Monday, July 1, 2019

Fieldcraft: Stalking Birds: Do you really need to get close?

Eyeball to eyeball with Greater Roadrunner
Back off buster!
Before I post the techniques for approaching birds closely, I must ask the question: "Do you really need to get closer to the bird?" Let's discuss two reasons not to approach the bird more closely.

Today's optics are good enough that you can happily observe a bird from a distance that does not disturb it. Therefore, I can only assume that if you want to get even closer to a bird, you probably are trying to photograph it.

If you can approach closely, take your photographs, then back away--without the bird flying--then you have been successful. If the bird flies, you've failed; you have disturbed it. Once you flush a bird it is not going to let you get that close again. There's no sense chasing after it. You had your chance, but it's over. Move on. Any further stalking becomes harassment.

Even if your goal is not to scare them--after all, you can't photograph them if they fly away--it is not always possible. For instance, let's say you are on a well-travelled trail. There is a bird ahead perched on a tree beside the trail. You can't continue on the trail without flushing the bird. And if not you, other people (hikers, bicyclists, dog walkers) are on the trail as well, and will soon walk by it, inadvertently chasing it off. In this case, walk forward and take photos every few steps until the bird flies away. It can't be helped.

If it's not on the trail and not likely to be disturbed immediately by others, then you need to consider two things. 1) The welfare of the bird. 2) How it looks to others.

If a bird is nesting (or even singing on a territory), spend as little time disturbing it as possible. I've heard horror stories of photographers clipping obstructing branches in order to get better views of birds on the nest. Don't be that person. Nests must remain hidden to protect the birds from predators. Even your prolonged interest can attract predators to the nest, trampling vegetation and creating a path up to the nest. You don't want to keep the adults off the eggs so that they can't incubate. You don't want to disturb feeding activity so the nestlings don't get enough to eat. You don't want to startle the incubating parent bird so that it finally flees from the nest knocking out eggs or nestlings. Don't let the excitement of the moment cause you to do something to harm the birds you are watching.

There are two cases where you want to be cognizant of what other people think of your perhaps-too-aggressive desire to get closer to a bird. The first is non-birders observing you. The second is other birders who want to see the bird, then or later. I'm not suggesting that your behavior be different when no one is around. But, certainly, there is a difference between trying to get close to a bird in the wilderness and a busy public area. A bird in the wilderness might not be disturbed by another human again for weeks, while a bird in a more public area will be subject to disturbances (even inadvertently) several times a day. Some birds become habituated to people. But these every day disturbances, even when tolerated by the bird, add stress and can decrease the chances of the bird's survival. So, in a public area, even with birds that are habituated to people, don't be overly aggressive in your pursuit of a bird. You have a chance to promote bird watching and care of the planet in public situations by your behavior.

In the case of a rare vagrant staying in a specific location (the so-called, stake-out bird), it may receive even more disturbance than a bird at a busy public location. In this case, the bird may be flushed repeatedly over days or weeks by birders eager to see the bird and get photos. On the other hand, birders and photographers might approach too closely while other people are watching it. Try not to be the closest person to the bird. Ask the other birders if they mind if you approach more closely to take a photo. And remember all the people that will be disappointed if you are the one that causes the bird to fly away and never be seen again (it happens).

Every situation is unique. I don't want to make any rules (not that I have any authority anyway). Just remember that birds in public areas, nesting birds, endangered birds, and vagrant stake-outs need to be protected from undue disturbance, even if it means we forgo getting a photo.

Now, with these admonitions out of the way, let's get into the main topic: How to get close to birds without scaring them away. Stay tuned for next week's post....

ps. The Roadrunner in the opening photo actually approached me while I was photographing ducks from my vehicle. I think he was expecting a hand-out.


  1. Really nice post, Greg. This is an especially great reminder - "If the bird flies, you've failed." It's certainly not possible to never flush a bird while walking a trail, even quietly and respectfully, but as long as I keep that sentiment in mind, my impact will likely be minimized.

    1. Whatever we can do to lessen our impact on nature has to be a good thing! Thanks for your comments.

    2. You bet! Really enjoying your Fieldcraft series - looking forward to more!

    3. Then you're really going to love next week's post on stalking birds! 25 tips!


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