Friday, January 31, 2014

Jan 31 (Day 31) - Warm temps + no wind + flat roads = perfect day!

Today was hands down the most enjoyable ride of the trip. Temperatures started in the mid 20's and climbed into the low 50s by the time I had covered the 63 miles from Fredericksburg to Richmond. This took approximately 5 hours and 30 minutes, and nearly the entire time was spent on a rural road on which there was relatively little traffic. This included a 30 minute rest stop several shorter stops for birding. It is really encouraging to know that I can cruise along at 10-12 mph for extended periods of time. I will need to do much more of this in the next few weeks. I saw lots of vultures, both black and turkey, as well as a handful of pileated woodpeckers and what seemed like endless bluebirds along the length of the ride. Birding from the bike was very enjoyable and productive today.

I have never visited this part of the country, and I have no idea if I will ever return to this region in the future. As a result of this, I really tried to soak up as much as the scenery as possible. I traversed farms, pine woodlands, logging tracts, small towns, and even a moderately sized urban area towards the end of the day. This was the first day that the riding felt like a vacation versus a chore. I am really looking forward to more days like this in the future. Today I realized how incredibly fortunate I am to behaving this adventure. It was an amazingly beautiful and encouraging end to what was an exceptionally challenging first month. I am sure there are going to be many more challenges in my future, but it is good to know I was able to handle this first big hurdle. The highlight of the day was surely mailing my huge North Face down parka back to Philadelphia. I am hoping that I won't regret this decision, but I am feeling incredibly optimistic heading into month 2!

I'm at 127 species as of today, 1/31? Who knows where I'll be on 2/28.....

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Jan 30 (Day 30) - Warmer weather, black vulture, and thoughts on solitude

Today was scheduled as a shorter day for two reasons. First, I had hoped to make it here yesterday, but I had to stop short after the successful Tundra swan detour. Second, I am going to have a very long ride of 62 miles to Richmond, VA tomorrow. So, today was a very short 28 miles that was remarkably pleasant given the abundant sunshine and rising mercury. It looks as though the weather is going to continue to improve the next few days, so I am optimistic about attempting some longer rides. I did find a kettle of black vultures this afternoon which brought the species total to 127. This is generally a southern species which reminds me that I am headed in the right direction.

For reasons I won't discuss at length, I was stranded at a pizza shop in Fredericksburg for 3 hours this afternoon. A few other folks came and went during that time, and the staff buzzed about behind the counter as they prepared orders that, I could only surmise, were destined for delivery. For the most part though, I was alone for those 3 hours. I have always prided myself on my ability to entertain myself, and I figured 3 hours wouldn't be a big problem. I could work on my blog, send a few emails, perhaps even facebook for a while. I felt proud that I was so comfortable being alone. I am surely more highly evolved than the group of teenagers across the shop who couldn't go 10 seconds without texting or 2 seconds without using the word "like" as they engaged in what today sadly passes for communication. Then it hit me: I wasn't alone as long as I was online. I started to think about how much time I actually spend alone, and I started to wonder how much time any of us actually get to spend without the influence of others. The answer is not much.

One of the big reasons I wanted to do this big year on a bicycle is to experience the time alone that life in the gasoline-powered real world often denies us. This alone time is equally exciting and terrifying. While it is exciting to have the headspace to explore myself and my place in the world, it is terrifying to think what might happen if I run out of original thoughts or tire of personal analysis along the way. One approach might be to slowly and deliberately explore the layers of myself and how I integrate into the world beyond my own body. Perhaps, instead, the challenge is to free my mind from precisely this sort of analysis and simply experience biking, birding, and existing without respect for what it all means in the larger context of my life. I suspect that my actual experience will pendulum between these two extremes, and I know from personal experience in this first month that at least some of the time will be spent cursing my circumstances at that particular moment. I think at this stage of the journey, I simply need to enjoy and respect the alone time I am afforded before the birds interrupt it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Jan 29 (Day 29) - Hard work for Tundra swan, overcoming current frustrations

Well, the title gives it all away. I did find Tundra swans today! It took a bit more work that I had hoped, but its a done deal. When I consulted eBird last night, I saw that a group of 10-12 swans had been reported 2 days prior not far from where I was staying. Starting in Alexandria this morning, I had planned to ride to Fredericksburg 50 miles to the south. I figured I would swing by the swan spot on my way out. However, the temperature in the last 2 days had dropped precipitously, and as a result the water where the swans had been reported was completely frozen. This prolonged, extreme cold has really thrown me for a loop as I figured I would have no problems finding open water this far south.

After folding my hand on this group of swans, I started to formulate a new plan as I continued south. According to eBird, there has been a large group of Tundra Swans (>100) at Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge. However, this would be a 16-mile detour from my route. I decided that I wanted to nail this bird down today so it wouldn't become a headache later. What I underestimated was was how many hills I would face today. The worst one was a long, slow drop down to Mason Neck that needed to be reclimbed as I returned to the main road after seeing the swans. On my way down to Mason Neck, I stopped at Pohick Bay Park to check the area for swans. I did not find any, but I did find an astounding concentration of ducks. Redheads, Canvasbacks, both Scaup, Ring-necked ducks, Ruddy ducks, Gadwall, American wigeon, Ruddy ducks, Black ducks, Hooded mergansers, and Coot were literally shoulder to shoulder in some areas. It was really amazing to see this many ducks in one small spot!

*click for full sized images*

There were Bald eagles everywhere I went today. Several immature birds were making passes at the concentrated ducks which made for entertaining viewing. I probably saw 20 of them today, many of which were sitting out on the frozen Chesapeake at various points. This same ice, however, did make locating Tundra swans difficult. These birds like to be along marsh edges where the can reach their food in the shallows. They can't feed in the deeper, open water as can many of the ducks species above. I figured the ice must have pushed them out of the area. However, by scanning this ice I was able to locate a group of 25-30 Tundra swans at the extreme end of Mason Neck (#126)! They were really distant, but here's a digiscoped record shot. The left arrow points to a standing bird while the right one points to a bird with its head raised. All the others looked like white rocks with their heads tucked under their wings as they slept. Its amazing that they can stay warm like this. They give me hope that I can do the same!

Finding these birds felt great. It really made the detour worth it. The ride back to the main road was tough and was highlighted by many hermit thrushes and loads of bluebirds (I saw a thrush earlier in the day for #125). By the time I had reached the main road, I was finished. I could not ride another 32 miles to Fredericksburg after covering ~33 already. I knew there was a Best Western in Potomac Mills just 6-7 miles south, so I decided to duck in there for the night. I just couldn't face more riding. I felt like a bit of a failure for bailing on my ride, but I just have to take this medicine since I know its going to be a long year. I rode 40 miles today when it was all over.

To be completely honest, the riding that I do on a daily basis at the moment is not enjoyable. It seems to snow every other day, the temperature has been above 30 once in the last 2 weeks, many roads are in terrible shape, and the winds keep pounding. Since I have so many miles to cover, and since bike paths are not an option with snow, I am riding on main roads with lots of cars, traffic lights, and salt spray. My face is literally covered in salt crust when the day is over. I want to ride and bird from sunrise to sunset, but in these conditions, I just cannot do it. I use so much energy just staying warm that there isn't much left for riding and birding. In short, I am really ready for this segment of the trip to end. Birding is always great, but the 90% of my time that I spend riding is memorable for all the wrong reasons.  I do realize it is going to get much better as conditions improve. I also know that I will grow personally from this challenging time, and I certainly know it makes for a really compelling story. It's just really tough to remember this as I spit out salt chunks kicked up by passing trucks.

However, something happened at the end of my day today that did lift my spirits. When I arrived at the Best Western, this is what I found on my bed. This was not prompted, I promise. I had spent the day braving the cold for Tundra swans and now a bonus swan had appeared in my Best Western room. I got a good laugh out of the coincidence. It was a really tiny gesture that made a big difference on this tiring day. It just reminded me to keep my eyes always open since I never know what I might  find at any point along the way, in the field or elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Jan 28 (Day 28) - Washington DC and an internet experiment

Today I biked 39 miles from the southern edge of Baltimore, Maryland to Alexandria, Virginia; This took me right through Washington DC where I actually took some time to do a bit of sightseeing (more on this below). The cold returned today after a warmer day yesterday, and the northwest wind did give me a bit of a push as I rolled south. I did tack on 2 more year birds today. Both Killdeer (#123) and Black-crowned night heron (#124) were observed adjacent to Ronald Reagan Airport. I also saw a very large (~150) raft of redheads along the Potomac. This is the largest group of these birds that I have ever seen. I occasionally see groups of 3-5 redheads in New England, but a group this large was a real treat. There were also a few Canvasbacks mixed in for good measure. Tomorrow I hope to locate Tundra Swan as I ride south to Fredericksburg, VA. I must get this bird in the next few days.

The ride

The most efficient building in the world!

Killdeer shot from my stock

Lastly, as I am biking through our nation's capitol, I suppose I could say a few words about how I think I could run this show better than many of the representatives that are working here now. I will, however, refrain from doing this. Instead, I have decided to conduct a small experiment to drum up some additional interest in Biking for Birds. I commented a few days ago that the internet does an amazing job of connecting seemingly distant people. This experiment will test the ability of the internet to do just this. I have no idea how this will go. The link to the experiment is here and is also pasted below. Please forward this to anyone who might find it amusing or who might be able to connect to me to President Obama. Post it on your Facebook page, whatever it takes! If nothing else, maybe someone in the Red Sox organization will see it and sort me out with 2 VIP tickets for next year!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Jan 27 (Day 27) - Signs of spring (sort of), thoughts on recycling

Since I have been starting with biking recently, tonight I'll switch it up a bit and start with the birds tonight. There were the usual song and white-throated sparrows feeding on the roadside where the plows have uncovered the grass, and there were the ubiquitous woodpeckers that manage to ride out the winter at this latitude. However, I was a bit shocked to see an Eastern phoebe (year bird #122) on the roadside as I rode south out of Baltimore. As a resident of Massachusetts, I associate Eastern phoebe with the approach of spring as they are some of the first migrants to return to New England. There is absolutely NOTHING that suggests that spring is anywhere to be seen at this juncture of my journey. However, I must remember that I am several hundred miles south of my usual New England haunts, and Eastern phoebe normally winters in this area. I'll take this sighting as an encouraging sign that I am actually making good distance south! Here are a few shots of the species from my stock.

*Click for full sized images*

Cycling-wise, today amazingly pleasant. The weather around Baltimore topped at around 40 degrees, and I was actually able to bike without gloves for the first time! I know not to get excited though as a fresh blast of cold air is due in tomorrow morning. Nevertheless, it was very encouraging and made for a really enjoyable ride south through the city. I covered 37 miles today. It was a very easy ride, and it provided a needed shorter day after 2 tougher days. 

The Inner harbor and National Aquarium, Baltimore

As I was unable to find a birder or cyclist with whom I could stay in this area, I planned to stay at the the Baltimore Airport Best Western. This was a wise decision as it sets me up for a nice ride through DC and into Alexandria, Virginia for tomorrow night. I'm certainly going to sleep well tonight! The best part of staying here might be the free breakfast. I plan on stuffing myself with waffles before I head out tomorrow.

Lastly, I broke down and had a fast food lunch today. Most days I have either have sandwiches, peanuts, or just simply skip lunch entirely. I was relaxing after my meal when something occurred to me; Everything on my tray could be recycled, and none of it would be. 

This reminded me of something that happened to me this summer in Canada. My girlfriend and I were driving back from an amazing vacation in Newfoundland, and we landed at a fast food restaurant along the road. We ordered and ate just like we would here in The States. However, when we were done, a young woman appeared and collected our trays. I insisted that she not waste her time as we could certainly handle the task. She said that she actually needed to sort it into trash, recycle, and compost! Coming from The States where we throw everything away, I found this amazingly refreshing. As I sat relaxing after my meal today, I wondered if such a policy would ever gain traction here in The States. It doesn't seem like it would take that much effort to implement a recycling policy at American fast food establishments, and considering the amount of trash those eateries now generate, it seems as though it would recapture a tremendous amount of reusable materials. I would certainly give my business to restaurant chains that made an effort to limit the amount of trash they generate. If enough consumers start to think this way, maybe things will change in the future.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Jan 26 (Day 26) - Making big miles in a small world

Today was another very hard day. I covered 54 miles as I headed south towards Baltimore. For the most part, the weather cooperated. The last 12 miles were a bit rough with strong winds and a bit of blowing snow. However, it was the first 40 that really killed me. My legs we shot from fighting the wind yesterday, so the very hilly terrain through Western Delaware and Eastern Maryland was simply exhausting. At several particularly steep points, I had to demount and push the bike. While I realize I am doing this to conserve energy for a long year ahead, it is nonetheless incredibly emotionally deflating. I feel so weak and inadequate, particularly when it happens on busy roads. I know I shouldn't let this bother me, but each time I dismount the bike to push it, waves of self-doubt come crashing down on me. Hopefully, I'll be able to rebuild my confidence on the flatter stretches ahead. I also hope that once it gets warmer, I'll be able to ditch the hiking boots in which I am now riding in favor of proper biking shoes (these will give me power on both the downstroke AND upstroke).

There were very few birds today, but a few moments did stand out. First, was a near collision with a Winter wren as it rocketed across my path in a particularly scrubby area. This normally secretive bird appeared to hang in the air in front of my bike for a few seconds before disappearing into the thicket on the other side of the road. It was a very surreal encounter. I also observed a Pileated woodpecker fly across my path, albeit not at the close range of the wren. Lastly, I found several Bald eagles adjacent to the Conowingo Dam. At the right times, this is one of the premier places on the east coast to photograph eagles. They routinely fish in the outflow from the dam where they are within reach of even short telephoto lenses. I simply did not have the energy today to cycle down to the traditional fishing spot to take some pictures.

The most interesting interaction of the day, like yesterday, occurred completely fortuitously. I am a active member of an online photography community hosted at I post my photos on the Nature and Wildlife board for others to see and critique. I also spend a large amount of time looking at and critiquing the photos of the other members. We all get along really well, and I enjoy greatly the time that I spend on the forum. I will be staying with people from the forum at some points on this trip.

So, today I was riding along when I passed a gas station about a mile from the Conowingo Dam. I then see a man with a camera running from his parked car at the station over to the roadside to meet me. "You MUST be Dorian" says the man. I quickly ascertain that this man is Michael Rucci, a photographer with whom I regularly interact on the photo forum. He lives in the area, and has been following my trip on online. He actually offered me a place to stay, but I had already secured another place in the area. He was, not surprisingly, headed down to the dam to take some eagle photos when he saw me on the bike. He correctly surmised that I was the only person crazy enough to be on the roads on this day, and he figured he would stop and introduce himself. 

We talked for a few minutes, and Michael offered to escort me over the top of the dam. While it is legal to ride a bike over it, the lanes over its top are frighteningly thin. This means that if someone were to try to pass me in an aggressive manner, it could create a potentially dangerous situation for me if there was a car coming from the other direction. Michael fell in behind me as I crossed the dam with his hazard lights on; This ensured that cars could not pass him, and hence me, as I crossed the dam. Just to be clear, Michael did not take a page out of the Chris Christie Traffic Playbook. I crossed the dam in under 2 minutes. I am sure the handful of cars we held up hardly noticed the delay. I snapped a quick photo of my escort and me once we had crossed the dam. It was an amazingly nice gesture during what was a very challenging ride.

The real significance of this interaction did not hit me until several miles down the road. What I realized is what an incredibly small place the internet has made the world. It was the internet that facilitated this chance interaction between Michael and me, and it is the internet that allows each one of you to accompany me on this journey. As an example of this, I offer the some information on the readership of this blog.

There are people all over the world reading this blog! Personal letters of encouragement that I have received from all over the world have confirmed this. Beyond people following my humble efforts, the internet is now used as a substitute to traditional dating, to conduct near-instantaneos electronic stock trades, and even, in extreme cases, to organize political movements and topple governments. The power of the internet is near limitless, but it will never substitute for the type of real work interaction of the sort that Michael and I had today. I know I will unlikely meet all of the readers of this blog, but it is really exciting to wonder who I might run into next.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Jan 25 (Day 25) - Wind, snow, and butterflies......

Today was very, very frustrating. There were no birds, strong headwinds, snow, and just generally  miserable conditions. I am getting very tired of this weather as it is unpleasant if not impossible to do any real birding while biking. The riding has become so painful that I just want to lay down my miles and get into my next point of refuge as fast as possible. Detours have become too energetically expensive, and with each extra foot I ride in these conditions the chances of something going very wrong increase. I have been incredibly lucky with the birds I have seen in the Northeast, but I am paying a very steep price for them now. I wish I had more bird content to offer, but until conditions improve, I just have to power through this birding void. The forecast shows that next 3-4 days are going to be even worse. I did add American kestrel (#121) today. Such a pretty bird, and I didn't even stop to look at it.

The ride from West Philadelphia to Newark, DE was 40 miles. Temperatures were in the high teens without the wind. The first 30 miles of the ride paralleled the Delaware river in a southwesterly direction. The steady 20 mph wind, also from the southwest, blew unimpeded up the river valley and completely crushed me. Every pedal crank was hard work. My legs started cramping 1 hour into the 4.5-hour ride. I was in my lowest 5 gears all day, even when going downhill. If I stopped pedaling the bike came to a near instant stop. While I got my layering on my chest and legs correct, I underestimated the insulation I would need on my feet and as a result they were frozen all day. It started snowing very heavily during the last hour of my ride. At one point I was so miserable that I said I was going to duck into the next open store that I passed no matter what it was.

I ended up in the Shear Chalet ("Quality hair with a personal touch"), a hairdressing salon located between Wilmington and Newark. The women running the show, Beverly and Sandy, initially looked at me as though I was from outer space. The asked if I was surviving the weather, and offered me coffee - which I declined. They asked about my adventure and seemed quite curious about the whole endeavor.  I ascertained that they lived in the area and had run the salon for the past 10 years. I said it was good to a see a successful small business doing well for such a long time. They seemed satisfied with their achievements, as well they should be. I convinced them to pose for a photo before I left. The 20-minute interaction was a welcome distraction from the world to which I now had to return to complete my ride.

For the last hour of my ride, my mind alternated between cursing the weather and the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect, originally articulated in the context of chaos theory, describes how tiny changes to an apparently stable system can potentially elicit huge changes in that system. The example from which the phenomenon derives its name is the flapping butterfly on one side of the planet that causes a small air disturbance that eventually grows to manifest itself as a hurricane on the other side. As I rode along, I started to wonder what effects my short interactions with others could have on my life and theirs. Can small, transient personal interactions alter people's thoughts, behaviors, and lives? While most people who hear my story or see me on the road will certainly think that I am just a crazy guy on a bike, for a few I must believe that seeing what I am doing will actually elicit some form of profound change. Maybe someone starts riding a bike to work, maybe someone starts paying more attention to birds, or maybe someone quits his or her job to pursue a life dream. I have no idea which interactions will lead to what outcomes, but if I do not believe that change is possible then I may as well catch the first bus back to Boston. I must use every interaction as a potential opportunity, no matter how miserable I may be at the time that it occurs. I wonder what, if anything, resulted from my time at the salon. The real beauty is that I will never know. I just need to keep flapping.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Jan 24 (Day 24) - Northern shrike steals the show! Special guest appearance by Winter wren!

Philadelphia produces! I was able to locate the previously reported but inconsistent Northern shrike at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Tinicum, informally) today. It took 4 hours of careful searching, but, as is usually the case with birding, persistence paid off! The refuge was about 5 miles from where I stayed last night, so it was a very short ride on the bike to make it there this morning. The area is actually located just adjacent to Philadelphia International Airport (I-95 separates the two areas on the map below).

Tinicum was one of the first areas I birded as a youth. I would usually get shuttled down there by a birding companion, Peter Hill, and his father. While productive birding can be had at Tinicum during all seasons, we specifically trekked to Tinicum to see wintering waterfowl. It was us usually possible to find a nice assortment of teal, pintail, mergansers, and shovelers. Unfortunately, there was not a duck to be seen today as the impoundment and adjacent creek were completely frozen. The nest box below is intended for cavity nesting wood ducks. In many respects, today felt more like birding in the Hoth System than on planet earth. If you are unfamiliar with the Hoth System, may I suggest a weekend viewing of The Empire Strikes Back to bring your Star Wars knowledge up to the speed at which it will need to be to fully appreciate the blog this year. 

I arrived at 8:30 and spent 15-20 minutes yattering with the very friendly Refuge Manager, Gary. Gary knows this refuge better than anyone, so when he took out a refuge map and said, "Look for the shrike in this area" I paid close attention. Apparently, the bird had been seen in the very back of the refuge. That meant I had a chilly 3 mile walk ahead of me. As I walked out of the visitors center a tiny brown bird flew across the path. A quick glance with the binoculars confirmed my initial suspicion that it was a Winter wren (#117). This is a fairly common winter bird in the Mid-Atlantic region, but since they are small and sneaky, they are easily missed; They are more often heard than seen. This is the type of bird that you see all the time except when you actually need to find one for a big day or big year. These birds can come back to haunt a birder if they are not picked up when there is an opportunity. This is one less bird I need to worry about moving forward. I will at some point need to find the species from which Winter wren was recently split, the Pacific wren.

The sun was out and there were quite a few birds flapping about along the trail that surrounded the impoundment. Sparrows, woodpeckers, creepers, and Carolina chickadees (#118) abounded. There was also a very active Bald Eagle patrolling the area around what appears to be an active nest. I had great looks at Belted kingfisher, and I finally tallied red-winged-blackbird (#119) for 2014. I met another birder, David Allen, on the trail who was also looking for the shrike. We chatted a bit and then he headed off in the opposite direction. I continued along the trail and did several laps of the area where Gary had said the bird had been seen. I later bumped into another birder, Zach Millen (see photo). We spent half an hour searching for the shrike without success. We had just about resigned ourselves to heading off to another area of the refuge when I commented that it is really hard to leave this area since the habitat looked so perfect. We hesitated for a few seconds as we tried to decide what to do. Not 5 seconds after this, Zach saw a bird fly into a treetop right in the middle of the area that I was lamenting leaving behind. It was the shrike (#120)! My intuition and Zach's keen eye combined to nail down a really good bird for me and a lifer for Zach. Those who read this blog everyday will know that I basically conceded this bird 3 days ago, so this was a tremendous pick-up. As usual, patience paid off, and, as usual, luck had a huge amount to do with it. A very distant, digiscoped shot of the shrike can be seen below.

Shrikes are some of the coolest birds around. We have two flavors of shrike in North America, Northern and Loggerhead. The Northern is, no big surprise here, the more northern of the two. It is a slightly heavier bird and often has a faint breast barring that is missing from most loggerheads. Within their respective ranges, Northern shrike is much harder to find, particularly towards the southern end of its wintering range (i.e Philly).

Although they are not classical birds of prey in the vein of kites, hawks, eagles, falcons, owls, and so forth, they do eat other animals such as mice and small birds. Our two shrikes are fairly small birds, about the size of a robin or cardinal, and they thus dot no possess the strength to easily kill their prey. The have, however, evolved a remarkably efficient way of doing just this. Shrikes often impale their prey on thorns, snapped twigs, or even barbed wire fences. Here is an example of a sparrow-ka-bob! Shrikes are pretty cool, huh?

There is a bit more snow forecast for tomorrow (1-2"). However, it is the wind that could make things really interesting. Right now the plan is to get up really early and head south and west into Delaware to make at least a few miles. There is a Best Western in Wilmington (~26 miles away), and I have a place to stay in Newark DE (~40 miles away) as well. Hopefully I can make it to one of those places!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Jan 23 (Day 23) - In West Philadelphia, born and raised, On the playground is where I spent most of my days.....

Now, almost everyone in my cohort will recognize the TV show from which the above quote was pulled. Before he became big movie star, Philly's own Will Smith, starred in a TV show called "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air". This is a line from the intro theme of this now classic 1990's TV show. For those feeling nostalgic click here, or better yet, here.

So why start with this? Well, I am hunkered down In West Philly trying to keep warm at the moment. I was completely housebound yesterday as the roads were still a complete disaster after the snow. Looking at the roads during my walk this morning, I thought they looked good enough to test with the bike. I decided to ride the 13 miles to a friend's house in West Philly this afternoon; This would put me within 5 miles of John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge (Tinicum, informally) where a Northern shrike has been seen with some regularity for the past month. In fact, in speaking with local birders today, it appears as if this same bird has been in the exact same area of the refuge for 3 winters now. This is my last realistic shot at this bird this year. How do I know this? Looking at filtered data from eBird, we can see Northern shrike sightings in the Mid-Atlantic region from January 2014. Do you see that purple box just west of Philadelphia? That represents the Tinicum Northern shrike! You can also see that there are zero eBird reports of Northern shrike any further south, so basically it's this bird or bust for me. Maybe I could get lucky and find one not annotated here, but that is highly unlikely.

For those unfamiliar with eBird, it is worth taking a moment to comment on this outstanding project that is run by The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and National Audubon Society. The basic idea is that individual birders create accounts with eBird and input bird sightings into the database. All of the user generated data is pooled and can be accessed by anyone, even those who do not themselves have eBird accounts. In essence, eBird is crowd-sourced data on the whereabouts, distributions, and movements of every bird species in North America (and beyond!). Birders such as myself can access this data to see exactly where specific birds are being seen. It is a remarkably powerful tool. A recent write-up of eBird's utility from the New York Times can be found here. As a last example of eBird's utility, recent sightings of Dodo can be seen here:

All jokes aside, tomorrow's outing centers on the shrike. Beyond that I am not 100% sure how things are going to go. Much of my movements and travels will be dictated by road conditions. In an ideal world I'd ride to Newark DE on Saturday, Eastern MD on Sunday, Baltimore on Tuesday and DC on Wednesday. This plan must remain flexible, and I will try my best to keep people posted on what I'm doing as I navigate the frozen tundra that is my life right now.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Jan 22 (Day 22) - More snow, the plan for the next 3 weeks

Well, we got about 10-12 inches of snow here in Philadelphia yesterday and last night. I am hoping that the main roads will be clear enough to start the ride south on Friday. This will give me 2.5 days of rest which I badly needed. The weather is going to be quite cold, but not as frigid as my first week in Massachusetts. Its only going to get better as I move south, I hope. 


One thing that I think everyone has underestimated is the amount of daily planning that an adventure like this takes. People appreciate the amount of effort that the riding requires, but they greatly underestimate the time it takes to download and edit photos, prepare blog entries, coordinate lodging, liase via phone and email with various parties, and map out safe cycling routes. Lodging is the biggest time sink. In a car, a person can just drive until he/she finds a hotel and then simply pay for a room. I must have very carefully spaced ports so that I know I can ride between them without becoming exhausted. Weather problems require complete retooling of the distances I can realistically expect to cover. Food in another huge issue. If its noon and there's no food for 20 miles, its really tough to keep riding. I can carry small snacks but they add weight. These is no end to the challenges when a car (or a plane) is removed from the equation. 

Right now the administrative side is manageable as the days are relatively short and I have many hours in the evening when I am housebound.  However, as the days lengthen and I do more birding, staying on top of all of this is going to become even more challenging. I feel that I need a full time administrative person behind the scenes to help me. My girlfriend has been incredibly helpful, but as she has her own killer career and is very busy herself, it is far from a full-time endeavor for her. The number one thing people can do to help me on my adventure is to contact me NOW (repeat NOW) if they could potentially host me at any point in the year ( My rough route can be seen in the "Route and Strategy" tab at the top of the page. 

In this vein, I will now share the plan for the next few (3-4)weeks so that I can get some of the organizational stuff out of the way while I am unable to bird. The plan is to try to ride ~50 miles a day towards Florida. Once I leave Philadelphia, this means it should take about 3 weeks to make it to Northern Florida (~1100 miles). If could spend up to a month in this stretch since I am a bit ahead of schedule. Here is the proposed route at the moment, and some comments on birds I would like to find during this next, transitory phase.

The Plan right now is to go through Wilmington DE, Newark DE, Baltimore, Washington DC, Fredericksburg VA, Richmond VA, Petersburg VA, Chesapeake/Norfolk VA, Elizabeth City NC, Washington NC, New Bern NC, Jacksonville NC, Wilmington NC, Myrtle Beach SC, Charlestown SC, Savannah GA, and Jacksonville FL.

Right now I am all set on lodging from Philly to Richmond (lots of Best Westerns in that stretch). This part of the route is pretty straight-forward. For those wondering, I cannot go down the eastern shore since I cannot ride a bike over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. However, once I get to Richmond I have some choices to make. Option 1 is that I could follow the I-95 corridor inland through both North and South Carolina. Option 2 is to swing out towards the east and stick closer to the coast. Right now I am opting for option 2 since there are likely to be more birds along the coast. It is also flatter than I-95 corridor (particularly North Carolina).  Yes, option 2 is a bit less direct, but it a trade off I'm willing to make. Eastern North Carolina is an area where I do not have lots of contacts, so any help anyone could provide me in that region would be greatly appreciated. I am starting to make contacts along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts, but again, any help in those areas would be appreciated.

As for birds, there aren't too many specialty birds in this stretch. However, there a number of birds that it would be great to find so that I do not have to worry about them later. 

Tundra swan - This is a must find for this leg. There is a big wintering population in Virginia.
Bobwhite - I should find this somewhere. I'll certainly hear it at some point.
Rails (Black, Yellow, King, Virginia, Sora) - These winter along the coast so if they're around I'll look for them.
Woodcock - I need a place where they display. I could potentially kick one up on the road.
Bonaparte's gull - I missed this up north but they winter down along the southern coast as well.
Parasitic jaeger - I need to find a good place to do a sea watch for this species.
Brown-headed nuthatch - I'll see this somewhere, probably when I'm inland a bit in the pines.
Winter wren - This is another species I missed up north that I should be able to find in MD/VA/NC.
Sedge wren - Secretive birds like this can torture birder's if not picked up early. Need a spot for this.
Seaside/Saltmarsh/Nelson's sparrow - I will find these somewhere along the coast in the marshes.
Henslow's and Le conte's sparrow - I have a good spot for Le Conte's in SC, but it is at least a days ride inland fro the coast. If anyone knows other spots for this bird in NC/SC/GA/FL or in LA/TX where a smaller detour from the coast would be required, please let me know. Henslow's would actually be an ABA life bird for me!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sidebar #3 - Northeast winter birding Recap

Somewhat arbitrarily, I have defined the "Northeast in Winter" segment of this journey as the stretch from New England to Philadelphia. My arrival here thus signals the end of this segment. Starting the trip this far north and east is a HUGE gamble for two reasons. First, the below freezing temps, strong winter winds, snow, and worst roads in the country mean that birding and travel during this segment would be very difficult. Second, a very long, hard ride to Florida will now be required. I could easily have cut out the Northeast and enjoyed better conditions south and/or west. However, to maximize the species count as well as interest in the project, I though this segment of the trip was an important one. This first part of the gamble has worked out, and when I get to Florida in one healthy piece, the second will be satisfied as well.

Several months ago, I made a list of birds I wanted to find in the northeast. I grouped these into several tiers based upon how difficult I thought it would to find each of them. This system is necessarily arbitrary, but it provided a good guide for me as I moved around the northeast.

Species I knew I would see:     
Red-necked grebe                                           
Northern gannet                                         
Great cormorant                                                            
Mute swan
Common eider
Harlequin duck
Long-tailed duck
Purple sandpiper
Iceland gull
Great black-backed gull
Black guillemot
Snow bunting

Species I thought I should see:
Cackling goose
Rough-legged hawk
Lesser black-backed gull  
Glaucous gull  
Lapland longspur

Species I thought I may see: (this is the category where I did really well)
Eurasian wigeon
Barrow's goldeneye
King eider 
Black-headed gull
Black-legged kittiwake
Thick-billed murre
Snowy owl
Short-eared owl
Long-eared owl
Northern saw-whet owl
Northern shrike - HAHA! I spoke to soon. I got this in Philly!
Lapland longspur
Rusty blackbird
Common redpoll
White-winged crossbill

How lucky could I get:
Barnacle goose
Little gull
Pink-footed goose

In short, I did as well as I could have ever hoped. The only 2 birds that I really missed were kittiwake and shrike. The first snow storm on January 2-3 likely cost me shrike at Plum Island, and west winds (instead of east) when I was on Cape Ann likely cost me kittiwake. I had no shot at Common redpoll or White-winged crossbill this year. After the invasion that was last year, these birds were not within striking distance this year.

Misses aside, I saw a lot of great birds. Dovekie and Thick-billed murre were great finds, as was Black-headed gull. Snowy owl was easy this year, and I had great help to find Saw-whet and Long-eared owls on what was a down winter for both of these species. I needed to find Barrow's goldeneye and Eurasian wigeon here as I plan to be south of their west coast wintering grounds by the time they would have arrived. King eider is an interesting bird. The same bird has wintered in the exact same spot in Gloucester, Massachusetts for 6 or 7 years now.  I do not know another place you can go and this reliably find this bird in the lower 48. Granted there have been more Barnacle geese around the last few years, but this code 4 rarity was nonetheless a great tick as well.

Now to get to Florida......

Jan 21 (Day 21) - Sprinting to Philly to beat the storm!

Today was designed to be a very short ride to my family's home in Philadelphia. This 27-mile sprint allowed me to get to the house just as the heavy snow arrived.  I did not feel any effects of yesterday's crash during today's ride. I had been planning to rest in Philadelphia whenever I arrived, so the fact that the snowstorm is going to force 2-3 days off while I am here is just perfect. I will still be 5-7 days ahead of schedule after this recovery, and I'll be 100% rested to attack the long ride to the south. 

The family house, just as the snow started

I did make one stop today at the Pennypack Environmental Center in Northeast Philadelphia. This center, nestled into the woods that line the Pennypack creek, is a natural island in the sprawl that is Philadelphia. In speaking with Steve, Stephanie, and Peter, I learned that the center specializes in elementary and middle school environmental education. In an age where many municipalities are struggling financially, it is nice to see that Philadelphia has kept this environmental education operational. Maybe one day all citizens will be so responsible that environmental education is rendered unnecessary. Until that day comes, it is great to know that standard bearers such as the Pennypack Environmental Center will be there to help inform future generations as to their environmental responsibilities. More information can be found here and on the center's Facebook page.

LOTS more information coming later today!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jan 20 (Day 20) - Accident alert!

As the title suggests, I had a bad accident today. I am 100% fine, please do not worry. My left ribs are a bit sore, but that's it. The bike needed some minor repairs, and I will describe these below. Minus the accident, today's ride was remarkably relaxing. The goal was to bike from South Plainfield, NJ to Levittown, PA, a distance of 41 miles. I found 1 new bird, pileated woodpecker (#116)

The first 5 miles of today were along standard commuter roads. However, the next 15 or so were along a beautiful bike path that runs along the D and R Canal. This part of the East Coast Greenway, unlike the more urban stretches I covered the last 2 days, is well-signed and very well-maintained. I wound along the canal and through the woods for the better part of 2 hours.

A perfect path!

Easy Coast Greenway kiosk along the path

I did spend a fair amount of time absorbing the scenery as I cruised along. It was so much prettier and rider-friendly than anywhere I had been riding the past few days. For comparison, here is a photo of an obstacle I encountered yesterday.

This was the first time on the trip when I really forgot about the distance that I needed to cover and instead just let my mind wander. I thought about what this whole year would ultimately mean to me once it concludes. More specifically, I wondered if I would ever have the sort of great personal revelation that seems to characterize journeys such as this one. What if I don't have some great breakthrough? Would the year be a failure without it? Could it be possible to observe 600 species and still feel personally unfulfilled by the experience? While I did not definitively answer any of these questions, I did realize that no amount of rationalization at this juncture is going to change anything that actually happens in the next 11 months. This year is going to be an unpredictable amalgamation of birds, experiences, and people; I have zero control over what the future value or perception of anything that happens to me today, tomorrow, or the next day will ultimately be. All I can do for the moment is pedal and see what happens.

I was jolted from my rumination when my front wheel locked. The bike stopped almost instantly. I was moving at about 13-14 mph at the time, and the bike decelerated to zero in about 5 feet. I was thrown over the handlebars. What was worse was the 30 pound bike and the 65 pounds of gear strapped to it came flying rear-end over front and landed right on top of me. It was like a 100lb brick getting dropped right on my chest. Remarkably, I bounced right up without injury. Thankfully, I wasn't clipped into my pedals as I'm still in hiking boots to keep my feet warm. The accident completely destroyed my front fender. I broke and cut away what plastic was left, and I managed to bend the stays in such a way that the bike was perfectly functional. I really dodged a bullet since the derailers and brakes survived. The handlebars were also out of alignment, but I figured this would be any easy fix for a bike shop.

I stopped this fast

Front fender, what was left of it

So what happened? Although it happened almost instantly, I immediately hypothesized that a rock from the road had become lodged between the tire and the front fender. This would have stopped the tire instantly and produced the accident that I described. There are actually special fenders that are designed to break away when this happens to prevent this sort of accident. I had trouble with the break away feature on this set of fenders, and I  opted to bypass it and have them connected directly to the frame instead. This was a miscalculation on my part, and when I had a new front fender put on at Knapp's Cyclery (Trenton) later in the afternoon, I made sure that this new one would break away if this ever happened again. The guys at the store were really helpful, and since they showed a great interest in the blog, I figured I would give them a plug for their help. 

Fortuitously, my friend Tom was in the neighborhood. He and I met while chasing a Northern hawk owl in Peru, New York around 5 years ago. Although he lives in New York, we still manage to bird together a few times a year. We had a quick lunch while my bike was getting repaired. It was great to see him today. Sorry ladies, he's taken....

Tomorrow the weather is going to get snowy. I will try to beat the worst of it to my family's home just outside Philadelphia where I will rest for the next 2-3 days before beginning the long run south.

Lastly, since I did not take any bird pics today, I will throw in some bonus Brown creeper and Fox sparrow shots from yesterday morning in Central Park (I stopped by the Evodia Field feeders before I left Manhattan). Also included is a shot of some new friends from Central Park yesterday morning!

***Click for bigger images***

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Jan 19 (Day 19) - Hard riding out of New York, Navigation discussion

Yesterday I described what a headache is was to get into New York City. Well, it was just a bad getting out. The abundant roadside glass and debris caught up with me today and gave me a flat in a terrible spot (see below). My ride was scheduled for 53 miles, but because of an unyielding 15mph headwind the entire day, it felt more like 70. I had to pedal the bike even going downhill (ugh). However, I am excited to be staying at Best Western in South Plainville, NJ tonight. They were really understanding about my bike, and they gave me first floor room right near the exit with a ramp. After 53 windy miles, this was a really welcomed gesture. On top of this, they even put a Wendy's in across the street!

Many people have asked how I am doing my navigation on this trip. My iPhone can do live navigation (GPS) with Google maps. However, this function drains the battery very fast. This occurs even faster in the cold weather (as it true for all batteries). The navigation problems are compounded in big urban areas where you must make many turns. If you're on one road for 35 miles, you can periodically flip on the GPS to check your position; This is very energy efficient. However, in a city, you really need to have it on all the time for it to be of any use. The problem is that if you leave the GPS on nonstop in a big city, chances are its gonna die on you at some point. The way that I combat these challenges is that I create a set of directions and a map (using Google) with the route marked on it the night before the trip. I can open this map on my phone with Safari when I am riding. This saves much battery power as simply accessing the internet where the map is saved uses much less battery power than the live tracking function of the GPS. You do have to keep sliding the map along as you move, but it works fairly well in some but not all instances. First, since touch screen phones use heat to sense your finger (not pressure), it makes navigating with gloves on impossible; I have to take my glove off at least 50 times a day when navigating through big cities in the cold. Second, touch screens do not work when it is very cold (i.e. the first 10 days of my trip). Third, they function very poorly in the rain. My normal routine is to use the internet maps for a few hours, then switch on the GPS as I get closer to my destination.

It appears as though I left my computer charger in New York, so this it is for today. Oh, here's where I got the flat.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Jan 18 (Day 18) - Big Apple birding

I know, I know. What the heck I am doing in New York City? Well, the answer is easy. The ONLY place I can cross the Hudson River on a bike is the George Washington Bridge at the north end of Manhattan. I can't take the train under the river, nor can I take the water taxi across it. When I say I am going to try to self power this big year, I mean the entire thing, not just the legs that are convenient for me. This morning I rode the 31 miles from Greenwich to NYC, and in afternoon I birded Central Park. I'll return to the birding in bit.

Today's ride was quite stressful. Wind, rain, snow, sleet, and hail made the ride unpleasant from start to finish. Much of the day was spent on the East Coast Greenway or EGC. This connection of bike trails and bike-friendly roads runs from Maine to Florida and attracts tens of thousands of riders each year. Some people take long trips of the ilk in which I am engaged, and others use it for commuting or weekend fun. In general, the ECG is well-signed and relatively easy riding. HOWEVER, this was not the case for the last 10 miles of my ride today. Navigating under the overhead highways was a real headache. I am very glad I did this on a weekend as I had to carry the bike over a guard rail and across an exit ramp at one stage when I made a wrong turn. My iPhone GPS did the best it could, but the area just has some many criss-scrossing ramps stacked on top of one another that it was difficult to tell exactly where I was. Many of the roads are in very poor condition, and it seemed as though I was dodging broken glass from shattered beer bottles on many of the footpaths on which I found myself. I also had to carry my fully loaded bike up the equivalent of 2 stories to get it onto the footpath of the Triborough/RFK Bridge. I was ready for these headaches since I had done my research ahead of time. I also lived in NYC for six years so I was prepared for some of the shady areas through which I had to ride. The take away message is that this leg of the trip is NOT for you if getting lost in the most urban of environments sounds intimidating. I would also suggest that you carry at least a few tubes and a spare tire should you chose to replicate this ride. This you'll be prepared if you aren't able to navigate all the holes and glass along the route.

On the bird front, I did manage to tack on 7 new species today once I got into Manhattan. In order, these were Double-crested cormorant (#109), Brown creeper (#110), Wood duck (#111), Pied-billed grebe (#112), Northern shoveler (#113), Baltimore oriole (#114), and Common grackle (#115). The Baltimore oriole was very surprising given the time of year. Actually, there were two orioles, a male and a female. Very unusual, but not as unusual as the Scott's oriole that spent the winter of 2007-8 in Union Square Park 2 blocks from my apartment at the time! New York is actually a surprisingly good birding area. This is likely because there are lots of capable eyes searching a relatively limited number of hot spots where the birds become concentrated. Central Park is fantastic during May and September migrations, and Jamaica Bay NWR in one of the best places in the country to view shorebirds in late summer and early fall. If you ever find yourself in New York for any reason, be sure to pack your binoculars in case you have a few free hours!

Brown creeper from today - first time
I've photographed this species well.
*click for full sized image*

Just for fun, here are the top birds I've seen in NYC:
1) Broad-billed sandpiper (Jamaica Bay)
2) Sharp-tailed sandpiper (Jamaica Bay)
3) Rufous-necked stint (Jamaica Bay)
4) Boreal owl (Central Park)
5) Pink-footed goose (Kissenna Park)
6) Varied thrush (Central Park)
7) Fulvous whistling-duck (Jamaica Bay)
8) Golden-windged warbler (Central Park)
9) Cerulean warbler (Central Park)
10) Long-eared owl (Central Park, Pelham Bay)

It looks as though we are going to get another blast of very cold air on Tuesday. I need to make the decision if I want to split the ride to Philadelphia (where my parents are based) into 2 days of ~55 miles or 3 days of ~35 miles. It would be nice to make it to Philly and then rest during the 2-3 days of cold air before I start the long run to Florida.