Birding Like Crazy
I appear to be the winner of the January 2019 5-mile-radius birding challenge and of all the prizes
that come with that honor. Just kidding, there are no prizes except for the puzzled/admiring faces of
your friends when you tell them about what you did for the last month. The challenge was to fill gaps
in eBird where no one had birded a given hotspot (within your 5MR) during that week in January.
More people should bird here. It's a tunnel bridge!
In late December, bored and bedridden, I decided to start making a list of places I might go birding
for the challenge. I looked at every one of the many, many hotspots in my 5MR to see which ones
had the requisite gaps. I started making my list longhand, but quickly realized that this was a job for
a spreadsheet. Soon I had completed my list with colored boxes to show where gaps were in each of
the four sections of the month. I figured it would be fun to try a few new spots and get my year list
started. I loved that my data would be providing a better picture of winter bird abundance across my
I'm definitely coming back here in the spring.
At the beginning of January I was in rough shape, an interminable cold on top of an unexpectedly
long recovery from a heart procedure was making me feel like I’d never be well again. I had recently
finished my master’s degree but hadn’t yet found a job. A lack of structure doesn’t suit my mental
makeup, and it was all starting to take a toll. I was thinking way too much about every ache and pain,
and the best escape from that was birding. I grabbed ahold of my spreadsheet as if it were a life
preserver and starting birding my 5MR like my sanity depended on it (it might have).
Not birding enough can turn you to stone. Poor kid.
Luckily, my husband and birding buddy works for the federal government and had a little free time
during the month. This was nice because sometimes I worry about being murdered when I go birding
in isolated spots by myself. I blame Law & Order SVU. This challenge required a departure from our
normal birding plan; all of our favorite hotspots were completely without gaps in January. Most of the
hotspots in our circle are small suburban parks with grass and a few trees. I was happy to see that
there were several eligible hotspots along the Willamette River to increase our bird diversity.
Don't feed these sexy ducks.
The first week went well. Despite losing days to a New Years trip and a CBC outside of my circle, I
got 11 points. I saw so many Song Sparrows and enjoyed hearing my first Pileated Woodpecker and
Common Raven of the year. Week two was less fun. Pouring rain kept everything but robins
hunkered down and I struggled with motivation. My unhelpful brain suggested that perhaps staying
home all the time was a better plan and that I was in no shape to go anywhere. I’ve heard this crap
before so I made a mental health appointment. (By the way, let’s all destigmatize taking care of your
mental health.) My mental health guy helped me get some perspective and he also thought birding
was a great way to reduce anxiety: 1) it often leads to exercise, 2) it makes you focus on external
stimuli and get out of your head for awhile.
Who likes wind? Crows and statues do.
With this extra nudge, I dove back into the challenge. I got 16 points week 3, including a day where
Max and I hit five hotspots in a row. I started using my heart more and thinking about it less. I started
feeling stronger and sturdier, and more like myself. I reaped the birding rewards of getting out so
much. A rare flock of winter American White Pelicans circled over me. I watched a pair of Peregrine
Falcons guard the cliff where they nest. I heard my first Pacific Wren song of the year. At some point
during week three, I saw someone mention on the 5MR Facebook group that they had over thirty
points. I was only in the twenties and this made me unhappy. I am a slightly competitive person in
the sense that I deeply hate losing at anything. I couldn’t improve my lousy week two, but I could
push hard until the finish.
I either heard a real Pileated Woodpecker here or this guy talks.
As week four began, I wondered how many of the remaining spots I could hit. I drew a map of the
spots I could visit that week and grouped them for maximum efficiency. “Week” four had the benefit
of including the three extra days in January, so time was on my side. I birded nine days in a row and
ended up with 29 points that week. I found a Barred Owl roosting at eye level and a park full of
beaver dams where Wood Ducks fittingly abounded. On the last day of the month, I watched
Townsend’s Warblers forage in a cedar tree lit up by the afternoon sun and thought about how much
better I felt than I had a month before or even a couple weeks earlier.
Barred Owl. Sorry, this isn't a photography blog.
I don’t believe in destiny, but I do know that this birding challenge was exactly what I needed this
month. I learned a few things along the way that I want to share:
1. Birding is good therapy, but so is therapy.
2. There are more awesome birds within five miles of your home than you might imagine.
3. I’m rarely ever sorry I went out birding instead of staying home. Except that one time
Chillest Peregrine ever.
Points: 53 at 34 different hotspots
Total 5MR checklists completed: 62
Total 5MR bird species found: 83