It’s right where I’m looking!

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.

[mtouchquiz 3]

19 thoughts on “It’s right where I’m looking!”

  1. typo in the last sentence before the photos – *your*.

    Loving these quizzes, I’m definitely going to send this one to some people I bird with…

  2. Nice post, David. I agree with your pet peeve: I’ve always been frustrated with the excessive verbiage (and potential for misunderstanding, as you say) of “flying left to right”. Just say “flying right”! It’s faster and less confusing!

    Directions are a learned art, and perhaps guiding other people is the best way to hone this talent. Most important is trying to find the most obvious landmarks possible (sometimes, what might seem obvious to you may not be so obvious to another observer). I find that getting people into the general area first, then directing them closer using more and more detailed directions is good: “See the white house on the horizon?” “Yes” “Ok, now pan left until you see the row of pines. Got them?” “Yes” “Now drop down from the left end of the row into the grass and you should see the bird’s head”. Something like that.

    Of course, laser pointers have changed the field of getting others on birds, but they too have their limitations. One is when you and the other observer are not side by side, and there is much vegetation between you and the bird. The laser pointer will probably hit various sticks and leaves between you and the target, and this will throw off the second observer, as will the fact that you have two different angles and thus perspectives. Trying to consider how the view may differ between yours and the other observer’s angle will be crucial to getting them on the bird. Putting the laser dot at a similar distance from you as the target bird will help (without hitting or frightening off the bird, of course!). Sometimes, ‘walking’ the second observer out with the laser dot is a good technique.

    Good birding!

  3. I have two pet peeve’s one is “it’s right there!” The other is the quick whole are, fast point that invaribly scares the bird away. My birding buddies and groups tire of my suggestions, sometimes too emphatically, not to point. However, I must sheepishly admit, I sometimes forget and point myself. David and others, I would like to hear your thoughts on the “pointing or not pointing” question.

    1. Ah, yes, pointing is definitely counterproductive, especially fast pointing. It’s fine when the bird is far away, like a loon hundreds of yards out on a lake, or a kingbird on a distant fencepost, but quick movements are really alarming to birds, and lifting binoculars can be just as bad as pointing. Any bird that’s already a little nervous about your presence will dive into cover if anyone makes a quick movement. If the Painted Bunting you’ve been waiting for finally comes out the the edge of the thicket it’s best to just quietly say “here it is” and slowly raise your binoculars. In fact, if I’m in a situation like that I’ll hold my binoculars just under my nose as much as I can, waiting and ready. It saves time and motion when the bird does show up, instead of the much bigger and scarier movement of swinging my arms up to grab the binoculars at chest level, then raising them to my eyes.

    2. I find that looking at the bird through your binoculars is just as good as pointing. I often stand directly behind (shorter) birding companions and use the direction of their binoculars as my guide to the bird.

  4. On occasion, a person in our group just isn’t seeing what I am seeing. I have found that if the usual directions aren’t working for them, I ask them what landmark/leaf/branch/whatever THEY see and go from there.

  5. Flyong left to right is so hard to break the habit, I try but am not always consistent. I know they do not fly right to right.

    1. Well, it’s not really a serious issue, just an example of less efficient communication at a time when efficiency matters, but I know how hard it is to break those kinds of habits, and I’m sure I have some of my own that I could improve.

  6. It is my duty as the person who does not see the bird to go stand near one of their shoulders of a person who does see the bird and to look down their binoculars/scope . That is perhaps what people mean when they say “right where I am looking.” To expect the seer to explain in fine detail where the bird is and to reduce the enjoyment study of the bird is expecting too much. Among my birding companions that is the way we do it. 5 words and two seconds. “I got something over here.” I believe leading novices around the Arcata Marsh taught me this. They ask “what is this bird?” Bam I am behind them looking over their shoulder.

    1. Hi Elias,

      Thanks for making that point. That’s exactly right. I had been thinking of a follow-up post explaining some of these proactive things that the receiver of information can do to get on the bird more quickly.

  7. While getting people on a rare bird can be very important, I’d argue that it’s better not to lose the bird in a lot of cases. Too often I drop my bins to try to find landmarks for other folks, and then lose the bird. Then no one gets to see it, and important ID features may be missed. It’s certainly one thing if you’re guiding folks to birds that aren’t rarities, but if you happen upon a Mongolian Mind-bender with a group, realize that your responsibility may be more to stay on that bird than to make sure everyone else gets a look instantly. Once the bird has settled to a location where it’s easily found again, or once key field marks have been determined, THEN you can get your group on the bird.

  8. I recently birded with a guide who used a laser pointer to get us “on” birds sighted. Especially in dense undergrowth at close range it was far more effective than any of the descriptive techniques discussed here, most of which I commonly use myself.

    The guide was very careful not to lase the bird itself, but pointed to it’s immediate vicinity and said “It’s right above where I’m pointing.”

    I’d be interested in hearing comments and experiences relating to the use of laser pointers. Full disclosure: I’m probably going to buy one myself.

    1. I don’t have a lot of experience with laser pointers myself, but see Dan Lane’s excellent comment below, and from what I’ve seen I think they are an excellent way to point out a bird. One downside is that the bright red or green dot will scare birds if they see it. For that reason it’s important to aim the laser at something else, as your guide was doing, and best to aim it at a closer object like a tree trunk and say “Look just to the right of the dot and twice as far back” (but again, Dan Lane describes some of the limitations with this).

      There are still a lot of situations where the laser won’t help: birds in the open or on water, in flight, etc. And other techniques for “pointing” can be very helpful: just lining up with the scope or binoculars of someone who sees the bird (as Gregg suggests), using a straight stick (even the legs of a folded tripod) to point precisely to the bird. All of that assumes the bird is sitting still long enough for people to get onto the line of sight. In cases of a fast-moving bird it is still really important to practice your description of location.

  9. Thanks you David and Dan. General response, here as well as elsewhere, is positive-with-caveats. I think I will get one. Clearly they’re much more useful in thick underbrush, which was the only situation in which our guide used his.

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