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David Sibley explains how to point out a bird’s location

Tree Clock
Using the “clock” method is one way to direct people to a bird in a tree. Art by David Allen Sibley

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Discussions of birding skills focus mainly on finding and identifying birds, but being able to describe the location of a bird so that other people can see it is another very important, and often overlooked, aspect of birding. Giving directions is a learned skill, and everyone can get better at it with concerted effort and practice.

If you’ve been on a few birding field trips, you’ve probably learned about the “clock” method. It involves imagining a tree as the face of a clock, so that top center is twelve o’clock, halfway down the right side is three o’clock, etc. The method can also be used from inside a car or boat, with twelve o’clock straight ahead, etc. The location of a bird can be described by the numbers, but using the clock works well only from a vehicle or if the bird is in a symmetrical, isolated tree. Other situations require more creative solutions.

Describing the location of a bird can be challenging. Look for unique features, including in the foreground or on the horizon, to direct other birders to the bird. For example, how would you direct someone to a bird at the blue circle?

Here are the essentials of giving directions:

  • Start with the basics — really basic. Is the bird flying, perched, swimming, or walking? Is it on the ground, on the water, or in a tree?
  • Keep giving directions and describing what the bird is doing; bad directions can be frustrating, silence is more so. Even if all you can say is “sitting still about halfway up the tree in front of us,” that’s worth saying. If people aren’t finding the bird, start over with the big picture.
  • Find an obvious landmark and use it to get everyone in the ballpark (e.g., “left of the flagpole” or “in the tree with the yellow leaves” or “along the fenceline”). Then get more specific to zero in on the location: “See the flagpole, go left about 30 feet. There’s a cluster of yellow leaves halfway up the tree. The bird is just above that…”
  • For a single bird in a flock, it’s helpful to describe what it’s doing — “just flapped,” or “preening its belly,” or “looking toward us” are all helpful hints.
  • For a flying bird, look along its path and pick out a landmark, then say something like “going left, toward the blue house, it will be over the blue house…NOW, going left.”

Giving directions well allows everyone to see the birds quickly and easily and makes for a more pleasant and rewarding outing. Developing the skills for both giving and following directions can significantly improve your birding experience.


This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of BirdWatching.

Originally Published

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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