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A Birder's Guide to Field Trip and Birding Tour Survival

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 friendships.

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 birding group!

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's:

* 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 time.

* 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 bird.

* 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'ts:

* 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 scope.

* 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 your questions.

* 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 better.

* 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 birding?

* 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?  Binocular?  Destination?

* What "hooked" you into birding?  Have you ever "hooked" anyone else?

* 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!)

For tour itineraries, to register, or for more information contact:

NJAS Eco-Travel at: (908)-204-8998
9 Hardscrabble Road
Bernardsville, NJ 07924
or email
travel@njaudubon.org.


If you are not a member and would like to become one, consider Joining New Jersey Audubon Society.