Pedaling for the Planet
Whether he's traveling by bike, boat, or boots, this teenager's yearlong, 12,000-mile birding adventure clears a clean path toward an inspiring personal record.
After Madsen left his job as a teacher to focus on conservation issues, the family made numerous trips to publicize threats to the Arctic. Among them was a nine-month slide show tour across the United States to promote the refuge. As they motored south from the Yukon to Florida, north to New Jersey and west to California, they tried to ignore the contradictions of burning gallon after gallon of gasoline while trying to prevent oil development in the refuge. When Malkolm announced that he wanted to do a birding big year, he and his parents agreed it would be without fossil fuels.
"Sooner or later we each have to decide how we're going to react to climate change," his father says. "This is our way."
At home in Whitehorse the family makes do on little more than the $24,000 they saved for this trip. To live for a year out of bicycle packs, they have pared down to the bare necessities: two tents, three sleeping bags, cooking gear, food, and no more than three or four books at a time (beyond Sibley's Field Guide to Birds). Everything fits into panniers and a touring trailer, which Madsen hauls behind his bike. Fully stocked with supplies, they pack more than 200 pounds on three bicycles. Their gear attracts the attention of fellow cyclists, who routinely ask them where they're from and where they're going. "Yukon to Texas via Florida," Malkolm replies with a gleam in his eye. "It's fun to see the dumbfounded expressions. Happens every time."
Along the way he is meeting with local Audubon chapters and school groups, showing his photographs and sharing his concerns about global warming. He's also learning about habitat and species minutiae from the many local birders who are guiding him through their territory.
Tony Battiste, a member of the Napa-Solano Audubon Society and co-owner of Battiste's Bed, Breakfast and Birds in southern Arizona, accompanied Malkolm and a group of local birders into Miller Canyon in search of a Williamson's sapsucker to add to Malkolm's life list. When a woodpecker flashed through the trees, Battiste and his friends debated: "Acorn woodpecker." "I say no." "Acorn." Battiste recalls what happened next: "Malkolm just said, 'There's my bird.' Very quietly." He was right.
His uncanny instinct for identifying birds impressed Battiste. "Nature is his classroom," he says. "He is totally attuned to what's around him."
Malkolm broke his Bird Year 400-bird barrier with a pair of fulvous whistling-ducks circling above a Texas wetland. By mid-January, still five months and 5,000 miles from his summer solstice destination in Big Bend National Park, he had tallied a total of 436.
On a chilly December morning in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas, Malkolm has his spotting scope focused on a marsh in hopes of glimpsing whooping cranes. When they fly into view--distant white specks with long outstretched necks--he thrills at sighting one of the rarest birds in existence. "It's amazing to see," he says.
But equally exciting is the mountain plover he finds resting in an east Texas field among clods of soil. Unlike the whooping crane, this modest brown shorebird is unheralded despite its rapid population decline. Malkolm applauds the last-ditch efforts that have saved whooping cranes from extinction. "But it's way smarter to protect birds while they are still common," he says.
A few weeks later, heading east from New Orleans, Malkolm has his hopes set on seeing a red-cockaded woodpecker. "But who knows," he says. "There are surprises around each corner. That's incentive to get up at 6:30 every morning."