January 28, 2010
Crissal Thrasher
Crissal Thrasher
I recently led a field trip which brought home to me why niche magazines and newsletters often return to the same themes over and over again.  Initiates are continually being introduced into a discipline or organization (at least veterans of a discipline or organization better hope they are) and need to be taught the protocol--how to "play the game"--to insure the continuing good of all involved.  In birding "all involved" means the habitat, the birds, and fellow birders.  In that order.  An incident that occurred during my field trip made me realize I hadn't touched on this theme in nearly four years--jimburnsphotos.com/pages/4-7-06.html, and a repeat was long overdue.

The trip took place in a thickly vegetated area in which a population of Crissal Thrashers had recently been discovered, and the organizers of the trip had not put any limitations on the number of participants.  The Curve-billed Thrashers that run around your yard in the low desert are a bit of an anomaly in the thrasher world.  They're bold, brash, and well used to human activity.  The rest of the thrasher clan, not so much.  Crissals, especially, have a reputation for being shy and reclusive, and for many on the field trip Crissal Thrasher was a target bird.

Though many good birds were found on the hike, no Crissals had turned up where expected or where they were typically being seen.  Toward the end, hope of seeing one had largely been abandoned, and discipline for the unwieldy group of twenty-five birders had largely broken down.  Many straggled behind, talking and catching up with old acquaintances, while a few pushed on ahead anticipating lunch and a return home.  Suddenly a birder (whose gender and name shall remain unnoted) wearing a white jacket and twenty yards ahead of me off trail stopped, pointed, and called back to the group--"There they are!"

How many rules of proper field trip etiquette do you think this birder broke?  How many other people do you think saw the Crissal Thrashers this birder was pointing out?  If you guessed five and zero, you're on your way to a perfect score, but now you have to name the egregious mistakes that were made.

Never walk ahead of the leader.  I should have gone over the rules before the hike, but often when a leader does this it comes off sounding arrogant.  There's a reason the field trip leader is the leader, and it means he/she goes first to identify the birds and get everyone in the group on birds before they flush.  Typically the leader has experience with these things, knows the site very well, or at least is the only person who has volunteered to lead.  You may think you're a better birder than the leader, but if you want to lead a trip, sign up to do so.

Never point.  Quick movement spooks birds more than anything else, including walking slowly and talking in conversational tones.  Pointing out birds with arm movement is very natural and is an extremely difficult habit to break, but you'll see more birds if you break it.

If you must communicate, whisper or talk in conversational tones.  It should be obvious, but apparently it's not.  Loud noise is threatening to birds.

Wear dark, non-reflective clothing.  There's a reason why hunters and wildlife photographers often wear complete camouflage and scarecrows are clothed in bright, loose material.  Hello!

Stay on the trail.  Remember?  Habitat!  Respect it and protect it.  If a bird flew into your living room, you'd freak out.  What do you think those birds are doing when you crash through the underbrush?

Alright, I'm finished now.  I hope you've enjoyed this rant and will take it to heart.  Field trips are great fun and can be a wonderful learning experience.  Don't spoil it for others.  It's not about you.  It's about the birds.