February 9, 2014

Dorian Anderson: A Big Year, birding and biking

A Big Year. Big in birding, big in biking. The phrase itself comes from birding: it is a year during which a birder sets out to see 600, 700 or more species of birds in North America. You may have seen the movie The Big Year. Now imagine doing that on a bicycle, without support. Imagine 12,000 miles of travel, 20 states, 365 days by bike, foot, or kayak, searching for over 600 species of birds. The sheer magnitude of the quest is mind boggling.

On January 1st, 2014, Dorian Anderson set out from Massachusetts to do just that. I am lucky to have had the chance to interview him here. You can learn more, follow his adventures, and support him at his blog, Biking for Birds. His photographs are at Dorian Anderson Photography. I made the link to his Biking for Birds gallery, but you really should wander through more of his images, including the home page. They are spectacular. All photographs here c. Dorian Anderson.

Purple Sandpiper

This is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking: what are your goals?
The immediate goals of this endeavor are three-fold. First, I want to find as many bird species as possible. If I can complete the proposed route, I should find between 550 and 600 species. I hope my efforts to achieve this goal will promote heightened interest in birds, bird watching, and bird conservation. Second, I hope Biking For Birds will showcase the bicycle as a healthy and environmentally sustainable form of transportation. Third, I have partnered with both The Conservation Fund and the American Birding Association. and I hope to raise $100,000 (or more!) on behalf of these organizations that focus on land conservation and promotion of birdwatching, respectively. Beyond these goals, however, I hope to see new parts of the country, meet many new people, and challenge myself both physically and mentally. This is, after all, just one big fun adventure.

Yellow-rumped warbler

I learned from your site that you are quite an accomplished birder, which is absolutely necessary to have any hope of finding so many species. But what about your cycling background ... this is a very long ride.
I had essentially zero cycling experience before this trip. I have done a lot of running, and I am in generally excellent shape. I can at any point step out the door and run 10-15 miles without water or breaks. I figured if I could do this, the biking 40 miles a day wouldn't be a problem. I only bought my bike at the end of November so I really only had 4 weeks to get used to it before I set off. The biking has been relatively straightforward so far. Not easy, but straightforward.

Brown Creeper, a personal favorite

Birding and cycling can both have simultaneous elements of community and competition. Will you talk a bit about the competition/cooperation aspect of birding on this trip ... and of cycling, if you like.
Both the birding and cycling communities have responded very well to the project. Birders want to help me find birds and cyclists want to hear about my rides and help maintain my bike. There isn't really any competitive aspect to this trip since no one else is doing anything like this. I figure I will set some standard, and other folks will likely try to replicate or exceed it in the future. Right now though its more of a community wide collaboration that any form of competition.

Are you discovering anything unanticipated about the experience of riding and biking day after day?
Not really. So far it has been remarkably straightforward. Biking, running, swimming are all the same. You need to have the personal motivation to keep yourself going day after day. Its just as much about mental toughness as physical strength.

How preplanned is your route, and are you free to stop to search for birds at any moment, or do the demands of your schedule sometimes rule that out?
The route month to month is very inflexible. For example, for bird reasons, I had to be in Massachusetts in January, and I must be Florida in March and Texas in April. However, the route day to day is very flexible. I can spend whatever time I want looking for birds, but I have to be mindful that each day spent birding means I'll have to ride more on the days dedicated to biking. It's really about being consistent. If I can average 40 miles a day for the whole year, everything will be fine.

American Oystercatcher

Does your schedule allow you to make detours to see specific species? How far off your planned route might you travel?
Yes, I will need to make detours. But I will only make small detours. I think the biggest mistake is to spend too much time chasing specific species. The most important thing is to keep moving. Its much more important to get to every area than to see every species in one given area.

Snowy Owl. There's a huge irruption of these Arctic birds

I see on your site that you saw a Snowy owl on January 1st ... that is so auspicious! Are you hoping to find any "lifers" ... species you haven't before seen?
I actually saw several Snowy owls on January 1st! That's not really news this year as they are everywhere though. I will have the chance to find a couple lifers, most notably in Florida where I am missing Snail Kite and the introduced but now countable Spot-breasted oriole, Purple Swamphen, Red-whiskered bulbul, and Nanday parakeet. Sage grouse would be new, as would either Greater or Lesser prairie chicken. Again, I don't want to get bogged down looking for lifers. Every species counts the same for a big year, whether it's a lifer or a common bird.

What constraints does traveling by bike put on the equipment you are able to have with you?
The trick is to carry the bare minimum. It's not like being in a car where a person can bring everything he or she might need. I also realize that in some instances, I am going to be without something I need and I will be miserable as a result. It is part of the challenge of doing this on a bike.
Red-winged Blackbird

What will define success for you?
Not sure yet. The beauty in this adventure is that I get to define success however I want to define it. For the moment though, I'd say that making it back alive would be a huge success. If I do that, everything else will take care of itself.

Anything else you want to mention?
Not really. I'll be looking for a new job when this is all over so if you're looking a really smart, really motivated guy, then I'm your man.

Dorian, thanks so much! I have a million more questions, but I promised a short interview, so let's leave it at that. I look forward to following your trip via your blog, Biking for Birds. And readers, please feel free to reblog the interview if you like (and please link to both my site and Dorian's) or help spread the word about his trip in other ways. Besides following his blog, interested cyclists and birders can donate to The Conservation Fund and American Birding Association. There is an obvious link on the homepage of his site (100% of donations go to the bird conservation programs he mentioned.) 

Eastern Phoebe


  1. Wow, good luck with your big year :-) Sounds a fantastic time. Best wishes

  2. Back in 2010 I did a similar cycle tour in the United Kingdom. A difference is that I visited every Royal Society for the Protection of Birds nature reserve and also those of The Wildfowl & Wetland Trusts. I equalled the then British Green Birding record of 251 species.
    This year, 2015, I am doing it all over again and I am trying to achieve a target of 300. This would be as unbelievable as Dorian's final total. Have a look at Dorian;s blog to see what fantastic figure he ended up on. Dorian ended up having a magnificent read and his cycling will enter American birding folklore. Now if they can make a film of carbon twitchers, The Big Year, then there should be a Hollywood blockbuster about Dorian!
    Meanwhile back in the UK I am on 154 on this the last day of February. The list includes a few American birds and today I hope to add ring-necked duck to the list, a very rare bird over this side of the pond. The other Yankie birds include Pacific diver, lesser yellowlegs and American wigeon.
    Please have a look at my blog
    or join me on facebook at
    It would be wonderful to hear from you.

  3. Hi there! Thanks for finding my site, reading and taking the time to comment! Of course, I'll chase back to your site as soon as I say congratulations! Your ride sounds fabulous.


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