How to Get Closer (But Not too Close) to Birds
By Gord Gadsden
An important part of bird watching is seeing birds otherwise, there would not be a lot of watching involved. Of equal importance is not causing undue disturbance for the birds during bird watching efforts. This article contains some helpful tips to help you not only get closer to birds, but to perhaps see more as well. If photography is part of your interest, then this article is also for you.
Let Them Come to You!
It can be frustrating trying to see birds darting around high in the trees. It can be done, but the quality of the experience can be much better and strain on the neck much less. It might be noticed that a mixed flock of songbirds move together in the same general direction as they feed. When I've found a nice flock of birds, I'll look to see which way they are heading. I'll then move ahead of them and look for a place that might offer a better view. This could be a place with a bit more of an open tree canopy or an area where the trees are shorter. Then, I just set up shop here and wait for them to pass by. In some cases it is almost like they are on conveyor belt as they pass my position singly or in small groups allowing a nice look. It always amazes me what species I've missed when I initially saw the flock and fumbled around among the leaves trying to track flits of bird movement. I should also mention the value of paying attention to the sun. When I start a bird walk or find a place to watch the birds pass, I plan it so the sun is behind me. With the light on the birds, it is much easier to see them then if looking into the light and only seeing silhouettes.
A similar principle can be applied to photography. I often get asked how I manage to get some of the close up pictures I get lucky to capture. When I produce my little camera, disappointment is sometimes palatable as the simple reason, that I must just have a big camera, has just flown out the window. When I see a bird of interest for a photo, I watch its movements or behaviour and try to guess where it will go or pass. Then I'll sit quietly in a location that has good background and lighting. All that is left is to wait to see if it will come by. If it does, it does, if it doesn't, well, it doesn't. A bird will come much closer if it does so on its own accord. This does not stress the bird either when it tries to keep a comfortable distance from a person who is moving towards it even in a casual manner.
Applicable to both looking and photographing is not getting too close. Usually, the bird has many options on where to go and our presence causes it no problems. However, a bird trying to get to its nest or access food during cold conditions is vulnerable. It may inaccurately appear to be coming close thanks to the birder's skill. If the bird is not able to move naturally by a person's presence (won't get back on its nest, is very jumpy trying to feed) then that person is too close and should back up a little bit until the bird is able to resume its natural behaviour. Be aware that sometimes the bird does not send signals that one is getting too close. I have had this happen on occasion where a bird that seems content appears to leave because of my presence. Or, it just naturally flew away and I just happened to be there when it happened. Either way, always act on the side of caution.
Be Calm and Relaxed
The life of a bird, broadly speaking, basically consists of eating and avoiding being eaten. They are always on alert and are tuned in to their surroundings more than one might think. Staring at a bird or even showing casual interest gets them on edge. Yes, they do notice the attention and in their world, attention from other creatures (other than a bird of the opposite gender of their own species) is not a good thing. They will act accordingly and make themselves scarce. An extreme example, which is not typical but is humorous to picture would be a person moving rapidly with nostrils flared, knuckles white with death-grip on binoculars and eyes full of desire towards a bird of interest. I think even I would flee from someone doing this in my direction. Worst yet is trying to stalk a bird. Don't fool yourself. They see you. They might even be amused seeing you try to tiptoe through dry leaves. What is for certain is that someone acting sneaky and moving towards a bird is going to make that bird disappear. Sneaky and stalking means, in a bird's world, something's going to be dinner if it's not careful. Instead, don't bother to be sneaky. Be relaxed and calm. Act as though that Vermillion Flycatcher you've just spotted at Island 22 is on the same rarity level as a starling. A good example to illustrate my point is a field full of cows. We've all seen the blackbirds, gulls, starlings and so forth happily feeding among their legs. A cow can walk by a sparrow sitting on a fence post much more closely than most people can. I think the big difference is that the cows really don't care about the birds and it shows. Now I'm not saying act like a cow or anything (but it is a free country), but the principle does apply when it comes to our birding efforts. Be casual and relaxed, avoiding sudden movements and noise. Dancing around like my 5-year old who has waited too long for the potty and things are now approaching critical levels will keep a bird at a distance even if you are not paying it much attention. In summery, don't stare, move quickly or straight at your target as the birds will respond much better.
Don't Hurry be Happy
Similar to letting the birds come to you is sitting quietly to see what is happening around you. Sometimes your presence as you walked into a birdy looking area is enough to keep the birds lying low for a few minutes. If you look around, make a "nothing-here-but-leaves-and-trees" kind of snort and move on, you might miss what was really there. Standing quietly and relaxed in a spot affording a good view of the area will soon cause the birds to continue their activity. An area that looked pretty darn boring at the beginning might grow to be quite interesting with just a little patience.
Follow the Chickadees
During migration, listen for chickadees. When birds migrate, it's often in groups of several different species. There are several reasons for this, mainly for safety from predators. Chickadees always seem to be part of these flocks, and their loud voices make it easy to find where a flock might be. Instead of wandering around aimlessly, move towards the sounds of chickadees and then go from there.
Make the Right Habitat Choice
The edges of habitat or transition zones are often birdy areas. Not only is it often easier to see birds in these kinds of places, birds also favour these locations. Spend time in good areas.
The theory of predictable disturbance is very applicable to bird watching. A great example are the hawks that sit calmly on the side of the highway as cars whiz by. While this theory should not be tested on the highway, watch what happens if you find one near a quiet off ramp. If you drive by normally, they do not move. Just try slowing down or even stopping. Chances are, it will leave right away because what it is used to; cars whizzing past, is now not happening. Same applies to walking in a park. Standing on a trail where birds are used to seeing people makes them much more relaxed then if a person pops up off the trail in a location the birds are not used to seeing people. Often at the Bald Eagle Festival I have people lament how they wish they could walk out onto the flats to get closer to the eagles. Principles of approaching birds properly asides, the unpredictable disturbance this causes as one walks out into the flats and off the trail will make the birds move away without doubt.
Head's Up for Fall Outs
Fall outs are the term when a lot of birds are found during migration. A lot often means A LOT. I once had the privilege of being in the middle of a fall out of at least 100 Townsend's Warbler and a smattering of other warblers and vireos in a small area. An amazing sight. This usually happens during poor weather when migrating bird's journeys are halted. Many birds fly at night and if they hit bad weather, they will land to wait it out. Going out in the morning after a storm or even during a bit of poor weather can generate excellent birding when they are busy feeding and preparing for fair weather to continue on their way.
I hope this article is useful to your birding efforts and was as much fun to read as it was writing it!