Monday, January 16, 2017

Fulfilling Destiny: The Five Mile Challenge

Last week I decided to take an impromptu day had been raining day after day on end, we were finally going to get a break, and I wasn't very busy at work. It turns out when you are about to have a kid, you unexpectedly get a bunch of free time on your hands right before your fetus levels its warrior and becomes a baby. Anyways, I was twitching to go birding, and not just any kind of birding...I had a Five Mile Challenge (5MC) to do.

Flycatcher Jen had already carried out her challenge, getting 60 species despite below freezing conditions. She had threatened to attempt another challenge with a more intimidating species total, but the better weather she was hoping for never came. Portland currently resembles the North Pole more than the North Pole does. While 60 species was commendable considering the conditions she was stuck with, I thought that it would take a very bizarre turn of events for me to not exceed that number. I don't know my Five Mile Radius (5MR) like the back of my hand, but let's acknowledge the elephant in the room...I am the #7 birder in the United States. So, banking on my sevenness, I did what I thought was best and decided to plunge into the challenge, even though a storm had not quite finished passing through.

Unfortunately, when I arrived at my first site that fateful morning, I was essentially birding in a rain cloud. It sucked. 25 minutes spent at Lake Anza in Tilden Regional Park ended up being a total waste, with only 17 species, all of which I would see again during 5MC. I also missed target birds like Belted Kingfisher and Ring-necked Duck. Ugh...if I had to do it over again, Lake Anza would be out. So much for sevenness.

The next stop was another part of Tilden Regional Park, Jewel Lake and the area around the nature center. The weather was still pretty wet and dismal. This stop was supposed to provide the bread and butter for my passerines for the day, an area my 5MR is not particularly strong in. Fortunately, the birding here didn't end up being as regretful as it was at Lake Anza...Band-tailed Pigeon, Red-breasted Sapsucker and Purple Finch were all quality pickups, and by the time I abandoned Tilden I was up to a modest 35 species. I had missed some easy birds, but I figured that I could just wallop the bayshore sites and make my 5MC list swollen with waterbirds.

The Emeryville Marina was my next stop, which I had timed to be at high tide to pick up roosting shorebirds. Day birds came at a rapid clip...everything was proceeding as I had foreseen.

This was my only place to get Surfbird, a plump west coast specialty which did not disappoint. This roost site is one of the few reliable spots for Surfbird in Alameda County.

The godwits and Willets also sheltered Whimbrels, dowitchers and Black Turnstones. Redhead was definitely the best bird at this stop, and a completely unexpected bonus for the 5MC. The total lack of scoters was worrying, but I figured I would pick them up elsewhere.

An impromptu stop at Aquatic Park in Berkeley was next. I've never birded here that weird? A lot of people bird here. Anyways, I'm glad I stopped because I just piled on more and more day birds, a number of which I didn't get anywhere else that day. I finally got my 5MC Great Blue Heron, which was my first of 2017...what a relief. However, as I had been anticipating for months, one of the locking arms in my tripod finally gave out, meaning that my tripod could only function if I was sitting down or on my knees. This was an ominous turn of events...would this end up crippling my effort?

Berkeley Meadows was the next stop. A distant woodpecker frustratingly had to go down as Downy/Hairy, but White-tailed Kite, Say's Phoebe and Lincoln's Sparrow were all new for the day. A flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers held another new 5MC species...

Mmmmmm...Western Bluebirds. This was one of the few sources of facemelt I got to experience during 5MC. With a decent haul from the meadow, Berkeley Marina would make for another quick stop as it was right next door. The Berkeley Fishing Pier is still closed (railer), but I finally got my Surf Scoters, and Downy Woodpecker, Golden-crowned Kinglet and Red-winged Blackbird all made for quality bonus birds.

By this time, I knew I had surpassed Flycatcher Jen's was just a matter of if I had done well enough to be out of reach of This Machine Nate yet. Since I don't have an iphone, the eBird app doesnt keep a day list for me, so I didn't quite know how I was doing. At any rate, it was time for a sandwich.

Getting a sandwich from Sea Breeze Deli (next to the marina) was very fortunate, in part because they make damn fine sandwiches, but also because I got another day bird behind the parking lot...Greater White-fronted Goose. Fuck yes...I was on a roll. Talk about the stars aligning! Ok GWFG isn't a monumental rarity or anything but it's locally rare and was one of the best birds of the challenge.

By now it was mid-afternoon, so after getting goosed I thought I should stop by the Albany Mudflats real quick to finish my sandwich and take advantage of the falling tide...Northern Pintail, American Avocet, Long-billed Curlew, and Mourning Dove were all new birds. At this point I felt invincible...I still did not know what my 5MC list was at, but it had to be over 70 and I still had to bird Meeker Slough, Richmond Marina, and the Albany Bulb...I was going to kill it. Who knows how many more birds awaited? But before I could go on to the next stop, I got a text message. This text message turned out to be life-changing. I knew, then and there, that the 5MC was over for me...there was something very important to do, something that could not wait, something that might not ever happen again in my entire life.

I know what you are, Billy did not go into labor during the 5MC...that would make for a great story, but something even more unexpected had happened...a Ross's Gull had been found in Half Moon Bay, and that is where I had to be.

But that is for another post. My 5MC was completed with over two and a half hours of daylight remaining. I had missed a lot of birds, even taking into account my abbreviated day...Bushtit, Pacific Wren, American Pipit, Savannah Sparrow, American Goldfinch come to mind I said, passerines are not the strong suit of my 5MR. But none of that matters now...I am the winner of the 5MC.

I just figured out my 5MC list while writing this post. I saw a lot of birds...I did not think I would get as many as I did, and now I know that it is possible to do a Big Day in my 5MR and get over 100 species...that's pretty fucking sick, don't you think? The final stats are: six hours, no help, no chased birds, no naps, no poops, some farts, one Contra Costa County bird (Red-breasted Sapsucker), one new 5MR bird (Redhead), one thermos of coffee, one ginger ale, one hella good sandwich, one awkward couple getting into a fight because their dog got loose, 40 year birds...and 86 species, most of which were in Alameda County, though 20 species were recorded in Contra Costa only.

I am the king of the 5MC. It is an honor and a privilege. I love getting 86'd, who knew it would be so good? Though I am a birding champion, props to Jen for making the 5MR a thing that seems to be catching on fast. You can read about Flycatcher Jen's effort here, and This Machine Nate's attempt with near-identical total over here - it is good to see him blogging again.

Well I would like to stick around and gloat, but I need to pick out my prizes...


  1. Steve, a recent discovery but one I am enjoying, and Christ only knows that 2017 is year where we're going to need some light relief.
    On the subject of the 5MC, I think a slightly different approach is needed, otherwise you're just going to win it every time by virtue of the fact you live in CA by the coast and the others don't, #7 notwithstanding. Now obviously it's not all about the glory, it's about getting out there, but have you considered a contest which evens it out, get's you back competing on a level playing field.
    Over here we have the Original Patchwork Challenge (TM) whereby a few people that live in vastly different places - inner city avian deserts to SW headland rarity hotspots - and here's how we do it. We take the last 3 years annual totals and average them - that's then the baseline at 100%. That's the total that you then compete against, so if your average was say 50, then if you saw 52 birds then your score would be 104% etc. Of course what frequently happens is that you mysteriously have a blinding year every fourth year having spent the previous three walking around with your eyes closed, but nonetheless this is I think a better way to conduct the 5MC. Only in the hypothetical situation of it being all about winning of course.
    PS You're disqualified as you sacked it off to twitch a Ross's Gull before it got eaten.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Glad you discovered us. We are here to make the world a better place, which I'm told we do, though others will vehemently disagree.

      Well, the 5MC idea was never supposed to be absolutely perfect...perfection would require too many rules and too much math, which would suck all the fun out of it. I should point out that I never assumed the playing field was unlevel (though I now think it's quite bumpy)...for example, Jen's 5MR list is at least 50 species above mine, which suggests that she is at least as well off as I am. I also didn't think very highly of my 5MR, though I have revised that opinion since last week. Even in the post-5MC world that I now find myself in, I suspect that if we redid the 5MC in April or May, Nate in Austin could actually win it all.

      As for the OPC...that is essentially a Big Year. I like the idea, but a Big Day is a lot simpler and easier to carry out. Also, what is the source of the baseline data you are using? I don't think the same methodology can be applied to a 5MR with ease - for example, there are a shitload of spots one would have to take into account. If you are depending on observers providing their own patch data over multiple years, that automatically disqualifies most people, because a lot of people have moved recently which makes it impossible to establish a the last three years, I have lived in three different cities.

      You are not the first person to mention their own brand of patch challenge...I'm glad this a thing!

    2. The baseline is your own patch score the previous 3 years, no days from other observers.
      Maybe for parity you could do one 5MC per season? Might involve maths to come to full fruition....
      You mention prizes, I agree that there has to be one. We compete for an ornamental porcelain duck of inestimable value and highly questionable parentage, the fabled Anas fantabulosa. It is grotesque but it is displayed prominently in the house of every 'winner' for the following year. I actually have it at the moment, the eyes closed thing did the trick, but it is about to migrate to Scotland as last year I managed only the low 90s.

    3. You compete for a weird duck figurine??? Brilliant.

  2. 86 species is a pretty strong number.

    I'll admit, I was contemplating doing a sneak 5MC, dark-horsing from out of left field in a bolt from the blue of triumph and then usurping, to my own contentment, the crown. 60+ would be do-able I think but shit 86 is well out of reach. So I will instead do and say nothing, at let no one be any one the wiser.

    Well congratulations on your conquest. May the gifts, offerings, and supplications now brought you by the vanquished be a lasting legacy to your eminence...until next time.

    Ross's Gull...can't believe it but those storms do come with a diamond in the rough. Awesome.

    1. What month do you think you could max out your 5MC? Is spring better?

      I love supplications, thanks for reminding me.

    2. Late April I suppose, but I don't know that time of year would be a big difference--in fact it might work against me overall as my 5MC is essentially two desert parks and a duck pond, and then golf-course stuff.
      It's not super good for passerines or migrants in this area, just not a lot of proper foliage.

      If we were to do a County Big Day...150 would be doable, but Maricopa is like the 15th largest county in the u.s. to that's just tipping scales in another direction.

      I saw the other comment about essentially working handicaps into the competition but agree with your points about the baseline being problematic.
      Someone could just place the center of their 5MC in a better spot.

      It's tantalizing to think about. I might just give the original 5MC a crack this weekend, availability permitting, and see how the numbers fall.


    3. could do a 5MC this month, and try again in April. Why not? That would involve a lot of mediocre birding of course, but it feels better than the usual mediocrity.

      I haven't done a true county-wide big day in a great many years. Maybe I'm just too sleepy for that sort of thing.

  3. Good SHOW! Enjoyed hearing about your challenge day, def a great list of birds!

    1. Thanks Sondra, nice to be appreciated by Team Jen!

  4. Being the center of attention really helps create trends such as the 5MR. I'm glad you gave it a go, even though you made us look like pretty terrible birders by beating us in record time, then seeing a damn Ross's Gull. At least you did not nap. You will be requiring many naps soon enough.

    1. I'm going to enter so many eNap checklists next month.

  5. Six hours, no poops...AMAZING. ;)