Thursday, November 20, 2014

Nov 20 (Day 324) - Green birds, questions about how I'm getting home, bonus ramblings!

Knowing that I had to ride only ~50 miles from Uvalde to reach Carrizo Springs, I took my time getting out the door this morning. I decided to return to the Cook's Slough Sanctuary that I visited in the afternoon yesterday. There was quite a bit of activity today around the pond and on the trails. Most of the birds overlapped with what I saw yesterday with one notable exception. I did not see any kingfishers yesterday, but I found 3 species this morning. Belted and Ringed had both been ticked this year, but Green was #590 for 2014! This little guy is a South Texas specialty that I have managed to find on each of my previous trips to the area. 

Green kingfisher for #590!

Moving south mile by mile

Along the road today. Not sure if there is more
mesquite or pick-up trucks in Texas.

After wandering around the sanctuary for 2 hours, it was time to hit the road. I had to cut back through a neighborhood to reach Route 83 to Carrizo Springs. As I cut through the residential block, I heard several Green jays making a ruckus. I slowed down and immediately 3 of the birds (#591) flew over my head and landed in a back yard. These might be my favorite South Texas specialty bird, and, as much as I wanted to get a photo of one today, it just wasn't worth the time give how far off they were. I am certainly going to see hundreds more of these in the next few weeks. I am sure I'll get a good shot of one at some point. With these birds under my belt, I rode an uneventful ~50 miles south to the Best Western Plus Carrizo Springs Inn and Suites. This place is really nice. It is certainly in the running for the nicest Best Western property at which I have stayed this year! I spent the whole afternoon connecting with Laredo birders about the best strategy for finding White-collared seedeaters. After this bird, I can shoot south to the heart of the LRGV valley where most of my target species reside.

Several people have recently asked how I plan to end up my big year. Specifically, people want to know how I am getting home when all of this is finished. Right now, the plan is for Sonia to pick me up in our car as she transits from California back to the Northeast. Now, I am sure people some people are going to jump all over me for this. I can hear it now, "Gas, gas, you used gas...your year doesn't count!" However, you should first consider the following before jumping all over me. I have addressed this before, but it never hurts to do it again.

Everything has to do with geography. Anyone who has a problem with me using a car to return home basically believes that a bike big year must start and end in the same place. As I will show you, this is an over simplistic way of looking at this. I will present 2 very significant reasons why I believe that a bike-birder should be free to design whatever route he or she wants without requiring the starting and ending points to be the same. It was after considering this carefully that I designed my route the way that I did.

The first has to do with weather. All of the notable bicycle big years that have been done to date have been done in California and Arizona, two states with year-round, bike-birding friendly weather. Let's assume that a proper big year runs Jan. 1 to Dec. 31 (as I personally think it always should). This means that those bike-birders based in the northeast who want to do continent wide big years will have to brave frigid temperatures, freezing rain, ice, and snow not once, but twice - outgoing and returning. Bike-birders living in areas with inclement weather (the northeast, e.g.) should not be penalized for this. 

Second, generally speaking, species numbers increase as one moves south and west across the country. This means that bike-birders who live in the northeast (and northcentral US and Canada) are, again, at a very big disadvantage compared to our equivalents in the southern and western portions of the country. Bike-birders in the northeast must bike much farther than their more southerly and westerly counterparts to reach the most species-rich areas. Again, we should not penalize bike-birders who live farther north and east. 

Taking these two things together, it is obviously unfair to constraint people's potential successes by where they live. Take the exact same bike-birder (me for example) and hypothetically require that I start and end in the same place (i.e. where I live). My results are going to be completely different if I live in Southern California versus if I live in Northern Vermont. Sure, I could bike back to wherever I started during the beginning of the following year, but that's also going to vary based on geography. It's also going to mean some people are going to need to negotiate varying amount time off from work, relationships, families, etc. A big year should be 365 days - not 365 days plus one week return for one person and 365 days plus 2 months return for another.

If we make a rule that says bike-big years MUST start and end in the same place, you know what we're gonna have? A "whole bunch" of people flying from the northeast to the southwest, doing their big years, and then flying back to the northeast. Instead of this scenario, I would strongly argue that people should be free to start and end their years wherever they want. I did not start in Boston because I lived there (although it helped!), but rather because I thought that the only chance I had to reach to 600 species would be to brave the brutal cold at year's outset to collect the very limited number of specialty birds the northeast has (and they're all around in winter). At least I'll only need a ride home versus a flight out and back had I decided to start somewhere other than Boston.

We could let people start bike big years at whatever point in the year the individual sees fit, but I am not a fan of this idea. On Jan 1 you start your year list just the same as everyone else. That's why its fun. But hey, it you want to start your year at some other time, feel free to do so. 

Incidently, I think someone should do a closed-loop big year, and do it REALLY REALLY REALLY soon - like 2015. Why do I say this? There is certainly a strategically best, closed-loop route that starts on Jan. 1 at the same place it ends on Dec 31. If you're going to do this, you certainly want to be the FIRST person to do it. Now why is this? If in fact there is a best route and you manage to identify it and ride it perfectly, anyone who follows after you is under an incredible amount of pressure not just to exceed your total but to crush it. Why is this? Well, as the guinea pig you did a ton of original planning/headwork and found X number of species along your/the best route. Anyone who wants to take a shot at your number is almost certainly also going to ride that same, best route. This person would necessarily be expected to find at least as many species as you (not even considering for future splits) since he/she can use your successes and failures as a blueprint to streamline his/her own transit of and birdfinding along your previously established, best route. The same goes for my route from this year. This blog is a "how to" for that particular route. I would hope and expect the next person who rides it, or anything close to it, to find more species than me since the roads, lodging, food/water, birding contacts, and pitfalls are mapped out already. It gets easier still for the third person and so and so forth. As I'll discuss below, one person's petroleum-based big year doesn't really bare on anyone else's. Every single petroleum-based big year is completely unique. This is no so for bike-based endeavors because of the importance of the exact route.

The route is EVERYTHING for a bike big year or a bike big day. Go ask Josiah Clark, Andy Kleinhesselink, Rob Furrow, and Ron Weeks, the national co-record holders for bike big days at 181 (I think!). They'll tell you the exact same thing - the route is everything. Yes, you can pick up unexpected birds (i.e. rarities), but these do not factor into equation/calculation since they will comprise such a tiny percentage of the total species found. You can't predict rarities (they're rare, after all) so they shouldn't factor into the equation/calculation. These guys have painstakingly mapped out their routes, and they get mad props in my book for being the people to do this. 

Contrast this with a petroleum-based big year where there is no set route; You go wherever the rarities turn up, and you fill in the breeding birds in between the chases. All petroleum-based, big year birders essentially find all code 1 and code 2 birds. Last year Neil Hayward got all code 1 and code 2 birds save 1 - Common-ringed plover. What this means is that everyone who does a petroleum big year starts off with essentially all the code 1 and code 2 birds virtually guaranteed; The ultimate success, from a numerical standpoint, is dictated by the number of rare birds the person can add on top of this huge baseline. The ability to do this is generally most dependent on the financial resources (and personal energy) the birder has to chase these rarities around the continent. There's nothing wrong with that, it just the way it is.

I should also note that I do believe big years to be about more than just species totals. For me, the people this year have been just as awesome as all the birds I have seen. But hey, let's be honest, the numbers certainly matter for a big year, there's just no denying it. 

Sorry, I did not expect this to turn into a stream-of-consciousness rambling, but that's were it went. I guess you could say I deviated from the planned route!

Common ringed-plover - the one bird I probably had on Neil last year!
Photographed May 21, Plum Island, MA in rain and near darkness.


  1. Who says you have to start and end a big year at the same place? I bet very few big years have ever ended even close to where they were started.

  2. How far are you from the Common Crane and/or Masked Ducks?