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Big Green Birding Challenge

How a birdwatcher in Minnesota found 210 species of bird in a year without using one drop of gasoline
By Diana Doyle | Published: 6/25/2010

BGBY=Big Green Birding Year

BRD-B0810-500My guilt caught up with me. Each time I turned the ignition to go birding, a wave of emissions-related unease washed over me. The irony was hard to ignore: I’d drive my husband Mark’s SUV in order to enjoy birds threatened by habitat fragmentation and global warming. What was I doing?

I decided to try a year of green birding: birding by walking or biking from my home. The idea was inspired by the Big Green Birding Year website, which is coordinated by Quebec birder Richard Gregson. Much to my surprise, the experience was much richer than simply the year I left the birdmobile in the garage. The website outlines the philosophy and rules of local green birding.

You can do a walking BGBY (BGBY birders say “big-bee”), a self-propelled BGBY (walking, biking, snowshoeing, skiing, canoeing, and so on), or a green big day, in which you bird for 24 hours without using fuel. The point is that to bird carbon-free, whether for a day or a whole year, you cannot drive or carpool to a location to then walk or bike it. I resorted to a light-rail jumpstart once (to rush to a reported Snowy Egret), but usually I walked or biked.

In early January 2008, I pondered the checklist of Minnesota birds. Could I find 150 or even 200 species within walking or biking distance of home? A quick pencil tally suggested that 200 wouldn’t be feasible. I live within the city limits of Minneapolis. A state highway thrums two blocks away, and the airport is less than two miles from our house. Yet Minneapolis is on the Mississippi River Flyway. And our local Chain of Lakes connects to the river with a pedestrian greenbelt. The Twin Cities are also home to one of the country’s only urban national wildlife refuges, 14,000-acre Minnesota Valley (Hotspot Near You No. 21, August 2007). In the end, I thought it was worth a try.

January started out surprisingly well. A Northern Shrike wintered nearby. An afternoon walk earned a view of a Barred Owl at its roost. A pair of American Black Ducks found a patch of open water along the creek. Red-breasted Nuthatches arrived in an unusual irruption year. A Pileated Woodpecker wandered up from the Mississippi River ravine. In time, the weather warmed, and the river and creek ice melted. The open water brought Hooded and Common Mergansers, Bald Eagles, Great Blue Herons, Wood Ducks, and our resident Belted Kingfisher.

By late March, the lakes still frozen, new birds came nearly every day: Fox Sparrow, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Merlin. Eastern Bluebirds turned up in a patch of prairie, lured by nest boxes we built the previous year. Golden- and Ruby-crowned Kinglets arrived with Winter Wrens and Hermit Thrushes.

I rapidly checked off almost every species of Minnesota waterfowl as migrants clustered in the lakes’ leeward patches of open water. Tundra Swans and Sandhill Cranes flew overhead, drawn northward over the suburban sprawl. A Wilson’s Snipe exploded from the brown freeze-dried cattails, where Red-winged Blackbirds had already staked out their territory. Practically every morning brought a new BGBY bird to report to the family breakfast table. By April 17, ice-out day on Lake Hiawatha, I’d already seen 82 BGBY species.

A bittern encounter
With the arrival of spring, I was conditioned to be out early, when each night’s migrants could be found in surprising locations at morning light. One April dawn, an American Bittern, a great find, materialized less than 10 yards from me, standing stock still with its broad brown stripes blending with the brown cattail stubble. Fortunately, the path was empty of oncoming dog walkers who would spook it.

But then I saw my 14-year-old son Morgan rounding the curve on his morning run. Drats! His passing behind the bird would surely cause it to flush. But bitterns are supposed to freeze, not flush, so I decided to wait and observe. Sure enough, as Morgan approached, the bittern went into its beak-up camouflage stance. I followed in kind, slowly giving Morgan a thumbs-up as he raced by. The bittern stayed put and lowered its bill when the coast was clear. I watched the bird until it flew off in search of a safer day roost.

Local birding is like local produce: it’s fleeting and dictated by natural cycles. I don’t expect I’ll ever see an American Bittern again in that tiny patch of cattail marsh. Of course, I could drive to see one, but with green birding, like garden produce, you take what you have in season. Your chance to see Black-throated Green Warblers is the week they pass through. After that, your quarry will be Wilson’s Warbler or Olive-sided Flycatcher or Indigo Bunting. I discovered the trick was to be out every day to catch each shift in migration. Varying the time and habitat slightly revealed all five shy early-morning thrush species and 10 of the later-feeding flycatchers.

A cynic may say the bittern was simply a lucky break, but that encounter made me realize a green birding year had the potential to include memorable sightings, not just a tally of the expected.

I’d never seen an American Bittern in Minnesota; in fact, it had been my state nemesis bird. And here it was on my BGBY list! A valuable lesson learned is that the unexpected was possible even if I limited birding to areas I could reach on foot or bike.

A primary rule for BGBY birding is to carry binoculars always. But when it’s below zero and you’re out with binoculars at dawn, people wonder what you’re doing. One neighbor skeptically asked, “What birds are you possibly looking for in this weather?”

In fact, minutes before I had seen an Oregon Dark-eyed Junco, a western bird that is a nice find in Minnesota. During a snowstorm, another neighbor and I spotted a stunningly pale Great Horned Owl. It may have been an individual of the lighter-colored subarcticus subspecies that breeds primarily in Canada.

When the weather warmed up, the sight of my binoculars invited others to initiate conversations about birds. Dog walkers, joggers, and strolling couples would stop me to ask, “Have you seen the…?” or “Yesterday, I saw a bird that had a…” Six people must have asked whether I had seen the lone American White Pelican on our local lake. “A pelican here?” they’d ask.

Sometimes the chats really paid off. In August, a dog walker saw my binoculars and asked if I had seen the “little owl.”

“No, I haven’t,” I responded, intrigued.

She elaborated: “It’s been calling every night for the past week. I don’t know what it is.”

That night I biked the 10 blocks to her neighborhood and heard the whinny of an Eastern Screech-Owl, BGBY No. 191. I wrote a note and left it on her door: “It’s an Eastern Screech-Owl. Thanks!” Four months later, another neighborly tip yielded the only Eastern Screech-Owl on our Christmas Bird Count.

10 tips from a BGBY birder

1 Begin with a fold-out street map, such as from AAA. Define easy, moderate, and stretch biking distances, and draw three green birding circles centered on your home. Adapt the circles as the seasons pass and your stamina increases.

2 Within your circles, search for habitat you may have overlooked, including parks, cemeteries, golf courses, ponds, creeks, wooded ravines, wetlands, and weedy lots.

3 Once you’ve identified potential hotspots, plan safe bike routes, using local bike-route maps, a detailed street map, and the bicycling option on Google Maps.

4 When planning routes to nearby parks, don’t forget secondary entrances. They may be closer, and they may allow you to enter via quiet residential streets.

5 Watch online forums and listserv posts, and take advantage of your planning to bike to sightings within your green birding circles.

6 Biking lets you hear birds! Pause when you hear an interesting song or call. If the wind is a nuisance while pedaling, turn your head slightly to reduce the whistle.

7 Wear binoculars with a harness, not a strap. The harness will prevent them from jostling while you ride. Don’t keep them in your backpack because by the time you stop and dig them out, the bird will be gone. If you’re concerned about road grit, use an older pair.

8 A backpack, basket, or bike pannier can easily handle a spotting scope. Carry tripod and lens separately, preferably with the lens cushioned in the safety of a backpack. Trade off weight by packing a smaller field guide.

9 Prepare for your body’s temperature swings. Begin with layers of lightweight, wicking clothing so you aren’t chilled when standing after exercising. Always pack gloves, fleece, and a windbreaker.

10 Make birding by bike part of a regular exercise regimen. Added benefit: You’ll soon see how the cycle of bird migration produces new species nearly every day.

Tips lead to great birds
Online forums were also a boon, yielding sensational birds, such as Long-eared Owl, Long-tailed Duck, and unusual-in-Minnesota Snowy Egret and Northern Mockingbird. Tips from local birders were even better. The ultimate leads came from Linda Whyte, a friend who knows every patch of undeveloped land in a 10-mile radius of her house. If there’s a good warbler within auditory range, Linda can locate it.

And she did, texting me as she watched a Cerulean Warbler, a rapidly declining species, in the canopy at Minnehaha Falls, less than a mile from my house. After a quick bike ride, I added the bird to my BGBY list. In fact, I found bird species No. 210, the last new species added to my BGBY list for the year, when one of Minnesota’s top birders emailed a “keep-it-quiet” tip.

On a glorious Indian-summer day in November, my son and I biked to the Minnesota River with instructions resembling a treasure map: “Take the main trail, pace back 10 yards from the second opening, find the rock alongside the trail, look 20 feet off the trail at eye height.” And a treasure it was: a tiny Northern Saw-whet Owl asleep in a tangle of bare grape vines.

As my green year passed, I realized there was a difference between biking or walking to view birds and driving to view birds. By restraining myself from jumping into my car, I learned to wait until the birds came to me. Phenology, the study of cyclic and seasonal natural phenomena, became part of my everyday birding. Simply looking for birds while riding a bike will yield a BGBY list dominated by European Starlings and House Sparrows. Yet by timing routes along the airport’s gravel fields in early October, I saw Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, Lapland Longspur, and American Pipit.

My BGBY changed my birding strategy. I thought about the season, the weather, the likely birds, and the time of day to view them. And I’d carefully choose outings based on the physical effort they’d require. When you are birding sans car, literally every step or pedal push counts.

Stakeout birding also changes completely as part of a BGBY quest. We all know the depressing, empty feeling of chasing a rarity only to be skunked. What a waste of time and gas! I left one morning to bike 15 miles to Purgatory Creek, a dramatic name for a wetland ringed by suburban sprawl. I was hoping for the Black-bellied Plovers reported the night before, but I almost turned around after one mile when I noticed the high water of the previous night’s rain. The creek would have no shorebird habitat today, I thought. But habitat or not, successful stakeout or not, I realized I was out for a wonderful bike ride on a beautiful post-rain morning. I came home absent as expected of the plover but flush with exercise and fresh air.

In late October, I planned my first night BGBY ride with my friend Susan Plankis. It was peak season for fall gulls, which congregate by the hundreds each evening at Lake Calhoun, an easy 10-mile trek from home. We had to stay until sundown to see the gulls come in to roost. As the sun dipped below the treetops, we stood shivering at the shoreline, chastising each other for being sissies: Skim ice wasn’t even on the lake yet! But we were sweaty from the ride and chilled with moisture. Luckily, we had packed more layers, including winter hats and gloves.

We watched as a Lesser Black-backed Gull — a life bird for Susan — glided in, revealing its black mantle. I had seen my lifer Thayer’s Gull just a few days prior. As the light waned, we spotted a long-necked grebe and hopped on our bikes for a closer look. It was a stunning Red-necked Grebe, a species that had thwarted me during its peak spring and fall migration.

As finding birds by bike became more of a mental and physical challenge, my teenage son became interested. Together we biked through three counties, exploring back roads and dirt paths. Even ho-hum birds are exciting for a teen if they are part of a quest. “Wild Turkey!” I yelled over the wind, pointing down a wooded bank. “Is that a BGBY?” Morgan shouted forward in excited anticipation. “Yup. No. 87!”

The physical challenges also kept him engaged. “I just realized why they call this Mendota Heights!” he called as we biked the eight miles uphill from our house to Lilly Preserve. But soon we’d be taking a break, enjoying a cool drink, and watching Sedge Wrens chatter while two Northern Harriers coursed the prairie.

He and my husband even built a new feeding station for my birthday, hoping the expanded menu would draw new species. At the end of sparse November, BGBY No. 208, a Common Redpoll, showed up on strong north winds. Later, a Carolina Wren, a southern species, visited for a day. After all the miles I had walked and pedaled that year, Mark teased, “You didn’t even have to leave the house for those BGBYs.”

Only a vehicle can transport you to dramatically different geographies, and nothing substitutes for a trip to Sax-Zim Bog or Big Cypress. But going forward, I’ll save the car for true changes of scenery. I realized that an incredible diversity of micro-habitats exists within 10 miles of my home, so why drive?

I have many extraordinary memories of birds: I’ve sailed by the Atlantic Puffin rookery on the coast of Maine, anchored off Sooty Tern colonies in the Dry Tortugas, and hiked jungle trails in Belize. But as Pete Dunne wrote in the August 2005 issue of Birder’s World: “One of the great things about a local patch is that encounters there never die.” And decades from now — perhaps when fossil-fuel vehicles are a thing of the past — this local green birding year will remain one of my fondest memories.
Diana Doyle has been birding for more than 30 years. She and her husband Mark write boating travel guides with a natural history twist (www.managingthewaterway.com).