The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #35: Learn to Bird From a Car

Who said birding has to be an outdoor activity?

There are only two kinds of people who use binoculars while sitting in a car: birders and cops.

You’ve seen it work in a million movies and TV shows. If you’re a cop on a stakeout, there’s apparently no better place follow the action than from a parked car—it’s inconspicuous enough to let you keep tabs on a perp in comfort, but still allows for a quick getaway should the heat come down.

But do real cops actually sit in parked cars and watch houses through binoculars? It’s never seemed to me that it would really work. Wouldn’t the neighborhood get suspicious of a guy just sitting in his car all day, not going anywhere? What are you doing out there, buddy?

So maybe there’s really only one group of people who use binoculars in a car. And luckily for us birders, the subjects we’re watching don’t usually pay us much attention. I’ve birded from parked cars a ton of times, and if you want to improve your birding experience, you should learn, too.  Here are some tips on why and how.

You typically bird from your car when you’re either really far away from birds, or when you’re close and don’t want to disturb them. When you’re far away, a car door with the window rolled down is the perfect place to rest binoculars or a scope to get a steady, long range view. I’ve used this technique when trying to sort through a million little shorebirds at Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, for example, where I needed to keep my optics as still as possible. Car-window scoping is so popular, in fact, that optics companies sell mounts to let you attach your scope directly to your car window, or even special bean bags to drape over the door.

Staying in the car also lets you observe birds without spooking them. Shorebirds, geese, and lekking grouse could all be disturbed by the sounds of car doors opening and closing, or the sight of some human lurking around in the distance. But if you hang out in the car and use it as a blind, you’ll be able to view these birds exhibiting their natural behavior for long periods. Just don’t accidentally lean on the horn.

Northern Cardinal. Photo: Gil Eckrich/Great Backyard Bird Count

Another reason you should bird from your car is because you can keep all your stuff handy. Seriously, this sounds lame, but it’s my favorite part. Sometimes when I go into the field I feel like first-page Waldo, loaded down with gear. But there’s plenty of room in the car. Think of your car as a giant backpack, or a pair of cargo pants, if that’s what you’re into. My camera, binoculars, scope, and field guide are all hanging out on the passenger seat, within easy access. I can eat food in there! I can listen to music! It’s like a personal birding hotel room.

But that doesn’t mean you can just do whatever you want. Here are some things you should NOT do when birding from the car.

Don’t crank the tunes. You’ll scare off all the birds. OK? Also, don’t try using binoculars through the front windshield. It’s curved, and so it’ll distort everything and be really annoying, so park at an angle and look through your window instead.

Most importantly, don’t drive and look through binoculars at the same time. I know, I know— sometimes you’re driving and you see a bird fly over or something and you just want to take a look real quick. Don’t. It’s very dangerous, and you might make yourself barf, and you’ll never get a steady look anyway. Just relax, and pull over to the side and put the car in park. If you miss the bird, so be it—it’ll just make it easier to tell everyone later that it was something really rare.

That’s pretty much it: Pack your snacks, park your car, and point your binoculars at birds. Sounds simple, I know, but when done correctly it will make for a rewarding, comfortable birding experience. Plus, if you get bored you can pretend that you’re a bird cop on a stakeout, waiting for some criminal goose to reveal itself. Trust me, the goose will never suspect a thing.

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