Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A 5-Mile Challenge, a 5-Mile Post

Over the last couple weeks the bird blogging world has been abuzz about the ragiest rage in competitive birding, the 5-Mile-Radius challenge. The mission: see as many species as possible within a 5-mile radius of your domicile in a 24-hour period. Like any good birding challenge it involves stamina, habitat knowledge, an appreciation and perseverance for finding relatively common birds, and a fair amount of trash talking. 
The recent showdown, available for $29.99 on pay-per-view, pitted Portland’s legendary maverick and former bird-hater Jen against Austin’s silver-voiced bird-watching machine Nate against none other than GBRS #7 “Bay-area Brawler” Steve. Adding to their respective legacies now kept in oral and digital traditions, they battled inclement weather and seasonal inertia to post big numbers. It was tremendous reading and vicarious action.

 Twice as suave and twice as hardcore, if less color-coordinated, than the World Series of Birding Guys. Totally Badass.

Now if you’re reading a birding blog, you’re probably also well versed in nature documentaries and general principles of food chains, natural hierarchies, scarcity etc. As such you are well aware that when lions are feasting on a tasty wildebeest (caught typically within 5 miles of their den) the lesser creatures, the hyenas and vultures, must wait their turn and dart in for scraps when the dominant predators are distracted, otherwise occupied with such things as concern top predators.
This is where Butler’s Birds inserts itself into the narrative, dear readers.
Like an unwanted parenthetical, like someone’s dorky younger brother who followed them to the party so that he can “do beer,” like a starved but ambitious hyena waiting to pounce amid the dusty aftermath of titanic struggle…I too embarked on a 5MR challenge!
With Jen’s milieu still besieged by Oden’s frosty rage, with Nate having found debilitating happiness and direction in life, and with Steve being distracted by the impending birth of his cub (and a Ross’s Gull), they were ALL vulnerable. Even if Phoenix was enduring its own relatively dismal weather, the iron was hot and this weekend was time to strike.

As far as 5MRs could go in the central PHX valley, I could have a worse hand to play. Of course living near the Tres Rios Wetlands would be ideal—that site alone could net over 100 species in a day—but that would require moving to Tolleson and choosing exclusively between Red Lobster and Olive Garden for fine dining out. That I would not do. 
My bubble did include the Phoenix Mountains Preserve, a very scenic stretch of desert washes and rocky hills. A portion of the McCormick Ranch area, as well a Papago Park, would also supply decent-sized ponds for waterfowl, and then places like the Botanical Gardens and residential spots had a few other stake-outs. 

Much as I dislike golf and the amount of resources directed to golf in Phoenix, I must often humble myself and take advantage of the oases it creates.

I was crestfallen to see that any and all stretches of the Salt River/Tempe Town Lake were outside my circle. Access here would have provided Osprey, Brown Pelican, RBGU, Bald Eagle, and 3 Grebe species, none of which I could anticipate seeing anywhere else. It takes a bit of wind out of the sails to have such a handful of easy birds so close and yet so...close.

 Son of a biscuit

The sun rose late and seemingly without warmth on Saturday. Substantial wind kept the temps low at the Phoenix Mountains Preserve and were initially cause for worry, but after 3 days of rain the birds were not to be deterred anymore and it proved to be a very productive start. The PMP, like most of the other sites on my itinerary, overlapped a good portion of its species with others like the DBG, but there were also some species here that would be specific to this area for the time of year. Long-shot Long-eared Owl did not pan-out, but otherwise the site-specific birds showed well.

Ever-industrious, Verdins are among the first to rise and work. They make most other passerines seem lazy layabouts by comparison.

I have discovered that cold windy weather is pretty great for Hummingbirds. Their colors are vivid and they do not want to fly. Poor, poor Old World birders have no hummers at all. Anna's are almost trash birds at the PMP, but not of the polluting variety.

Curve-billed Thrashers are probably the blandest Thrasher, visually speaking, but they've got peppy personalities and appetites to match their substantial vocalizations. The bird singing below was doing imitation calls, something I rarely hear from CUTH but impressive nonetheless.


Black-throated Sparrow was a site-specific bird, one I couldn't hope to get elsewhere than the PMP. They're also a highly rated fan-favorite Sparrow for obvious reasons, being very handsome, approachable, and vocal. They also unflinchingly perch on cholla cactus--Nate's envy.

Grimacing and gripping, isn't it?

Ash-throated Flycatcher was a somewhat unexpected pull, one I was hoping but surprised to find this early in the year. eBird didn't mind it though so some must overwinter in the area. Confidential confession: up to this point in the morning I hadn't decided whether or not to commit to a 5MR undertaking, but took this bird as sign that it would be a better-than-normal birding day. I do not listen to fortune cookies, zodiac calendars, or Chinese restaurant place-mats, but random bird sightings in an arbitrary context? You betcha.  

Canyon and Rock Wrens were also solid, if expected. Rock Wrens really are comfortable on rocks, perhaps in part due to shared disposition. They are pretty dauntless around people and would probably be a more recognized symbol for the indomitable spirit of the West if they weren't so small and ecru.

Also noteworthy at PMP was a mountain biker totally wiping out, but I did not photograph that. I can't really make too much fun; I have wiped out while birding just doing regular walking.
The next stop was Granada Park, which has two duck ponds in addition to creosote scrub and various imported trees. I was hoping to pick up a few bonus ducks beyond the standard Phoenix dabblers—Ring-necked, Wigeon, Mallard, Shoveler—plus the resident Lovebirds. With Canvasback and Common Mergs turning up it didn't disappoint.

COMEs really like to swim in lines (to hide their numbers). I have no further explanation of this observation. Anyone else noticed this? Are they just very hierarchical?

Granada Park also held a few species that I did not consider special at the time but proved to be one-offs for the day. Great Egret is common but pleasant. Pulling Brown-headed Cowbirds out of a flock of Pigeons is common and unpleasant, but such debasement is par for this course.

A little salt-and-pepper Storm Wigeon?

Segueing with cool ducks in less-than-cool settings, the next spot was a crosscut of canal near my condo, where I had seen Wood Duck a couple times hiding by the bridge. Rough-wing Swallows were also a nice pick-up here. Isolated pockets over-winter but not reliably. Weirdly, I have seen Wood Duck at several spots along the central canal in Phoenix, but very rarely see them elsewhere in Maricopa. WODUs and other canal ducks, unlike many of the park birds, are still shy to approach.

I had to balance other errands (grocery shopping for preggo wife) during the afternoon portion of my 5MR but looped a stop at McCormick Ranch into the trip. This area hosted some Snow Geese at the larger lake a few years back. Now such luck this time, though GWTE was decent, but the nearby spillway between the golf course and some luxury condos was totally flooded from the recent rain. I was hoping to pick up flycatchers and Great Blue Heron here, which I had worryingly not seen yet, and was treated to much more. This site was definitely the surprise package of the day.


Some distant views of the larger lakes yielded Pied-billed Grebe, plus Night Herons in the trees. Otherwise, being bereft of Snow Geese and their ilk, the 'lakes' were pretty underwhelming.

After scanning the large ponds/mini lakes I rounded to the drainage area where I've had good flycatchers and sparrows in years past. It was an interesting situation.

Climbing down the escarpment to get eye-level with the flash-wetlands, I spooked Spotted Sandpiper and exchanged perplexed views with another Rock Wren, who spent the entirety of my time here atop his high ground and seemed a bit thrown off his groove.

The condominiums had many 'No Trespassing' signs to keep wayward golfers (or birders...) off their preciously manicured property. Perhaps this moat was further reinforcement and protection. A patchy Vermilion Flycatcher did not care.


Some Kestrels don't prefer perching on utility wires. This behavioral subspecies is rare and organic and precious and will probably go extinct soon.

Pishing and poking around the flooded brush turned up Lincoln's and Song Sparrow. It also yielded the day's first bigfoot-esque looks at Great Blue Heron, and bird I had just started to worry would avoid me entirely.

Skulk all they might, GBHEs are inescapably conspicuous when they take to wing.

Groceries wait for no man. Alas goat cheese and sour cream, though delicious in many ways and forms, are both unusable when hot and spoiled, so I had to return home.
I was able to sally forth again in the evening to the DBG/Papago Park area and, on a whim, adjacent Pera Corporate Park where there is usually a pair of Red-tails (still missing from the day). I wasted time trying to turn up a stale Pyrrhuloxia at the DBG but did relocate the roosting Great-horns and crush a Costa's Hummingbird very hard. Papago was a somewhat disappointing stop overall but the unassuming Pera park provided a few ticks before sundown.

What's better than one Great-horned in a cottonwood?


A couple winters back I participated in a Taken for Granted Challenge against Hoosier Greg who tasked me with Costa's Hummingbird as one of my 5 targets. The COHU showed up at 5:37pm, 37 minutes after the deadline and thus deprived me of a perfect score. But as previously mentioned cold cloudy days are good for crushing, and for revenging, because revenge is best served cold, much like popsicles or steak tartare.

Eventually the persistent wind made for a break in the clouds, and COHU seized this opportunity like any junky to get a quick fix. Too slow of shutter speed to freeze the motion but I like the disembodied effect.
Science only has a tenuous grasp of how they do it.

His primal needs being met, or at least some of them, the Costa's stallion then perched inexplicably close and did nothing to abate the vengeful crushing of backlogged crush-less years.

There are certain species of birds one can hope to see by location. Green Herons will be near water features, if they are around at all. Once one has checked all the water features to no avail, then one can conclude there will not be GRHEs that day. Then there are other species who span varieties of habitat and are not so much seen by location (sometimes) but simply by time spent sufficient in the field. Case in point, I spent all day birding in places where I have had Loggerhead Shrike before, but was still without Shrike. On little more than a hunch and a hope I swung by Pero Park and...

Ah yes, of course...the other, other habitat for Loggerhead Shrike: bright orange swing sets.

Eventually the odds fall in one's favor. LOSH was one of three clutch birds that Pero delivered. On one of the palm tress--not the many, more appropriate bottle and pine trees I had inspected throughout the day--was a hold-out Red-naped Sapsucker, and last but also least, a capstone light morph Red-tail Hawk.

Notable misses 
Harris’s Hawk: I see this species often: on my way to work, to the grocery store, in my parents' neighborhood, around my neighborhood...nowhere to be seen on Saturday. Jerks.
Snowy Egret: I don't have any one place for SNEG (who does?) but one would think that between all the ponds...They're usually at Papago. I would've missed either this or Green Heron.
Least Sandpiper: Screw you Least Sandpipers. Why did you abandon me?
Black-necked Stilt: No hard feelings really, not a bird to look for so much as one to stumble upon in my area.
*Pyrrhuloxia: There was/has been a bird at the DBG for the last couple weeks. This would've been a county bird for me (a pretty good find in Maricopa) so I spent too much time looking for it at the expense of time elsewhere. Vanity and pride, thy name is Laurence's List.
Northern Cardinal: I dunno...must have said something trivializing about Cardinals at some point.

The final count for my 5MR/BD was 82 species. There were several glaring omissions from my final tally but also several birds I wouldn't have counted on either. Considering there's always a few misses with something like this, for everybody, I really can't complain. Most of the time when the hyenas and foxes and stuff try to sneak one by the lions they still get their assess kicked/mauled. Steve's winning species tally of 86 still stands.
In all honesty, until I move and can include the Salt River in my 5MR I doubt I can make much stronger of a showing. Since I also have relatively little wooded riparian space for migrant passerines I would probably be less competitive in the spring as well. I didn't hit the ceiling but neither is it far away. It was still an exceedingly enjoyable day of birding. I had great looks--in some cases better than ever-- at some local species and renewed appreciation for others. I have never before felt so excited about seeing a GRBH skulking through the marsh or a Shrike on a swing set.

The PMP is the best place in Phoenix to see Gilded Flicker. But seeing a GIFL chisel its negative shape into a seed block while eating a pastrami sandwich isn't so bad either.

I don't know with whom or where this challenge originally started (Jen?) but piggy-backing off it/onto it (#howIlivemylife) was sweet, so thank you for the inspiration fellow bird bloggers and thank you for nothing, Scottsdale drivers. You're the worst.


  1. Now that is a very cool focus challenge that I had not heard about. You have a great circle to work with and I bet that if you did this challenge again in April or October, you would greatly increase your numbers with migrants. You really did crush that COHU! Great post!

    1. Thanks Gordon!

      It would be fun to do it again in migration. I rather fancy that he fellow doing this in the Austin area that time would swell with numbers beyond reckoning, so I think relatively I would do weaker, but all the same it made/would make for a great day of birding!

  2. Good show! Like really, really good. Shrike-on-a-play-structure is especially stunning, as are your hummingbird shots. As much as I want to try this, non-lakefront Indiana in January would net me, at absolute best, 50 species. Thanks for reminding me of the taken for granted challenge, too. I was still a super rookie birder back then, so if you ever want a rematch I could probably pose more of a challenge nowadays...

    1. Thanks Greg,

      I'm lucky that golf courses and golf course watersheds are not condescended by the birds like they are by me or I would be in real trouble to.

      I like that with this challenge all the birds count vs. just a few with the rest being decoration. But it is limiting from person to person.
      Maybe one could modify so as not to have the home be the focii, but just a particular spot (say, a SP near the lake) for the 5M bubble. To it'd be sort of like a CBC challenge.

  3. Nice piggybacking there, buddy. 82 is a damn fine number. Cool to see how everyone's 5MR differs! Love the second moody Anna's, the second Costa's, and the jab at Nate for poking himself with a cholla. All in all, a great post. I am feeling bizarrely motivated to try again now that we've thawed. Watch out.

    1. Usually it's cumbersome to piggyback but this time it felt...it felt right.
      Moodiness and jabs eh? You're a pugilist Jen, looking forward to seeing what next you put up!

  4. Another quality post, complete (and also replete) with bludgeoning COHU crushes and an impressive 5MC total...perhaps I have someone's desire for goat cheese to thank for that sub-86 number?

    I will take full credit for the 5MC but the 5MR is all FJ's idea. She desires, and deserves, a great deal of attention for this feat of categorization.

    1. Right on. I would do much for goat cheese, certainly more than I would for a klondike bar. Would I give up 5 species and a win..? Unclear.

      Well then kudos and thanks to you and Jen...though if it had been a 5.2 MR/MC I might have been gnawing a slice of fried gold.

  5. Great post, Laurence! There's something about a contest like this that makes the local stuff more exciting than normal. Of course, killer crushes of a Costa's don't hurt the cause either. Good grief! New banner pic perhaps?

    Are we to expect an increasingly smaller radius as summer approaches? I think, though, that if it comes to just feeder watching/blogging, you will somehow make it titillating.

    1. At least some of my goriest birding moments have happened around feeders. Those thing are death traps.

  6. What a great idea. I may try this. Perhaps there could be a county wide challenge in the future?

    Down here in Gilbert I could get Zone-Tailed Hawk, Ross's Goose, maybe Cackling...

    If you are ever out birding and want some company, let me know.

    1. Cheers Steve,

      A Gilbert radius could put up some very strong numbers!

      Hope to see you in the field,