The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #4: Avoid Making These Boneheaded Birding Mistakes

As experienced by yours truly.

No one likes to think about bad things happening while you’re out birding, but it’s the world and bad things happen. If you’re me, bad things happen because you’re a bonehead. Not necessarily any more boneheaded than a regular, run-of-the-hill bonehead (maybe?), but boneheaded just the same. What I’m trying to say is: I’ve learned a lot of things from making mistakes while birding, and I want to impart those lessons onto you.

These tips aren’t really for birding safely. There are other, smarter people who can help you with that. This Audubon article from Jesse Greenspan has lots of helpful tips to avoid physical disaster. The seminal “9 Rules for the Black Birdwatcher” from J. Drew Lanham is a lighthearted but eye-opening guide to how birding is more dangerous and inaccessible for African Americans.

My tips are dumber and less important than those, but I’ve found that they’re not less useful. I’ve learned each and every one of these lessons firsthand, and so I can promise that they are grounded in truth, misery, and boneheadedness. I hope they help.

Check the car roof for equipment before driving off.

You know that thing where you go out to your car and you have a bunch of stuff in your hand and so you put some of that stuff on top of the car while you put other stuff inside the car, but then you forget about the stuff on top of the car and drive away with it still sitting there? Don’t do that. Especially don’t do that in the parking lot of a hotel in Tennessee with your first expensive camera, and then drive all the way to the coast of Alabama before you discover it missing. If you’re putting stuff in the car, put it in the car.

Don’t lock your dang keys in the car.

There’s a certain feeling when you finally park at your destination birding spot, an excited sensation that the birding has already begun and you’re already out of the car. You’re sick of the car—you want to bird! Well, before you do, make sure you've done the important things, like putting your car in Park or, say, making sure you have your keys. You need to pay attention to those final details, or else you’ll do something stupid like lock your keys in your car. I did it most recently at Lake Balmorhea, Texas, which is a long way from most anything, especially tow truck companies. It took more than two hours (and a bunch of money) for a guy to come out and help me. The silver lining was that I got my lifer Black-throated Sparrow, though, so it wasn’t all bad.

Keep a paper map with you.

Sometimes you lose cell service, you know? Resist the urge to panic like a tech-spoiled millennial without a GPS voice leading the way. I remember the time before GPS! I was there! We used maps! And maps are still useful, because they work no matter where you are. I almost wore out the DeLorme atlas I had in Mississippi, which had weak cell service in the Delta and a ton of back roads to explore. Keep one in your car and you’ll thank yourself later.

Double-check those tripod legs. 

Tripod legs are usually adjustable, allowing you to keep them short for travel and extended when you use your scope. When you do extend them, make sure the legs are locked into place. Otherwise, one of the legs could just collapse when you try to stand the thing up, and your entire scope can terrifyingly topple onto some rocks. If you’re lucky, like I was, the scope will hit on its side and somehow be totally fine. If you’re unlucky, it could fall glass first into a complete nightmare. Lock those babies up.

OH MY GOD don't forget your memory card.

Birds almost never sit still for photos. Then, the one time they do, that glorious moment when the bird poses there in perfect light, you slowly raise your camera, press the shutter button . . . and nothing happens. You look down at the screen to see “Missing CF card.” You start swearing loudly and the bird flies away, probably never to perch for a photo again. This has happened to me a number of times, including most recently when, after like six tries, I finally saw the Prairie Falcon that had been hanging out on the Virginia/D.C. border. Make sure you’ve got a dang CF card in your DSLR and keep one in your pocket as a backup. This goes for charged batteries, too.

Go to the bathroom when you have the chance.

There’s frequently a brief moment before you leave the house to go birding when you do a mental bathroom-need assessment. “Do I need to go now?” You might think that you don’t need to, that you’ll be fine. No. Go now. Go while you can, always. If you don’t, as a rule, that sensation will strike at the least convenient time—when you’re stuck in traffic or way out in the woods. Go whenever you can.

But just in case, always carry some toilet paper with you.

Look, it doesn’t do you any service if I'm anything less than totally honest with you, so here it goes: I’ve gone number two in the woods. Like, a bunch of times. In at least six states. I’ve gotten one lifer in the process (Boreal Chickadee) and very nearly missed another (LeConte’s Thrasher). It’s unpleasant, but while birding you frequently find yourself out before the bathrooms are open or in bathroom-less places altogether. Leaves will do in a pinch, but a few sheets of toilet paper in the jacket pocket or backpack are a whole world better.

Buy a bug-proof tent.

I've talked about my battles with bugs in the past, but the two nights my wife and I spent in the Everglades National Park’s Flamingo Campground were the worst of our lives. No-see-ums could get through the mesh of our tent, and it was too hot to cover up in the sleeping bag. So any exposed flesh was feasted upon by a billion bloodthirsty flies. It was pure torture. If I knew any national security secrets I would have yelled them to anyone who asked. Before you buy a tent make sure the mesh is fine enough to keep bugs out. Believe me.

Don’t get defensive.

I’ve also written about this before, but it bears repeating: You can’t get all worked up or defensive or embarrassed when you screw up an ID. You just can’t. I misidentify birds all the time. We all do. I misidentified a bunch of birds last month at the 2017 Audubon convention in front of lots of people, including Kenn Kaufman and my Audubon editors, who literally pay me to know what I’m talking about. But what am I going to do, cry about it? Nah. Birding is hard, and people misidentify things (well, maybe not Kenn). If you want to be a bonehead, make a stink about how correct you are. No one remembers if you make a mistake, but everyone will remember a jerk!

Okay, some those are some of my hard-earned birding lessons. A little knowledge and grace can pull you out of any boneheaded situation with your dignity (relatively) intact. Any lessons of your own out there, boneheaded friends?

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