I was representing clients in Superior Court when my phone vibrated in my slacks' pocket. I dashed off to the vacant jury room when I saw it was Maggie (local birder) calling. I wondered what bird had been found, where I would have to ride my bike to see it, and how I would get out of work soon enough to see the bird if it was a good one. Such thoughts crossed my mind whenever I got a bird call in 2010. In fact, the hardest part of my green big year was not the 3634 miles I cycled, or the 348 miles I hiked, or the kayaking, or the running with my binoculars. The hardest part was juggling my work and family commitments with my quest for bird species.
I originally got interested in green birding in 2007, when I saw an item on BIRDCHAT (internet bird listserv) about doing a BIGBY. This stands for "Big Green Big Year" and was coined by Richard Gregson from Quebec. He has promoted green birding on the internet, and encouraged BIGBYs all over the globe. This type of green birding was a response to the many "big years" and "big days" done by birders who traveled all over the world to see how many birds they could see in a year or a day. To some birders, driving and flying all over after big year or big day bird species seemed inconsistent with the pro-environmental ideals espoused by most birders.
I first tried a BIGBY in 2008 and found 262 species in San Luis Obispo County, biking and walking from my home in Los Osos and my work in San Luis Obsipo. In that same year, Andy Kleinhesselink and Josiah Clark, of San Francisco, found 295 species in Northern California, including a cycle to Mono Lake and back! This appeared to be the record for North America and was something to shoot for (with a camera, not a gun!).
It took me a year to think about it, and get up the gumption to make a serious attempt to break 300 species. I spent the last 6 months of 2009 planning my year (some species were findable only at particular locations and for limited times) and setting up a blog to chronicle my efforts. I had never biked more than a two day trip and I had never had my own website or blog, so I was challenging my 58 year old mind and body. It turned out that setting up a Google blog was not hard, but I suspected that my planned nine day spring bicycle trip out to eastern Kern County to boost my total species count would not be so easy.
I started my 2010 green big year on January first, when I pedaled from my house in Los Osos to Cayucos and back (25 miles), tallying 122 species despite some bad luck that shortened my trip (see my blog). My green birding trips for the year varied greatly in time and distance. I rode my bike over 100 miles in a day on two occasions in 2010. Both days involved some significant hill climbs and both days netted me new birds for my green year. My longest pedal was a ten day (one rest day), almost 600 mile trip from Los Osos inland to the Mojave Desert, top of the Greenhorn Mountains (south end of the Sierras) and along the South Fork of the Kern River. This trip added my only out-of-county green birds, including Northern Goshawk, Brown-crested Flycatcher, a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers, and other birds of the desert and Sierras. It also included some hair-raising rides on Kern County highways with no bike lanes (it would have been worse but for the very considerate professional truck drivers). This trip contributed 16 species to my green year total. In contrast, my shortest trips were my walks to the edge of the bay and the patch of trees at the end of my street, Pecho Willows. This daily ritual, with my dog, not only provided many locally rare birds, but gave me a real feel for the changing seasons as bird species came and went, the weather changed, and the tides varied
I really liked the actual green birding, but not my big green year concern over possibly missing a rare bird that had been found by another birder. Chasing a bird on my bike was not only harder physically, but it took up to 3 times longer than driving. Green birding made it more difficult to fit chasing into my schedule and decreased my chances of seeing a recently found bird. For example, I missed the county's third Red-necked Stint (on the Morro Bay Estuary mudflats) by 5 minutes. As I feverishly arrived on my bike, local birders were walking away from the location (never a good sign) talking about how the bird looked just before it flew off into the distance. I never did re-find the Eastern Phoebe found in riparian habitat along Los Osos Creek, despite 5 tries on my bike (numerous people had seen it before and after my visits!). I missed a fall Northern Parula seen in Oceano, despite two attempts, including one where it was initially found by a birder standing right next to me! I searched long and hard, but the bird was part of a flock that totally dispersed in a downpour.
Nevertheless, I did successfully chase some good birds, like the 24 mile (one way) pedal to see California's second (!) Ivory Gull - a beautiful and aptly named gull from the Arctic circle that was completely unexpected in sunny Pismo Beach. Instead of ice flows and Polar Bears, it was contending with beachcombers wearing shorts and sandals. I cycled another 45 miles (one way) to see a different white northern visitor - a first winter Glaucous Gull at the Elephant Seal haul-out near Piedras Blancas.
While chasing was harder, finding birds did not seem to be hampered by my green forms of transportation. It helped that my neighborhood, including Pecho Willows, had 20 warbler species, Tundra Swan, Semipalmated Sandpiper, American Golden Plover, White-winged Dove, Black Swift, Clay-colored Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, Indigo Bunting, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and other unusual species in 2010. My favorite green birding find was the county's first Bar-tailed Godwit that I flushed while on a run along the shore of the Morro Bay Sand Spit. Other birds I discovered on my green birding in 2010 included Tundra Swan, Stilt Sandpiper, Red-naped Sapsucker, Tropical Kingbird (below), Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler and Swamp Sparrow.
I did have some low points in my green year. During my first ride out to the Carrizo Plain on February 15, I practically collapsed along the road from exhaustion, having ridden too fast into a head wind, with a bike that was packed too heavy, on a route that was unnecessarily long and difficult, and without the proper conditioning. I barely limped into the California Valley Motel before dark at the end of this 70+ mile ride. Another bad experience occurred on March 26 while searching for Greater Roadrunner on San Luis Mountain with my mountain bike. My front tire caught up on something and I did my impression of a briefly airborne roadrunner as I flew over my handlebars on the descent of the mountain. Unfortunately, my landing was more like a sack of potatoes and I broke several ribs. Fortunately, it did not prevent me from cycling for more than one week (I just had to sleep sitting up for a few weeks).
Overall, the green big year was a very enjoyable experience and I have no regrets. I liked the challenge - finding as many species as I could in one year without using any gas. I developed a larger appreciation of the landscape and the birds of Central California because I experienced this area in a very different way than driving from spot to spot. Memorable rides included pedaling along Kelso Valley Road into the Mojave Desert from Lake Isabella, hearing and seeing a large variety of resident and migrant birds (like the plain Gray Flycatcher, the elegantly marked Mountain Quail and the contrastingly colored black and yellow Scott's Oriole) in the willow cottonwood riparian corridors, on the rocky slopes, and in the scrub and Joshua tree desert (respectively). Cycling on Soda Lake Road on the Carrizo Plain with the fields of early yellow, blue and white wildflowers in the late winter along with flocks of bright blue Mountain Bluebirds and the yellow meadowlarks, glowing in the morning sun, was unforgettable. The ride along the road on both sides of Alta Sierra summit in the warm and bright high-elevation sun of the Greenhorn Mountains, with dark blue skies, large patches of snow on the ground between towering firs and pines, the beautiful songs of Green-tailed Towhees and Townsend's Solitaires, and the loud cries of the Pileated Woodpecker, was breath-taking (or was that the altitude?).
The non-bird wildlife sometimes stole the show from the birds on my green year. Examples included the lone Prong-horn Antelope standing near me in a sparse brown weedy field in eastern Kern County, the striking blue gray Ring-necked Snake with the bright orange collar and underparts found along the bluffs trail at Montana de Oro (elsewhere on the trail was a group of 6-8 Pacific Rattlesnakes), the prehistoric looking Horned Lizard I couldn't quite catch at Cerro Alto, a playful fox and a cautious bobcat at the Montana de Oro Campground, the endangered Red-legged Frogs and Western Pond Turtles close up at the Harmony Headlands trial, and (most of all) the impossibly big Blue Whale I saw while scoping for pelagics off Montana de Oro (photo below).
The scenery was incredible at times, and on a bike I really saw beauty I would have missed from a car. The photo below of a seasonal wetland in Kelso Valley (near the South Fork of the Kern River) was only one of the hundreds of scenes that I came across in my travels that made me stop and be amazed.
My 2010 green big year total of 318 species was more than I had expected when the year began. While I could have likely gotten 8 - 10 more species for the year, I am satisfied with the total as well as with the process of reaching it. Someday soon, I suspect that someone will ride across the country and find twice this many species in a green big year. Fifteen year old Malkolm Boothroyd (with his parents) rode over 10,000 miles from mid 2007 to mid 2008 (Alaska to Florida to Texas), tallying 548 species, but some might argue that it was not a totally a green year since he used buses and ferries to get home from Texas and it was not in one calendar year. Either way, I am humbled by his efforts and he is in his own amazing category so far for green birding!
While I may not ever do a serious green big year again, I will continue to as much green birding as I can. I encourage others to do it as well; it is good for the environment and an enjoyably different birding experience. I will also continue to post blogs on my green birding. I plan on seeing how many species I can see while walking from my home in 2011 (see my ongoing tally in the right margin of my blog). I will try to do a green big day at least once a month, either walking or on my bike. Enjoy green birding in 2011!