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A Hiker’s Guide to Birding (4/03)

We birders who also like to hike face some challenges. We may start up Mt. Mansfield’s Frost Trail with our usual hiking gear plus binoculars, a couple of field guides, spotting scope and tripod, but chances are we won’t get very far. A lot of good birding places aren’t good for hiking. A hiker could explore all the trails in Colchester’s 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 they’ve seen a nesting veery or the beech tree with claw marks from a bear. It’s 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 water’s edge, then barely move for hours. I have hiked Mt. Philo to watch hawks from the summit, but I’ve also given myself more birding time by driving up.
  • Don’t expect to see birds when you’re 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 you’ve been immobile for a while, the wildlife forget you’re 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. I’ve 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 don’t want to carry regular-sized binoculars on an arduous hike. If you have a pair of compacts, take them along. If you don’t, save your money for another piece of equipment. The optics get better every year, but compacts still don’t 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 what’s around us. Listening is another way we can connect with our world.