Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The 5MR Challenge: January Beginnings

"Bro, do you 5MR?" This has been the dominant question, hash tag, and tweet of the past two months. In case you're wondering, 5MR is actually pronounced 'FI-MER' (rhymes with timer) when used conversationally. And just in case you're not fully up to speed, allow me to elaborate:
If a nosey birder asks you, "Do you 5mer?" you should know that they are asking if you regularly track bird species seen within 5 miles of your home. 
For example, here's a nifty little screen shot of Butler's 5MR, with yellow pins showing potential birding spots based on satellite imaging, and blue pins showing established patches. 

The 5MR concept was pushed into the national birding spotlight as a competition to log the most species, in total and as a percent of species seen in a county/counties, by notoriously competitive and productive birder and blogger Jen Sanford, who used her social media nous + the Portland Underground to spread this craze trans-continental. The appeal is broad and reaches those who have limited time, limited transport, limited budget, concern for environmental impact, and a either a current or rejuvenating interest in their local avifauna. Why spend so much time in the car when you could spend it finding cool stuff near home, and then go home and nap?

Alas, appeal and potential do not always translate into easy local birding. Here is that same Butler's 5MR radius, since updated, based on (un)availability of public access and habitat preservation. 

In my nook of Wayne, NC, there is precious little public land. There are two nice state parks another 8 miles away, but here is mostly farmland and reservoirs that have been enclosed by pockets of neighborhoods. The people are generally hospitable and kind, and also prodigious hunters, but they can also be a suspicious folk, encapsulated well by (one of many) local Baptist churches.

This means YOU, Andy.
Maybe it's a parable. Or a metaphor.

The first week/weekend was a lot of trial and error, driving and crossing spots off on the map without getting to do much birding--actually rather antithetical to the 5MR idea. It did yield some drive-by raptors and agri. birds. And it was good for citizen science...or so I told myself a lot.


If the first week was slapdash Lewis & Clarkin' it, the next couple have been more in the line of the 1800s ornithological exploration. There are *pending eBird acceptance* three hotspots in my 5MR now. The first is a tragically trashed cemetery with limited views of the adjacent, privately enclosed reservoir. It is also conveniently located next to an adequately mediocre Food Lion grocery store, and its trashy woods have contributed Brown Creeper, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Golden-crowned Kinglet to the 5MR. 

Eastern Bluebird was not added to the 5MR at Old Mill; they are everywhere. They are legion.

The biggest weakness in my 5MR relative to the rest of the county is the lack of open water. The wastewater treatment facility 10 miles away is loaded with waterfowl and waders, but the little lakes in my radius are all enclosed by private development and, from cursory glances, have no ducky rafts at all. I was very grateful for the one Mallard pair I have found thus far. I ogled the crap out of this lonely, precious, Pied-billed Grebe. I dream of the day a Ring-necked Duck loses its way into my slough.

Hotspot #2 --officially dubbed Peter's Branch Reservoir, because someone named peter carved his name in a branch on a tree there--is pretty much my only hope for waterfowl numbers this year. It has good numbers of skittish Cormorants, which always scare away the good numbers of Gulls before I can scan them with my wee binoculars.

My first trip to Peters Branch was also noteworthy for what was going on above the water, where one immature light Bald Eagle was being chased around by an immature dark Bald Eagle (yes, I tried to make it into a Golden Eagle before sense returned). Their back and forth caused great consternation to the Cormorants bobbing below. These were 5MR birds, and also super cool to watch.

The brambly baby's-breath blackberry scrub stuff around the lakes has been fantastic for Sparrows. I am a big fan of Sparrows. Even when I was not birding regularly, I thought about Sparrows a lot. Peter's Branch contributed White-throated, Savannah, and Swamp Sparrow on first visit, added a couple Field Sparrows on the second, and coughed up a nifty family of White-crowns on the third. 

It's a pretty strong Sparrow species-per-acre ratio. At this rate and progression I should have Golden-crowned by March, Henslow's by June, and Five-striped by September. The tribe of locally uncommon White-crowns will do for now.

The last "hotspot" in my 5MR, dubbed Bear Creek Thoroughfare, is a thin strip of land between plots of private property. It follows the creek and provides state access to different flow points. It actually has the lowest species total of my 3 patches so far, and this is not likely to change soon. But unlike Arizona, NC actually has seasons. With woodlands on one side and thick riparian vegetation along the creek, I think it will be an excellent migrant trap come spring.

How do Cardinals even survive in the wild?

Almost a month in, the Joy Drive 5MR has 65 species for the year, out of a total 87 species recorded for the county this year. The best pick up has been this pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers (admittedly would be common later in the year; just trying to steal some of the 5MR Portland peep's thunder) or the Bald Eagles at Peter's Branch Reservoir. 

Mostly importantly, I have been out birding over a dozen times, never for more than 2 hours at a time but never more than 5-7 minutes away from home. This is still more than I have done with the birds than in all of 2018. 
I probably should not admit that on a public bird blog--damages my personal brand you know--but let's be real, if you're reading it's only because you're here to try and glean some personal information about me to crack my Amazon password or something. 
Friggin' Russians.


  1. Laurence! How nice to hear from you again. I did not know you moved to the East Coast! (Or my overtaxed brain forgot.) I had not heard of a 5mer, so thanks for the education. I am currently involved with the Maine Breeding Bird Atlas and have adopted 3 Atlas block near my current home in Waldoboro. Though I do travel around a bit, I regularly bird my own yard and several Hotspots nearby. So, I guess I am doing a 5mer without even realizing it! I just don't have it mapped out quite as accurately as you. Now you"ve made me curious. I will have to see if I can figure it out. Good luck with your counts and keep up the good work. If no one else is contributing data in your location, then you know it is invaluable!

    1. Great to hear from your Kathie!
      And sounds like you’ve got a 5MR head start already! I’d recommend checking out the Facebook group; there are helpful posts there for setting up your map.

      It’ll be great to see what you turn up in your area. In a lot of ways my 5MR will be mostly the generic temperate birds—looking forward to seeing what your more extreme local turns up throughout the year!

  2. The cardinal photo and accompanying caption really resonates with me for some reason. Also, I really wish I could see FISPs more often.

    1. Cheers Steve,

      That Cardinal and I shared a little moment in the spooky woods. It was eerie quiet—the Cardinal wasn’t calling even.

      Take a minute and recline on the couch.
      What did you feel? Why?
      Do you think this is tour Father’s fault?

  3. Private land notwithstanding, your patch looks pretty solid. Do you have BHNUs in it?

    1. Hey Greg,

      It could be worse, for sure.
      We have Brown and White-headed. eVird says maybe Red- breasted too but not on my watch!

  4. Great post and it looks like you've found a few 5MR good spots! Also you've just beating me - I'm on 62 so far ;)

    1. I shall flog, flog, flog these bushes!
      Hope fully there’s more to come.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Local birding is great as the good finds feel even more rewarding the closer we are to home. And that nap option you mention is spot on. I'm not a 5MRer (yet) but a pretty dedicated county birder. That, though, is reaching a point of diminishing returns and becoming dull so maybe it's time to jump on this bandwagon. Can we retroactively tally our 5MR list?

    What comes after 5MR when that runs its course? Big Sits? Geri Birding at the Bird Store?

    Good to see this blog up and running again, Laurence. And congrats on the baby on the way!

    1. Josh...are you implying that we're really just finding ways to reconcile and glorify parochial birding achievements and low ambition? Damn. You may be right. That is incisive.

      But on the other hand, that's all I was ever doing anyway : )

      Glad to be back! Glad to be fertile!

  6. We are swimming in Western Tanagers down here in coastal NC. 6-7 different homes have them coming to feeders. Keep your eyes peeled and put out a jelly feeder. You will overtake us in the spring as we get passed by most migrant warblers.

    1. Swimming in Tanagers—now that’s something I can get into!
      Jelly feeders are coming soon!