Sunday, March 4, 2018

1-3 March 2018: FOGYs everywhere, finally some open water, and a long windy ride

It's that time of year - I keep finding first-of-green-year species without even trying! And spring migration has barely begun! On March 1st I saw a female Ring-necked Pheasant (#52) on my commute. Pheasants are not hard to find elsewhere in the county, but this was definitely NOT a species I expected to see next to the bike path that runs between railroad tracks and a neighborhood. It's a blended suburban-industrial area that happens to have a marshy area next to the railroad tracks - I heard woodcock there last spring. I guess a small scrap of habitat is better than no habitat! I also heard and saw Red-winged Blackbirds (#53) and a Common Grackle (#54) on my commute that day. 

Meanwhile, I'd been watching the daily satellite images to see when the ice started breaking up on Lake Onalaska. Based on last year's images, one of the first areas to break up is also one of my favorite places to go waterbirding. It's just 2.5 miles from work and hosted thousands of birds on any given day last spring. It looked like it was finally starting to open up (I say "finally" only because I've been waiting impatiently - it's not a late spring or anything), so I headed out to see what I could find on the 2nd before work. There were birds! Only a few hundred individuals, but five FOGYs: Common Merganser (#55), Canvasback (#56), Bufflehead (#57), Lesser Scaup (#58), and Redhead (#59). Two swans flew over but I didn't get a look at their bills and they were silent, so they remained unidentified and uncounted. Some of my first field jobs involved marathon surveys of many thousands of waterfowl, and all these birds retain a special place in my heart. Just wait until waterfowl migration really ramps up - it's quite a spectacle on the Mississippi!

The weather was stellar on the 2nd, but I had a meeting scheduled later that morning, so I couldn't take any more time off work (darn). The forecast for the 3rd (Saturday) was shaping up to be decent but potentially breezy. The wind was out of the southeast, so I headed southeast up into the bluffs (it's always nice to know I'll have a tailwind to push me home after a long ride). I was hoping to find some flocks of geese that might have more than just Canadas - those flocks have been passing over on their way to somewhere farther north that must have open water. There was also an off chance of finding a Golden Eagle out in that area; they're always sparse but eagle surveys typically find one or two around there. But it's also getting a little late in the season for them.

For the first hour of the ride, I was mostly making distance to the area I wanted to reach. Heard-only Sandhill Cranes (#60) and three Trumpeter Swans (#61) were nice to find en route. Then the geese started flying over - but, frustratingly, they were all backlit, distant, and most individuals were silent, with only a few honks from each flock! I could tell there were smaller species in with the Canadas, but that's all I could tell. I couldn't even be entirely sure that they weren't white geese, but they were probably Cackling or Greater White-fronted. But you can't count a "probably" or an "either/or!" Finally, I heard a single call from a Greater White-fronted Goose (#62). 

This was a time when it was super helpful to be biking rather than driving. Geese flying high against a blue sky are hard to see, so hearing them is often the first clue to their presence. The various species are also identifiable by call. If I'd been in a car, I probably never would have seen most of those flocks - and I wouldn't have heard that one GWFG call, even if I'd been driving with the windows down. It's also possible to stop anywhere on a bike and step off the road, whereas a car would be blocking traffic if it stopped.

I stopped for second breakfast at a trailhead at the Coulee Experimental Forest. Not a lot of bird activity up there - the geese had stopped flying over, and nothing else interesting happened to pass by (well, all birds are interesting, but you know what I mean!). The wind was starting to gust so I figured I'd better continue and see how far I could get before it got too strong.

Turned out that wasn't very far... I fought a headwind for several miles on Antony Road, watching the sky for Golden Eagles. It was a good day to be a raptor, with Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harrier, and Bald Eagles all up riding the wind, but alas, no Goldens. I also didn't happen upon any of those darn longspurs or buntings or shrikes in the open areas.

I'd hoped to continue a bit farther, but biking into the headwind had become more arduous than fun by the, so I turned onto a shorter route home. I was really glad I'd made that decision when I did, because the crosswind was awful! Luckily I only had to deal with it for a few miles before I could drop back down into the valley. The rest of the way home I had a smokin' tailwind or occasionally a slight (but not scary) crosswind. It's tough to judge the wind forecast around here, though I'm learning what areas are best to avoid when a "moderate breeze" is expected! 

So, yes, bike-birding can be limiting because you might not want to be out in all weather. Still, I think this is another advantage of bike-birding: I'm much more attuned to the weather (current or forecast), and sometimes that's helpful because the best place to bird can be weather-dependent. Plus, I'm really out there in the elements, just like the birds, so it's an immersive experience rather than what could become a spectator sport.

43 miles that day - another long ride, and this time including a fairly long climb up a steep hill, plus a headwind for a while. I was tired when I got back! And starving, even though I'd been downing snacks as fast as I could all morning! A steady stream of calories is absolutely crucial to avoid "bonking," which I'm pretty susceptible to; so this was a good reminder that yes, I really need to keep cramming in more food even when I'm biking and birding and don't feel at all like eating anything. Especially as I start taking longer rides later in the spring. If I can't make it home under my own power, any new species from that day won't count for my green list! (Oh, I guess my physical well-being is important too... ;-) )


  1. Your early spring is off to a great start! I feel like March is incredibly underrated as a birding month. The first weekend always seems to net a ton of new stuff. I have never heard the term "bonking" before, but I know exactly what you mean and will be referring to that phenomenon in that way from now on.

    1. Ha, I recently learned the term "bonking" too - seems to be commonly used by serious athletes, which I most certainly am not, but I read some of that material when I started biking long distances. I always used to call it "crashing" or "hitting the wall" or "the only thing I can possibly do right now is lie down and never move again, never mind that it's cold and raining and I'm miles from home." It's basically the worst thing ever, and I was relieved to learn that I could reliably prevent it by eating and drinking enough. Yes, March birding is definitely fun - so much promise for things to come!