For retired mathematics and social sciences professor Diana Doyle, birding and outdoor adventure have always gone hand in hand. After decades of summer travels, when Diana, 54, left academia in 2004, she and her husband Mark, 61, decided to sell their Minnesota home and live full-time on their PDQ 34 power catamaran. Setting sail on Lake Superior, they made their way to the Atlantic, and spent the next 10 years exploring ports and coastal waterways from Canada to the Caribbean, and points beyond.
An avid birder since the age of 11, Diana was soon snapping photos of maritime and pelagic birds while writing about her adventures for the American Birding Association, Birder’s Guide, SAIL Magazine, and other respected publications and ornithological journals. Along the way, she recorded her birding observations in Cornell University’s eBird database. Chatting with other boaters, Diana quickly recognized the potential for enlisting them as eBird eyes on the ocean.
“I realized that nearly everyone I encountered that owned or spent a considerable amount of time on a boat enjoyed watching the birds,” she says. “I thought, ‘If we could teach boaters about species identification and get them to record their observations in eBird, what a resource that would be for conservationists.’”
The notion ultimately led Diana to found Birding Aboard, a citizen-science organization devoted to “mobilizing the worldwide boating community to appreciate and document their bird sightings.” Since its formation around 2010, the group has enlisted the help of thousands of boaters. Recording sightings from a minimal distance of two miles offshore, participating boater-birders have logged entries from nearly every corner of the globe, including a trip through the arctic Northwest Passage.
In 2016, after spending more than a decade on the ocean, Diana and Mark decided it was time for a change.
“We’d done some hiking on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and loved it,” explains Diana. “Afterwards, Mark and I started talking about getting a house and maybe living back on the land. But that felt like a such big leap, we wanted to be sure it was what we really wanted.”
That’s when Mark had an idea. Why not reintroduce themselves to the terra by hiking a ‘short’ segment of Appalachian Trail?
“And by short he meant, like, 500 miles!” laughs Diana. “Although I’d never hiked that far in one stretch, I wasn’t going to miss the adventure. So, we started researching and testing gear, and going on longer training hikes to get in shape.”
While looking into potential hiking routes, a friend in Virginia told Diana about the state’s second Breeding Bird Atlas. Having recently participated in Florida’s BBA, Diana knew the surveys played a critical role in documenting important changes to the bird-scape—such as the northward shift of some species’ ranges and, unfortunately, the extirpation, or local extinction, of others.
“We’re experiencing a critical moment for our migrant songbirds, with some species
showing population declines of 60 to 70 percent over the past 25 years,” she says.
Many such birds are hallmarks of the Appalachian woods. In Virginia alone, the Appalachian chain includes breeding grounds for eleven species on the American Bird Conservancy “Watch List,” meaning they are in the greatest need of conservation action. These include the cerulean warbler, eastern whip-poor-will, Canada warbler, golden-winged warbler, and wood thrush. Each experienced a massive population decline—between 59 and 75 percent—between 1970 and 2014.
Hoping to pair her hike with a citizen-science cause, Diana subsequently reached out to VABBA2 program director, Ashley Peele.
“I was fascinated by the idea of collecting data about breeding birds while hiking through some of Virginia’s most remote and least-birded areas,” she says. “When I discovered the VABBA2, I knew this is what Mark and I were going to do.”
Leaving Florida in the spring of 2017, the couple arrived in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, on April 23. A day later, they set out on a 537-mile southbound hike to Damascus. The trip took them 67 days to complete.
At first, Diana says trying to tally breeding birds while section-hiking was tough. The learning curve was incredibly steep.
On one hand, the couple had allotted themselves a specific amount of time to complete their hike and had set a goal of tackling 13 miles each day. However, being complete novices, they’d overpacked. This made the task of lugging their packs over the hills and through the woods that much harder.
“We dumped a bunch of stuff at the first trail-town,” recalls Diana with a chuckle. “I cut my pack weight from 38 pounds with food and water down to 23. That made a hugedifference. While I caught some flak from other hikers, the one item I refused to give up was my pair of Leica mini-binoculars!”
Second was the issue of canopy density. The forest and surrounding brush were so thick, they tended to hide the birds. This, combined with the necessity to watch the trail for impediments like loose stones or high roots, and an inability to pause for more than a few minutes at a time, frequently made visual identification next to impossible.
“Beyond endurance, the biggest technical challenge I faced was having to quickly and drastically improve my birding-by-ear,” says Diana. “I had to focus on concentrating and really will myself to keep listening throughout the day’s hike, even as I became physically tired.”
Determined, Diana quickly adapted. Affixing her iPhone to a harness attached to her backpack’s shoulder-strap, she began taking field recordings as she walked. Using eBird’s mobile application for streamlined data entry, she was able to tally her observations while on the move. Although service and data connections were sparse, she could record entries offline and upload them at the next trail town. To maintain batteries, she carried a portable solar charger.
“By the end of the hike, I was a pro at looking around and plugging data into my phone with one hand,” she jokes. All total, Diana tallied 10,624 birds and 123 species for eBird, and traversed 92 VABBA2 blocks. “That was 213 checklists, which started and ended at the VABBA2 block boundaries, in addition to stationary counts at campsites, Appalachian Trail Conservancy Open Area Tracts, and nocturnal counts while camping. By far, my most common entry was ‘singing male.’”
Many species—like red-eyed vireos, ovenbirds, and American redstarts—were recorded again and again. In addition to the nine black bears she and Mark saw while hiking, birds that were spotted only once stand out in Diana’s memory. These included a northern bobwhite; double-crested cormorant; great blue heron; American kestrel; alder flycatcher; cliff swallow; vesper sparrow; blue grosbeak; bobolink; purple finch; and yellow-throated, bay-breasted, yellow, palm, and prairie warblers.
“I remember I thought I was going to have a big miss when we arrived in Damascus and I still hadn’t seen a ruffed grouse,” says Diana. “But then, as we were driving away, I spontaneously took a detour for one final goodbye vista. When I turned, an adult and two chicks were resting in the middle of the gravel road. I stopped the car and we watched them until they disappeared into the woods. That was pretty magical. It felt like the perfect end to our journey.”
Nearly a year later,Diana says participating in the VABBA2 while hiking Virginia’s AT section was one of the best decisions she ever made.
“It kept me absolutely engaged and was often the difference in motivating me to finish the last few miles of a day,” she says. “Spending hours and hours going up and down through similar-looking woods can be exhausting and, occasionally, a bit boring. But listening to the birds and needing to keep precise block-by-block tallies kept my mind busy. Focusing on the beautiful birdsongs and my counts helped me forget my fatigue.”
Overall, Diana says atlas-ing gave her hike focus, purpose, and an intellectual component. But more importantly, it allowed her to contribute to a greater cause. In fact, she and Mark enjoyed the experience so much, they’re in the process of planning a second birding-while-section-hiking adventure.
“This time, we’re going to hike the Camino De Santiago in northern Spain,” says Diana. “It’s about 700 miles-long, starts in the Pyrenees mountains, and ends at the ocean. We plan to eBird the entire way.”
~ Eric Wallace, VABBA2 Communications