Category Archives: Biking

Biking big day — why? (guest posts)

You’ve heard a lot from me.  Here are two very nice perspectives on the why and how of green big days: the first by Andy Kleinhesselink, the second by Josiah Clark.


Why do a self-propelled/Green/carbon-free/bicycling Big Day?

It doesn’t matter what you call it, doing a Big Day without a car is something very few birders have done. Why add the extra twist to the already crazy sport of the Big Day?

It’s not really about being “green”

The conventional Big Day records take a lot of driving—the ABA Big Day record (an astonishing 294 species!) required driving over 300 miles across the state of Texas. This year the record holders, Team Sapsucker, plan to go even farther, from Arizona to the California coast. That’s an amazing feat of birding but also a lot of driving—especially when you consider all the scouting that goes into such a long route. Driving for birds contributes to the elevated carbon dioxide concentrations that are acidifying the oceans and warming the climate—ultimately these effects may be endangering many species of birds that we hope to see.

But even a 300 or 500 mile Big Day drive is really nothing compared to the thousands of long trips birders make each year to chase rarities. And it’s even less when you compare it to the estimated nearly 3 trillion miles Americans drive each year.

Any way you add it up, birding just doesn’t add much to global warming. Doing a green Big Day is a beautiful gesture towards less carbon intensive recreation, but it’s not really a pragmatic environmental solution.

It’s more efficient

The truth is that what makes a self-propelled Big Day (lets face it a Biking Big Day) so compelling is that it is more of an adventure than any driving Big Day could ever be! During a Big Day by bike you can hear and see birds all around you the entire day — even while you are moving! In a car you can only hear birds well when you get out of the car. And you can only see a fraction of the birds that are around you from the inside of a car. You want to be one with the birds? Then get on a bike. Not only does a bike let you detect birds non-stop, it also lets you get to some birds that you can’t even get to in car. Any birder knows the stress and danger of pulling over to look for birds on the side of a busy road. On a bike that danger is greatly minimized because there are just many more safe and legal places to stop a bike than there are to stop a car. Not only that but in many places the best birding can be done along designated bike paths and trails. During a Big Day, these spots often take too long to walk to from a parked car but you can get to them easily on a bike. On our Santa Clara Big Day last year we took advantage of the many miles of the Bay Trail that goes along the south end of SF Bay. Hitting all these spots would actually take longer and yield fewer birds in a car. In fact our species total last year, 181, is nearly as good as the Santa Clara Big Day record set by car of 187.



Why now?

April is the glory month for diversity in birds, where lingering wintering birds are still present and neotropical songbird migrants are just arriving. They are highly detectable as they sing and set up breeding territories.  While a heat wave is not the best for a long distance bicycling event, it is among the best conditions for a spring “migrant fallout”. We find the best conditions for bird watching are often the most difficult conditions for the birds themselves. The high-pressure stops North bound migrants in their tracks, which otherwise stream into the prevailing wind. At dawn these nocturnal migrants set down in mass on ridges, like Skyline in the illuminating light, where they regroup into feeding flocks and reorient themselves. Windy NW conditions are generally the worst for birding, as it shuts down activity and makes hearing birdsong difficult.

Somewhat counter intuitively, flying into the prevailing north wind creates lift (Bernoulli’s Principle) and keeps songbird migrants (the bulk of the species) on the move and virtually undetectable. (Conversely large movements of seabirds (few species), notably loons and shorebirds can be seen flying north over the ocean on north wind days. )  The heat also forces migrating songbird athletes to search for food and water, usually around riparian areas, making them easier to find. At the same time raptors, which use thermals can be seen throughout the day slowly working their way north. Shorebirds are also forced to stop and can be seen in mass along the bayshore.  90% of the northbound shorebirds on the Pacific Flyway pass through SF Bay within one week of April 15, basically now.

The team “The BeastMasters” consists of myself and PHD students Rob Furrow and Andy Kleinhesselink

-Josiah Clark

Biking big day — planning & scouting 3, western half

So far, you’ve heard about the basics of our route.  Now you’ll get to learn more about the crazy side of the route.  But first, the place where we’ll spend dawn.  We’ll be starting in Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Picking a high point for dawn, we bird a hill (nicknamed ‘Hermit Hill’ by Garth Harwood) that is often good for Hermit Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and other birds with a more Sierra Nevadan feel.  Here’s a glimpse of the forest edge.

We’ll quickly drop down into Monte Bello Open Space Preserve, which is actually in Palo Alto, despite being at the crest of the mountains!  One spot we’ll bird carefully is a meadow 1 mile down the Canyon Trail.  It’s often wonderful for migrants.

Josiah, Andy, and I scouted this on April 22nd, and found lots of Hermit Warblers as well as a few other migrants.  Check out our ebird lists.

Okay, so that’s the mountain start.  But it’s not really our start.  We’ll be on the water at Pillar Point Harbor at midnight.  Josiah dropped a kayak in there the other evening, and demonstrated that a lot of birds can be found on the ocean at night.  Tattlers hyperactively teeted, Black Oystercatchers wailed, and Black Turnstones offered the occasional rattle.  The harbor can be pretty lit up in places, and the glare can offer views of loons and Red-breasted Mergansers.  As Surf Scoters heave themselves away, their wings whistle deeply.  This is certainly the biggest X-factor of our route.  We could find 5 special birds, or we could find 10 or more.  Regardless, it will be an adventure to remember.

After hauling out the kayaks and locking them up, we’ll be on our bikes, making our way up the mountains and racing the clock to beat the sunrise.  I think we can do it!

Stay tuned for some guest post from Josiah and Andy!


Biking big day — planning & scouting 2, eastern half

Here I want to outline some of our birding preparation for the upcoming green big day on Tuesday, April 29th.  In the quest to see as many species as possible in 24 hours, big days are not like most birding.  They’re not about observing birds, or really even looking for them.  They’re about knowing where the birds should be before you even begin.  Things are so fast paced that every nest, territory, and roost that you know about can really help add to your total.  To that end, we’ve put in a lot of scouting hours to understand the birds and their behavior on our route.  Loosely, the scouting is in four portions: the San Mateo County coast, the Santa Cruz Mountains, the southern SF bayshore, and the eastern foothills of the Diablo Range.

On April 20th, Logan Kahle, Josiah Clark, and I carpooled over to Milpitas and hopped on our bikes to scout the eastern foothills, focusing on Ed Levin County Park and nearby Calaveras Reservoir.  Here’s a taste of the scenery.

This area is arid grassland, with fingers of riparian habitat that stream into the reservoir, and the occasional patch of California Sagebrush.  As we rode, we delighted in a pair of Rock Wren exchanging food, Lark Sparrows warily eyeing us and attempting to distract us away from their territories, and Golden Eagles soaring above.  Here are the ebirds checklists for the day.

To scout the bayshore, Andy Kleinhesselink and I hopped on bikes yesterday (April 26th), and road around various salt ponds and marshes of Alviso and Sunnyvale.  I can be a bit restless, so having Andy’s patient scanning really paid off.  We found a very late Common Goldeneye, a nice assortment of gulls including a Thayer’s, and lots of peeps.  Checking out the freshwater marshes behind Yahoo’s offices, we enjoyed a lingering Wilson’s Snipe, eye-level Vaux’s Swifts, many Cinnamon Teal, and a Common Gallinule bobbing past.  A few checklists from the day.

As you can imagine, our route packs a lot of diversity.  In the next post I’ll share some scouting notes from the western half of the route, and talk about the final build up to the big day.



Biking big day — planning & scouting 1

I’ve hinted at this here or there on the site, but one of the springtime birding goals is to break our previous green big day record.  Last year, Josiah Clark, Andy Kleinhesselink, and I set an imposing bar at 181 species, but we’ve been scheming for months to improve and diversify.  We’re definitely on to something right now — it involves the ocean and the San Francisco bay, and a lot of riding.

The basic outline and elevation profile for our route.

The basic outline and elevation profile for our route.

If you want to zoom in, see the fully explorable map here.

Here’s the way we can fully the SF Bay Area’s diversity in 24 short biking hours.  Start at midnight on the ocean!  Crossing the Santa Cruz mountains during the day just takes too long.  After an hour or two, you’re not hearing new birds but you’ve still got hours of riding.  By working along the coast in the dark and reaching the mountain ridgeline at dawn, we can enjoy some ocean restricted birds without a lengthy daytime ride.  We’ll be aiming for loons, rocky shorebirds like turnstones and oystercatchers, as well as roosting gulls and lingering ducks.

From there we cut into the mountains, passing through the town of La Honda and onto the quiet and beautiful Alpine Road.  Here’s where we’ll find the wonderful owls of the Santa Cruz mountains.  From there it’s across Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, through Monte Bello OSP and Stevens Creek County Park, and out into the suburbs.  We criss-cross the bayshore to hit all the hotspots, then head east for the second round of mountains.  But you can see from the elevation profile that these are more like hills.  We finish along Calaveras Reservoir, imagining the life of cattle rancher.

I’ll share a few more details as we pin down some trickier birds this weekend.  But for now, the big day should happen on April 29th.  The local birds are back on territory, and migrants are streaming through to points north.  Get ready!

Green birding for the Santa Clara Valley Audubon

On Saturday, April 19th, the Mean Green Birding Machines hit the trails of Mountain View.  This was a 4-hour birdathon for the SCVAS (learn more here).  In a birdathon, your goal is to find as many species as possible with the time limit.  But we didn’t stop there.  Our extra restriction was that we couldn’t use cars.  So bikes it was!

We birded along salt ponds and tidal sloughs, starting with a little salty mudflat that hosted big groups of plovers: many Semipalmated, but also Snowy Plovers, the white sprites of the flats.  Soon we cut into the small, willow-filled Charleston Marsh.  As the time wound down, we scanned a freshwater lake then scoured the mudflats of the tidal Charleston Slough.  We managed to find 90 species in 4 hours, including wonderful goodies like the Snowy Plovers, hundreds of Bonaparte’s Gulls, 11 species of duck, and a late Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Check out the full list on ebird.

It was really interesting heading up a team of 13 people on bikes.  A bit tough to wrangle everyone, but we managed to have almost every bird seen by almost every team member.  The trickier part was staying stable on quick, gravely turns.  A few falls, but nothing broken.  And everyone agreed that birding by bike is the bee’s knees.  The birds are all around as you ride, especially in the environment of the SF Bay Trail.  Check out the power and majesty of our team.  And if you’re really feeling inspired, sponsor us by choosing my name (Rob Furrow) from the pull-down tab on the SCVAS site.

Bioblitz recap

Cold and windy weather last Friday couldn’t stop Josiah Clark, Michael Park, and I from hopping on our bikes and exploring the SF Presidio, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and riding into the Marin Headlands.  High school phenom Logan Kahle joined along for the early afternoon.  Not the most diverse day, but we did manage to find 90 species and submit 10 ebird checklists for different localities.  My highlight was definitely watching an abundance of displaying Allen’s Hummingbirds around Fort Scott in the Presidio.  I’ll keep this short, but here are the checklists.


Today and tomorrow, National Geographic and the Golden Gate National Parks are coordinating a Bioblitz and biodiversity festival throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA).  Check out the basic info here.  Registration for the formal expert-led inventories is now closed, but there are a few other ways to participate.

1) Go out and make some sightings of your own!  Between noon today (28 March, 2014) and noon tomorrow, any sightings within the GGNRA that are posted to ebird or iNaturalist will become part of the data for this Bioblitz.  You can be a member of the scientific community by contributing your observations.  The green areas on the map below show the boundaries of the GGNRA and Golden Gate NPs — a diverse set of parks that include Crissy Field, The SF Presidio, The Marin Headlands, Muir Beach, and more.  Josiah Clark and I (and hopefully a few more folks) are gonna bring some GREEN to the event.  We’ll be biking around the presidio and up into the Marin Headlands to survey bird diversity and more without using any fossil fuels.

2) Bring friends and family to the biodiversity festival. From 9-5 today and tomorrow there are interactive exhibits, live animal demonstrations, and music, at East Beach in the SF Presidio.

I hope to see you out there!

The map of the SF area with GGNRA lands colored green.

The map of the SF area with GGNRA lands colored green.

Owling in the Santa Cruz Mountains


So, how can a Northern California birder hear dozens of owls of 4 different species in a single (very early) morning?  By hopping on a bike!

Owling, the quest to hear and occasionally see owls at nighttime, is challenging by car.  You need to find a spot to pull over, and by the time you’ve hopped out and closed your car door, every nocturnal creature in a 200m radius is aware of your presence.  On foot, a canoe, or a bike, you can experience nocturnal sounds with minimal disturbance.  The sense of peace on a quiet road is powerful.

Last week I took advantage of a warm, still night and biked up Page Mill Road in Palo Alto until I reached Skyline Drive, a road that follows the ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains in Santa Clara and San Mateo Counties.  By 2:30am I had dropped down into San Mateo County along smaller roads.  From there I began a languid ride back uphill, rolling past solemn redwood groves, mixed oak woodlands, and grassy meadows.  Great Horned Owls constantly exclaimed their presence, and one forest break offered up a pair of calling Northern Pygmy-Owls, harmonized by a distant Western Screech-Owl.  The saw-whets occasionally wailed from mixed creekside habitat, and their toots could be heard from across broad, wooded canyons.

sky islands

As dawn broke at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, I discovered that I had risen above the clouds.  Mountain ridges peeked above the condensed water vapor, islands in a vast sea.  The rewards of an early wake-up.