Pedaling for the Planet
Malkolm Boothroyd is wedged into the stern of a 32-foot sailing sloop heeling at a 20-degree angle six miles out from Monterey, California. Oblivious to the six-foot swells, he keeps his binoculars focused on a small dark bird arcing over the waves.
Suddenly the boat erupts in triumphant shouts: “Ashy storm-petrel! Ashy storm-petrel!” Malkolm remains silent, intent on catching every last second of this seabird. When he finally lowers the binoculars, his face is flushed, his wide blue eyes sparkling with excitement.
Malkolm, a lanky 16-year-old sporting pale blond fuzz on his upper lip, has identified more than 500 different bird species—an impressive feat for someone his age. This ashy storm-petrel is a new bird for him and an extraordinary sighting in such heaving seas. Its shallow rapid wing beats help give it away, he says, ignoring the wind whipping up his brown hair. Before this eight-hour sail, Malkolm made careful colored-pencil drawings of every pelagic species he thought he might encounter. The dark storm-petrel with pale underwings is a highlight of the trip. “This is a good find—a really good find,” he says with a shy grin that combines avian erudition with irrepressible teenage pride.
By the end of this blustery September day, Malkolm will enter four new life birds into his waterproof field notebook. That makes 259 species since June 21, when he launched a birding trip through North America to see as many bird species as possible before the next summer solstice. The journey, which will take Malkolm from the Yukon Territory to Florida and back to Texas, is his version of the informal “big year” contest, which transforms genteel birdwatchers into competitors possessed with bagging as many species as possible over the course of a calendar year. Malkolm calls his 12-month quest Bird Year.
He is as ambitious as any bird-obsessed zealot to add new species to his life list. The North American big year record is 745 birds, but Malkolm has not taken a year off from high school in Whitehorse, Yukon, just to play a numbers game. He has a higher mission: His Bird Year is fossil-fuel-free. With his parents, Wendy Boothroyd, a family doctor, and Ken Madsen, a writer and photographer, Malkolm is chasing after every bird he can spot on his 12,000-mile transnational odyssey by bicycle, boat, and boots. Along with listing species, his aim is to increase attention to the dangers facing birds.
Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are clearly affecting the earth in unforeseen ways, generating early spring insect hatches that throw migrating birds off the carefully synchronized timing evolved over millennia. Sea ice is melting, washing out the rocky beaches and mudflats used by shore nesters, including some Arctic terns. “Climate change is already affecting birds,” he says. “If my parents’ generation destroys all this critical habitat, when I’m 50, kids like me will have no place to go to see birds—and many of these species will be gone.
Malkolm’s trip sets an example for other birders as well. “Malkolm’s biggest impact may be getting us all to think about how much fuel we use in our long-distance travels to see birds,” says David Allen Sibley, the ornithologist and field guide author.
Pursuing new species by bicycle transforms the game of birdwatching. Scott Thomas, conservation director for the Sea & Sage Audubon Society, in Irvine, California, led Malkolm and his parents on a three-day trip along the Pacific coast south of Los Angeles on a hunt for birds that included the California gnatcatcher. “It’s a relatively easy bird to find—except on a bike, when it’s a 10-mile ride to pedal around the bay,” says Thomas, who biked alongside the family. Malkolm acknowledges the difficulties of birding by bike but counters with the advantages: “You’re going slower so you can hear the birds.” The elusive gnatcatcher is a new species on his life list.
Pedaling across North America, Malkolm and his parents have had their share of adventures, bumping into far more than birds. Wildlife encounters include a moose calf, a rat-eating snake, swarms of black flies, and a highway turned to marsh by resident beavers. They’ve tasted mushroom ice cream and date milkshakes. Their most dubious accommodations were in the shadow of storage containers in a Wal-Mart parking lot, where local police allowed them to camp only after the store manager gave his permission. The trip has taken the trio along clearcut forests girdling Washington’s Olympic National Park, past the site of the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico and up Sandia Peak, a two-mile-high mountain that left them all gasping for breath. Along the way, they’ve been documenting their epic adventure in a travel blog.
Since they left home the family has been puritanical about avoiding fossil-fuel transportation. The only lapse was in British Columbia, where Canadian highway officials refused to allow them to pedal through a construction area. They loaded their bikes into the back of a guide car and, very reluctantly, drove to the other side.
Throughout their escapades Malkolm has remained unremittingly cheerful: “Anything that can get you out of the classroom and outside for a whole year—and have fun, too—is definitely worthwhile. For me, birds do that.”
Malkolm has pursued a passion for nature since, as a toddler, he camped with his parents among caribou on the Arctic tundra. He was a walking encyclopedia at age three, says Madsen, interested in creatures ranging from dinosaurs to horses to snakes. He finally settled on birds. On his sixth trip to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, when he was 12, Malkolm narrated Malkolm the Birder-Boy, a poignant DVD his father produced to oppose oil drilling in the refuge.
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.”