Staying Safe While Birding
September 8, 2021
By Bird Watcher’s Digest Staff
Whether you live in a rural area, in the suburbs, or in a major metropolitan city, most of us have put safety measures in place in our everyday lives. Many of these measures and behaviors are second nature to us, and we implement them to protect ourselves, our property, and to provide peace of mind. We lock our doors and windows at night at home. We have security codes and passwords on our phones, banking information, and online dealings. We lock our car doors when we’re away from our vehicles. Some people take extra precautions when they’re away from home, like parking in well-lit areas at night, carrying pepper spray with them, and even taking self-defense classes in case they ever need to defend themselves. This is not a topic that is pleasant to discuss, but it is a critical issue in these times. No one wants to live in fear, but we also want to be aware and well-prepared.
Safety is also important when you’re birding. Many folks enjoy bird watching by themselves, and they find it cathartic to take long walks in quiet places where they can experience birds and nature in solitude. (However, don’t allow yourself to become ‘binocular blind’ and allow yourself to become oblivious to your surroundings due to directing all your attention through your binoculars and not taking a moment now and then to lower them and look around you!) Most photographers prefer shooting without crowds of people nearby and prefer photographing nature solo. Still, other folks prefer birding with a partner, friend, or group of friends, and they rarely head outdoors alone. Whether you’re birding alone or with others, it is important to always consider your personal safety and the safety of your belongings when you’re birding.
There are other safety conditions to consider when birding that are more related to safety in the great outdoors than unsafe humans. Extreme weather conditions, biting bugs and snakes, rough terrain that could cause an injury, and your own pre-existing health conditions could all require emergency action.
The American Hiking Association recommends these safety tips when hiking alone or with others:
Make a gear list and carry a backpack.
You can refer to another article in this series, “What to Wear and Bring While Birding,” to help you make your gear list for your upcoming birding hike! Make sure that everything you bring with you fits nicely in your backpack, and that your backpack isn’t too heavy for you to carry for hours at a time.
Get the lay of the land.
Make sure you have a map and clear understanding of the trails and areas you’ll be visiting. If possible, visit the area beforehand and learn how to get there, where to park, and potential lunch spots in the area.
Make a trip plan.
When you’re birding in a familiar area, planning isn’t quite as important because you know the trails. But when you’re birding in an unfamiliar place, making a trip plan is essential. Be sure to consider where you might park your car, the amount of time you plan to spend birding, how far you want to walk, and how near you need to stay to your vehicle.
Prepare for lack of cell coverage.
This is a biggie, especially if you have health concerns or if you need to remain reachable by phone. You always want to notify a few folks about your plans for birding that day and where you will be. That way, if something unfortunate should happen, your general whereabouts will be known to a few people who can find you, if necessary.
Beware the ticks, insects, and local animals.
Birding and hiking where there are ticks, biting insects, snakes, leeches, or bears is no joking matter. All these things could not only cause discomfort but they could even put your life in danger in extreme circumstances. Do your homework ahead of time and find out what creatures you might encounter while birding, then plan accordingly.
Know how to take action in a storm.
Check and recheck the weather forecast for the day you’re birding. Fortunately, the best birding usually happens in the morning, and thunderstorms often happen later the day. But be sure and know the forecast before you head out for a day of birding. It’s often wise to dress in layers, and stow rain gear in your daypack just in case.
Bring at least one friend.
This is great advice, especially when spending an entire day birding on unfamiliar trails, in a new location, or with a new group. If you’re out for an entire day, it’s best to do so with a partner. Besides, birding is better with friends!
Let’s add a few more safety tips related to human safety.
Know your group.
If you’re birding with a group, choose people you know and trust to join you. If this is your first time with the group, bring a friend with you. If you’re birding alone with a new group, contact the leader ahead of time and ask if you can tag along with them until you become familiar with the other members.
Ask your leader about the organization’s code of conduct.
It might be a bit uncomfortable, but it’s okay to ask if there have been safety or conduct concerns within your birding group in the past. Some organizations require that both formal and informal members sign a code of conduct before birding together, and this is a good practice. A code of conduct can include things like etiquette while birding, topics of conversation to avoid (politics, religion, and intimate discussions), and general rules of respect for others. Most people generally behave respectfully, but not everyone is socially well-adapted. A code of conduct keeps the group on the same page and makes everyone aware that the group’s behavior and dynamic is important.
Trust your instincts.
If you don’t feel comfortable with a person, a group, or in a situation, excuse yourself and leave immediately. As the saying goes, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Trust your own Spidey-sense and remove yourself from any situation that makes you uncomfortable.
Putting these safety measures in place should not make us feel more fearful but more prepared, comfortable, and secure. We hope you stay safe, and we wish you many years of safe and happy birding ahead!