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.


  1. I'm rooting for you! I can only imagine the challenge of doing this ride in good weather, never mind in a horrible polar vortex. There are lots of people behind the scenes, reading your blog, enjoying your stories and wishing you well! Loved the folded towel!

  2. Keep going! I was cycling to work in the rain this morning, all the while singing Michael Buble 'It's A Beautiful Day' 'cause that was the last thing I heard on the radio before leaving home... Just put a song in your head and plod on! It will get better.

  3. Your accounts are honest and fascinating, and I am riding every mile with you in spirit. Rest when you need it. Rest is good, and your journey is a long one. May you continue to be blessed with good birds, good people, and wonderful experiences.

  4. Hi Dorian,
    I discovered your blog just as your adventure started, and have been checking in nearly every day to read about your progress. This is my first time commenting. Stay strong, you are moving southward and eventually you will escape this bitter cold winter we've been having in the eastern US! It has been an extraordinarily cold winter and there's no way you could have predicted two polar vortexes descending upon your early 2014 biking route!
    Coincidentally, you biked through my neck of the woods for this day's post (I live west of Alexandria), and it is exciting to think you were coming through this area looking for our interesting birds. I'm glad you found the tundra swans at Mason Neck, and what a wonderful coincidence to receive a towel swan at the end of your long day. That's definitely a "God Wink" (see if you believe in those sorts of things. :)

    Best of luck as you move south through Virginia! I'll be hoping for you that there are no more southerly snow storms!!!

    1. PS, I wanted to let you know that I made a donation to your Conservation Fund page tonight. Keep up the good work! I hope to donate more as the year progresses.