By Bryony Angell
Bike birding? What’s that? Birders already have a reputation for being, shall we say, a dedicated bunch, so throwing cycling into the mix takes birding a zealous step further. While the fans of bike birding are still an emerging group in the greater birding world, they would argue that they present a practice of birding that covers more ground than walking, allows for travel and listening simultaneously, and has a much softer impact on the environment than a car.
Who are these bike birders, and what is it about birding by bike (versus feet on terra firma), that carries these enthusiasts to (and through) their birding destinations?
Jean Olson, 47, of Seattle, WA started as a birder. “Then I began training for a triathlon,” she says. “The bike training was so boring that I started to count the birdsong I’d hear.” Soon the combined cycling and birding stuck, and since 2013 she has scouted local routes in order to lead regional bike birding trips through Seattle Audubon. She prefers dedicated bike paths and rails to trails routes, of which there are many criss-crossing Washington State. “You can hear better on these trails. There aren’t any cars and you can go slower,” she says.
For other bike birders, the cycling is about getting to the birding site. Dorian Anderson, 39, of San Mateo, CA, regularly covers 40 miles round trip to bird in a single day. “I’d much rather ride 20 miles to the beach than go someplace close by that’s a known birding spot,” he says. “It’s not enough exercise.” Anderson isn’t being glib; he’s the same guy who wrote of his 2014 Big Year on a bike, “Safe ideas are boring, and I thought that this one was just nuts enough to make it really interesting.” In the course of his Big Year, he cycled 17,830 miles, through 28 states, and saw 617 bird species. His notoriety as the bike birding guy allows Anderson to consult on the subject, lead birding tours (both on and off a bike), and work freelance as a writer and photographer of birding and eco-tourism topics.
“No, I don’t take my camera on my bike,” he says. He doesn’t want to risk damaging expensive gear. Olson also suggests traveling light. “No scope, unless you have a trailer,” she says. She wears her binoculars on a harness and carries her field guide in a flat book bag on her handlebars for easy reach, should she hear something and want to stop suddenly.
“As long as you’re not on gravel, it’s really easy to hear the birds,” she says. “I ride pretty slowly when I am intentionally birding.” Anderson, whose cycling is more destination-driven, still agrees: “You’ll always be birding on a bike because you see and hear so much more than you will by car.”
Cars present a challenge for increasing the popularity of bike birding, for a couple of reasons, according to Anderson. “If your emphasis is on listing, if that’s your only end goal, a car is easier for getting around,” he says. He’s concerned birders won’t make the sacrifice of biking if the importance in the birding community is on listing. He thinks the process of how we see birds should count too, as a bike has a lot less impact on the environment than a car.
And a car is a lot bigger than a cyclist on the road. The risk of collision is always present. “Yeah, all the bike birders I know, none of them have kids,” says Anderson. As a parent of small children, I can’t say I am willing to dodge traffic and spend hours cycling in order to bird. If there were no other mouths to feed, maybe.
Despite certain constraints to bike birding, Olson and Anderson are unfailingly optimistic that anyone who wants to can do it. Anderson sees the opportunity at birding festivals where he leads short cycling trips, and most who take part are younger and fitter on average. Get them while they’re young! ”When people integrate the bike, they really enjoy it! They don’t realize how much, and then they’re hooked,” he says. Olson has offered to take me, a very reluctant cyclist out bird biking (we’re neighbors). I’m tempted.
To get started bike birding, here are suggestions from Olson and Anderson:
Start with a short trip on a designated bike path in order to avoid traffic.
Take the usual things for a bike trip; water, extra tubes, and store any gear in panniers, worn in a harness, or in a handlebar bag.
For road cycling, look for roads with a good bike/car separation or shoulder, to be able to stop on the shoulder and bird, and feel safe.
Watch for dogs or wildlife running across your path.
And for the more ambitious, desiring a point of inspiration, Anderson is at work on a memoir of his bike birding Big Year. But maybe before the book is finished, he’ll be on the road riding south from Mexico to Peru, vlogging this time, as he bike birds. However he shares his next bike birding trip, we’ll want to tag along vicariously.
A side note: Olson also recommends the book, Listening to the Continent Sing, by the renowned birdsong recordist, Donald Kroodsma, which details a bike trip taken with his son from Virginia to Oregon.