Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Post #125 - California County Birding - By Bike!

I'm going to keep this short since I am prepping for an Ecuador trip that begins on Saturday! As I will be there through the end of the year, this will represent the last entry for 2017. Thanks for hanging in there with me through the third year of this blog. It's as much a personal birding journal as anything else, but hopefully some of you have found something interesting or entertaining to keep you coming back. Ecuador entries will materialize when I return, so please stay tuned for those. I should also, as I've done for the last two years, present my photographic highlights of the year, this being my most photographically productive ever. But for now, it's back to to the bicycle.

I last wrote about bike-birding two months ago, on October 9, just after I had added Dusky Warbler for San Mateo County bike bird #180. Since then I've added another 26 species to reach 206 for my home county, the most notable additions since last time being Red-footed Booby (2nd county record) and LeConte's Sparrow (1st county record), both in Half Moon Bay. Though I alluded to it in that last bike-birding post, I should state here that I have actually created a bike-specific eBird account for myself. I have had a ton of fun with it, most specifically using eBird's "Explore Data" feature to see what species I still need to grow my San Mateo bike-birding list. I use the data generated from that feature to plan my rides each week.

Additions to my San Mateo County Bike 
list since Dusky Warbler on Oct 9, 2017.

Red-Footed Booby, Half Moon Bay, CA
*This was taken from my kayak a few days
after I added the bird for my bike list.

As I have created a profile page for my bike-birding account, I was able to extract the following graphical data from it. This is presented in heat-map form where counties in which I have observed the most species are colored red; Those counties in which I have seen fewer receive correspondingly lighter colors, orange, for example.

It's pretty clear that I've focused on San Mateo, but I have ventured into neighboring counties a few times. For reference, it's 19 riding miles from my house to Lake Merced at the southern end of San Francisco County. Going the opposite direction, it's 17 riding miles to reach Palo Alto at the northeastern corner of Santa Clara County. What that means is that it's a non-trivial amount off riding (30-40 miles) just to reach and return from those neighboring counties. I plan to spend more time exploring San Francisco and Santa Clara Counties moving forward, particularly as the days lengthen and I can get more birding time for the same amount of riding. I have also discovered that I can legally ride over the Dumbarton Bridge to reach the extreme southwestern corner of Alameda County on the other side of the bay. That's ~23 miles each way, so that's 46 just to reach and return from Alameda. As I ride about 14 miles an hour, that's 3+ hours of cranking. So, I gotta make that ride count!

What I hope this shows is just how much more challenging - and in my admittedly isolated, minority opinion - interesting local/county listing becomes when the bicycle is substituted for the car. I have basically given up local birding in the car as it is no longer satisfying. I really like the physical challenge that the bike presents, and I actually enjoy the increased logistics that come along with it. Today I went to Half Moon Bay (32 miles, 2000 feet of vertical climbing for the round trip) to try for Orchard Oriole and missed. I hardly cared though as I spent no money on gas, burned no fossil fuels, and got a great workout anyway.

Bike-birding field trip I led at Laguna Atascosa NWR as 
part of the Rio Grande Birding Festival this November

I'm not saying that we should all perpetually abandon cars in favor of bikes. Hell, I drove 3.5 hours to Santa Barbara two weeks ago to tick a Garganey that may or may not count towards my ABA list, and I almost always drive when I'm hauling my photography gear to and from shooting locations. But I do think that we birders should rethink the relative weight we place on local/county lists as generated through petroleum-powered means, particularly as much of that local/county birding can be done by bike instead. I totally understand that the bike isn't for everyone, but it should be possible for the community to deploy it more than the very little that we do now. It's a low-cost, healthy, environmentally-friendly, and challenging alternative to driving. It's also a hellava lot more satisfying and immeasurably more interesting than just sitting behind the wheel. But that's me. I curious what others think.


  1. "I have basically given up local birding in the car as it is no longer satisfying." -- Seconded! You also mention the length of trips to get to specific destinations as a barrier to consider, but have you found any new additions to the list or subjectively 'good' birds while in transit? Since starting to bike bird in 2015, there are two birds like this that stick out in my mind as incidental during a bike ride to elsewhere that I wouldn't have otherwise found: a Henslow's Sparrow in a random field while biking to work last year, and a Merlin in a local park that I was passing through on my way to a CBC location this past January. I am curious to know if you have had any experiences like these on the bike?

    1. Hey Greg - I find stuff in transit all the time, especially waterfowl as they are all over the bayshore at this time of year. The beauty of the bike is that I'm birding the whole time, right? I've only seen Henslow's Sparrow one time, so that's a really cool one! I also got my county bike Merlin as one flew over me here on the bay.

  2. Any recommendations for birding by bike in San Bernardino County, where it's 200 miles (one way) to the Colorado River, or a net 5000' elevation gain to Big Bear Lake, as measured from my home in San Bernardino?

    1. Yeah, I hear you Tom. SB is the single biggest county in the US, so it present challenges unlike anywhere else. Same goes for most of SoCal, minus Orange. But up here in the bay it would be totally possible to thoroughly bird many of the smaller counties by bike over the course of a given year. I also realize that I live in arguably the single best bike-birding area in the country what with so many habitats so close to home. I didn't do any bike-birding in LA county, and now I really regret that I didn't. Woulda been dope to get 300 species in LA county - the most car plagued in the nation - on my bike!

      On the other hand, that SB county appears so unbirdable by bike, just think about what a boss you would be if you actually did it! The more impossible something seems, the more reasons there are to pursue it. That was my rationale for my bike Big Year, something that virtually everyone I talked to before departing said was impossible. I get it that the bike isn't practical for 95% of birding situations, but it is in redeeming that remaining 5% that the real fun is found.

  3. I agree that biking and birding is the way to go. I am a big cyclist and also, while using them once a week on average, see cars as having massive downsides. I think, for example, of the Red-footed Booby and wonder: What is its carbon footprint? How much carbon has been put into the atmosphere by birders checking it out.

    I am not trying to cast aspersions since I drove out to the coast to see the booby myself (in a '97 Civic that gets 40mpg at least). I also ventured out there by bike to see it. Unlike you, I am not willing to bike on Hwy. 92, so I get at least 4,000 feet of climbing on this approximately 50-mile round trip, going up Kings Mtn Rd. and the Higgins-Purisima OSP on the return. Boy, that trail is steep in parts!

    Ride on.

    1. Hey Chris - I'll have to try that more southerly route over the coastal mountains at some point. It's just so damn easy and fast to go over 92 from where I am now.

      I hear you on the whole emissions thing, but at the end of the day birders aren't even drop in the total bucket. I like the environmental aspect of the bike, but the physical challenge it presents is the real attraction for me. Collecting birds in a car is just too easy!