Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Post #105 - The return of the bicycle and an intro to bike-birding!

Woo hoo! After two and half year hiatus from bike-birding, I today hit the trail for the first time since the conclusion of my 2014 Biking for Birds Big Year project! A number of different factors combined to keep me on the sidelines during that time, the most notable of which was the urban sprawl of Los Angeles where my wife and I lived for the past 2 years. Now that we've moved to Northern California and are comfortably settled right near the San Francisco Bayshore, I plan on doing a lot more bike-birding in the near future. Things will be a bit slow through the summer but will really heat up during fall migration. Winter will be dynamite as hundreds of thousands of waterfowl and shorebirds spend the cooler months in SF Bay and nearby Pacific Coast. I'm really looking forward to it!

My new backyard. Those trees dead center
are Coyote Point Park. There's a bike path 
basically as far as you can see (in either direction).

So, what the heck is this bike-birding thing all about anyway? Well, the general idea is to minimize one's petroleum consumption and more general environmental impact by doing one's birding using the bicycle as the primary mode of transportation. Bike-birding is often referred to as "green birding" because it doesn't generate any carbon emissions beyond the baseline metabolism of the participant. Green birding as a term also includes walking, kayaking, and other similarly self-powered endeavors such as running and canoeing, but the bicycle is generally the featured mode of transportation as it allows a lot of ground to be covered. 

Yesterday's route. I really have to ease back into 
this as I am just getting over a severely strained 
left calf muscle. I will use the park for start/end
 since I don't want a pin at my home.

Terminology and minimal environmental impact aside, bike-birding is an incredibly fun and healthy way to interact with birds and the environments they inhabit. Bicycles allow a window to the natural world that cars simply cannot match as it's possible to see, hear, and smell things from the bicycle that would be completely missed from a car. Granted it's possible to cover much more ground in a car than on a bike, but the riding experience - at least on nice days - more than makes up for the distance shortfall. Plus, its super healthy. Now you can go ahead and have that extra scoop of double fudge peanut butter moose tracks ice cream!

The highest pint to which I biked during
my 2014 bike-birding odyssey. That ride
was worth about a gallon of ice cream.

Here I can add a personal note and say from personal experience that when a person bike-birds, it really feels as though the ticked species have been earned. That's not to say species collected with motorized transport don't matter or count, but it feels really different on the bike. I'll still be doing much birding and photography with motorized transportation (more on this at the end), but I am going to do what everyday, local birding I can with my bike. I also fully understand that many people are simply not in the physical condition to make bike-birding a regular thing. Biking is also a much larger assumed physical risk than is driving, so someone with 3 small kids might opt for the car not only for convenience but also for the future well-being his family. So, there's no judgement from me on how anyone birds. I do, however, think think that those who bike-bird should be offered a friendly pat on the back for the efforts they are making.

One from my short ride yesterday. Nice and light
compared to what I carried on my Big Year!

I should probably here mention a few of the broadest rules/conventions of the bike-biding game, at least as they pertain to anything official. I don't yet think the ABA or other organization has set in stone any set of bike-birding rules/guidelines, so take what I write here just as general suggestions.

1) Generally, to be considered officially 'green', a day of bike-birding should start and end at the same place, usually a person's residence. That means that I will on almost every occasion be doing "out-and-back" type trips from my San Mateo apartment. If there's a sweet bird in Half Moon Bay, I've got to bike the 20 miles there AND the same miles back. None of this one way on the bike, one way in a car stuff!

2) The exceptions to the above are Big Days and Big Years where participants are free to pick the starting and ending points to their transects. As long as the bike-birder doesn't use motorized transport between those points, then everything is cool. This exception exists so that birders in less birdy areas aren't put at an immediate disadvantage. For example, the ABA bike Big Day record will almost always come from either Texas in spring or California in spring; A birder in Maine who wants to take a crack at that record should be free to fly to Texas or California for his/her effort. Likewise, if bike Big Years had to start and end in the same spot, anyone at northern latitudes would be royally screwed since they'd need to fight snow and ice twice, once at in Jan/Feb and again in Nov/Dec. Those in the sun belt live much closer to more prime birding spots and shouldn't automatically be afforded that advantage compared to their northern counterparts.

3) Ferries and other form of motorized assistance are not permitted at any point, Big Days and Big Years included. Technically, a rider can have a vehicle offer assistance as long as he still does the riding with all his gear. For example, if someone wants to cross particularly dangerous bridge on a bike Big Day, having a motorized escort (with flashing lights and such) over the bridge so as to stay safe is totally cool.

My 2014 Route, ~17,830 miles

I'm sure I've missed a bunch of stuff but I just wanted to mention these most major guidelines. All of this is admittedly a bit silly as bike-birding accounts for such a small fraction of the total amount of birding done in the world. Even within bike-birders, there's only a select few of us who care about these particulars. The most important thing is that people give bike-birding a try. It need not be serious or competitive to be enjoyed!

I do also want to add a note about how my photographic interest will conflict with my bike-birding interest. To state it simply, the two are not even remotely compatible, even less so than are petroleum-based birding and proper bird photography. I shoot the 2-3 hours after sunrise, and the 2-3 hours before sunset - and that's it. The light is just too harsh/steep to make good photos during the rest of the day - at least at my latitude. I am not looking to bike several hours in the dark with gear that costs more than a car to reach a shooting location by sunrise. As I am trying to build a bit of a business around my photography, I need results from it, and those just aren't going to come from a bicycle. The pattern that is therefore likely to emerge in the next few months is that I will bike-bird on cloudy days and drive to shoot on sunny days. So, that will explain why you see my using both a car and a bicycle moving forward!

For any bike-birders reading this, I'd love to hear from you in the comments section. No specific information sought, just whatever is on your mind. Comments have been down recently so I'd really love to hear from anyone!

Ok, that's it for now. I will be providing all sorts of chronicles of my bike-birding adventures as they unfold, so please stayed tuned. Don't worry though, those bike-birding adventures won't completely take over the blog as I'll still be bringing you the more general sort of birding content that I've provided in the past, photographs included. Here's one from before my move since I shorted you on birds shots today!

 Marbled Godwit - Limosa fedoa
Orange County, California
Canon 400mm f/4 IS DO II + 1.4x III on EOS 7D2
1/2500 ay f/5.6, ISO 640, handheld lying in water


  1. Shout out to bike birders! It is awesome and really fun. I supplement a lot of my bike birding with riding the bus - it isn't as pure as bike-only birding, but is still much greener than driving alone in a car and lets one travel quite a bit further. All the buses in our area have bike racks on them, which makes a hybrid bike/bus trip quite easy!

    I would also strongly disagree with your statement "Biking is also a much larger assumed physical risk than is driving, so someone with 3 small kids might opt for the car not only for convenience but also for the future well-being his family." I think this is a misleading statement in a variety of ways - the biggest being the danger of a sedentary lifestyle. Here is a link to a study that attempted to quantify the effect of cycling vs. driving on life expectancy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2920084/ The study found that the health benefits of cycling far outweighed the risks. And that is just the benefits to the biker themselves! The benefits to other people from one biking instead of driving, in terms of traffic safety and pollution avoided should really be added to the positive tally as well!

    1. Hi Gregg

      Yes! The idea of utilizing public transportation is a very good one. I've always thought that some combination of biking and public transportation would be a great idea for a Big Year, local, state, or national.

      I totally hear you on the safety thing. Biking is much safer than people generally think. I guess I was thinking more along the lines of a larger bike-birding project, the sort that would put a person at that low risk but over an extended period of time, like over a year. I was hit once and very nearly hit 7 or 8 other times during my adventure, but then again I wasn't riding on bike paths for most of that effort. Biking in some rural area doesn't carry the risks of biking in a more populated area. Everyone's situation is different, and I totally understand if people shy away from biking for either perceived or actual safety considerations. Mostly though, its the physical effort the the bicycle requires that deters people. It's minimal but its still more than the effortless car......

  2. Another bike birder here checking in from Indiana! Ever since the beginning of 2015, I have pretty much birded exclusively this way, and your big year is a big part of the reason why. It is just more fun, and way more of a challenge. It is also a way for me to enjoy my favorite hobby while still getting in some precious workout time, where before I would have to do one or the other, and you know which one would usually win out.

    I definitely identify with your thoughts on "earning" birds. I have made some gasoline-powered chases of rare birds during this same time, and ticking something uncommon from a car doesn't feel as good as digging up a good but regular bird by bike. I had this exact experience last week when I undertook a big green day and found a Henslow's Sparrow and Black-billed Cuckoo, both of which were extremely satisfying. And if I had been birding by car, I definitely would NOT have found the sparrow since it was being on the bike that allowed me to hear its faint call.

    Next year, I hope to bike to The Biggest Week in American Birding at Magee Marsh in northwest Ohio, which is about 110 miles from my home.

  3. Hi Greg!

    Biking to the festival would be a blast - 1 very long day or 2 nice short days! Might find some good stuff along the way too!

    Building an ABA or life list by bike isn't really realistic for most people so I totally get flying to new places in the country or using cars to chase birds closer to home. You can bet that if an ABA bird shows up in Humbolt I'll be in my car to chase it. Luckily, ABA birds are so rare that I only find myself chasing new ones maybe 2-3 times a year. However, I understand less the desire to run up a huge county list with a car as a most counties could be well and easily explored by bike. The smaller the geography, the more the bike makes sense, not to mention that its fun and healthy as well! My new project is going to be my San Mateo Bike list, so stayed tuned to see how that grows in the next few months!

  4. Hi Dorian - Based on your adventure in 2014, in 2015 I undertook a Green Big Year in Santa Barbara County California. I biked over 4400 miles and tallied 285 species. I agree with your assessment that it is good for both one's physical and mental health. One other thing to point out, when you are biking along you are constantly in visual and audio contact with the birds, and can stop at any moment to observe them.

    Keep it up!

    1. Yes! I recall you telling me about your great bike-birding efforts at some point in the last two years. Super work! I am hoping to slowly build up a San Mateo County Bike-bird list over the next few years. not sure if I'll be able to get to 300 since photography will be a constant distraction, but hopefully I can get it up over 200 or so. We'll see!

  5. I'm a fan of green birding! I love my green list and being aware of the birds along my whole route, not just the spots where a car can access it. One thing I have thought of that I don't think you mentioned--I think a proper green list (life) needs to be restarted every time I move, just like a yard list. The birds I could get on my green list if I moved to Florida would be very different than the 200+ I've earned from my Eugene, Oregon home.

  6. Hey Vjera! Good to hear from you! I also enjoy finding birds in transit while biking. It makes eBirding them a bit harder but that's not the end of the world, right?

    I am stoked to get my Bay Area bike list up and running (60 species so far!). When/If I move again, I'll start another bike list based somewhere else. As you suggest, each move/homebase is kinda its own thing. How those would be combined into any form of biking life list is a bit tricky. At the end of the day, people can do whatever they want. My goal in the next few years is to get my Bay Area bike list over 200, and I'd love to get it to 250. As I explained, my photographic interest will certainly keep me from maximizing my eventual total, but I'll keep people posted either way!