I like patch birding. I can get my arms around a patch. I can slip a patch into my pocket. In my patch I learn every note, every chip, and every flash of color. In a patch, I can know every bird, or I have fooled myself into thinking so. I am king of my patch.
I have a favorite patch in Philadelphia. When in the city I usually stay in the Embassy Suites across from Logan Square (which is now a circle). For the past few years I have worked in Philadelphia with the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Department (PPRD.) My walk to their offices near Love Park is only a few blocks.
On the way I pass a tiny patch that I have adopted. This patch has a few trees and shrubs, with mulched grounds separated by a few blades of grass. A statue dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust dominates one end; for that reason I call this Holocaust Park.
This is not the only tiny patch of green along Ben Franklin Parkway. The Sister’s City Park across from Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church nurtures a scattering of green as well. In general, however, the central city of America’s first great city is varying shades of concrete gray.
Birds use my Holocaust Park. There is always a small flock of house sparrows chattering in the crowns of the few trees. American robins are ever present as well; I have seen them digging through the snow in search of food they overlooked. Add European starling and rock pigeons and you have accounted for the resident bird population.
The brilliance of patch birding is that you learn the common quickly. You learn the common intimately. Any interloper is instantly noticed. Resident birds are a background against which the new and unexpected are highlighted.
In the past I have seen an eclectic selection of birds in my Philly patch. American woodcock, prairie warbler, ovenbird, and slate-colored junco are examples of the birds that have dropped in and attracted my notice. My only limitation in birding this patch is that my visits to Philadelphia are rare. If I lived there, I would search my patch daily.
I wonder how these birds even find this patch. I assume that birds displaced in the city search out any miniscule scrap of green. While in college I birded the trees around the city hall in Houston every morning on the way to class. Migrants, attracted by the lights and disoriented by the tall buildings, would crowd into these live oaks each morning. I guess that the birds in my Philadelphia patch are doing the same.
However, I am convinced that some of the patch birds have selected this site. For example, for the past few winters I have noticed a small group of white-throated sparrows scattered among the trees. They stay the winter. Are these lost birds, or have they found a place where they can survive the winter and therefore return each year.
I suspect both. I imagine that young birds find the patch, survive their first winter, and therefore repeat the pattern the remainder of their lives. Wandering individuals join these acclimated birds each year. The result is that my patch has a wintering group of white-throated sparrows that I can count on seeing.
If I banded these birds I suspect that I would see many of the same individual birds each year. They nest far to the north (although a few breed in the mountains of northern Pennsylvania); I know that they are not local nesters. But winter site fidelity is strong in many birds, and I know, from personal experience, that this is true for white-throated sparrows.
For many years I banded in High Island’s Scout’s Woods, and every year I would recapture white-throated sparrows that I had netted in previous years. These sparrows would arrive each fall, somehow find their way to this postage stamp of woods on the Texas coast, and remain through the spring. If these birds can find High Island, surely they can find my Holocaust Park.
Banding also allows you to get to know birds personally. As birders we count species. As a bander you notice individuals. For example, I once color-banded shorebirds along the Texas coast. One greater yellowlegs that I banded returned to the same part of the flats at San Luis Pass (the western tip of Galveston Island) for seven consecutive years.
I came to know this yellowlegs as an individual, a bird faced with its own unique set of challenges. I believe that each bird approaches life in a singular fashion. While they are constrained by specific genes, they still make choices that are so fine-tuned they escape our notice.
Learning a patch gives me a closer look at the life of birds collectively as well as individually. Perhaps I imagine knowing each bird. Perhaps my need to get closer, to become more familiar, masks a more pedestrian reality.
Yet there are times when there is evidence that bolsters my conjectures. Each fall I would watch the flats at San Luis Pass in hopes of seeing the arrival of “my” yellowlegs. And every visit to Philadelphia I shuffle past Holocaust Park in expectation of being greeted by “my” white-throated sparrows.
What happens when Holocaust Park is developed? There are plans for a museum at this site. Will my birds find other sites or other parks? What if there are no other sites, or that the other sites have their own white-throated sparrows?
Perhaps there are green spaces where my sparrows can resettle. I hope so. But what about my greater yellowlegs? What happens when San Luis Pass is inundated by sea level rise? What happens to the tens of thousands of shorebirds that migrate through or winter there? What about the black skimmers, least terns, Wilson’s plovers, and Texas horned larks that nest there? Forget moving; the neighboring flats will be inundated as well.
Yet tonight I am not worrying about climate change. I am in Philadelphia to celebrate my grandson Han’s birthday. This afternoon I walked over to my park to see my sparrows. I am hoping that the recent election will allow the world to begin to patch together a solution for climate change. But tonight I am enjoying my own.