I not only run and ride, I bird. That is, I’m a birdwatcher. Or in North American parlance, a birder. That’s the acceptable terminology these days for those who seek to identify wild birds in the field, in the city, or wherever you may find them.
Being a birder and a competitive athlete can create some dichotomies in purpose. I was once leading a race held on a golf course in upper Iowa near Cedar Falls. It was mid to late October, and fall migration was in full swing. While rounding a bend near a pond at the center of the course, I glanced down to see a shorebird bobbing on the surface of the water. It was spinning in circles, feeding on the surface. “Phalarope!” I called out, nearly stopping in my tracks. The runner closest behind me almost ran up my back he was so surprised at my weird racing tactics.
I kept running and went on to victory, the only time I won a race in college. Then I ran back to the pond without any explanation to my coach or team, hoping to find and identify the phalarope. I looked it up later and determined that is was either the Red Phalarope (in winter plumage, all grey, white and black) or the Red-necked Phalarope. But I could not count the sighting without some form of better verification. Neither species now resides on my birding life list.
Birding on the run
Birding is often best accomplished while running or riding on the roads. Roads are, for better or worse, a source of natural attraction for birds. Many birds like to sit on wires to survey their territory, to hunt or seek food of one kind or another. Swallows will gather by the hundreds on wires, a twittering, fluttering group that will often rise and fall en masse.
Birders also develop the capability of identifying bird species by sound. Many times over the years a run or a ride has been enhanced by knowing that the muffled warble of a song coming from an oak savanna not far off is an Eastern Bluebird. Or the determined flight call
of Red-winged blackbirds flying into a late February breeze, headed for territories they’ll defend at the marsh unless snow blows the group back into feeding flocks until bad weather passes.
My running bird list includes a falcon known as a merlin that swept in front of our group to snatch a mouse trying to cross the dirt road ahead of us. I have seen pileated woodpeckers and wild turkeys while on a run, dozens of species of warblers, ducks, hawks, eagles, cranes and herons.
But the prize bird seen on a run might be the Harris’s Hawk found in Scottsdale, Arizona. While running through those endless dry suburbs outside Phoenix, I noticed a trail of fur falling from the sky. Looking up, I saw a Harris’s Hawk in its dark brown, russet red and white plumage plucking a rabbit on a light post.
Birding on the bike
Road cycling is not ideal for birding, but you still do see some birds along the way. Often a kestrel will float from lightpole to lightpole ahead of you on a country road. Red tails have the same habit as well, flying just far enough ahead that they think you’ll leave them alone. Then you come pedaling along like an annoying giant bug of some sort, so the hawk lifts off again.
A year ago a raptor lit off the top of a light pole west of Kaneville, Illinois and I was riding fast in the direction it was flying. Instantly I realized it was a juvenile Peregrine Falcon. It’s marking were clear, almost surreal in the early autumn sun. It coursed low over a harvested wheat field of golden shocks clipped evenly across the entire field. The bird never slowed as it veered from the road toward the northern horizon. Now that’s a bird that can really fly.
Birding by bike
Birding by mountain bike is much more productive. You’re going
slower, can head off-road where the better birds are and can carry more stuff like binoculars and books. There’s a whole school of people now birding by bike because it’s a greener way to go.
It doesn’t take much to become a birder, really. Just a bit of curiosity and a $30 pair of 7 X 35mm binoculars. Watching birds at your backyard feeder teaches you to look for field marks, and as you get better it is fun to wander local parks looking for more variety. Soon enough you’ll learn ways to identify more birds, buy yourself a Sibley Bird Guide or some other field guide and it starts to add up in your head where and when to find birds. Early morning is best, which is when so many people choose to run and ride as well.
But rather than wonder what those birds singing in the bushes really are, or what they flock of brown-looking smooth birds in the berry tree were (cedar waxwings, most likely) you can inform yourself, and enrich every run and ride knowing a little more about the world around you.
Just don’t expect everyone in your group ride to understand your enthusiasm. Non-birders love to ridicule those who do. It’s an ignorance thing, you see. Best just to say, “I can’t help it if I know a thing or two about nature. Just trying to share.”
You’ll find that gentle proselytization works best. By the next ride the same rider or runner who made fun of you the week before will sidle up and say, “Hey, you know that bird thing you pointed out? Well, last week I saw something and wondered what it was….It had this long beak you know….”
It happens. People generally have a curious nature. Let it grow on them. But first let it grow on yourself. Birding can be a great addition to your running and riding life.