By Don Freiday
It was the kind of summer dinner party tailor-made
for a birder: outdoor setting, goldfinches and hummingbirds at
the feeder, young great-horned owls screeching as night fell.
Better, I was a guest, not the host, and could relax and enjoy
the birds, food and conversation. Best of all, the guests were
nearly all birders, nearly all seasoned field trip participants,
and in fact, nearly all were veterans of trips with me. This
summer gathering was a birding tour reunion, proving that
birding field trips and tours are perhaps the greatest social
activity ever invented, bringing people with similar interests
together for fun and good fellowship, and often building lasting
The conversation turned quite naturally to birding, to
trips and tours recently taken, to the good and the best. A
male ruby-throated hummingbird quieted the conversation for a
moment, and when he left I asked the group, "What should a
beginner do to get ready for a trip?"
The response was a thought-provoking barrage of
spirited "do's" and "don'ts," the list evolving as people
recalled their own early days of birding, and remembered recent
trips where perhaps a participant or two had behaved in a less
than satisfactory way.
If there is a down side to birding with an organized
group, it is the risk of being forced to bird with occasional
rude, inconsiderate, or even just well-meaning but ignorant
people. How do you avoid these problem people and get the most
enjoyment, and the most birds, out of a field trip or tour? By
making sure you at least know how to conduct yourself in a
Here's a list of trip "do's" and "don'ts," most
straight from participants, but augmented with a few derived
from a trip leader's experience:
* DO ask questions about the trip before the trip. Find out
what the weather conditions will be like, how much walking is
involved, how bad the bugs will be, whether you should bring
your scope. Most organizations or tour companies will provide
you with a list of what to bring and recommendations for how to
prepare for the trip. If they don't, ask.
* If you have special physical needs or limitations, DO make
sure the leader knows about them before the trip. Many times
such needs can be accommodated with advance notice.
* DO honestly evaluate whether you are physically up to a
particular trip or portion of a trip. Don't leave it to the
leader to say, "I really don't think you should come on this
hike - it's going to be tough." Normal birding is not
particularly strenuous, and most trips and tours are suitable
for anyone in good general health, but on many if not most,
there will be night sessions or portions with long, arduous
hikes that are optional. No one will look down on you for
opting out of part of tour.
* DO be early, or at least on time, for the trip, or each
morning of the tour. DO make sure you know how to get to the
meeting place. Some leaders are ruthless when it comes to
timeliness and will leave without you, but most will wait at
least a little while, delaying the trip for everyone else.
* DO let the leader know if there is a particular bird you
would like to see. If it is a common bird but you would really
like a good look at it, say so! Leaders are happiest when they
make the people on their trips happy. However, DON'T harp on
the birds you are missing. The leader will hear you the first
* DO feel free to ask questions about a bird - how to
identify it, where it lives, what it eats. This is your trip,
and one of the delights of birding is learning. Field trip
leaders love to have people along who are truly interested in
birds, and who show their interest.
* If someone calls out a bird, and everyone seems to be
looking at it, but you can't find it, DO SAY SO! Leaders, and
other trip participants, are always glad to help you get on the
* If you see a bird, say a raptor overhead, DO call out. One
of the chief advantages to birding with a group is having
multiple sets of eyes all looking at once.
* DO learn how to give and receive directions to a bird's
location. Learn the clock system. Use obvious landmarks near
the bird to guide people to the bird. Use binocular fields as
measurements of distance.
* DO make the investment in a decent pair of binoculars. If
the trip leader is calling out field marks on a bird that you
can't see, it may well be that it's your binoculars, not your
eyes that are the problem.
* DO know how to be quiet, and when. Being quiet means more
than not talking loudly. It means not moving, or if the group
is walking, it means choosing your footsteps so they fall
quietly. Watch the leader; if he or she stops suddenly with
head cocked, stop also. Undoubtedly the leader heard a bird,
maybe your next lifer.
* DO stay with the leader. This is particularly true when
the group is intently looking for a particular target bird, or
when the leader is pishing. Pishing brings birds to the pisher,
and good leaders generally will choose places to pish where,
should a bird come in, it will be most easily viewed.
* DO wear quiet clothing in quiet colors. It can be hard to
get good looks at shy birds, and it becomes doubly hard with a
group garbed in neon nylon.
* DO be prepared for less than adequate bathroom facilities.
This may mean long periods between bathrooms (drink less
coffee), or it may mean the only bathroom will be the great
outdoors (know how to handle that.) If this is a concern, ask
about bathroom availability before the trip.
* DON'T be a scope hog. Even if the leader's scope is
trained on your dream lifer, step to the eyepiece, take an
identifiable look, and step away to let the next person have a
chance. Don't bump the scope in the process. Often, there will
be opportunities for second or third looks, but sometimes there
won't. If you've already seen the bird with binoculars, and
someone in the group has not seen it at all, let that person
have first crack at the scope. Here's a related DO: if the
bird moves, DO try to follow it with the scope. Otherwise, time
will be lost as the leader tries to re-locate the bird in the
* DON'T be a complainer. If something about the trip is
bothering you, carefully evaluate whether the problem is worth
mentioning. If it is, discreetly speak to the leader in private
- this avoids embarrassment for both the leader and you.
* DON'T monopolize the leader. A dozen or more other people
may want to share in the leader's expertise, plus the leader can
hardly look for birds if he has to spend all his time answering
* DON'T insist on a particular seat in the van. Offer to
rotate seats with other participants (this is a customary
procedure on many field trips, especially when window and front
seats are involved).
* DON'T insist on driving your own car. If the field trip
has space in the van, ride in it. If car pooling is possible,
do it. The fewer vehicles involved in a birding trip, the
* DON'T drag significant others along on a birding trip
unless they are ready and willing to come and understand what is
involved. Make sure they have binoculars. Who knows, maybe
they'll get hooked! Disinterested people, however, tend to drag
the trip down.
* DON'T leave your cell phone ringer turned on when you're
with the group - not in the field, not in the vehicles, not at
group meals. Don't use your cell phone during any group
activity - except of course for emergencies. For routine
communications, always move well away from the group.
Special section: Great conversation starters for in the van,
at lunch, or during birding tour down time:
* If you had to live the rest of your life on an island with
only ten birds, what would they be?
* What's the most spectacular thing you've ever seen while
* If you were going to get a bird tattoo, what species would
it be? (Optional: ". . . and where would you put it?")
* If you weren't birding now, what would you be doing?
* What is the ultimate birding vehicle? Drink? Shoe? Hat?
* What "hooked" you into birding? Have you ever "hooked"
* What's the next bird species we are going to see?
* Who is the best field trip leader? (Always a good answer:
the one you're with!)
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