The Delights of Patch Birding

Summer tanager photo by B. Wunderlich.

Every morning, I crawl out of bed, put on my walking clothes, and take my little dog, Frankie, for a walk. In other words, I go birding. At most times of the year and when I’m pressed for time, I stick to the streets and alleys near my house for about 20 minutes. There, the most numerous birds, in decreasing order, are: European starlings, house sparrows, American robins, rock pigeons, common grackles, mourning doves, northern cardinals, house finches, song sparrows, Carolina wrens, tufted titmice, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Those are my regulars. 

But from late April through May, when I have time, I get up 30 minutes earlier and head for the cemetery, which is just a block and a half from my house. I consider it my patch. It’s a sprawling, historic cemetery with a tall hill right in the middle, lots of trees, and birds. In the past week, I’ve had great looks at magnolia, cerulean, and chestnut-sided warblers. I can count on yellow warbler, a pair of summer tanagers who are active and noisy, chipping sparrows, a resident wood thrush who serenades me daily from down in the ravine, a pair of red-shouldered hawks, a mockingbird, lots of brown thrashers, white-breasted nuthatches, and a suite of vireos: red-eyed, yellow-throated, blue-headed, and the occasional white-eyed, plus the regulars from my residential route. Last week I kept hearing a soft crescendo then decrescendo p-p-p-p-p throughout the cemetery, but couldn’t spot the source, and couldn’t remember whose song that was. Blackpolls!! It took me days to remember that, and I never did get my eyes on one.  

Blackpoll warbler photo by Cephas / Wikimedia.

Yesterday a flock of at least 10 cedar waxwings descended upon a blooming tulip tree! And Tennessee warblers had a duet/duel straight above my head. Ah, May! It’s a wonderful time to get out—especially if you have an exciting patch, as I do. 

But there’s another thrill in my patch: Foxes! What’s even more delightful is that I can recognize two of them as individuals. A big, bold, fire-orange one hangs out near the top of the hill, just behind the mausoleum. A few days ago, we made eye contact. He saw me from about 30 or 40 feet, lay down, crossed his front legs, and just stared at me. I stared back, and was even able to grab a photo on my phone! That was the second time I’ve seen him, nearly at the same location, but the first time I saw him, I surprised him from behind, so he bolted. I don’t know his gender, obviously, but because he is so very handsome, I think he’s the male.  

Red fox photo by B. Wunderlich.

I’ve also seen a yellowish-brown fox down in the ravine, and and also running up the hill. Once she was carrying prey, clearly about to deliver it to her den. She seems much more wary than the orange one—and more hardworking. Yesterday, I saw her with a half-size kit, also yellowish-brown, on her tail. When she saw us, she bolted, and the poor little kit didn’t know what to do. I bet it had never seen a human or a little black dog before. It ran off in the opposite direction, but clearly, it was frightened and confused, and couldn’t keep up with its parent.  

I can’t bird my patch every morning, because it’s impossible to stroll through quickly. I need at least an hour. There’s so much to hear—and then look for. I expect surprises, and am usually rewarded. I’ve been rewarded, too, for paying attention to what’s going on around me, outside of my head, allowing me to turn off the noise in my brain and let go of my routine stressors, even if just for an hour. It’s such a healthy escape and puts me in a better mood for the day 

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