Hate Moving?

Like most of you I hate moving. However, being a birder, at least I can look forward to starting a new yard list when I do have to relocate. In most cases, serious listing requires lots of free time, money, and willingness to travel to out of the way places in order to see those species that don't occur near where you live. By comparison, yard listing is cheap and can be done whenever you have a few spare minutes to peer out the window or sit out in the yard hoping for something interesting t0 fly over. Most importantly, yard listing gives one reason to get excited about seeing common birds and perhaps spend a bit more time than normal studying their plumage and behavior.


Birds that frequent backyard feeders often get acclimated to having people around. Regular use of black oil sunflower seeds at my backyard feeding station resulted in a small forest of sunflowers in this Eugene, Oregon yard. This hatch-year Black-headed Grosbeak was one of nearly a dozen that spent about month devouring our crop during the late summer/early fall of 2008. This bird was no more than eight feet from me when I photographed it on 25 August 2008 (photo by Dave Irons).

Since becoming a serious birder at age 17, I've moved more times than I care to think about.  Over the past 33 years, I've not lived in the same house for more than about five years. At best I consider myself a casual yard lister. My relaxed approach to yard listing is probably the result of never having lived at a site with huge yard list potential. I haven't lived on ocean or bay front property and I've only lived on a riverfront lot once--for about a year when I was ten years old. Most of the houses/apartments that I've lived in have had a limited viewscape. Being able to see a long way is an advantage when yard listing since the general consensus is that one can count any bird that they can see and identify while standing in their yard. At one of my homes in Portland, Oregon I could stand in the bed of my Toyota pick-up truck, set up a spotting scope, and scan for large waterbirds flying over the Columbia River about two miles away.


Merlins, like this one photographed in northwest Portland, Oregon 29 December 2008, are often found in residential areas during the winter months. (digi-scoped photo by Shawneen Finnegan)

The old cliche about real estate definitely applies when it comes to yard listing. It's all about location. If you live in a typical residential neighborhood far removed from water, you will be hard-pressed to reach 100 species even if you spend several decades at the same location. Species like Mallard, or Great Blue Heron, which may be encountered readily at the local duck pond, can be incredibly difficult to add to your yard list. Conversely, Paul Lehman and Shawneen Finnegan obviously hit a home run in terms of location when they moved to Cape May, New Jersey in the September 1994. Within four months their yard list was over 200 species, and eventually it topped 300, perhaps the highest species tally ever recorded from a U.S. yard.

Certain groups of species are particularly hard to come by from the average yard. Marsh birds, owls, and shorebirds are nearly impossible to get unless you spend lots of time outside at night and know their calls well. My best yard for migrant waterbirds was in Fairmount, Illinois, where I lived for four years (1994-1998). During those years I heard Sora, Virginia Rail, American Golden-Plover, Greater Yellowlegs, Spotted Sandpiper, and Caspian Tern fly over--all at night. There was an old quarry about a mile from my house that had several large barrow pits and ponds, which apparently attracted nocturnally migrating marsh birds and shorebirds.


This male Rufous Hummingbird was one of many attending a feeder near Crow, Lane County, Oregon in the foothills of Oregon's Coast Range on 19 June 2009. (photo by Dave Irons).

The easiest birds to add to your yard list are jays, chickadees, sparrows, juncos, and finches. These species are primarily seed-eaters during the winter months, thus they will appear almost instantly once you put up a bird feeder. Hummingbirds are another group that can be attracted with comparative ease. In fact most rare hummingbirds are discovered at back yard feeding stations. 


This immature Sharp-shinned Hawk came looking for a quick meal at my Eugene, Oregon yard on 19 October 2008 (photo by Dave Irons).

If you do opt to set up a backyard feeding station, it will eventually become a feeding station for birds of prey. Accipiters (Cooper's and Sharp-shinned Hawks) often winter in residential areas where they can count on a nice buffet of songbirds.

Though less common, Merlins also set up shop in residential neighborhoods during the winter months. Unlike Accipiters, which tend to lurk in the inner branches for many minutes before surprising birds that don't notice them, Merlins are most often found at the very top of the tallest tree in the neighborhood. They use a combination of keen eyesight and blistering speed to launch attacks from up to a quarter mile away. By the time they reach their target they are moving so fast that their prey has no time to react. 

I've never been particularly lucky when it comes to having mega-rarities show up in my yard, but it does happen. While living in Illinois, I saw a Broad-billed Hummingbird at a feeder in Peoria, Illinois and a Green Violet-ear at a feeder in Edwardsburg, Michigan.  The Lehman/Finnegan list at Cape May mentioned above included such rarities as Black-tailed Gull, Brown-chested Martin, and Fork-tailed Flycatcher!


A series of soft "whit" call notes alerted me to the presence of this Dusky Flycatcher, which showed up in my Eugene, Oregon yard on 2 May 2008. (photo by Dave Irons).

Even if you don't have first state records showing up at your feeder, adding new species to your yard list is fun, especially if you have a small lot in town. During the fall months just before my most recent move (November 2009) I added Common Yellowthroat and MacGillivray's Warbler to the 70 or so species I had seen in my yard on Hayes St. in Eugene, Oregon. Twice during spring migrations, the same yard hosted Dusky Flycatchers (a rare spring migrant in Eugene, Oregon).

There is much that you can learn by paying attention to the birds right around your house. The seasonal comings and goings of yard birds will help you better understand the timing of migration. Further, by keeping a close eye on locally wintering sparrows and finches, you may notice the progression of seasonal molts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly to those who are competitive in their listing, you will always hold the top spot on the listing charts for the little section of the globe that you call home.

We'd love to hear your favorite yard listing stories and don't hesitate to tell us what your current yard list total is by posting a comment.                   


In my 10.5 years of marriage, we have moved 9 times…mostly related to college, but still! The change in birdscape is the fun part about moving. In my Mesa, Arizona yard I had 69 species. In my Idaho yard I have 30 or so, but I count the Avimor area here in the Boise foothills as my yard, so that total is currently 98. I dream of one day having a huge yard that includes a lake with mudflats, several streams, marshes, woods, and every other necessary amentiy to create a veritable birding oasis.


Thanks for the post, Dave. I have also moved way too much over the years. When work brought my wife and I to Eugene in early 2006, I began to search for a hobby that was compatible with my sometimes-demanding work schedule and the rainy winters. Heeding the sage advice of my high school guidance councilor (yes, they’re good for something!), I decided to return to an activity that I really enjoyed in my youth: backyard birding. I turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

We originally moved into a modest duplex with a very small yard. Because of this, my expectations were tempered. However, as you pointed out, it’s all about location. This “yard” had two critical elements: ample mature pine and oak and a golf course just a block and a half away. In just under 3 1/2 years of feeding at this residence, my yard list hit 60. This included Mallards (presumably from the golf course) that regularly ate cracked corn off of my driveway from January into July (despite the abundance of outdoor cats and lack of fences), seasonal Purple Finches, migrant Black-headed Grosbeaks, migrant Orange-crowned and Wilson’s Warblers, winter Townsend’s Warblers, fall/winter Western Screech-Owls, fall/winter Brown Creepers, fall/winter kinglets, and occasional winter Varied Thrushes. That alone far exceeded my expectations. Some of the more exotic visitors have included a pair of Wood Ducks, a Red-tailed Hawk, a Merlin, a Hairy Woodpecker, a couple of Red-breasted Sapsuckers, a Western Wood-Pewee, a couple of Winter Wrens, a Nashville Warbler, a couple of Black-throated Gray Warblers, a Lincoln’s Sparrow, and a one-eyed Fox Sparrow. Pine Siskins, Dark-eyed Juncos, and Northern Flickers have all bred locally and brought their offspring to the feeders/baths over the past two summers. One of my fondest memories includes watching an adult female Flicker feed her fledgling suet on the top of my wife’s old SUV. This August, I watched my two summer juncos raise two Brown-headed Cowbirds. That was my first account of cowbird parasitism.

We have since moved into a proper house with a more “suburban” yard (lots of bushes and our only trees are in the neighbors’ yards). This will obviously present a challenge and I’m sure that my yard list will suffer somewhat (no woodpeckers after the first month). However, it will be also be a good opportunity to “birdscape” and work on attracting different species. Exciting!


We’ve lived in our current house for just over seven years. I have now identified 136 species here. Our place is in rural Skagit County, Washington, and is just under an acre and a half. There’s a bit of pasture, a bit of lawn, some weedy edges, and a variety of trees here and there. Some of the most surprising species here have included the following: American Bittern (heard booming in a wetland just west of here); Great Egret (literally flushed into my neighborhood, during a major flood, from a slough where it had been staying); Golden Eagle; Sandhill Crane; Whimbrel; Caspian Tern; Short-eared Owl (hunting flooded pastures during the aftermath of a flood); Calliope Hummingbird; Say’s Phoebe; Western Scrub Jay; White-throated Sparrow; Chipping Sparrow; Yellow-headed Blackbird; and Pine Grosbeak.


We’ve been in our current house for almost eight years now, and I have been fairly consistent about keeping a yard list for the last four of those eight years. We have a small yard, but it is on a de facto greenbelt (a golf course) with a heavily wooded ravine across the fairway and good tracts of forest fairly nearby. There are several ponds fairly close to the house and we re-landscaped our back yard specifically to attract birds. My current yard list is at 80 species as of yesterday, when a fairly rare bird (American Tree Sparrow) showed up in the afternoon. Raptors and owls are probably my favorite families of birds, and I have 9 species on the yard list – Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Merlin, Peregrine Falcon, Great Horned Owl, Northern Pygmy-Owl, Bald Eagle and Osprey. The most interesting – and unexpected – one was the Northern Pygmy Owl that was perched in one of our Doug Firs when I came home late in the afternoon. I took some pictures and figured that would be the last I saw of the owl. However, two days later I came home to find the owl in a small tree ten feet from our kitchen window, with a recently captured House Sparrow in its talons. This unexpected photo op resulted in the following image – http://www.tubbsphoto.com/-/tubbsphoto/detail.asp?photoID=7036815&cat=38981.


John, we would love to know where you live. Thanks to all of you who have shared your yard listing experiences so far.


The worst yard I ever had for birds was in close-in S.E. Portland, Oregon, off 13th and Belmont. I lived on the third floor of an ancient apartment building with a limited view and no yard. Sick of enduring no sparrows, I filled a paper sack with millet and, under cover of night, air-mailed it across intervening space into the yard next door. That yard had only a grotty little patch of grass and the obligatory corner up against the fence where yard trimmings were put. The three-pointer was GOOD! HEEE SCOOOORES! as in the following days a flock of Zonotrichia sparrows, juncos, and other seed-eaters discovered the largesse that burst from the sack. I don’t know if the person next door ever even noticed. The paper sack rotted away into the weeds. I also finally dredged up a dull female Townsend’s Warbler by persistent spishing. That was the apartment where I neglected to remove our Christmas tree until the first week of February. I ultimately dragged it down the hall, which caused the manager to drag the vacuum cleaner to my door about fifteen minutes later. I was Young.


When I lived in Fremont, NH for 4 years in a heavily wooded rural 2-acre-lot subdivision, I accumulated a yard list of about 70 species. Among the more unusual were Solitary Sandpipers in a retention pond behind our back yard, a Northern Goshawk adult that appeared several times in January one year, and a Whip-poor-will that drove us crazy by calling repeatedly at 4 in the morning as well as 9 at night one year. We also had Barred Owls that went through their complete weird repertoire one memorable summer evening. I also had the NH state record for Dark-eyed Juncos—105 birds—one winter, along with over 60 Mourning Doves. You wouldn’t believe the amount of snow shoveling I did to keep a couple of 12′×12′ areas cleared during NH’s snowy winters. But the most memorable were flocks of Wild Turkeys: for 3 straight years we had flocks of 11-14 birds during the late-summer and fall. Funny thing,
though, the last time we saw them each year was the day or week before Thanksgiving!


One of the best things about keeping a yard list for me has been dispelling the idea that, while we had lots of birds, they were all pretty much the same species. I figured in any given year, I might see 20 or 25 species, but both years I’ve been keeping close track I’ve topped 40, and this year added two birds I KNOW we’ve never had in the yard before (a Pileated Woodpecker and a Raven), and we’re spang in the middle of North Seattle.


Paul and my Cape May yard list was really incredible. We moved into a duplex sight unseen when moving from California to NJ in September 1994. We knew the location would be fabulous. Our second-story living room and deck faced south overlooking Cape May Meadows, with the confluence of the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond the dunes. The ocean was so close that we could see Wilson’s Storm-Petrels from the deck while gannets could be viewed while sitting on the couch, while Least Terns and Piping Plovers nested beyond the dunes that blocked our view of the actual beach.

The number of birds that we saw from the property was rediculous and far exceeded our wildest imagination. When we first moved in we wondered how long it would take to get to 200, thinking maybe two years, not just a matter of a few months. More than one NJ state bird of mine was ticked off without leaving the deck, with Yellow-headed Blackbird and Scissor-tailed Flycatcher coming to mind. Sometimes contortions were required, like trying to see the Fork-tailed Flycatcher that spent a number of days on the street behind us. Binoculars had to be pressed to the top of the bedroom window in order to see over the neighbor’s houses as it flycatched up high enough to view. Mind you it was also early December and freezing cold. As a matter of fact, we got to see Fork-tailed Fly and a lone ailing Dovekie within an hour of one another and only about one mile apart.

While seeing rarities, particularly from one’s yard is a thrill, my favorite memories from that house were of massive migration movements of common birds. One dusk Paul and I watched what we estimated to be 125,000 Yellow-rumped Warblers, while another morning many of us were priviledged to witness one the most massive flights of our lifetimes. The number of birds passing by us, mostly robins, was staggering. One could see what looks like sheets of robins naked eye, then more through binoculars, and even more using a scope. The day’s total for robins was estimated to be 1.25 million and there were many more birds moving (blackbirds, bluebirds, juncos, sparrows, goldfinches).

I thank my lucky stars that I was fortunate enough to live in such a wonderful birding mecca for seven years, plus be in a location where one’s yard list has been described in superlatives.


I moved into my current Battle Ground, Washington house 4.5 years ago. Before Washington, I yard-listed in San Jose, CA for 7 years and Lander, WY for 2 years. Both of those yard lists were completely different although they had one thing in comon – both never reached triple digits although interesting birds found both yards. Wyoming was amazing for diversity with highlights like Northern Goshawk and Prairie Falcon, Bohemian Waxwing and Townsend’s Solitaire, Franklin’s Gull and Common Nighthawk, and Cassin’s Finch and Lark Bunting.

Battle Ground has turned into a very pleasant surprise. I had never heard of Battle Ground when I moved here let along tried to determine what birds might be around. I moved in on the last day of August and my first yard bird was a calling Great-horned Owl followed by about 1,000 calling nocturnal migranting Swainson’s Thrushes. The following morning yielded about 40 species – wow!

I live in a development and to see my house from the street one would think that it would be a bit needy for yard birds. However, as David stated in his post, its not what you have in your yard, its the sky that you can see and the habitats that are found nearby. Over the following months, I found several ponds within a half mile of the house, another wooded pond across the street which was invisible to my eyes due to large houses and some trees, and two Douglas Firs that were scopable from the yard. Each of these habitats has yielded something different – ducks fly over the house and land in the invisible pond each morning and evening during the winter, Evening Grosbeaks and Cedar Waxwings sometimes converge on the Douglas Firs in Fall, and six calling shorebirds have graced the nearby ponds. I am surprised quite often by other species including 6 sightings of American Bittern, Red-naped Sapsucker, Black Swift, Lesser Goldfinch, Yellow-breasted Chat, Rough-legged Hawk, and Great Egret.

My biggest surprise has been the nocturnal migration. This has opened my eyes and ears to a completely different birding experience. In addition to thousands of Swainson’s Thrushes that migrate south, I have had 5 species of warblers, sparrows, Solitary Sandpiper, and 5 species of owls. If yard birding had not caught my attention, I don’t know how long it would have taken me to open the windows at night to listen for that next new yard bird!

Sometimes during the Fall, I can get about 50 species per day due to the variety of bushes and far off trees that are visible from the yard and the ever important sky. I was truly suprised by the bird bonanza that this yard presents to me and count myself very lucky to have blundered to this house 4.5 years ago.

The current yard list stands at 130 with at least ten more recorded within a half mile. Maybe I will be at the house when those ten species fly overhead!

Battle Ground, WA


Before moving to Connecticut 17 years ago I lived in a house in rural Warren County, N.J., that produced a number of great yard birds, topped by a December Townsend’s Warbler that stayed for a few days and performed for visiting birders. Dave’s reference to the difficulty of getting owls and the “if-you-can-see-it-from-the-yard-it-counts” rule reminds me of a favorite moment at that house. I had been driving around checking flooded fields after heavy rains and was returning home. As I approached the road that ran up hill to my property, I saw a Short-eared Owl flying around the flooded county fairgrounds in front of and below my house. I admired it for awhile and then a thought hit me. I peeled away from the side of the road, drove quickly up to my driveway, jumped out, and too my relief could still see the owl circling below.


I live in Portland Oregon, and have feeders in my backyard, including a hummingbird feeder. I have jays, chickadees, sparrows, juncos, finches, and Northern Flickers. Plus, two male, two female and (i think) a immature Anna’s Hummingbirds. They have become happy to feed here.
Anna’s can be year round birds of Oregon. Yet, I wonder what they feed on in nature during the winter. I guess on insects, but what insects?


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