We’re now well into the second year of the Patchwork Challenge, and this is the first in a regular series in which we will look back at the last month, and compare it with the same month in the previous year, both at a national scale, and that of a single patch. To me, this sort of analysis is the very essence of patch birding – learning about how the seasons and the weather affect the populations of birds using, or moving through, your own particular bit of turf is fascinating, and of course applying this to a national scale helps contextualise your sightings into a bigger picture. It’s a really important part of the process of learning about your patch.
Comparing the highlights reported by PWC contestants also gives us a unique insight into the various ‘ornithological events’ of each month, hinting towards trends that might not be picked up by the national bird news services, or that would take some time pouring through county bird records to shed light on. Here, from all over the country, we have people telling us what was unusual at what equates to a series of constant effort sites. A look through our scoresheet reveals, for example, a possible small influx of Bean Geese, particularly on the east coast of Scotland and northern England. Hopefully, by encouraging the reporting of these data to BirdTrack, this sort of information will make its way into the hands of people much more qualified to do something worthwhile with it!
It seems that a year on, on the surface, not too much has changed at a national scale! Bad weather dominated both Januarys – heavy snowfall and cold weather in 2013, and of course, this year’s incredible storms and flooding. One might think that this would have led to some real differences between the two months – you could certainly be forgiven for expecting last year’s reports to be dominated by cold weather movements – but it seems that in spite of the weather, the goodies on offer were, by and large, the same. Returning White-billed Diver and Bonaparte’s Gull were noted from opposite ends of the country, and a Scottish island again hosted the month’s biggest rarity – last year a Gyrfalcon on South Uist, this year a Blue-winged Teal on Mainland Orkney. The semi-rarities were remarkably similar too (although I guess this is not too surprising as the range of ‘available species’ is smaller in the winter), with Green-winged Teal, Caspian and Ring-billed Gull, Crane, Great white Egret and White-tailed Eagle all featuring. In fact, apart from last year’s Serin, the range of six pointers scored was identical between the two years!
Apart from the aforementioned Bean Geese, there appear to have been local influxes of Little Gulls across a similar area with six out of the eight reports of Little Gull coming from north eastern coasts of Britain. Have the series of low pressure systems pushed Atlantic wintering birds into the North Sea – or have the south east winds on eastern coasts that are associated with these lows pushed North Sea wintering birds into more coastal, northern locations? I suspect the latter – there is good evidence for reasonable numbers of Little gull wintering in the southern North Sea, and considering the strength of the winds involved, the displacement of some of these birds was inevitable. The locations of these low pressure systems probably accounts for the relatively fewer reports of Little Auk in 2014 too. Neither winter was a vintage one for this species, but only 4 patches highlighting sightings in January 2014 probably has a lot to do with the lack of northerly winds.
There are also some obvious themes if we venture inland, too. Snipe, Jack Snipe and Woodcock feature heavily, with seven inland patches noting Jack snipe. I would have expected this species to be more of a feature of last year’s very cold winter, rather than this year’s wet and windy one – are these birds that have been flooded out of their usual haunts? Woodcock were well reported too – another species I associate with hard weather movements (on my patch at least), and a couple of patches report large numbers of Common Snipe. Something is happening here – these ground dwellers have been forced to move en masse, and it’s not by frozen ground!
Two ‘species’ of passerine also cropped up with some frequency. It might not have felt as such, but temperature wise it’s been a relatively mild winter, which may account for the relatively high numbers of Siberian Chiffchaff that were reported (from 5 patches). Are there really more of these about, or are we just more confident about identifying and reporting them? There has been plenty of discussion on their ID recently (not least here on Birding Frontiers) which has no doubt clarified criteria for a few – but have we also been swayed by the revelations that ‘eastern’ looking chiffchaffs wintering in the UK are likely genetically to be tristris?
On the flipside to this, one might expect a hard winter to result in an increased reporting rate for Mealy Redpoll – but that’s not the case this year. Is this again a result of birders getting to grips with something they previously considered to be a bit of an ID nightmare? Or are there really more about – a look at BirdTrack shows that the reporting rate for this species is almost three times the historical norm, so it must be a real increase in numbers – but as a result of what? I dont’ pay enough attention to what’s going on on the continent to speculate!
So that’s the national picture – but what about looking at a local scale? Personally I notched up 62 species this January, compared to 63 last year. Points wise though, I was four up at this stage last year, so there was clearly a bit more quality available in January 2013! There were 8 species from 2013 that weren’t seen this year, including some nice bits and pieces such as Waxwing and Black-throated Diver. This year’s unique species include such garden birds as Bullfinch, Lesser redpoll, and Collared dove, further confounding my expectations of what I expect to visit my coastal golf course patch during hard cold weather events! It does at least show that there is plenty to play for in January!
But perhaps that’s the wrong way of looking at things – perhaps it’s noteworthy that 55 out of 62/63 species were the same in each year, meaning approximately 87% crossover. It’s no great leap forward in ornithological knowledge to suggest that in the winter, turnover and variety of birds may not be as high as it is at other times of year, but it’s good to see it in black and white! What might be more pertinent would be to look at where the small degree of variety lies. Looking at my lists for the last few Januarys, I can see that if I focus on ‘floaters’ (looking for divers and ducks, especially among the eider flocks) and along the most mature patches of cover (where this year I’ve had extralimital bullfinch and lesser redpoll, and last year I had coal tit – all giddying stuff I admit!) I should do OK – the rest it seems, will largely take care of itself! I’m looking forward to putting this thinking to the test next year! Although seeing as I anticipate February to be pretty similar to January, perhaps I should start taking my own advice now…
Visit the Patchwork Challenge blog – conceived and run by Mark Lewis, Ryan Irvine and James Spencer.