The information at the fingertips of birders every time they log onto the Internet boggles the mind. Twenty years ago it could take months, if not years, for news of rare birds to filter through the birding community. Now, thanks to message boards and list serves, rare bird alerts go out in minutes.
The last six months have been particularly exciting for birders. Thousands of great grey owls have invaded Minnesota. Snowy owls have been reported in several states. And Pennsylvania has been uncommonly blessed with unusual birds. A gray kingbird (normally found on the Florida Keys), MacGillivray's warbler (western U.S.), varied thrush (northwest U.S.) and a redwing (a European thrush) have all been reported in the Keystone State recently. Needless to say, these unexpected visitors send birders into a frenzy. Some think nothing of making a 12-hour round-trip to see an rare bird for just a few minutes.
Careless or selfish
Sometimes, in the excitement of the moment, people get careless or selfish. Seeing the bird becomes all that matters. This might explain, though not excuse, why birders might stampede a backyard or erect a blind on private property without permission.
But just as slob hunters give all hunters a bad name, slob birders can soil the reputations of all birders with their boorish behavior. And unfortunately, it is the slobs of any group that always get attention.
Since birders aren't subject to official regulations, they must police themselves. Here are some guidelines for birders to follow when birding away from home.
Respect private property. Ask permission before entering a farmer's woodlot or someone's backyard. Offer identification, and give the landowner a card with your name, address, phone number and vehicle license number.
It may seem unnecessary to remind people to ask permission to enter a stranger's backyard, but when a "good" bird shows up, some birders lose all sense of decorum. It may not seem a big deal to take a quick peek, but after word of a rare bird spreads, literally hundreds of people sometimes show up.
After getting permission, don't assume you're free to tell the world. Also ask for permission to tell others of the special location. Explain that dozens or even hundreds more birders might arrive within hours when word gets out. If the landowner doesn't want to be bothered, respect his wishes.
Get your vehicle completely off the road, and park legally. Otherwise expect a ticket. Local police quickly get wind of unusually high traffic and eagerly write revenue-producing tickets. Speaking of local police, be aware that a group of people with binoculars strolling through a residential neighborhood arouses suspicion. Neighbors may call police, and you may be questioned. Be prepared to explain your passion for birding. Years ago a sheriff's cruiser stopped and questioned me while I was birding alone along a country road on farmland in Oklahoma. Apparently my presence made someone nervous.
Don't harass the target bird. When birds show up in unexpected places, they are under stress to find food and cover. The last thing they need is a bunch of birders chasing them.
Tread lightly. Stay on trails. Even in parks and other public places, resist the urge to wander off trails. Ground cover is fragile and easily destroyed.
On farms, leave gates as you find them, don't trample crops, and don't disturb livestock.
There are also some simple rules of etiquette to follow when birding with other people.
Follow a leader
Follow the group leader. If you wander ahead of the leader, you may spook a bird he knows frequents a particular spot. And if recordings or other calls are used to attract birds, let the leader provide them. If you're alone, don't overuse recordings and calls.
Speak in hushed tones. Save unrelated conversation for after the walk.
Leave pets at home.
Help less experienced birders find birds you're already seen.
Don't approach nests or feeding stations too closely.