By Joe Parham, Keir Chauhan and Finley Hutchinson
For many young birders, ‘patch birding’—regularly birding an area near home—is a much more accessible and climate-friendly form of birding than regularly driving to far–flung sites to see rarities or enjoy other landscapes. Our decision to focus on local birding is partly related to the fact that travelling across the country to see birds is limited by the cost of public transport and poor accessibility to many of the major nature reserves across the UK. Also, many young birders cannot afford or don’t want to own a car. But our interest in local birding is also related to a resetting of our expectations. To many young birders the most inspiring stories are not about long-distance trips to see a rare bird but about those miraculous local finds and those unexpected or just delightful bird behaviours, demonstrating how even the most unlikely places can afford very pleasant experiences.
Regarding rarer birds, young green patch-birders in the last 12 months have found species such as Penduline Tit in London (Zach Pannifer), countless scarce gulls across the country and returning ‘megas’ like Pacific Diver in Cornwall (Matt Broadbent). Patch birding does not take away from the excitement of seeing rare birds, when you stumble upon a scarcity on the patch it is vastly more enjoyable than travelling hundreds of miles to see one that someone else has found. Inspiring stories are also about the quiet thrill of learning about our common birds. Once you start paying more attention to these you realise that they are much less ordinary than you may have expected. Despite this, there is still far more media coverage of high-carbon forms of enjoying birds than of more environmentally sustainable birding methods, which only helps to push the tide in the wrong direction.
The point of this approach is not to take away from the joy of seeing new birds or travelling to other places, rather to encourage all generations of birders to think more consciously about the effect their birding has on the planet and to consider staying local and travelling low-carbon. For a hobby deeply embedded within the conservation movement it would make sense that the birding community should be especially environmentally conscious, and yet it often appears that the exact opposite is true.
The ‘Global Big Day’—an annual event where birders across the world try to spot as many species as possible—was a perfect opportunity to make an impression and raise awareness of low-carbon birding by forming a ‘team’ of young birders solely using public transport (see https://ebird.org/profile/MjczNTQ1NQ for the results of this). Perhaps most tellingly about the whole event was that not only were we one of the only young birder groups in the UK but we were also the only group in the world to focus solely on low-carbon birding—an indication of how much still needs to be done to get others involved.
What gives us hope is that low-carbon birding is steadily increasing in popularity and young birders will continue to lead that change. More and more events are being organised to popularise this side of birding, such as a challenge among many young birders this year to spot as many species as possible only by walking or cycling (see https://lowcarbonbirding.net/2021/01/31/young-birders-green-patch-year/): these events have provided a number of networks connecting like-minded young birders who all wish to spread the message that low-carbon birding is not only good for the planet but is also fun. Inspired by the climate movement some of us are using increased networking capabilities to advocate ways to enjoy birds that are less reliant on burning fossil fuels. We hope that increased group efforts from young birders will help to encourage more involvement from the wider birding community for low-carbon patch events.
To illustrate the importance of this, we collected the thoughts of some young birders spread across the United Kingdom…
Joe Parham, 22
Patch birding is very close to my heart. My usual visits to the patch are dominated by the same species (as can be evidenced by a thorough analysis of my ebird checklists). Despite this, the spring and autumn months in particular present the excitement of migration in action and the buzz that anything could turn up. In December 2020 I started the Green Patch Challenge for young birders, in an attempt to engage a growing community in accessible forms of birding. There were a number of motivations for this, but perhaps the one that governed them all was a desire to unite young birders in a love of local birding and bird-finding. The number of sites close to your home that harbour potential ornithological treasures can be surprising. A few forays into some patches of isolated woodland near my home over the past few years have turned up scarce and declining breeders such as Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, Marsh Tit and Hobby. Birding locally is highly rewarding, and when you chance upon a rare species on your local patch it is a thrill.
There is a growing community of young birders in the UK, and this community is increasingly climate conscious. I hope the patch challenge has, and will continue to engage young birders in both a love of patch birding and increasing consciousness about the impact of one’s carbon footprint. Low-carbon birding is a movement that is only gathering pace, and the increasing engagement in low-carbon birding by young people in particular is testament to how serious the younger generations view the climate crisis. Around 50 people took part in the challenge in 2021 and I hope this number continues to grow and grow each year.
Matthew Broadbent, 20
Low-carbon birding for me started as a necessity. Before, my birding involved driving to the Lizard or west coast of Cornwall from Uni to look for birds, because that is where I thought the birds were. However, in lockdown I discovered that my local Uni patch has its own fantastic species to discover, and it was so much more rewarding to see them locally, without emitting carbon.
In an area christened the ‘Tremough 10k’ by Liam Langley, another student at Exeter Uni, Penryn Campus in Cornwall, a few local birders and I have turned up Pacific Diver, Green-winged Teal, Pallas’s Warbler, Glaucous and Little Gulls, Black Guillemots, a newly discovered population of Cirl Buntings and so much more in the period between late autumn 2020 and the proceeding winter. It showed me just how many birds would not have been discovered, from Siberian Chiffchaffs and Yellow-browed Warblers to Velvet Scoters and mass movements of redwings (one day in November produced 13,000 over campus).
My Cornwall patch is an excellent patch, but I passionately believe that when you put in the hours in any area, good local birds will come to you! I discovered the patch birders challenge midway through January and joined late. However, since then, I’ve absolutely loved being part of the community, and working with Keir and Joe to set up patch birding challenges and try to inspire a passion for birding in other young birders.
I am now on my placement year in the Highlands, very inland, and birding on my patch here by green means has already produced Snow Bunting, Black Grouse, Crested Tit and so many Pink-footed Geese, amongst so much fantastic visible migration. I cannot wait to see what the rest of my time up here has to offer!
There is nothing better than wandering around your local patch and finding a scarce, or even just unusual local bird. I remember celebrating a Lapwing flying over my head whilst vismigging because it was a bird I had not seen on patch that year. Moments like that make patch birding so great. I think it is of the utmost importance that we as birders are mindful of how much carbon we release while birding. Patch birding is so fun and rewarding, and I encourage everyone to give it a go! Wherever you live, there is a chance to see birds. Anything can turn up anywhere at the end of the day!
Sam O’Donnell, 13
I do low-carbon birding because I am conscious about the environment. The seas are rising and warming and 80% of the energy that we use is fossil fuels. The evidence is clear but lots of people don’t care or still don’t believe in it! For most big twitches people drive miles to go and see just one bird: this really annoys me. I get that they need to get there fast to increase their chances of seeing the bird, but, if possible, they should go by public transport, cycling, walking (if possible) or car sharing. When there is a ‘mega’ bird reported, hundreds of people arrive at the site, with their cars contributing tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, plus disturbing other wildlife, local people and so on. Being more conscious about my own actions and doing more low-carbon twitching for me makes a hugely positive impact.
Jenny Allan, 15
We all have a responsibility to our planet to change things by setting an example through low-carbon birding. I really enjoy my birding and go as often as I can and going low-carbon allows me to help, even at a microscopic level. It also means I stay local more often, allowing me to get more birding practice done, and allowing me to connect more with nature so I see, and find, so much more.
Charlie Murphy, 18
Birding comes in many shapes and forms yet birding my patch in a low-carbon way is easily one of the most rewarding. The simple joys of working an area regularly and consistently to find new birds and noting interesting patterns is hard to beat. These birds aren’t necessarily rare anywhere else but the patch feels like a mega. Wigeons are a common bird across the UK and regular less than 10 miles away, but on patch I’ve only ever seen them once—a flock of 11 that had dropped in early morning and then quickly moved off. Since then, I have not managed to find any more.
Making birding green and environmentally sustainable is vital in our climate crisis, but it also makes it even more enjoyable and satisfying. It’s ever more important that we do our part in reducing emissions and birding by low carbon means is a part of that, whether that’s by foot, bike, bus, train or other ways. Cycling is a favourite of mine; I find it reaches a good balance between being able to get to places quickly, birding along the way and carrying all of my optics. It provides a ‘feel good factor’ knowing you’re emitting zero carbon to do a favourite activity, as well as often providing health benefits along the way.
Finley Hutchinson, 17
The solution is not to stop birding. Birding is exciting, healthy and a great opportunity to socialise or spend some time with your own thoughts. Personally, I feel like birding is vital for my mental health, allowing me to escape temporarily from the stresses of everyday life. Low-carbon patch birding is a great way to do this with a clear conscience, and the recent lockdowns have really made it clear how many ‘good’ birds can be seen or heard in the most unlikely of places.
I’m not saying we must stop twitching either. Travelling to see rare birds isn’t for everyone but for many people (me included) it can be great fun, and so satisfying to finally clap eyes on the target species. Buses and trains can be a good (and more interesting) way to enjoy twitching without the negative implications; however, if public transport is not a viable option due to cost or location, car shares can be arranged so as few cars as possible are used to get twitchers to the bird. It is not a case of changing every single outing or journey: there will always be instances when this isn’t possible. It’s simply about altering our overall attitude towards birding in order to ensure future generations get to enjoy the birds and wildlife that we enjoy today.
Keir Chauhan, 19
Locally green patch birding provided a lifeline for me during the third lockdown. I had already been exploring my local area and was discovering that birding was not something you had to travel to do at a designated reserve miles away. I was shy and nervous about joining a green patch challenge with tonnes of really knowledgeable birders, but safe to say I look back and think how glad I am to have taken the opportunity. The photo of the Kestrel is a testament to the joys of patch birding. Finding breeding Kestrels on a cold and miserable day was an exhilarating experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. The joy I gained from low-carbon birding has made me really passionate about seeing more people getting involved. It also inspired me to get the green patchers to take part in the low-carbon all dayer. It was a wonderful way to celebrate how much it helps people both in terms of mental and physical health, but also socially as a safe and positive group.
Emily Hill, 16
Low-carbon birding gives me an incentive to slow down and appreciate the wildlife in my local area in so much more detail. It also means I get to explore places that may be overlooked by others, which has resulted in some fantastic and incredibly rewarding encounters, such as finding a family of little owls, cycling alongside a hunting hen harrier and watching avocets feeding, all on my local patch. Knowing these birds are right on my doorstep is so awesome, and to me represents one of the best things about birding: that it can be done anywhere and by anyone. Low-carbon birding is a great way to both explore your local environment whilst also making small changes to do your part to protect it and I would definitely recommend it to anyone, regardless of birding experience: it’s a lot of fun!
We all have a responsibility to advocate for our planet; to ensure it is protected for the good of current and future generations. To do this it is important to look towards our own hobbies and see how we can begin to make changes for the good of the planet. It’s not about drastically overhauling the way we do things, as travelling longer distances to see birds is something that can bring a lot of joy to so many people; rather it is about remaining mindful towards the impact that frequent birding over long distances can have, and appreciating the excitement that birding locally as an alternative can bring. That way we can lead by example and help to protect the natural world we love so much.
Ben Rumbsy, 14
Birding over the lockdowns and taking part in the green patch challenge has allowed me to appreciate what is in my local area and explore within it.
I am privileged to have a great reserve right on my doorstep—RSPB Rainham Marshes—but I have also been investigating surrounding parks like the Mardyke river valley and Chafford gorges. Birding locally has helped me become a better birder, giving me confidence to pick up a lot more birds that usually escape my radar. I have managed to find some remarkable things: a Pectoral Sandpiper, White Stork and Great Skua are just a few notable standouts. But even without rarities it has been interesting to see the bird’s movements around me. I love seeing when the summer birds arrive and leave, when the autumn migrants have started to come in and how it all has differed to the previous year. I think that birding by green means is not only an effective way to help the planet, but also surprisingly fun in that you never know what you might find!
Alex Liddle, 17
The point is not to completely stop birding, which for me and many others is important for enjoyment in life and mental health. When we talk about low-carbon birding there is a misconception that puts many people off the idea altogether. In my case I was hesitant too with the prospect of being stuck birding West London for my whole life, not the world of my dreams. Let’s be clear it’s not about diving in instantly and forcing yourself to remove any carbon usage. It’s about taking many gradual steps and recognising when it is possible to travel that way and not. Think of it as finding new ways to reduce fossil-fueled travel.
Lockdown caused me to visit a patch within walking distance of my house, a very uninspiring, seemingly birdless place – a Lido, with an artificial beach for tourists and numerous cafes, and very high footfall. It was a surprise then, when with persistence, stuff actually started to turn up. Not anything insane or national twitch worthy but quality birds such as Pied Flycatcher and Arctic Tern.
This is undoubtedly the most rewarding form of birding I have ever taken part in. I would describe it as starting out as a birder for the second time in my life. The Reed Bunting I patch ticked earlier this year brought me more joy than twitching the White-Tailed Lapwing on the way to the Spurn Migfest (an annual celebration of bird migration held at Spurn in East Yorkshire). Now I find that every new species on patch, no matter how many times you see them elsewhere, gives the excitement of seeing that species for the first time.
My best tips to involve yourself in lower-carbon birding are to invest in a bicycle if possible, reduce travel / use car shares, and to get addicted to patch birding. There might not be world class bird reserves near you but there will always be somewhere to watch birds- my favourite tools to choose locations are google maps, ebird sightings or old bird reports – it really is the most rewarding form of birding.
Josh Hedley, 19
By walking and cycling to my local patch, I’m able to appreciate the surroundings of my area much more, and there’s always the possibility of finding birds even before arriving on my patch. Recently I found a new site for Dippers—our only aquatic songbird—along a river by a road which I would normally have travelled straight past!
Magnus Brodie Cooper, 17
Low-carbon birding isn’t about shunning those that use cars or travel large distances, it’s about making them more aware of the consequences of pollution and the major benefits that birding locally can have. The heart pumping thrill when you lock onto an exciting bird doesn’t have to come from far flung locations or after a tediously long car journey, and making people aware of this is what low-carbon birding is about. I’ve experienced this myself on my patch after racing around my local heathland, fueled by finally finding the first Cuckoo of the year and another to add to my list of new species! I think that’s equally if not more thrilling than twitching. I hope more people explore their local areas and find the rarities waiting. I hope a Great Grey Shrike may be added to the list before the end of the year (fingers crossed)!
Zach Pannifer, 17
I have practised low-carbon birding my whole life, growing up almost completely reliant on public transport to get to anywhere further afield. It is deeply important to me. Having a local patch that I could visit regularly gave me somewhere convenient to escape to and enjoy watching wildlife through the lockdowns.
Being out in the field so frequently on my patch has helped me develop my skills for identifying birds and noticing habitats with good potential. In this last year during our ‘green patch challenge’, my local patch Beddington Farmlands in South London has produced some truly epic birds that I have found. My favourite finds of the year include: Common Crane, Garganey, Nightingale, Penduline Tit, and Spoonbill!
At Beddington Farmlands, I have become part of a community of local birders, which makes the experience more enjoyable and I am constantly learning from others. Local birding also helps to add data to less well-birded sites for citizen science projects and helps to reduce our carbon footprint, protecting nature for future generations to appreciate and benefit from.
David Raffle, 19
I have been cycling to my local patch, Gosforth NR in Newcastle, for a few years now and I am always amazed by the variety of birds that can be found so close to home in an urban area. Low-carbon birding is an extremely rewarding way to get to know your local area and its wildlife in a more sustainable way. Taking the time to notice all the seasonal changes happening around us is one of the most satisfying aspects of patch birding, from watching flocks of wintering wildfowl and thrushes on short, dark winter days to gazing up at summer skies filled with hirundines and the songs of warblers. The green patch birding challenge has provided me, and many other young birders, with even more motivation to get out and explore my local patch; after all, you never know what you might find!
Louis Parkerson, 17
There is a growing need to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases significantly to halt global warming and low-carbon birding is a great way to achieve this. I enjoy birding by bike locally in Norfolk, and I have found and twitched some great birds while doing so. One memorable twitch on my patch was when a male Eider turned up on a local broad. After hearing the news, I raced there on my bike and managed to enjoy this unexpected patch tick at dusk with a friend (who also cycled there). As well as increasing your fitness, birding by bike enables you to find birds on route in unexpected places. My first patch Yellow Wagtail was found this way on a beautiful spring day last year and I wouldn’t have noticed its call had I been in a car.
Sam Harris, 17
It’s amazing how much wonderful wildlife people miss locally, from house flyovers to local lakes holding rare wonders. I’ve been visiting my patch in Greater Manchester more often this year and racked up 103 species in less than two years and 98 this year alone. From the excitement of finding Wheatears by myself to hearing the news of Great Northern Diver and Garganey (both showed incredibly well) and sprinting or cycling there rapidly in case you miss it. Local low-carbon birding is a great source of excitement and learning opportunities and the memories I have made on the way are pretty special too.
Ollie King, 24
Whether I use my bike or go on foot to a nearby nature spot, patch birding is by far the most engaging form of birding for me. I’ve really enjoyed learning more about local bird movements and the nuances of migration through getting out and witnessing the phenomenon in action. The local scale and context of patch birding makes it exciting every time you go out, as there’s always a chance of finding something new for the area – even if it’s nationally unremarkable. Seeing Kittiwake and Bar-tailed Godwit at an inland reservoir near home is one of my birding highlights this year.
As birders, we are more aware than most of the impact that climate change is having on the natural world and wildlife, so we have a responsibility to make our practice sustainable and low-carbon wherever possible. As well as helping to protect the natural world, patch birding is good for your health! Walking / cycling in search of the next new species is a good form of physical exercise, and being out and about in nature provides an array of mental health benefits.
Overall, it’s a fantastic way to engage in the natural world and the wildlife on your doorstep.
Samuel Levy, 21
It has been an incredible year walking and cycling to my patch right in the heart of the bustling suburbs of North London. With a target of 100 for the year set, it has been incredible to watch the area with the local birders throughout various lockdowns resulting in 110 species being seen. From the local Mandarin Ducks to the valley’s second ever Golden Oriole singing away, it has been a truly eye opening experience in an age where eco-anxiety is placing huge amounts of pressure on the young people of today. It was great to not need to be dependent on a car or public transport to do things that bring all of us together on a day to day basis… patch birding!
Carla Hill, 21
I’m now on a placement year at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory where I’m out most days. I really love going out for a walk in the mornings or evenings and seeing what I can find! Highlights of my patch birding there so far have been a Sabine’s Gull, a flock of Snow Buntings, a ringtail Hen Harrier, an unringed White Stork, a drake Pintail, my first Russian White-fronted Geese, a huge flock of Barnacle Geese in flight filling my scope view and two Short-eared Owls hunting in broad daylight over a busy golf course. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what other new birds I can come across there over the next 6 months!
My home patch in mid-Norfolk isn’t the best, but every new find there is a success, and I was elated to find some Whitethroats there last spring and a wintering Little Egret who was present for two years running—I’m yet to see if it has returned this year! I’m hoping to find a few more new birds for my home patch when I am in Norfolk. While I also love driving out to other places to bird, there’s nothing more satisfying than finding something new within walking distance of your house!
If you are a young birder who wants to join the challenge please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or message us via social media.