#LocalBigYear: cycling in Sussex


It started with a Hume's. I really liked the idea of the #LocalBigYear. It ticked a lot of boxes. Whilst there were no rules about the size of your patch, most people I knew were choosing a 10 km radius. However, I was a little disappointed with mine. Half of it was in the sea, and my three favourite birding locations all fell outside. Was I missing the point? Perhaps it was more about loving the one you're with, rather than looking for the one you love? I needed to think about it.

Then, on 14 January, BirdGuides reported a Hume's Leaf Warbler 21 km away. This was a lifer for me, so I wanted to see it. What if I cycled? Surely cycling to see a bird was completely within the spirit of #LBY, and environmentally better than driving 10 km? It wouldn't be easy to take my bridge camera, or my 12x50 binoculars. But this wasn't going to be an easy bird to photograph anyway, and I had an old pair of 10x25 binoculars I kept in my saddle bag. I decided to go.

The ride was pleasant, and I located the bird shortly after I arrived. Whilst two other birders tried (unsuccessfully) to get a photograph, I stood close enough to watch it with the naked eye, having found it was likely to flit away even whilst I brought the binoculars to my eye. And so began my own #LocalBigYear.

Should I set a target? I had never kept a year list before and I had no idea what a realistic number might be. I also wasn't sure about setting a target for something largely out of my control. I decided that the number didn't matter. It was about the journey, not the destination.

By the end of January I had reached 42 birds. I decided to invest in a better pair of 8x25 binoculars and a second hand compact camera with a 20x zoom, which both just fitted into my saddlebag. However, I also started to appreciate 'old school' birding. I stopped believing that I had to have an ID picture for every bird, and I was relying more on my ears and eyes to see and recognise birds. It felt quite liberating.

The first American Robin for Sussex was found within cycling distance, in Eastbourne, and goes down as a highlight of Stephen's 2022 #LocalBigYear (Stephen Kuhn).

I added 17 more birds in February, including my first ever American Robin (21 km away). That day I cycled with a back pack containing my bridge camera to try to get some better pictures of this rarity, never recorded in Sussex before. I also took a lightweight green jacket. I feared that a hi-vis cycling outfit might prove unwelcoming to birds (and even more unwelcome to other birders).

As well as my rides, I discovered some walks less than a mile from my home, which were more rewarding than I had expected. I found winter meadows full of geese, Northern Lapwing, Northern Pintail, Eurasian Teal and Common Snipe. I also picked up woodland birds like Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, Eurasian Bullfinch and Yellowhammer (a bird I used to see much more often when I was young).

March gave me another 14 birds, including the last of the winter geese on the local marshes. Most of the birds were accidental sightings of course, but sometimes I would be out walking or cycling when a local birder helpfully posted a nearby sighting. I picked up a Little Ringed Plover and a Black Redstart on the same day in this way, as well as six Western Cattle Egrets on a local marsh on another occasion. I didn't locate a Jack Snipe at the same location, and realised that cycling shoes really weren't designed for wading through marshes.

There were definitely some compromises, but overall they seemed worth it. I was also discovering the pleasure of keeping a year list. I felt I was recapturing some of the early excitement of being a birdwatcher, each new species was a tick.

April and May brought the first summer migrants. I heard my first Common Cuckoo and saw my first Common Swifts on 20 May. Another benefit of cycling the roads less travelled was the unexpected encounters with other wildlife, which included five beautiful young fox cubs, who I returned to visit and watch grow during the spring.

June, July and August were quiet, partly because I was away from home quite a bit, which included a 17-day volunteering spell on Coquet Island in July where I experienced the full horror of this year's avian flu outbreak.

Things started to pick up again in September. I saw an Osprey and a group of about 50 White Storks on the local marshes. I also discovered an unexpected Razorbill and Little Tern at a local harbour.

A small group of Bearded Tits made up for dipping the Eurasian Penduline Tits after cycling 32 km to West Rise Marsh (Stephen Kuhn).

The year ended fairly quietly. I didn't add many winter migrants to those I had already seen at the start of the year, and a couple of heavy colds prevented me from getting out on my bike. My final 32 km ride of the year gave me some Bearded Tits, but the Eurasian Penduline Tits in the same location eluded me. I did learn from my previous experience with cycling shoes, and took a pair of folding wetsuit boots which proved perfect for wading through the marshes in cycling shorts and standing knee-deep in water, if a little chilly.

In the end my #LocalBigYear covered an area roughly 35 km by 12 km. I walked 160 km and cycled more than 1,600 km. I recorded 110 birds, fewer than other lists I've seen but more than I expected. This also included five lifers, which I definitely didn't expect. In addition to the Hume's and the American Robin, these were Black-winged Stilt, White Stork, and Little Tern. It was interesting that during the year I didn't see a Goldcrest, Peregrine Falcon, or Whinchat, and it took me until September to see my first European Greenfinch. My own sample was not scientific of course, but I wonder what an amalgamation of all #LBY data might tell us about our changing environment and its impact on nature?

I found 30 of my birds on my walks. The number would have been higher of course if I had only walked, perhaps 50 or 60? I can see the attraction of having a very particular, local patch which you get to know very well, and are much more likely to notice small, but perhaps significant changes. It partly depends where you live of course, not all patches are equal. But I do wonder if one of the lessons learned from the #LBY might be that some apparently uninspiring local areas proved on closer inspection to contain a surprising variety of birds.

Equally, I wondered about including train travel in my #LBY. If I cycled in one direction and took my bike on the train to return, this would have brought Dungeness and Rye Harbour within reach, which would have almost certainly have added some waders and other birds to my list. In the end I decided that my patch was about right for me. It felt small enough to remain local but provided sufficient variety to keep it interesting.

For me, cycling enhanced my #LBY experience. But it's not a critical element, and cyclobirding may not be suitable for everyone. Perhaps only if you're young and fit? I'm 63 and don't do any other sports or go to the gym. I enjoy cycling, but don't worry about how fast I'm going. If it still feels a little too challenging for you, there are always electric bikes. I've tried a couple and certainly think they are fun, whilst still very good for the environment.

In the end, perhaps many of us created our own versions of the #LBY. There were many things I found rewarding about mine. I was able to combine cycling and birdwatching, two of my favourite pastimes. I enjoyed the simplicity of heading out with one small pair of binoculars and a cheap compact camera, and as the year wore on I realised I could comfortably take more in my back pack if I wanted to, without spoiling my cycling experience. I took pleasure in finding even the most common birds to add to my list, and I discovered some new places to explore on my doorstep. I think I became a better birder, as my eyes and ears were more open. I also had the satisfaction of knowing that my year had produced zero emissions.

There were some disadvantages. The second half of the year was inevitably much quieter. I also missed a chance to see some of the rarities which were just a little too far away, like the Eleonora's and Red-footed Falcons in Kent.

There were also some frustrating glimpses of birds I couldn't positively identify, either because I couldn't reach my binoculars or camera in time, or because I needed a bigger zoom. But then such experiences are part of birding anyway aren't they?

Overall I'm glad I did it. I'm not sure exactly what I'll do in 2023, but I do feel that some of my birding habits have changed permanently, and for the better. The #LocalBigYear may be over, but long may it live.

Written by: Stephen Kuhn