Patchwork predictions are rubbish.

The move to balance twitching and self finding was established a few years ago with the setting of the  rules for ‘The Patchwork Challenge‘.  This blog is the reflection on ‘my’ 3km square -Causey Valley.  In 8 years I have only clocked up 101 species.  I do not expect to get a mega rarity and should I get a 3 pointer it would be a big thing-a really big thing.

This patch competes in the ‘Inland North’ section with others who have large bodies of water nearby.  Not easy to compete when much of this patch has no standing water in the summer.  However, I would not swap this patch for another as what it lacks in quantity and quality there are plenty of opportunities to catch up with farmland birds living out their lives.

Part of the excitement of the patch is getting there as often as possible and racking up the Birdtrack entries.  The other part, especially in the early part of the year, is to predict what will be the find of the year.  I fancy a bunting.  I would be happy with Lapland, but if a Little could be squeezed out of these inland fields that would be real treasure.

I can see you laughing at that, but my powers of prediction are amazing.  OK I did not foresee the Whimbrel, Quail or even the Shelduck I found in 2014.  However, in 2014 I did predict the delivery of something good.


This Tweet was sent in January 2014 having just come across the gamekeeper in some serious camo, gear with a serious rifle out hunting Roe Deer.  I think as you can see I was expecting a delivery of a carpet which would have been, at that time, a patch tick.

I can only assume the patch delivered that rarity in 2015 while I was occupied in Newcastle/Gateshead.  The reason I think this is last weekend @BrianSmith46 posted the following picture of the next instalment-a whole sitting room of furniture to Causey Arch.

Fly tip Causey

Fly-tippers are ****s.



Between Tides

The tide has covered the mud on the bend in the river. Water pushes on boats that strain against their ropes; complaining and grumbling like old men on a bench without anywhere to go. Closer to its mouth the river hides seaweed and permits sea ducks entry.

I know all this because Curlew are here. Their legs, the colour of ducks’ eggs, are barely hidden by the grass. Some stand in the shallow water of this flooded field. They are not here to feed, but to rest between tides. The size of small dogs, they arrived on the pointed wings of falcons telling the story of long migrations, not of chase and pursuit.

Jonny Atkinson Dec 15

Photo by @johnnyatkinson

Preening, they anoint and rejoin the barbs on each feather; protecting themselves against the elements and preparing themselves for their next flight.  After this some turn their head and curve their beak down their back.  It points away from the wind, like the vane on the Church in the distance.  Briefly they shut their eyes.

Some remain alert, neck stretched.  Then relaxed, one stretches a foot and scratches behind its ear.  It is only now I notice the white ring around its dark olive eye.  In that moment I feel I have never looked at Curlew.  My scope has shrunk the distance between us; it cannot be looking as closely at me.

Another lone bird joins the group.  Before landing it lets out a long solitary note.  It too wears white eye-liner.  Briefly hail bounces off feathers and falls to the ground to melt.

I don’t recommend you try telling the time by a Curlew.  They are unreliable; clock in tune with the tides.  However, perhaps you could use them as a calendar watching their decline as you grow older; 46% in 16 years.


Drawing @scribblesbyjohn


Taking Spinoza Birding.

The weather was grey, cold and still. Good gull watching weather, so I am told. Wandering, with only a general direction in mind we found a statue standing by one of the numerous canals in Amsterdam. Cast in bronze he was surrounded in a cloak peppered with parakeets and sparrows –immigrants and residents that make up this multicultural city.

Baruch Spinoza, philosopher (1632 to 1677). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Spinoza’s ideas were too radical for the Amsterdam’s Sephardic community, which not only banned him from the city, but also their religion. According to Spinoza, ‘God has no plan or free will. God is in nature, the bible was made by people’.

This chance encounter last year made a lasting impression. Or perhaps it was the guide I chose that made the lasting impression; John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook. Fascinated by the rumour that Spinoza had a sketch book Berger pieces together small life events with exerts from Spinoza’s ‘Ethics’. In so doing he uses the process of drawing to underline that looking carefully at objects and people allows a person to question the world around them.

Birding is not just about lists and Berger’s approach translates well into the birding I enjoy the most.  The chance encounter with something special like the Short-eared Owl on my patch the other evening.

I know I am looking at a Short-eared Owl.  Its broad wings carry its light body across the field before it drops on an unsuspecting vole.  The sun is low in the sky and when it lands it disappears into the grass the colour of a fairy tale’s secret.

I know I am looking at a Short-eared Owl.  It conforms to my image of one, built up of a composite of all the ones I have seen before.  This image is constructed in the mind.  Any description of a species tries to provide the essence of that species. This one is clearly more yellow than the last one I saw, yet remains a SEO.   To misquote Edward O Wilson who worked on ants, ‘when you have seen one Short-eared owl, you have not seen them all’.  

About 350 years ago Spinoza proposed, “The human mind is the idea of the human body”. Two centuries before Darwinian evolution, Spinoza proposed that the starting-point for our thinking about the nature of humankind should be physiology and the process of life-regulation. No need for the eternal soul and the mortal body. Only now are we able to test some of his ideas.

Spinoza’s quest was to develop an ethical system that was both mindful of the force of biology and true to what we would now call the “enlightenment” principles of liberty and justice. He has a lot to teach us about ethics in the age of genetic engineering.




After Henry had gone.

I managed to make the patch just after we lost Henry.  The idea that we now have named winter storms is weird.  Suddenly we have personality traits to watch out for, rather than it just being windy.  Perhaps we will also become a nation of rare cloud watchers and gawp at dying sperm whales.

I could not get parked in the small car park on the patch and from a distance I could see the Paps were out photographing the Short-eared Owls in the lull after the storm.  This included the guy from Chester-Le Street walking the footpath on the east of the grazing fields as though field craft had not been invented.  I was glad to hear that they still had a chance to feed after he had gone.

In 2007 when I found ‘my patch’ I never envisaged too many people was going to be a problem.  Anyway I found another parking space and covered the west end until it got dark.

When I have more time I will do a piece on my views on (re)introducing species, but until then watching a Kite circle its wood is mesmerising.  I remember my first Kite in England in Cambridgeshire in 1986 and I remember later getting one in mid-Wales in 1992 cutting the edge of a reservoir.  Both were distant birds, but seeing one up close as it just delicately turns its tail to steer and slowly moves across the sky is poetry.

Flight, both its metaphors and reality is a key thing about birds for me.  Even when you know the physics of air moving across the wing causes lift it does not ruin this magicians illusion.  There is a great spot on the hillside that looks out across the valley.  Here with a scope you can get up close and personal with this mastery of the air.

Not just Kites but Buzzards put on a show too.  When you watch a Kestrel hunt, its head remains still while its body goes through all types of contortions.  A buzzard though can just hang as if some sky hook holds it in place without the effort.  Mewing, he too is staking claim to his wood.

Behind me a Song Thrush hammered snail against stone.  Small mammals moved as they take their place in the food web of the valley.  A Sparrowhawk not anticipating I would stand up at this point as it travelled along the hedge. Eyes on the prize.  The sound of air through its feathers; close enough to touch.

There was just enough light to see a Woodcock flight out from the Birch wood, but it was dark by the time I reached the car.  Several new patch birds for the year and even got a patch tick;  @ramblingwalker1 is the only other birder who does that side of the hill regularly.