The Difference Between Birders and Mountain Bikers

I have decided to rename my blog. It used to be called Birding with Michelle Brodie but since I have not been on any organized birding trips in over a year, I have decided to rename it to incorporate some other interests, to Birds, Trails and Tales with Michelle Brodie.

I first started birding in 1994 and like everything in my life I attacked it with vigor. I put all my resources into learning all the bird names, their habitats, their songs, identifying them, and compiling lists of all the birds I had seen. I had a life list and a North American list as well as a pair of hugely expensive top of the line Leica binoculars. In 2005, I signed up for a San Francisco County Big Year. This is a contest in which the participants attempt to see as many species of birds as possible within the county in one year. I had not been birding that long and no one really knew who I was but I came out of the gate like a race horse and gave it all I had. I got up at 5:30 AM every morning and went birding before work. My domestic partner at the time joined me and assisted me in locating many of the birds and identifying birds songs, and was with me during some of my accomplishments

These contests are strictly on the honor system. Since I was a parvenu to the elite world of San Francisco birders my sightings came under great scrutiny. One chilly September morning up on Mount Davidson, the highest point in San Francisco, at 900 some odd feet, I was looking for birds before work when an odd looking warbler perched on a branch not far away. A very aggressive and competitive competitor named David Armstrong was there. I told him there was an unusual warbler on a branch (this was exciting because there are not that many warbler species on the west coast, not nearly as many as the 30 plus on the east coast). He couldn’t see it despite my explicit instructions, “look at the gray horizontal branch then go up one foot and slightly to the left to the v shaped branch above it and down 1/4 inch to the right.” See it? No. “OK. See this branch right in front of us going across? Now go up and then slightly to the left.” I told him. Warblers never perch this long. Poor thing must have been starving after flying all night. Birds migrate at night, almost exclusively along the coast on the Pacific Flyway, a migratory bird route that runs right through San Francisco. In the fall you can see them by the dozens early in the morning after they have been flying all night landing at the first thing to come into view as the sun comes up, in this case Mount Davidson. Often eastern migrants get lost and can be found during the fall migration way off course in San Francisco. Finally I got David on the bird and we agreed it was a Blue -winged Warbler, an east coast vagrant and first and, as far as I know, only sighting of this bird in San Francisco County. I had just set a San Francisco County record.
Blue Winged Warbler
David sent a text to the other participants in the contest (this was a rule in the contest). Dozens of people descended onto Mount Davidson but despite a valiant search the bird was not seen again. This is fairly common as the birds are just stopping briefly during their migration and if they are lost often die before too long because of the unfamiliarity of the surroundings, exhaustion, hunger or they just succumb to predators. My sighting probably would have never been accepted had David not also seen it. Because it was a first county record I had to submit it to the “Bird Records Committee.” After scrutinizing David’s and my detailed description, the sighting was accepted and went down into the record books. There was extreme jealousy brewing. How could this novice, this rookie, this novitiate, this nobody, really, have found the first and only Blue-winged Warbler in San Francisco County? The competition was heating up and close too. These people had no lives. They would leave their jobs with alacrity to go pursue the latest rare bird alert in San Francisco. It was coming down to who had the most time, the most money to expend, and valued their jobs the least.

Later in September I was at a locally favorite birding spot in the Presidio with my ex, near noon when I saw an unusual bird perched on a branch at eye level. I showed it to my ex and she and I studied it for some time. I said is that a branch in front of the wing or a white wing patch? We agreed it was a white wing patch– it was a Lark Bunting– an extremely common bird in New Mexico but only the second sighting in the County of San Francisco. I submitted it and sent out a rare bird alert. Hordes descended on the Presidio but it was never seen again. This time my submission was rejected. David said I must have mistaken it for something else. I was sure. It was broad daylight. My ex saw it too. It perched for several minutes. I was furious. I set two more county records that year. I saw the first ever Pileated Woodpecker on Bayview Hill. I reported it to the Bird Box (a place for birders to call and find out the latest rare bird sightings) and left. A bunch of other people re-found it and so that one was accepted. In October, I was again in the Presidio and saw an unusual thrush. I was pretty sure it was a Wood Thrush, again an east coast bird. I called my friend, Dan, and said I was pretty sure I had seen a Wood Thrush and told him where it was. He drove down and looked at it and said, yes that’s what it is, call it in. I was hesitant. I was mad at being called a liar. I called it in and many, many other people re-found it. It was a second county record of a Wood Thrush.

Unfortunately I had become disillusioned at the miserable competitive attitude of the other participants and lost interest in the contest, even though going into December I was in third place. Someone saw a Summer Tanager in Golden Gate Park. I could have easily gone to find it; there are no red birds in San Francisco and Summer Tanagers are bright red so it would have been relatively easy to find but I was too mad and didn’t go look and failed to move into second place. I ended the contest in third place. My enthusiasm had been completely crushed. I didn’t even care what the results were. My Lark Bunting was not reported in the Quarterly Journal “Western Tanager.” I gave up. I still loved birds, as I do all of nature and always will, but my desire to go out and explore and experience the thrill of finding a rare bird was doused like Class A Foam on a sizzling saucepan.

After that sour experience I continued to bird and keep my life list but it was a solo experience for me. I ventured out to other states to see new birds. One of my best blogs ever was written in 2006 after camping alone for two weeks straight on a birding expedition to Texas. I added 40 birds to my life list and had a great time doing so all by myself. As the years went by I began to miss my other great passion, hiking. It is impossible to bird and hike at the same time. Birding is painstaking at times. It requires standing in one spot for prolonged periods of time looking up into the canopy for birds obscured by poor lighting and annoying branches, causing extreme neck pain often referred to as warbler neck. Also the constant standing was exacerbating the arthritis in my low back. It got so bad at one point I had to carry a portable chair with me because I became unable to stand for prolonged periods of time. I felt like a very old lady. It was not possible to hike for miles and miles as I had in the past. It takes a lot of time to find the bird and then identify it while seeing only portions of its body at times and at awkward angles. Even the binoculars dangling from my neck contributed to my growing list of ailments. My spouse had no interest in it at all and after a while refused to accompany me at all on any of my outings. After she left me in 2011 and my world came crashing down I went on two major birding trips, one to Ecuador and another to Mexico. I saw so many beautifully colored and exotic birds but my life had been altered and disrupted and I was miserable. I took a year to recover from the divorce. My recovery was aided greatly by returning to my great love of nature and hiking. I spent hours hiking in the East Bay, east of San Francisco, just enjoying all nature had to offer and trying to ground myself. I logged miles and miles admiring the flowers and scenery and realized that I could bird just as easily by ear since I had learned all the songs of our local birds anyway and didn’t need heavy expensive binoculars hanging from my neck. Now I could go farther when I hiked and can enjoy the flowers and the scenery. I was getting back to my core self.

I read the book Life List about Phoebe Snetsinger, a crazed birder who abandoned her family in her final years of life after being diagnosed with cancer, to accumulate what was at the time the longest life list in the world, some 8000 of the known 10,000 species of birds in the world. She was the very embodiment of a single mindedly focused, crazed, eccentric, competitive birder. I was starting to question whether I wanted to be known as a birder.

Then in June 2012, I met someone who asked me if I had ever considered mountain biking. I said “no, I don’t even own a bike but if someone were to invite me I would give it a try.” The first few times I had to rent a bike. It seemed like something I could master although it was very difficult not having ridden a bike since I was a teenager. I realized renting each time would be too expensive so I set out to buy a bike. At my brother’s suggestion, I went big. Like everything in my life I would not tackle mountain biking half way; I would never consider doing anything half way. Why do it at all unless you are going to give 100% effort? So I set out to become the best mountain biker possible even at my late state in life.  I bought a carbon fiber Santa Cruz Blur XC with special components to make it extra light. I spent the summer with bloody elbows and hideous bruises on my buttocks trying to navigate difficult terrain. This woman dragged me to some of Northern California’s meanest toughest mountain biking trails.

In November, this mountain biking acquaintance talked me into joining a group of women on a mountain bike ride to El Corte de Madera Creek Open Space Preserve, known locally as Skeggs for the vista point and parking lot where the mountain bikers park. I was nervous. The group trail description said “for intermediate and above.” It also mentioned a 2700 foot elevation gain– a lot on a bike, I came to find out. I looked around at the group during the introductions and realized I was ready to be humbled. I was not just humbled that day; I was humiliated. I am used to being the top dog, the queen of everything. On this ride I was pulling up the rear all day long. Not only that, but the group insisted on having a “minder” ride behind me so I wouldn’t get lost. I asked her repeatedly to go ahead and not wait but she refused. The course had lots of roots, rocks, and logs. About half way through is a very long hill named the Methuselah Trail. I was gasping for air by this time. You think hiking will prepare you for mountain biking but it won’t. You do not use the same muscles for mountain biking as you do for hiking. You just don’t. I had no idea. I was an aggressive and fast distance hiker. This day I took the longest time getting up that hill with that damn minder. She was this scrawny tiny little thing. She hardly looked the part of mountain biker. I don’t know how long those poor women waited for me at the top of Methuselah. They must have thought I was dead. I just kept apologizing and they just kept encouraging me. I said I was sorry and that I had only been mountain biking about ten times so far. A very sweet lady named Sheila told me not to worry and that I was doing great. The last half mile mercifully came but it was all uphill. I was out of gas. I think I pushed my bike most of the way. My mountain biking friend said it was just as well because I moved at the same speed pushing it as pedaling uphill. I at least got back on the bike to ride back to the parking lot where the group was mingling. The others were finishing up the snacks and putting their bikes away. I felt my dignity had been eliminated that day. My mountain biking friend and I did not develop into a roaring burgeoning relationship, and in fact, our relationship such as it was, ended not long thereafter. Nevertheless, I decided to keep pursuing my goal of becoming a good mountain biker.

I signed up for another group ride on June 1, 2013 for Annadel State Park, near Santa Rosa. Annadel is very rocky and one of the toughest mountain biking places in northern California. I had been there once before with my mountain biking friend: there was a lot of blood involved. Her bike fell on her at one point gouging huge holes in her leg, leaving lava flows of blood down her leg and Mauna Loa sized holes. In retrospect I should have taken her to the ER but she just laughed it off. At the end though she had her second outburst of emotional umbrage during our brief experiment together, over the ride selection, and vowed to never go back to Annadel.

The group postings for June 1st were emphatic– no beginners, strong intermediate and above only! I was so nervous the night before the ride I could not sleep. Was I setting myself up for another day of humiliation? Was I a beginner? Did I have any business going? During the introductions I observed everyone closely looking for someone to save me from pulling up the rear all day long. That same damn Minder from Skeggs was there. She didn’t even remember me from Skeggs! Anyway the Minder didn’t count as it was her job to be last. I was determined; my one and only goal was to not pull up the rear with the Minder. There was the leader, Casey, who was 54 but who had been mountain biking since the sport was invented in Marin County, California in the late 70s; Pauline and Christina who were tough as nails, both a little chunky and no doubt downhillers (people who prefer flying down the steeps to grinding up the uphills), Jackie who was very highly skilled (she was riding an Ibis but told me her other bike was a Santa Cruz Blur XC– my bike!), Jay a skinny little thing who lived in Danville at the base of Mount Diablo and who rode her mountain bike to the summit (3849 feet) every day after work for fun but who was a complete craven at the first sign of any roots, and rocks, and logs and would get off her bike and walk before attempting anything remotely dangerous; Elba, a maniac who was so supercilious that she had a glamour make over before going to the DMV for her driver’s license photo, and who was also at Skeggs but didn’t remember me because that’s how far ahead of me she was all day long; Aria, who had been mountain biking for years and was very familiar with Annadel’s trails and had great technical skills, and Wendy, lovely Wendy, very sweet Wendy, beautiful Wendy. Thank you, Wendy, for attending this mountain bike ride.

The beginning of the ride went uphill, up a fire road that became rocky after awhile. I struck up a conversation with Jackie as we seemed to hit it off. She had an accent and was very affable. I asked her if she was French to see if we could practice speaking in French but she was Italian. However, we segued into Spanish, the default language in California, after a while, and Jay who was fluent in Spanish joined in as well. Jay had come dressed in a, well, dress. I jokingly asked her if she had bought it from Macy’s. During the introductions Jay looked at Christina and Pauline derisively and turned to me and whispered with undisguised scorn, “why do they have to look like that?” Soon some other bikers appeared coming down hill so we had to get into single file at which point I passed Aria. Aria, the punctilious intermeddler, yelled at me to slow down. I was nonplussed. What was she talking about? I looked at her legs and they appeared rather like drum sticks but not like a Cornish hen drum stick so much as like a Canada Goose drum stick might appear after having eaten two bass. I became somewhat annoyed and again vowed not to end up pulling up the rear. Moreover, Casey was way out in front and I was just trying to keep her in sight. There is a no loss rule. If someone passes an intersection she is supposed to wait for the next rider to come into view before turning. Some of us waited at an intersection for Wendy and Minder and a guy with a big gut passed us. Then Casey decided to press on instead of either passing him or letting him get ahead. Then my problems started. We came upon a rocky uphill section and the guy with the gut stopped suddenly causing me to have to stop. Aria was behind me observing and critiquing. When the guy with the gut failed to move out of the way I had nowhere to go but a patch of poison oak. It was only the first in a series of humiliations and embarrassing failures to execute. Later I was about to round a switchback when the lady in front of me, Jay, fell. So I had to stop and wait for her to get out of the way. By that time Casey was breathing down my neck behind me. I had taken my left foot out of my clip as is my practice when stopping or resting because I am left handed, left sided, left brained, left personed. But to make this switchback you needed to have your right foot out. I felt rushed and fell in the switchback with my right foot still clipped in. Casey leaned over me, helping to pull my trapped right foot out of the clip and with a stern Mr. Murdstone voice said, “you need to swing way out to make the switchbacks and get your right foot out of the clip.”

After a break, there was a discussion about an upcoming steep, steep hill with a root in it. I am very familiar with those as I had had a serious crash a few weeks earlier trying to attempt that at Saratoga Gap. So I was getting nervous and didn’t really want to attempt it in front of anyone. Christina said to sit way up forward on your saddle in order to make it. I couldn’t see well around the trees and am not sure if Christina made it or not. Jackie pedaled furiously and I saw her make it up. Everyone had gone but Wendy and me. Wendy walked her bike up. I didn’t want to look that pusillanimous. So I attempted it and fell over. Aria yelled down at me, “you have to get your foot out of your clip, you dunderhead!” I yelled back up the hill, “I have only been mountain biking one year and I’m 52! Give me a break!” Christina just quietly told me to move forward in my seat next time. After a very fun single track through the trees we came to an extremely rocky uphill climb. Aria got right behind me yelling advice like a martinet. She refused to pass me even when I invited her to do so, as she was enjoying mentoring me. Wendy walked good portions of this section. I tried to struggle through it and fell hard on my right leg. Every time I fell I either received unwanted overly solicitous attention from the Minder or unsolicited advice barked to me. At the top of the hill Aria belted out, “you need to get out of that right clip. Is it on the lowest setting? Let me give you some lube for it.” She was all over me, hectoring and haranguing me. After the picnic table we went through a difficult boulder field. How did Aria end up behind me? There were two boulders side by side with about one inch between for your wheel. I took my left foot out and pushed through it using my foot. Aria chimed in, “Michelle, what happened back there?” I said my left pedal was going to hit the rock so I pulled out. She said, “you need to ratchet your pedals when that happens so that the other pedal is higher and can clear the rock!” Right! If I had been mountain biking for 12 years I’m sure it would have come to me instinctively. That is like telling a new skier, “just go over those Volkswagon sized moguls by making tight sharp turns quickly.” Yes, that is how you get over moguls but it takes time on the slopes and practice.

We came to a lake and took a rest. Some of the gals jumped in but Elba didn’t want to get her hair wet and mess it up. I’m not sure what her cure was for helmet hair. After the lake there was one last rocky descent that I rode pretty well and then we all stopped at an intersection. I came up to the group. Casey said we have two more we’re waiting for. I said, “thank god for Wendy so I am not pulling up the rear all day.” Casey chided me, “this is not a contest!” I apologized and said I was sorry and was just kidding. (I wasn’t kidding. My entire goal for the day was to not be pulling up the rear). The last bit of the ride was just a fire road. I started up the road with Aria and Christina. Christina said there was a jump but not to go over it. I said I wanted to and she said just be sure to pull up. I said what do you mean pull up. Just about then she went over something I couldn’t see and I just followed. I pulled up as instructed so as not to go over the handlebar when landing after flying over what was not a jump so much as a three foot high wall. Somehow I landed it cleanly and proceeded ahead. Unfortunately Jay, who was two people behind me, had not been privy to the conversation, went over the wall, catapulted over her handlebars, and got her dress very dirty, cutting her face, and splitting her lip. Everyone dropped their bikes in the road to provide some solace and some first aid to Jay. There were thousands of dollars of equipment in the road in a line.


We proceeded back to the cars where Casey brought out some snacks for everyone for some apres-ride socializing. Jay mentioned she was starting a new job as a wellness coordinator and next week was safety awareness week. She wondered if they would fire her when they saw her fat lip and bloody cheek. Jackie revealed that she had been both a professional dirt bike racer and later downhill racer, was three time world champion, and still held the world record for the fastest time. Pauline said, “that’s not possible; I was the champion in 2005.” Several exchanges went back and forth on who was the champion. I put my money on Jackie; she had a Blur XC and you could just tell that she was a prodigious talent and stupendous person. After a while everyone returned to their cars and their lives. I drove into the park to a picnic area and set up my chair to read and have a beer. The area was surrounded by stately tall oaks and the birds were singing—a lovely setting for a Saturday afternoon– but all I could think about was that it was June 1st, the day that I had met that lady who introduced me to mountain biking, its connection with mountain biking, and my failure with mountain biking itself. I was feeling sorry for myself and like a lorn lonely creature, a bit like Mrs. Gummidge in David Copperfield. A little tear even welled up in my eye. I wondered if I should give up mountain biking altogether. What was I after all? A crazed birder? A terrible mountain biker?  I am much more than that. Then I wondered, what is the difference between a birder and a mountain biker anyway? They are both very eccentric, a little bit crazy, and very competitive. The only difference I can see is, one has expensive binoculars through which they see the world and the other, expensive bikes through which they experience the world. In the end, I was all those things –a crazed, competitive birder, a burgeoning mountain biker, and a damn good lawyer. Was I giving up mountain biking and all its concomitant purple bruised buttocks and bruised ego, I thought as a Cassin’s Vireo sang his question song up in the Valley Oak? Heck no. Where was the next mountain to conquer?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *