When I met Tom McCabe of Boise in the parking lot at Esther Simplot Park for our biking-and-birding ride, he offered me his “30-bird guarantee.”
When we returned nearly 4 hours and 18 miles later, we were one short. I loaded my bike, put away my work gear and was just about to drive away when McCabe returned to my car. He’d found another bird — a killdeer — on his way out of the park.
So I walked over and spotted the bird, fulfilling McCabe’s promise.
Our day included at least one Canada goose, mallard, American coot, common merganser, wood duck, pied-billed grebe, great blue heron, common goldeneye and bufflehead, among others. None were a surprise or hard to spot for McCabe, who rides the Greenbelt nearly every day in search of birds (and knows some of the people and dogs, too).
McCabe estimates he bikes 320 days a year and expects to top 4,000 miles for the fifth straight year. He rides from his house, refusing to count any birds that require him to burn gas. He calls his hobby a “socially acceptable addiction.”
“It’s fun. That’s really what it is — it’s fun,” he said. “... I see people walking around and they’re doing the Pokemon GO and they’re hoping to find some imaginary creature. I’m hoping to find some real creature that I’ve never seen before, or that I haven’t seen in a long time, or that isn’t where it should be.”
McCabe, a 70-year-old retired attorney, began birding in 1970 when the Army stationed him in Oklahoma. He was near the dividing line between western and eastern birds, so he’d go out with both field guides in his pockets.
But he didn’t get serious about birding until a decade ago, when a bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma changed his life. He used biking-and-birding trips to help his mind overcome the effects of chemotherapy. And when it was time to go back to work, he decided he’d rather retire. He began chemo in January 2006, finished in July of that year and had his last checkup five years ago.
“Once I started biking for birds, it was just more fun and it got me out and it got me healthier,” McCabe said.
He still makes his brain work when he birds. He rarely takes notes.
Instead, he goes home and makes a list from memory of the birds he spotted, in the order they were seen.
“I replay the ride, so I enjoy it all over again,” McCabe said.
His favorite bird is the bald eagle. The national animal fascinated him when he watched one take off. Since then, he’s seen many of them — including one in Boise that chased, then got chased by, an osprey over a fish.
“They’re just so big,” McCabe said. “They’ve let me get really close to them and they look at me like, ‘Hey, man, you’re insignificant.’ ”