The day I learned birding etiquette: Or how to mind your manners on the trail

by Beverly Mills Gyllenhaal

In our early days on the trail, it took a while to realize that birding has its own, largely un-communicated set of dos and don’ts.

I’ll never forget the morning we pulled into a nature preserve parking lot alongside a group of folks wearing khaki vests and putting away cannon-sized cameras wrapped in camouflage coating.

We were excited to find characters who looked so much the part. These had to be “real” birders, and we had a lot of questions. We got out of the car, grinning and waving. They practically jumped into theirs as if we were planning to attack.

In the early days, some birders ran when they saw me coming with my pink hat and pulled up socks.

Could it have been my trusty pink cap? The white tube socks pulled over my cuffs to avoid getting bitten by a tick? In the birding world, we were as obvious a cliché wearing our beginner garb as they were in identical bird-nerd outfits.

It turns out there are good reasons for the birding nerdyness.

“Birds are very sensitive to colors and often view them as a threat,” said Dale Rosselet, the vice president for education at New Jersey Audubon. “So you don’t want people moving through the forest with hot pink on. Wear muted colors, and try to blend in with the surroundings. If you’re walking through a forest, white stands out like a sore thumb.”


Wardrobe fundamentals was just one lesson I learned from Rosselet during a walk with 20 other birders of varying skill levels at the Cape May Birding Festival last month. At one point she trained her telescope on a distant gull and turned to face the group.

“Here’s how we’re going to do this,” Rosselet said. “Each person takes a quick look through the scope, and after everyone has a chance, you can come back and look again.”

Taking turns may be kindergarten basics, but after leading hundreds of field trips and tours, Rosselet has seen many a person forget their manners in the presence of a beautiful bird.

“People get excited. They’re going to rush in, they’re going to squeal – we’ve all done it,” she said. “The main thing is to try and remember you’re in a group, and everyone is trying to see.”

In a recent interview, I asked Rosselet for more advice on how to bird well with others. For starters, go on an organized walk with a trained leader.

“It’s the job of the leader to make everybody feel comfortable,” she said. “So if you’re a beginner, find a way to tell the leader before the walk and ask if there’s anything you need to know.”

T.J. Myers identifies songs on a tour at Roosevelt Island in Washington.

The worst possible scenario is for a beginner to feel alienated because they did the wrong thing, Rosselet said. “Then they’ll never come back. We want the walk to be fun, educational and inclusive. I want you to come away feeling like you’ve had a great time, and now you’re hungry for more.”

So here are a few more basic tips you might like to know, from Rosselet and others we’ve collected along the way:

  • Curb the chatter. While a good leader wants you to ask questions and be fully engaged, there are limits. “If everyone is talking loudly, I can’t hear the birdsong,” Rosselet said. “It compromises my ability to find the bird and show the group.”
  • Don’t point at birds. Another Cape May Festival leader shared this bit of knowledge. Birds have good eyesight, and it makes them skittish.
  • If you realize you’ve come upon a nest, move away so as not to disturb the bird, potentially causing it to abandon the nest. If a bird starts to dive-bomb you or suddenly starts to sing loudly nearby, you’re probably too close to a nest.
  • Don’t be embarrassed if you make a mistake trying to identify a bird in public. “Everyone makes mistakes,” Rosselet said. “I make mistakes. We all make mistakes.”
  • Do not bring your dog. “You’d be surprised how many dog owners insist, “Oh, he’s very well behaved. He’ll be good.” But just don’t do it,” Rosselet said. “Birds perceive dogs as predators.”
  • If you’re a photographer, be mindful of everyone’s needs. “I’ve seen many little rifts between photographers and birders,” Rosselet said. “You have a camera. You want the best picture. So you rush into the marsh and scare the bird before everyone gets a chance to see it.”

It gets crowded at Northern Virginia’s Huntley Meadows, where a phalanx of photographers gathered on a recent Saturday.

Unless you have a powerful lens for distance, here’s the preferred protocol:

“You wait,” Rosselet said. “And after everyone else has seen the bird, ask if anyone minds if you get closer for a photo. Keep the lines of communication open.”

So it’s not that difficult, and I feel more confident already.

I’ve retired my pink hat, and I’m in the market for some brown tube socks. I don’t have a dog so that’s not an issue. However, I do go birding with a borderline obsessive photographer. And he thinks Rosselet just gave him permission to buy a more powerful lens. At the moment, he couldn’t be more thrilled with my new list of birding rules.


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Patricia Aakre July 6, 2019 - 2:25 pm

What a great essay on how to be a courteous bird watcher! Thank you!

Anders Gyllenhaal July 7, 2019 - 9:44 pm

Thanks so much for taking the time to post this thought. Much appreciated.

Jim B July 5, 2019 - 1:07 pm

It’s too late now (for this year) but mark your calendars for nest year. March, April and even May are super great times to visit the St Augustine Alligator Farm. (Florida) There is a natural/wild bird rookery there that is absolutely fantastic with Wood Storks, Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Cattle Egrets, Tri-color Herons and, Yes ( ! ) Roseate Spoonbills ( ! ) nesting. Many of the nests are close enough for cell phone pictures and yet these birds are virtually unaffected by the numerous visitors (including squealing school kids on field trips). Check out their 2-day photo pass which allows early entry and a later stay. Many of these nests are close enough to easily count the eggs so just imagine watching the chicks! It’s all elevated boardwalk over the 200 or so alligators. A must see and an unforgettable experience.

lizagyllenhaal June 22, 2019 - 8:42 am

Delightful (and instructive, too). Thanks, Bev!


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