Wednesday 29 June 2022

Finding a new patch

Worry ye not, the title of this post is a little misleading. Deliberately so of course, I like to keep people on their toes... 

I have been in Fife staying with the old people. Mostly I have been working of course; the pandemic has conferred certain benefits to people like me, one of them is that working remotely is now viewed as perfectly normal and as such the only change visible to other people is my Zoom background. What my colleagues can't see of course is the Tree Sparrow on the wire outside my window - I don't get that in Wanstead! And Bullfinches in the hedge. It still blows my mind that these are regular garden birds here. Every trip I find myself marvelling, an involuntary "wow!" escaping my lips. And so with this bounty on my doorstep, where else do I go birding when I come up here?

Fife is a great county for birding, it truly has everything - amazing coastline, hills and forests, reservoirs, pools and rivers. It has scrub and arable land, it has shiny golf courses, dunes and long sandy beaches. It has sea-watching, migration, and the Firth of Forth funnel. There is more than enough here to keep a birder very happy. The only issue really is that it takes an age to get anywhere - the prime spot of Fife Ness is not far away as the crow flies - under 25 miles - but it can take 50 minutes to drive there, and over double that on the bus! Tentsmuir is about the same distance but only 40 minutes, again the train and bus basically doubles it. Much as I like these two places, particularly the former, in reality I visit only sporadically, they are just too far. Time, as much as fuel (and these days therefore, money), is the limiting factor.

And that is the first thing about finding a local patch. It has to be close or you won't bother. I don't understand those who have a regular patch that is a long way from where they live. Fair play if they stick at it I suppose, but I wouldn't be able to sustain it. No, for me it has to be just about on my doorstep. Now where my parents live does not have any special birding spots that I can tumble out of bed onto like Wanstead Flats, but over the last few years I have found myself returning to a handful of spots that are just a short distance away, and as I visit over different seasons I am starting to see patterns, beginning to understand what might be where, and most importantly beginning to expect certain things. One of these sites has become somewhere I always go when I come up here, usually several times. Have I perhaps found what might be considered 'a patch'?

Letham Pools is 8 miles away, and takes about 12 minutes to drive to. It is two shallow pools in the middle of agricultural land with a minor road bisecting it. Once upon a time it was just fields that flooded regularly, but the effort and cost of running pumps became too much and it has simply been left as is. A wire fence still runs through the middle of one side, and pylons through the other, useful perches for Martins and Gulls. It has reeds and muddy fringes, and a spot of high ground is now a small island. Crop fields surround three sides and often contain Geese, and ditches run along one edge that right now are filled with Sedge Warblers. I have no idea if anything that might count as management work occurs, but if it doesn't so much the better as it is marvelous just as it is, and I sincerely hope that the effort of draining it remains a losing battle. 

Although I've been coming up to Fife for many years, I only discovered this location a couple of years ago when I stopped there one day on the way back from somewhere else (a hospital in Dundee as it happens!). But if I look back at my recent visits to Fife, Letham Pools is generally the first place I visit, and on my most recent five day trip I found myself there three times. Once I drove straight there from London, bypassing my parents' house completely; the pull of an Egyptian Goose too strong to ignore.

An average visit to Letham Pools might produce 25-30 species, fewer in winter. That's nowhere near as many as Wanstead where you could reasonably expect 40-50, but it is a much smaller area. Nonetheless my overall list for the site is up to 61, with eight species added on this most recent trip. On my final morning I found a Dunlin and two Ringed Plovers, brought down by rain, and a group of Black-tailed Godwits were feeding on the southern pool. A Water Rail ran across the road right in front of me, one of four that were there. Probably all perfectly normal, but for this Londoner they generated a huge smile. And that is key to a patch - it is firmly one of my happy places, and I think about it when I am not there. Which of course is most of the time, as I live in London. This is also quite annoying, as I receive regular updates of what is there, 450 miles from me, and this spring brought in both Temminck's Stint and Pec Sand, the former of which stayed a long time and was widely appreciated by almost everyone in Fife. I expect that pretty much every single Fife birder will have seen more at Letham Pools than I have, so how can I call it a patch? Well, all I can say is that it isn't just a numbers game - that's clearly part of it, but in essence I think it is rather simple. It is a place that is not too far away that you look forward to visiting.

Like a fool I have completely neglected to take a single photos of Letham Pools with which to illustrate this post. It is literally begging for it and yet I have nothing. I just don't think like a blogger any more. So instead above is a photo of a different patch, my "second" garden. This is literally a patch, an empty plot of land adjacent to the house up here in Fife. It is a wildlife haven - like Letham long may it stay that way. I've seen a Hen Harrier quartering here once, Sedge Warblers and Whitethroat breed, and it is a smorgasbord for the local Blackbirds, House Sparrows and others. Swallows and House Martins swoop above it, Wrens chatter from it, Pheasants roam around it, coughing gently. The garden is set slightly higher, so I have a decent view into it, and many a happy hour has been spent just loitering near the wall, listening and looking. The room in which I work overlooks it, which can provide an interesting distraction, and needless to say I count it as part of the garden up here, for which I also maintain a list. It is slow progress as I only come up half a dozen times a year or so (and during the last few years it has been a lot less than that for obvious reasons) but as with Letham I am beginning to better understand what is where, and to seek it out when I come. Above all it is so different from home, and that is part of the draw.

There are obviously a few other places I visit locally, it is not just Letham and the garden. Levenmouth is another favourite spot that is really close, and the Lomond Hills and Loch Gelly are both within range though I don't visit those every time. I'll cover those next time, I have quite a few trips to Fife planned over the next few months. Maybe I'll even remember to take a photo! 

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