“Like Halle (author of Spring in Washington), I have spent many days in Washington biking in search of nature. And like him, I have been witness to natural phenomena that have enlivened those days when I saw special features—a beaver, a turtle, a loon, a comet. As Halle knew, a bicycle is far better than a car for searching out nature. Unlike a car, the bike is quiet and slow-moving, and it allows the biker to stop anywhere to take a closer look at something of interest. Moreover, exploring nature by bike allows one to cover a great deal more ground and thus see a lot more of nature than traveling by foot.”
Bruce M. Beehler, Natural Encounters: Biking, Hiking, and Birding through the Seasons.
Future historians may wonder why, despite its obvious benefits, the bicycle has not yet played a more prominent role in twenty-first century British birdwatching. As the accounts below show, the humble bicycle offers flexibility and a sense of freedom, independence, wellbeing, conviviality, and immersion in the natural world that cannot be matched by the car when travelling locally.
Crucially, the bicycle is also set to occupy a central role in the transition towards low-carbon lifestyles and economies. Climate scientists have made it clear: if we are serious about the climate emergency we need to drive less. According to Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, even if the car sector in the UK adheres to new standards, transitions to electric vehicles by 2035 and shifts to very low carbon electricity by 2030-35, a rapid reduction in vehicle-km of 40 to 60% is still needed to meet the Paris 2°- 1.5°C commitment.
These reductions in driving have to be facilitated by better land use planning and an improvement and expansion of public transport and accessible walking and cycling path networks. But such a fundamental transformation is also about changing our mindsets, goals and expectations, having the courage to imagine how things could be different, and taking advantage of every opportunity to move in the right direction.
A growing number of birdwatchers are already doing so and are finding it to be a joyful experience.
Before the car dominated the roads: two historical snapshops
Horace G. Alexander (1889 – 1989)
A chance encounter
In July 1909 the young Horace Alexander received an invitation to lunch with Norman Ticehurst, co-author thirty years later of the classic A Handbook of British Birds. Alexander was anxious about the meeting. Ticehurst was the first ornithologist he had come to know outside his family and, after exchanging letters for twenty one months, he held him in great respect. Despite the ‘panic at meeting such a distinguished stranger’, Alexander was nonetheless looking forward to the lunch—he had seen ‘some puzzling birds’ in Romney Marsh and hoped that Ticehurst could shed light on their identity. The conversation seems to have begun with Alexander talking about the reason why he hadn’t been able to identify these birds:
“Exploring Romney Marsh by bicycle, looking for the good places for waterfowl, which I knew still existed, I had stumbled on a wonderful spot, close to an old church, where there were a lot of ducks on the marshes, and some waders which, with my small telescope, I could not identify. I had not dared to approach any nearer to them, for I saw a bicycle standing there and assumed that some other man might be watching the birds; so I must not disturb them.”
After clarifying that the strange birds were Ruffs, Ticehurst told the shy and considerate Alexander that the bicycle was his brother’s and that “while you were wondering if you dared to approach nearer, he was watching a Stork.”
Mapping migrant birds
Few birdwatchers are aware that the pioneers of the common bird census in the UK were three teenage brothers who began to mark the location of migrant birds seen or heard during the breeding season. In his book Seventy Years of Birdwatching, Horace Alexander shows some of these maps and total counts of birds, and warns the reader to take differences in proportionate numbers with caution. For example, some maps show only small numbers of Willow Warbler when there are actually extensive woods in the area. The reason for this, he notes, is that “my mapping was simply of birds seen or heard from a bicycle, that is to say from the roads across the map. I did not penetrate into the woods at all.”
When Horace Alexander met Norman Ticehust in 1909, the first affordable car available to affluent middle classes —the Ford Model T—had been in production for only ten months in the USA. When he died in 1989 there were 20 million passenger cars in the UK and today the figure is 38.8 million. The growth in car ownership was mainly concentrated in the post-war period. This painting by Adrian Paul Allison is probably an accurate portrayal of how a rural road may have looked in 1950’s Britain. At the time there were 4 million licensed vehicles and 12 million regular cyclists in a country with a population of 49 million. In 1950 only around 15% of households in England owned a car. Today 76% of households own at least one car and cars account for just over 18% of UK emissions. Transport emissions as a whole account for a third of the UK’s total carbon emissions.
The timid return of the bicycle
Ever since childhood I’ve been passionate about the wonderful sights and sounds of the British countryside and its wildlife, with a specific focus on birds. Growing up I became increasingly frustrated with the lack of public transport in my area which consequently meant I couldn’t easily reach local sites without having to be completely reliant on the help of my parents. Birding by bike gave me the independence I was looking for while introducing me to new sites, new scenery and new birds.
Another benefit for me was the appreciation I developed for where I lived and the ability to reignite my love for patch birding, making each individual species feel special and valued. As birders, we all share a mutual love for animals and their unique and varied habitats—by choosing the low-carbon option we can all contribute to global change, no matter how big or small.
My first serious birding-by-bike was at university in the 1990s, and largely consisted of trying to keep up with my (then much fitter) birding mate in less-than-flat Fife, in winter, on a cheap, heavy mountain bike and carrying a 60 litre rucksack! Quite how we routinely did 45 mile days I’ll never know.
Fast forward to the 2010s and I still haven’t cracked it: my recent cycling exploits evolved independently from birding as a way to get fit. I started with a mid-range hybrid then progressed to a reasonable road-bike but with no consideration for how to transport birding gear. I still use a rucksack for (pared-down) birding kit but that isn’t very comfortable for rides of longer than about an hour … and doesn’t look very ‘pro’ on the road bike (a key consideration for any MAMIL/MAWIL). Longer birding excursions, such as Thetford–Alton Water for a Gull-billed Tern invariably involved full cycling gear and absolute minimal birding gear—in the case of the 110-mile tern twitch, just a 150g Opticron monocular stuffed in my jersey pocked.
Then came the ‘Eureka!’ moment—I realised that a bike bottle cage was the perfect size and shape for a travel scope (specifically the Opticron MM4 50)! I can now don full lycra cycling gear and comfortably carry enough optical fire-power to do some damage at large waterbodies / other places where a scope is essential … without having to carry a rucksack or attach nasty panniers etc to my road bike. (I could of course invest in a more practical steed for birding, such as a gravel / touring bike with full load-bearing adornments … but that’s for another paycheck!)
On the sea defence wall turnstones run frantically, eking out every nutrient in the algae, offshore torpedo-like gannets fly and on the cliff tops cackling fulmars sit. All this is in my local area, and all this has been seen thanks to my bike, a way for me to travel further, faster, and more independently as, at 14 years old, I can’t drive.
Sadly, I am unable to present any photographic proof of the days (in the mid/late 80s) when I would load up a touring bike with bins, scope, tripod and enough stuff for 10 days of youth hostelling, cover the 100 miles between home (in Lincolnshire) and Cley (in Norfolk) by mid afternoon, spend a few hours birding and then pedal off to the Sheringham YHA.
Instead, here are a couple of images (from Dec 2017) of me birding by bike in Siracusa, in Sicily. Bikes are undoubtedly the best way to get around this terrific birding town. Staying at the saltpans until dusk and then biking home through the rush-hour traffic is not always for the faint-hearted—although probably less scary than the A17 between Boston and Kings Lynn …
Birding by bike is a great way of getting around. It’s much more immersive. You travel in a landscape not through it, picking up bird calls and song, and often getting closer than on foot. When I was a kid, our bikes took us all over the woodlands and marshlands of N Kent, and further afield on the train.
In the long, hot summer of 1976, a friend and I took our bikes on the night boat-train to Paris and spent 10 days birding in the Loire valley. My Raleigh bike with little wheels was a bit like my flared jeans—in fashion (just) but hugely impractical. The bike certainly caused a stir among Parisian motorists around the Arc de Triomphe!
1976 was the most severe drought in the UK and NW Europe since 1772. By the time we left for the Loire, my notebook records how the eels had desperately retreated into the mud cracks in the dried-out fleets and lagoons of the Thames and Medway, where they then died and desiccated under the relentless sun. Now, 2020 wasn’t just the year of a pandemic, it was also the 6th year in a row of the highest average global temperatures since records began.
When I was 16, I never realised that travel was not cost-free for the very wildlife that inspires me. At 61, I now understand that climate change and nature loss are inextricably linked with human health. Covid-19 has led me to reappraise many things. What I do know is that my bins and bike will be a bigger part of my lifestyle than in recent years—and a spotting scope too, if I pick up on the brilliant idea of modifying one of my water bottle carriers to hold it!
Today, I’ve got a vintage, steel-frame Eddy Merckx road bike. I started biking again mainly for health reasons but over the last year of Covid-19 especially, I have come to really appreciate immersing myself in nature on my local circuit between two river valleys.
Birding by bicycle for me is the most fun way to see a diverse range of species across different local habitats. On the bike you can stumble across anything and listen out for birdsong and quickly stop if you see something move. This adds a great sense of adventure to an outing rather than driving directly to the end destination. Having the ability to cycle between farmland, woodland, and wetlands (in both the south east and north Wales, and now Cambridgeshire) has enabled me to see some incredible species such as nightingale, turtle dove, red-footed falcon, ring ouzel, cuckoo, redstart, pied flycatcher, jack snipe, garganey … the bike list goes on!
Some of my earliest birding memories were bicycle related. I can remember stopping my bike by a nearby lake some twenty years ago to take a closer look at the small brown bird which had just popped up in the bush in front of me, which turned out to be my first ever Whitethroat.
As a patch enthusiast I’ve always stayed mostly local and done much of my birding on foot. Last year I decided to broaden my horizons a little by getting back on two wheels. Sadly, my old bike was neglected beyond repair so I started heading out to the patch on my wife’s bike a couple of times a week. I found I could cover the distances in half the time which meant twice as much time enjoying the birds. In the summer I treated myself to a new mountain bike and haven’t looked back since!
It’s many years since I kept lists of birds. Since I started birding exclusively by bike and on foot, however, each species I see seems somehow new again. Mentally, I suppose, I have a list of birds I’ve seen while actively limiting my emissions. Low-carbon birding, for me, is about loving birds without the guilt of knowing I’m harming them by driving. But it’s better than that. I cycled everywhere as a child, and loved both the exercise and the birds I heard along my way. Cycling around Norfolk for birds (and flowers, and insects, and other wildlife) today feels like a portal back to the happiest times of my childhood.
I started to cycle while birdwatching during the first lockdown when we were not allowed to travel very far. This allowed me to still be able to visit my local patch as regularly as I wanted as I did not have to rely on my parents for a lift. My most memorable moment whilst birding on my bike was when a red-footed falcon turned up about 20 minutes away (by car) so I left in the morning and it took me about an hour and a half to arrive, but it was so worth it. Birding by bike is not only good for the environment and a great form of exercise, but also a good way for younger people to access nature, especially for those who may not have access to public transport or a parental taxi service!
Birding by bike is often my primary way to get around and certainly one of the quickest, greenest and my favourite ways to see birds, especially in the summer. I often spend hours peddling around Salisbury Plain looking at everything from plants to butterflies and birds, and as a young birder who can’t drive yet, it’s always nice to have my own freedom and move around at my own pace, in a environmentally friendly way. In the coming months and years, even once I can drive and have greater independence, I do hope to do longer, multiple-day journeys and further distances to better birding hotspots.
The lockdowns of 2020 saw me put on a few pounds so I resolved to combine birding and cycling in 2021, and to see how many species I could clock up under my own steam. I’ve travelled over 700 miles on my bike so far in 2021—not all birding, I should add, but as I have got fitter, more distant locations have come within easier reach, including coastal locations like St Aldhelms Head which holds my nearest population of corn bunting. Here the bike is pictured by the Coastguard building. I met up with my friends Phil Saunders and Steve Smith here on 4th April—a good decision as Phil found a red-rumped swallow—a top drawer ‘bike tick’! The same day saw me pass the important milestone of 150 species seen or heard walking or cycling from home this year.
I never thought this would happen but, over the last few months, cycling has become my sole means of going birding. Whether it’s to check a nearby Fen or to go further afield, I am realising that I actually quite like cycling. I’ve previously thought of it as just a means to get from A to B, but I’m increasingly enjoying the exercise and wellbeing benefits, as well as the birds I am seeing on route. It’s been interesting to see how the species along one route have changed from winter thrushes to singing chiffchaffs, then to singing willow warblers; I expect the next trip will see the transition to common and lesser whitethroats. A nuthatch in a village churchyard—a proper rarity in these parts—would have been completely missed had I been in the car. Gradually building up the miles has given me the confidence to stray a bit further afield, heading up to the Ouse Washes (where the above photo was taken) on consecutive weekends seeking spoonbills, garganey and ruff—all birds I have seen many times before, but enjoyed afresh from the saddle.
I now rarely drive to any site within 24km, which is roughly my comfortable range with scope and tripod in the panniers. Although it certainly takes me far longer to get to my destinations, in many cases my ‘best’ birds of the day are on the journey itself, perhaps migrating wheatears, ring-ouzels or a black redstart on the Humber bank, a nesting hobby or peregrine on the Wold, or simply getting a feel for how many willow warblers, whitethroats and yellow wagtail there are this year in the wider countryside.
My birding is dominated by ‘projects’ to gain a better understanding of local birds, their lives and populations rather than listing. I have found that birding by bike has opened up new possibilities that would, perhaps, be near-impossible by car or on foot such as mapping the remaining corn bunting population on the local Wold by cycling the minor roads and bridleways, giving around 70 singing males between Barton and Caistor. The next question is why is this population now restricted to the Wold tops of more than 55m above sea level? Projects often have the habit of never really ending.
Birding in the Yorkshire Dales lends itself particularly well to exploration by bike, especially mountain bike. Though there aren’t any reserves at which to securely park up and go off birdwatching, many bridleways and singletracks cross-cross the fells; and despite species diversity being limited, some classic upland species can be sought-out. These comprise a selection which many other birders may be hard-pressed to get onto their non-motorised lists: red & black grouse, goosander, golden plover, dunlin, short-eared owl, ring ouzel, redstart, pied flycatcher, wood warbler and dipper to name a few. It would be foolhardy to ignore the road bike however, as Fleet Moss, the highest road in Yorkshire, lies nearby, allowing a small flock of long-staying snow buntings to be enjoyed earlier this year!
Fortunately, my home county is incredibly flat. The Cambridgeshire fenlands lend themselves to cycling, as well as being particularly good for bird life. These positives made it inevitable that I’d transition into more low-carbon birding as lockdowns and restrictions became the norm.
We’re lucky to have a guided busway nearby. It’s a former railway track converted to accommodate buses. This stretches horizontally across the country for miles, with a wide cycle path running parallel to it. The route goes directly through RSPB reserve Fen Drayton Lakes, and it’s a great route for getting to other reserves, like nearby RSPB Ouse Fen.
Cycling south along the busway allows Cambridgeshire residents to access two train stations for any further birdwatching travels. Or, if you keep pedalling, you reach south of Cambridge in no time, giving you access to a host of other smaller nature reserves.
Two years ago, after my girlfriend Louise found a job in Liverpool, we decided to move to the countryside near the city. We didn’t have a car but we thought we could try to discover our new environment by riding our bikes. Luckily, we are currently living in an area rich in birding spots and we actually do our daily birding by walking in our local patch. Having our bikes allow us to visit “far away” places. One of our favorites is a 40 km ride to the sea to spot waders and seabirds.
Back in the Alps, I’m trying to stick with the biking and birding although the climbs are much longer. Biking and birding are good ways to be more physically active and to have a lower impact on the climate.
Most of my birding since being a student has been done by bike and nowadays pretty much all of my birding is done by bike. I find it very difficult to understand why most people who can don’t use a bike for birding.
I have found some great birds by chance from my bike—big birds like whiskered tern and white stork, and small birds flushed from road verges like redstart and a nightjar sat on a gate.
I am hugely fortunate to live 10 minutes bike ride from the Exe Estuary cycle route. This is a 26 mile, flat, largely traffic-free route that links towns, villages and Exeter to reserves and great sites like Dawlish Warren, Bowling Green Marsh and Exminster Marshes. And yet a good bird on the Exe Estuary does not generate a pile of birders bikes in the way it would in the Netherlands. There are maybe 4 or 5 regular biking birders on the Exe. The numbers of people using the cycle route has mushroomed over the past year and I really enjoy seeing families and older people making the most of this wonderful resource. But most birders choose to arrive and move around by car.
Things are definitely getting better for biking birders—new traffic-free routes are appearing and I have found the invention of ‘Scopacs’ a revelation to keep trailing tripod straps out of wheels. But the information for biking birders remains poor and feels a bit of an afterthought. Exminster Marshes RSPB reserve does have lapwing cycle racks but the online visitor information doesn’t let you know you can hire electric bikes and join the route in Exeter, that there is a free bike maintenance station at the nearby Turf Locks pub (and more parking—this time curlew-shaped) or how to join up a cycle-based visit to other nearby sites. We can do so much more, including thinking more carefully and purposefully about the space and priority we give to car drivers versus walkers, wheelchair users and cyclists on and around reserves and other sites.
I have used all sorts of bikes for birding—mountain bikes, road bikes and hybrids. Right now I use a 15-year old Giant hybrid but have just added a second-hand Dutch Workcycle FR8 to my options. I have had bikes stolen (at six thirty in the morning!) and lots of punctures. But bikes are just the best way to travel and enjoy the natural world. It’s as simple as that.
Biking while birding is something I enjoy greatly, although not so much in violent wind and rainy weather! I love being on a bike and I am a great believer that you are able to see far more birds while cycling than while in a car—you are able to hear and see every little bit of movement coming out of the nearby hedges.
I know I am incredibly biased, though—I spend most of my time at Spurn where I have found a few nice little oddities while on the rusted, sand-destroyed bike. However, during lockdown 2 and 3, my hand was forced to spend the months between November and April birding inland Northamptonshire as I did as a younger teenager and I still enjoyed it as much as ever. Seeing things like showy yellowhammers, grey partridges and even some light vismig made it all worthwhile.
On a free Saturday, I decided to cycle down to a big woodland on the shores of the Cleddau Estuary. Before I even reached the wood, a cuckoo was calling, and I witnessed an incredible fight between 2 goshawks and some crows. When I reached the wood, the bubbling of whimbrels and some curlews, as well as numerous common woodland species. An excellent morning out!
I have been vegan for many years and have been concerned about my carbon footprint, hence birding by bicycle. During lockdown I set myself a goal of achieving a tick list of 100 species by bike or on foot, but sadly I only achieved 98 species. Highlights were ring-billed gull, glaucous gull, iceland gull, yellow-legged gull, hen harrier, merlin, goshawk and long-tailed duck. I am passionate about birding by bicycle and cutting down my carbon footprint.
The onset of the first lockdown prompted me to start birding by bike and since then I’ve kept up the habit whenever I can. One of the benefits of cycling is the ability to bird constantly. I usually bird Otmoor (about 8km away), but driving meant that I never birded any of the fields or copses in between my home and Otmoor. Although I haven’t been doing it long, this method has already turned up some decent birds this winter like merlin, crossbill, raven, woodcock, peregrine and red-legged partridge.
Perhaps most importantly though, cycling has cut my driving significantly, and hence also cut my carbon emissions. As birders, it’s crucial to be environmentally aware, and birding your patch greenly is an excellent way to go about it. Whilst not everyone may be within walking distance of a decent patch, cycling extends your range significantly and provides many more options.
Spring is my favourite season—churchyards and verges are teeming with insects, wildflowers are ubiquitous and, best of all, many birds arrive back from Africa to breed on my patch for another year. Warblers sing from every copse as I cycle along the country lanes and a trip to the local broads usually reveals reedbed-dwelling warblers, great crested grebes, calling common terns and, if I’m lucky, a small group of pochard.
I have been using low carbon forms of transport for over 60 years. The hedge in the background of this photograph is where I joined my father to watch ten wrens ‘bouncing’ in excitement at having recently hatched.
These days, I use a Ridgeback Tempest to observe a variety of birds, including curlews, buzzards, goldcrests, and herons in the Cumbrian Pennines.
Cycling in lockdown has proved both beneficial and enjoyable, as a way of adding an additional range to my local birding, with the added bonus of being able to largely leave the car at home and get fitter! This has also meant that I’ve birded within cyclable distances and explored areas I’ve not been to before. Using a local map to research the area and look at the layout of the land, and old bird reports to find historic, forgotten sites has proved invaluable.
From a birding perspective the highlight this spring was discovering more pairs of local Goshawks than I could have ever imagined, with the added bonus of being able to quietly sit watching over a wood by myself, tucked out the way watching these magnificent birds displaying and calling. I’ve also learnt that cycling doesn’t have to be hard work, as a pair of panniers or a backpack with a travel scope, bridge camera and binoculars plus a flask of coffee and a sandwich is all you need to set yourself up for a rewarding morning of carbon-free birding.
My bike is an invaluable part of my birding gear. It can be relied upon, despite the odd puncture, and it copes with the elements. The wind and rain is no problem for my bike, albeit less enjoyable for the cyclist. It has made many a trip around my local patch and occasionally further afield. It has taken me to all sorts of birds, including eastern yellow wagtail, american wigeon and iceland gull, to name but a few of the rarer species. But it isn’t just about the destination, it is as much about the journey as you cross tracks and trails and see birds that you would never have seen from the car. Birding by bike is an adventure, and you never know what you might find.
I have been cycling now for around four years as a means of travelling for birding and survey work. As well as improving my general fitness, it has dramatically increased my ‘green’ travel range and the diversity of local sites that I can watch. Birding by bike has provided me with the ability to bird anywhere that I wish and I no longer say ‘that looks like an interesting bit of habitat’ as you drive towards a single end location—I simply stop and have a look. Many overlooked sites can all be checked giving a noticeably more accurate picture of birds in the local area. Having not wanted to use public transport recently given the current health crisis, it also was very useful for twitching a laughing gull 15 miles away! With the easing of lockdown restrictions, I look forward to taking the bike further afield in the future.
I’m lucky enough to live just a few miles from the mid Yare valley complex of RSPB reserves. When lockdown hit last year my birding stayed local and was mainly undertaken by bike. This year I have started a new green list and am currently up to 112 species by foot/bike. This will continue throughout the year and I’ve found myself cycling in to work more frequently so I can add to my list, not to mention the reduction of emissions!
Getting around by bicycle is my preferred method of transport for local birding. It not only allows me to reduce my carbon footprint by making fewer car journeys (which is very important), but it also allows me to get more exercise in! When travelling by car, you often miss birds on the way, but what is great about cycling is that you are more aware of your surroundings as you can hear birds and can scan different habitats more easily as you make your way between two places. For example, to get to my local preferred birding spot, I have to cross fields and go through woodland on the bike, which allows me to search different habitats along the way. Don’t get me wrong, birding by bike is not always practical, but you can’t beat discovering your local patch on two wheels!
We recently moved to Easington; close to Spurn and a nice flat area, ideal for cycling. Birding around the village ‘hotspots’ is best on foot, but cycling offers a chance to check the wider local area for migrants, especially after an arrival late in the day (as is so often is the case here).
Further afield, Spurn Point is rather more of a challenge to a biking birder of advancing years like myself. So, I’ve joined the growing number of Spurn birders using e-bikes. It’s just right for the job, handling the sandy breach across to the peninsula nicely and making a very pleasant outing to a relatively poorly-watched part of the recording area.
I’m pleased to say biking has become my usual mode of transport around Spurn. Something that became apparent when a local birder saw me in my car, saying he “didn’t recognise me on four wheels”!
Editor’s note: According to research by CREDS, ‘Electrically-assisted bicycles (e-bikes), if used to replace car travel, have the capability to cut car carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in England by up to 50% (about 30 million tonnes per year). The greatest opportunities are in rural and sub-urban settings: city dwellers already have many low-carbon travel options, so the greatest impact would be on encouraging use outside urban areas.’
Low-carbon birding is something I have done increasingly over the last 7 – 10 years. From local walks out to literally hundreds of miles of endurance. It’s a way of life for me, as opposed to just a ‘thing’ I do. In the last week alone I have found a pair of black-necked grebe, wheatear and a passage little-ringed plover. All under my own steam starting from the front door.
I’ve been birding and cycling since the age of six. Back then it was backyard yellowhammers and a BMX in the English Midlands. Now more often than not it’s waders and warblers on this MTB—and fewer stunts—though I did pull a celebratory wheelie yesterday when I heard my first Whitethroat of the year.
I live in a part of town close to the Lune estuary in North Lancashire and that’s no accident. It’s great for birding and the fields, saltmarshes and mudflats are served well by a mixed-use path (a former railway line) and footpaths. Bicycle is the best way to explore here, most of the patch birders use bikes, and it’s all rather civilized. It’s easy to carry all you need—I stow a scope and mini tripod in my pannier, camera in my bar bag and bins round my neck. Best way to bird, bar none.
I love birds and I love bikes but half the time I don’t recognise the make of either. It’s so easy to sneak up on a heron or skid to a halt for a harrier.
Bicycle birding on the Exe Estuary in comfort (if not in style). After the bicycle, the bicycle pannier has to be the best invention in the history of the world. I’ve got two and I can get a scope and tripod in one, camera in the other (bins generally where they should be, round my neck) and still have room for lunch, thermos, coat and other assorted gubbins which seemed like a good idea at the time.
I don’t do speed, just fast enough not to fall off, which is great for taking in the scenery and stopping for anything interesting; on a bike you never have to look for somewhere to pull over and you never have to pay for parking. And of course, at my pace, I can cover miles and miles without really breaking a sweat.
Ping! Local birders’ WhatsApp group message flashes up—5 ringed white storks at Matford Marshes. Time for a break from the desk and a quick 8 minute dash from home on the bike. Cars queue at 3 sets of traffic lights while I slip by on the cycle path. As I cross the railway bridge I can see the Storks. And relax. What made it even better was the sight of six other birders on their bikes, all contributing to low-carbon birding.
I’ve always had an interest in restoration of all kinds, and a life long passion for nature, but it’s only relatively recently that I’ve combined the two interests. I’d been a little divorced from bike riding for a while but I finally got around to breathing life back into an old Raleigh Roadster (built in 1951) that had been left to me by an uncle who rode it in his work as a village policemen. Now, 70 years later I’m using it for another purpose, to get from place to place in pursuit of birds, plants and insects. My range is pretty modest but the sit up and beg style of the bike is perfect for looking around while I ride. Its perfectly suited to someone who cares less about speed than being able to enjoy the view, listen to the birds and smell the flowers.
I have no problems in conceding that I am lucky, with a number of small nature reserves, parks and gardens within a five mile radius of my house. “Lockdown 2020” provided time and opportunity to reconfigure, pack a backpack with my binos, camera and flask of tea and re-discover my love of birds in a new way. “Biking for birding” is rewarding on so many levels. Not only the opportunity to observe, photograph and monitor what you see more closely, (even if informally) but also the realisation that you are not contributing to the climate crisis. Personal highlights not only include the satisfaction of cycling uphill, knowing that it’s then downhill all the way (enter my 14 year old self) but seeing, smelling and hearing the wildlife en route. The tree sparrows in the gardens, the smell of the wild garlic and the yellowhammer’s greeting on arrival. Rarities are not on the agenda, but the regularities of the seasonal transitions, the arrival of whitethroat, the anticipation of the little grebe hatchlings. There’s no doubt in my mind that “biking for birding” will stick with me for good now. It has unlocked a new way of discovering nature and a greater appreciation of my locality. My next steps will be to go biking for birding further afield and even plan some routes combining bike and train. I’m super excited and proud to be doing my bit.
In Spain, funnily enough there’s a word for it: “ornitociclismo” but very few do it. I do it every day and have been doing it for the last 60 years, 30 in GB, 30 here in Spain. Bike birding. All my maillots have floppy back pockets from whipping out the binoculars when a singing golden oriole turns up in full view by the roadside or a booted eagle floats over. For me it’s always been the perfect way of watching and – above all – listening to birds. You cover ground; none of the journey is dead time locked inside the bubble of a car. Something interesting could crop up along any part of the journey and your ears or eyes can pick it up instantly. Another fast draw of the bins from the baggy back pocket . . . .
We live 8 months (October to May) in a wooded part of Spain called La Vera, replete with nightingales in spring (50,000 pairs: any cycle ride is a continual nightingale relay and I reckon I might hear up to 1000 on a 100 km ride). Four months we spend up north in Asturias, beside some of the iconic climbs of La Vuelta like Lagos de Covadonga and Fitu. Here, among other things, I like to dedicate my summer rides to look for red-backed-shrike territories in a 50 km radius of my house. In the last 10 years I’ve found a total of 190. With no other mode of transport would it be so easy to pick up the adult’s shi-shic call when feeding young.
For me, in short, there’s no other way to do birding, no other satisfaction that so completely and delightfully blends athletic achievement with aesthetic fulfilment.
I am more a birder who cycles than vice versa, but I have always enjoyed cycling, with the exception of a period in my twenties when having a car was a novelty and we had no room for a bike. Some of my most memorable birding moments have been on a bike, right from having a flyby Hen Harrier on my way home from work in Clumber Park as a teenager in 1978, right up to this spring when, more in hope than expectation, I had an early morning ride onto the moorland near home and managed to find a trip of four Dotterel.
My coastal patch at Boulby is within cycling distance but at over an hour away it’s not really practical for early arrival or time-pressured visit, and I haven’t yet sorted out a lightweight scope/tripod arrangement so it’s just bins and small camera for those trips. I now find myself more often than not choosing to cycle into the local forest, up onto the North York Moors or to check out the local ponds rather than make a fruitless drive out to the coast or further afield. I know the odds of finding something unusual are poor compared to the coast, but I feel better for it, it keeps my constant canine companion Bailey fit and the environmental impact of enjoying my pastime is minimised. I haven’t yet succumbed to the temptation of an e-bike, but the day will come when I can no longer slog my way up the 25% incline that greets me five minutes from home so it’s good to know that option is there (and might make carrying heavy optics more feasible).
I committed to being a cycling Eco-birder 2 years ago and have since clocked up 5000 miles pedalling around the urban jungle of Greater Manchester. My local patches include Tandle Hill, Hollingworth Lake and the Rochdale Canal, although I sometimes cycle to exotic locations such as the Salford Mosses, Wigan Flashes and the Bolton Kingfisher Trail.
Even vacations and twitches further afield involve bikes these days. I recently managed to see the bearded vulture on a cycling tour of the Peak District and hiring bikes from Cyclexperience whilst on holiday in Hampshire was a brilliant way of exploring habitats such as the New Forest and Keyhaven Marshes.
Bird Races are great fun on a bike and in Greater Manchester we have ten boroughs that are all a perfect size for an all day birding and cycling session. The road conditions can be, to quote Sean Kelly, “real, real difficult” but there is an increase in enthusiasm for cycling that Chris Boardman, Greater Manchester’s new Transport Commissioner, is tapping into with the “Bee Network”, an attempt to link cycleways.
I have been birding in the city region for more than 30 years but I am still discovering new sites on the bike and have found some great birds whilst in the saddle such as osprey, kittiwake, great egret, black-necked grebe, mediterranean gull and green sandpiper.
With what I termed the “2020 Vision” I started a concept called “The Big Eco Year In Greater Manchester”, in 2020 I recorded 135 species on the bike, and this year I’m aiming to record a higher total with the ambition for more people to take part and create their own cycling Eco year-list in Greater Manchester in the future.
In the seventies I used to cycle all around the local area for birding, but as soon as I could drive, I no longer needed to use a bike. It’s only since having to work from home five days a week that I’ve taken up cycling again. My Leica APO 62 scope has come out of retirement and combined with a lightweight carbon fibre tripod and Scopac, it makes the ideal setup for cycle-birding. So from being a weekend only birder, I’m now able to pop out several days a week to local hot spots and get an hour or so birding before work. Not only am I getting in more birding, I’m also fitter.
Looking at the future
Trains and bicycles
The bicycle could also become a regular birding companion beyond the local area if cycling was better integrated within train travel. Unfortunately this is not a priority for politicians and train companies. And yet it is necessary to decarbonise long-distance travel—only 3% of car trips in the UK are over 50 miles but they account for 30% of all distances travelled.
The photos below show a cycling club trip on a Cyclists Special train from London to the Lake District in the 1950s (watch a 15 min film by British Transport Films about Cyclists Special trains). Specially designed carriages allowed a large number of bicycles to be transported conveniently and safely. Today there’s usually a limit of two to six bikes per train, and you may need to reserve a space in advance. Each train operating company has its own rules and restrictions regarding cycle carriage.
But cycling might not be for everyone. If you find that it isn’t for you and you prefer walking, don’t worry you are not alone!
All over social media these days there are images of local patch working birders travelling around on various styles of pedal cycle. A quick and clean way to get to those furthest reaches of your patch?
For some, yes, but not everyone.
I tried it some years back with all good intentions. A bike was duly purchased and as I spend the majority of my time locally it would surely be the ideal way of getting around. Until I tried it.
Laden with bins, scope, tripod and camera I set off the two miles to my then patch. What a shock I got not having cycled for decades. I was wobbling along like Bambi taking his first steps, until at furthest point, the chain came off and wedged in the cog! By now, sweating and raging, a Fawlty Towers-esque scene commenced with me struggling with the chain, grunting all kinds of profanities under my breath and I snapped sooner than the chain. I gave the bike a few quiet words through gritted teeth. ‘You better get this sorted or you’re over that hedge mate’. I gave one last final ‘BOOT’ of the pedal and the chain came loose and sprung back onto the gears.
At least I could get back home.
That was the only time I ventured out on it. After that the bike lay as a climbing support for brambles beside our outbuildings for years. One spring a Grasshopper Warbler took up a short passage territory not ten feet from the now rusting frames.
It’s two legs rather than two wheels for me from now on. I still use the car, but more infrequently than I did. At least its something …