Bicycle Birding

A reddish egret dances across the water while pursuing a fish.

A reddish egret dances across the water while pursuing a fish.

Story and Photos by Budd Titlow

If you are a bird photography aficionado, I have some great news!

The proliferation of “Rails-to-Trails” conversion projects throughout our nation has created a fantastic new modus operandi for practicing your passion. Plus, it also benefits your health by providing daily exercise. I call this activity bicycle birding and here’s how it works for me.

A year ago, as a retiree, I moved to La Jolla, California—just north of San Diego—to be near one of one of my daughters and three of my grandchildren.   As an avid—but not very adventurous bicyclist—I immediately began researching local bike paths that offered long, flat rides along vehicle-free surfaces.

A tricolored heron uses its wings to shade the water for better visibility while fishing.

A tricolored heron uses its wings to shade the water for better visibility while fishing.

First, I found a book that described all the bicycle trails in San Diego County. Then I selected those that met my desired criteria. Fortunately—as is now the case in just about every municipality—I found an array of suitable options.

Next, I started doing “test rides” to evaluate each of my selected bike paths for bird photography opportunities. After about three months of field testing, I came up with a winner. A five-mile long, paved route paralleling the south side of the San Diego River provided me with both of my objectives—the optimal biking distance coupled with spectacular photo opportunities on almost every ride.

A snowy egret holds a freshly caught fish.

A snowy egret holds a freshly caught fish.

The other key to this endeavor was having the right camera gear, including a telephoto lens and camera combination that would allow me to capture high-quality, handheld images. (This was critical because—for me—biking with a tripod was not an option!) To accomplish these goals, I purchased a Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO lens and Canon EOS 7D Mark II camera.

As it has turned out, these were the best photographic purchases I have ever made. The birding photos I have taken during the past four months are my best in more than 40 years of outdoor photography.

A male wood duck swims along while displaying its colorful feathering.

A male wood duck swims along while displaying its colorful feathering.

Now, on at least five afternoons a week, I throw my binoculars, camera, and lens into a sturdy backpack and I’m off to my favorite bike path. I ride along the river until I see a bird or birding activity that I want to capture. When this happens, I pull off to the side of the path, grab my gear out of my pack, and fire away until I’m happy with my results. Then it’s on to the next photo opportunity that I see along the route. I typically make four or five stops during a 10-mile ride.

A reddish egret holds a just captured fish.

A reddish egret holds a just captured fish.

As I mentioned at the start—because of the plethora of new bike paths all over the country—you can find similar bicycle birding opportunities no matter where you live. Of course, the extent of time you can enjoy this activity may be limited by climate. But you’ll always have some months, for example during seasonal migrations, during which the birds and bird behaviors will be plentiful!

So, give it a try. I think you’ll agree that better health plus prize-winning bird photographs is a combination that’s hard to beat!

 

A Professional Wetland Scientist (Emeritus) and Wildlife Biologist, Budd Titlow is an award-winning nature photographer and a widely published writer/author currently living in Pacific Beach, California. He has authored four books, including PROTECTING THE PLANET—Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1633882256), BIRD BRAINS—Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN 978-0-7627-8755-5), and SEASHELLS—Jewels from the Ocean (ISBN 978-0-7603-2593-3). He is currently teaching at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point, California and is on the OLLI presenters’ list at UC San Diego. A summary of Budd’s work is featured on his web site.