Half the Wheels, Twice the Fun–Birding by Bicycle

Story and photos by Hugh Powell
July 15, 2011
Birding and bicycling are two activities are made for each other. Birding and bicycling are two activities are made for each other.
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It was the start of a fine morning of birding: I crawled out of my backpacking tent, put on my bike helmet, and velcroed my spotting scope to the back of my bicycle. This was Scout Week during the World Series of Birding, and my teammates and I (the “Anti-
Petrels”) were preparing for the Carbon Footprint Cup. We were going to spend 24 hours birding by bike.

A more typical day of birding might start with coffee in a go-mug and the murmur of morning radio en route to the first stop. But at our campsite, Yellow-throated Warblers were already singing their sweet cascading songs from the New Jersey pines. Mounting our bikes, France Dewaghe, Charles Eldermire, and I coasted quietly along the pebbled road toward the day’s first Blue-winged Warbler bee-buzzing from a forest clearing.

Every time I go out birding by bike I’m reminded of how the two activities are made for each other. Bicycling’s main advantages are easy to overlook, because they are subtractions rather than additions to the car experience: slower, quieter, less confined. Almost as soon as you get rolling, your ears start to adjust to the lack of engine noise. Soon they’re picking up the distant sounds of a Barred Owl at dawn, or a Blackpoll Warbler three oak trees into the woods. Passing cars start to sound as jarring as conversation in a library.

Our Top Tips for Birding by Bike

1. Pedal slowly. Birding by bike doesn’t have to be more exhausting than by car. On our World Series route we averaged 4.5 mph over our 100 miles. The advantages of bicycling come from slowness and quiet, so put your bike in low gear and let it coast.

2. Plan a flat route. In hilly Ithaca, New York, our 11-mile ride to work feels harder than our 100-mile day in New Jersey, where the biggest hills are bridges and overpasses. It’s hard to stop for birds on a steep downhill, and if you stop on an uphill you might not get started again—so bird the flats.

3. Train your ears. Birding begins with listening. Once a car gets above 30 mph you might as well roll the windows up. On bikes, 30 mph isn’t really an option, so your ears are always on patrol.

4. Take the back roads. Instead of racing from hotspot to hotspot by the most direct route, try biking along sleepy rural roads. That’s how we found Prothonotary Warbler, Cattle Egret, and American Woodcock this year.

5. Be prepared. Always wear a helmet and carry spare inner tubes, a pump, extra clothes, and plenty of fluids and snacks (we like apricot jelly and Nutella on crackers). A bike rack with panniers is a great place to stash supplies plus a scope and tripod.

6. Let’s push things forward. We don’t think anyone has yet come close to realizing the potential of a Big Day by bike. There are all kinds of improvements in route strategy, birding skill, and biking ability still to be made. So pump up your tires, grab a friend or two, and come beat us next year!

Pedaling slowly enough to keep wind noise to a minimum, the only sounds to compete with birds are the humming of narrow tires on asphalt. When a bird darts across the road, you can just put your feet down and lift your binoculars. There’s no car roof to block out raptors, no corners of the windshield to distort views. If you want to investigate further, there’s no beeping from the ignition key, no car door to remember not to slam.

And though a 24-hour competition perhaps isn’t the best venue to prove it, birding by bike can be relaxing (see Our Top Tips, above). On the day of the event, we spent 22 hours and pedaled 100 miles to get our winning tally of 144 species. But even so, my favorite memories from the day are slow ones: the aural changing-of-the-guard at dawn, when Whip-poor-wills gave way to Field Sparrows, and the Wild Turkeys woke up. The rich song of a Summer Tanager when the air was still cool under the oaks. There was even something calming about the stubborn silence, the total lack of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, in the tree-lined neighborhoods we pedaled through on our way to the beach.

Birding by bike is a great option for checking nearby places you already know well—avoiding that hypnotic fatigue that comes from getting out of the car for three minutes out of every 15— and possibly helping you discover unexpected birds in between. It’s also a great way to explore unfamiliar campgrounds or parks, where the roads are quiet and plenty of new birds are calling.

The Anti-
Petrels stop to bird on the beach.

The Monarchists, a competing World Series team, are a great example of how the Carbon Footprint approach can combine skill, local knowledge, and low mileage to produce great results. With some of Cape May’s very best birders on their team, they coaxed 115 species from a route less than 20 miles long this year. Last year, on a stronger migration day, they hit 127.

So pull that old bike out of your garage and give birding by bike a try. You’ll reap rewards, no matter what patch of ground or window of time you have available.

Find more posts and photos from the 2011 World Series of Birding on our blog.

Originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of BirdScope.

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