Birding by Bike: A How-to

Step 1: Ride a bike.

Step 2: Observe birds.

I had planned in my head this grand series of blog posts about how to most effectively bird by bike. But after thinking about it, I realized that nobody needs that. All you need to do is do it at least once, and if you like it, great! Then keep doing it.

I think we all fall into the trap of hyper-competitiveness that is made worse by the internet. I could tell you about how I have honed my strategy in bike-birding and what I think is the best way to do it. But you are not me, so it doesn’t matter. If your bike has two wheels (or more! or less!) then that is all that matters. Well, that and observing birds. You don’t need fancy gear. Inflate your tires and put on a backpack to carry your binoculars and some granola bars. Here is the equipment you need to bike-bird:

1.) A helmet.

2.) Binoculars, probably, but only if you want.

Again, I was going to list the accoutrements I have purchased in my two-and-a-half years of full-blown bike birding, but that would just seem like another barrier to entry for someone thinking about giving it a try for the first time. The biggest hurdle to get over when choosing to bird by bike is not equipment or physical fitness, but FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out.

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Swainson’s Thrush

Find a local patch as soon as you can, and bird the hell out of it. You won’t have the time or the energy to bike across town to the known hotspots that throw off eBird rarities. The Swainson’s Thrushes won’t care. I found this one and many other common migrants at a random woodlot close to my new house back in May. Eventually you will not even think about that potential Alder Flycatcher that may or may not be out at the marsh 15 miles away; instead you will be thinking about what you can find next at your local patch. It took me a long time for this to sink in, but once it did I enjoyed birding a lot more. The birds at Foster Park (and now the California Road Woodlot) were my patch birds, and therefore MY birds. I found them. It felt good. And I didn’t have to buy gas.

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Yellow-breasted Chat

Eventually, you will want to leave the local patch. But since you have gotten good at bike birding, it won’t be as big of a deal if you need to ride an hour to get to a specific place. And that’s where you will get some really good birds to add to your list, like the Yellow-breasted Chat that I saw today at the Dustin preserve when I visited again to reconnect my green list to the flat tire I suffered three weeks ago.

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Yellow-throated Vireo

So yes, flat tires and things will happen. You will encounter unpaved roads, gravel, and roadside trash that will force you to invest in a decent hybrid bike, tools, and a repair kit. You will eventually want that stuff anyway, because you will want to go farther and farther in fulfillment of finding new birds for the green list. But that happens way later. It happens after you have seen a bunch of Yellow-throated Vireos. It happens after you have bike birded for the first time.

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Turtle

You will be able to stop on a moment’s notice to look at cool stuff crossing the road, like small turtles with leeches stuck to their backs. Or slam on the breaks because you heard a sparrow way out in the grass by the road, and because you are on a bike, you can actually hear it and count it. Eventually, you will get to the point where you don’t like driving to birds any more.

Try bike birding once! You will like it. It is good for you. It is good for birds. Yay!

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Acres Land Trust – Bird Blitz 2017

On Saturday I participated in the inaugural Bird Blitz held by the Acres Land Trust. Acres is a great non-profit organization that exists to preserve exceptional examples of natural areas in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan, and they have dozens of nature preserves scattered throughout those states. The Bird Blitz was a fundraising event for them that also doubled as a way to conduct a bird census of their entire network of preserves. Throw in a cool shirt designed by the Yonder Clothing Company, and I was all-in.

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Dustin Preserve

Volunteers were asked to register for a specific property, and I requested to count at the Tom and Jane Dustin Nature Preserve so that I could participate in the festivities by bike. It is about 12 miles north of home in Huntertown, Indiana, and it also conveniently doubles as the Acres main office where the post-blitz tally and after party was held. This was the first time I experienced “birding” and “after-party” in the same instance. The pizza was good!

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Trail

The Dustins willed their property and home to Acres, and it has become a habitat of reclaimed farmland, hardwood forest, and steep bluffs overlooking Cedar Creek. The terrain is actually quite steep, and it is much different than most other birding locales in northeast Indiana. This was my first time at the preserve, and even though migration has settled down, the day was hot, and I birded in the late afternoon, I racked up a pretty good species list.

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Blue-winged Warbler

The best bird, and by far the most surprising, was a stunning male Blue-winged Warbler working the edge of the meadow area. I was not expecting to add any new warbler species to my green list in June, but that’s what this was.

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“Bee-buzz!”

He appeared to be on territory, and I watched him for quite a long time. Other new pick-ups for the year included Yellow-throated Vireo and Black-capped Chickadee. I have written before that Fort Wayne falls squarely in the overlap zone of Carolina and Black-capped Chickadee, with most birds being Carolinas. But Huntertown is far enough north that the resident chickadee is Black-capped, and their vocalizations told me as much.

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Little Wood Satyr

I had one lifer during the day in the form of a Little Wood Satyr. Its habitat preference mirrored that of the Blue-winged Warbler.

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Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

There were also loads of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, this one with only one swallowtail. I want to say this is my favorite butterfly, but that would be like someone saying their favorite bird is a Northern Cardinal. It’s too obvious of a choice. But look at it!

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Eastern Wood-Pewee

Even if Eastern Wood-Pewees were gaudy, you would still never see them. I have probably heard 100 of them for every one that I have actually seen. That is probably because I don’t stop to look for them after I hear them singing, but this one was breaking character to forage way down low in the trees.

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Cedar Creek

The Blitz event was great, but I would be happy to return to Dustin again for just plain birding. I will have to return, actually. As the evening ended I departed on my bike and headed home. About 100 feet from the preserve office I started skidding and wobbling uncontrollably on the gravel driveway. I looked down and saw that my rear tire was totally flat. I found the hole pretty easily, but I stupidly had nothing to fix it with. Thankfully my father-in-law was up to the task of picking up me and my stranded bike and brought me home. Thanks, Dave!

So right now I am disconnected from the end of my green list by 12 miles of riding. I picked up three new species (for a year-to-date total of 131) that I refuse to leave off, so I will have to ride back up to Dustin now that I have fixed the bike and then ride back home to resume adding species to the list. Thankfully this didn’t happen a month earlier or I would be missing species by the day. I already have more green birds in June than I did last year, but it’s still a bit frustrating. In any case, that incident will inspire the next couple of posts I have scheduled about how to bird by bike.