A bike, 1,655 miles, 200 birds, one man's 12-month adventure

Josh Haas keeps New Year’s resolutions. That alone is worthy of applause. His resolution for the year 2013 was so unique, however, that he is now speaking all over Southwest Michigan about it--and the response has been enthusiastic.

On Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m., Josh Haas will be speaking about his year-long adventure spotting 200 birds while riding a bike over one year’s time throughout Barry County. The free presentation will include videos of his journey and take place at Binder Park Zoo, 7400 Division Drive in Battle Creek.      

"My wife Kara worked at Kalamazoo Nature Center as public programs and exhibits director, and I volunteered there once a week," says Haas. "That’s how I got interested in birds, especially raptors."

Raptors are birds of prey that hunt and feed on other animals, and Haas became so fascinated with the hawks and eagles that he began to photograph them. He is today, along with his father, Dave Haas, owner of a nature photography business called Glances at Nature.       

"I’d dabbled in photography even as a kid," Haas says, "but I got serious about it when I got into birding." One interest spawned the other, he says. Aside from his daytime job as a manager at the Hart-Dole-Inouye Federal Center in Battle Creek, he and his father have built their photography business not only on selling their photography, but also by offering classes and workshops along with individual lessons.

"I’m a goal-oriented person, and at the beginning of 2013, I thought about what kind of goal to set that would include fitness without using fossil fuels--and birds."

Haas is a biker, riding various types of bicycles on different types of terrain, and it seemed a logical pairing to combine riding his bike and spotting birds. He called his journey The BIGBY, an abbreviation-acronym of The Big Green Big Year.  Traveling inside the boundaries of Barry County, where he lives on 12 acres with wife and daughter, Haas planned to spot 200 birds over the year.

"I looked at yearly records for Barry County, and I looked at other inland counties," Haas says. "Most record around 190 birds spotted in a year. Places like Allegan County, closer to the Lake, might record 240 or 250, but farther inland, the water birds fall off. Breaking 200 anywhere inland is hard to do."

It started as a one-man journey. One man and his bike, a pair of binoculars, and an iPhone in his pocket for snapping a quick photo when a bird came into view. Haas, who is also the president of Battle Creek Brigham Audubon, used a website called eBird to track and record his sightings.      

"It’s a worldwide database for birds," Haas says. "That was the first way that I found birds. You can zero in on areas where alerts of sightings have been posted. The second way was to reach out to other birders. I told others about my project, and other birders got excited. My dad and a couple of retired guys, they got iPhones and learned how to send me texts when they spotted something. It started out as a one-man journey, but it became a team effort."

The third way, Haas explained, was that he would just ride and watch for birds. Sometimes he spotted a new species within the first mile. Other times he rode all day, or several days, seeing nothing. His ear is attuned to bird songs, he says, and he can identify many by the sounds they make.

"I’m a road biker, so I go pretty fast sometimes, and that makes it harder to hear the birds," he says. "But I used other bikes, too, depending on the terrain. On dirt roads, I used a Cyclo-cross bike. It’s a hybrid of a mountain bike and a road bike."

Haas biked so much that he could measure distance with uncanny precision. His birding friends joked that they could set their clocks by Haas’ arrival when they sent him texts about bird sightings.

"Over the year, I covered 1,655 miles within Barry County," Haas says.

Haas kept a journal as he clocked miles and birds (available on his website). He posted photos that he took of birds with his iPhone, sometimes putting the phone up against the lens of his binoculars for a clearer shot. Every day, he carefully recorded each bird he had seen and shared his list also with Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, where his sightings will be used for research.      

"I saw the largest percentage of new birds at Pierce Cedar Creek. It’s an amazing place, with lots of trails and a diversity of wildlife," he says. "That’s part of why I wanted to do this. To make people aware of the great places close to home, that you don’t have to travel far away to see birds and enjoy nature."

Birding, Haas says, "is one of the hottest, fastest-growing hobbies today. There’s a whole younger generation getting into it. It can be very competitive, too, to do this hardcore listing. There are all kinds of lists: the world life list, the yard bird lists, the county list, the Michigan list. Nature is for education. There’s this huge void in kids now, looking at screens all day instead of getting outdoors."

Haas and his wife, who now works at the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary, are raising their 2-year-old daughter Lillian differently. The youngest Haas has already caught on to birding, and outdoors is her favorite place to be. The family lives on a 12-acre plot near Hickory Corners, and they often hike their own land to spot more birds and enjoy the outdoors.

"Lillian could identify a crow by its sound when she was one." Haas smiles. "Even on the coldest days, when it’s 15 degrees outdoors and she’s been out there for hours, she’ll still scream when it’s time to come in," he says with a laugh.

By Nov. 4, 2013, Haas had reached his goal of spotting and recording 200 birds. He went on to spot one more new bird after that, and one more by car. The most unusual sighting was the Red Crossbill, an Arctic finch rarely seen this far south. The story about how he spotted it will be one of many he will be telling during presentations across Southwest Michigan, including the upcoming talk at Binder Zoo.

Zinta Aistars is creative director 
for Z Word, LLC, and editor of the literary magazine,The Smoking Poet. She lives on a farm in Hopkins.

Photos by Erik Holladay.
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