Saturday, February 26, 2011

How to pick a patch! ...for birding

My new Utah lunch-hour birding patch - Jordan River Parkway trail system.
Every birder should have his or her own special birding patch or two.  A birding patch is a place a birdwatcher can visit regularly, know intimately, and enjoy deeply.

When I lived in Arizona, my Saturday morning birding patch was the Granite Reef Recreation Area along the Salt River just a minute's drive from my home.  My lunch-hour patch was the Desert Botanical Garden near my office.  In Idaho, for a time we officed along the Boise River in the Eagle area, so my lunch-hour birding patch was a stretch of trails along the river there starting at Merrill Park.  When we moved our home and office into the Boise foothills to the Avimor community, all the creeks and hills in the area became my birding patch.

Now that I've moved to Utah, I am starting fresh and needing to find my own birding patch.  I have a method for picking a new birding patch, but never written it out until now.  Here's how to pick a patch for birding:

Step One:  Use Online Maps

By locating my office on Google Maps (red-box with yellow "x"), I then looked for dark green (trees) and water near it on the satellite image (I added the green border).  I have used this method to discover dozens of great local birding hotspots.  Short driving and walking distance is important as it will dramatically increase the frequency with which you can visit the site.

You will need to find out by the map, or by visiting the site if it is publicly accessible and safe.  I am not one to shy away from asking private land owners if I can have on-going permission to visit their property.  Some say no, but many are proud of the habitat they have or have created and are delighted to know somebody might be interested in looking at birds on their land.

Step Two: Visit the Site

Look for the key characteristics of topography and habitat that are conducive to a bird's lifestyle:  Food, Water, Shelter, Nesting.  Even in winter, you can still identify a potentially great birding location just by knowing what to look for.

Well groomed parks with lots of grass and spaced out trees don't often have very many birds.  Parks can be good if they have plenty of "wild" habitat zones.  Brush and shrubs in combination with trees of varying sizes with some amount of density provide greater food sources and shelter.  I prefer ecosystems that have both coniferous and deciduous trees just because I think it increases the variety of birds I will see.  Trees with natural or woodpecker-made cavities is always a good sign.  If you see nests in the trees and shrubs, you'll know you have a decent birding patch.  Having water nearby is essential.  I love trails along good flowing creeks or slow moving small rivers.  Ponds and lakes are always nice too.  Man-made canals with dirt road banks aren't usually very good for a large variety of birds.

When I visit the site, another thing I am looking for is the ease of bird viewing what I call "viewing windows".  I've been to some places loaded with birds, but it was so frustrating because you couldn't see any of the birds.  The reeds, trees, or bushes were just too thick and blocked any view of the birds.  Because of this, I like to bird at places that give me a somewhat elevated view, where I can look down into the trees, brush, and water.  Decent trails and ease of walking and hiking the area are also very important.

Elevated view over the trees, shrubs, and water.  
Step Three:  Add the location to eBird... 

...and start submitting a checklist to eBird for every visit your patch.  If the location is public, please consider adding it as an eBird Hotspot.  Public or private, you can add it as your Patch on eBird to join in a friendly comparison to other birder's special patches.

The data you collect over time will provide you with fascinating information for your own pleasure, but it also contributes to science.  Whenever I establish a new birding patch I try to visit the location at least weekly so that my eBird bar chart will be 100% covered for the entire year.

A snippet of the bar chart from my Avimor Patch in Idaho.  It shows that I have submitted a checklist for each week of the year.  If you've missed a week, that week's column will be grayed out, giving you motivation to make sure and bird your patch that week the next year.
It is so cool to be able to see the comings and goings of the birds through your patch and to have evidence of it on an eBird bar chart.  Over time it will help you anticipate the arrivals and departures of the migrants.  You can also look for trends in the abundance of species throughout the year.

My next post will be about my new lunch-hour birding patch in Salt Lake City, Utah and how I used this method to select it and track it.

Please feel free to share in the comments what criteria you have for selecting your birding patches.  From my experience in the eastern United States last fall, the strategy may be a little different.


  1. Mine picked me- it's a short walk from my house! It has a major river, woods, islands, and a Great Blue Heron rookery. What more can I ask for? Plus I get good exercise hiking down and back up.

  2. @Mike B. - birding patches do often pick the birder it seems. For many folks, you just get what you get and make the best of it. I have used the Google Maps exploring to open up a whole new world of birding possibilities. Having Heron rookery in your patch would be amazing. My lunch hour walks are about the extent of my physical exercise these days...unfortunately.

  3. Great advice here, I always think that I have to travel a long way to visit a special site, but I like the idea of finding a site close to work and visiting regularly.

  4. I have a variety of patches that I visit. Unfortunately they are all inaccessible right now due to snow. For me there is one other requirement: I have a young dog who needs lots of excercise. So it has to be a trail where I can let my dog off the leash, which unfortunately constricts birding somewhat, although often I can have him wait in the car until I am done.

  5. @Jonathon - thanks for receiving the message that I was trying to convey.

    @Hilke - I really enjoy seeing dogs off leash in the wild. This bugs some people, but I think it is fascinating seeing dogs act like dogs. I've always thought it would be fun to go birding with a well trained bird dog. It would probably help me find more birds!

  6. Great post and info. I'm sure Utah has many great places for birding. I have used ebird for my Prettyboy patch, not reguarly though. I should try to do ebird more often.

  7. Good points - will have to try the google map exploring once! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Cant wait to see your new worktime patch!

  9. I can't encourage this enough! I know national ebird loves this kind of data. Parley's Gulch, the SL Cemetery, Liberty Park, various stretches of the Jordan River, Decker Lake, Lee Kay Ponds, Memory Grove, your own backyard, etc. are all places that could serve as viable locations for those living in the Salt Lake Valley. Anyway, I look forward to seeing the trends and patterns that emerge. Thank you for the post Robert.

  10. Robert,

    The Jordan River Parkway is a great place to go birding--at any of the stretches through the entire county. Just north of where you are from 3300 south to 2100 south is one of my favorite portions. It's called the OXBOW. I highly recommend you check it out. The winter finds the place crawling with Waterfowl and in the summer we have found Green Heron. You never know what might pop up there.


  11. Thanks for this post. When we are home,in Texas, I live next to one of the World Birding Centers, but we are in PA now and I was trying to figure out how to find me a birding spot to hang out at. This helps a lot!

  12. @eileeninmd - thanks for leaving a comment. I encourage you to keep track of your patch on eBird. It is so enjoyable to see the data you contribute become useful to yourself and to science.

    @dreamfalcon - exploring using online satellite images can reveal some really cool birding locations. I lived in one place for almost two years and then starting using Google maps. I found a dozen more places within a couple miles that were great for birds.

    @DawnFine - this birding patch will be where most of my birding occurs on a regular basis, so photos and data to come!

    @Colby - thanks for the great comment! I was at the SL Cemetery a couple years back for the funeral of my wife's step-grandfather. It was winter and the ground was covered with snow. I noted RB Nuthatch, Northern Flicker, and Black-capped Chickadee during the burial service. We all mourn in our own way I suppose!

    @Tim Avery - I guess I just need to make my way a little more north to enjoy the Oxbow! Thanks for the tip and thanks for your first comment at Birding is Fun! I certainly enjoy your work at UtahBirders

    @Kathy Detweiler - I am so glad that you found a tip useful. I'd love to hear about your new patch and what you find there in PA!

  13. Really interesting! I found the term "patch birding" a couple of times in the last few days so started googling it and found your blog. (I already follow you on Twitter-- so maybe one of the mentions of patch birding came from you.) I definitely am a patch birder, as most of my birding is in my own little bird patch--my yard where I've seen 269 species in 14 years. I'd do ebird but there are just so many birds we see regularly that I can't keep up with it. That's why I started blogging--to keep a record of the goings-on in the yard.
    Anyway, I love your blog--and your tweets. Thanks for sharing.