Birding by EV: Reluctantly Joining the Car Culture

By Whitney Grover

Living in San Francisco without a car was easy. I could do everything I needed to do by bicycle, bus, or on foot. Everything that is, except the only thing that really mattered: birding. 

I have mad respect for birders who don’t blink an eye at hopping on the bike and setting off on a one-hour (one-way) ride across town, or adding 45 minutes to an already 30 minute bicycle commute for a pre-work session. Occasionally I’d muster up the spirit, but somewhere halfway up the hill leaving the Presidio I’d be questioning all my life choices. 

I met some of my best birding friends by hitching rides, but you can only ask so many times before guilt starts getting you down. 

Buses, forget it. Try being stuck on a packed 38-Geary, making all the stops, just imagining that rare warbler at Lands End taking off. Even if rarity chasing is not your thing most bus routes don’t operate early enough on weekends. 

I truly enjoy patch birding but every now and then as you round that familiar corner of that familiar trail, listening to those familiar songs, you start dreaming of far-off exotic places like Mitchell Canyon and Coyote Hills. 

I believe in a future where humans live densely and efficiently, concentrated in well-designed cities, and preserving vast landscapes for wild nature. Everyone can walk to an urban park in 10 minutes, or hop on a quiet, 24-7, carbon-free train to visit those wildlands. But the reality is, as it stands, our infrastructure is car-based. So I met the world where it is and purchased an electric vehicle. 

Charging my EV – Whitney Grover


Birding by EV in the Bay Area is easy. Chargers are abundant and staying within 100 miles of city limits gives me no range anxiety. As the years go by, more and more chargers are deployed and I run into fewer broken or busy stations. Road trips along major highways are no problem at all, following the I-5 from Washington to San Diego takes five minutes of pre-planning. Half a dozen apps exist to help with charge station mapping and trip planning. Every three hours or so I stop for a 45 minute charge, not bad. (And if you can make the investment, newer EV makes and models can charge at fast chargers in half the time). 

When I meet folks who reject the idea of electric vehicles or think it’s just not viable I ask them to consider all the time their car sits. Most of our cars are mostly sitting unused. Rewire (mentally and physically) to use that down time as an opportunity to charge. 

But a road trip is different, you stop to drive. So on my last trip to visit family in San Diego, I decided to challenge myself to use that downtime to bird. Could I find places where I could get a decent species list while charging along the 101 or I-5?

With all the charging stations out there, I thought it would be easy. I pulled up eBird and Plugshare (one of those charge station mapping apps) side-by-side and crossed my eyes to combine them, as if I were looking for a hidden magic-eye image (there’s got to be a better way). But alas, as I toggled between the default map style and satellite view, hundreds of green spaces transformed into golf courses or private property. eBird hotspots were repelled from major freeways at distances too impractical to go out of the way for if I wanted to get to where I was going. While chargers are abundant, they are always in hell-scape locations like the back of a super-Walmart parking lot, a travel center truck stop, or malls. After hours searching and scrolling up and down California, I finally found a few spots worth exploring. 

What I learned is that it all comes back to walkability. It’s amazing how one mile can be almost insurmountable on foot, rerouted around sidewalk-less intersections, behemoth buildings, or completely barricaded by freeways. I’d use the term “concrete jungle” to describe some of the areas I’ve encountered, but I think the remote amazon is safer to traverse. 

Stop 1: Cat Stop

I know what you may be thinking, “but parking lots are super birdy.” The reason the parking lot of a park is a great place to find birds is because of the edge-habitat effect. Birds generally thrive in zones where two biomes meet. In a wild place, imagine a forest meeting a meadow, or a riparian corridor weaving through an oak woodland. The parking lot of a park can have the same effect if there’s habitat somewhere nearby. 

The Kettleman City travelers stop off the I-5 is not that. I pulled up to the chargers and was greeted by the sound of the southern border: Great-tailed Grackles. Their calls once marked the US/Mexico border but as they’ve expanded their range, now mark the NorCal and SoCal border. The soundscape of Kettleman City is a quartet of grackle outbursts, European Starling melody, House Sparrow cheeps, and the great basso rumbling of semi-trucks. 

Car charging, I grabbed my binoculars and headed out past the restaurants and gas stations to the great beyond. I scrambled up the hill behind the largest Tesla charging station I’ve ever seen (oh how the other half lives, non-Tesla EV driver here) and set out into the scrublands. But something wasn’t right. Where there should have been sagebrush there was tumbleweed (despite being a symbol of the wild west, tumbleweed is an introduced and highly invasive plant). European thistles and grasses filled the gaps between the weed mounds. I followed the sounds of the birds to a surprising sight in the middle of nowhere: a cat-feeding station. But instead of cats, a big flock of grackles, starlings, and rock pigeons had taken it over, drinking the cat’s water and eating cat food (only to one day become cat food themselves?). I went out a little further and listened for any sign of bird life, it was quiet but it was also coming up to midday.

I decided to trek over to the other side of the traveler’s stop. Halfway through my journey the sidewalk ended in a rude no-walking sign at the 41 junction. I crossed anyway, but I imagine on a busier day that would not have been possible. I walked by the Bravo Farms Bravoland roadside attraction, a strip mall type structure made to look like an old western town, complete with a patch of artificial grass to let your dog out. Behind Bravoland was a dry arroyo. The arroyo (okay it was clearly a man-made irrigation ditch, straight as far as the eye could see) was densely vegetated, again mostly with tumbleweed. Beyond it was a FedEx distribution center, and beyond that, vast farmland. The arroyo did have some bird activity: Lesser Goldfinch, Black Phoebe, White-crowned Sparrow, Song Sparrow, House Finch, and Yellow-rumped Warbler. Just as I was getting excited about what else I may find, a family of cats came out of the brush. As the mom stalked the White-crowned Sparrows, the kittens played behind her. 

I should’ve considered this stop a win, but the whole thing was dampened by the cats. The cats and the tumbleweeds were getting me down. My stomach rumbled and my charge was almost complete so I grabbed some food and headed back on the road. 

Stop 2: Castaic For the Win

My second and final stop on the southbound journey was in Castaic, between the Grapevine and Los Angeles. The chargers were located in the library parking lot, the second best place they could possibly be. On future trips when it’s too hot to go for a long walk I look forward to spending some time in the library. 

When I was searching the map before the trip, this stop appealed to me most as it was a short walk over to Castaic Lagoon. I couldn’t tell if that short distance would have sidewalks, but I thought I’d try. There was also a smaller and closer neighborhood park to the west as a plan B. But no plan B needed, sidewalk all the way! It was about a 20 minute walk, which meant another 20 minutes back, not much time to bird, but a 40 minute walk to break up a drive is always welcome in my book. 

The early November sunny day was hot, but not miserably so. I reached the lagoon and the park seemed to be closed… but not to pedestrians. For the first time on this journey I benefited from leaving the car behind. Grebes, geese, gulls, several sparrow species, warblers, kingfishers, ducks, birds all around. More time would have turned up more species but it was a quick look and back to the car. 

As I was walking back I noticed the building just outside the park: the Southern California Operations and Maintenance Center for the State Water Project. The larger Castaic lake above the lagoon is a reservoir and holding area for part of the west’s irrigation supply. Cats, tumbleweeds, dams, hmmm. 

Stop 3: Escape Room

After a few days in San Diego, including a parent’s birthday and a baby shower, it was back on the road home heading north. I decided to try my hand at the 101, it’s a bit slower than the I-5 but much more scenic and I thought maybe there would be more opportunity for nature spaces near chargers. 

My first stop was promising. A charger in a mall parking lot, about a mile walk to a botanical garden! It took a bit of cruising around to find the chargers, cross referencing my navigation app with the charger location app, reading the cryptic clues left by other EV travelers in the comments, but finally I found them outside a department store on the south side of the mall. The botanical garden was just north of the mall. 

Car charging, binos in hand, the fastest route was through the mall, so I went in. Through the aisles, passing kiosks, following my dotted walk line. I approached the door the navigation app suggested and it turned out to be an emergency exit only. I was warned if I open the door I would trigger the alarm. Okay, reroute. On my drive in looking for the chargers I was at one time on the north side of the mall, outside a department store with an entrance just where I needed to be. Now on the inside of the mall I see that same store, cool, I’ll just go through the store. I get to the north end and there are no exits. Huh, weird, okay, maybe another level. Up the escalators, towards the north side, still no exits. Okay, west? No exit. I asked an employee if there is an exit on this side and I’m met with a pod-person blank stare and no response. Creepy, okay, I left the department store and back into the mall, up a little ways further past another aisle of stores to another exit, also marked emergency only. 

Back to my navigation app, there’s got to be a way out on the north side. The only way I was able to find was not really a way: go back out the south side and walk all the way around the mall, turning a 20 minute walk into a 40 minute walk. I had already wasted 30 minutes trying to escape. Now I started panicking and wondering if I could even find my way back to my car! I gave up. Started back, grateful to find my way but totally defeated. No birds. Cats, tumbleweeds, dams, malls. By the time I reached the fourth charging stop it was already dark, no birding. 

It Doesn’t Need to Be This Way

I’m in awe of the major public works projects built by generations before me: the interstate highway system, the California water project, massive agriculture industries, even the distribution of “stuff” is in many ways impressive. I see the things we’ve built as proof that we can do more. What kind of world could we build if we ditched the notion that the “human world” is separate from “nature?” We have the opportunity to build new systems and infrastructure with wildlife and healthy ecosystems in mind. 

Getting off the high horse, how about simply planting an oak tree at the back of a Walmart parking lot? Installing an EV charger or two at shady popular rest stops? Too much to ask to stop feeding those adorable introduced predators? 

Whitney Grover is the Deputy Director of Golden Gate Bird Alliance. She recently received her Master’s degree in Environmental Management at the University of San Francisco with a concentration in Ecology. Whitney serves on our Climate Committee and is the former Chair of the San Francisco Conservation Committee.