Dorian Anderson is seven months into a Big Year that is fueled not by gasoline, but by Gatorade. The 35-year-old birder and ardent environmentalist is chasing bird species across the country without the assistance of a car or any plane rides—instead he's going by bicycle. On July 2, he had just made his way to the mountains of Colorado and was headed up to Wyoming—an arduous trek with tough climbs that require physical fortitude, plenty of water, and in the hot summer heat, some supplemental sports drinks. "Yesterday I drank two gallons," says Anderson of his trip out of Arizona.
Most people who take on the Big Year challenge travel tens of thousands of miles by car and plane. Anderson has already logged more than 9,300 miles: 9,145 miles by bike and about 272 miles on foot. He's already seen 503 species—which according to eBird, puts him as the person with the fourth highest annual count so far this year. While others have done portions of a calendar year by bike, most notably Malkolm Boothroyd in 2007, no one has dedicated an entire Big Year to birding by bike. Anderson says he hopes his journey will spur other birders to consider the environmental impact that Big Years and birding can have. Climate change has great potential to displace and harm the very species birders track.
Birder by hobby, Anderson got an undergraduate degree in biology at Stanford University and then went on to study developmental genetics at New York University to receive his doctorate. While in New York City, his youthful birding interests were reignited and raised to an obsessive level. After several years in a post-doc position in Boston, he has decided to quit his job and, using his own funds, take a Big Year to explore his passion for birding, photography, and environmental issues.
A conservationist to the core, Anderson doesn't even buy pre-bottled Gatorade at the store. Instead, he fills up the same 44-oz cup at gas station soda fountains. Anderson doesn't necessarily advocate that everyone do a Big Year by bike or to stop driving cars altogether, since it just isn't feasible for most people. But he does recommend not using a car for every little thing. "You can ride your bike to the grocery store," he says, adding that it's a good way to stay active. "Sometimes it means making things more difficult," he says, "but if we do these things, in the long run, they are going to pay off."
Anderson started in Boston on a blistering January 1, immediately biking south to escape the impending polar vortex. His journey has taken him through 24 states so far. Following his trek down the eastern seaboard, across the south, and up to Wyoming July's started off with sightings of the Flammulated Owl, the Dusky Grouse, and the Prairie Chicken.
His best bird sighting so far? "The Black-throated Blue Warbler that I found in Texas," he replies without hesitation, recalling how the bird had evaded him Florida. The spotting evoked a joyous reaction—pumping his fist in the air and shouting loudly in the middle of a low-traffic street. Even through the hullabaloo, the warbler stuck around, unbothered by his shouts and the presence of the 30-40 other birders that Anderson had directed to the area.
Although the warbler stands out as his favorite bird sighting, the most memorable day of birding was in Arizona on May 23. In the desert, he hit pay dirt when he came across a cluster of mountainous islands that served as an oasis for migrant bird species who had come to breed. There, Anderson saw two different kinds of warblers (Rufous-capped Warbler and Virginia's Warbler), the White-eared Hummingbird, the Spotted Owl, and the Northern Goshawk.
It hasn't all been smooth sailing, but he has had surprisingly few bike-related mishaps—just flat tires and a broken spoke. "If the bike falls apart the whole year stops," Anderson says.
The most taxing side of the whole journey has been learning to deal with the mental and physical effects of sitting on a bike for hours each day. He has been a runner for years and was physically in shape, but the constant grind of sitting and churning on for hours has been a day-to-day challenge. Loneliness has been hard too. "The thing that I miss the most is my girlfriend, Sonia, and I miss the support that she provides," he explains. "I miss being there for her when she has problems."
Fortunately, Sonia has managed to make a few appearances along his journey and the people in the birding and biking communities have welcomed him with open arms. Anderson has been astounded by the support from people he has received. "The length that people are able to go to help me and put themselves out for me has been amazing," says Anderson.
Many birders have reached out to offer him a place to stay and people from the cycling website, Warm Showers, have been really hospitable. A few people have really gone above and beyond what he expected. In Alabama, his camera went out of commission, but he was saved when a fellow birder and photographer, Socrate, offered the use of his own equipment for the remainder of the journey. Ron Deck, an Arizona birder, and his wife, Janet, really stepped up as well by offering him a place to stay for four consecutive days.
After meeting up with Sonia for a respite in Wyoming, Anderson is headed back down through Northern Colorado in search of some elusive birds, like the Black-rosy Finch, as he goes into the final countdown to reach 600 species.
You can follow the rest of Anderson's journey on his blog, Biking for Birds.