Monday, January 19, 2015

Jan 19 - Goodbye Biking for Birds - last post on this blog!

Hi Everyone!

Well, the time has come for me to key a final entry on Biking for Birds. I have decided to start a new blog to chronicle my future birding and eco-adventures. I really want the Biking for Birds story to stand alone in cyberspace without being cluttered/burried by additional content moving forward. I want to thank my readers for sticking with me during all of 2014 and the first part of 2015. I have made quite a few new friends through the blog, and I hope this continues with my new outlet. With this being said, please check out my newest online project.......

(click on above link!)

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Jan 14 - The good and bad of reintegration to the petroleum-based world

Sorry that it has been a full week between entries! The arrival 2015 has unfortunately disrupted my 2014 daily blogging routine. I hope to tune in at least twice a week with birding, photography, and general bird/environmental news, but we'll have to see how this plan actually plays moving forward. Since I've been a bit backlogged recently, here are a few videos of my return to the car-based world.





I am currently resting and recovering at my family home just outside Philadelphia. Sonia is with me, and the two of us are spending some quality time with my family. We'll be here for a while as we sort out our next move. I am going to need to find a job at some point, but I am completely swamped with follow-up up logistics and writing at the moment. I am starting to sort a speaking calendar. I am also writing a number of interviews/articles for various entities. I find this to be lots of fun in the wake of the successes of the blog this past year. Who knows, maybe I'll end writing in some professional context in the future.

I spent a bit of time on the phone with big year birder Neil Hayward the other day (blog of his record setting 2013 efforts here). We discussed the feelings associated with the marked deceleration that necessarily accompanies the calendar rollover at the end of the a big year. He gave me some good advice as to how to manage my reintegration, which, at least at this point, I feel is going fairly well. I will say that I do feel a bit lazy as I am not pushing myself in the same way as I was last year. Sonia has been particularly helpful as she has been encouraging me to rest and enjoy the downtime. I want to stat running again, but I realize my body needs to rest. This is a crappy boat in which to be stuck. As I discussed at several points in the blog this past year, I am not at all good at relaxing; I always have to be doing something productive. Were the birding and weather around here a bit better, I might be out and about a bit more than I am currently. However, my mom's feeder array seems to be the best birding in a wide radius at the moment. 

I am also having a bit of a hard time readjusting to the petroleum-based world. As I am sure everyone has observed, gas prices have fallen precipitously over the last year. There in one station in Tomball, TX that is selling a gallon for $1.47 today. Certainly, most rejoice over this price drop. I, however, find it a bit worrying. With gas so cheap, it becomes so easy to drive everywhere that I fear much of the environmental gains that have been made these last few years will get left in a bigger, cheaper cloud of exhaust. For my part, I am actually having a bit of a hard time getting behind the wheel. I was hoping to go birding yesterday, but to reach anywhere worth going I'd have to drive at least 45 minutes from my family's home (it's a bit cold for bike birding right now). This was such a painful pill to swallow that I did not go anywhere. I'll be 100% honest and say that right now, birding in a car feels so easy that it's almost not worth it. I feel that I had better spend a full, 8- to 10-hour day birding in nice weather to justify burning the fuel. I also feel I need to see a decent number of birds and get some decent pictures of them. Driving a long way for only 2-3 hours of birding just seems like an incredible waste right now. For example, I would really like to go to Barnegat Lighthouse SP in New Jersey. The problem is that this location is 80 miles from here, or 160 miles round trip. I'm sure I'd have a nice time if I went, but it's really, really hard for me, at least at this time, to burn so much gas for a single day of birding after I burned zero during the 365-days of birding I did in 2014. I am not sure how I am going to deal with these feelings moving forward. 

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Jan 8 - Keeping it Green - avoiding ferries and the like

My goal for this year was to self-power this entire adventure even the inconvenient segments. This meant that under no circumstance would I use ferries or hitch rides to make my life easier. Today I want to detail a few of the ferries and hitching-hiking opportunities out of which I opted this past year. This will hopefully demonstrate exactly how much I inconvenienced myself to keep this year green and self-powered. These examples are presented in chronological order.

1) Connecticut South Coast vs. Long Island
The best biking route from Southeastern Connecticut (CT) to New Jersey would require a ferry ride from New London, CT to Long Island (NY). This "ideal" route is shown on the map below. With this route, I would have avoided the very busy and relatively unsafe  I-95 corridor along the south coast of CT. As I was not permitted to take this ferry, I had to fight my way south and west along the Connecticut Coast. I did see some nice birds in this stretch, but on paper I think I would have enjoyed the riding and birding more along the forbidden Long Island route. 


2) Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel
That I could not ride my bike (or walk it!) across the 22-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel caused the single biggest route alteration I made last year. Had I been willing to hitch a ride over the Bridge-Tunnel, I could have taken the blue route shown below. For simplicity, I have drawn it as running from Wilmington, Delaware to Greenville, North Carolina. This route would have taken me down the less developed eastern side of the Chesapeake Bay and the Delmarva (DELaware-MARyland-ViginiA) peninsula. There is great winter birding and little development along this entire stretch. Instead, I had to fight my way down the western side of the bay through both Baltimore and Washington, DC (gray line). Biking through these urban areas in the snow was not fun. The birding was also less-than-stellar. 


3) Access to Dauphin Island
Dauphin Island is the most famous spring migrant trap along the Alabama coast. As I had not visited the Alabama Coast before, I decided to visit this birding locale. The only birds that *might* have appeared here that I could not have seen more easily on the Upper Texas Coast were Cape May warbler and the still-at-this-stage-elusive Black-throated blue warbler. Both of these are eastern gulf migrants and become much rarer the further west one goes along the Gulf Coast. Riding west out of Gulf Shores, access to Dauphin Island is exceedingly simple if you are willing to take a ferry across the mouth of Mobile Bay. This ideal route, like those above, is shown in blue. This ferry connection is so simple that many people will bird Dauphin Island and the western side of the bay in the morning before hopping the ferry over to the eastern side for the remainder of the day. Since the ferry was out, I had to ride the much longer route, northern around Mobile Bay. Again, not fun. 


4) Cameron Parrish, Louisiana
The ideal biking route along the Louisiana coast is shown in blue in the first image. The second image shows the very small break at the south end of Lake Calcasieu (near Cameron) across which I would have to be ferried if I took this route. Since even this short ferry ride ruled out this coastal route, I rode through Lake Charles and then cut back down to the coast. Interestingly, I actually think this more inland route is better for birding as it took me through lots of rice fields that were loaded with shorebirds. It was in this area that I found my first Hudsonian godwits. 


Small break near Google logo at bottom, right of center

5) No Skylark in Washington or British Columbia
I could not access the only reliable areas for Sky Lark without a ferry. I could not reach this bird. Pretty simple.


6) NO PELAGICS!!!
Again, very straightforward. I would have easily added Black-footed albatross, Northern fulmar, and Long-tailed jaeger on Monterey pelagics. Storm-petrels and Red Phalarope would have been possible as would have other, more unusual, pelagic species. 

As we have discussed previously, my year was far from "carbon perfect". Nothing these days is so. However, what I can say is that I self-powered every inch that I moved this year. That, in my mind, is an incredible accomplishment. 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Jan 6 - Road trip home, Luckiest bird finds of 2014, Chinese Buffet rankings

Real fast - Sonia and I are slowly making out way back to the northeast. Here are a few pics!


Roll tide - at least until they ran into Ohio State!

Honky tonkin' in Nashville

Sonia at the Louisville Slugger factory

Posing with Cal Ripken's game-used bat

Me swinging David Ortiz's game-used bat.
I realized after the fact I shoulda been a lefty!

In the last installment, I described what I thought were the most exciting birds of my 2014 bicycle big year. Today I will list, in chronological order, what I consider to be the 5 luckiest or most timely finds of the year. Most of those birds were found with relatively little effort and saved me much larger headaches/rides at later points. The Chinese Buffet rankings will follow afterwards! Like yesterday, you can click on the links to the full-day accounts.

Snowy owl and Common black-headed gull (3), Jan 1, Massachusetts
Both of these birds are regular but rare in the northeast each winter. Each could have caused major problems and been a huge timesink if it wasn't pegged early on. Problems with these two birds would have been compounded by the brutal 2013-2014 winter, the worst one on record in the last century. I saw the owl before sunrise, and the gull appeared unprompted a few hours later. This was an amazing start to 2014! Dovekie and Thick-billed murre should also get special mention as they both materialized right in front of me in Gloucester.

Bobolink, Apr 21, Texas
Bobolink is an eastern gulf spring migrant, much like Black-throated blue warbler (which I saw) and Cape May warbler (which I missed). This means that they can show up in High Island, Anahuac, and the Bolivar Peninsula on the Texas Coast, but they do so without frequency or predictability. I was lucky enough to find one of these on the Auto Tour loop at Anahuac. This was the only Bobolink I saw all year. I did not see any in Western Colorado or Southern Idaho where they supposedly nest. I could have probably scraped one out in these areas had I not seen the Texas bird, but thankfully I did not have to do this. This left time to instead focus on Greater sage-grouse, Sharp-tailed grouse, and Gray partridge in these areas.

Common black-hawk, May 18, Arizona
This might have been the single luckiest find of the year. This bird was not at all on my radar in the Chiricahuas in May. I was already floating on air after just having ticked Montezuma quail half an hour prior to this encounter. As I headed back towards Cave Creek, I saw a funny looking hawk soaring overhead. From a plumage standpoint I had NO idea what it could be. The broad wings suggested black-hawk, but as I had only seen adults previously, I had to consult the field guide to secure the ID - immature Common black-hawk! This is a bird for which I might have searched at some point, but it would have been a royal headache any way I had attacked it. This find saved me several days and several hundred miles of hard, hot, Arizona riding.

Dusky grouse, Jul 1, Colorado
On this night, I went on a very long midnight hike looking for Flammulated owl. I found it (with help!), and I additionally kicked up 2 Dusky grouse from the undergrowth. Even many Colorado birders had told me to forget about Dusky grouse. These birds are everywhere but seemingly nowhere. It is really tough to find them when you need to find them. I had missed these at a couple of other spots, and on this night they weren't something I expected to find. This was the last high elevation bird I needed to tick in Colorado. This find gave me the extra time to head east to look for Greater prairie-chicken. 

Gray-crowned rosy-finch, Aug 20, Washington
This is a bird that I did not originally expect to find this year. With my extra time during the summer, I was able to expand my route well into Northern Washington and the summer range of Gray-crowned rosy-finch. The most reliable spot for this species is Mt. Rainier. This locale would have required a big detour from the coast as well a very tough climb up the mountain. The birds can also be found in the North cascades albeit with much less frequency. As I was crossing over the Cascades highway anyway, I included an 8-mile hike in the middle of my 80-mile ride on August 20. I thought this was a very, very long shot. However, I was able to get a quick but countable look at several flyover birds on this hike. This find on this day meant I could cut out Rainier and keep moving towards to the coast. It was really an amazing find.

As for the Chinese Buffet rankings, it is an absolute 'no contest'. There was one place that stood the proverbial head and shoulders above the rest. However, before I crown the buffet 2014 Chinese Buffet Champion, I will note some other notable and quality establishments at which I dined this year. In no particular order, these were.

I think this is aimed at people like me!

King Buffet, Jennings, Louisiana
This was my first encounter with the bliss that is Chinese Buffet. I could not contain my excitement as I piled my plate high with spring rolls and chicken broccoli. A wide array of items held my attention for a solid 45 minutes, and I was satisfactorily stuffed by the time I left. I recall the price to be reasonable. One lesson I learned on this day is that the generous addition of hot sauce to 4 or 5 plates of food had a very adverse affect on my digestive system the following morning. Despite my love of hot sauce, I dialed back my use of it at future buffets to avoid similar 'spicy bowel' consequences.

Lu Mandarin Buffet, Flagstaff, Arizona
All of my visits to Chinese Buffets, save for one, occurred during the dinner hour after I had finished my rides. As a result, fatigue often limited how aggressively I could forage. I experienced no such problem at Lu Mandarin as I launched a full-frontal, lunch attack on what was otherwise an off-day from riding. I almost felt bad for the restaurant. Entering "Locust-mode", I demolished everything in sight. I think the Crab Rangoon tray needed to be refilled twice, and General Tso's chicken was pronounced an endangered species during my visit. The kicker in the whole thing? I think the total, after tax, was something like $7.65! It was absolutely criminal.....kinda like taking fortune cookies from a baby. 

Oriental Buffet, Arcata, California
Just steps from our motel, this place was a real diamond in the rough. A nice selection of tasty items justified the mid-range, ~$10.50 price tag. Sonia was visiting me at this stage of the Fall. She accompanied me to the buffet, and, although she forewent the buffet and instead ordered off the standard menu, she also sang high praises for the establishment. I had to dial back my consumption a bit so as not to disgust Sonia completely, but I still extracted decent value from the place. 

And now, without further ado, I present the undisputed 2014 Chinese Buffet Champion!

Buffet Palace, Greenville, Texas
I had been thinking about how to weigh the relative merits of the above buffets so as to be able to demarcate a clear and deserving winner. This debate was rendered moot the instant I walked into Buffet Palace. On that fateful Sunday night, it was packed. This fact should not be ignored as it was, by far, the largest buffet at which I ate this year. The buffet was so extensive it required strategic scouting. I did not want to gorge too aggressively on the sushi and appetizers and fill up before I reached the main courses. Everything I sampled at this place was gold. Heaps of sushi and spring rolls soon gave way to tender beef broccoli, crispy sesame chicken, and copious lo mein. The crab rangoon should come with a warning label; it was as addictive as crack-cocaine. There is just no overstating how money this place was. At ~$11, it was a steal. I ate so much that I got wicked cramps walking back to the hotel. As I had found all my target birds by this late stage of the year, I seriously considered staying Greenville for another day so as to revisit this place. Only Sonia managed to talk to out of it - and with great difficulty!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jan 4 - Rarity round-up, Top 15 exciting bird moments of 2014! LOONNNNGGGG

Sonia and I are currently in Vicksburg, MS. We spent our afternoon learning all about the Battle of Vicksburg that occurred in 1863 during the Civil War. Vicksburg was the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River before. Once the city fell,  the river was firmly in Union control. 


Mississippi arrival

Sonia actually saw her lifer Alligator yesterday in Louisiana.
She was very excited!

One more quick aside before I get into the birds. I am starting to get contacted about speaking dates next year. If your bird club, museum, school, environmental group, or bird festival might be interested in hearing more about my adventure, please get in touch with me as soon as possible. As always, I can be contacted at bikingforbirds@gmail.com. Thanks for the consideration! Now, on with the post. 

Here is a quick, condensed list of the ABA Code 3, 4, and 5 birds that I encountered this year (22 species). I included a few notes with select birds. I am also happy to report that that I was able to photograph 19 of these 22. Barnacle goose, Buff-collared nightjar (heard only), and Brown booby were the outliers. I had no witness for Barnacle goose, but I did have company for the nightjar and booby. The goose was seen every day for the week before I saw it fly over my bike. 7 of these species were lifers. Red-legged honeycreeper would be lifer #8.

Jan 1      Common black-headed gull (3) - Found by me on Day #1!
Jan 15    Barnacle goose (4) - Only one on this list I did not photograph or have a witness
Mar 4     La Sagra's flycatcher (3) - LIFER
Mar 19   Budgerigar (3) - LIFER
Apr 19    Ruff (3) - Observed at Anahuac in April with other people. Photographed one in WA later.
May 22   Rufous-capped warbler (3)
               White-eared hummingbird (3)
May 26   Black-capped gnatcatcher (3)
May 27   Buff-collared nightjar (3) - Heard only
Aug 27   Slaty-backed gull (3) - LIFER
Sep 25    Red-throated pipit (3)
Oct 17    Yellow-green vireo (3) - LIFER
Oct 18    Brown booby (3) - Saw at least 30 of these. All over SD this year. 
Oct 28    Rufous-backed robin (3)
Nov 4     Sinaloa wren (5) - LIFER
Nov 22   White-collared seedeater (3)
Nov 23   Clay-colored thrush (3) - This is barely a code 3 these days!
Nov 27   Red-legged honeycreeper (5) - Will have to wait to see if it counts! - LIFER?
Nov 29   Aplomado falcon (3) - LIFER
Dec 4      Tropical parula (3)
Dec 6      Hook-billed kite (3) - LIFER
Dec 9      Ferruginous pygmy-owl (3)

OK, with this as a reference, I will try to come up with the most exciting bird moments of my year. Interestingly, I did not get that excited when I initially saw some of these birds. It was not until I got usable photographs of many of them that celebrations actually began. Documentation is really key for many of these birds, and I nailed 99% of them. The only bird of the 15 below that evaded the camera was the Greater prairie-chicken. 

Honorable mention: Spotted dove, Tufted puffin, Yellow rail, Buller's shearwater, Snowy owl

You can click on the orange links below for full posts from the birds and days listed

#15 Red-throated pipit (3), Sep 25, California
This bird required a short, but intense chase. It was seen for only a 24-hour window. It's clearly a high quality bird that could have soaked up much more time further south. As soon as I saw this bird, i new I was going to well exceed 600. It just felt like I couldn't miss at this stage of things. 

#14 Rufous-backed robin (3), Oct 28, California
How could I not put this in here after the 300-mile chase to tick it? This was the single longest rarity chase of the year. I am not sure if it was more relief or excitement, but it's getting onto the list either way.

#13 Spruce grouse, Aug 17, Washington
This was another LOOONNNNNGG ride that eventually paid dividends. I had some help from other birders, so this ended up being a group celebration when we found finally found a stunningly beautiful male bird. Special thanks to guide Kahn Tran for his help. Make sure to check out ktbirding.com if you are ever in need of guide help in the Pacific Northwest.

#12 Ancient murrelet and Thayer's gull, Oct, California
These were 2 birds I expected to miss this year. I assumed I would be moving south along the Pacific Coast before these birds moved south. To get both of these birds in Southern California was incredible. The murrelet was 5 feet away in Mission Bay, and I had to pick the gull - without assistance - from the thousands of gulls at the Salton Sea.

#11 Yellow-green vireo (3) - LIFER - Oct 17, California
The bird was found a full week before I could reach it. I am SOOOO lucky it stayed put. I ticked it on  a very windy day when I had no business finding it. As far as I know, I was the last person to see this individual bird. It required an 85-mile "sprint" to reach the bird when I did. Had I not hammered out that ride, the bird would have been gone the next day and I would have missed it. 

#10 Greater prairie-chicken - LIFER - Jul 7, Colorado
I took a 300-mile detour to find this bird. This was yet another last second find. I got a horrible look at it, but it was good enough to identify and count it. It was a huge gamble to push so much time into this bird.

#9 Mar 5, Florida
This entire day was crazy awesome. I was joined by Angel Abreu of Nature is Awesome Tours for the entire day. The kicker? He rode a bike probably 40 miles around metro Miami with next to no preparation! I managed to find the continuing La Sagra's flycatcher (3) (LIFER) on my on, and then Angel and I tracked down Spot-breasted oriole - LIFER, White-winged parakeet - LIFER,  and Red-whiskered bulbul - LIFER together. That was four (4!) ABA birds in a single day. I also tacked on Common myna, Brozed cowbird, and White-crowned pigeon on that same day. Amazing! 

#8 Common black-headed gull (3) - Jan 1, Massachusetts
This was the only Code 3 bird that I found myself. It was totally unexpected, and it really helped set the tone for the rest of the year. I was able to share this bird with many local friends who were also birding the Salisbury area. Coupled with multiple Snowy owls on the first day, it really got the year off to a fast start!

#7 Gunnison sage-grouse - LIFER - June 19, Colorado
This was another multi-round bout with an off-lek grouse species. As per the other grouse, this bird required multiple cracks. What made this so phenomenal was that I flushed the birds from 20 feet in front of me right as I was about to give up. I had mentally conceded defeat. I almost melted down as I fumbled around to get the camera ready. Luckily one bird stayed in the road just long enough for me to photograph it! There was much celebrating on the ride back down the long hill!

# 6 Pacific golden-plover - Sept 28, California
At the time, this bird represented the biggest backtrack of the year. I had missed this bird at a number of other places further north, so it was very satisfying to finally tick it before it became a royal headache. This was a previously reported bird, but I really used some good thinning skills to relocate it several miles from where it was originally found. My smarts, effort, and patience were rewarded with incredible looks at this bird.

#5 Red-legged honeycreeper (5)? - LIFER - Nov 27, Texas
How can a potential first ABA record be #5?!?!?!? The biggest reason is that since it was so incredibly unexpected, I hadn't pushed any time into looking specifically for it. What makes most of the birds on this list so special the amount of dedicated time it took to find each of them. It was really exciting to be right there when this bird was found, but, much like a controversial TD in the NFL, I must wait for reviews and other things to know if this bird will count. Yes, it was cool, but this fact does take a bit of the air out of what was otherwise a once-in-a-lifetime find. 

#4 Greater sage-grouse - LIFER - Jul 19, Utah
This bird was special for 2 reasons. First, very few people can appreciate how hard it is to find this species off-lek when you need to find it off-lek. I had to walk so much sage over many different days to finally flush a group of a dozen of these. The other thing that made this find so awesome was that Sonia shared it with me! She knew how badly I wanted to find this bird, and to have her there helping me stomp the sage in search of it was amazing.

#3 Sinaloa wren  (5) - LIFER - Nov 4, Arizona
This is the only Code 5 bird for which I searched this year (Honeycreeper not withstanding). This imbued the search for this bird with special meaning to me. I was able to find a continuing bird in Tubac, AZ literally at last light. Given the lighting conditions, that I got the photos that I did was a major miracle. The documentation of this species is a testament to my ability to "think fast" with the camera. I was yelling out loud after finding this bird.

#2 - Hook-billed kite (3) - LIFER - Dec 6, Texas
This was another bird that I had all but given up hope of finding. I was so tuned out when it did finally show that I originally thought "Huh this is the first crow I have seen in a while". I'm just glad I took a second look at it! This might be the single hardest nesting North American bird to find in the ABA area. There are never more than single numbers of them around, and they can be frustratingly difficult to find. Copius fist-pumps accompanied the appearance of this species.

#1 - Black-throated blue warbler - Apr 14, Texas
As improbable as it sounds, finding this bird on the Texas Coast was my most exciting moment of the year. This bird was TOTALLY unexpected and resulted in more celebrating that any other bird this year since I redeemed myself from a HUGE mistake I made a month earlier. That I found it makes it that much more special. I was able to direct between 20-30 people to see it. As far as I know, everyone who looked for it, found it. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Jan 2 - 2014 Greatest misses of 2014 - LOOOONNNGGGGGG!!!!!

I managed to find 617 species in 2014. I am still working on the "Most exciting birds of 2014" and "Luckiest finds of 2014". These will take a bit of time as I must do some mental comparisons between the birds that I did find to decide which were the most exciting/luckiest. Much easier, however, is the list the of birds that I could have found but did not. Fortunately, this this list is rather compact! The birds are presented in the order in which I missed them rather than taxonomically. 

Common redpoll, White-winged crossbill - After an incredible finch year in northeast the winter of 2012-2013, the winter of 2013-2104 was devoid of these specific and other northern finches. They were simply not around the northeast this year. I could not even find someone with a single, reliable redpoll on a feeder in Massachusetts. So, these two birds are hypothetically possible in some years, but not actually possible this year. White-winged crossbill was certainly a possibility out west in the late summer, but this would have been an incredibly lucky find. This was by no means a bird I expected to find this year given their absence from the northeast. These weren't very painful to miss since I did not waste time looking for birds that weren't there anyway.

Black-legged kittiwake - This is bird that I should have been able to find in the northeast in January. It is generally considered pelagic, but can be seen from shore under the right wind conditions. East winds are generally thought to be best as they push the birds closer to shore. I thought I would be able to get in on January 4th or 5th in Rockport, MA. Andrew's Point is a fairly good spot for this species in winter. However, on the 2 days that I was in area, the winds were from the west. This presumably kept the birds a bit farther offshore than what would have been optimal. I also looked for this species at Pt. Judith in Rhode Island, but extreme cold and eventually snow truncated that search. I was hoping to take one last crack at this bird in North Jersey, but yet another huge (12+ inches) snowstorm forced me to motor to Philadelphia a bit earlier than I had hoped. I was not able to make it to the Jersey Coast as a result. This was my last really good shot at this bird. I could not cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (no bikes), so I had to take a more interior/westward route along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Had I been able to go right down the coast and over the Bridge-Tunnel,  I may have been able to find this bird. There was a tiny chance for it in the fall along the Washington, Oregon, and California coasts, but I was just too early to find one this year. They generally move into those areas in the middle of October. By that time I was too far south in Los Angeles and San Diego. This was the single most painful miss of the year. 

Mangrove cuckoo - This is a tough bird to find at any season, but one that I should have at least heard this year. I spent several days looking/listening/taping for this species around South Florida. It was just too early in mid-march. Once the birds get onto territory and start calling regularly it gets much easier to find them. Depite use of a tape in many places, I could not even get one to call back to me for a "heard only" tick. When I was in Sanibel Island, I actually found a banding team that had just caught a cuckoo. They were removing it from the net when I rode past them. Technically, ABA rules permit the counting of banded bird "as soon as they resume normally activity". Although I had counted both Le Conte's sparrow caught on a banding expedition in Georgia and Yellow rail caught during a banding session in Texas, I did not count the cuckoo. This was for 2 reasons. First, I was officially part of the sparrow and rail banding teams. Second, I actually saw both the sparrow and the rail as free flying birds BEFORE they were captured. I was not officially a part of the cuckoo banding expedition, and I sure as hell wasn't going to count a just released bird as my lifer. That would be really shaky in my book. So technically, this bird could be on the list, but I decided not to count it. This was also a painful miss since I spent quite a bit of time of time looking for it.

Gray Kingbird - There was one bird that spent the winter in South Florida. Sonia was coming to visit on March 18, and I did not have time to look for this bird before she arrived. I left Florida before the remainder of the population returned for the spring/summer. This was a moderately painful miss, but I found my only frigatebird of the year during the time I would have looked for the kingbird. Given the time constraint, I was not going to get both kingbird and frigatebird.

Black-billed cuckoo, Yellow-bellied flycatcher, Mourning warbler, Alder flycatcher. I was not able to find any of these on the Texas coast this spring. These birds all fall into the category of "very late spring migrants". By April 27, I had found all of the other migrant birds that I would need to find on the Upper Texas Coast. Strong SE winds were forecast for the last few days of the month. No fronts were scheduled to come through for at least another week. Strong SE winds would be less-than-ideal for birding but absolutely ideal for my 3-day, 260-mile ride to Austin. I could have birded High Island for an additional 4-5 days and found all or none of these birds. Contrast this with a 100% chance of tailwinds if I left when I did. At that point in the year, the really hard riding hadn't started yet. I had no idea how hard the ride across Texas was going to be, and I made the decision that the time I could spend looking for these birds would be better applied to the herculean trek across Texas. Sure, I could have stayed longer and found a few of these birds. I made a tough decision, and I stand by it. Yes, I left a few birds on the table, but look at the run I had after I left that area. Who knows how many of those birds I would ave missed had I been running 3-5 days behind where I actually was? Alder Flycatcher would have also presented special identification problems beyond the other 3 birds. Empids generally do not call during the Texas legs of their spring migrations. In my book, you had better hear the Alder flycatcher to actually count it. A simple visual for all but a few people (if even them) just isn't enough to conclusively separate it from Willow. These misses were moderately painful. 

Five-striped sparrow - I did not even try for this bird in Arizona. Again, this was a tough decision, but I can justify it after the fact based on how well things went after that point. Access to this bird is tough in a 4-wheel drive, near impossible in a regular car, and potentially impossible on a bike. Looking back I probably could have found a way to get this bird, but it would have required someone driving in to meet me with a tent and supplies. Coordinating effort with people also takes extra days. This was a moderately painful miss, but, again, not terrible since I did not push any time into it.

Northern hawk-owl - There are usually a few of these around in either Glacier NP or the Cascades. I chose not to go to Glacier since I thought it was too far. There weren't any accessible birds in the Cascades this year. This is a bird I could have theoretically seen on another year but for which I did not spent any time searching this year. It wasn't really a miss so much as it a distant possibility. This was not a painful miss since I pushed no effort into it.

Boreal owl - The only really reliable report of this species near me this year came from Mount Rainier in Washington in late August. I could have chased this bird but it would have cost me 4-5 days with little food/lodging along much of the way. It would have also been a hell of a climb. to reach the set side of the park from the western, Seattle/Tacoma side. I would have had to go to Rainier had I missed Gray-crowned rosy-finch in the North Cascades, but but by an incredible stroke of luck I was able to get the finch in that location. I did not think it was worth going to Rainier since I had to race to Haystack Rock in Oregon to get Tufted Puffin at the end of the nesting season. As I was cutting the puffin close already, I chose to get to Haystack since it was an easier ride in the direction I was ultimately headed. 

Black-footed albatross, Northern fulmar, Manx shearwater, Storm-petrels, Red phalarope - All of these birds were theoretically possible but highly unlikely from Monterey. It generally takes a huge west wind to see albatross from shore. I never got this wind. I was generally too early for fulmar and Red phalarope. For reasons we don't understand, there were lower than normal numbers of storm-petrels around this year. It probably had something to do with the very warm water that pushed north from Mexico during this El Nino year. Manx shearwaters are present in very low numbers along the Pacific Coast in fall. Again, it would have taken a big lucky stroke to get this bird. I did see a bird in San Diego that I am 80-90% sure was a Manx, but that ain't 100% now it is?

Red-billed pigeon - I spent 2 full days looking for this bird at Salineno with so out so much as as a whiff of it. There were only a few of these seen in Nov/Dec of this year. I pushed in a few days, then cut my loses in time to score some great birds, including the red-legged honeycreeper, further south in the LRGV. 

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Dec 31 (Day 365) - Final thoughts and a big huge 'Thank You'

In August of 2012, I joked with Sonia that someone should try to do a nationwide big year on a bicycle. Over the course of the next 8 months, I made the decision that this someone should be me. In April of 2013 I quite my job and began preparing myself physically, mentally, and logistically for what I figured, if I could actually pull it off, would be the adventure of a lifetime. I hoped the adventure would hone my birding skills, introduce me to new people, facilitate exploration of the country, and provide an opportunity for personal challenge and reflection. When I initially articulated my plan to others, it was met mostly with skepticism and disbelief. My parents, most notable my mom, were less than thrilled. They simply did not understand why I would leave a stable position and promising future in academic science to pursue something infinitely less certain. I think some of my friends understood, but I am still not sure any of them really grasped the possibilities of what the adventure could do for me both personally and professionally. Luckily, the person whose opinion and input mattered most, Sonia, was able to see the potential in me and in the project. Irrespective of my relationship with her, she understood that I needed to do this for myself. We both realized that I would regret terribly the chance realized but ultimately let go should I chose to ignore my desire to do exactly what I did this year. For her support and love I will always be thankful. I am not sure I would have been able to make it through the year without her.


Beast and Beauty

Ice Cream!

The best metaphor that I can use to describe my experience this year is a ruler. At different points in our lives we use different rulers to measure success and development. Through the scholastic years, the measure is academic grades. To most adolescents and collegiates, social status is a high priority. Sports, at all levels, rely on accumulated statistics and earned championships to compare individuals and teams. As adulthood arrives, job status, monies earned, and successes of one's children replace the measures of earlier times. As a research scientist, my successes were measured by which journals would publish my results. The formula was extremely straightforward - and painfully simple. As I looked around my academic life, and beyond it to the world at large,  I wondered why we are constantly willing to use these already existing and formulaic rulers to measure our successes, and, in extreme cases, our own happiness? How is it that so many people can use so few rulers? Biking for Birds provided the incredibly unique opportunity for me to define and to become my own ruler. Yes, the species count is certainly one way to measure this year, but the personal triumphs I experienced are immeasurable. No other ruler beyond my own can ever hope to measure or define what I experienced this year - I would't have it any other way. 

All that being said, there is simply no way that this year could not have happened without the support of hundreds if not thousands of people around this country and world beyond it. I had to rely on the incredible generosity of the people who housed me, fed me, and helped me find birds. Large numbers of people gave financially of themselves to aid my fundraising efforts (Donations are still welcome), and for this I am also grateful. My support network extended deep into the online realm as blog readers were never short to encourage me and offer helpful suggestions as I faced new challenges. I tried my hardest to make this project one for the entire birding, cycling, and environmental communities. I have thought a lot about this, and I think the aspect of the project that I will miss the most is the blog. It provided the portal through which I was able to broadcast my experiences and share my thoughts. I spent a huge proportion of this year physically alone. This blog was my way of connecting to the rest of the world, even if in only a distant or transient way. I plan to keep this blog going into the foreseeable future, so please check back regularly as we enter 2015. There will be lots of "Best of......" posts coming in the next few days! I may at some point shut this blog down and start a more general birding/photography blog. I will be sure to let everyone know when/if I do this. I have a great base of readers, and I would love to carry all of you with me into my future endeavors - blogs and books alike. 

Thank you one last time for your support, your time, your help, and your encouragement. Knowing that others enjoyed this project as much as I did is just one of our collective successes this year. 

OK, that's it for right now. Day 1 of the rest of my life calls............


365 days
617 species
17,830 miles
1 immeasurable adventure

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Dec 30 (Day 364) - Some fun with numbers......

With the 2 miles that I rode to the supermarket today, I ran the mileage total for the year to 17,830! Even though I still technically have one day left, the few miles I may (or may not!) ride tomorrow won't have any grand bearing one the overall numbers (miles or birds) for the year. I therefore decided with the free time that I had to today to present a few numbers and graphs that might help people understand my year a bit better.

The first value that is worth calculating is simple the average number of miles I rode each day. That number is 48.85 miles/day (17,830 miles / 365 days). I present how I calculated this number not as I doubt that reader how to calculate averages, but to show that I am counting all 365 days of the year in the average number. Traveling cyclists often count the average number of miles over a trip using the days riden rather than the total days. This method artificially inflates the daily average. Off days are days, and they permit the rider to recover and ride more miles on the days surrounding them. A year is 365 days, and 365 days should be used to calculate the average number of miles per day. 48.85 miles per day may not seem like that much until you remember that I also spent many hours birding. If all I did was ride, my daily average would be much higher. It is also worth noting that riding may more miles might not actually raise the species total that much. At many points this year is was well-worth slowing down to allow birds to come to me. Sure I could have raced through California in the fall, but then what? I just don't think that riding 70 miles per day is really going to net anyone significantly more species than what I tallied this year. It's better to be thorough and make sure you didn't miss any birds in the areas that you do reach. 

OK, now we can delve a bit deeper into some of the numbers. This first graph shows the average number of miles I rode during each month of the year. Again, every day is represented, even those days when I did not ride any miles.


There are several things worth pointing out from this graph. It is clear that January was, by a wide margin, my lowest riding month. Recall that this winter in the northeast was the worst one in the last 100 years from snow and temperature standpoints. I was snowed out on several occasions, and this dragged down the overall average for the month. These down days were not necessarily a bad thing though as they helped keep my miles down during the early part of the year. This was actually by design as I thought that burnout/fatigue/injury could be a major problem later in the year. That I made it through the year without getting injured and that I only really burned out as the list of possible birds was finally exhausted speaks to the wisdom of this strategy. The terrain the first few months while I was on the east coast and the Gulf Coast was very flat; Even though the miles increased in subsequent months, there still weren't any significant hills. The first of those came when I arrived in Colorado in June. You can also see that I rode significantly more miles in the second half of the year (9,909) than I did in the first half (7,921). Those miles in the second half were much tougher since many of them included large elevation changes. Again, that I was able to continue to build miles through the middle part of the year speaks to my control of my fitness level and program. 

OK, here is another way of looking at my rides from the entire year. This time I have binned or grouped them based on their distances. 


Most of the rides cluster around 30-70 miles. This is not surprising given that the daily average was ~50. I rode at least 70 miles on 86 days, and I rode at least 100 on 14 different occasions. These 14 occasions were: 

March 8 - 111 miles - Crossing South Florida on the Tamiami trail
March 12 - 102 miles - 102 miler capped with visit to Hooters!
April 27 - 112 miles - Big miles out of High Island on SE winds
August 7 - 121 miles - Longest ride of year in Southern Idaho
August 11 - 118 miles - Hot day and lots of climbing in Northeastern Oregon
September 1 - 108 miles - The race to Tufted puffin
October 14 - 101 miles - Riding into LA and finding Spotted dove
October 17 - 103 miles - Yellow-green vireo
October 27 - 111 miles - Rufous-backed robin, day 1
October 28 - 114 miles - Rufous-backed robin, day 2
November 15 - 119 miles - East ones with tailwinds
November 16 - 110 miles - One of if not the worst ride of year in TX with freezing north winds
December 13 - 107 miles - King Ranch traverse
December 25  - 112 miles - not even bike troubles can stop me

Man, writing this post is the most fun I have had all year! It is so much fun to return to these older posts and see what I was doing on those longest days. OK, since I cannot go on forever, I will present just one more graph in this installment. This graph shows the accumulation of species over the course of the year.


The X-axis is "days". For simplicity, I assumed each month was 30 days. Hence there are 12 values across the X-axis. The red line is the actual data, day-by-day. The black line is a line of best fit or regression that describes the data using a polynomial function. Don't worry too much about it, it's just another way of representing the data. Clearly, the overall rate of species additional is going to drop over the course of the year. While there are certainly going to be pockets of new species here and there, proportionately fewer common/widespread birds will be found later in the year. For example, you can see a big jump around day 135. That represents my arrival to Arizona and the Chiricahuas which occurred on May 15. My arrival in the Lower Rio Grande Valley can bee seen around the end of November and the beginning of December at ~Day 331. The most important thing, and this is true of any North American big year, is to notice how diminishing the bird returns are towards the end of the year. For example, I added 490 species in the the first 6 months and 127 in the next 6! This, coupled with the increased riding in the back half of the year, shows how much harder I had to work per bird in the later portion of the year. The black repression line goes almost flat by the end of the year; adding birds at this time of year is exponentially more difficult that at any other time. 

OK, that's juts a bit of the fun coming in the next few days. I am having almost more fun recapping the year than executing it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Dec 29 (Day 363) - Goodbye open road, hello safety....

As I wrote yesterday, I have at this late stage in the year found all the birds I can realistically find before 2014 expires. As Sonia arrived last night, I will now shift the focus away from bird chasing and towards her. I am also looking forward to the necessarily lighter riding days that will close out the year. However, there was still a bit of remaining riding to be done today to reach my friend's house in Dallas that will serve as our base for the final 2 days of the year. This ride, at exactly 60 miles, would be the last significant one of the year. The riding conditions today were near perfect with smooth roads, clear skies, temperatures in the 40s, and a nice light to moderate southeast tailwind that sped me west. 

60 miles back into the Dallas 'burbs

I will confess to getting a bit emotional towards to end of my ride today. As much as I have complained about the bike this year, I will miss (most of) the time I spent on it. I was able to see an amazing amount of the country in a way that most can only dream of. I was also able to challenge myself in ways that only I will ever fully appreciate. At times the bike felt like an inoperable tumor, and at others it felt like the most beautiful and exciting roller coaster a person could imagine. Such it is with anything worth doing though; There are necessarily going to be difficult and challenging stretches that make you truly appreciate the high points. One of the great things about biking, at least in the way I experienced it this year, is that the goal is very well-defined: Ride the bike from point A to point B. Sure there is an amazing amount that happens along this path, but the goal of traversing this distance is quite simple. As someone who likes having defined goals, I thrived under these circumstances. By achieving each daily riding goal, I was able, with 365 iterations of this model, to more than achieve my birding goals for the entire year. The trick was to break the whole task down into manageable bits. I think this strategy will serve me well during the next phase of the project - book writing.

While I may ride a few miles around the neighborhood tomorrow and Wednesday, I will now finally say that I am incredibly relieved to have survived this year. One of my unofficial goals for this year was simply to make it back as a fully-functioning body. There are so many poor, distracted, and tired drivers on the roads across this country that it is a minor miracle that I was not involved in a really serious accident. Even when I was hit by a car, I walked/rode away without a mark on me. I will say that there were probably 2 handfuls of very close calls with cars/trucks this year. I actually chose not to discuss these for fear of scaring readers, most notably my mom and Sonia. I am sure they were concerned about my safety without actually hearing about the nonsense that goes on out there. Drivers in much of this country have no idea that bikes exist. For select motorists, I can only conclude that they see cyclists as obstacles or impediments to their own progress along the road. How else can I explain the multitude of times cars and trucks missed me by 6 inches on their right even with open lanes to their left? It was as though they were trying to scare me, or just physically push me, off of the road. These close calls don't even count the myriad of other disastrous possibilities. Hitting roadkill, garbage, or a hole/crack in the road could spell disaster. A rock or insect to the face could cause a quick reflex that could send the rider flying. At any point, a momentary lapse of focus could be disastrous, particularly in urban environments. There's just so much that could have gone wrong on the road. I'm not a believer in any sort of 'higher power', but after surviving this year, maybe I should be.....

Lastly, Sonia decided to make a stop at the famous "Cadillac Ranch"along route 66. As this art installation is designed to be ever evolving, Sonia decided that Biking for Birds should be a part of it, even if it only temporarily. She's the best!


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Dec 28 (Day 362) - 2015 road trip, I'm tapped out, a bit of birding ethics

Before I get into today's adventures, let me just put this out there. Sonia and I will be driving from Dallas to Philadelphia starting on January 1. This is a very possible route right for the 1st part of the drive. If you live near/in the specified towns and would be willing to host us for a night, please let me know at bikingforbirds@gmail.com. Sonia promises to sing and dance. I promise to tell stories and eat. Thanks so much!!! 

What happens after Lexington we're not sure yet!

As for today, Smith's longspur is the last bird I will realistically have time and energy to try to find this year. The most reliable spot for this species within striking distance of Dallas is an old airstrip adjacent to Lake Tawakoni. Smith's longspurs spend their summers on tundra and look for similarly flat, open areas for their wintering grounds. A defunct airstrip covered in low grass is an ideal winter haunt for this species. The only problem is that access to this area and the airstrip is restricted on all but 1 day a year. That lone day was yesterday when the Lake Tawakoni Christmas Count occurred. As I discussed, I was not able to participate in this count due to time/distance constraints. Participating in this count would certainly have been my best shot at this species.


Smith's longspur range

Even though I was not able to participate in the count yesterday, I decided to position myself close to the count circle for today. I did this on the off-chance that someone might find Smith's longspurs in an area that I could legally access this morning. At 11pm last night, I received an email from Dallas birder and eBird moderator Chris Runk. He told me that a flock of ~30 Smith's longspurs had been found on and eBirded from the count. However, as I expected, these were found on the restricted airstrip. With experience birding this area, Chris suggested that I head over to the airstrip anyway. He said that he sometimes sees longspurs as they fly over the publicly accessible County Road 1480 that borders the airstrip to the north. There is another large field to the north of CR 1480 where the birds are sometimes seen. As I had no other solid leads, I figured that this idea presented at least a chance of ticking this bird. 


You can kinda see the outline of the old runway
slanting from bottom left to top right.

Temperatures were in the low 30s when I set off from the Emory Best Western this morning. I had a 10-mile ride to the spot. It was just too cold to set off at sunrise, but I was able to reach the area by 9:00am or so. I was greeted with lots and lots of fence; "Authorized Personnel Only" and "No Trespassing" signs were prominently displayed. However, I found a very large gap in the fence through which I could easily squeeze. Hell, it was early on Sunday, and it was cold. No one would be around to catch me if I just slid under the fence and walked around for a while. If I could walk along the airstrip, I could probably kick up at least one longspur given the number that were found here yesterday. I am sure I am not the first birder who has had thoughts like this. However, they remained just that, thoughts. I was sure as hell not going to be the birder to get busted sneaking into the area. Getting busted might mean that the already limited Christmas Count access could be revoked entirely. I'm not going to pretend I have been a perfect "access angel" in my 30 years of birding, but I will say that I the know the difference between taking a risk on behalf of myself and taking one on behalf of the birding community. The former is sometimes OK, the later is much less, if ever, so. It's all about judgement, so let's just leave it at that........

Anyway, I spent a freezing 45 minutes not seeing Smith's longspurs. I walked up and down CR 1480 listening for their distinctive flight calls. I figured that a flyover was my only shot. At around 9:45, I heard what sounded like Smith's longspurs calling from overhead down the road. I got my binoculars up in time to see 4 stout birds flying high across the road. I was fairly certain these were the sought bird, but given that this would be a lifer for me, I just wasn't ready to call it 100% from what I heard/saw. I needed about another 5 seconds. Bummer, but encouraging nonetheless. I continued my pacing routine for another 30 minutes. I then heard this loud racket coming from behind me. I looked up to see a huge swarm of Smith's longspurs flying 50 feet above my head. They were all calling, and I able to make out stout, buffy, short-tailed birds as they flew off to the north. They flew in a tight flock with undulating flights. This group spiraled upwards and eventually returned to the fenced airstrip to the south. I estimated that this flock contained ~40 birds. And there it was - year bird #615 was on the books. Sure I wish I had had a better look, but this was what I expected. They are on the list, and I have yet another good story to tell. Those are the important things. As this is almost assuredly the final new bird for 2014, it's extra special given that it was a lifer. Sure I could have had a better look, but I'll go to Alaska to photograph them breeding at some juncture and then it will be a moot point! Over the course of the last 45 minutes I spent at the spot, two more groups of 8-10 birds flew over. Huge props to Chris for recommending this approach. 

View north from CR 1480

And with this, I would bet my camera that all the species that will join the 2014 Biking for Birds party are presently represented. After finding these birds, I rode to the Best Western in Greenville for an afternoon of football. This place is just as nice as the Emory BW! The timing of how this all worked out couldn't have been more perfect as Sonia is going to arrive late tonight. Right now the revised plan is to head into Dallas for the last few days of the year. One of my best friends from high school has invited my to her house for a New Year's eve party. She lives in a suburb with parks and such, so I will probably do some casual neighborhood birding with Sonia (if temperatures allow!) The older of my friend's two sons (8 years old, I think) has actually developed a bird interest, so I figure I can spend a least a few hours at the end of my year mentoring the next generation of birders. All of this will be done via bike of course! No car until 2015!

39 miles today - Smith's longspurs sandwiched by Best Westerns. 

Greenville Best Western Lobby

In case anyone is curious, it would be ~380 miles with 6000' of climbing (~2300' net gain) to reach Lesser prairie-chicken in Northwestern Oklahoma. While I have astounded even myself with some of the miles I have biked this year, 380 miles north in 3 days, with elevation gain, in freezing weather, and 2 of 3 days with north winds just isn't going to happen - at least not with energy/daylight to find the bird!

With Sonia's arrival, I am sure there will some entertaining blog content forthcoming. She actually pulled a very cool stunt today that will be well-worth your time tomorrow to read about. I will also start thinking about some of the lists I promised, so there should be decent blog content for at least a few more days!