Broad-spectrum Dos, Don’ts and Tips
Before finding about how to become an easy birder, a birder may need a few fowl dos, don‘ts and tips. For those all-knowing, all-seeing, be patient and try to remember your youth and that not everyone grasps the universe as eloquently as you might. Everyone has to start somewhere and what may be history is news to someone else. Keep in mind that common sense is sometimes unfortunately uncommon. Not everyone knows that to experience birds requires more than sensible shoes to come home alive and un-fouled.
Bearing in mind that too many rules, like too many cooks, have the effect of spoiling all the fun, there comes a time, when we have to face facts with facts. There is a time when general rules need to be followed or you won‘t enjoy the great out-of-doors and it won‘t enjoy you. Like a cough syrup or other medicine, broad-spectrum rules may not be easy to take. Like broad-spectrum medicines, some of the dos and don’ts are protective and many simply make birding easy. After all, that is what we want. We want easy birding.
You cannot roller skate in a buffalo herd, nor should you ignore trespassing signs, weather, unknown dogs and bulls, even grunting male pigs, certain people, especially if they grunt, bears and anything else that could bite off an appendage. It really is true. There is quick sand and cougars out there and there is a plethora of ways to poke out an eye. Your mom knew what she was talking about, or so she thought. Statistically, a cougar may sniff your tracks but probably nothing else you hold dear. You may see their tracks or even scats, but a jaunty golden Labrador retriever might be your best bet for your only cougar sighting. For birding in grizzly land, always check with locals about trails, research the best protocols for safe bruin encounters. Otherwise keep your distance and have the motor running. Do avoid contact with the dog and the cat. What dictates a set of dos and don’ts is following common sense and decency we should always put into practice, while keeping in mind that actually something out there could poke out your eye.
There are some specific dos and don’ts that are best kept in mind when visiting certain habitats. For example, when birding on a beach, don’t get sand in your shorts. Anyone who has sand in their shorts will likely suffer attention span when it comes to identifying birds unless they have what it takes, true grit. A few non-general dos and don’ts appear in the appropriate chapters on birding different situations. In the meantime, here are a few dos and don’ts that apply pretty much wherever you are birding. Do look more and talk less. Don’t get so excited by a bird that you embarrass yourself, or worse yet, the bird. Keep in mind that not all dos and don’ts of life as it applies to birding receive discussion here since most of us already have successfully negotiated the majority of what civilized people practice. We know and obey most of the rules, except speeding to a great bird location or eating too much. This is not a tome of birding dos and don’ts for idiots dummies or morons. All of dos and don’ts peppered here are really little hints to consider for easy birding that many might feel embarrassed to impart to the unsuspecting.
There are many dos and don’ts about weather, but most of us already have a good idea about how to dress ourselves. Most of us also know it’s a good idea to have proper foot wear and to not dress too revealing for the public or certain wildlife including a myriad six-legged blood sucking critters and reptiles with two legs or no legs . Footwear comes into play not only to support all your weight on the two stubs we call feet, but also help prevent bites and scrapes. Most snakes could care less about sinking their fangs into our warm birding tissues, and only rarely does one experience reptile dysfunction. There is little need to go into the dos and don’ts to avoid being bitten and sucked by non-bird animals. A good pair of boots will make for an easy day, even if it’s hot inside them. Insect mouth parts, teeth and fangs left in the outer surface of the protective leather will go unnoticed by the well-heeled birder.
One item that could be a well-known garment to the summer birder is a cooling vest. My wife, Linda, bought one and it creates a difference in comfort level whether she’s birding with me or staying in the shade of an air conditioner. I finally bought a cooling vest and it was great in SE Arizona in July. These lightweight vests come in different sizes and colors and their cooling abilities depend on different techniques. The vests we have contain something that soaks up regular tap water. After a few minutes, gently wring out the excess water and you are ready for tropics or desert. I could have used one during those muggy summers while working my day job at Smithsonian. You probably won’t find them listed in a bird-bedecking catalogue. Try the internet or a place that sells accessories for road workers. Flag people and roofers adore them. Therefore, the do here is, get a vest and be cool, whether you’re a birder or not. It will make a hot day easy.
For cold weather, don’t forget your dickey. Do try to match your gloves with your binocular focus wheel or whatever mechanism you use. Some binoc focusing wheels become hard to move in frigid conditions, but so do fingers. Try the gloves and the binocs before the temperature drops. Some gloves are so bulky that they slip on the focus adjustment. If you have trouble, find a different type of glove.
If it rains keep your binocs, field guide, note pad, and definitely your lunch dry. It is difficult to see through water drops on your optics, and anything paper does not like to be wet. If you get wet, you’ll dry but your eyes will blur only momentarily, and you won’t curl, buckle, or become soggy. Of course, if is cold, do try to stay dry. If you are shivering and your teeth are chattering faster than a speeding Downy Woodpecker pecking, you’ll miss even the easiest of birds. Sometimes unwanted moisture comes in forms other than rain or melted snow. Xxx crass Keep a small bottle of glass gleaner on hand to clean lenses lubricated by what you had for lunch or an unavoidable sneeze.
Do know where you are. This is important and often not observed even by the veteran outdoors person. Experienced birders may know their location the way most animals since, but birders can read a GPS or map and they can write. Once a location is determined record it in a way anyone could find the same place another day. Be precise. On road x, without a mileage, down yonder or around the corner or north of the brown cow is not helpful. Besides being able to convey locations of observations, knowing where we are avoids trouble with owners of the land underfoot. Don’t trespass. We all know but sometimes ignore to get permission to trespass or stay on your own side of the fence. Keep in mind that public property is bound by either more public property or by private property. Boundaries between public and private lands are usually marked, but not always. Keep in mind that not all government-owned property is necessarily public or open to the public all the time. Some parts of national wildlife refuges are open only to hunters during hunting season. Military installations, such as Fort Huachuca in Arizona, may allow birding on their land, but times and locations may be restricted. You don’t want to get the attention of the men in black.
A few years ago, I planned to bird the Texas side of Falcon Dam, a place highlighted in bird finding guides. The area had the potential for easy Brown Jays and other Rio Grande specialties. However, during planning a trip, I began hearing the dam region was closed to the public. At first, I couldn’t seem to get a straight response on dam access, even from the dam authorities. Finally, after months of inquiry, I got the answer. It was a matter of National Security. Oh great, now all my inquiries were probably now part of my permanent record, along with the spit-balls I threw in the fifth grade and a few other minor infractions that luckily did not prevent birding.
There are some regions that you cannot bird. International lakes shared by the United States and Mexico may sometimes be such areas. Check with authorities first. Don’t bird next to a prison, ammunition dump or probably the White House. If you do bird such places, be careful where you point your binocs. The rule, do not look for birds around places occupied by prisoners, weapons or nervous secret service agents. Make it easy on yourself. What might seem an easy sighting of a Mockingbird outside the oval office might come back to well, mock you. Some easy birds may not be so easy.
Knowing the geographic boundaries of a birding site may require a proper map. What is proper may depend on how easy you want a birding trek to be. Staying on the trails, or sidewalks is far easier and less complicated than navigating cross-country with a topographic map, compass or GPS. If your map indicates the state pen is just around the corner, then turn around and look for birds in some other location. Instead of birding near the White House, try Rock Creek Park or Roosevelt Island across the Potomac River. Many easy birding places will not put you in jeopardy. Do not cross-unidentified boundaries.
Many people enjoy birding from their automobile. There are some obvious dos and don’ts for road birding. Do park off the road far enough to avoid being rammed from behind, side swiped or otherwise cursed and fingered (you know what I mean) by passing motorist. Do not curse or finger them back. Keep your eyes on the bird while parked and peeking. Also, keep your eyes on the review mirror for flashing red lights pulsating immediately behind you. Certain police don’t understand why someone who is not suffering from a flat tire or flat lined heart would be parked along a road. Do move, if asked.
Speaking of safety, there are a few dos and don’t you can do to your vehicle that might make car birding easy. Do whip the dust and mud from you brake lights. All that dirt may be a badge that proves you were doing some tough back country birding, but there’s a downside. If you want your life to be easier, such as not being rear-ended, keep those red lenses clean. Do mark the bumpers with reflecting tape. Even during the day, a red and white striped reflecting tape may improve your visibility to other motorist. Reflective tape is especially useful at night. Flashlights picking up the striped bumper tape helped locate our vehicle and escape from at least one cougar and a Sasquatch angered from our playing Flammulated Owl calls.
As another matter of safety, don’t pull off the road onto a soft shoulder or one covered with snow or ice. If you do, don’t depend on the police, naturally, showing up to help. The condition of the shoulder must also be considered on narrow roads where there is barely enough room between you and an oncoming vehicle. If the position of your vehicle is creating a hazard, turn on the hazard lights. While driving narrow back country roads turning around may be necessary more than you think. A fallen tree blocks the road, a rock slide makes it impassable, or the snow is too deep to continue. When turning around in narrow places, don’t back down hill. Do back up hill and let gravity help let the vehicle ease back on the road. Also, when turning around, don’t do it on a blind curve. Otherwise, you may wish you had side airbags. Of course, most of us know what to do, but I have seen plenty of people stuck because they couldn’t figure out how to turn around in a narrow dirt road.
Vehicles may act as wonderful bird blinds. Many birds don’t seem to associate people with motor vehicles. Those that do, usually will allow a driven vehicle to approach much closer than they would tolerate a walking human. When using your car as a blind, don’t drive fast, don’t honk the horn or race the engine. Do put your windows down before approaching any vehicle trusting birds, especially if the window motor is as noisy as mine is. Don’t make sudden noises or movements. Do turn off the heater fan. My bird mobile’s heater fan sounds like a hefty dragon ready to suck up any Least Sandpipers too slow on their little yellow legs. Think stealth. Many shorebirds, songbirds, all kinds of easy birds, will frequently allow approaches close enough to fill the ocular of a 7-power optic or a point and shoot digital camera. Not all species of shorebirds and other species are so tolerant. Ducks, scared out of their quaking bills by blasting hunter’s shotguns keep their distance, but flush even sooner if they see the car door open. They settle down a little after the hunting season closes when they become easier to watch. Nevertheless, don’t get out of the car. Don’t even open the door. If you can afford it, do keep the engine running. A restart often causes the birds to depart.
Another type of car birding involves attempting to identify birds while traveling from point A to B. Sometimes those trips are long and, depending on the landscape, boring. Identifying roadside birds breaks up the monotony. Of course, the faster the drive, the harder it is to identify many species. Faster speeds also mean, usually, different kinds of highways. The fastest are on the interstates, those wide byways of concrete and even wider right of ways. Not many species can be identified along interstates. Early road trips with my folks in the 50‘s, to visit their parents, were hurried but exciting because at that time there were no interstates. Travel was slower, there was more natural habitat and almost everything I saw was new.
A few birders out in bird land may feel left out, but wait. Riding vehicles other than cars, trucks and SUV’s offer many easy birding opportunities. Even the ATV, a small, usually 4-wheeled mini vehicle, a favorite for hunters, are being used by some birders. A couple of bird tour companies use them on St. Lawrence Island. In fact, I’m looking forward to easing on one of them sometime soon. However, they are awfully noisy. Two wheeled motor vehicles offer chances to get down those lanes too narrow to turn around in, but noise is again a problem. Bikes are great, if you have the energy. Bikes are also great because, not only is operating one easy on the wallet and healthier, it is easier to hear and see birds you encounter. Unfortunately, bikes don’t have the bird blind advantage that enclosed four-wheeled vehicles have.
Under a related chapter, I dubbed “Birder Etiquette,” certain behaviors concerning people are discussed such as tipping, talking, trying and something else that I cannot remember. It’s worth reading. Anyway, a few more words are needed concerning birding in the presence of people.
If a couple of birders happen to show up where you are or there are already birders at your spot, don’t blurt out, I’m a birder too. Be a little coy. First, chances are, the binocs will identify your game, which is strange as binoculars are wonderful just to bring the scenery closer or what is that person doing to that bush. Once not too abrupt mutual identifications have eased apprehensions, and when the other is not looking through their binocs, say something. A simple hello is fine. Follow that with my personal favorite, “seen anything good?” If they are experienced birders, they will roll off names of the more unusual species observed. Now that a dialogue is going, ask about and reply concerning particular species. Do volunteer what you’ve seen. That is where the sharing comes in, the give and take of information.
Sharing may also include equipment. Being able to check someone’s field guide because we forgot yours is just one example of birders spreading good will. While birding, I have had people offer food, clothing, umbrellas, water and other libations, a ride and free lodging. Granted, now that I’m long in tooth and wear good boots, the offers are less generous than my cross-country birding days just before becoming a 20-something wearing tattered clothes and dilapidated shoes.
Most of us have peeked through someone’s telescope at a bird we would have otherwise been unable to identify. If there are a great number of birders and only a few scopes aimed at the unsuspecting target bird, it may be necessary to take turns at the scope. Do get in line, don’t mill about, wondering whose turn is next. Don’t butt in line. Form a nice straight line behind the scope. Watch the person in front of you. If they are next at the scope, be instantly ready to take your turn at the ocular. Do not dilly-dally or start a conversation. Because birds are known to fly, walk, hop or otherwise move from the scopes field of view, positively do not take more than a second or two before surrendering the scope to the person behind you. This may seem serious because it is, really, serious information. However, by getting in line, being silently polite and alert, you will be able to view a bird you would not have otherwise seen. So will everyone else. Imagine chaos at the scope, which gets knocked off its handy tripod into the mud, someone trips, breaks a leg, there’s loud talking, even cursing, the police arrive. Hell, that’s not easy birding.