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A BIRDER'S PEACEFUL PRESENCE

This blog post is about how to get close to wild birds without scaring them away.


There are many strategies that birders employ to get good looks into the lives of our feathered neighbors. Some of these strategies may include the following:


-the use of phishing and playback.


-practicing nature awareness skills like fox walking and sit spot.


-clothing may be chosen that blends with the landscape. A blind may be constructed.


-binoculars with strong magnification may be purchased to get good looks at those far away birds.


Each of the above mentioned has its place, and there is one variable that I want to share with you today that should not be overlooked, can't be rushed, and could make all the difference in the quality of your day of observing birds and other wildlife. Peaceful presence is the key.





It's important to bring a peaceful presence into the world of birds, because birds are always watching, always listening, always very aware of their environment. A bird's environment includes you. The fact is that it is near impossible to sneak up on a bird in its home environment while remaining undetected. It is usually the case that, whether they show it or not, the birds we see are well aware of our presence, and different postures we take and demeanors we present garner different responses from the birds we so love to watch. Sometimes we might evoke a sense of curiosity out of birds. Sometimes we may end up being the cause of a bird's alarm. Sometimes our feathered neighbors might simply choose to ignore us altogether as if we are not even there. When we practice peaceful presence, we increase the odds of observing birds in a relaxed state doing things like singing, foraging, resting, and exhibiting other baseline behaviors. When we bring a tense, anxious, and disruptive presence, we'll typically see the tail ends of birds flying away from us in alarm or songbirds like chickadees choosing to treat us like a ground-based predator by mobbing us.


Practicing peaceful presence is something anyone can do, but it does require patience and a little internal work. There are seven key elements to practicing peaceful presence:


  1. Release your tension.

  2. Release your agenda.

  3. Make your steps light and casual.

  4. Avoid making loud noises.

  5. Avoid direct approach.

  6. Avoid prolonged direct eye contact.

  7. Adopt the demeanor of an herbivore.


Now let's break it down, digging a little deeper into what is meant by each of these seven elements of practicing peaceful presence.


Release your tension. Take a moment to close your eyes. Do a mental scan of your body, noticing the places where you hold tension and stress. Start with the crown of your head, working down to your ears, face, neck, shoulders, arms, and fingers. Note any tension you may be holding in your back. Continue your scan on down to your torso, legs, feet, and toes. Close your eyes and listen to the forest soundscape around you. Breathe in the peace of the forest. Breathe out your tension. Breathe in the peace of the forest. Breathe out your stress. Open your eyes. Tension released, you're one step closer to being able to bring a peaceful presence into the world of birds.



Release your agenda. When we enter the world of birds with a specific hoped-for outcome in mind, we can become blind to everything else. If you've got a target species, do your prep work to maximize your chances of encountering that special bird. But, when you step into the field, release your agenda. Recognize that today your target bird may reveal itself and that it also may not. Trust your senses to pick up on what is here. Release your agenda. Welcome all that the world of birds may present to you this day. Perhaps there will be some experiences that you had anticipated and some special surprises too.


Make your steps light and casual. What is your gut response when someone rushes toward you quickly and with force? Fight or flight. That gut response is the same for our feathered neighbors. Slow it down a little. Take your time. Make your steps light. Pause often to look and listen as you go. But you don't have to move so slow and quiet that you end of taking on the form of a coyote stalking a hare; that might actually provoke an alarm response from nearby birds. Trust that the birds know you're there. Choose to bring a peaceful presence into their world by making your steps light and casual.


Avoid making loud noises. This element of bringing a peaceful presence may be the most obvious. Loud noises are generally startling for us and loud noises are generally startling for our feathered neighbors too. If you have to talk, try to communicate with a volume that is somewhere in-between a whisper and a conversation over dinner in a quiet restaurant.


Avoid direct approach. When observing birds, a direct approach will be perceived as threatening and warrant an alarm response. Sometimes birds will flee. Sometimes birds will freeze in place. Either way, they are not at ease in their environment when someone (whether a human or a bobcat) is engaged in a direct approach toward them. If you want to move closer to a wild bird, try an indirect approach at an angle of about 45 degrees from where the bird is located. This indirect approach will set birds at ease, allowing you to observe birds behave naturally in their environment.


Avoid extended periods of direct eye contact. How does it make you feel when someone is staring you down? Uncomfortable? Threatening? When we openly display a sharp interest in birds, the birds will notice, and will often treat us like predators that are to be evaded. Try oscillating between a sharp stare that allows you to closely observe a bird's behavior and a soft gaze that allows you to notice more of the big picture of the bird's environment. This brings your awareness in sync with our feathered neighbors who do the same thing, noticing individuals in and around their territory while also taking in the big picture of their habitat.


Adopt the demeanor of an herbivore. Songbirds in particular are very wary of animals whom they suspect might be carnivorous. Nobody wants to be on the menu. Last year Erin (my spouse) and I made a trip to Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine. There was a porcupine perched low in a beech tree along one of the trails we hiked. The porcupine was immediately startled by our presence. It turned its head away from us, raised its quills, and chattered its teeth at us while looking over its shoulder. I seized the opportunity to try a nature experiment. I wondered how the porcupine might respond if I showed it that I was a fellow herbivore (I am a for-real vegetarian). I sat down on a log about 10 feet away from the porcupine and I moved beech leaves between my hands pretending to eat them. Less than a minute later my new porcupine friend was at ease and munching beech leaves right there next to me without a care in the world. Remember, the birds are always watching you. Like my porcupine friend, when birds perceive you as a harmless herbivore (think like a deer or a moose) they will be less likely to be alarmed by you and more likely to be at ease in their environment while you're there.


Adopting the demeanor of an herbivore as an element of peaceful presence can mean pretending to munch on vegetation along the trail or it can mean foraging for actual wild edible plants while you're out birding. Sometimes I like to gather the leaves of plants that I'll use to make tea later on. Never eat anything unless you've done ample research and are absolutely certain of a plant's identification. Also, if you'll be doing the pretend herbivore thing, make sure you know how to properly identify and avoid touching plants like poison ivy and other plants that can cause an adverse skin reaction.


Practicing peaceful presence is less about moving closer to birds and more about bringing a non-threatening energy so that birds who are in the area will not be alarmed because of you.


While wild birds are unlikely to want to be your BFF, when you bring a peaceful presence into their world you'll get to observe them at ease in their environment, singing, foraging, communicating with partners and flock members, caring for their families, and more.


I've found that, on any given day, the best indicator of whether or not I've brought a peaceful presence is the response I get from local chickadees. If I am greeted with a mob alarm "chicka-dee-dee-dee-dee!" then I may have some internal work to do because those little birds are picking up on something in me that they have perceived as other than peaceful. If I'm greeted by chickadees with an inquisitive "seet," "chicka-dee-dee," gargle song, or other non-alarm vocalization, then that is a good indication that I am bringing the peaceful presence that I want to present.


In my experience, peaceful presence is not something I can fake.


Through lots of experience in the field, I've discovered that I can't not be my authentic self in the presence of wild birds. The birds have a way of holding me accountable for whatever tension, stress, and anxious energy that I'm holding within myself. In this way my feathered neighbors invite me to play an active role in cultivating peace within myself and peace towards my neighbors.


Go for a walk in nature's community. Spend some time at a favorite sit spot. Practice the seven elements of bringing a peaceful presence into the world of birds. Notice how our feathered neighbors respond to you.


Peace and Happy Birding,


Rich



The Seven Elements of Practicing Peaceful Presence:

  1. Release your tension.

  2. Release your agenda.

  3. Make your steps light and casual.

  4. Avoid making loud noises.

  5. Avoid direct approach.

  6. Avoid prolonged direct eye contact.

  7. Adopt the demeanor of an herbivore.

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