Advanced birdwatchers and guides focus on the sounds around them, sifting through the many varied calls listening for a specific voice, or one that differs from the common sounds. In areas with high species diversity it takes a lot of concentration to pick out a single song or chip note. Success depends, in part, on the ability to move and behave quietly. Likewise, if you are on a tour or have a paid guide, your bumbling makes their job much harder and undoubtedly less productive. I’ve been told that when a client’s behavior is too noisy, some guides will tailor the species they go after, eliminating the very shy birds as being a waste of time. For me, stealth means wearing non-rustling clothes, walking quietly, speaking low, and moving smoothly and slowly. Indeed, this sounds pretty basic, but moving with stealth for more than a few minutes is a behavior that isn’t natural to those of us who occupy an environment full of action. Many of us, in our urban settings, chat freely, move how and when we wish, and never give a thought to our personal clamor because it is drowned out by the surrounding cacophony. Take that behavior and place it in the stillness of a forest and you become a walking calamity. Also, keep in mind that it is the rare bird that perceives no mortal intent in a bumbling birdwatcher.
Moving cat-like, or at least not hippo-like, takes discipline and for most of us, requires a conscious effort. At the risk of sounding preachy, the best way to improve stealth is to get fitter and stronger, and work on one’s balance. The stronger you are and the better your balance, the more control you will have over where and how you place your feet. Instead of being at the mercy of momentum, you will be able to choose between stepping on a dry stick or the soft ground next to it; brushing that branch with your arm or, dodging around it. Yoga or yoga based exercise is a widely available method for gaining strength and balance. It has the added benefit of bringing your consciousness to the way you are moving, making you “present” in your movements. With practice, in your own yard or recreation area, moving with awareness becomes easier. A guide once told me he looks at the trail and memorizes his next several quiet steps, thus allowing him more time to scan the forest. I think of this as advanced stealth, though in practice most of us can consciously plan a few careful steps without looking down.
A common way in which we inadvertently alert birds of our presence is when we grab small trees and branches for support. It is natural to want a handrail, but not only do you run the risk of unwittingly shaking hands with a biting, stinging critter, but when you grab a small tree it sends a tremor up the trunk and moves the canopy. Your hand acts as the fulcrum, and the tree’s canopy moves in response. I’m sure there is an equation using tree trunk diameter, canopy height, distance from the birder’s hand, etc., but in short, when you grab the trunk of a small tree you are waving its canopy like a flag. I generally look to larger trees and rocks if I need the extra help because they are more stable. Also, clean places, devoid of wildlife and their hiding places.
Surprising for many beginning birders, bird watching involves a lot of standing still. Whether using playback, tracking a bird call, or waiting to see what flies by, birders do it a lot. Obviously, the less movement you make while standing, the less likely a bird will see you and fly in the opposite direction. I find it is one of the more challenging birding practices and it takes more concentration than one would think. Many of us will unconsciously fiddle with pack zippers, slap at mosquitoes, or move about looking all around. For most of us, it takes a conscious effort to remain still. Here are a few tips that may help keep you from sending a bird in the opposite direction.
A good habit to be in is to first check the place you want to stand for ants and branches, then find a comfortable stance clear of these obstacles. In yoga, the mountain pose is a standing stance with legs shoulder-width apart, knees very slightly bent and not locked, and with a slight tightening of the core muscles described as gently pulling ones navel toward the spine. When settled, use your ears as well as your eyes, and minimize the amount you need to move your body. If possible, while you are scanning the vegetation for movement, turn only your head, and slowly, not your entire torso. When you do move your body, be aware of your backpack and what is behind you, either person or branch. I try to be in the habit of sloughing my backpack before settling in. This prevents me from inadvertently pushing my fellow birders off the trial, and diminishes my size and visibility when birds appear. Another trick I use is when standing waiting for a bird to appear, I’ll hold my binoculars up partway to my face. This keeps my hands occupied and still, while increasing control so I can raise my binoculars slowly and smoothly.
Birding in a group has its own protocols that I will briefly cover here. When in a group, stay with the group, if at all possible. Other than the obvious potential for getting lost, dragging behind, or charging ahead is generally considered bad form. If you move ahead, you potentially scare away birds the group would like to see. If you drag behind, you force the group to wait for you and so reduce productive birding time. Either one can be seen as a bit selfish.
When standing with a group, keep in mind that your movements contribute to the overall disturbance the group is creating. Remain as still as possible, and stay close to the group. The more compact the group is, the less threatening it is to the wildlife around it. And similarly, when playback is being used, keep still and quiet to increase the
technique’s effectiveness. When a bird first responds to playback, don’t run around trying to get a look; keep in mind that a bird will typically circle the player , spying the “intruder” from several locations. Where ever you stand in the group, you will have a reasonable chance of seeing it.
And finally, on sharing scopes; I usually do not carry a scope, and so am very grateful when someone invites me to use theirs. If you are kindly invited to use someone’s scope, watch where the tripod legs are and try not to kick them. Also, unless invited otherwise, limit your time to no more than about 8-10 seconds, particularly if there are others waiting. Remember, the scope owner generously invited you to use their scope, it is not your right. Be courteous and polite, and you will probably be invited for a second look provided, of course, that the bird stays put.
Backpacks and Knapsacks
Stealth also requires that we disturb the vegetation around us as little as possible because this too will show us to the bird. When walking down a trail, it is often easy to slide past a protruding branch rather than pushing it out of the way, but take care of your pack. In all honestly, I am notorious for knocking people and vegetation with my daypack. I have tried to get in the habit of dropping my pack when stopped on the trail, but I often forget the darn thing is there till someone squawks as I swing around and push them off the trail. That said, what comes around, goes around and I’ve taken my share of sideswipes.
Many people find carrying a collapsible walking stick gives them the extra balance needed to place their feet quietly and securely. A stick can come in handy as a support for steep climbs; place the stick first, then your foot, to get maximum advantage. And if you are going down a steep incline, you may want to extend your stick to its maximum length to allow it to be placed without having to lean forward. This takes a bit of practice, but becomes fairly automatic when the consequences are falling on one’s nose. Keep in mind that the noise of the stick, can also be an issue. For example, if with every step there is a “tink” of metal on rock, you may be announcing your arrival to every bird around; eliminating any advantage the stick gives you in stealth. For this reason, I like rubber or wooden tips on my props. Likewise, if you tire of carrying the stick and let it drag, again you are increasing rather than diminishing your noise level. Better to pack it up and stow it when not in use.
What to Carry in the Field
My daypack runs about 15 pounds, around 6.5 kilos, more if I have my laptop or an extra bird book with me. What follows is my basic pack list which varies somewhat with climate, temperature, and expected hike duration.
- binoculars (generally around my neck)
- bird book (sometimes two)
- camera (point and shoot)
- mobile phone- ideally, a smart phone with location abilities, and, or, a GPS unit.Unfortunately, I usually have a stupid phone and no GPS, so rely on the paper
maps handed out at park or lodge headquarters for short day trips. If these are not available, there is often a sign board with a map that is easily photographed and referred to as needed.
- flashlight (torch) or headlamp
- pencil and pad (typically this is in my pocket)
- pocket knife
- sun hat or baseball style hat
- rain gear (rain pants and coat)
- sun screen
- mosquito repellant (in plastic bag)
- toilet paper (in plastic bag)
- water, generally two 75 ml containers or more
- reading glasses
- large plastic bags to sit on and, or, and to put my pack into if it rains hard
- first aid kit in a smallish plastic box includes: lighter, ibuprofen, antihistamine, band aids (plasters) or tape, antibacterial or antibiotic cream, and alcohol swabs
Depending on the weather, I may add a fleece jacket, long underwear, gloves, or a knit cap. Other useful items I sometimes add are a handkerchief, more water, compass, clean microfiber cloth for cleaning binoculars, Ipod, sun glasses, spare reading glasses, and extra batteries.
I am not a bird photographer and carry only a point and shoot camera. Clearly, if your objective is bird photography, there will be items which will need to be added or subtracted. I’ve noticed that often photographers are less concerned with identifying the bird, and more concerned with getting a photograph, so perhaps a book and binoculars are not needed. Regardless of your travel objective, you will quickly develop your own list of “must have” items to carry.