PRBO Conservation Science
Quarterly Journal of PRBO Conservation Science, Number 156, Spring 2009: Ecological Consequences of Climate Change


Getting to Know Your Patch

Think Globally, Bird Locally

Rich Stallcup

CEO's Column
Fingerprints of Climate Change
Projecting Birds' Future
Song Sparrows and Climate
PRBO's Climate Change Initiative
Climate Modeling
Planned Giving
Focus on a Home Patch
PRBO Highlights

Some of our friends are on an endless quest to see as many of the world's 9,500 bird species as possible. Others try for at least one representative of each of the 207 families of Earth's birds. For most of us, bringing down the size of our world may be equally satisfying, a lot cheaper, and less strain on good ol' Mother Earth.

There are so many birders in the United Kingdom that they cannot all fit into prime birding localities at optimum migration times, so "Birding your Patch" has become very popular. A patch can be anywhere wild—your neighborhood, a park, a cemetery, a trail, or your own backyard. By paying close attention over time, you may become an expert on your patch, knowing what is always there and when the mobile creatures come and go. By paying close attention to local area, we can also make contributions to scientific understanding.
An individual Turkey Vulture followed a pattern of seasonal habits over the years. Rich Stallcup photo.

After 15 years of bird touring, I was definitely ready to stay put and bring one place into focus, rather than glimpsing many. When I moved to a house on a Holstein dairy near Point Reyes, that became my patch, and a fine patch it is.

Over 20 years there, I found and came to understand 38 species of native mammals, 20 reptiles and amphibians, hundreds of insects and arachnids, and a modest number of birds. The bird list is not huge because of limited habitat, but I know the arrival and departure dates for migrants, the songs and calls of all the regulars, which ones nest where and when, and pretty much where they all forage and roost. There have been ten species each of owls and woodpeckers!

Here are some of the ways I have come to know my patch.

Hummingbirds. By feeding hummingbirds over the years, I determined that the average arrival date in the Point Reyes area for Allen's Hummingbird was January 27th. That knowledge was new. During the past three winters, those little beauties have been arriving measurably earlier. Might that be a piece in the puzzle of climate change?

Mammals. I did some live trappings of mice in hopes of catching Zapus, the jumping mouse. I would set eight traps over a quarter-mile of trail at dusk and marvel at my captures at dawn. Over time, to my amazement, I briefly incarcerated three species of Peromyscus mice, having thought that only one was possible. There were many other rodents and shrews.

With protection, bobcats have become more numerous and easier to see. In the early morning, one or two often sit staring at gopher holes in the pasture. Once, when I was looking from a long way away, quite a large one was sitting there. "Nice," I said. "Felix rufus." Then it rose and sauntered along with its huge tail practically dragging on the ground. "Phew! Felix concolor, the big cat!"—a mountain lion.

Birds. One day we noticed a Turkey Vulture (TV) with a big albinistic wing patch sitting with the usual few normal TVs. Anytime an individual animal can be easily identified, there is a great opportunity to learn. For six years this bird departed every late April and returned every September. It was nesting elsewhere. When the bird was present, it was at the ranch constantly, with a similar number of its kind. This suggests that TVs may be spacially grouped on foraging territories. It would make sense that all of Marin County's 800 vultures could not go to the same roadkilled squirrel.

There have been several very rare birds at my patch on the Holstein ranch, and that's always exciting, but for me, understanding the ebb and flow of the more usual ones has caused great joy and spirit happiness. "Being one with nature" is a wonderful thing that can only be truly accomplished by staying in one place.

Postscript: We have yet to catch up with Zapus; there is always more to do!

[back to top] [printable page]