Bird watchers: Nature’s paparazzi


I recently went to Gujurat, India on a first-time ever bird watching expedition. As a first timer, I got a crash course in birding. This was both inspiring and eye-opening. I was completely out of my element and had to learn the basics quickly.

I came to appreciate that for the serious bird watcher (also known as a “birder”), to a large extent the experience of bird watching is enhanced by the challenge of sighting new species. Hence one reason that bird watchers are avid travelers, is that within each new region lies the potential to see and identify new species.

One of the appeals of bird watching for nature lovers is the different type of habitats and environments for birding. In Gujurat, our tour took us to the desert, the salt mines, as well as through marshes and swamps where we toured through the region on eight person canoes.

Similar to the behavior of the paparazzi over the sighting of a famous Oscar winning actor, birders will take multiple photos of the same bird. They carefully angle for positions that will frame the best shot possible. This seemingly obsessive approach to capturing images of the bird proves useful after the expedition. Once birders leave the field, they urgently upload their images to various photo sharing websites. This allows them to both gloat at their new sightings and share the experience with similarly passionate birders.

For many, the best time to enjoy birding is at dawn or dusk. Although most birds are active during the day, there are nocturnal birds that are best identified at night by the sound of the bird’s song. Birders who go out at night carry bright flashlights to catch a better glimpse.

Sound is an important part of identifying birds. It turns out that the origin of the word “babble” is actually from a bird appropriately named “the babbler”. Another bird easily identified by a distinctive sound signal is the woodpecker, which has a specialized bill and neck muscles for hammering on tree trunks. 

Don’t let the mild mannered nature of your average birder fool you. Birding can be a very competitive sport. When a new species is spotted, the birders quickly turn to their birding manual that lists all the hundreds of birds unique to that region and proceed to identify the bird. Often a lively and sometimes argumentative discussion ensues to properly identify the bird in question. Birders love to go out together in small groups. This allows them a forum in which to show off their knowledge and at the same time learn from each other and ensure the proper identification of new species.

A common term used to help with the identification of birds is "GISS" (pronounced jizz) which stands for General Impression of Size and Shape". This refers to the overall build, behavior, flying style, bill shape and a range of other factors in creating the overall feel of a bird.

To keep a record of birds identified, birders keep a log of all new species called a “life list”. This log is like their bible and it is considered a most prized possession. The life list serves many purposes, including motivation to see a greater number of species and the prestige of having a higher count. There are commonly accepted standards that serve as a guideline for what sightings can be included in a life list. These are:

  1. Positive identification. The bird must be identified through field markings or sounds and the observer must be confident of the identification;
  2. Ethical observation. Birds must not be harmed. There must be no trespassing on private property and no violation of “birding ethics” in observing and identifying a new species.
  3. Alive. Birds must be alive at the time of identification.
  4. Wild. The bird must be observed in the wild and behaving as a wild bird would be expected.
    Free. A bird should not be captive or restrained in any way to be considered part of a life list.
  5. Established. Ideally, the most "pure" life list will only count birds seen directly in their native habitat that have established viable breeding populations for at least several generations.

Birders are extremely sensitve to safety concerns. Safety tips for birders include:

  • Remain on marked, safe trails at all times.
  • Wear appropriate attire for outdoor activities, including footwear.
  • Wear sun protection gear such as sunscreen and sunglasses.
  • Stay hydrated on long birding hikes.
  • Do not handle injured birds or other wildlife.
  • Wear visible, bright clothing if birding during hunting season – otherwise, wear clothing with earth tones that blend in with the environement.

I now appreciate that there’s a lot more to learn beyond the crash course. Once one gains an appreciation of the basics it’s not difficult to develop a passion for this activity.
Donna Salle can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @DonnaSalle.

Source = Donna Salle, Travels with Heart
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