Friday, October 3, 2008

Segway Birding

Friday, October 3, 2008
In my almost four decades of seeking birds, I've been birding in many different ways, using many different modes of transport. From bicycles to cross-country skis, scenic railroad cars, sternwheel riverboats, pontoon boats, huge inflatable river rafts, canoes and kayaks, small airplanes, ski-lifts, wagons pulled by both horses and tractors, and all manner of motorized vehicles, I've pretty much seen them all. Then, last week, I added a new mode of birding transport to my "life-experience list": The Segway.

Bill of the Birds on a Segway X2 on level ground.

Lee Underschultz of Little Hocking, Ohio, is a longtime birder and horse person who discovered the Segway on a trip to Canada. She thought they'd be great to use for birding trips on the 95-acre farm she and her husband own in southeastern Ohio. She tried one out and liked it so much she bought two of the specialized "off-road" Segway X2s.

Lee contacted Bird Watcher's Digest to see if we'd be interested in trying out the Segways on a morning birding outing at Firefly Hollow, the Underschultz's farm. Oh yeah! So last week my brother Andy and I drove down to Firefly Hollow for our very first Segway experience.

I'd seen these cool, quiet, battery-powered personal transporters in cities. I even tried to book spots on a Segway tour of Chicago while visiting the Windy City several years ago. No dice. They were booked up for months in advance. Needless to say, I was really eager to experience a Segway.
The Segway X2

Here's a link that tells you more about how a Segway works. It's an amazing machine and super easy to learn to ride, becoming intuitive within minutes.

After a quick lesson on how to operate a Segway, Lee, Andy, and I took off along the many trails through the fields and woods of Firefly Hollow.

Andy gets a lesson from Lee Underschultz.

Here's a short video about the experience.

Riding a Segway has the following advantages for birding: It's very quiet. It gives you a somewhat different perspective on the habitat than you'd get while walking or driving a car. It's a very green way to get from one place to another. Plus it's cool!

Riding a Segway was a lot of fun.

Of course it has its limitations, too. If you see a bird, you have to stop the Segway, which involves leaning backwards slightly. The Segway senses this shift in weight and slows to a stop. If you are on level ground, the Segway will stay perfectly balanced and you can release your hands from the handlebars and grab your binocs. If you're on a hill or slight incline, you need to step off the Segway and either power it down and lower the handlebars to the ground, or lean them against something (a tree, fencepost, your back). The gyroscopes inside the Segway are designed to prevent it from falling over.

For stop-and-go birding, a Segway might seem like a lot to handle. But to get to a spot where you're going to be birding for a while, it's perhaps the neatest way to get there.

Andy and Lee dismounted for some birding.

We had black-throated green warblers among the fall migrants during our birding outing. But the best bird of the morning was the first-fall red-headed woodpecker we saw in a snag near the big horse barn at Firefly Hollow. Red-headeds are my favorite North American bird.


On October 3, 2008 at 9:27 PM Anonymous said...


On October 3, 2008 at 11:37 PM Mary said...

Red-headeds are fantastic.

I tried a Segway on asphalt for a few minutes...very fun, indeed, but I was afraid of crashing and losing my front teeth. On a nature trail, I fear I'd break more than my teeth. You did well.

On October 4, 2008 at 4:22 AM Redzlan said...

Very cool way of transportation.

On October 4, 2008 at 6:30 AM Anonymous said...

Now you have to start reviewing birding helmets. A good one won't obstruct the ears, and there needs to be a visor option to match each birder's requirements for overhang without getting in the way when using binoculars. Nice subdued natural colors too.

On October 4, 2008 at 9:06 AM Julie Zickefoose said...

Oh, Bill has a helmet for every sport, in addition to his everyday helmet (the one with the swiveling screw eye in the top).

On October 4, 2008 at 8:47 PM Kathi said...

This is so weird - first, I read your blog about Segway birding, then tonight, I get a chance to ride (drive? operate?) a Segway at the winery.

Blog post and photos tomorrow - Buckeyes are playing tonight!


On October 4, 2008 at 9:06 PM Mary said...

Oh, Kathi, be careful. Wine and Segways are not a good combo.

On October 5, 2008 at 7:49 PM Kathi said...

I have to say, Segways are way, way cool! Say, when you got off the one you were riding, did you have "Seg-leg?" A kind of woobly-wobbly, reverse-sea legs effect? I did, and it was weird.


On October 6, 2008 at 9:42 AM Anonymous said...

Great idea if you have physical limitations, but otherwise you lessen the process. Kind of like when golfers use a cart to drive around. So much goes into the approach, the thinking that goes on before the action. The immersion in thought is broken up by the driving of the vehicle.

That terrain would have been perfect for a mountain bike!

On October 6, 2008 at 1:57 PM Rondeau Ric said...

cool transport Bill. Good to know you and Andy still bird together, rather than just working.

On October 7, 2008 at 3:19 PM Anonymous said...

"It's a very green way to get from one place to another."

I'd just like to point out how many circuit boards, componentry and battery that goes into the Segway.

People tent to think if you plug it in it's "green"

The waste produced during manufacture and waste involved when it's cast aside in 5-7 years makes this toy green how? Makes me green to think about it.

Try a bike... that's green.


On October 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM Anonymous said...

The helmets are a good idea, especially for new segway riders... Some of us that ride segways a great deal are more adept at having them be an extension of our shoes... Some of us even have a modification that allows us to steer them with our knees, so we do not need to use our hands at all, keeping them free for cameras and binoculars... Their near silent operation is quieter than all the huffing and puffing I do on a bike, and since you can go very slow, you can concentrate on your environment, rather than keeping the bike upright...

On October 8, 2008 at 11:41 AM Anonymous said...

Hi Karl,

You must not ride a bike much. Creeping along is no problem for those who do.

My bike is much quieter than your Segway. That annoying hum would drive most birds away.

All should give it a shot and try birding on a bike.

How about it Bill?


On October 8, 2008 at 2:16 PM firefly said...

Actually the birds don't mind. I have gotten within 20 feet of an Ovenbird, stopped and it didn't fly off until I proceeded again. Same with a Hooded Warbler. A White-Eyed Vireo actually flew toward me and landed on a limb about 10 feet away. No need for binoculars. Those are just a few examples. The "whine" is not audible unless you are pushing it to full speed. This is obvious when Bill is travelling and videoing at the same time. He's talking about operating it with one hand as he travels. No audible "whine" here. But you can hear voices in the background. Bicycles are not totally silent. Rattling chains, clacking of shifting gears and often brakes make a much sharper noise.

It would be nice if everyone could bird by bike but I have a friend who is 65 and has never ridden a bike. It's a little dangerous to try to learn at that age. She got on and safely operated a Segway within 5 mins. I don't know anyone who could say the same about a bicycle (without training wheels of course).

One bonus is that I have never left a skid mark or scar on the trail with a Segway.

Kathi, the "sea legs" feel is common. Sort of like the feeling you get when you get off a trampoline.

If you ever get the opportunity to test ride a Segway I'd recommend that you try. It's impossible to truly judge it until you've tried one.

Happy Birding to All (in whatever mode suits you best)!


On October 14, 2008 at 10:56 PM Patrick B. said...

Too cool! This would be ideal at Sandy Hook. I saw Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, speak at a work event. He's an interesting guy. He also invented the iBot gyroscopic wheelchair which was the inspiration for the Segway. A co-worker of mine rode a Segway home during the big blackout in NYC a few years back. Unfortunately his battery died and he had to push it home!