Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Tips for your first bird walk

One way to jumpstart your knowledge of birds, bird watching, and bird identification is to join a more experienced bird watcher. Perhaps you have learned about bird watching from a family member or teacher and they have become your birding mentor. How wonderful!

Another way many people start their birding hobby is by joining a group on a local bird walk. Have you thought about doing so?

Photo of bird watchers looking at birds
Bird watchers on a bird walk
Image by benmenting from Pixabay

What is a bird walk?

A bird walk is generally a free birding tour for beginners. An experienced local birder leads a limited number of participants on a walk of a local birding hotspot. The volunteer leader points out birds, explains identification, and helps others to learn about the birds.

Guided bird walks tend to be leisurely and last a half-day or less.

Some bird walks are repeated and held weekly or monthly at the same location. Other bird walks take the group to a different location each time.

Many beginning bird watchers enjoy the social aspect of learning to watch birds in a group. Others appreciate the teaching skill or personality of an individual trip leader. Thus, many participants keep coming back for additional bird walks.

Guided birding tours usually differ from bird walks in that they are more focused and charge a fee. They may search more specifically for rare birds. In many cases, the leader(s) and participants of guided tours do not live near the tour destination. Some guided tours last several days with lodging, meals, and transportation provided. Birding tours usually watch birds dawn to dusk, sometimes with optional owl searches after dark. These are frequently attended by more experienced birders searching for a specific bird or list of birds at an exotic location.

How do you find local bird walks?

Audubon Societies, nature centers, bird clubs, conservation organizations, city and county parks, refuges, bird stores, bird festivals, bird watching classes. All these groups and programs offer free bird walks either regularly or from time-to-time.

In my area there is a free monthly bird walk at the San Dieguito Lagoon, sponsored by the San Dieguito River Park.

There are 3 Audubon Societies near me: Buena Vista Audubon Society, Palomar Audubon Society, and San Diego Audubon Society. They advertise both fee and free field trips open to the public. There are usually free bird walks once every month.

Can you attend even if you are not an Audubon member? The San Diego Audubon Society advertises its bird walks as being for "newer birders, visiting birders, and anyone else who is interested."

I Googled "bird walk San Diego" and found these additional free bird walks near me:
  • The San Diego Botanical Garden has a free monthly bird walk.
  • There's even a San Diego Beginning Birders Meet-up group! I notice they are meeting for a bird walk at a local lake in 3 weeks.
  • The Nature Collective ( a conservation organization) has a monthly wildlife walk.
  • The Mission Trails Visitor Center has monthly bird walks.
I hope this give you some ideas of where you might find out about bird walks in your area.

Reminder: Always follow the directions for sign up. Most bird walks are limited in number. Don't show up without notice. And if you have to cancel let the leader know as far in advance as possible. There may be others on a waiting list that can take your spot.

Also, pay attention to where you will meet and the exact time. Arrive promptly or ahead of time. Will all your time be spent at the meeting location? Or will you carpool and caravan from there to one or more other locations?

What equipment do you bring on a bird walk?

For its bird walks, the San Diego Audubon Society says to bring "binoculars, scopes, water, sunscreen, hat, and enthusiasm."

This is good advice.

Binoculars are probably the most important tool you can bring bird watching. It is possible that the leader will have access to a couple of spare binoculars to loan to you. But this is not usually the case.

For bird walks binoculars are probably best at 7 or 8 power magnification. Some birders use 10-power. These 10x binoculars are a bit harder for beginners to use. The 7x and 8x usually have a wider field of view. This makes it easier to locate a bird right away when looking through them.

The leader, and perhaps some of the participants, may have a spotting scope. This is a telescope of 20-60x magnification. The leader will share the spotting scope for more distant birds that are sitting in one place. Scopes are especially good for birds out on the water. Most bird watchers are more than willing to share their spotting scope with others. They can show you how to focus.

The trip description should let you know what else to bring.

Just in case, always bring parking money, a water bottle, sunscreen, and perhaps a snack.

What do you wear on a bird walk?

Wear clothes appropriate for the weather. Most bird walks start a bit later than dawn, but still can be cool. Two hours later it can be quite warm, however. A light jacket that can be removed and carried is often a good idea.

A wide-brimmed hat to protect from the sun is good.

Hiking shoes or boots are appropriate. Expect a muddy trail or rough rocks. Most bird walks are designed for a group on level ground with easy hiking, but that's not always the case.

Camouflage? No. But dull earth tones of black, brown, green or blue are good for bird watching. Birds have full color vision. So avoid bright colored clothing and jackets.

Speaking of jackets, make sure your rain coat or other clothes don't make loud rustling noises or squeaks as you walk. See the subheading below on being quiet.

Photo of Ruby-crowned Kinglet on lichen-covered twig
Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Photo by Greg Gillson

Best practices to enjoy your first bird walk

In general, bird walks are rather informal affairs. You can expect that there will be people there of several interest levels, including non-birding spouses or children. You can make it easier for the trip leader by following directions (because there are always some people who aren't going to follow the directions). Go with the flow and have fun!

Here are some tips to help you enjoy your birding trip.

Adjusting your binoculars

Customize your binoculars for you. Binoculars are adjustable for the distance between your eyes, how deep set your eyes are in their sockets, whether you wear eyeglasses, and any differences in focal length between each eye.

Adjust the width of the barrels to see a single view. Adjust the eyecups in if you wear eyeglasses, out if you don't for the most comfortable view without any black crescents. Adjust the diopter setting so that each eye sees an equally in-focus image.

If you don't know how to do this, ask other birders on your bird walk to show you how. Once these adjustments are made the binoculars usually stay set.

Spotting birds in your binoculars

Newer birders sometimes have a bit of trouble spotting birds through their binoculars. With a bit of practice, though, you'll soon lift your binoculars and have the bird centered in view immediately.

Aim your body at the bird with your head straight. Keep looking at the bird with your eyes as you bring your binoculars up to your face, Don't look at the binoculars as you bring them to your eyes. Practice this on a leaf or other stationary object.

Share the scope!

If you are borrowing a view through someone else's spotting scope, step back after you have gotten a good view. Allow someone who hasn't seen it yet to view it before the bird flies away. If the bird is still there after everyone has gotten a look, ask to view it again, if you wish.

Watch those legs! When looking through the scope try not to move the scope or bump the tripod legs. Even a small bump will move the image off the bird. Look through the scope without touching it, if possible. When the bird is visible you may lightly roll the focus knob to adjust it for your eyes. If you grab the scope first you will move it off the bird. Then you and the next person in line may miss seeing the bird while the scope owner readjusts it and gets it realigned.

Watch those legs (part 2)! And watch out for the tripod legs when the scope is being carried. You don't want to get hit in the head or trip over the extended legs! Give the person carrying the scope plenty of room.

Be quiet!

People are extraordinarily loud, and seemingly totally unaware of it. Birds and other animals can be frightened by many noises we take for granted. Noises made by a whole herd of bird watchers will alarm birds more than a single bird watcher alone. So try to be as quiet as you can.

Be present in the bird walk. If you talk about the bird in front of you, that's appropriate. But don't talk about the birds you saw on some trip last summer. Don't talk about your latest visit to the dentist. There is always someone on the bird walk who talks the entire time... about everything except what they are seeing. Please don't let that someone be you!

On the other hand, do ask questions! Ask bird-related questions of the trip leader.

Walk softly, don't scrape gravel.

If your bird walk involves any driving and birding, stop talking when you stop the car. Don't slam the car door. Birds may be calling and singing as soon as you get out of the vehicle. Be ready to watch birds immediately!

If you are coughing or sneezing, move to the back of the group where you may be less likely to scare the bird away.

No pointing!

Pointing at a bird is a sure way to make it fly away! Try to describe a bird's location to others without pointing.

Even raising your binoculars or camera to your face may frighten a nearby bird. Instead, carry your camera up to your cheek bones as you approach a stationary bird. Then just swivel it up to your eyes.

Don't move ahead of the trip leader

Let the leader determine the pace of the group. Don't push ahead hoping to be the first to spot a new species for the day.

Likewise, don't dally behind. The trip leader may hold up the group waiting for you to catch up to show you a bird. If you wish to hang back to photograph birds or flowers, or perhaps do some nature sketching, let the leader know. They can go on without you; you'll catch up.

Bird Watching Basics Series

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