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Tools and Tricks of the Trade

A Few Tips on Birding

Rich Stallcup

The science and conservation guidance that PRBO produces today are impressive, but these great capabilities still depend, at least in part, upon a rather basic activity—one that dates back to the very origins of our organization—birding! In the early 1960s, curiosity about which birds live where, and how many, and what they’re doing, sent naturalists and biologists into the field, later to found “Point Reyes Bird Observatory.”

That same motivation, to understand and thus protect the environment, operates today. During these past five decades, birding has grown astronomically, and so have knowledge and technology (including the optics we use in the field). The fundamentals remain the same, though: enabling people to comfortably get close to birds, identify them, and understand what they’re doing.

Tips. While birding in woodland with the sun overhead, get your face and binoculars (“bins”) out of the glare and into the shadow of a tree trunk or hefty branch. When birding in vegetation, become quiet and still. Some birders are always moving. When a little bird goes behind cover, these folks scurry side-to-side in hopes of a more open view. All this does is push the bird deeper into shelter (and sometimes angers other birders). It may be better to stay still, be quiet, and watch for trembling leaves or other give-away movements as the bird moves naturally into view.

Anyone who has birded a while thinks they know what to wear (except maybe the guy in shorts and flip-flops chasing a Cactus Wren through a cholla forest). We check what the weather will be and dress appropriately, usually in layers. While you should be warm (or cool) and ready to bird, there may be some useful tweaks. Temperate-latitude landbirds are often spooked by bright colors like yellow, “Cal-Trans orange,” and white. They simply move farther into cover or disperse in panic.

Camo gear is usually unnecessary, but dark colors are better than light ones for getting close with least disturbance to wild birds. This suggestion applies to all outerwear including raingear (even if you just bought an expensive, bright yellow outfit ).

Short Thoughts on Optics. For binocular straps, I use 1/4-inch or 3/8-inch dog leash that fits into the anchors mounted on the bins. The narrow dog leash is unencumbering and it also comes in bold colors. The backcross halter strap is good for some people, not for others like me.
Forster's Tern. Photo by Tom Grey.

There is such a mind-boggling array of binocular brands and models that it is unwise to talk about them in print, but seasoned birders have their favorites and are usually very willing to share why. What I want to say here is that because we are “object-oriented” observers (a bird or a flower or dragonfly, rather than a regatta, mountain range, or meadow), we want that object as big as possible. Thinking this way, ten-power is better than eight-power.

For scopes, straight is better than bent. Many times I have seen new birders with straight scopes talking about details of a bird in quest while those with bent scopes still are searching for the horizon. And what if you are behind a five-foot hedge?

Try to Share the Beauty. Don’t be timid! When strangers pause to ask “What are you looking for?” try to avoid the common, almost apologetic, “Oh, we’re just bird-watching.” Instead say something like “We are watching some amazingly beautiful different kinds of wild birds. Would you care to look through my scope at a Black Oystercatcher?” Many will then join in the joy and leave enchanted.

Whether we go out for pleasure or as a PRBO field biologist, a citizen scientist, a Bird-A-Thon counter, or a Christmas Bird Count participant, by using tried-and-true tools of birding we will all be continuing to gain insight, as we have for decades.