Sunday, January 5, 2020

Radius Roundup: Lessons and Results From a 5MR "Big Year", and The Shortest Big Day


A Ruby-crowned Kinglet unleashes a terrifying bellow into the chilly radius air. Photographed on the Guadalupe River Trail.

There has been an awakening.

Have you felt it?

eBird Top 100 listing rises, and Radius birding to meet it.

If you've checked in on BB&B a few times this year, you already know that I've put my full weight as one of birding's marquee influencers into propping up the FIVE MILE RADIUS. 5MR is now flourishing throughout the land, particularly in my state of California. But this year has been so much more than simply harvesting Flycatcher Jen's vision and going Johnny Appleseed with it all over the nerdscape...I've not only been talking the radial talk, I have spent this entire year walking the radial walk. Like several of you, I've taken part in Jen's 5MR Challenge, doing my own big year of sorts in my 5MR. More and more I find "big year" to be a cringeworthy phrase, but I guess it is what it is. I admittedly didn't go all out and missed my share of birds (more on that below), but I spent a shocking amount of time within five miles of my home this year while actually doing quite a bit of birding. To say it was nice would be a gross understatement...it was time well spent birding instead of sitting in the car, driving somewhere, burning gas, chasing things that some list may have "needed" but I did not actually need to see. Rather than feeling tied down by my radius, shifting my focus to what was really local felt almost luxurious at times.

How did I do? I finished 2019 with 187 species in eBird, with the only species not sanctioned by the Bird Police being European Goldfinch, which have been present in very low numbers in a part of my radius for a number of years but rightly are not considered established in the state by the CBRC. The goal I set for myself earlier in the year was 185 species, so I was surprisingly on point there. Many U.S. birders exceeded that total in their respective radii this year but I am still really happy with how I did. Lifetime (aka from spring of 2017 until present) my 5MR now stands at 196 species. I started the year with 169 species, and eagerly look forward to the 200 species milestone, which should be possible with spring migration coming this way sooner than I will be ready for.


While some spots I've recently started birding did not yield anything unexpected, I think it is only a matter of time before some of them bear radial fruit. Martial Cottle Park is one such place, and until that time its Poop Fairies Western Bluebirds will continue to remind dog walkers to pick up their shit.

Long story short, after a lot of work, strategy, staring at Google Earth and exploring, The Year of The 5MR has been Great Success. I'm very happy with how it went, and thought I'd share some final thoughts before easing off the radius gas pedal for a bit.

My radius is probably best described as moderately birded by other people. There is a small but dedicated and active group of birders who already do much of their birding within the confines of my radius, and there are a number of places that are productive enough to draw in birders from further afield. In terms of radius rarities I managed to see this year, I certainly benefited from the efforts of others (i.e. Horned Grebe, American Bittern, Swainson's Hawk, Red-naped and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Summer Tanager), but I am very pleased with what I found myself (Long-billed Dowitcher, Glaucous Gull, Pileated Woodpecker, Eastern Kingbird, Red-eyed Vireo, Tennessee Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrows, Red Crossbill). I certainly did chase some birds but am happy to report that this was no run-of-the-mill year listing effort where I spent tons of time chasing species found by others, which was part of the idea baked into this thing in the first place.


While I did very, very little chasing outside my radius this year, I had no problem tracking down radius-rare stuff found by others. This Red-necked Phalarope found at the Los Capitancillos Ponds by Ann Verdi was without a doubt one of the Top 10 birds to be found within my radius this year, and possibly the most unexpected, even though they are fairly common migrants about 15 miles away.

I can't speak for Flycatcher Jen, but I always assumed 5 was chosen for the radius distance because it is a nice, round, modest number. For where I live, I am totally fine with it, 5 miles really does seem perfect. However, for other people I know that it isn't so appealing...obviously, people don't all live with the same diversity of habitats within 5 miles and, equally importantly, have comparable access to potential birding sites as everyone else. There's a lot of private property out there, a lot of public land that doesn't have real access, a lot of vast expanses of homogeneous habitat (i.e. sage, creosote flats, intensive ag, etc). In some places, a larger radius could be more appropriate than 5 miles, or *gasp* the whole radius thing isn't necessary. I would say that places not suited for 5MR are certainly the exception and not the rule though.

I touched on this already, but I found a great many locally uncommon and rare birds myself, including a number of species that are downright rare for the county. This is what I had hoped for but did not dare to actually expect, and is consistent with the experience of a lot of other 5MR birders this year. Rarities are out there waiting to be found, often in places where relatively few birders are searching. Tired of chasing stuff? Want to break from the pack and find your own birds more often? Your radius awaits.


I knew going in to 2019 that my radius is very, very tough for shorebirds, and results bore that out. However, I am now convinced that we actually could get numbers of shorebirds in the rare event that water levels at wetland sites actually become suitable. This flock of Western Sandpipers photographed from my backyard was, as far as I know, the one and only flock of peeps seen by anyone in my 5MR in 2019.

Another of the primary tenets of 5MR birding is to go check out sites you have never been before, places that are underbirded, or not birded at all. I'm happy to say I was able to do all that very frequently...in fact, on my last morning of birding of the year, 2 of the 3 sites I visited were places I'd never been to before 2019. eBird helped with this of course, not to mention just scrolling around satellite imagery in my radius and some local help too. It really is satisfying going to new places nearby and finding some that are worth repeat visits. Last month I walked up the "back side" of Santa Teresa County Park and snagged my first radius Prairie Falcon - I never would have tried this trail if it wasn't for 5MR....and I would not have seen the falcon if I was not doing the monthly challenge, which happened to be a stationary count!

Also, I have said this from the beginning, but 5MR is really perfect for birders with time constraints, such as when you have small children and can't afford to be gone all day without seeming like a Kenny Bostick. I knew radius birding was a match made in heaven with parenthood even before Annie was born, but this year really drove that point home. A number of other parents have echoed the same sentiment.


Birding a lot in my 5MR has really driven home the point that Cooper's Hawks have adapted quite well to suburban life. They are common here year round. Sharp-shinned Hawks, on the other hand, are very uncommon and nowhere reliable. This Cooper's was strutting around my back yard one day last summer.



For those of us who are interested in nonavian life, exploring your 5MR can be very beneficial as well. My non-bird highlight of the year (which was uncomfortably close to being a lowlight) was inadvertently walking up to a hunting mountain lion at Almaden Quicksilver County Park. I am still convinced it was waiting to ambush one of the many radius black-tailed deer in the area and would have ignored me had I not noticed it, but I still feel a bit lucky that I noticed it when I did and not when I was 7 or 8 feet away. Anyways, a sketchy but cool experience, happy to be able to see a lion up close and not have it be in a threatening mood.

What else? I bought less gas than I would have, burned less gas than I would have, potentially saved on some car maintenance, and only rarely found myself birding where more than a couple other birders were present at the same time. These are all very good things. And since I reached the 185 species plateau, I completed the bourbon challenge I issued to myself earlier this year. As a Champion Radius Birder, I bought myself a bottle of Black Skimmer Bourbon and WOW...if you are a whiskey fan do yourself a favor and pick some up if you are ever in a treat yoself mood. The Black Skimmer Rye is also very good, and is a few bucks cheaper.

Were there negatives to doing so much radius birding? Sure, birding in July and August (with one notable exception) was even slower than usual, and I didn't see a ton of Vague Runts this year...in fact, I did not even get a state bird...which stings, honestly. I love getting state birds. I would have chased the Yellow-browed Warbler but luckily a prior engagement prevented me from trying for it when I otherwise would have...which would have resulted in joining in a big fat group dip with 100+ other miserable birders from around the country. The shortage of Vague did make the rareish birds I saw in the radius that much better though. My backyard Eastern Kingbird will forever be one of my favorite self found Vague Runts, and I still reel over discovering a July Red-eyed Vireo, which is a bird I discovered without even driving.

And this should be obvious to everyone, but I would advise that you make sure to still bird out of your radius sometimes! Focusing solely on your 5MR is likely to make you crazy and make birding sound like a lackluster idea, which is really unnecessary. Don't foresake the places that you love! Birding your 5MR does not mean you are breaking some holy vow if you go bird outside of it.


Want to become the master of your domain? 5MR birding will get you extremely attuned to birdlife in your radius...not just status and distribution, but arrival and departure dates and breeding behavior or lack thereof. My radius Pied-billed Grebes had chicks very late this year at multiple locations - this fish exchange between an adult and a chick took place on November 9, which seemed strangely late in the year. Photographed at Los Gatos Creek County Park.


In November I listed my top 10 target birds for the remainder of the year; I managed to see 4 of them. My last new species of 2019 - this Golden-crowned Kinglet - was on the list. This fall/winter has been very good for many irruptive birds like this in the region, though the Varied Thrush invasion I was hoping for did not pan out. Photographed at Greystone Park.

And with that, here is everything that I know of that I missed that was seen in my radius this year. Most of these were just one or two records.

Tundra Swan (also a county bird)
Greater Scaup
Bonaparte's Gull
Solitary Sandpiper
Cassin's Kingbird
Purple Martin
Varied Thrush (damn you Justyn)
Pacific Wren
Hermit Warbler
Nashville Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler
Yellow-breasted Chat (also a county bird)
Swamp Sparrow
Evening Grosbeak

I'm sure there were some other species that could have been found on the fringes or passed through undetected, such as Northern Pygmy-Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Ferruginous Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Hammond's Flycatcher and Tricolored Blackbird. I'm very surprised that Snow Goose wasn't seen by anybody in the area this year. A Calliope Hummingbird was seen a stone's throw from my radius and was probably actually visible from inside at some point. But missing birds is a fundamental part of any kind of birding experience, no need to do a thorough autopsy on birds not seen.

In other radial news, on December 21 I met the monthly 5MR Challenge issued by her lordship Flycatcher Jen and did a BIG DAY in my radius. What better day to do a big day than the shortest one of the entire year?! It was not a max effort day as I did not go owling and I had done no scouting specifically for this, but I went pretty hard...no lunch break or anything like that. I started off by walking out my back gate and doing some of the ponds behind my house in the predawn light, which quickly netted me 46 species. After that, I was off like a shot.


You can't make out much in this photo but I think a lot of you recognize that silhouette. A Phainopepla has been wintering at Guadalupe Oak Grove Park for many years now and was readily findable on The Shortest Big Day. This is still the only one I've seen in the entire county; I assume the freakish flyover Phainopepla I had at my house once was this very bird.

I decided on 90 species as a goal...seemed reasonable, and was above the 86 species that was my previous day high back in 2017 for the 5MR challenge, which was done in the northwestern corner of Alameda County back when I lived in Albany. I could have gotten more on that fateful day, but I abruptly had to quit in the afternoon to go chase the Ross's Gull...one of the best decisions I've made in my whole life.

Instead of giving an agonizing blow by blow, I'll just skip to the end. Steller's Jay and Eurasian Collared-Doves were the biggest misses, and I easily could have picked up Wild Turkey and Band-tailed Pigeon had I gone up into the hills at all. I also probably could have found a Red-winged Blackbird if I stood in my backyard long enough at sunset. But otherwise I did very well, having less-than-ideal weather at only one spot and having much fortune with waterbirds and upland species in general.


I missed this bittern multiple times at the beginning of the year, but luckily it returned for another winter and I was able to connect with it a couple times late in 2019. One of those times was during my Solstice Big Day, which was heck of lucky considering it often isn't hanging out someplace visible.

I finished the day with a stunning (to me) 101 species! I couldn't be happier with that...considering the short day and lack of preparation, I think it is a sign of fruitful radius. It does make me wonder what time of year I could actually squeeze the biggest day out of my 5MR...is December/January as good as it gets? April? November? Maybe I'll attempt another one in 2020 and find out.

And so it goes. I'm going to give 5MR coverage a well-deserved rest for a while, as I've said my piece and don't plan on getting cray with year listing on any scale in 2020. That said, with the beginning of the new year I hope more birders give perpetual county year listing a break and give the radius a try! 

3 comments:

  1. Great post! I don't know if I fully appreciated this year how dedicated you were to your 5MR. Congrats on crushing your big day goals! Maybe I'll throw out a 5MR big day challenge in the Facebook group later this year.

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  2. Ciekawe podsumowanie. Gratuluję obserwacji i wytrwałości. Ja nie liczyłam obserwowanych ptaków, ale też bym sporo naliczyła.
    Ostatnie zdjęcie mnie rozbawiło! Kiedyś zimą fotografowałam bąka. Wyszedł z trzcin i udawał, że go nie ma! :-)

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