Wednesday, 1 October 2014

PatchChat: Liam Langley on Port Meadow, Oxfordshire

Patching, the process of concentrating the main thrust of your birding effort on a single local site, week in week out, is an absolute necessity for any keen young birder. The benefits of patching are many and include: honing your ability to accurately ID a range of regular bird species via both sight and sound, giving coverage to previously under-watched areas and the intrinsic joy of seeing first-hand the seasonal shifts in the bird populations of an area special to you. 
While I’m no slouch when it comes to twitching, the thrill of finding a rare patch-bird for me far outweighs the feeling of twitching other people’s birds and if you submit your patch records to Birdtrack you’re also actively contributing to ornithological research. 

Reading the previous few sentences, it may come as a surprise to you that I took up patching relatively late, only starting to watch Chorlton Water Park, a small gravel pit near my home in Manchester after meeting Dave Campbell (Something of a patching guru at Canons Farm and Banstead Woods) on Scilly in October 2011. Starting to regularly bird Chorlton WP during my afternoons off college opened up a completely new dimension to my birding and I felt my sharpness with calls and flight views noticeably improve in a matter of months. I never found anything earth-shattering at Chorlton (the Northwest is something of a birding desert), but Willow Tit, Woodcock and a couple of Spotted Flycatchers were good records for Manchester Borough. When I found out I would be heading to university in Oxford my excitement at the prospect of patching Port Meadow, a flooded field with records of Lesser Yellowlegs and White Stork amongst other things, was through the roof. Unfortunately the hectic nature of the first term meant that I made very few visits to the meadow although I did twitch a smart juvenile American Golden Plover in early November, to date still the rarest bird I’ve seen on patch.

At this juncture I feel it is important to take a step back from my personal narrative to describe the topography and regular birding highlights of this wonderful site. 
Port Meadow is essentially a floodplain of the river Thames lying just Northwest of Oxford city centre. The large grassy meadow is bordered on all sides by road, river, and rail track and contains a semi-permanent flood of standing water which provides the main focus for visiting birders. 
Winter is one of the best times for birding on the meadow with huge flocks of wildfowl including regular counts of 500+ Wigeon, 800+ Teal, 100+ Shoveler, 50+ Pintail and the awesome spectacle of up to 1000 Golden Plover. Moreover the almost constant presence of people means that unlike at most sites the birds have lost their natural wariness and regularly show incredibly well with no hides necessary. Despite the plethora of avian delights available I was tempted to start making regular visit by a species often shunned by a decent portion of the birding community, namely Caspian Gull. 

©Adam Hartley

Prior to visiting Port Meadow I had never ventured down the veritable wormhole that is watching and identifying gulls however the presence of several Caspos picked out by patch stalwart Adam Hartley tempted me to give it a shot. 
Port Meadow is a great site for gulls and depending on weather conditions up to 1000 of the “LWHGs” which feed at Didcot tip will either roost on the flood or stop in to bathe before heading off to Farmoor to roost. What’s more the geographic position of Port Meadow in England’s southeast means that good numbers of Yellow-legged Gulls as well as the odd Caspian, Glaucous and Iceland Gull can be unearthed among the throngs of commoner species. To date I’ve found 4 Caspain Gulls and a Glauc at Port Meadow and have had my ornithological knowledge expanded and my observation skills vastly improved by regularly studying the large congregations of the birds which, to some are merely dismissed as “flying rats”. Occasionally, after heavy rain, the flood extends across the entire northern half of the meadow to Wolvercote and becomes more akin to a large lake. This makes birding the site more difficult but is appreciated by the wildfowl including a regular winter roost of 12+ Goosander, a real scarcity in the county.

In spring the interest on the floods switches from gulls to migrant waders, always a treat for inland patchers! Although their presence is very much dependant on the water levels and observer effort, most regular species have been recorded and goodies such as Avocet, Little Stint and Grey Plover are near annual. Other spring treats multiple migrant Garganey per spring as well as good numbers of passage Yellow Wagtails (a relative novelty for a northener like me) and summering Common Terns. 
Another fantastic spring highlight for me was a migrating Hobby which I watched as it hawked the flocks of passage hirundines over the floods one memorable April afternoon. 

It is at this time of year that the other section of the patch comes into its own. The Burgess Field is an LNR adjacent to Port Meadow which consists of rough grassy fields bordered by thick Hawthorn hedges and interspersed with willow copses. For most of the year there are relatively few birds, leading to Adam renaming it “Birdless Field”, however in spring and summer the field comes to life and is positively buzzing with the songs of a suite of breeding migrant warblers including Grasshopper and Garden Warbler among the commoner species. 
Also nice in spring is the potential to find locally scarce migrant passerines such as Redstart, Whinchat and Tree Pipit moving through the hedges as they migrate north. The topography of the Burgess Field seems to concentrate these species in the northwest corner in an area called the Triangle Field which produced at least 5 Redstarts in April 2013. Outside of this exciting window the Burgess Field often lives up to its alternative name but in winter Short-eared Owl and Jack Snipe have been recorded and the extensive habitat looks ideal for a scarcity such as a Wryneck or shrike if the requisite effort as put in. The potential of the patch to produce such birds was highlighted in October 2013 when Adam found a Yellow-browed Warbler near the car park whilst I was unfortunately at home in Manchester.

As you can see Port Meadow is an incredibly rich site in terms of avian diversity and its location, 15 minutes from Oxford city centre makes it incredibly accessible as a local patch. One thing that works against Port Meadow is its relatively large size, especially in terms of turning up scarce passerines and with increased coverage I’m sure that more good birds would be found. 

Another underrated aspect of Port Meadow is its position on the north-south Thames flyway, surely if someone who wasn't a busy student put the time in, flyover Marsh Harriers, Honey Buzzards and who knows what else might be regularly encountered regularly. Port meadow has expanded my ornithological horizons and has been an absolute dream of a patch over the first two years of my degree. Hopefully this year I can find the biggie there because if not I’ll have to secure a PhD studentship so that I can stay in Oxford and keep patching it until I do! If any NGBs are ever in Oxford don’t hesitate to contact me as I’ll happily show you around this wonderful site.

-Liam Langley
Liam is a 20 year old Biology student who splits his time between his home in Stockport and university in Oxford. He has a broad spectrum of birding interests with a particular focus on twitching, seawatching in Cornwall and gulling at Port Meadow. He also loves watching migration in action and the 'anything can turn up' feeling of Spurn and hopes to become a regular visitor there over the next few years.

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