Birdist Rule #89: Try Standing Still to See More Birds

It's amazing what you can miss if you don't have a little patience.

I am not a very patient birder. When I get to a spot, I generally try to cover as much ground as possible, believing that the only way to see all the birds is to root them out of their nooks and crannies.

And that’s even if I decide to stick around. I have a habit of bailing on a place too quickly, before I give the birds a chance to show themselves. I don’t know if my impetousness is a symptom of my internet-addled, late-Millennial brain or just a general grass-is-always-greener anxiety, but the result is that I often spend as much time in the car between birding spots than I do birding.

But this spring migration has reminded me of the benefits of standing still.

I was forced to do it the other day while hanging around for a good bird. A Mourning Warbler had been a regular visitor at the home of a well-respected birder near Washington D.C., and I wanted like crazy to see it. I'd never actually set eyes on a Mourning Warbler in my life—I heard one more than a decade ago in upstate New York—and it was time. Reports said the bird could be absent for stretches, but it would always return to a patch of shrubbery in the front yard. So, if I wanted to see it, I would have to sit still and wait for it.

I was antsy at first, which is normal when waiting on a gem such as this, but I started to relax. It’s quieter standing still, and without having to focus on where I was walking, I was able to tune in to the depth and variety of sounds around me. I singled out at least two pairs of Northern Cardinals calling back and forth to each other. I heard a distant Blackpoll Warbler and followed its song with my ears as it came closer. I heard the soft clucks of a Gray Catbird that I’m sure I would have missed if I wasn’t quiet and concentrating.

Standing there in the driveway, I was reminded that moving around doesn’t necessarily get you more birds. Many different species came and went in the hour I was there, and I realized that what you see in any one moment is just a snapshot of the activity happening during the day. That Blackpoll Warbler eventually made it into the tree, just above my head. An Acadian Flycatcher, silent for an hour, suddenly sang out behind me. A Magnolia Warbler popped out of nowhere, lingering for just a minute. Had I been elsewhere during that interval, I would have missed it. 

Of course, not all birders move as much as I do; in fact, there’s a proud tradition of birding in one place. The most fun way for a new birder to experience the joys of stationary birding is through a Big Sit. These super-local counts typically take place each fall, but are also popular in spring around International Migratory Bird Day. During them, teams will spend an entire day birding in a 17-foot-diameter circle. So choose your friends (and enemies) wisely.

Big Sits really help new birders understand how their targets move throughout the day. Owls and rails are most detectable at night, when they’re active and singing. But most species are identified during the dawn chorus—a time when many birds sing to reassert their control over a territory or attract a mate. Raptors are often seen flying a bit later in the morning, once the sun has had a chance to warm the ground and create thermals. If your count circle is near water (which it should be if you want to maximize your species), you’ll notice how gulls, shorebirds, and waders scurry around based on the tides or currents. Plus, if your Big Sit is like every one I’ve ever done, you’ll see all these birds without ever being far from fresh coffee and a cold beer.

I’ve written about it before, but seawatching is another popular stationary birding strategy. There’s nothing more meditative and calming than scanning the horizon while listening to the waves lap the rocks. You don’t usually get the same experience with birdsong, of course, but I’ve found that seawatching has been very helpful in developing my birding skills. For example, unlike a morning in the woods looking for warblers, many of the species seen off the coast are in flight. Learning how to identify ducks and shorebirds on wing, where their field marks might be completely different than stationary birds, will make you a much better birder. Plus, you’ll get a tan—and, once again, that coffee and cold beer is never too far away.

But the most popular form of stationary birding has to be feeder watching. In fact, a 2011 US Fish and Wildlife Service study found that 41 million of the 47 million self-identified birders in this country are “around the home” birders. That’s a lot of feeders to check on. Attracting birds to your home and keeping a “yard list” are some of the most rewarding aspects of birding. You’ve already put in the work to make your house an attractive spot for birds, so now there’s nothing to do but sit back and, to mix metaphors, watch the cowbirds come home to roost.

Watching birds at your feeders can be just as educational as watching them in the park. Experimenting with different seed mixes and feeder styles and positions will teach you which birds like what (these helpful bird-feeding tips from Audubon will give you a head start). Planting a variety of native plants will teach you how to attract species that don’t eat seeds, and how plants provide year-round shelter for birds looking to survive the whole winter or just roost for the night. Adding nest boxes and water features will bring in more species, and also teach you about how species breed and bathe. In essence, backyard birding allows you to be in one place but see a huge variety of species and behaviors. Plus, that coffee and beer is just over there in the kitchen. Have I mentioned how convenient that can be?

The yard where I went looking for the Mourning Warbler happened to be an especially good one for birding, located right next to Rock Creek Park. After more than an hour waiting in my friend's driveway, the bird did indeed return to the shrubs. I got some good looks for the first time in my life! My patience paid off, and while I was waiting, I completely enjoyed immersing myself in the sounds and patterns of the birdlife around me. You see? Good things can happen when birders bide their time.