Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Good Times, Bad Times, Weird Times: 2020 In The 5 Mile Radius

From 2017-2019, I had seen but only a single Snow Goose in the now legendary Rancho de Bastardos Five Mile Radius. In the fall of 2020 I saw three! All maximum tame and slumming it with breadline Canada Geese. This one was at Hellyer County Park.

Ah, an old-fashioned annual end of the year round up post! Ok it's not exactly on time but what do you expect these days? Life is pain and blogging is hard.

Well, it seems like it has always been fashionable for some people to publicly bitch about each year as it comes to a close...it's the one time of year it is cool to publicly whinge about what a rough go of it you've had on social media, instead of just trying to convince everybody how fucking brilliant your life  is. I'm sure sometimes that is totally valid (it's not like tragedy and suffering, or fear and loathing, is limited to 2020), but in retrospect most of that seems pretty wimpy compared to the gargantuan cluster that was last year. This really is the time that I'm just relieved to have a year be over with, but at the same time I don't kid myself about how quickly 2021 will right the ship. One could say the short term prognosis is rather...bleak.

***UPDATE: All of the above was written before the storming of the capitol by obsequious far right Trump worshippers/fucking insane conspiracy theorists/human garbage white supremacists...oh yeah and our old friend 'Rona is going stronger than ever before. So 2021 is exactly like 2020 so far, what a surprise.

Anyways, birds. It's a cliche at this point, but I think I need to say that birding really has helped with getting through 2020. I must bird, but it was crucial in 2020. Obviously, I ended up birding a ton in my 5MR, as 5MR birding is even more suited to pandemic era birding than it was before. I was not doing any sort of concerted year listing, as 2019 was more or less a 5MR big year and I had no interest in putting in that amount of effort again, but 2020 ended up being a great year for my radius. I picked up 17 new 5MR birds, 4 of which I detected only from my yard and nowhere else! This also involved an absolutely torrid stretch where I got 9 new 5MR birds in about 5 weeks. So despite going without chasing a number of birds and dispensing with a lot of target birding, I finished with 185 species...only 2 off my my 2019 mark, when I was feverishly birding the radius in comparison. I am very satisfied.

Alright, we can move on - contrary to what almost most birders will tell you, I'm acutely aware that list numbers are rarely interesting to anyone besides their keepers. In this post I'll mostly focus on birding highlights from the second half of the year, since I've done such a shameful job of blogging lately and that's when a lot of the best birds appeared.

After a slow start to the year, the quality of 5MR birding seemed to really pick up in April. The vague runt highlight (and new radius bird for me) of the spring my grunts was undoubtedly a Northern Parula, but my favorite spring bird was this Calliope Hummingbird I found at a nearby Echium patch. I had sustained and satisfying long looks very close up, which I can't say I've had many of when it comes to adult males. Photographed at the Santa Clara Water District headquarters.

Though not a regional meguh, few birds in my yard have caused me the sort of distress that this Yellow-headed Blackbird did upon first seeing it. A 5MR/yard bird twofer, I was amazed that this thing was frequenting my backyard, particularly in July, a month known for poor lowland birding if you don't count shorebirds. There's nothing like getting some shock and awe in your very own backyard.

One perk of 2020 that came with living in the bay area was the MEGAFIRES. I was lucky enough to not have to worry about losing my home, but the smoke...it was astounding how bad the smoke was on some days. This Pygmy Nuthatch probably lost its home in the Santa Cruz Mountains to the CZU Lightning Fire and took advantage of my feeding station for a day - though the circumstances were a bummer, this was not a species I anticipated getting in the radius, let alone my yard.

This fall was my fourth here in Santa Clara County, and it was by far the best as far as rarities are concerned in my 5MR. Vasona Lake County Park was the place to be - it started with a Northern Waterthrush, which was a county bird for me. I then found another one in the same spot weeks later. Soon after that I found this shadowy Blackpoll Warbler above, a new radius bird. Then that same day some other birders and photographers found a Bay-breasted Warbler (FIRST COUNTY RECORD) while trying to track down the Blackpoll.

A first county record, right in my very own radius! You gotta love that, and I did enjoy some views of this bird on a couple different days. Bay-breasteds are quite rare in the state, although of course some of the more vagrant-wealthy counties seem to entrap them with some regularity. This is only the third I have ever seen in California. Birders flogging the area shrubbery also turned up an American Redstart, which I also chased successfully for a new 5MR bird. I dipped multiple times on a Nashville Warbler here, but there are worse things to dip on.

While the fall of 2020 was great for Brewer's and Clay-colored Sparrows in much of the state, we in Santa Clara did not get very many of the latter. I was happy to find this one at Vasona, one of three individuals seen in the county last year and the only one in my radius.

Lawrence's Goldfinches are not difficult to find in certain spots in Santa Clara County, but this isn't a species I considered fait accompli in the 5MR; they have an affinity for pretty "wild", undeveloped areas here that don't happen to fall close to home. So on that tinkling note, I was surprised when one was found at a random, seemingly unbirded park in my radius this fall in the middle of a vast sea of suburbs. I'll take it - this is one of my favorite species in California, so getting long looks at one here is an especially fulfilling radial victory.

Last fall was a big one for uncommon and rare sparrows in much of California. I happily chased a Vesper Sparrow at Don Edwards NWR as a county bird...then chased another at Vasona Lake County Park, which was a new 5MR bird and the first ever eBirded from within my radius. Shortly afterward I found my own Vesper Sparrow at a local park which almost no one birds, so I was really happy to turn something up there. It really captured the spirit of 5MR birding I reckon. Photographed at Martial Cottle County Park.

Northern Pintail is a classic species that is very common at a number of sites in my county but incredibly hard to find in my radius. A small group I found last fall were only my second personal record here, where I do a bit better with diving ducks than I do with dabblers. Photographed at the Los Capitancillos Ponds.

This is old news to everyone on the west coast, but this has been an epic year for Pine Siskins in my radius and seemingly everywhere else. Previously it was a special occasion to look out the back door and see one in the yard, but now it's an everyday occurrence. A "green" siskin (bottom photo, upside down on right) is not an everyday occurrence though, so that was a welcome feeder guest. I had not seen one in years. Photographed at Rancho de Bastardos.

The last new addition to the radius was this Green-tailed Towhee, which was also a county bird. It mostly feeds out in the open in an orchard with a Zonotrichia flock, a very un-GTTO setting. When I saw it, it was somewhat distant but super cooperative. Even though I've been birding the bay area for a long time this was the first I've seen in any of the regional counties. Photographed on the Calero Creek Trail.

I could totally pad this post with some more fun birds, including common ones, but I gotta get it out there at some point. Again, sorry for the lack of posts last year, it really does bring me angst. Follow me on Instagram @feloniousjive if you're into stuff like that, I try to post birdses on there more regularly. I'd like to wish you all a happy 2021, but I think that ship has sailed! So go forth and bird your radius, and if your radius is not that great, bird your county! Those lurking local vagues aren't going to find themselves.


  1. That yellow headed blackbird made my summer !! Glad to see it made it into the 2020 highlights.

    With a year like this the radius saves lives for multiple reasons, eh?

  2. 185 birds is a ton, this is astounding. I need to work out where my 5MR is I think, although I suspect that given my position it is the 2MR (eastern sector) that is going to be the best. Mind you, there are some reservoirs that likely fall within. You didn't say, but did you bird on foot, or by bicycle, or in a 6L V8 F350?

    1. Just figuring out what is in your 5MR can be fun in and of itself. Do it.

      I have a strict bird-by-F350-only policy like a true patriot. But IRL I do car/foot, lot of walking but drive to get places other than my patch. For good or ill car birding is not an option anywhere in my radius.

  3. Excellent 5MR birding right here, much envy. Wtf are you feeding that nuthatch? Looks like some granola bars popped on a stake? Also, I thought this was a safe space where pisi's are not mentioned.

    1. It's a weird suet/seedcake combo thing. My dad got it for me. It was ignored for a very long time, then became somewhat popular (YHBL chewed on it quite a bit too), then became totally ignored again. It's currently not in the Geri feeder rotation out back.

      No space is safe from PISI.

  4. Well done on the 2020 5MR! Heck I missed Vesper Sparrow in my WI patch in 2020! HUGE FAIL. Always nice to catch up on your blog. Curious what the pygmy nuthatch is feeding on? Keep hanging tough with the birds...

  5. What Beautiful Photos!
    Thank you!

  6. So, is your blog extinct Stevesy?

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