Dorian Anderson, who is going for a birding Big Year on his bicycle, enjoys his day at J.N. 'Ding' Darling NWR Monday, March 10, with intern Libby Errickson, left, and Toni Westland, refuge supervisory ranger. Photo courtesy DDWS
Dorian Anderson, who is going for a birding Big Year on his bicycle, enjoys his day at J.N. 'Ding' Darling NWR Monday, March 10, with intern Libby Errickson, left, and Toni Westland, refuge supervisory ranger. Photo courtesy DDWS

Dorian Anderson is a Boston Red Sox fan and in baseball terms he batted .500 at the 'Ding' Darling NWR.

Anderson is the biking birdwatcher who is attempting to complete a birding Big Year on his bicycle. Starting on Jan. 1, he pedaled his way from Boston to Sanibel and on Monday, March 10, with the refuge as his host, he went one-for-two by adding the Magnificent Frigatebird to his list but missing is Sanibel's secret agent, the Mangrove Cuckoo.

I missed the bird today, but I wouldn't have missed this day. The birding has been fantastic and the people here at the refuge have really been great,” Anderson said of the 'Ding' Darling refuge, one of America's birding icons. “I was looking really forward to getting here.”

Anderson has a Ph.D. in developmental genetics and his academic checklist includes Stanford and Harvard. He got the idea to embark on a Big Year, where a birder tries to tally as many species as possible in a calendar year, only a few short months before he started. Even more surprising is that training for such a massive exploit started even later.

I have done a lot of running, but I had zero biking experience,” he said. “I borrowed a bike and rode around Boston for a couple months. I realized that I could do this, and so far my assumption has been correct.”

Hammering to Florida

He pedaled 965 miles in January and 1,400 in February with a double-pronged goal. One, of course, was to log the birds. The other was to escape what turned out to be a bad winter.

I was hammering to get to Florida,” he said. “But I don't ride that many miles in a day because I don't want to ride by the birds. I rode 111 miles on Sunday (March 9) to get here and that's the first day I've done a century (100 miles in a day).”

Best Western is his sponsor and he can stay at a Best Western any night he can get to one. Other than that he's on his own with his bicycle, on which he's had numerous flat tires and a couple of wrecks on ice.

I have to put in a plug for my bike. It's a Surly and it's a durable bike, not some fancy racing machine. I'm traveling as light as I can – I just sent some of my winter clothes back north – but we still have some gear.”

Birding Wildlife Drive

'Ding' Darling intern Libby Errickson is a birdwatcher who knew of Anderson's quest. But she didn't know if he would make it to 'Ding' Darling until about 24 hours before he arrived. The refuge gave her the privilege of hosting Anderson.

I had a family friend who hosted him along the way,” Errickson said. “I started reading his blog and e-mailed him and asked him if he was coming here. He called Friday afternoon. Everyone here thinks his story is really cool.”

The two went birding on the refuge's world-renowned Wildlife Dive together.

He was wonderful. He's doing a really daunting thing,” Errickson said. “He's combining two major undertakings, to go for a Big Year while riding cross-country on a bicycle.

I am a young birder, so meeting him was very beneficial to me,” she continued. “I was thrilled to bike the drive with him. He's putting his entire life on hold to perform an epic feat. He's putting a different spin on the Big Year. He is a real inspiration.”

The James Bond of birds

As for the James Bond of Southwest Florida birds, the Mangrove Cuckoo, Anderson just missed. On his second day at the refuge he made an early-morning attempt at Bunche Beach on the Fort Myers side of the water. A cuckoo had been reported there and when he arrived he found researchers who had just captured one in a net for tracking purposes. Had he been around a few minutes earlier, even as the bird flew into the net, he could have counted it.

Here is Anderson's account of that birding moment from his excellent blog:

Today I saw a Mangrove cuckoo in the same spot, Bunche Beach, where I looked unsuccessfully for the bird yesterday. Two minutes prior to my arrival it had flown into a banding net set by the Cuckoo Research Team from "Ding" Darling NWR. I could tell something was happening as I rode down the mangrove-lined entrance road to the beach. As I pulled up, Rachel, one of the researchers, was untangling the netted cuckoo. They were going to take some measurements on the bird and fit it with a radio transmitter. This was going to take upwards of 30 minutes, so I figured I would give them some space to process the bird. I headed further down the road to see if I could scrape up my own cuckoo.

Despite several additional hours of searching, I was unable to either see or hear another cuckoo anywhere at this location. I am not going to count the netted bird since I was not part of the banding expedition/group. Instead, I decided to focus on finding my own bird, and as a result I did not even watch the release of the captured bird. I did not want to have the 'Should I count it?' debate with myself had I watched the release.

I will return to Florida at some future time (hopefully with Sonia!), and we'll find one the old fashioned way. Barring a complete fluke sometime in the next few days, this bird will not be on my 2014 list.”

He knew from the beginning that the cuckoo was going to be hardest Florida bird,” Errickson said. “It would have been a bit of a triumph had he got it, but he knew it was a possibility that he wouldn't. He came very close.”

He did get the Magnificent Frigatebird on Wildlife Drive.

We stopped to look at something else. Then we saw it very high up. It was a good find,” Errickson said.

A break and then back on the road

Sonia is Anderson's girlfriend. Although separated by the Big Year, she is a big logistical help from back home. After leaving 'Ding' Darling, Anderson pedaled to Tampa and Sonia flew in from the Northeast for some needed rest and relaxation. He and Sonia found their way to a Philadelphia Phillies spring training game. Anderson shaved for the first time in 2014 for the occasion.

Florida will be in the mirror soon. Anderson has a couple more species for the Sunshine State to produce, but soon the attention will shift to the upcoming spring migration. That means pedaling across the Gulf Coast to Texas and several known hot spots like High Island, Sabine Woods and Anahuac NWR. That will take care of the migration of the Eastern woodland birds. Then it's off on the perilous ride across the desert Southwest.

The trip will take him into California and then back through Arizona before ending in Texas in December. So far, Anderson has managed to get most of the birds on his list, the cuckoo being a notable exception. If he continues to, as he says, “see what I should see” he will end the year with between 550 and 600 different species, an impressive checklist made even more impressive by the bicycle.

Anderson keeps a daily blog that is complete with the excellent photos he somehow manages to shoot while biking and birding. His Website is bikingforbirds.blogspot.com.