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An Interview with Dorian Anderson, pedal-powered Big Year champ

Dorian AndersonThere’s no getting around the fact that the ABA Area Big Year has serious appeal among birders. Much of it is the vicarious thrill of watching someone build a list in 365 days that most of the the rest of us take a lifetime to accomplish. But there’s also a celebration of the birding community and the hope that we could play a role, however small, in helping someone with such an accomplishment. That was true when John Vanderpoel set the standard for community involvement in a Big Year in 2012. It was true for Neil Hayward’s record-breaking year in 2013, followed very closely by birders around the world. And it’s perhaps particularly true for Dorian Anderson’s bike-powered Big Year last year.

All told, Dorian traveled 17,830 miles by bike, through 28 states, all without fossil fuels. He walked an additional 493 miles. All for a total of 617 (+1 conditional) species. He stayed at hotels and in the homes of birders across the country. He brought so many other folks along both in person, and on his much-read blog Biking for Birds.

While it lacked the last minute thrills of big chases in years past (though it had a couple), it more than made up for in dogged persistence, day in and day out making progress to put himself in a position to find birds. And boy did he ever find birds. I corresponded with Dorian over the last week, and I’m happy to share that conversation here.

One last thing, Dorian spent the year raising money for The Conservation Fund and the American Birding Association. We at the ABA are exceptionally grateful for his work and thank all that donated to his cause.

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This was a pretty incredible accomplishment, particularly on the heels of Neil Hayward’s conventional Big Year in 2013. What inspired you to try something like this?

I originally joked that someone should do a nationwide, bicycle-based big year in August of 2012. At that point, I was firmly entrenched in my research career. However, my commitment to the research trajectory wobbled though that winter, and by April of 2013 I decided to quit my job to pursue what I figured would be an truly amazing adventure. It was really the idea of a living, breathing adventure that pushed me to make the final decision. Of course, I love birding and I have a commitment to the environment, but there are less extreme ways to engage these passions than quitting one’s job and taking to a bike for a year. That this was such a dramatic and perhaps crazy exercise of these passions is exactly why the ideal was so attractive. Safe ideas are boring, and I thought that this one was just nuts enough to make it really interesting.

The logistics were pretty fascinating, particularly as you were able to mostly stay on your planned route throughout the year. How detailed was that original plan as far as planning your days? And what, if anything, did you have to adjust as the year went on?

Again, the map of the “ideal” or “planned” route was sort of a joke when I originally conceived it and physically drew it out. I had no idea how far along this route I could make it as there simply was no precedent for something like this. Injury or fatigue could be have caused unforeseen and major alterations to the route. Hell, who could have predicted the whole Polar Vortex disease that plagued me for the first 2 full months of the year?!?! The biggest thing I had to do was to stay flexible and listen to my body. As a fairly serious runner, I figured I could bike ~50 miles a day for at least a few weeks, but I had no idea if I could do it for a whole year. Once I saw how well my body held up, I adjusted the route accordingly. Since I felt so good, I actually made it much further north in Washington in July than I had originally planned.

Dorian's final route through the Lower 48. You can see his original planned route here.

Dorian’s final route through the Lower 48. You can see his original planned route here.


Your agreement with Best Western to provide lodging throughout the year was pretty inspired. How did that come about?

One word: Sonia. Sonia, my girlfriend, works in corporate travel, and as a result she knew about Best Western’s numerous environmental initiatives. She suggested the partnership given the goals of the project. Sonia had a direct conduit to the higher-ups at Best Western, and when I pitched them the project they immediately got on board. It was all exceptionally straight-forward and was a great benefit to all involved. I cannot thank them enough for their participation and support.

What was your most unexpected bird of the year (I think I know the answer to this one), and what was your most unexpected miss?

Red-legged Honeycreeper, hands down. I mean you can’t expect any potential first ABA record, right? I was part of the group that originally found the bird on Thanksgiving day. You can’t get any more unexpected than that. Now I just have to sit back and see if this bird actually counts (my feeling is that, as a hatch year female in South Texas, it will, but who knows…). I was actively looking for all the other rarities that I ticked. Honeycreeper was NOWHERE on my radar until the instant it materialized in front of me.

Red-legged Honeycreeper in South Texas is a potential ABA Area first, pending decisions by the Texas BRC and the ABA Checklist Committee

Red-legged Honeycreeper in South Texas is a potential ABA Area first, pending decisions by the Texas BRC and the ABA Checklist Committee, photo by Dorian Anderson

The most painful misses of the year were Black-legged kittiwake and Mangrove Cuckoo. I chalk the kittiwake miss up to the terrible weather in the northeast in January. I could not spend the time on jetties that I had hoped because of snow, ice, and extreme cold. I tried really hard for the cuckoo in Florida, but I couldn’t even get a vocalization. Technically, I could have counted a literally just-banded cuckoo that I saw being released, but I decided not to do this. No way my lifer Mangrove Cuckoo was going to be a netted bird. In full disclosure, I did count LeConte’s Sparrow and Yellow Rail that I observed while part of official banding sessions. However, I saw both of these as free-flying birds before they were caught.

Dorian with Yellow Rail in hand.

Dorian with Yellow Rail in hand.

If you could make one route modification in hindsight, what would it have been and what would you have seen?

There aren’t any major modifications that I would make. Sure, it would have been nice to go a bit farther north to Glacier NP or Southern British Columbia to look for White-winged crossbill and Northern hawk-owl. This riding, although gorgeous, would a have been really tough. Had I done this, I would certainly have missed some of the great birds I found along the west coast later. Many people might say that I left the Texas coast too early, but that’s the armchair response. I had to weigh 4 outstanding species against good winds and what I figured was going to be a hellish ride across West Texas.

Swainson's Warbler was one of the many species of neotropic migrants Dorian found along the Texas coast in late April, photo by Dorian Anderson.

Swainson’s Warbler was one of the many species of neotropic migrants Dorian found along the Texas coast in late April, photo by Dorian Anderson.

Again, had I been running 4 days behind where I did, things out west might have been totally different (i.e. not as good). After April, only Olive-backed Pipit showed up behind me. However, I observed at least 6-7 birds that left on the day, the day after, or 2 days after I ticked them. Had I spent a few more days at the end of April in Texas, I think my overall species total would have been 2-3 species lower than what it ultimately was. Leaving was a tough decision, but, again, in hindsight, I still think it was the right decision.

What’s your take on so-called “Green” Big Years generally. Do you think they’ll catch on?

At the national level: no. At the local/county/state level: yes. A few people will surely do nationwide bicycle big years in the future. However, they won’t be numerous enough to be statistically significant. The local level is a completely different story. There have been several notable country efforts already, and I expect this to continue. I have spoken with several folks who plan on doing some form of local/county green big year in the future. Moreover, I just think that people will do more casual birding by bike moving forward. It’s fun, it’s cheap, and it’s healthy.

One of the most exciting aspects of your year for those of us following along was your dedication to chronicling it online. Neil Hayward did something similar, as did John Vanderpoel before him. Do you think blogging about your Big Year has become expected these days? And what did you get out of writing every day?

I don’t think it has become expected, but it sure helps to generate interest. This was particularly important for me. My blog was a two-way flow of information, from me to readers and vice versa. This dialog proved invaluable for organizing lodging, planning daily routes, and finding birds. I really enjoy writing, so the blog did not feel like work for me. I’m a bit of an attention hound, so knowing that hundreds and maybe thousands of people were tuning in every day provided the motivation to blog at what I think was a consistently respectable level. I also think that the blog is a great way to document species. Had I gone on the summer/fall run that I did without posting photos, it would have looked a bit shady.

While chasing rarities was mostly out as a strategy, this Rufous-backed Robin in Palm Springs, California, in October was worth a special, 225 mile, detour. photo by Dorian Anderson

While chasing rarities was mostly out as a strategy, this Rufous-backed Robin in Palm Springs, California, in October was worth a special, 225 mile, detour. photo by Dorian Anderson

Do you think your record can and will be broken? And what tips would you have for someone thinking about repeating your feat? Perhaps something you didn’t expect going in that turned out to be important.

Yes, 617+1 can and will be eclipsed for several reasons. First, no initial effort is ever the gold standard; I’ll always be the first, but I don’t expect to be highest the highest forever. Second, my efforts, both productive and unproductive, are meticulously documented in the blog. This will provide a great blueprint for the next person should he/she ride a similar route. Third, bird finding is getting easier with eBird and what are essentially real-time bird alerts. Fourth, I carried quite a bit of weight in a laptop, digital SLR, and professional quality camera lenses. I was willing to do this since the blog and my photos were such a huge component of my adventure.

Fifth, bikes, cameras, and laptops will get lighter making it easier to carry these items in the future. Lastly, there will certainly be more recognized species in the future. Would I like my number to last forever? Sure, but I know that it won’t for all the above reasons. As for tips for the next person? I guess they should check out http://bikingforbirds.blogspot.com. Also, don’t listen to any music, podcasts, etc on the road. That I was able to hear cars at all times saved me from accidents several times. Wanna really shatter 617+1? Get a second person and use a tandem bike. Two people pedaling can move much faster than one.

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Congratulations again to Dorian for an incredible year and thanks for taking us along!

Dorian has retired the Biking for Birds blog, but he will continue writing about birds and birding. You can find him now at The Speckled Hatchback.

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Nate Swick

Nate Swick

Editor, Social Media Manager at American Birding Association
Nate Swick is the editor of the American Birding Association Blog, social media manager for the ABA, and the host of the American Birding Podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Danielle, and two young children. He is the author of Birding for the Curious and The ABA Field Guide to Birds of the Carolinas.
Nate Swick

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  • This is absolutely amazing, to have cycled all that way to see his birds is hard to believe. I know I could never do it. Well done.

  • Joshua Stevenson

    I followed Dorian’s blog and facebook page all year. It was extremely enjoyable and I am ridiculously impressed with the effort!

  • Gary Prescott

    The most inspirational and incredible Green record ever. Well done Dorian. Great respect!

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