Birdwatching or Birding

The Bird is the Word

Birding has become a truly international pastime, inspiring an increasing number of enthusiasts to travel the world in pursuit of rare and exotic species, often in fragile ecosystems. Birders carry a heavy responsibility to neither disturb the birds they seek nor damage the habitats they depend on for survival.

Birding is the ultimate in passive hunting. Its exponents require field skills, patience, equipment, identification knowledge and an understanding of bird ecology. Fortunately, there is no kill at the end of the pursuit.

To simply “hold communion” with nature’s supreme flying machines, marvelling at the magnificent colours of bird plumage or the wonders of courtship display, satisfies most participants. Digital photography, however, has inspired a new generation of bird lovers and, with it, extra responsibilities on those seeking lasting, tangible memories of the birds they see.

What you should know

  • You can birdwatch virtually inch of the planet’s surface. The power of flight has given birds a domain greater than even mankind’s, spanning from polar wastes to tropical rainforests and from mountain peaks to windswept deserts; even the vast oceans have been conquered by majestic albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels.
  • By being so omnipresent, birds have become our great touchstone with nature. They are imprinted in our culture and inspiring curiosity. A century ago, the only way to study a bird was from behind a shotgun. Legions of collectors killed specimens by the thousand.  Today, animal welfare enlightenment and the advance of optical equipment mean that up close and personal views are available for price of a pair of binoculars or a fieldscope. Little wonder that birdwatchers are now counted in millions globally.
  • The value of birdwatching to the American economy was calculated in a recent US government report at $36billion a year. In the UK, there are more than one million members of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Bird clubs and ornithological societies now exist in virtually every country and BirdLife International is one of the most respected and effective conservation organisations on the planet.
  • With more than 10,000 species to see, ranging in size from the giant Ostrich strutting across the arid African grasslands to the tiny, insect-size hummingbirds of the Americas, birdwatchers are prepared to spend large sums travelling to all continents to “tick off” species. A number of reputable companies advocating sustainable eco-tourism have emerged over the past few decades to cater for birdwatchers but the advent of budget flights and internet booking also means many birdwatchers can travel independently and without the governance and good practice controls of tour firms.

What you can do

  • Always birdwatch overseas as you would at home and be mindful of the most important principle of the pastime: the birds’ interests always come first.
  • The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds along with other conservation organisations advocates following the “Birdwatchers Code”. Learn. Memorise. Put into practice.
  • Avoid disturbing birds and their habitats – the birds’ interests should always come first.
  • Be an ambassador for birdwatching.
  • Know the law and the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them.
  • Send your sightings to the County Bird Recorder and the Birdtrack websites.
  • Think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird, especially during the breeding season.
  • Although aimed at birdwatchers in the field in the UK, it also works birding overseas.
  • As far as disturbance, never approach nests or attempt to get a better view of a bird by clapping, throwing stones or bashing bushes. Be wary of using tape lures (tape recordings of bird song). It could well be illegal and, if not, can still be disruptive, particularly to breeding birds.
  • Bird photography throws up a new set of concerns. Again, nest photography requires licences in many and there are serious penalties for miscreants. Avoid approaching too closely. Allow them space to rest and feed.
  • Consider contacting – even joining – bird clubs or associations of countries you plan to visit. They will not only welcome your records, membership will give you a better insight into any local issues such as security or health & safety which may impact on your visit.
  • If possible, get a recommended local guide. Trusted on-the-ground guides not only help you find and identify birds, they are invariably aware of pitfalls about access to sites, disturbance threats and safety problems. Hiring a guide also helps the local economy and teaches a vital message that birdwatching and conservation are worthwhile and causes for good.

Where does this occur?

Birdwatching is a truly international issue, and can be enjoyed in any country.

Links to organisations for further information

This article was contributed by Stuart Winter, Environment Editor of the Sunday Express and Care for the Wild’s Ambassador.