Ten Tips for Field Trip Leaders

First and foremost, if you've never led a local bird walk or a day-long field trip, I would encourage you to consider doing so. Turning people on to joy of birding is both rewarding and a fantastic way to hone your own birding skills. You may not consider yourself to be an expert, but this should not deter you from leading a morning birdwalk. Remember, as long as you know more than those whom you are leading, you are the expert. Here are ten ideas that will help you create a successful group birding experience:

1. Stay in your comfort zone -- It's not a good idea to lead a trip to a site that you've never visited or to an area where you will encounter many species of birds with which you are not familiar. It is always best to lead at sites that you know well and where most of the birds will be familiar to you. Even if the site is one where you go birding regularly, consider scouting the area a day or two before the scheduled trip, just to see what's around and to make sure that there isn't a Civil War re-enactment scheduled on the same day of your birdwalk.

2. Find a co-leader or multiple co-leaders -- I prefer to lead/co-lead trips that include a mix of experienced and inexperienced birders, even if some of the experts are just tagging along. It's always a good idea to get some help, especially if you are leading a trip to a well-known hotspot that's sure to attract a crowd. If the group becomes too  large, you can always break out into smaller groups.


On 12 December 2011, I tagged along on this field trip to Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, which was being led by Jude Power and David Fix (second from right). In addition to the two scheduled leaders, there were 4-5 other experts along on this trip, which attracted about 30 participants. Ultimately the group spread out into multiple sub-groups, each tended by one of the leaders or de facto leaders.

3. Offer an accurate description of your trip -- The promotional announcements for your trip should clearly state how long the trip will last, how far you will walk, and provide some description of the terrain and the weather conditions that participants are likely to encounter. If you are leading an all-day trip, encourage folks to bring snacks and water and plan in a lunch stop.

4. Make proper introductions and review the trip itinerary -- Always arrive at the meeting site at least 15 minutes ahead of the trip start time and get started within 10 minutes of the scheduled time.  Before starting the walk, properly introduce all the leaders and identify any other tag along "experts" who might be of assistance to less-experienced participants. Review the plan and schedule for the day. This should include telling folks when there will be bathroom stops. Stick to your schedule. You may not mind being out longer than anticipated, but participants may have other activities and commitments planned into their day.

5. Offer a quick tutorial on scope use/etiquette and how to use binoculars -- It's always a good idea to offer a quick tutorial on how to use a spotting scope and binoculars. Explain how to set the diopter on bins and encourage folks to use their naked eyes to spot birds before raising their binoculars and to then "put the binoculars in the way" in order to magnify what they are seeing. I always like to tell folks that binoculars, "are tools that make things bigger, they won't find any birds for you." You'll be surprised by how many folks benefit from this simple instruction. It's also important to review proper scope etiquette. Make sure that when an interesting bird is first put in the scope participants know to take a quick look and then step out of the way so others can see. Once everyone has seen the bird at least once, then there will  time for  longer looks. Put a scope on as many birds as you can, even small songbirds, as these views will invariably elicit oohs and aahs from those who are using inexpensive binoculars or struggling to get on birds.

6. Explain in advance that not all birds will be seen by all participants --When birding in a group, it is unrealistic to expect that every participant will see each bird. Explain to your group that you will make every effort to get everyone on to all the birds, but in group situations that becomes nearly impossible.

7. Encourage participants to ask lots of questions -- At the start of field trips I usually tell folks that I am prepared to do lots of talking, but offer that the trip will be a lot more interesting for them and me if they ask lots of questions. A good field trip is a highly interactive experience.

8. Don't discourage socializing -- We are naturally social creatures. It's unrealistic to expect a group of 20 people to walk along silently for hours as the leader points out birds. That said, there may be some situations (listening for a calling rail) where you will need to ask the group to stop talking for a few moments. Encourage folks to talk in quieter voices and avoid loud outbursts of laughter. I've typically found that those people who want to socialize are often not bent on seeing every bird. Thus, they tend to naturally hang back from the main group. Keep in mind that this may be the first encounter with other living, breathing birders for some in the group. Let them interact and, perhaps, find a new birding friend. I've been birding with David Fix for 35 years. We met on an Audubon Society of Portland (Oregon) field trip in January 1977. He we was the first birder I met who wasn't my parents age or older. That encounter has changed my life in ways I couldn't have possibly imagined.

9. Let folks know how/where they can learn more -- During the day, or at the end of the trip let your trip participants know where they can learn more. Recommend field guides and other field trips/birding festivals that they might attend. Thank them for coming and, hopefully, for asking lots of questions.

10. Know where the bathrooms are -- This one should have been near the top of the list. It is always best to start your trip somewhere that offers bathroom facilities, especially if you're meeting--as most trips do--between 7-9AM. Most in the group will be ready to "process" that first cup of coffee of the morning. If you are doing an all-day trip, try to schedule in a bathroom stop every two hours or so.


Dave, you sure have the “photo-op eye” for that dead-squared-up BirdFellow logo on Fix’s cap. Great incidental promo! Keep up the fine work.


Thank you for the tips,I’m a field trip leader myself in Panama and it’s very important to keep in mind these for a suscceful birding experience.


Great tips, Dave! Here’s another that I use. When I’m leading a local trip where the participants stand a good chance of running into each other again, I ask everyone to give their names. It’s surprising how many people have been birding together for weeks or months and don’t actually know each others’ names (and are, by that time, too embarrassed to ask!) Okay, I confess. Sometimes I don’t remember their names either, and it’s a great way to get reminded myself!


Holy cncsoie data batman. Lol!

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