Monthly Archives: May 2014

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 — results!

The tally is in, the ducks are in a row, the wheels have stopped spinning.  At midnight on Tuesday, April 29th, we had found 179 species in 24 hours (full list here).  We didn’t break last year’s record of 181.  However, the day was anything but a failure.  We kayaked through a harbor at night, hustled through 25 miles of predawn cycling, and spent dawn among Macgillivray’s Warblers and Golden-crowned Kinglets.  A Pileated Woodpecker accelerated into a heady cackle as we sped down mountain trails.  Eared Grebes showed off their golden facial finery in groups of hundreds along foamy salt ponds.  Loggerhead Shrikes bounded out of trees while a Say’s Phoebe mourned from atop an abandoned house.  And a Bald Eagle perched watchfully next to a nestling-filled nest.  Josiah, Andy, and I tested the limits of our physical endurance, grinding through energetic troughs to find the next mile and next bird.  I wouldn’t trade the day for anything, and I can’t wait for the next one.  For anyone who needs a reminder of the route, check out this post.

Ready to ride home the next morning.  From left to right: Josiah Clark, Rob Furrow, and Andy Kleinhesselink.

Ready to ride home the next morning. From left to right: Josiah Clark, Rob Furrow, and Andy Kleinhesselink.

The day started calm and cold.  Winds died and clouds disappeared, and with them the hot air escaped.  We launched kayaks into Pillar Point Harbor at 11:30pm to get into position for midnight.  Position was actually on the beach, where we would work along the edge of a marsh looking for Sora and Virginia Rail.  Success with the rails!  We quickly launched again and cruised the harbor.  Under a new moon, it was tough to see very far, and we suspected that birds avoided us just beyond our vision.   Cruising along the breakwaters, we found Whimbrel by the hundreds and Brandt’s Cormorants by the dozens, with piping Black Oystercatchers in earshot and a few Black Turnstones flushing away.  The Red-breasted Mergansers we had found at 11:50pm managed to avoid our gaze after the midnight hour.  We locked up the kayaks and hopped on our bikes, scanning back over the water to find Brown Pelican and Common Loon.

The silhouette of me and Andy in the dark water.

The silhouettes of me and Andy in the dark water.

Our timing was off.  The sparse waterbirds of the harbor had left us chasing for too long, and we were now about an hour behind schedule.  So we kicked the cycling into high gear and powered along for the next hour, making only one short stop for a Great Horned Owl.  As we turned onto La Honda Road, we heard a Barn Owl and even detected the flight calls of a few Swainson’s Thrushes.  We also realized that we were cold, thirsty, and hungry.  So we paused here and there along our ride through La Honda to recharge.

As dawn arrived, we were along a thick slope of poison oak that hosted a Macgillivray’s Warbler.  Golden-crowned Kinglets sounded off from deeper woods, and a few Swainson’s Thrush songs bubbled up.  I had hoped we would be about 2 miles further up the steep road by this point, but you’ve gotta take the dawn chorus where you can get it.  As we continued to ride and bird, Andy spotted a small, light sparrow on the road.  Acting like a freshly landed migrant, it made a weak little hop to the side of the road, then snuck into the bushes.  Soon it gave a buzzy call.  Lincoln’s Sparrow!

Looking and listening during the dawn chorus.

Looking and listening during the dawn chorus.

Reaching the crest of Skyline Ridge, we had already heard great birds like Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hermit Thrush, and Western Tanager, and we were ready to find our stakeouts.  Pygmy Nuthatches rattled and Red-breasted Nuthatches ‘yank’-ed from a nearby pine stand.  Chipping Sparrows monotonized from a christmas tree farm, and a Hermit Warbler’s song rocketed into the stratosphere from the top of a hill.  The memory of the previous day’s rattlesnake still rattled in our heads.

A rattlesnake at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, 4/28/14

A young rattlesnake at Skyline Ridge Open Space Preserve, 4/28/14

Having found almost every imaginable Santa Cruz Mountain passerine, we hustled through Monte Bello and Stevens Canyon Road, stopping here and there for Cassin’s Vireos, Western Wood-Pewees, Lazuli Buntings, Brown Creepers, and Hairy Woodpeckers.  I confess, I didn’t bring my GoPro for the big day.  I just didn’t want the extra gear to wrangle and the extra weight on my helmet.  But here’s a taste of riding on Stevens Canyon Road, following Stevens Creek, from an earlier video I took.

In Stevens Creek County Park, we faced our first disappointment in comparison to last year.  The water level was LOW.  No Wood Duck, no Common Merganser, no Belted Kingfisher, no Osprey.  Instead there was an expanse of dry, cracked earth.  Well, no rest for the weary.  We pushed on, continuing to follow Stevens Creek all the way to its mouth.  Here, we made a gamble.  We wanted to catch the mouth of the San Francisquito Creek before the rising tide covered it completely, so we put on our blinders and rode north as quickly as possible.  Unfortunately, there was no shorebird bonanza waiting.  We did hear Clapper Rail chattering, and we spied a few Northern Pintail along the muddy edges and more than a few Greater Scaup.  But last year we had ~10,000 shorebirds here.  Now we rode and picked up interested birds here and there.  Surf Scoters on Shoreline Lake, Black Skimmers on a few islands along the bayside, a Common Gallinule at the Lockheed Ponds, Redhead and Bonaparte’s Gulls on an expansive salt pond (A2E, if you’re familiar with the names).

Reaching the southern edge of the bay, it was time for a new suite of habitats and a fresh shot of energy.  After swinging along Coyote Creek for a vigorously singing Yellow Warbler, we headed up Old Calaveras Road towards Ed Levin County Park.  A pair of Loggerhead Shrikes surprised us as they popped right out of a roadside tree.  A Black-chinned Hummingbird buzzed by as I passed a California buckeye, and Josiah pointed out a Say’s Phoebe calling from a rooftop.  As we dropped in to Ed Levin, we didn’t have much luck in the Sandy Wool and dog park area.  But Spring Valley offered a stealthy Green Heron and whirring Rufous Hummingbirds.  Across Calaveras Road from the trails we heard a Grasshopper Sparrow’s jumbling and Rufous-crowned Sparrow’s sputtering, while a Swainson’s Hawk passed overhead.  The sun was sinking, so we needed to hustle up to the Calaveras Reservoir for our last daytime birds.  Here’s some footage from our earlier scouting in the area, to give a sense of the lovely scenery.

The higher stretches of Calaveras Road tired us, but also rewarded us with the insistent calls of Rock Wrens on a background of White-breasted Nuthatch song.  We couldn’t find our stakeout Lark Sparrows, but a Bald Eagle sat stoically next to the full nest.  We spent the last bit of light scanning the reservoir, surprising ourselves with a Common Merganser but little else.  As night fell, Western Screech- and Great Horned Owls began to call.  There were few possibilities left for us at night: Black-bellied Plover, Wilson’s Snipe, Great-tailed Grackle.  We worked carefully back along the bayside, but couldn’t find any of our missing birds.  As midnight struck, we rode a short five miles to Sunnyvale to be graciously hosted by birders Mike and Alma Rogers.  It was nice to have a warm, soft bed!

Big days have a way of seeming much longer than 24 hours.  The kayaks were only a distant memory as my head hit the pillow.  I’m sure we’ll ponder over the route, the birds, and the timing many more times, but it’s hard to feel anything but satisfaction after a day so well spent.  What will next year hold?