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Getting to Know Your Patch

Think Globally, Bird Locally

Rich Stallcup (1944–2012) • Reprinted from the Spring 2009 Observer

Rich Stallcup was PRBO’s Naturalist until his passing in December 2012. His knowledge continues to deepen our appreciation of all things wild. Find many of Rich’s “Focus” columns at (scroll to the end of “Observer Online”.

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.

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.
Photo by Rich Stallcup.

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.

Birds. One day we noticed a Turkey Vulture (TV) with a big albinistic wing patch sitting with the usual few normal TVs. Any time 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 spatially grouped on foraging territories. It would make sense that not all of Marin County’s 800 vultures could go to the same road-killed 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!