Monday, July 8, 2019

Stalking Birds: 25 tips: How to get close to birds without scaring them away

In my previous post I discussed whether it was really necessary to get closer to a bird. In some cases, to protect the welfare of the bird, it may be best not to approach closer. Likewise, if other people are desiring to see the bird, it would be rude to scare it off so that others couldn't enjoy it. And you don't want to harass birds, or give the impression that you are to onlookers.

You can learn to approach birds more closely without frightening them. Then again, you can remain still and have the birds come to you! Both these outcomes start with the same premise: Don't look threatening.

Approaching birds

Perhaps you have noticed in a park that some birds habituated to people remain only a few feet off the trail as bicyclists, hikers, and even dog walkers pass by. Yet you don't get as close as they did and don't even get your binoculars raised before the bird flies off! Why?

Think about it from the bird's perspective. People pass by all day, most paying them no attention. They are not a threat. Yet here come you, straight at the bird. Not only that, you are staring at the bird with these large unblinking glass eyes. Threat!

So your first fieldcraft tip is (#1) not to approach a bird directly. Make as if to pass the bird by. Meander. Curve your path gradually toward the bird. Don't stare at the bird while moving toward it. Look away. Watch it out the corner of your eye until you are closer. Then stop.

Next, (#2) as you approach carry your binoculars or camera up to your face. Birds are often spooked by arms raising suddenly or pointing. Rest your optics on your cheek as you approach, then slowly tilt your optics to your eyes.

Third, (#3) watch your step! Don't break a twig or scrape the gravel. A sudden noise and off they fly! Move slowly and steadily.

Watch the bird. (#4) Is it alert and watching you? Stop. Let it get used to you and get back to whatever it was doing before you showed up. Is it fidgeting? Twitching its wing? Standing up straighter? Nervously scratching? Raising the tail? It may already be too late. Back off. Wait. If the bird is comfortable singing, feeding, and just being a bird while you take photos, then you are the correct distance.

Diving water bird tip ("Dive and Dash") (#5): Diving ducks, loons, grebes--wait for the bird to dive. Count how long the bird stays down. Next time it dives, run forward, crouch down. Wait for it to resurface. It may move closer. If it resurfaces farther out and facing away, you've been spotted. It won't return.

Singing bird tip (#6): Singing males are more easily approached during the time they are belting out their song. In between phrases is when they fly. If they are singing you may be better off walking forward at that time. Avoid over-pursuing singing birds during this sensitive breeding season time.

Blue Grosbeak
Territorial Blue Grosbeak.
Auto tour tip (#7): Some refuges and nature reserves may have auto tour routes. Even some country roads with wide shoulders along fields or wetlands may have bird viewing and photography opportunities from inside your car.

Letting the birds come to you

If you establish your position first and are patient, birds may come to you. This isn't as hard as it may first sound. Birds come to you at your bird feeder or bird bath, right? That's because they need food and water and have become accustomed to you. Birds, like people, have short attention spans. If you can remain relatively still and quiet for 10 minutes (#8) birds may grow used to your presence. Observe what the birds are doing and where they are moving. (#9) Anticipate where the bird is going to be and get there before it and wait for it to come to you.

There are things you can do to make the birds less wary. The key is in not looking threatening. (#10) Wear subdued colors, not bright, but camouflage is not necessary. (#11) Do not stand on a ridgeline silhouetted by the sky. (#12) Conceal yourself in shade. (#13) Sit. Birds are afraid of the standing human form, not as much to sitting or lying down postures. (#14) Hide behind a tree or bush or shed so they do not see your entire body. (#15) Birding from a canoe or boat also removes your standing posture and birds are much less wary. (#16) Lone birders can approach a bird more closely than a group of birders. Likewise, (#17) you may be able to more closely approach a lone bird than a flock. (#18) Whisper. Or don't talk at all. This is especially hard, but especially important, in groups. There is certainly material for at least one long future post about birding in groups. Whether you call it fieldcraft or birding etiquette, a mob of noisy birders is threatening in nature by sheer numbers alone.

Beach and mudflat tip (#19): Shorebirds on the beach or pond mudflats often work back-and-forth. Even if they are a bit flighty, they often return to favorite areas.

Tide tip (#20): Those shorebirds and herons that feed way out on the mudflats in a tidal marsh? As the tide rises they are pushed closer to the edge. Stake out your vantage place an hour before high tide and wait as the rising waters push the birds to you. As birds are flooded out of lower areas they'll fly in to that last remaining beach or uncovered mudflat.

Marbled Godwit
Marbled Godwit wading in the surf.
Flowering and fruiting tree tip (#21): Certain trees attract fruit-eating and insect-eating birds at certain times of year. Fruit trees may attract warblers when they bloom in spring, then thrushes and sapsuckers in winter. Pay attention to the food sources!

Water tip (#22): Birds want water in summer and in deserts, especially first thing in the morning. Be ready; you may want to arrive before dawn and wait.

Blind tip (#23): ("hides" in Great Britain) Often located near ponds or springs that attract birds to water. They often aren't placed properly for proper sunrise viewing. In general, they should face west so the rising sun isn't right in your eyes.

Seawatch tip (#24): Locations where ocean birds approach more closely to land: jetties, piers, headlands jutting out into the sea. Seabirds often approach shore more closely at night and move offshore soon after sunrise.

Hawk watch tip (#25): Some mountain ridges are situated such that hawks migrating south in fall pass at eye level. These sites are hard to find on your own, but if there are any known hawk watch sites near you, check them out.

How'd I do? Are any of these tips new to you? Which one are you anxious to try? Do you have a tip to share. Please leave a comment!


  1. These are all great tips, Greg, thanks for sharing them. Regarding the rising tide tip - do you find that rising tides are better than receding tides (when looking for waders), or does it more depend on the time of the day and coincide w/ their feeding vs loafing times?

    1. Rising tide pushes waders from out on the mudflats to the edge closer to you.

      If it is a very high tide the birds may get pushed out of the estuary all together.

      Then again, as the tide recedes the hungry birds could rush out into the quickly expanding flats. Don't wait too long or they'll be way out in the middle.

  2. Hi Greg I am a friend of Sheri's from Virginia. I too am a bird watcher and are enjoying your posts! Thanks!

    1. Thank you for stopping by my blog to say hi, Paula.

  3. Thank you for this blog. I'm new to the bird watching/stalking passion ... I am from the south and am obsessed with finding bluebirds. Obviously, there are many more in the South, but, where can I attempt to photograph any kind of bluebirds here in San Diego. I'm currently in North County. Michele

    1. Thanks for visiting, Michele.
      Western bluebird at Kit Carson Park Tree Lake area.
      In winter Mountain Bluebird at Ramona Grasslands Preserve--Rangeland Rd.


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