Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Aug 18 (Day 230) - Woodpecker-palooza, Thoughts on decision making in our lives

In deciding to sprint to the boreal birding grounds, one bird that I bypassed was White-headed woodpecker. This bird is fairly easy to find in the Yakima/Ellensburg area, but I decided to pass on it knowing I could certainly find it elsewhere. However, how much effort it would take in this still hypothetical elsewhere was uncertain. For example, in Washington and Oregon, the woodpecker is found only the eastern side of the north-south, coastal mountain ranges. What this means is that as soon as I cross over the mountains west towards Seattle, I won't have a decent shot at this bird until Northern California. Should I miss it there, I would have to wait until Southern California where the bird can be reliably found in the mountains east of Los Angeles. Every unfound species needs to be juggled, and with each bird that is removed, more focus can be placed on the remaining species. Getting this bird out of the equation today was my goal as I ventured into the Ponderosa woodlands east of Okanagon, WA. I hoped to pin this bird down in a few hours and then head over a very high pass to reach Mazama in the Methow Valley, a distance of ~60 miles of additional riding in the opposite direction of the woodpecker.

Heat map of White-headed woodpecker sightings
in Washington/Oregon. Note dark colors east of Yakima.

I climbed a very steep hill out of Okanagon to reach the Ponderosa area where White-headed woodpecker has recently been sighted. Once I reached the plateau top, I repeatedly and methodically traversed suitable habitat. I located a single Downy woodpecker, 2 Red-naped sapsuckers, several Northern flickers, and between 25-30(!) Lewis's woodpeckers. Outside of the family Picidae, I found several other notable birds including Townsend's Solitaire, Hammond's flycatcher, and Golden eagle. In the many roadside ponds, I was able to locate Solitary sandpiper (1), Baird's sandpiper (8), and both Yellowlegs. However, the highlight of the morning was surely the Black bear I scared out of one of the ponds. He had somehow managed to get his jaws on a duck! He scurried up the hillside away from me as soon as I rolled by. I nearly fell off the bike as I reached for the camera. I got one shot showing him with the duck. I had no idea bears ate ducks!

Despite all of the above excitement, I was unable to find the woodpecker this morning. I traversed the best 2 miles of habitat 4 times (out-and-back, 2 times) without a whiff. I decided to make a few phone calls during the noon hour hoping that the birds would shuffle themselves around a bit. My fifth pass of the area also yielded nothing. I was moving at a walking pace so each pass took a good deal of time. I made frequent stops to listen for any woodpecker-like tapping noises. Those that I did hear came from other species. I was starting to think about alternative strategies for this bird. I really wanted to knock it out today but it looked rather grim as we entered the heat of the afternoon. I was running low on water and patience. I had not brought any food since I thought I would have this done in 2-3 hours. I was now 5.5 into the search and I was really hungry. I decided that pass number 6 would be my last before I folded my hand and returned to town to eat, hydrate, and regroup. I had already pushed too much valuable time into a bird that wasn't going to materialize today. At the end of pass 6, I found a single Hairy woodpecker for woodpecker species number 5. He was in a tree to my left. I then heard a faint tapping on a tree to my right. I figured it was another Hairy, but as it flew across the road, I saw it was a White-headed! OH SNAP! DOLLA DOLLA BILLZ Y'ALL! And right as I was about to pack it in! I was literally 100 feet from dropping off the plateau edge to return home! The good luck streak continues. Well, I guess part of it was luck. The other part was persistence. I pushed 6 hours into that bad boy today!

White-headed woodpecker for #520!

Ponderosa habitat

Since I pushed so much time into this bird, there was no way I was going to make it Mazama today. My hostess from last night, Heather Findlay, had said I could spend a another night at her place if I needed it. Well, I decided I needed it. The ride to Mazama will include a very steep 3000' climb, and I did not want to tackle that in the heat of the day today. I had added a bird to the list, so I could play it a bit safe and return to Heather's. That she seems to have and endless supply of great food in her garden and house certainly aided this decision!

Heather and me this morning

While I consider myself lucky to have found the woodpecker today, I think the search for this bird represents something worth a bit of discussion. Namely, how long do you play any given hand in birding or in life before either going all in with it or folding it? I am constantly fascinated by the decisions that people make, or, as I will explain, don't make. I will use myself as an example. 

I went to Stanford knowing I wanted to study Biology/Chemistry, and I did just this. When my time there concluded in 2001, I figured a Ph.D. would be my next goal. I decided, however, to first work as research assistant at Harvard for 3 years to obtain some additional lab experience before venturing into graduate school. This was a very wise decision, and after I matriculated in 2004 at NYU in the Ph.D. program in Developmental Genetics and Molecular Cell Biology, I had a very good 6-year graduate career. I then set my sights on a tenure-track academic position, hopefully at a well-respected and well-funded institution. To reach this goal, the next step would be a postdoctoral fellowship. I returned to Boston where I began a postdoc in Developmental/Molecular Neurobiology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. This position started at the beginning of 2011 and ended at the conclusion of 2014. The point of this chronicle is to show exactly how much time - 16 years - that  I pushed into this career track by the time I decided to leave it all behind in favor of Biking for Birds. 

The first year of my postdoc, although interesting and exciting, was as uneventful as most. As I progressed further into my second year though, something started to change. My interests started shifting away from the reductionist deconstruction of molecular and cellular events and towards societal problems such as the environment, politics, and education. With my shifting interests, the lab work did not captivate me the way it previously did. I began to think about what lay beyond the familiar confines of the laboratory. The idea for the bicycle big year first entered my head in August of 2012. At that time, though, I was not year ready to give up on my still somewhat promising research career. However, by the time April 2013 rolled around, I was ready to pull the plug on those 16 years to do my most interesting and important experiment ever: Biking for Birds. With Sonia's encouragement, in mid-April I gave my lab 8-months notice that I would be leaving at the end of December. 

It took me a a solid, often agonizing, 7-months to decide to fold my research hand in favor of the bike trip. For the first time in my life, I really had no idea where I was headed professionally. It was surprisingly liberating to feel that there wasn't any prescribed path to my future. Unlike the formulaic recipes for success in most established arenas, there rules to the game I was about to play weren't written yet. This is from where the challenge of this year really stems: I must define success for myself using criteria that doesn't exist. Maybe success is simply surviving the year physically and mentally. Maybe it's actually finding a specific number of species. Maybe it's meeting hundreds of new and interesting people. Or maybe, none of it matters when compared with the fact that I made the decision to take the risk to get on the bike in the first place.

Making dramatic changes in our lives is never easy: The fear of what lies beyond that change is enough to discourage most people from making life-altering choices of significant magnitudes. It is so much easier to default our way through our lives; We're willing to place bets on mediocre hands not realizing that folding one hand does not preclude being dealt back in with another. This is why I said that it's the decisions we don't make that all too often end up defining our lives. I have made some really good decisions in my life, but I don't think a single one will have the lasting impact on me that the decision to trade the certainty of lab life for the uncertainty of bicycle and a pair of binoculars will. I have no idea what my future holds when 2014 concludes. I know I have some great thinking skills that science helped to shape and sharpen. More importantly though, I know I'll have Sonia in my corner, and I know I'll have the experience of a lifetime from which we can cultivate the next phase of our life together, whatever it may be.

Anyway, just some thoughts on a day when I only rode 27 miles.

The flat line in the elevation profile is my back-and-forth
on the top of plateau


  1. Well-played on the White-headed Woodpecker, Dorian. I was wondering what you were going to do about that bird!

  2. Dear Darion, Big change in your life! I love your quest and enjoy vicariously your adventure. On this page http://www.bemindful.org/poems.htm
    are three poems by Mary Oliver that I've found useful to think on in times of change.

  3. It's a struggle to decide in life whether to pursue happiness or stability. Sometimes you get both. But as you mature your needs and interests change. When I was in my early 20s, I wanted to live in the big city and enjoy all the benefits of city life. Now in my 30s, I enjoy the boring suburbs where I can raise my kids. Early on I wanted to make $$$$ and live large. Now.... just the simple life is good so I can enjoy my family, recreation, etc. That being said, the current generation entering their 20s appears to be much more concentrated with enjoying themselves and doing what makes them happy compared to previous generations where having a stable job, providing for your family and setting retirement goals was key. I see that generation not being as financially responsible... enjoying a modern hippie lifestyle of cruising through life without plans for retirement. They want to be artists, photographers... things that make them happy in the short-term. My grandpa grew up in the pre-depression era and it wasn't about being happy, it was about surviving. He worked as a welder in an iron factory. Hard work, long hours, low pay, low job satisfaction. But it supported his family, and he retired at a respectable age (62).

    While you put hard work into your career, you saw it as less appealing. There are VERY few with your education and aptitude for scholastic and scientific endeavors, which the world could certainly benefit from. You could work hard, retire early and enjoy birding with whatever vision and physical stamina you had at that age. Or you could take a risk, bike for birds, write a book, serve as a visionary and conservation leader, establish a non-profit and benefit society in unforeseen ways. Risk/Reward

    Or you could play Call of Duty until 3am and live at your parents house until you hit your mid-40s.

    Life is full of choices. No one knows the right one for you. Bike on, and figure it out afterwards. See ya in Cali.

  4. Dorian, congrats on the birds you have found and the decisions you have made in your life. I have made two (or three if you count retirement) radical changes in my career/life. First "third" was advertising agencies, second "third" was healthcare, and last "third" was education at the college level. Birding has been along since graduate school and through all three chunks of my career. Now that I am retired, birding still fits in but the future "third" is still unknown. Carry on,
    ~ ZeissMan