There are birdwatchers and then there is the Madsen-Boothroyd family.
For 12 months, Ken Madsen and Wendy Boothroyd, along with teenage son Malkolm Boothroyd, travelled the western coast and southern borders of the United States in search of as many bird species as they could find.
There are many birders who undertake the “big year” — a 12-month quest to count as many bird species as possible.
But the big year for this family came with an added twist.
It would be done without using fossil fuels.
For the group’s 19,200-kilometre journey, their only steeds would be a sturdy fleet of luggage-laden bicycles — their only fuel, the power of their legs.
And all told, the trio was able to spot 548 different bird species, an impressive total given their unorthodox choice of transportation.
The family’s route was carefully tailored to pass through as many “bird-heavy” areas as possible. Often, the group would go up to 160 kilometres out of their way simply to spot one bird species.
While binoculars were readily available, a visual bird identification wasn’t always necessary.
Bird species on the “big year” can also be identified purely through the sound of their call.
To aid in their identification bird sounds, Malkolm packed an iPod crammed with hundreds of different birdcalls.
A far cry from the air-conditioned shell of an automobile, or even the high-volume cruising of a motorcycle, travel by bicycle involves complete sensory immersion with the surrounding environment.
“When you’re cycling you know what the temperature is, because you feel it,” said Wendy at the family’s home last Wednesday, surrounded by 12 months of unread mail.
“You know what the wind is doing. You smell the plants that you’re going by. You smell the dead animals on the road.”
You can even smell when a biodiesel car has gone by, she said.
Cycling also gave the family greater access to the surrounding community — they were often offered places to stay by strangers they encountered in locations as unassuming as the grocery store.
“They would not have interacted with us if we’d been in a car,” said Wendy.
When passing through the city of Cape Canaveral, famous for its NASA space launches, the family was offered a ceremonial key to the city by the mayor and were also given a VIP car tour of the grounds of the Kennedy Space Centre.
When the family told NASA of their trip’s no-fossil-fuel policy, the agency gladly secured a lithium battery car for the tour.
Of course, the trip was about much more than a simple bird count.
Along their journey, the family met with schools and birder organizations to spread the gospel of protecting bird habitat and cutting back on carbon emissions.
Through fundraising efforts, the Madsen-Boothroyds raised more than $21,000 for wildlife protection initiatives across North America.
It was in Texas that they encountered one of their biggest challenges — the searing heat of a Texas summer.
The mercury peaked at 48 degrees Celsius on occasion, and never dipped below 30, even at night.
“One of our friends said, ‘You’re stupid to be crossing Texas in the summertime because you won’t see any birds from a hospital bed,’” said Wendy.
At one town in West Texas, the group encountered a unique festival that involved baking cookies on the hoods of cars.
In Louisiana, the heat was bearable — but the roads were “like an Olympic mountain-bike course, but filled with junk — metal bits, bits of old cars,” said Ken.
“There were piles of old gravel that they meant to use to fill in potholes but they just left at the side of the road,” said Wendy.
In the wind, rain, heat and traffic of their tour, there was never mention of quitting.
“I never thought of throwing in the towel. The interesting thing about cycling trips is that you really get good at living in the moment — your task for the day is to go ‘x’ number of kilometers on the bicycle and to enjoy whatever you can and it just becomes part of your life,” said Ken.
Admittedly, there are few who would ever undertake a yearlong journey in search of different species of mice.
So what is it about birds that is so appealing to the dozens of birders worldwide?
“Partly, people just enjoy these incredibly bright-coloured things that come to their own homes and their own yards. But at a deeper level, it’s also about knowing that this bird that shows up has come from wherever — from Argentina, from Costa Rica, from somewhere across the world,” said Ken.
“You see this cool bird, but it also connects you to other lands and other places … you’re a part of something larger.”
The migration patterns of many birds span unbelievably long distances — crossing countries, continents and even hemispheres.
One common Yukon bird, the Arctic tern, annually flies 40,000 kilometres to the shores of Antarctica.
In the southern United States the family was well within the wintering grounds of some of their favourite Yukon bird species.
“It was cool to see a bird in the mangrove swamps of Florida that may be flying up to hop around the rocks right below the dam on the river in Whitehorse,” said Malkolm.
In several places, the family was able to glimpse the awesome spectacle of a massive songbird migration in action in southern Louisiana.
“All these birds take off in the evening from Mexico, and they fly all night towards the Gulf Coast, arriving there about 18 hours later.”
Exhausted, the birds rain down into the first patch of land they can find.
Cycling along a waterfront road, the trio witnessed thousands of birds “raining” down into waterfront marshlands.
Many only had the strength to maintain an altitude of about 30 centimetres.
On a difficult migratory journey themselves, the family felt a unique bond with the birds they admired.
“That was also the day of a headwind for us — I was really tired, and seeing these tired birds made us empathetic,” said Wendy.
“Of course, our life didn’t depend on it,” said Ken.
“The thing that really blows me away is that their migration under normal circumstances is just an amazing thing. But humanity has altered the landscape so much that we’ve put in so many more challenges for them now.
“That’s why protecting habitat is so important.”