Where’s Your Bird?
By: Todd Watts, Official Counter Greenlaw Mountain Hawk Watch and Point Lepreau Bird Observatory
**Article has been prepared for inclusion in the NB Naturalist, Vol. 45, No. 1.**
MARCH 14, 2019 — All of us have been in the field and struggled to convey the location of a bird to the other members of our party. Quick and effective communication is an invaluable skill for the naturalist. Often we encounter birds sitting in a tree, moving across the horizon, or elsewhere, and need to describe to the people with us where to find the bird. For many, this is a challenge.
Saw-whet Owl, Anthony Sulpizio
I am going to describe a method that should simplify this process. It will focus on using landmarks, the clock system, fields of view and direction of travel. This might sound complicated, but it really isn’t. With a little practice, you can ‘get’ others on our birds quickly and easily. A few instances might continue to be difficult due to lack of landmarks, but in the majority of cases, this method will serve you well. Becoming skillful in this area can help others enjoy the bird or birds you have seen, collaborate sightings of rare or uncommon birds, and help record important data. A few instances might continue to be difficult due to lack of landmarks, but in the majority of cases, this method will serve you well. Becoming skillful in this area can help others enjoy the bird or birds you have seen, collaborate sightings of rare or uncommon birds, and help record important data.
Direction of travel is often the first thing that should be mentioned, especially if the bird is moving very fast. Moving right or moving left is usually the easiest way to describe horizontal movement (instead of east and west). Sometimes vertical movement needs to be communicated as well (soaring birds). Then the direction is simply up, down or higher or lower.
Use of landmarks is also a good place to start. Landmarks can be anything including trees, any type of structure, clouds, other birds, the horizon or the sun. Use landmarks that are as far away as the bird or further. Landmarks close to the observer can only be used when the observers are standing shoulder to shoulder, and even then, it is better to use more distant points of reference.
The clock system allows us to communicate the position of the bird relative to a fixed object. Any landmark can be viewed as the centre of a clock with an hour hand extending from it. The hour hand points to the bird. A bird directly over the landmark would be at twelve o’clock, directly right would be three o’clock and so on.
Fields of view are used to describe the distance from a landmark. This refers to a field of view through ones binoculars or spotting scope (whichever is being used). If the bird is in the centre of your field of view and a notable landmark is at the edge of your field of view, then the bird could be described as being one half a field from the feature (landmark). Sometimes the bird might be as little as a quarter field from a landmark or as great as two fields. When a bird is more than a full field from a notable landmark things get a little tricky. The observer must slowly move their binoculars off the bird and look for a landmark while attempting to judge how far they have traveled. Remember, a full field is the width of your field of view through whatever optics are being used.
Communicating calmly is very important! An excited response to seeing a bird might scare the bird, cause others to move quickly which could also scare the bird, or cause others to take their eyes off something of greater importance.
If a bird was viewable in this photo, would you be able to quickly and succinctly describe how to find it? Photo: Todd Watts
Examples and a few potential scenarios:
1. You see a bird that is moving right to left just under the horizon. This sighting can be communicated by saying, “I have a bird moving left just under the horizon.” If it is approaching a landmark, that information could also be added. “It is currently approaching a house with a red roof.” Or if you are watching seabirds at Point Lepreau, “the bird is passing under Grand Manan Island.” A mention of field of view can also be very helpful here.
2. You see a bird soaring above the horizon. Find a landmark and go from there. You might say something like, “I’ve got a bird at about two o’clock off the top of the cell tower one quarter field out.” If it is quickly moving higher, stating something like, “rapidly gaining altitude” might be appropriate.”
3. You see a bird perched high in a tree on an outer branch. You could say, “about five o’clock in the top of the tree.”
4. You see a bird perched in a tree near its base. Maybe say, “Bird perched at ten o’clock off the base of the trunk a full field out.”
There are countless examples that could be used here. Hopefully these few have helped to give you an idea of how to describe the location of a bird. Remember to measure distance using fields of view, use the clock system, landmarks, direction of travel and to communicate calmly. Your birding companions will thank you for it!
Short-Eared Owl, Louise Nichols