by Gord Gadsden
Enjoying birds comes with some responsibility. This responsibility is certainly nothing strenuous or difficult but nevertheless it is important. Taking a little care will ensure that we promote birding in a positive manner and also treat the focus of our interest, birds, with care.
Most enjoy bird watching in their backyards or on public land such as local parks. However, bird watching often takes us out beyond these areas in search of new birding possibilities. This is especially the case while participating in a Christmas Bird Count where your have a route to cover. While it's best to choose your birding areas appropriately, there's always times when you might be birding an area that's not as suitable as a quiet public park. How we conduct ourselves around other people's property is very important.
I think it's natural to feel a little conspicuous and suspicious looking while driving slowly down a road with binoculars. It is also natural to feel a little self-conscious and out of place when the neighborhood starts to stare at you through squinted eyes. I have found it to be not very helpful to try and blend in and avoid eye contact with the curious neighbors. You're looking out a car window with binoculars. People are noticing this and understandably so. With property owners' fears of burglary and theft always in mind, they have a right to be concerned. The most obvious fact to you is not obvious to most people. Yes, you are examining a flock of gulls in a field. But to other people, there's nothing out there but grass and garbage eating birds, so you must be up to some sort of mischief!
I have adopted a fairly successful way to break the ice when in such situations. I sit straight, proud and confident. When someone casts a curious glance my way, it's met with a smile and a friendly but casual wave. I have nothing to hide and I do my best to display this fact without looking like I'm acting. Maybe when a teenager I tried to keep my birding a little more casual. But now I'm married with three little kids. Worries about what other people think of my pastimes, choice of music or haircut have ceased to exist. In some cases, when it looks like someone is pretty concerned with my presence, I'll make a point to turn around and come say "hi" and let them know what I'm doing. Often this explanation is met with visible relief that quickly grows into sharing the kinds of birds they have been seeing and questions about birds. This can cut into birding time, time which is a valuable commodity with the before mentioned three little kids, but it's time very well spent sharing birding with others. Also, you are possibly paving the way for other birders to enjoy birding in the neighborhood. I was encouraged to hear of a similar encounter and result from one of the members of the discussion forum. Hats off to him for his exemplary work!
Some other rules of thumb I follow when birding around private property.
-Try to locate away from dwellings and storage buildings when stopping to look at birds.
-Making sure I park in a manner that does not impede or annoy traffic. Remember that tractors and other farm machinery often require more room and that they're often common in good birding areas.
-Ensure I'm not driving on someone's lawn or roadside flowerbed. (Pointing out to an annoyed homeowner that you didn't realize that the weedy patch, now with tire tracks in it, was a flowerbed does not help)
-A high visible (and low fashionable) vest or a flashing light on your car adds to your legitimate look and also makes you safer when birding on the side of a road.
All things mentioned are important considerations when birding, but nothing is more important than your safety. I'll start with a word of common sense when encountering persons you don't know. Make sure you're safe and do not put yourself in an unsafe or uncomfortable situation with strangers. Use your judgment and always err on the side of caution. Also, be very careful when birding on roadsides and from your car. Be watchful for vehicles at all times when walking and make sure you are not setting up on blind corners or are otherwise difficult to see. When driving, your number one goal is keeping your car at the speed limit and between the lines and not looking for birds. Otherwise, you might be joining that Wilson's Snipe in his ditch habitat or getting unwanted attention from the guy driving a noisy truck with tires the size of a tool shed.
Happy birding, and make sure you do your part to keep it happy!