In North American birding circles, the Big Year is as intense as it gets.
Take one year, and try to see as many species of birds as possible.
It all started with Roger Tory Peterson’s Wild America in 1953 — the author travelled more than 30,000 kilometres and claimed to have spotted 572 species.
Since then, birders have upped the Big Year record to 745, often traveling to remote and fairly inaccessible places to do so.
For local birder Malkolm Boothroyd, there was a disconnect between the passion for birding, and the serious amount of motorized travel involved.
The current record took 418,600 kilometres of travel, according to Boothroyd.
“All that burning of fossil fuels just ends up harming the birds they care so much about,” he said.
So when he started planning his own Big Year with his parents Ken Madsen and Wendy Boothroyd, Malkolm knew he wanted to have a minimal ecological footprint in the process.
“It started out being all about the birds, but the environmental part has grown on us — so as we go, were going to not only stop at bird hotspots, but also stop to give presentations about our trip, and inspire other birders, as we’ve inspired ourselves to be greener.”
The plan is to do their entire Big Year without fossil fuels — by bikes, hikes or boats over 16,000 kilometres, from the Yukon to Florida.
The green plan means the three will travel without a support vehicle, carrying everything they’ll need with them along the route — in panniers and a small trailer that they’ll take turns hauling.
“We’ll camp when we need to, but many people have offered to help us out along the way,” said Madsen. “Birders are very friendly people.”
“It’s going to be very liberating, a really tremendous sense of freedom,” said Wendy. “Living with less stuff, focusing on riding, and the birds. It’s going to be easier, in some ways.”
A year spent bird watching sounds pretty relaxed, but the trekkers have several scheduled school presentations, and meetings with birding-world luminaries like David Alan Sibley to keep them on a relatively tight schedule.
The trio started out on Thursday, from the top of the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, and the first scheduled stop will be in Dease Lake, BC, on Tuesday.
While in Dease Lake, Malkolm will write his final exam in science. That will be the last he’ll see of formal education until September 2008.
The 15-year old packed three years of formal education into two, and says he isn’t worried about being away from school.
“I’ll learn a bunch of stuff I’d never learn in school,” he said. “When you’re in the US for eight months, going slowly on a bike, I think you’ll pick up a lot. It’s a new way of learning that suits me better.”
With school out of the way, the family will continue through central BC, to the coast, then through Washington, Oregon and California.
They will cut across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the Gulf Coast, and on to Mississippi and Louisiana where they’ll do some presentations to southern birders on their trip.
“Even big conservation groups in the US, like the Audubon Society, are trying to clue their members into the fact that climate change effects birds — a lot of people don’t want to make that connection,” said Madsen.
“They’ve actually adopted Malkolm as the poster child for that program.”
Travelling with a message of conservation isn’t new for this family, Madsen has crossed the US spreading the word about Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the past, and Malkolm accompanied him.
After spreading some of their green ideas, the Yukon birders plan to circle back to Texas to catch the peak of the spring migration season.
“We planned our route around making it to High Island in Texas for the spring migration, and a hot spot in California, Monterey Bay — those are the two key spots for us,” said Malkolm.
“I’ll be looking for some endangered species along the way, and talking about the dangers facing these birds; climate change is the main focus, but endangered birds and their habitats is an issue as well,” said Boothroyd.
He’ll be looking for the spotted owl on the west coast, and the controversial Ivory-billed Woodpecker on the Gulf Coast — who’s existence is currently a hot debate.
“With the ivory-billed woodpecker, it’s a good example of the loss of habitat, leading a species to extinction,” he added. “It points to the bigger picture, climate change, and what that does to birds.”
They’ll finish the trip by cycling to Florida, and sailing to the Florida Keys. “As long as climate change doesn’t spawn an early hurricane,” said Madsen.
You can follow Malkolm and his parents’ journey via their website at www.birdyear.com .