An Insider's Guide to Enjoying Your First Birding Field Trip
by Pete Dunne

Field trips are a lot like going to a dance, and there are two schools of thought. You can just waltz onto the dance floor and let the other person lead or you can learn a few basic dance steps beforehand. Here, for those who want to get a jump on etiquette, are some of the basic rules of the birding field trip. Learn them, and you'll spend more time birding and less time tripping over your feet. 

• Rule 1 - Never miss an opportunity to use a restroom.
Your capacity for birding may be limitless but your bladder is not. Some leaders are generous with their planned rest stops; some are miserly. Whenever the group arrives at a planned rest stop, take full advantage {and mind your coffee consumption between stops).

• Rule 2 - Familiarize yourself with whatever pre-trip information is sent.

Most organized field trips come with instructions. In the pre-trip material, you will almost certainly find the answers to your most pressing questions: dress, equipment needs, time commitment, lunch plans. Being prepared is the first step toward having a great time.

Re: Clothing. Rule of thumb: In winter, if in doubt, just bring it. In hot weather, cover up for sun protection-this means hat, long-sleeved cotton shirt, long pants. At any time of year, avoid bright colors, particularly white. In the universal language of wild creatures, white means "Danger! Watch Out! Hide ! It's not the message you want to send.

• Rule 3 - Don't be late.

When you join a group, you sacrifice a measure of self-determination. One of the quickest ways to annoy the group leader and everyone else, is to arrive late and delay the group's departure.

• Rule 4 - Don't wander off.

The second quickest way to annoy the group leader is to wander off. You don't want to be left behind and you don't want to be the focus of an unnecessary search. If you plan to leave the group, for a short time or for the balance of the day, be certain you inform the leader.

It is in your interest to stay close to the leader and the more experienced members of the group so that you can rely on their knowledge and bird-finding skills.

Staying close applies to car caravanning, too. The rule of thumb is one car length back for every ten miles per hour of velocity. Thirty miles per hour; three car lengths behind the bumper ahead of you. Sixty miles per hour; six lengths. Don't trust yourself to keep the pace? Don't drive. Car-pool with someone else.

• Rule 5 - Come prepared.
If the trip involves driving, make sure you have enough fuel to see you through. If the instructions state "bring lunch," don't assume that you'll be able to stop at a convenience store to pick up a sandwich. Do that, and you'll likely be eating alone.

• Rule 6 - Check out your equipment before the trip.

The single greatest frustration first-time trip goers face in not inexperience, but rather the lousy or malfunctioning equipment - usually optics.

If your binoculars aren't working, ask whether a loaner is available. It you don't own binoculars, do not rush out to the nearest discount store and buy some for the trip. People who do this usually end up with instruments they soon replace. Borrow binoculars for the trip. Use your field trip experience to see what instruments experienced birders are using in order to make an educated purchase later.

• Rule 7 - Speak Softly.

Human voices put wildlife on alert. Talking may also prevent a leader from hearing songs or calls and keep you from hearing instructions. Field trips are social and conversation is part of the field trip experience. If you want to converse, do so in whispers or stand away from the group.

• Rule 8 - Keep motion to a minimum.
More than sound, birds react to motion. In close proximity to birds, don't move quickly and above all do not advance until the leader gives the word. Want to draw the ire of a group? Walk toward "the bird of the day" and scare it away.

• Rule 9 - Don't monopolize the leader.
Sure you have questions. Sure you want to get to know the leader, and you want them to come to recognize your wonderful qualities, too. One of those qualities should be deference, because everyone in the group shares your ambition. Deference extends to use of the spotting scopes, too.

When the leader trains his scope on an interesting bird, and you were first to get a glimpse last time, defer to others the next several times. No matter what your place in line, first looks through a scope are quick looks. After you get an identifying glimpse, step quickly aside for the next person. If the bird is moving, reposition the scope so the next user won't have to pan back and forth. After everyone has had their glimpse, more leisurely viewing is possible.

• Rule 10 - Do ask questions.
Leaders want to share their knowledge, and questions are the catalyst that unlocks it. Don't be intimidated by what you don't know or what you presume that others know. Chances are your question is shared by others in the group. You may not be the leader, but if you trigger the answer to a question that some other member of the group was too shy to utter, you'll be their hero. That's it. All you need to know to get the most out of your first field trip experience. If it seems like too much to remember, just remember Rule #1. At any other time, there will be someone else around to ask for assistance.

This guide has been reproduced with the permission of Pete Dunne. Minor editing by Ron Bourque.