Category Archives: Green big day

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.

Stanford Cardinal takes it (greenly)! — Stanford v. Berkeley birdathon

UPDATE: a little bit of popular press.  Though, for the record, plenty of the Stanford birders actually really like football and enjoy going to The Big Game.

Stanford takes the victory!  With a total of 76 species, our hale and hearty team of 10 edged out Berkeley’s team, who found 64 species.  If you haven’t heard about it before, here are the details on this competition.  And best of all, this was a green effort!  We met at a single location and then divided ourselves up to cover the campus on foot.

10 birders scoured Stanford's campus today (4/13/14) to find 76 species!

10 birders scoured Stanford’s campus today (4/13/14) to find 76 species!

After meeting and planning early this morning, the group split into three sub-teams: one for the Stanford dish trail, one for San Francisquito Creek, and one focusing on the main campus.  The dish team came up big, finding Western Kingbird, Ash-throated Flycatcher, as well as Grasshopper, Savannah, and Lark Sparrows.  The creek team found their own treasures, like Downy Woodpecker, Pygmy Nuthatch, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Yellow Warbler.

The fearless leaders checking for lurking sparrows in the weeds.

The fearless leaders checking for lurking sparrows in the weeds. (Photo by Karen DeMello)

I led the main campus group.  The biggest treat was my group, with Joan Zuckerman, Karen DeMello, and Jasen Liu all providing great spotting and even better company.  As we studied sparrows in front of Bing Concert Hall, a White-throated Sparrow popped out!  We weren’t expecting that.  We did expect (and did find) other birds like California Thrasher, Hooded Oriole, White-throated Swift, and California Gull, but that didn’t keep us from appreciating them just as much!

This bird was foraging in front of Bing Concert Hall.

This White-throated Sparrow was foraging in front of Bing Concert Hall. (Photo by Jasen Liu)

All the groups reveled in the springtime chorus, with the shrill mews of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers exploding from the oaks, the deep blue backs of Western Bluebirds glowing in the sun, and the stammering chatter of White-throated Swifts peppering down from overhead.  It was not a day I’ll soon forget.

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at the Stanford dish trail.  (Photo by Jasen Liu)

A Blue-gray Gnatcatcher at the Stanford dish trail. (Photo by Jasen Liu)

If this is at all inspiring, we’re still taking sponsorships for local SF Bay Area youth nature education and conservation.  Sponsor me or anyone else on the team from the pulldown tab at the SCVAS birdathon website.

Members: Rob Furrow, Carrie Ann (Caroline) Adams, Marion Krause, Marina Dimitrov, Ellyn Bush, Joan Zuckerman, Danny Karp, Karen DeMello, Mike Rogers, Jasen Liu.


Happy birding,

-Rob Furrow



Go Stanford! — Stanford v. Berkeley birdathon 4/13

How many bird species are on Stanford’s campus on a spring morning?  I’ll tell you soon enough!  This Sunday is Birding’s Big Game.  4 hours, 1 Stanford team, 1 UC Berkeley team, 60+ species.  I’ll be coordinating the Stanford side of things, working with an awesome crew of a dozen birders: alumni, undergrads, grad students, community members, oh yeah!  I’m lucky to have such great birders helping, since the critical mission is to BEAT CAL in bird diversity.  Football’s not enough — we need to hit them where it really hurts.  In the birds.

Do you want kids to learn more about nature?  Do you want to protect unique bay area habitats?  SPONSOR US!  The money goes to youth nature education projects and conservation work in the southern Bay Area, run by the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society (I love them!).  You can do it online here.  Just select my name (Rob Furrow) from the pull down tab and make a donation using paypal.  If you want to make a per-bird donation (10 cents, 50 cents?), you can wait for the results and donate then.  And if you don’t like paypal, you can give me a check in person, made out to SCVAS.  Thanks!


Okay, down to the brass tacks.  How can we optimize coverage of Stanford’s campus?  We have a few key habitats.  Oak savanna and grassland, of particularly high quality along Stanford’s dish trail.  Riparian with some willows and alders along San Francisquito Creek.  Brushy edges.  Extensive eucalyptus groves.  A few migrant traps.  To cover it all, we’ll split into two teams.

Team 1 tackles the creekside habitat and the mish-mash of Stanford’s main campus.  We’ll hope for migrants, woodpeckers, Hooded and Bullock’s Oriole, and some Brown Creepers making a breeding attempt behind eucalyptus bark.

The basic route for team 1

The basic route for team 1

Team 2 covers the dish trails, and the lovely riparian where the trail meets Alpine Road.  Lots of excellent grassland with great chances for hawks, kites, falcons, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Western Kingbird, maybe even a Grasshopper Sparrow.

The outline of team 2's route

The outline of team 2’s route

Wish us luck!

-Rob Furrow


Santa Cruz mountains, and a bird song quiz

This morning (April 3rd), I birded Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, in the Santa Cruz mountains.  My goals were threefold: figure out the quickest route to traverse the array of habitats for a biking big day, identify territories of some tricky birds like Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatch, and try out my new parabolic microphone.  Success on all fronts!

This spring Josiah Clark, Logan Kahle, Andy Kleinhesselink, and I will be attempting to set a new national record for a green big day.  We currently hold the record at 181 species, tied with Ron Weeks and Jon Hale on a Texas big day.  200 is possible, with the right magic and a lot of riding!  Since we’ll probably be starting at Skyline Ridge, I want to know every inch of the preserve and get the know the birds personally.  As luck would have it, both Red-breasted and Pygmy Nuthatches were around this morning, though they switched locations with each other from the last time I found them!

A horrible photo of a lovely Canyon Live Oak.  No nuthatches here, but plenty of Oak Titmice!

A horrible photo of a lovely Canyon Live Oak. No nuthatches here, but plenty of Oak Titmice!

I also recently bought a plastic parabolic dish, and used it to set up a recording system.  It works!  I generally focused on making recordings of single singing birds, but I also once panned across some chaparral to record the whole soundscape.  How many (and which) species are singing or calling in this clip?  Comment and let me know!