In the Field

A Birder’s Guide to Public Transportation

Trains, buses, bikes, ferries, and ride shares can get you to that rare bird. Here’s how to make the best use of these options.

It’s a little after 11 a.m. when someone finally finds the slate-colored bird with the orange throat and belly—a Varied Thrush.

This species is normally found in the forests of the Pacific Northwest, so what’s it doing in Stone Mountain, Georgia, in the middle of February? Who knows. But I, just like the countless other birders who’ve traveled here this month, couldn’t miss the opportunity to see the lifer. Even if it meant waking up at sunrise, taking three buses, and speed walking 30 minutes to get to the outskirts of Atlanta. Now, I have less than an hour to get a good look at the bird before I have to figure out which bus to take back.

Logistics are often a challenge in birding; but once you throw in subways, bikes, taxis, and Uber drivers, things can get downright stressful. Take the case of my Varied Thrush trip. I stayed up an extra hour the night before to meticulously plan out my route: a 15-minute stroll to the nearest bus stop, a handful of transfers, and a mile-plus walk to the Stone Mountain entrance. What I forgot to factor in was the three-mile hike through the park to get to the spot of the sighting. All in all, the journey took me a little over 3 hours each way—and it was only 11 miles away from my home to begin with. If the unpredictability of public transportation can drive commuters crazy on their way to work, just imagine what it can do to a birder who’s trying to reach a moving target. 

Why did I subject myself to such stress? Well, I didn't have a choice. For a long time, I didn't own a car, making Atlanta's buses and trains my only options to visit birds outside my neighborhood. Despite all of the challenges, as a competitive birder and guide with Atlanta Audubon, I've had many good experiences over the years birding by public transit. Along the way, I've even discovered some surprising benefits. For instance, using trains and buses to find a bird forced me to look harder and longer—if I’m going to spend hours getting to my destination, I’m definitely going to make the most out of my time spent there. 

Public transportation also gives you more room to explore. Not having to worry about parking allows a birder to move freely and explore natural areas that are closed off to vehicles. One of my favorite car-free birding spots near Atlanta is the 20-mile-long Big Creek Greenway, where I’ve found Wilson’s Snipes, Cliff Swallows, Little Blue Herons, Red-shouldered Hawks, and Orchard Orioles. There are other pros, as well: Going car-less is often better for the environment, your wallet, and your physical and mental health

So whether you regularly rely on public transit or just want to start using it more, here are some lessons and tips I've learned to make the best use of my birding hours over the years. 

Consider the Variables  

The key to riding the shared wheels, rails, and bike lanes is to always include a time cushion. Limited service or route delays can mess with your schedule, so make sure to leave early. It’s tempting to want to stick around a birdy site all afternoon, but it will be less exciting when you get stuck there overnight. Weather is another element to consider; when you don’t have a car, there aren’t many places to hide when a sudden storm rolls through. And while I know cash is no longer cool, be sure to carry small bills on you. (Most transit systems are a decade or so behind.)

Have a Strategy 

You can maximize efficiency by choosing your destinations wisely. Don’t plan to go to more than one, maybe two, spots on a single trip. In general, list the places that you can reach by public transportation, then compare them against eBird records and forecasts, radar maps, and advice from your local birding network to prioritize the birdiest ones by season. If you’re chasing after a rarity, look around and see what else you can find in the same location once you’ve hit your target. Take advantage of the “Patagonia picnic table effect"—the more birders drawn to an area, the more choice species they will find. (The name comes from an actual incident at an Arizona rest stop in 1971, when hordes of people showed up to look at a Black-capped Gnatcatcher.) 

Know Your Transportation 

I finally bought a car this year, and it’s vastly changed the world of birding for me. Yes, I have a lot more time to up my species counts, but I also have to pay for fuel and parking, neither of which is cheap. (Oh, and did I mention I live in Atlanta, the fourth worst city for U.S. commuters?) Relying on other types of transit for years meant I got to weigh and test multiple options. Below are some insights I picked up along the way. 

Buses and Trains

These are the most common forms of public transportation no matter where you are in the United States. They’re generally cheap, frequent, and cover a maze of routes, both above and underground. Be sure to familiarize yourself with the maps and schedules. Most transit systems have apps you can download to track the bus or train you need, check for problems, and purchase tickets in advance. There are also universal apps like Citymapper that help you plan, navigate, and find new modes of transportation when you’re in a bind. Don’t forget to check with your local Audubon group for resources, too. For example, New York City Audubon has a free “Birding by Subway” map that includes 25 hotspots around the boroughs on 22 different lines.

Ferries

Barrier islands are excellent places to search for unusual migrants and recuperating seabirds. But sometimes, you just don’t feel like swimming across the bay to reach them. The next best step is to board a ferry. The trip over the water is worth the fare in itself: It allows you to get close to marine life, from birds to seals to cetaceans. (If you have a scope, set it up and carry it on board.) Just note that many ferries operate on a seasonal basis and stop running before dark. For the best local information, try the city or town tourism board, or hit the harbor and try your luck. 

Even when you do know the schedule, though, things might not work out. Earlier this fall, a far-flung Western Kingbird popped up on New York’s Governor’s Island, a site only accessible by ferry. The bird was initially spotted around 4 p.m., which is the same time the last boat departs. “We had to wait until 10 a.m. the next day and wound up missing it,” says my younger brother and fellow birder Jeffrey Ward.

Bikes

I’m surprised I don’t see more birders using this method. Biking is super convenient for covering mid-range distances, especially if the site you’re going to features paved trails. You can easily hop off every time you hear that sweet call of a warbler or vireo, and you can scout out the berry-laden plants before the next birder arrives on foot. Plus, you get a little luggage space to store your scope, tripod, and camera. There are guys who’ve done entire Big Years on their bikes. (In fact, their blogs are chock-full of strategies.) A half-day foray seems easy by comparion.

If you’re not ready to invest in a bike or are travelling far from home, know that most cities now have bike-rental programs. All you have to do is swipe your credit card and pull a set of wheels off the dock. Wherever you are, however, it’s good to do some homework on the local biking culture. Where are the gas stations that offer free air? How expansive is the network of bike lanes? Have there been a lot of accidents? These are all solid questions to ask before you put a helmet on your head and your feet to the pedals. 

Ride Shares

If you need to get to a birding location in a hurry (like for a Code 5 rarity), go ahead and use a ride-share app. LyftUber, and Arro (which depends on cab services) are all popular, but there may be more small-scale options in your radius. Splitting a car with strangers will cut down on costs, as will traveling outside of peak times. Luckily, most birds don’t operate on the same schedule as the nightlife crowd.

When you have a day or two to plan an out-of-the-way trip, look for ways to carpool with other birders. Post an S.O.S. on the local email listserv, Facebook group, or WhatsApp chat to see if anyone else in the area is driving or is willing to pick you up from a nearby transit station. Then, offer to swap gas money and lunch for a spot in their caravan. Birders are a generous bunch, so you’re not risking much by asking.

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