Saturday, February 23, 2019

The Virtues of 5MR Birding

Surely, by now 5MR birding needs no introduction. Briefly, it’s the attempt to reserve a portion of your birding energies to try and locate species within a 5-mile radius of your home. 5MR fever has spread across the globe, thanks to the tireless efforts of the movement’s evangelist-in-chief Jen Sanford. I won’t retread the myriad reasons you should think about starting your own 5MR patch, but seriously, look into it. Instead, I offer some thoughts and observations on how 2019 has unfolded so far, and how the new approach has shaken up our routines.

There are several reliable spots in our 5MR for Eurasian Wigeon

We’ve been in our house for about a year and a half now, and until the 5MR challenge got underway we hadn’t been gung-ho county listers for our new home county, Linn, Oregon. That means some fairly low-hanging fruit was ripe for the picking. In contrast, nearly all of our birding this year has been ultra-local. We’re steadily teasing out Albany’s secrets, stalking its underbirded nooks, and venturing into its overlooked crannies.


Red-breasted Sapsucker

Spotted Towhee

Lesser Goldfinch

Bewick's Wren

We’ve been checking out a lot of hotspots we hadn’t explored before; hotspots we didn’t even know about. Timber-Linn Memorial wasn’t on our radar at all, but we got lucky on our very first visit with a Snow Goose who thought it was a wigeon. This could have been super tough and not the least bit surprising if we hadn’t found one in our 5MR this year. Likewise, we picked up Red-shouldered Hawk (county bird!) on our inaugural visit to Truax Island – a place we didn’t know existed until a fellow 5MR birder recommended it to us.

Snow Goose

American Wigeon

Besides exploring new corners of our patch, we’ve been hitting our usual places even more often, including the greenway encircling our development. A Merlin we found in our neighborhood on New Year’s Day might be the only one we see all year. Same with Tundra Swan, a species for which there’s really no habitat in our circle – but a couple weeks ago we stepped outside our front door to go for a walk, and immediately two flew right overhead.


Cooper's Hawk

Northern Flicker

Suet showdown

In January we followed up on a Swamp Sparrow report from a little ways down the street. We gave up after two hours of flogging the same row of blackberry bushes (White-throated Sparrow was a nice consolation prize), but the next day we found our own Swamp Sparrow in a completely different part of the neighborhood. After chasing a few of these in Oregon and dipping repeatedly (sometimes even within an hour of others finding them) this had become quite the state nemesis for us. Nemesis: vanquished.

Bewick's Wren

Golden-crowned Sparrow

Zonotrichia combo - White-throated and Golden-crowned Sparrows

Swamp Sparrow

On the other hand, some birds I’d taken for granted actually aren’t so common inside our 5MR (e.g. Northern Pintail and Northern Shoveler), which took some planning to get. And we still need others, like Townsend’s Warbler and Chestnut-backed Chickdee that feel overdue. Part of the fun has been constantly expecting one of these “easy” species to turn up, and finding a something out of left field instead. How is it we found a Mew Gull before Hutton’s Vireo? Or Wild Turkey before Pileated Woodpecker? We’ve added 17 new birds to our Linn County list (so far!) just from exploring and wondering what will turn up next.

American Coot

Green-winged Teal

Ring-necked Duck

Black Phoebe

Some birds we’ve seen in Linn County in the past, but the most reliable, heavily reported locations fall well outside our 5MR, so we’ve had to put in the legwork to find our own spots. Horned Larks, Savannah Sparrows, and Dunlin all hang out in agricultural fields, which are one of the defining features of our circle. But not all fields are created equal, and these species are all most easily found too far south to count.

American Pipits

Horned Larks

Western Bluebirds

We’ve taken to driving quiet stretches of road that we’d never been down before, where we can pull over to the shoulder to scan, and we picked up most of our ag. birds in no time. Even better, we spotted a Northern Shrike less than a mile from where we ticked Horned Lark. The shrike kept hovering like a kestrel – we’d never seen that behavior from a shrike before!

Northern Shrike

One of Jen’s objectives for the 5MR challenge is getting people to drive less. It’s actually atypical that we haven’t taken any day trips to the coast so far this year. We usually plan a semi-ambitious itinerary for our weekends that might take us an hour or more from home in any direction. At least for now, most of the time we ask ourselves what we’re doing this weekend, it has to do with tracking down 5MR target species. It’s been really great getting to know our home territory much more intimately over the past two months.

Double-decker Wild Turkeys

They're so freaking weird

Lastly, one very rewarding aspect of 5MR birding has been getting to know local birders (as more than just a name on an eBird checklist). Some veteran listers have proactively reached out to us to offer advice or help getting access to tricky locations. Others have connected on Facebook. The collective excitment around 5MR birding and the mutual support it’s engendered have been altogether amazing. If you haven’t already, you can follow the “5MR Birding” group on Facebook, or find tips and resources to define your own circle here.



Sunday, February 10, 2019

Orkney Continued: Marwick Head

Hands-down the best single site we birded in Europe was Marwick Head RSPB in Orkney. Located in the northwest of Orkney’s mainland, the place was a dream-come-true, even if we missed out on some highly desired birds. The landscape is simply breathtaking, and the birds weren’t bad either. (You can see our last blog post from Orkney here). 

The parking lot abuts a little rocky inlet where we had a group of Common Eiders feeding along the near shore. Eider faces are so damn weird. This little group of juveniles were moving and shaking, moving their little feet, probably stirring up some grub, and then dunking their heads underneath to claim their prizes. They were really fun to watch.

While enjoying these funky-faced ducks, we enjoyed the White Wagtails, Meadow Pipits, Eurasian Curlews, and Eurasian Oystercatchers that danced around on the rocks. Making our way onto the main trail, a Stonechat found himself perfectly at home atop some stones.

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

White Wagtail

Meadow Pipit

Stonechat on stones!

The barbed wire makes this Stonechat look so tough



We followed the footpath that led uphill to the vantage where you can overlook (in the right season) the colonies of seabirds nesting in the cliff face. On the way up, we saw a couple of old familiar faces – Northern Wheatears (which we saw in France two summers ago), and flying Northern Gannets.

Razorbill on the trail sign, but unfortunately we didn't see any real ones

A spectacular view!

Northern Wheatear

Northern Wheatear

Northern Gannets

Northern Gannets

The trail brought us under the flightpath for a hundred or so Northern Fulmars zipping close overhead. So close, in fact, that we had a tough time keeping them in focus (a blessing and a curse, as Adrian Monk would say). With our main telephoto lens still suffering from internal moisture due to the incessant rain we had in Edinburgh the previous day, I had a hell of a time (even more so than usual) taking pics of the flying Fulmars. However, my frustration was about to take a turn as we started to descend the cliff.

Maureen amongst the dozens of Northern Fulmars flying above

Nick taking pics of Northern Fulmars

Northern Fulmar slicing through the air

Northern Fulmar belly shot

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

The highlight of our time with these tubenoses (peak beak? the culmination of culmen nation?) was finding two individuals resting close by to one another, and close to us, where they proceeded to chat and make faces at each other for several minutes. We wondered whether it might be possible to tell male vs. female since the bills on these two are so dramatically different, but probably not: Birds of North America says, “Bill variable; yellowish to bluish gray…” so it may not be related to sex.

In that moment, all we could do is bask in this epic encounter, observing behavior at its finest with these beautiful birds. We had never got to really appreciate Northern Fulmars to this extent until right then. What could look like just another gull in passing to a novice or someone not really paying attention is actually quite an elegant looking seabird, who is also pretty darn cute.

At the same time we had to keep our eyes out for Great Skuas, which passed by much less frequently. And judging by the photos, a Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua, as Europeans call them) or two also slipped through. Oh, by the way, Orkney has some fun names they have come up for birds. Parasitic Jaeger is called Skooitie Allan, Northern Fulmars are called Mallimacks, and Great Skuas are called Bonxies! Adorable. 

A big chunky Great Skua

Great Skua

Great Skua

Parasitic Jaeger/Arctic Skua

We can’t imagine what this place is like in peak season – as it was, we could barely contain ourselves amid the swarm of activity all around us. A pair of small finches, called Twites, made for a nice farewell present on our way out, although they made it that much more difficult to leave. 


Common Redshank

Great Cormorants and gulls

One happy gal

One happy guy

An unplanned stop when we originally started planning our UK adventure turned out to be our overall best birding spot! We even fit in a bit of history and culture on this trip, checking out the Neolithic sites, standing stones, and Viking relics, including the St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Thanks again to Kate and her family for inviting us and welcoming us into their home and showing us around this truly spectacular place.

A little church

Us and Standing Stones

Standing Stones
Neolithic site

Neolithic site

St. Magnus Cathedral

Viking statue in St. Magnus Cathedral