Birding on Bikes

American dipper photo: Joe Meche

American dipper                                                          photo: Joe Meche

by Joe Meche

A few years back, one of the field trips that I offered through the North Cascades Audubon Society was called Birds on Bikes. While the title evoked a few chuckles, it was a great way to spend time looking for birds and getting exercise at the same time … the birders were on bikes, not the birds. The plan for this trip involved meeting at the Rotary Trailhead off Old Fairhaven Parkway and then pedaling along the shoreline of Bellingham Bay and the waterfront to Little Squalicum Park and back. The point of this trip was to cover a lot of ground and stop at a number of locations along the way to look for birds. As our weather moderates into something resembling spring, my mind wanders onto two wheels and a rerun.

Thinking back to those trips reminds me of the great trail system we have in Bellingham and the potential it offers for extensive exploration of the entire city on two wheels. If you have any interest at all in connecting the dots between parks on your bike, stop by the parks department headquarters off Meridian to pick up a copy of the map that shows all the trails. And get your bike ready for riding from spring into fall. In the interim, consider the potential for birds, too. You can certainly create your own routes to ride but here are some of my favorites, some old and one new.

Keep in mind that it might be difficult to look for birds while you’re riding but the key is a slower pace than you might use if you’re just out for a good ride. Also, plan to make stops along the way in locations that might be birdy. For starters and to duplicate the trip I mentioned above, unload your bike(s) at the Rotary Trailhead parking area and follow the trail along Padden Creek as it meanders down to the bay on the Southside. There are green herons nesting in at least three locations between Fairhaven Park and the waterfront so keep an eye out as you pedal. I’ve also observed barred owls on several occasions along the creek.

Continue following the trail until you reach the great blue heron rookery next to the Post Point treatment facility. In late spring and early summer the activity at the rookery can be quite intense. I counted 17 active nests on my last visit in early April. After visiting the herons and checking for birds in the estuary, a stop at Marine Park is essential. Two green heron nests in this park provided many highlights last summer. From here you begin to follow the shoreline with any number of stops along the way. It’s important to have a leader if you pedal with a group of two or more and more eyes usually produce more birds.
As you pedal north through Boulevard Park and along the South Bay Trail, you’ll be treated to a variety of habitats for birds ranging from sparrows and towhees to sharp-shinned hawks. The waterfront development plans include a continuation of this trail to bypass downtown traffic but until then, a short zig-zag for a couple of blocks puts you on Roeder Avenue. It’s clear sailing from this point for the remainder of the way to Little Squalicum Park and a perfect stop for lunch. If you drove your car to the trailhead, just reverse the loop and you’ve completed the original Birds on Bikes field trip.

As a downtown dweller, a favorite bike trip of mine is to follow Whatcom Creek upstream utilizing the creek trail that connects Lake Whatcom to the waterfront and downtown. This ride has more potential for birds than any other, primarily because of the variety of habitats that it crosses. This ride will also test your biking mettle since it’s quite a pull to ascend to the level of the creek in Whatcom Falls Park. Before you take on the rise that includes the Alabama Hill heights, the part of the trail that goes through Redtail Reach is a perfect place to stop and look for birds.

After you’ve attained the higher ground, the ride through the park is heavenly. Owls and woodpeckers frequent the forests and American dippers are year round residents on the creek. There are as many as six nesting pairs of dippers that are active along the creek all the way to the Derby Pond. As you continue up the trail, Scudder Pond is a great place to stop for a while. Park your bike off the trail and walk along the edge of the pond for best looks at the inhabitants. Nesting pairs of wood ducks, hooded mergansers, and Virginia rails are special sightings. After visiting this urban nature preserve the return to the starting point downtown is a relative piece of cake – it’s all downhill!

The city of Bellingham has recently completed a new trail with potential that will only improve as the trail ages beyond the initial construction phase. This new addition to an already superb trail system will take you from Cornwall Park along the newly rerouted Squalicum Creek all the way to Hannegan Road and the beginning of the Dewey Valley. Woodland species like Bewick’s Wrens were actively gathering nesting materials in early April, along with brown creepers and song sparrows. Stops at Bug Lake and Sunset Pond will surely add to your bird list for the day.

Barred owl photo: Joe Meche

Barred owl                                                                      photo: Joe Meche

Again, my point of departure is where I live in downtown. The direction you take from your home base is up to you. My quick exercise route also has a birding factor built into it. I leave downtown and get onto the waterfront loop by way of Roeder Avenue and continue on Squalicum Parkway to the north end of Cornwall Park. On past trips through the park I’ve enjoyed seeing barred and great horned owls, brown creepers, pileated woodpeckers, and nesting ravens. On the way home, I usually pedal through the Sunnyland neighborhood to check on the nesting pair of western scrub jays.

Of utmost importance when you consider birding on your bike is the mechanical health of your bike, not to mention the health of the person pumping the pedals. Depending on where you live, it’s not necessary to take on the hills if you choose not to. I have a secret way to get to Scudder Pond circumventing Alabama Hill. It’s the long way around as opposed to taking on the hill, but the potential for birds is high between Barkley Village and Whatcom Falls Park on the Railroad Grade Trail.

As I alluded earlier, let your own creativity and biking abilities dictate your starting and stopping points, and always wear a helmet! Pick up a copy of the Greenways Trails map and plan on biking some or all of our superb urban trails this year. As you get into summertime biking shape, expand your birding on bikes to include the local lakes like Whatcom, Padden, Samish, and for a real adventure, take a ride to Tennant Lake. No matter where you go, there will be birds.

Next Month
Birding the Olympic Peninsula.

Joe Meche is a past president of the North Cascades Audubon Society and was a member of the board of directors for 20 years. He has been watching birds for more than 60 years and photographing birds and landscapes for more than 40 years. He has written more than 150 articles for Whatcom Watch.

American dipper

Barred owl    photo: Joe Meche