Random thoughts bounce around my brain as I bicycle away from my house in Jamestown. Federal deficit, bank bonuses, global warming - where is the good news?
I have to stop at several intersections before leaving the city. After the second stop (well, "rolling stop," anyway) a wonderful, burbling, musical bird song interrupts the bad-news discussion in my mind. My first house wren of the year has just sung. Then, in quick succession, the cheeping of house sparrows, the clicking of European starlings, and the cheer-o-lee of an American robin drown out any further rumination and bring me into the present beautiful spring day.
Four different birds so far: I always count the bird species that I see or hear on my bike rides. For a while after I started my bike birding, I would stop my riding to record my observations. The frequent stops, though, diminished the effectiveness of the exercise. Then, years ago, I refined the system to meld my two hobbies of bicycling and bird-watching: I mentally note the birds as I pedal along and then actually check them off on a list when I return home. It's a good mental exercise to keep the synapses firing in my aging brain.
After the first four birds, I count numbers five, six, and seven - northern cardinal, blue jay and chipping sparrow - before the next stop sign. Then, American crows waddle and hop on a church lawn as I turn south out of town. A mourning dove flies up from the roadside to perch on a wire. I try to see as many of the birds as I can after hearing a call or song. Okalee on the right directs my gaze to a red-winged blackbird flashing red-and-yellow shoulder patches in the bright sunlight. Twittering call notes lead my eyes to barn swallows darting near the barn on the left. When a song sparrow sings, I don't bother to look for it. The song is so distinctive and the bird such a skulker that I don't break the cadence of my pedaling to try to see the bird. Same with the house wren.
When I turn onto Trask Road, I look at the field where three wild turkey gobblers once strutted with fanned tails. None today. Farther along, I note where, on another ride, a hen turkey crossed the road in front of me, followed by six half-grown poults.
Every bicycle ride gives reminders of previous rides. When I pass our airport, I remember watching seven turkey vultures gliding on set wings, fleeing before a dark storm cloud; I was able to turn onto Town Line Road and get back to my car just as large rain drops began to splatter. When I ride Town Line, I always look over at the tree line where an adult red-shouldered hawk once flew in and perched on a fencepost. I was able to stop and admire the hawk, using the compact binoculars that I carry in my handlebar bag.
I have arranged the checklist for recording species on my bike-birding trips in order of likelihood of occurrence. The introduced house sparrow and European starling top the list, with rock pigeon in the eighth position. American crow is listed third - how different from my childhood when crows were not seen in cities and were shot at regularly throughout the countryside. I wonder whether we are learning to tolerate and even encourage other living things? Do we now refrain from shooting at every crow because it might pull up some emerging corn seedlings?
Around the 20th position, I lump mallard, ring-billed gull and Canada goose, which I find regularly as I ride along our Chautauqua Lake shoreline.
A stop for rest and rehydration will usually add a species or two to my list. When I stop near the marsh on Nutt Road, I sometimes hear both alder and willow flycatchers. At the top of the hill on Big Tree Road, I admire the view of the lake and wooded hillsides and sometimes see a red-tailed hawk riding the updrafts.
The number of species I record depends on both the time of year and time of day. My maximum counts of 35 to 42 species are from mid-May through June, the height of the breeding season, when many birds are singing on territory. What an exciting time to be communing outdoors, hearing our summer visitors' magical sounds - the electric-spark call of eastern kingbird, the double-noted refrains of indigo bunting, wichy-wichy of common yellowthroat, sweet-sweet-sweet of yellow warbler, drink-your-tea of eastern towhee, pee-o-wee of eastern wood-pewee, fee-bee of eastern phoebe, the rich whistles of Baltimore oriole, the monotonous repeated phrases of red-eyed vireo.
Even in early spring or late fall, I nearly always see or hear at least double-digit numbers of birds. My first ride this year - on St. Patrick's Day - yielded 21 species, including a beautiful singing male eastern bluebird and 70 tundra swans resting on the ice of the Chautauqua Lake outlet.
As for time of day, the local thrushes - wood thrush, veery and hermit thrush - are not encountered as often on my late-morning rides as they are when I can overcome inertia and hit the road earlier in the day.
Of course, the resident cardinals and chickadees don't vocalize as much in the middle of the day either, but they are so numerous that I can almost always count them.
Additionally, the amount of time I spend on the bike matters. More miles traveled means more habitats passed and more species encountered. My 22-mile Falconer-Frewsburg-Kennedy route usually yields more sightings than the more usual 17-mile route that I take starting from my house. For instance, I regularly see an American kestrel along Route 62 north of Frewsburg and hear Savannah sparrows in the fields there.
It's not just birds I see and appreciate on my rides. Occasionally, dapple-coated white-tailed deer fawns reveal themselves; twin fawns ran alongside me on Dutch Hollow Road, and another pair crossed in front of me on Salisbury Road.
The rolling countryside in our fair county is engaging. Near Clymer, the Dutch names on roads and mailboxes - Vruink, Bensink, Einink, Beckerink - are fun to read, and I enjoy the ornamental windmills and wishing wells on the well-kept lawns. On the road going south out of Sherman are houses without electric service and without cars in their driveways - Amish farmsteads. Most of the Amish properties are brightened with flowers and dotted with bird feeders and bird houses, including gourds for purple martins. The children playing in the yards like to wave to the funny-looking cyclist in his yellow shirt riding his bright yellow bike - and I like to wave back at them.
On an average early spring bike-birding trip, I will usually record 20 to 25 species. Near the end of the ride, I try to "top off" the list. So if I miss rock pigeon on my way out of town, I scan the rooftops on my way back into town; the pigeon could be my last bird as I return home. And my mind can return to musing about the latest headlines - and maybe what I might have for lunch.
Thomas Simmons is a retired Jamestown teacher and a past president of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute Ornithological Club and of the Jamestown Audubon Society.This article was first published in the March/April 2011 issue of Bird Watcher's Digest magazine. The photographs were taken by the author. Thomas Simmons now resides in Lakewood.