Want a Training Ground for Your Birding Skills? Try Patch Birding

Birders around the world are immersing themselves in nearby nature, and you can, too.

The first time I heard the term “patch birding,” I was chatting with author and bird guide Heather Wolf in a coffeeshop overlooking Washington Square Park in New York City. She used the term to describe birding regularly in a place close to home, whether it be in Manhattan or her previous stomping grounds on the Florida Gulf Coast. A novice urban birder myself, I was intrigued by what the method entailed.

Wolf’s current patch is Brooklyn Bridge Park, an 85-acre oasis that hugs the city’s eastern shoreline. Birding there for years, she says, has upped her skillset: It’s made her a better birder by ear and has increased her knowledge on how birds choose habitat. She’s also become a whiz at anticipating behavior, having seen everything from territorial defense to mid-day snacking. “It adds a whole new dimension to my birding and makes it extremely exciting, especially during mating season,” Wolf says. “You never know what you might witness from one day to the next.”

After doing a little research, I learned that patch birding is not so unusual. Plenty of people across the planet have adopted this fun, enriching, carbon-cutting practice. But before getting started, I sought out the advice of a few more pros.

“Small parks, little greenways, and green strips are interesting places to see different species,” says Tiffany Adams, a Seattle-based patch birder. She often observes hawks, crows, and flyover Bald Eagles at Hing Hay Park, a 1,200-meter site near her home. At the other end of the spectrum is Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador, Matt Clark’s former patch. The park’s lush vegetation made it hard to spot species, so the CEO of Nature and Culture International, a conservation non-profit, would use his five-hour-long field sessions to become adept at sound IDs. Clark describes the process of patch birding as akin to living in a neighborhood where you know everyone around. Familiarity with his patch extended to knowing where to find different species—and impressing any friends who came on his walks.

Speaking to these three experienced birders convinced me to seek out my own patch and learn everything I could about my feathered neighbors. To do so, I broke the process down into a few steps.

Step 1: Find Your Patch

A patch can be as big as a forest or as small as a grove of trees on your street. No one has defined the optimal size, but it’s worth considering the distance you can regularly cover in a timeframe that fits your lifestyle.

The transect I chose can be briskly birded in 30 minutes or leisurely in about an hour. If it’s especially buzzy, I can stay out for even more than an hour. 

For me, choosing a patch proved to be simple. Three blocks from my apartment lies Washington Square Park, a 10-acre hotspot that I now bird several times a week. Seventy-four percent of the checklists I make come from the park. I logged my first-time records for a Worm-eating Warbler and Cedar Waxwing there and am also gathering data for a long-term wildlife survey at the site. 

One thing I've learned in my early days of patch birding is that the numbers don't matter. Count yourself lucky if your patch is part of a bird-rich landscape like Clark’s (Ecuador has a whopping 1,632 species); but even if it isn't so diverse, you’ll still see birds. While my patch is home to the poster children of urban birding—pigeons, sparrows, and raptors—I’ve also found a Black-crowned Night Heron, Kentucky Warbler, and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker there. Peruse the maps on the eBird website or Audubon app and see what localities hold potential near you. Or single out an understudied habitat to discover something new.

Step 2: Learn the Birds and Their Habits

The next stage of your patch-birding experience will be the most time-consuming: Use the powers of observation to cement your local knowledge and build your daily or weekly practice. Technology can increase your know-how during this step. Tackle common species IDs by pairing checklists for the area with your favorite field guide or app. This will help you hone your senses to flag unusual sightings.

“Use your patch as a training ground to improve your birding,” Wolf says. “Even on days when your patch isn't ‘birdy,’ you can follow common species in flight to hone your tracking skills.” 

If you get stuck at any point, crowdsource your identifications with iNaturalist, social media, or a regional birding club. And just as you detail different types of birds, also make note of where you’re seeing them. Study the vegetation structure and plant species to help you map birds in your patch and figure out which behaviors are associated with each microhabitat.

Step 3: Tend to Your Patch

If your patch is your own, you can customize it to attract certain species and increase biodiversity across the board. Some ideas include:

In public spaces, stewarding your patch can mean speaking on behalf of the birds. “If I see a bird in trouble, if I see something, I say something,” Adams says. Last summer there was an active crow’s nest in her patch, so she alerted park rangers about it to prevent any disturbances.

Step 4: Keep a List (or Don’t) 

By sharing the fruits of your patch birding on eBird, the Audubon app, and other platforms, you can generate data for science and conservation. Plus, you’ll have easy access to records of your sightings. You can even turn a day of patch birding into a dedicated count birds for Project FeederWatch, Hummingbirds at Home, or Global Big Day. If you don't want to make your notes public, jot (or sketch) them down in a field journal.

Some birders like to challenge themselves by doing a Big Year just in their patch. Others go more small scale by aiming for a new bird a day or week. You can raise the bar for either one by recruiting a fellow birder.

Whatever your approach, patch birding is unique to the person and the niche. Over time, you will develop a closer affinity to your spot and the birds that call it home.

“My advice would be not to force it," Clark says. "Let your connection to your patch develop organically as a special place you like to spend time.”