Birding by Zipline
Clipping into a zipline and flying through the canopy of a West Virginia hardwood forest gives thrill seekers a decidedly different perspective on their favorite birds.
“All right, who wants to go first?” Tiny Elliott asks. My three friends and I exchange glances under the brims of our red hardhats. I reach up and tighten mine a notch with a thick leather work glove. This is not what we usually wear birdwatching, but then, this isn’t the usual birdwatching trip. We understand that to get from here, where an ovenbird is calling teacher teacher near the crook of a white oak tree, to there, where a chestnut-sided warbler is saying pleased to meetcha, we need to step off a platform and zip 190 feet along two steel cables, flying at nearly 30 miles per hour through West Virginia’s New River Gorge, to a platform 45 feet off the ground. And to do that, one of us has to volunteer.
“I’ll go,” says Kim Phillips. At 5-feet-3-inches, she’s the shortest of our tight-knit group of friends, and more than a foot shorter and 100 pounds more petite than Tiny, our guide. He reaches down with his XL gloves and clips her full-body harness into the double cable system via two separate trolleys. “Whenever you’re ready,” he says. She settles into the seat of her harness. Then she’s gone—a small figure getting smaller in the distance, until we can’t see her at all.
A voice crackles over Tiny’s handheld radio. “There’s a red-eyed vireo on the shagbark hickory,” says Reed Flinn. He’s the guide standing on the platform on the other side, waiting for the rest of us to zip in. Now we step up quickly. Kara Jackson goes next, then Linda Vanderveer. When it’s my turn, the cables sag gently under my weight as the metal hardware whisks me into a tunnel of leafy spring growth. Spindly tree trunks fly by in a blur.
It’s not scary, but exhilarating. I open my mouth to whoop, then envision all the insects and snap it shut again. I want to go even faster, so I raise my legs to make myself more aerodynamic. A thick red oak rushes toward me, and when I see Reed signal from the platform, I use my right hand to gently press down on the cable to brake, as I had been told to do.
It’s early May, and my friends and I, who first met while working at Audubon, are hoping to catch the tail end of spring migration in the mid-Atlantic. This zipline, built for Adventures on the Gorge for its Canopy Tour, seems like the ideal way to do so. The course includes 10 zips, five bridges, and two short hikes, spanning more than a mile of woods; it passes through two forest ecosystems and crosses meandering Mill Creek eight times. Plus, we’re at no risk for warbler neck, because we’re not training our binoculars up at the birds, we’re looking at them eye to eye—which doesn’t seem to perturb them. “Birds don’t know what we are [doing up that high], so they’re not concerned that we’re here,” Tiny tells us. “You can talk about them, you can point at them, and they look at you like: It looks a lot like a human, but I didn’t know they could fly.”
Modern ziplines have become an increasingly popular tourist attraction. In the past decade more than 200 commercial tours have cropped up in the United States and Canada. Just about anyone can safely zipline on a reputable course (the industry is self-regulated). Four generations of the same family, including an 87-year-old great-grandmother, have zipped with Adventures on the Gorge, as has a woman with a heart condition, blind and deaf people, and combat-wounded veterans. Birders, however, are just beginning to discover ziplining’s potential—and zipliners are likewise slowly beginning to discover birding.
“I think birding by zipline is a superb idea,” says Kenn Kaufman, expert birder and Audubon field editor. “There are some people who don’t give a damn about warblers, but if you combine them with some kind of edgy outdoor sport, it makes birding more acceptable.”
The red-eyed vireo has disappeared by the time we arrive at the second platform, but two brown creepers race each other up the trunk of a hickory like they’re on parallel tracks and propelled by water guns in a carnival game. A ruby-throated hummingbird, glossy in the early morning sun, darts around a nearby tree. At the third platform we spot the red head of a pileated woodpecker just before it swoops down to a log on the ground. The four of us, our harnesses clipped into a loop of cable at the sugar maple’s trunk, lean over the edge of the platform to peer down, fanning out on our short tethers like dancers around a maypole.
“In our area, a pileated woodpecker is like a robin,” Tiny says, and Reed nods his head in agreement. “Nobody local even bats an eye when you see one.” Each pair needs a tree thick enough for the cavities the birds nest and roost in—something this part of West Virginia has plenty of.