. Matt

    1. Thanks Matt, I'll try! 'Gone Birding' is great isn't it?! Even now, on the (rare) occasions I see a report of a decent bird at Bartley Reservoir I think how much Bill Oddie would have enjoyed it!

      Nothing quite like going birding somewhere you know hasn't already been covered before you arrived. Exciting stuff...

  3. Good blog post! Love patch birding. Realise Titchfield Haven is, in theory, a well watched area, but even within the area most Haven birders cover there's times and patches that are less watched. Many a time I've gone hours or a whole sessions without seeing another naturalist - including on days when I've stumbled across something good (ok, so after the news is out, then people do turn up). Iona was exciting in that respect. It's very underwatched yet has potential.

    Your post reminded me of an idea for work. It would be interesting and good to highlight the areas in Hampshire (or any county) that are publicly accessible and lacking in wildlife records to encourage naturalists to visit and see what its like! Even, say, monthly visits like WeBS would be something.

    1. Thanks Amy. Your experiences demonstrate that even somewhere that is mostly well watched will still have quiet areas, peripheral spots where few bother to look. Maybe the habitat is less appealing, maybe it's a long walk. Whatever the reason, if nobody bothers, it's a potential winner! I can think of loads of places like that near me, and I'm sure there will be many that I haven't discovered yet. Trying these quiet corners definitely keeps things interesting. All the best with your plans, and thanks again for your comment.