Learn what to pack and wear, the essential gear you need to bring, and other ways to prepare before you go on a birdwatching trip.
Here are a few things I’ve learned since going on a few birdwatching trips. And trust me, this is list is as much a help to me as it is you. Hopefully this way, I’ll remember all of these things!
Prepare for birdwatching tour
- Print a bird list. A lot of festivals, Audubon societies, etc. will give you bird lists. But just in case, find one online you can print. Plus, if you’re like me, you’ll want to take a look at some of the birds you might see!
- Fashion doesn’t count. Pack for comfort and warmth, especially this time of year. I find that I’ll pack a huge bag full of clothing options, but end up wearing the same comfortable sweatshirt for a couple of days in a row.
- Bring sunscreen. Just because it’s not the heat of the summer, doesn’t mean you can skip the SPF. I learned this the hard way when my hands and face got sunburned while horse back riding in Colorado on a chilly spring day.
- Don’t forget the essentials. The basics are easy to overlook. Make yourself a to-do list and include binoculars, field guide, chargers for electronics, a jacket, warm socks, rain gear. Check out the best birding gear you never knew you needed.
- Check the weather. While a 10-day forecast isn’t always going to be accurate, it doesn’t hurt to look at the forecast for the area you’ll be birding in. That way you’ll have an idea of exactly what type of clothing to bring and if hats and gloves will be necessary.
- Invest in a bird-watching bag. Whether it’s a backpack or cross-body type thing, you’ll want something comfortable to hold water, extra clothing layers, field guides and snacks.
Ten Tips for Planning Your Birdwatching trip
- Choosing (a) destination(s). Decide up front whether you’re going to cover a lot of ground and visit lots of sites, or spend more time in fewer locations. That decision will help with budgeting, packing and reservations. When traveling, I always prefer to visit fewer places and spend more time birding and less time traveling. But you may feel the opposite, and that’s fine.
- Study a regional field guide. Why spend your time trying to figure out which birds will be found in your birding destination area? Regional field guides exist for nearly every part of world and North America. Even experienced birders should take along an appropriate field guide when traveling to an unfamiliar birding destination—if only for the range maps.
- Make a “hit list” of target birds. A list of birds you really want to see may help you choose your specific destinations. If this is going to be a birding trip, then plan your accommodations to be close to your target species. Look at a destination’s bird checklist before you book a room. No sense staying an hour’s drive from a sure bet on a life bird if you can stay within walking distance. Focus your trip on known sites for your target species. Nothing satisfies me like checking off a bird that I’ve wanted to see for years!
- Consult online resources. Technology has enhanced our ability to find very specific information in seconds. This applies to birding information, too. Online databases such as eBird and state and local bird sighting email lists, conveniently assembled by the American Birding Association, can help you figure out the best locations to find your target species.
- Consult local resources. Contacting a local, state, or regional bird club can put you in touch with local birders who know the best bird watching spots and the best times to visit. Resources such as the Bird Club Finder and Birdingpal.org can help you make these connections. All over the world, birders always seem willing and eager to help other birders.
- Plot your route and schedule. Know exactly where you’re going before you get there so you don’t waste time strategizing when you could be birding. No matter where you are in the world, the birds are usually most active early and late in the day. Plan your schedule so that you are at good birding spots at these times. Midday hours can be used for traveling to your next destination. And it’s wise to allow for more travel time between sites than would seem to be required. It’s rare that a two-hour drive between birding spots can be made in just two hours—especially if you’re birding along the way. I always allow for at least 30 percent more time to get from point A to point B.
- Take advantage of birding infrastructure. Are there existing birding trails associated with your destination? Is there a birding festival being held during the time you plan to visit? These can dramatically enhance your experience when visiting an unfamiliar area. Most birding trails in North America are built around the best regional birding hotspots, national wildlife refuges, state or provincial parks, and other birdy places. They typically offer directions from place to place, updated checklists and lists of recent sightings, birding hotlines, and information on expected or specialty bird species.
- Gather gear. Review the climate and weather that’s expected at your destination and pack accordingly. The key is layering. If you’re flying, pack lighter. If you’re driving, that’s not such a big deal. Make sure you have the right footwear. Depending on the weather, critical gear can include sunscreen, lip balm, sunglasses, binocular rain guard, optics cleaning kit, prescription meds, emergency medical kit, and other personal stuff. Don’t forget your toothbrush!
- Check the weather and plan accordingly. In this information-heavy age of ours, it’s fairly easy to check the seasonal weather in a far-flung destination. You may even be able to contact local birders for advice on the birding and weather conditions. On my first trip to California, I froze my bins off! I packed my clothing based upon the Hollywood version of California that I had seen on TV. I wasn’t prepared for the chilly winter winds and weak sun as I birded along the Pacific Coast. Brrr!
- Be safe, have fun. It’s always a good idea to leave a printed copy of your planned itinerary with a friend or family member, especially since birding can take you well off the beaten path. Including phone numbers of your planned places of lodging is wise and mitigates the inexplicable lack of cellphone coverage that seems to plague great birding areas. As an aside: I always look for one or two interesting things to do or places to visit that have nothing to do with birds: museums, legendary restaurants, historical sites, and freaky roadside attractions. These can come in handy when the birding is slow or the weather is unsuitable for birding.
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