A stealthy spring bird-watching technique: Birding via bike

A spotting scope next to a bike is a fantastic combination. (Sharon Stiteler photos)

One of my favorite parts of spring is breaking out the bike, hitting the lakes, and birding via two wheels. Bike riding is my favorite form of exercise and a fun way to access nearby lakes and view waterfowl quickly.

Cruising area lakes, I recently found and digiscoped bufflehead, red-breasted mergansers, common loons, and horned grebes. The advantage of being on a bike is that you can move around faster than walking if rafts of waterfowl move in a different direction.

Even though the bag can’t be closed all the way, the scope and tripod are still safely stored.

When I tell people that I watch birds by bike, they are often curious about my setup. If you just want to use binoculars, a simple shoulder harness works great. I’ve never been a fan of neck straps — the weight of the optics on my neck and the tendency for the binoculars to bounce on my chest is no fun. I prefer harnesses because they keep the weight of the optics off my neck and secure them comfortably against my body so they aren’t bouncing all over the place. Sometimes as the straps begin to wear, my binoculars might lightly hit my legs as I pedal.

Recently, I obtained a Cotton Carrier harness, which I jokingly refer to it as my “tactical birding harness” because I can carry my binoculars and my camera with it, and I look like some sort of special ops commander. But I can lock my binoculars against my chest and my camera can hang in a holster on the side. It also has a little pocket with a waterproof cover to place over my camera if it starts to rain. It’s perfect for bike birding because the binoculars are locked on, and it’s very breathable and can handle any sweat resulting from my biking.

Spring migration is a fun time as we find all sorts of waterfowl — including red-breasted merganser — checking out lakes as soon as the ice melts.

Sometimes while watching birds on the lake I need more magnification than what my binoculars provide, so a spotting scope is handy. My husband gave me a pannier from Alternative Cycle that attaches to the back of my bike and will hold my tripod and my scope. I can’t zip up the pannier, but most scopes and tripods are built to take a beating and are waterproof. Once I see some waterfowl, I locate a spot where the sun is behind me, pull over, and set up the scope and tripod. It’s a great way to get some exercise and enjoy birds.

Another advantage to bike birding is that several species will nest near a trail, and you can sometimes sneak up to hawks and owls that ignore bicycles. Even my non-birding husband has spotted barred owls on the trails near our home. Work a bike route enough and you might also recognize other bird neighbors via the persistent songs of indigo buntings, Baltimore orioles and Northern cardinals.

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