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Open Mic: The Joys of Patch Birding

At the Mic: Vjera Thompson

I used to think I had to go somewhere special to go birding.  I started birding as a kid and got to tag along on lots of field trips, bird walks, and chases.  After I started college, birding was a hobby I did on some weekends, at parks, wildlife refuges, and wetlands.  I tried to keep track of the birds I saw when I was birding at a birding location.  At other places I noticed birds but nothing got written down unless I saw something new or unusual.  I really enjoy this type of birding but I wasn’t able to go to prime birding locations as much when I started working full-time, bought a home, and had chores to do on the weekends–oh, the joys of growing up!

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Over time, my perspective on when and where I can go birding has changed.  Three major factors led to this change.  First, I got a smartphone and a couple years later, downloaded the eBird app (then called BirdLog).  For those unfamiliar with eBird, it is a worldwide database run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to which thousands of birders and scientists contribute.  Instead of keeping notes on birding outings on paper or your home computer, you upload them to eBird and they are available to scientists for creating scientific studies.  In return, eBird lets users keep track of bird lists, see what other people are reporting at hotspots, and create graphs and charts.  The eBird app gave me the ability to report checklists everywhere I went and eBird’s charts incentivized me to keep notes, even when I wasn’t at a “birding location.”

Around the same time, I also learned about patch birding.  Patch birding involves picking a small, nearby park or birding spot that you bird frequently. Ideally, you’ll visit at least once a week, year-round.  As you visit the same location over time, you learn a lot about the birds that frequent your patch.  If you’re lucky, you might even find something unusual; you will certainly have a better chance of realizing something unusual is there, since you will be familiar with the regular residents.

The third factor in broadening my birding horizons was an increased ability to bird by ear.  When I first started birding, I needed to see a bird (usually with binoculars) to identify it.  Over the last several years, I’ve gotten much better at recognizing what I’m hearing.  I’ve learned by brute repetition of listening to bird tapes over and over, by birding with better birders and learning their tricks and tips, and by hearing and tracking down the same birds year after year and finally remembering how to tell them apart.

Now I do a lot of my birding as I go about my normal day.  I use the eBird app to track what I’m observing and enter data for every location I visit, I deliberately visit the same areas over and over (patch birding), and I don’t need binoculars to be able to observe birds, because I can identify them using my ears as well as my eyes.  I’d like to share three stories of the things I’ve learned since starting to bird some of the more mundane locations in my neighborhood.

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First story: bus stop birding.  I ride the bus to work almost every day.  On my walk to the bus stop and while I wait for the bus, I count everything I see and hear.  I don’t carry binoculars (Ted Floyd called this “naked birding“) but I still can tally a variety of birds, depending on the weather and the amount of daylight I have.  My bus stop is next to a parking lot and a right by a gas station.  Seems like an unlikely place to go birding, right?  Well, I’ve discovered a White-crowned Sparrow sings all spring and early summer from a tree in the middle of the parking lot!  I suspect it has a nest in a low bush near the gas station–I’ve seen it dart in with a mouthful of something.  My eBird chart for this location shows almost year-round distribution data for 60 species.

Second story: dog park birding.  A dog park is just a couple blocks past the bus stop.  I never paid much attention to it as a birding location.  It is a fenced off grassy area where all the neighbors bring their dogs to play.  But then last summer I started joining a friend with a dog on walks to the dog park.  Well, if you’re standing in a dog park for 20 minutes, you might as well count birds, right?  I had zero expectations of finding anything noteworthy.  Then I noticed I could hear the sound of herons clacking.  The hunt was on–where were they?  I sometimes saw Great Blue Herons flying around the neighborhood, but I assumed they were nesting closer to the wetlands, not here by apartments, houses, and a dog park. Soon I found the heronry, with 6 active nests, across the street from the dog park in some tall trees in a backyard.  The embarrassing part is I’d lived in this neighborhood for 6 years without realizing herons were breeding just down the street. It didn’t surprise me that it took a while to realize a White-crowned Sparrow was nesting nearby, but missing a Great Blue Heron?  They are big and loud!

Third story: wrecking yard birding.  I’m sure you’ve heard of visiting dumps and sewage ponds to look for birds, but visiting a wrecking yard?  After learning about patch birding, I started walking a three-mile route to church.  I consider it one of my patches.  It has all the criteria: I bird it almost every week, it’s small enough to do in an hour or two, and for a bonus, not many other people bird the locations along it.  I’ve separated the route into 7 different sections, including 3 small ponds, and a wrecking yard next to one of the ponds.  I’ve found some neat critters by birding this route weekly–one of the ponds regularly has a Green Heron, sometimes has an otter or two, and one time I got lucky and found a Black-crowned Night-Heron.

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And then there is the wrecking yard.  I saw it as a burden, that desolate area I had to walk past to get to the next pond.  But one day in March, my perspective on the wrecking yard changed.  As I was walking past, I was idly wondering when a local Say’s Phoebe would be found.  Usually there’s one or two each March not too far from town, maybe in an open field or along a peaceful fence.  As this thought went through my head, I saw something out of the corner of my eye on the wrecking yard fence and instantly realized it wasn’t normal to have a bird on that fence.  Could it be a Say’s Phoebe?  It was!  As the cars whizzed by, I ignored the rusting vehicles in the background and admired a year bird.  When I posted it to our local birding email list, I’m sure some of the local birders scratched their head, wondering why in the world I was birding a wrecking yard.

I’ve enjoyed changing my attitude about birding.  Not only have I started paying more attention to birds in my neighborhood, I’ve found new places to go birding, and learned more about what birds are here and when they’re on the move.  And best of all, the more I look, the more I learn.

What have you learned by birding the areas you pass through on a normal day?  What could you learn?

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Vjera Thompson is an Accounting Manager in Eugene, Oregon. She’s been birding about 20 years, and is very thankful to the generous birders that were eager to help out a kid birder and gave her rides and shared copious amounts of bird knowledge. In her spare time, she goes on walks with her husband, gardens, and runs the soundboard at church.  Vjera’s favorite list is her green birding/bicycle list: 194 and counting!

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The ABA Blog's Open Mics offer an opportunity for members of the birding community to share their voice with the ABA audience. We accept all and any submissions. If you have something you'd like to share, please contact blog editor Nate Swick at [email protected]