or: How to point out the location of a bird
Discussions of birding techniques dwell mainly on finding and identifying birds, as they should, but as soon as you’ve accomplished one or both of those things, it’s essential to be able to direct other people to the bird you are seeing. Unfortunately this aspect of birding skills gets less attention than it deserves, and the discussion pretty much begins and ends with the suggestion to use the “clock” method. Here I’ve tried to describe some of the basics of pointing out birds, and added a little quiz.
Giving directions well allows everyone to see the birds, more quickly and easily, and makes for a smooth and pleasant birding experience. Giving directions badly leads to missed birds, frustration, and hard feelings. This is a learned skill, and it needs to be practiced.
The essential principles are:
- Start with the basics – really basic. Is it flying or sitting? on the ground or in a tree? etc
- Find an obvious landmark and use that to get everyone in the ballpark (e.g. “see the burning tires… go left”) then get more specific to zero in on the location
- Keep giving directions and describing what the bird is doing; bad directions can be frustrating, silence is more so
- For a bird in a flock, it’s helpful to describe what it’s doing – “just flapped” or “preening its belly” or “looking toward us” are all helpful hints.
- For a flying bird, please don’t say “flying left to right” (my pet peeve). That means it’s flying right, and in the urgency of the moment your listeners will be reacting to the words “flying left…” before you can finish saying “…to right”
As the person responsible for directing, you may need to lower your binoculars momentarily to look for landmarks, but try not to lose track of the bird when you do this! One option is to use your binoculars to scan the immediate surroundings of the bird – shift quickly left, then back to the bird, then right, then back to the bird – so you don’t lose track of it. If you can spot a landmark such as a colorful leaf or broken branch, that might help people find it. For a flying bird, you can pan ahead of it briefly with your binoculars to see what’s coming up, then say, it’s almost to the boat/house/tower/etc.
Below are a few photos to practice on. This quiz is partly to test your ability but even more to give some real-world examples of the right and wrong way to describe a bird’s location. Each photo shows a scene, with the location of a bird indicated by the orange dot. Your challenge is to choose the best description of the bird’s location from the available answers.
Bird Location Quiz
Flying right, above the treetops, about to go over the path
Flying left to right, high up, passing a tall tree
Straight ahead, right where I'm looking, ooh...quick!
In the round tree, where there's a kind of a dip on the side, just above a big branch on the left, all alone
It's the tree straight ahead, maybe a pine tree, about 100 feet away, and it's near the tips of the branches
In the big lone tree, about 10 o'clock, a couple of feet in from the tip of the branch
See the deepest shadow, with a thin pale tree trunk in it, it's in the tree just left of that, on a branch coming straight towards us about halfway up the tree
Right in front of me!
In the white pine, dead center
On a branch in the middle of the tree. That tree... right... there... [holding binoculars to eyes with one hand, pointing unsteadily with the other]