Words by Alexandra Schaefers & Photos by Lisa Millbank
I know a lot of people imagine birding as a venture into extreme academic nerdiness. But all sorts of people bird these days without relinquishing their social skills, and it’s a perfect way to make outdoor adventures more than just a walk in the park. Birds are beautiful and funny. How could you not want to know who makes the crazy shrill screeeee sound out in your yard? If you love nature you will probably love birding, and bicycle birding is a great way to get started.
Recently I went bicycle birding through the Audubon Society of Corvallis. These are seasonal guided rides in the Audubon’s calendar of field trips led by Don Boucher and Lisa Millbank of Neighborhood Naturalist. Cycling offers an ideal way to bird. As Millbank points out, you can cover more ground than walking but you see and hear far more birds than driving. I found that pedaling along had an added benefit as an antidote for the overly serious bird study that is easily spurred by the challenge of identifying small, hidden creatures that fly off when finally focused in one’s binoculars. Cycling made it a fun outing in every sense.
We rode to Starker Arts Park, our guides listening for birds, and stopped where it seemed promising to spot some. Boucher and Millbank are extremely adept at identifying birds by their songs and calls. Often they can tell what species is hidden in the brush and what they are doing. This day we heard black-capped chickadees singing and calling in the same bush where a female American goldfinch was begging her mate for food. In the community garden at the park we watched more goldfinches flying past. Millbank pointed out their flight pattern of flapping briefly then gliding in a way that makes it look like they are bounding across the sky, and how they always call as they fly. There’s something humorous about a bird that has to sing every time it flaps its wings, “as if their wings are connected to their syrinx,” she said to illustrate the charming reliability of their flight call.
On a garden post we spotted a juvenile white-crowned sparrow next to a parent, and saw how different the young bird’s plumage will be when he matures, developing stark white and black stripes on his head. At the pond we saw baby mallards and Millbank stopped to feed peanuts to a pair of scrub jays in the park. The birds actually flew up to her expecting peanuts. She explained that when she and Boucher lived in the neighborhood they became acquainted with a pair of jays and always fed them peanuts.
We also went to the Sunset Park wetland boardwalk. On our way barn swallows swooped around our group in wide arcs as we stirred up bugs walking across the field. We also saw western blue birds, a lazuli bunting, spotted towees, northern flickers, turkey vultures, starlings, collared doves, band-tailed pigeons, an osprey, downy woodpecker, belted kingfisher, rufous hummingbird…. There are too many to list and this is the slow time of year when birds are done nesting and don’t need to defend their territory. Of course, we didn’t ignore all non-bird life while we were out. Boucher introduced us to several species of brilliantly colored butterflies and some of the plants and flowers like the invasive but fragrant penny royal. We also stopped to watch a doe and two fawns trot down the road.
My favorite sighting happened on the way back to town: two cedar waxwings eating hawthorn berries in a bush by the trail. There is something about a bird with a pointy tuft on its head and a black mask that is especially charming and it is always fun to see wildlife going about their normal activities, like stuffing their beaks aggressively full of berries.
We are lucky to have resources like the Audubon Society and Neighborhood Naturalist leading field trips in Corvallis. Bicycle birding has become so popular that the leaders are considering moving to a registration system to ensure that all participants get a quality experience. Luckily, all this nature is available to all of us all the time. As Boucher said, part of what they want to teach the community is that “You don’t have to leave town to have a quality nature experience.” When I arrived home there was a spotted towhee trilling in the top of a fir tree just to prove the point. As I parked my bike listening to all the other birds near the yard, I thought about the scrub jays I see around and wondered why I hadn’t stopped at the store for peanuts.