Canadian family bikes for birds, from Yukon to Big Bend
By MEGAN WILDE / The Big Bend Sentinel (7/17/08)
ALPINE – When Malkolm and Wendy Boothroyd and Ken Madsen rolled into Big Bend National Park last month, they had bicycled 13,133 miles, endured freezing temperatures and South Texas’s summer heat, grown sick of peanut butter, camped in roadside parks, a Wal-Mart parking lot and a graveyeard, raised more than $20,000 for bird-habitat conservation, and seen about 550 species of bird.
The Canadian family dubbed this year-long, cross-continent journey “Bird Year,” a playful twist on the term “Big Year.” A Big Year, Malkolm explained, is an informal competitive quest among devoted birders to see as many bird species as possible in 365 days. Malkolm, a sandy-haired 16-year-old with an already-encyclopedic knowledge of natural history, has been thinking about his Big Year for a long time. His birding passion was ignited when he was only seven- or eight-years old. At the time, he was with his parents on another cross-country journey, giving Americans presentations about the need to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“I was flipping through my bird book, wondering what birds are going to be in Florida when we go there next week, what birds are going to be in Texas,” Malkolm said. “I think I got interested then, when it was about the only thing to do sitting in the back of our van.”
At age 13, when Malkolm began more seriously planning his Big Year, he and his family decided to make the birding marathon more about birds than competition.
“Traditionally people fly all over the country, chasing down rare birds down in every corner of the continent and burning up lots of fossil fuels,” said Malkolm. “All this fossil-fuel consumption impacts the environment and birds. So we wanted to do it differently and do a Big Year on bikes.”
And so, he and his parents—Wendy, a part-time family doctor, and Ken, a semi-retired writer and photographer—started preparing for the fossil-fuel-free trek. Malkolm crammed three years of high school into two years, so he could take a year off school. They built their bicycles, learned some first aid, made a few two-hour bike trips to get in shape, and planned a route that intersected with annual bird migrations across North America. Most of the journey would be made bicycling, some by walking, paddling and sailing, but not a mile would be driven.
On June 21, 2007, they set out. From their home inWhitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory, they followed North America’s Pacific Coast, the southern U.S. border, and the Gulf Coast; along the way, they paddled with a Puffin and spotted a few spotted owls and Californian Condors. Then they dipped down into Florida’s Everglades, backtracked up Florida’s east coast and headed back across the Gulf Coast to witness spring bird migrations. From South Texas, amid 100-degree temperatures, they made their way west along the Rio Grande, finally ending up in Big Bend’s Chisos Mountains and Rio Grande Village last month.
This last stretch through West Texas had been the most daunting for the Canadians, who said they are accustomed to minus-40-degree lows, but not plus-100-degree highs. Traversing 60 to 70 miles of highway without places to stop for water or food also posed a logistical challenge. But they adapted, and Big Bend turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of their trip.
“I think that Big Bend was one of our favorite places,” said Malkolm. “Not just because it was a sancutary from the heat, but it has incredible scenery, great hiking, sunsets, lightning storms to watch, sunrises, everything you could want, including shade, and of course all the birds.”
Big Bend was picked as their final destination because many rare birds make their only appearance in the United States at the national park. They were delighted to find several of these avian treasures, including a Colima Warbler and a Lucifer Hummingbird, and were surprised to see a rare Flame-Colored Tanager, which Malkolm said has only been spotted in Texas a half dozen times before.
Big Bend was of course not the only surprising reward of their journey. Wendy in particular was amazed by how much she enjoyed riding her bike. Cycling five to seven hours a day for a year made everyone really healthy, she said, so that by the time they reached Big Bend, hiking up a trail with a 2,000-foot climb was a breeze.
By not traveling in a car, they also found they interacted more with people along the way. Fellow birders frequently put them up for a night, provided them food and water, or joined them on the road for awhile. And not just birders offered help and hospitality.
“We were expecting to be self-sufficient,” Wendy said, “but we’ve had a lot of kindness from strangers, especially in the south.”
Ken agreed, and said people’s helpful nature here reminded him of home.
“We were confident that if we ever got into any trouble on the road people would stop and help us, and it’s the same in the north,” he says. “That was always a comforting feeling.”
While a car would have made it possible to cover more miles, cycling’s slow pace offered other advantages. Ken and Malkolm said they were much more in tune with the environment than they’ve been on previous car trips—from noticing birds flying overhead and insects flying into their faces, to seeing turtles and lizards crossing the road and hearing birds call softly from roadside bushes. Being on bikes made it easier to stop and look at these creatures too, Wendy said.
“When you’re in an automobile, it’s you going by the world,” Ken said. “It’s almost like watcing television. You’re in a different space and you’re not a part of what’s out there. On a bicycle, you’re traveling at a pace, at least for me, that you can comprehend more.”
Along those lines, cycling such vast distances gave them at least one glimpse of what birds experience during their migratory feats. Wendy explained many migratory birds fly hundreds of miles from Mexico’s Yucatan across the ocean to the Gulf Coast.
“Normally a strong wind from the south helps teensy-weensy birds fly across gulf,” she said. “But if there’s a headwind or a storm or rain, it’s really heard work for these little birds to cross the Gulf.”
Ken, Wendy and Malkolm encountered just such a storm while on their own Gulf migration through Louisiana. They had 80 miles to cycle against a headwind and harsh rains.
“It was one of the days I’ve been most exhausted,” Wendy said. “And then all of the sudden, we started seeing these little flashes of color, crossing the road in front of us.”
They looked into the rain-drenched roadside vegetation, where the rushes had become a vibrant palette of tanagers, grosbeaks, orioles, hummingbirds and other tiny birds who’d been crossing the Gulf.
“They were hitting the same headwind we hit and were basically falling out of the sky, landing as close to the ocean as they could,” she said.
“You just totally felt for them,” she continued. “I think that was the closest we came to feeling like migrating birds.”
Such experiences also renewed their dedication to conserving bird habitat, which had been a central premise of their fossil-fuel-free Bird Year. Those little birds in Louisiana would have been in big trouble if those roadside rushes hadn’t been there, Malkolm said.
“If there had been farmland, industrial, housing, or some other development, there would be nowhere for them to go,” he says. “It’s important to leave sanctuaries along the coast, so there are stopover sites for these exhausted migrants when they hit the coast.”
And while many habitat-conservation efforts gave them hope, other places in North America made them worry about some birds’ future. Rampant development along the California and Texas coasts have destroyed much migratory bird habitat. And more locally, Malkolm said he saw the desert home of six rare Long-eared Owls endangered by possible expansion of a potash plant near Carlsbad, New Mexico.
With Bird Year finished, Ken, Wendy and Malkolm were ready to go home when they cycled into Alpine last month. But even as they prepared for the month-long bus, train and bike ride to Whitehorse, they were hungry for the next adventure.
“I’m going to be glad to get back to a cooler climate, so I don’t mind it ending. But if we hadn’t had hot weather at the end, I think it would have been tempting to keep going,” Wendy said. “It’s a good way to live. I could keep doing it.
Malkolm has already been pondering future bird-watching pilgrimmages, and this trip seems to have left him with only one disappointment. He explained there’s a tradition in Texas of serious birders being given a “bird name,” a sort of avian totem. He wasn’t given a bird name, but if he could chose one, he said he might like to be named after an ocean-crossing Arctic Tern. Wendy suggested he might instead like to be called Sooty Shearwater.
“That’s a bird that goes further than any other animal on earth,” Malkolm said. “It’s a seabird. It goes from New Zealand to Asia, down the West Coast and southern South America, along the African Coast, the Atlantic Coast, and back to New Zealand each year. That’s a bird that keeps on traveling.”
More information on Malkolm’s Bird Year is online at www.birdyear.com.