Friday, 16 May 2014

PatchChat: Joseph Nichols on Costessey House Private Esate, Norfolk

For as long as I've been watching birds, I've been a patch birder. Up in Scotland, patching is a force to be reckoned with. Those in southern Scotland are prone to twitching across the border, but for the large part the further north you go twitching tendencies, apart from on a county level, gradually peter out. Hence in Aberdeenshire, where I was brought up, patching is the birding culture.

This taught me, in terms of my individual pleasure in birding, that patching is unrivalled in its emotional and physical rewards: it puts the responsibility to eke out good species entirely into my hands and allows me to think creatively and to feel motivated to make individual contributions to the local birding scene and to conservation. Yet paradoxically, patching has also routinized and limited my birding by encouraging me to work the same old circuit incessantly and become immersed in its birds, instead of constantly going for rares elsewhere. The beauty of the beast lies in the sudden metamorphosis when those fruitless hours of patching deprivation turn into unbridled euphoria, as a mixture of your creative ideas and dogged persistence rewards you with a self-found local, regional or national scarce.

Up at the Loch of Strathbeg in Aberdeenshire, my patching haunt for over 10 years before I moved to Edinburgh last year, chancing upon decent birds was not entirely unprecedented: male Montagu’s Harrier, Pectoral Sandpiper and Green-winged Teal, for example. This was made possible simply because I had been working a top nationwide site renowned for its ability to produce Grade A rares. Expectations and standards were high and so fantastic birds on site, more so those that were twitched, retrospectively have lost some novelty. That may seem overly pessimistic, but I genuinely think that one of the best kinds of patch gold – that is patch gold you will savour for as long as you’re birding – comes from the patches that you least expect decent species to crop up in; an inland, unwatched site with limited habitat, somewhere that truly tests your birding and patching abilities. Small goals and low standards broaden the scope for surprise and great pleasure.

My Norfolk patch, which I have been working since October 2011, fits the bill completely. When I’m in the region, I live on and patch Costessey House Private Estate, which is situated between the villages of Old Costessey and Drayton on the western outskirts of Norwich. It comprises of a mix of deciduous woodland and marshland habitat, interspersed with sparse reed-beds and scrub. Much of the marshland is located along the Fishermen’s Trail and Costessey Marsh, making these the main areas of interest, while the River Wensum runs throughout the patch.

One of the most rewarding things about it from a patching perspective is that it’s entirely private land, so I have its beauty, its tranquillity, and its birds to myself. Because my mother’s cottage is actually on site, I’m the only birder who can feasibly access the area with the permission of the landowners. Thus, I’m left with the responsibility to record everything there, which is a challenge I embrace whole-heartedly and one which has been very gratifying thus far.

Another winning factor for me about Costessey House Private Estate is the relatively of rarity there. The complete privacy of the patch has allowed me to independently establish what is locally common or scarce on site and has helped me to discover its breeding birds, its every nook and cranny for the first time, and by doing so I have given it a birding ‘identity’. Frankly, I’ve found this process more rewarding than any previous long term birding I’ve done, something which has let me form a unique bond with the area and its birds. Its limitations are made clear by the fact that the vast majority of ducks, geese and waders are uncommon. Ironically I have had more wader species than either of the other two families: Jack Snipe, Woodcock, Golden Plover, Greenshank and Green Sandpiper are the highlights of 8 wader species recorded on site. Wildfowl have been much harder to come by: with just Egyptian, Canada, Greylag and Pinkfoot recorded goose-wise and Mallard, Gadwall and Teal duck-wise. Only Mallard, Greylag and Egyptian Goose are regular. The rest are notable and have been much enjoyed for their patch rarity. That lack of expectation for some of the broadly common species one would simply take for granted at a stereotypically decent coastal site, has become a novelty thanks to the patch: it gives Teal and Pinkfoots the tribute they deserve. This owes a lot to the fact that apart from the River Wensum, the patch is just agricultural land apart from when it floods, hence water faring species steer clear most of the time. Herein lies the challenge that I relish: a site deprived of many typical water birds, in which my aim is to patiently dig out locally uncommon species and simultaneously get to know its commoner species.

The patch is accessible through Mill Lane, which runs all the way to Costessey Marsh. The cottages, where the patch starts, are based around a barn and some paddocks which hold up to 3 Little Owls during the summer and are viewable from the comfort of the living room. Owls are definitely one of the patch’s consistent strong points, with all 3 of the regular species available. Barn Owl is easy over Costessey Marsh and near to the cottage at Mill Meadow. Both species occasionally appear on the front lawn.

Little Owl in the front garden

Costessey Marsh is the largest and most productive area of habitat on site, consisting of low lying boggy marshland, and a line of deciduous woodland and reeds at the back. Breeding species here include 6 pairs of Reed Bunting and several pairs of Sedge Warbler in the summer. A pair of Hobby hawk over here very regularly until September, providing a dose of real quality to summer patching. Flooded conditions regularly produces Little Egret and Snipe on the marsh, with up to 50 of the latter noted here in April 2013, and has also heralded Water Rail and a Peregrine. Most notably however, the marsh was lucky enough to hold a Bittern and to have 6 Cranes flying over in February 2013. These two species, well off the radar, really got the adrenaline pumping and have gone down as the best birds that the patch has ever produced; very much testimony to the range of species that this small bit of land can offer and to that unique, unadulterated gratification and satisfaction that patching can give you.

6 Cranes in Feb 2013

Bittern in Feb 2013

Costessey Marsh in the summer (+ pair of hunting Barn Owl)
Fishermen’s Trail can also be productive; a small path running alongside the River Wensum opposite a patch of reeds and scrub which have occasionally held Cetti’s, Grasshopper and Reed Warblers and Lesser Whitethroat. It is far more reliable for breeding Kingfisher, Grey Wagtail and Otter. Mill Field is more conditions dependent, but is susceptible to flooding and can produce very good numbers of Larus when this happens. This has included a major patch highlight in the form of an adult Yellow-legged Gull in July 2012. The varied cover throughout the patch has held 10 warbler species – 6 of which breed on site – and passerines such as Spotted Flycatcher, Brambling and Common Crossbill. There is no reason why species such as Cuckoo and Redstart cannot crop up in these areas in the future.

Fishermen’s Trail

a marvellous michahellis on Mill Field

I've managed exactly 100 species in just over two years of sporadically working this random, untouched patch of private land, accessible simply through walking out the front door. Yet there’s still species such as Redshank and Shelduck that elude me, but will bring much satisfaction when I finally connect. Costessey H.P.E. is by absolutely no means a Strathbeg or a Rutland Water. It is not even a reserve nor a birding site, yet it still covers all my desired birding bases: the challenges of patching, the adrenaline of the find, immersion in the elements, getting to know the specific movements of the breeding species, record collation, that sense of release from the strains of everyday life, and realising the foundation that birds have within me. It is also a home, quite literally. For that reason, Costessey House Private Estate has transcended the objectivity of this hobby for me; it has helped me realise that patching is inherent within me. And I’m especially glad to say that for many of us involved in Next Generation Birders patching has become a mode of life and a source of great birding inspiration and joy; long may that continue, I hope, among the future generations of young birders. 

For more information and accounts from Costessey House Private Estate, see here.

-Joseph Nichols
Joseph is a 19 year old Scottish birder and avid patcher currently studying History at the University of Edinburgh. He lives in the capital city and often works his nearby patch at Cramond, where he hopes a Semipalmated Sandpiper will await him at the estuary mouth one autumn day. When not at uni he can usually be found trying to eke out local scarce at his other patch in Costessey, Norfolk. Joseph is also a passionate musician, playing drums and harmonica in a blues-funk band.1

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