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Pandemic Birding: the 5-mile patch radius

I like to bird across the state and county list. But I really like to patch bird. I try to bird my patch every day. I like knowing a place so well, that you start to recognize the birds as individuals. I like the grind. I am so happy to add a bird to my patch list, even if they are common in the birding hotspot on the edge of the city. I like that it allows me to get an hour birding in while my kids are napping. I have a few different patches: the pocket part in downtown, the trail along the river and the city park. All these spots are within a five-mile radius of my home.


I first learned about the 5-mile radius (hereafter, 5MR) birding challenge on social media in 2019. Jen Sanford, a birder, and blogger (http://www.iusedtohatebirds.com) based in the Pacific Northwest, created an online 5MR birding challenge that year, and it quickly gained a lot of attention within my online birding community. If you are familiar with Christmas Bird Count methodology, the 5MR is a similar concept, only a smaller circle and year-round. Additionally, each birder defines their own “center of the circle.” This is an arbitrary decision, but it is typically their home.


In late 2019, I decided that I would focus a lot of my 2020 birding effort within a 5-mile radius of my home. I had no idea how true that would be at the time! I had a couple of trips farther afield cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And although I did venture out of my 5MR and Tulsa County some, with lockdowns etc., most of my focus was there.

Essentially all the ~78.5 square miles in my 5MR are developed. But there are small to large public parks, cemeteries, some small to medium-sized ponds and a major river within the boundaries. Habitats that are common in this part of the state, but essentially absent from the 5MR are: tall-grass prairies, woodlands, and large lakes.


While some birders may choose to keep their 5MR data on paper maps and spreadsheets, there several apps and online tools available to help those who prefer to go “paperless.” eBird’s “Patch Totals” functionality (https://ebird.org/site/patch) allows users to define and register a patch (a 5MR in this case) then save eBird Hotspots and personal locations to that patch. This allows patch totals to be automatically updated when checklists from those locations are submitted. Visualization of your 5MR circle electronically can be done inexpensively in several ways including open-sourced GIS systems, Google Earth, or an app like Count Circle. In the opinion of the author, the Count Circle app is probably the most intuitive. Count Circle by Stevens Creek Software is available on both iOS and Android for a small fee. Users can create and save their own circles by defining a center point via a pin on the map and expressing a radius length. Once a user defines and saves a 5MR circle, the app can be used for planning/recon at home or in the field. Using the app in the field, the user’s location relative to the defined circle is shown via GPS. A similar free online tool can be found at: https://www.mapdevelopers.com/draw-circle-tool.php but is more tedious to use in the field.


As a side note, Christmas Bird Count participants may also be interested in the Count Circle app, as the official Audubon CBC circles in North America are included upon download.

Obviously, all 5MRs are not equal. Some users will have a much larger species total than others simply based on location/habitat diversity. For me, the 5MR challenge is much less about competition with others as a competition with myself. It has also been a way to break some of the monotony of birding the same spots close to home. My 5MR has been a challenging and rewarding mental exercise. I have spent a fair amount of time scanning satellite images looking for “microhabitats” (for lack of a better term), sometimes only an acre or two in size with potential within the urban sprawl.


In 2020, I found 160 species in my 5MR. Some highlights from my 2020 year in the 5MR are: Golden-winged Warbler, Palm Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Rufous Hummingbird, and urban Chuck-will’s-widow, Grasshopper Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers. I was able to focus on filling in the bar charts for many of the eBird hotspots within the area at the same time.


I hope that some of you will find this concept interesting enough to join me in your own 5MR Patch.



Fig 1. Map of my 5-mile radius (5MR) patch centered around my home in Midtown Tulsa. Map made with the Count Circle app on iOS (version 1.8 from Stevens Creek Software).


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