My ravings on various bird related topics. All opinions expressed are my own.
Birding Tours and Guides
One of the joys of birding is being able to get out on your own in nature and see what is around. Often, the fewer and more distant other human beings are, the better. It is useful to have a local guide when visiting a new area or country. We have done a number of tours, long and short, and used local guides and people we have contacted through Birdingpal. It is very useful to have local knowledge. Whilst guides can be useful, it is also good to identify birds yourself. On some birding tours when the guide jumps quickly from one bird to another simply announcing the species it doesn’t help you determine what the particular features were that identified the bird. This is one of the reasons I like taking photographs, so I can spend some time back at home with a bird book and verify what I have seen.
We have found short half and full day tours particularly good, such as the ones we did at Broome Bird Observatory in Australia. You have a guide for a few hours who can show you the local birds and the best spots. The investment is minimal and you don’t have to put up with any disagreeable people in the tour party. Longer tours can be more problematic. We were particularly disappointed with Rockjumper. Some of these large touring companies gear themselves towards satisfying the keen mega-birders – the “combat birder” type who can be very selfish. People who live, eat and breathe birds every waking minute of the day (obsessive compulsive). Not everyone is quite that keen, and it is difficult on a birding trip even with a small number of people keeping everyone happy if there are one or two combat birders in the group. When this happens, birding isn’t fun any more. Our conclusion is that it is often better to hire a small company for a personalised tour for a couple of days, like we did in Portugal.
Respect birds and respect other people. I used the term “combat birder” in the section above. These people can be quite obnoxious at times. When the combat birder is on a tour group and they miss seeing a key bird which all the others on the tour managed to see (this does happen) they get upset and annoy everyone else. We don’t want to bird with these types of people.
Another bad behaviour we have observed, particularly with some British birders, are those who keep sighting information to themselves and do not share. If I see a special bird and someone takes an interest in it, I am only too happy to provide them with full details. But for some people birding has become a competition, and they want to see more birds than their fellow birding colleagues, and so when they see a special bird they withhold the information, or wait a couple of days before releasing details of the sighting. That isn’t good birding etiquette.
As a bird photographer I do have to be careful when stalking birds for a good photograph. Closer is always better. But it is difficult sometimes trying to get close without disturbing the birds. In public places like shorelines, not only can I disturb the birds I am trying to photograph but I can also disturb the birds other people are trying to observe. If you are a keen photographer you may find that sometimes sitting still on a tree stump or in a concealed location and waiting for the birds to come to you is the best approach. Impatience is the biggest enemy of any birder.
Binoculars and Scopes
Essential gear for all birders. A good pair of binoculars is probably the most important piece of equipment for the birder. 8×42 or 10×42 are the ones I have found the best. Brand doesn’t matter too much – Nikon, Swarovski, Zeiss, Leica. Quality of all these are excellent so it is up to you to make an emotional choice based on look and feel. What does matter is after-sales service, and in this respect Zeiss does fall short. Things like eye-cups will need replacing, and it is incredibly hard to purchase replacement eye-cups. Often the binoculars have to be sent to the authorised service centre for the country – and the cost and time involved seem disproportionally large. They would much rather you bought a new pair of binoculars. Serious birders should probably have a backup pair in case you are forced to wait a few months for repairs.
In recent years higher powered image stabilised binoculars have emerged. I haven’t tried any and I don’t know anyone who uses them for birding. I would be interested in trying them out, but the weight and need for batteries may render them unsuitable for many birders. Still waiting to hear some positive reviews.
One of the most useful accessories my wife bought me was a back harness. I use it all the time. It is much better than the strap that goes behind the neck. Well worth the investment. On the subject of binocular accessories, I have been using Field Optics Eyeshields for a while. Once I put them on properly so they didn’t fall off, I have found them to be of some benefit. They are only useful if you don’t wear spectacles; and if you don’t, they are very cheap and do improve viewing birds especially when there is strong sunlight behind or to the side.
I don’t have a good spotting scope. A scope is useful when scanning lakes and shorelines, but hard to use in forested areas. Scopes are heavy and inconvenient to lug around, and too heavy when travelling overseas. If I was going to buy one I’d go for a Swarovski, but I haven’t had the need. When doing birding tours overseas the guide always has one, and when birding at home I just try to get closer to the birds!
Does the use of a camera flash harm birds? Should it be allowed or should it be banned? I personally don’t use flash when photographing birds. It is only useful in the dark forest/bush and when the birds are fairly close. I have taken a few bird photos with flash and it results in unnatural colours in the photographs. There may be ways to remove the effect with Photoshop in post-processing on the PC at home, but I seem to get better results using a good quality camera on a high ISO settings. My Canon 6D takes acceptable quality photos up to ISO 25,600 – and that is usually enough for a reasonable shutter speed in a dark forest if the bird is fairly still. Use of flash certainly annoys other nearby humans that are observing the birds, but I don’t believe there is any evidence that it harms birds. Some birds are able to look directly at the sun (something that humans should not do). Nocturnal birds like Kiwis navigate in the dark using their senses of hearing and smell – a flash of light doesn’t blind them in the same way that it blinds humans. I don’t use flash photography on birds because it isn’t necessary, but I don’t believe that using flash on birds harms them in any way.
Using bird calls to attract birds
There are some birds that are extremely hard to find without a taped call – crakes for example. Professional bird guides use bird calls carefully. If over-used the birds can become insensitive to the calls. Using calls at certain times of the year can also lead birds out of their normal territory and could potentially put them or their nests at risk of attack from other species. There are a huge range of bird calls on Xeno-canto (almost every species) and listening to them can aid considerably in identifying birds. It is best to use bird calls carefully in the field, but they are definitely a useful tool in some circumstances.