Sunday, March 11, 2018

10 March 2018: Patch-birding, owling, and a few more FOGYs

The other day I was reading about "5MR" (five-mile radius) birding, which reminded me that Wisconsin has a patch-birding competition. Patch-birding has been gaining in popularity in the last few years. So many birders focus on going new places all over the world - which is the best way to find new birds to add to your life list. But many birders are gravitating more and more to birding locally, really getting to know the area and watching the seasons change. During migration, the birds come to you, and it's always thrilling when each species returns. 

The definition of a "patch" varies depending on whom you ask; eBird prefers patches to be small, usually a single hotspot (but you can define your patch however you want), while the Wisconsin Local Patch Challenge uses a 7.5-mile radius centered on the birder's home. In all of those cases, though, a patch lends itself well to green birding. So, naturally, I set up my patches (one 5MR and one 7.5MR) in eBird to see what they looked like. I was surprised by how much ground the 7.5MR patch covered - and even more surprised by how many species it accounted for! Last year I had 213 species on my green list; of those, I saw 195 within my 7.5MR patch. Does that mean that it was a waste of time and energy for me to bike beyond that patch? Of course not - every bird counts, and biking is great exercise regardless, and exploring is fun. But it does demonstrate how much you can find close to home - and I wasn't even trying to build my patch list last year. Many patch-birders in Wisconsin have found well over 200 (even over 250) species in their patch, which is pretty impressive.

My 7.5-mile-radius patch, centered on Onalaska in southwest Wisconsin. Note the state borders, shown as pale, thin lines - the southwest slice of the circle is in Minnesota and Iowa. I'll probably never bird there because those species wouldn't count toward the Wisconsin Green Birding Challenge! Plus, getting there is annoying - the closest bridge over the river is I-90, which I will not be traveling by bike. I drew the patch in Google Earth with the "ruler" tool.

Of course, now that I've defined my patches, I want to build those lists this year! I've already added a few local species, and when I tallied up the patches, I found that overall (last year plus a few new species so far this year), I was sitting at 199 species in the 7.5MR patch. That's annoyingly close to 200, so of course I started looking forward to the next new species I would find. The 5MR patch had 194 species - again, going a little farther for 7.5MR added only a little diversity - so it'll be fun to build that to 200 as well.

The forecast for Saturday was mild and calm, so I left home in the dark to listen for owls. The clouds had cleared overnight and it was rather colder than expected (16 F when I left home). I love biking in the dark and birding by ear; there's very little traffic before 6am on a weekend, so it's quiet and I can concentrate on the birds. Northern Cardinals were the first to wake up - I never realize how many of them there are when I'm out in the daylight! - followed by robins and Song Sparrows. A faint Barred Owl in the distance was the only owl I heard before dawn, but it was still nice to be out.

I was biking up a valley that hosts an interesting mix of brand new development and old farmsteads. There's a nice mix of habitats there, and I saw a couple of deer bedded down under the ornamental spruce trees in the yard of a new house. My first FOGY (first-of-green-year) of the day was a group of Wild Turkeys (#63) gobbling in the woods; on my way back down later, I saw that there were at least 11 of them sauntering across a field. This was also a new species for both my patches!

Looking up Smith Valley - agriculture meets new condominiums.

I walked my bike periodically on my way back down the valley, because I was too cold to ride downhill! Walking helps reduce the self-generated windchill and get some blood flowing to my fingers and toes. Then I biked up another side road, this one sans condos, which was devoid of car traffic. A few Song Sparrows gritting on the side of the road got my hopes up, but alas, they were not longspurs or buntings.

Spot the sparrows. We had our biggest snowstorm yet early last week, and the fields are still covered, so the birds like the bare areas next to the roads.

I found a Purple Finch (#64) on my way back down that road. Another quiet road yielded a Great Horned Owl (#65) singing at 9am, which made it seem like my early departure had been for nothing! (Some birders don't count heard-only birds on their lists, but I do, partly so that I don't face the temptation to go out with a spotlight or tromp around in breeding habitat just so I can see a bird that I've heard while potentially stressing it out in the process.) A couple of Eastern Meadowlarks (#66) in a snow-covered corn field were a nice surprise at the end of the ride. I rode a total of 33 miles over 7 hours, but I'd left so early that I was still home in time for lunch!


  1. All of this 5-mile radius business makes me really want to see how mine stacks up, but I am afraid that I will get too obsessed with it at the expense of my larger green list. Also, my Wisconsin experience is limited, so I am surprised at those hills!

    1. Yeah, I know what you mean about not wanting to try to track too many lists... but the vast majority of my green birding will be within my 7.5MR patch anyway. Birding every day close to home will always be more efficient than venturing farther afield. There will also always be birds that I will only have a chance of finding outside the circle. Last year I didn't worry too much about my La Crosse County list versus the rest of my green list, which was a contrast to previous years in Kansas when I only cared about my county list (which was also almost entirely green, but there was no Green Birding Challenge there!). This year I'm pretty committed to my state list, so we'll see how it goes. =)

      And yes, we have hills! La Crosse is in the "Driftless Region," which was never flattened by glaciers (or at least not during the last couple of ice ages). Those hills make themselves felt any time I want to get out of the Mississippi River Valley...