Category Archives: Migration

Birding as stress relief

Sorry I’ve been so silent lately.  I’m preparing for my PhD dissertation defense this upcoming Wednesday, May 21st.  I have already sent out my written dissertation to my committee. Now I need to give a talk explaining the details and relevance of the last five years’ work!  I’m stressed.  The process is not designed for failure, but I want to end my PhD on a strong note, with a clear and interesting talk.


A relaxing view of nature.

A relaxing view of nature. 

I have still had some time for birding.  In times like these, I realize how therapeutic birding is in my life.  After 3 or 4 days without much natural history observation, I’m wound tight.  And when I finally get outside, I can feel my self uncoiling and opening up again.  As crazy green big year birder Dorian Anderson has suggested, birding is great therapy!  I’ve particularly enjoyed catching up with some nice migrant flocks at Coyote Hills Regional Park in Fremont, including plenty of Swainson’s Thrushes and a nice mix of flycatchers.  I even found my first SF Bay Area Hammond’s Flycatcher!  Here are two ebird checklists from last week.

This birding got me wondering if people have done any research about birding and stress relief.  I came upon one particular approach to this question — how does experience with nature help someone recover from a stressful experience?  In an hour of reading, I’ve found tons of papers on the topic.  In one classic study, university undergraduates were shown a stressful video (about workplace injuries).  Apparently this video has been used in multiple studies and is known to cause a physiological stress response.  After the video, students were shown either videos of nature, a mall with pedestrian traffic, or a street with vehicular traffic.  Researchers took measures of heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension at three time points: the onset of the experiment, after the stressful video, and after the second video (the ‘treatment’ video).  At these time points they also recorded the participants’ self-ratings of fear, aggression, and positive affect, as well as a few other factors.

The results were stark.  Participants who had viewed the nature videos showed greater decreases in blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle tension after the stress.  They also showed greater decreases in fear and aggression, and a greater increase in positive affect.  So even this relatively minimal natural experience, something I would hardly categorize as time spent enjoying nature, produced relaxing effects at both a physiological and emotional level.  Now I know, I’m not just procrastinating when I stop for some birding on the way to work.  I getting myself into a nice relaxed state for maximum productivity!


photo credit: James Wheeler via photopin cc

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!

Jasper Ridge new arrivals

A millipede crept along the trail. (Photo courtesy of Sonny Mencher, 3/17/2014.)

A millipede crept along the trail. (Photo courtesy of Sonny Mencher, 3/17/2014.)

New birds continue to trickle into the SF Bay Area.  As March flows into April, this trickle will broaden into a stream that strengthens throughout the month.  On Monday, I helped conduct one of the monthly bird transects at Jasper Ridge, Stanford’s local biological preserve (and the location of some fascinating ecological research).  Our transect winds through open oak woodlands, into some riparian (creekside) habitat, and through a peaceful redwood grove.

A newly arrived gnatcatcher staring us down. (Photo courtesy of Malia DeFelice, 3/17/2014.)

A newly arrived gnatcatcher staring us down. (Photo courtesy of Malia DeFelice, 3/17/2014.)

Migrants have arrived, including a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher mewing from the edge of a patch of Blue Oak woodland, and many Orange-crowned Warblers demarcating their territories.  One highlight was the song of a returning Wilson’s Warbler — my first of the Spring!  And of course, we enjoyed old favorites like Acorn Woodpeckers and Hutton’s Vireos.

An Acorn Woodpecker hanging out on a granary tree.  (Photo courtesy of Sonny Mencher, 3/17/2014.)

An Acorn Woodpecker hanging out on a granary tree. (Photo courtesy of Sonny Mencher, 3/17/2014.)