We birders who also like to hike face some challenges. We may start up Mt. Mansfields Frost Trail with our usual hiking gear plus binoculars, a couple of field guides, spotting scope and tripod, but chances are we wont get very far. A lot of good birding places arent good for hiking. A hiker could explore all the trails in Colchesters Delta Park in under a half hour. A birder can easily spend a great half day, never break a sweat nor add an ounce of muscle. A sure way to infuriate a hiking partner is to stop every few steps with ooo, what was that?, whip out binoculars and prepare to stay awhile. On the other hand, speed hiking through beautiful woods is like rollerblading through an art museum. Whiz. Yup. That sure was beautiful.
Naturalists who hike are not usually peakbaggers. They often hike the same trails over and over, anticipating that berry patch or a spot theyve seen a nesting veery or the beech tree with claw marks from a bear. Its like a reunion with old friends.
Here are some tips for birders who want to hike and hikers who want to watch and learn more about birds.
- Combine hiking and birding when it works. When I want to watch winter ducks on Lake Champlain, I walk across the Colchester Causeway with all my gear. Other times, I drive to the Champlain Bridge, walk a few steps to the waters edge, then barely move for hours. I have hiked Mt. Philo to watch hawks from the summit, but Ive also given myself more birding time by driving up.
- Dont expect to see birds when youre cruising down the trail. The occasional bird might come to see you though, like the angry ruffed grouse hen who attacked my boots on the Butler Lodge Trail. My hiking partner and I were clearly too close to her nest. In the fall, immature grouse newly separated from their mother and nest mates actually come looking for human companionship.
- Definitely try the Twenty-Minute Sit. After youve been immobile for a while, the wildlife forget youre there. In the fall, pick a place where there are shrubs or trees with fruit. In spring and summer, settle down near a wetland, then just watch. Ive been visited by herons, wood ducks, lots of songbirds, a curious osprey, squirrels, a fox and a giant snapping turtle.
- Think about binoculars. Most people dont want to carry regular-sized binoculars on an arduous hike. If you have a pair of compacts, take them along. If you dont, save your money for another piece of equipment. The optics get better every year, but compacts still dont let in enough light to be useful in a forest. They also need to be treated carefully; carrying them in your pack or banging them against rocks a few times may ruin their focus. On the other hand, if you want to locate your house from the top of Mount Mansfield, lightweight binoculars may be just what you need.
- In late spring and early summer, you can enjoy birding without adding any weight to your pack. Just listen. Every time you stop while hiking, close your eyes and locate five different sounds. Most of us never really hear whats around us. Listening is another way we can connect with our world.