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Tips for tropical birding

A GLIMPSE: Tropical birds such as a Green Jay skulking in vegetation can be surprisingly hard to see. Art by David Sibley
A GLIMPSE: Tropical birds such as a Green Jay skulking in vegetation can be surprisingly hard to see. Art by David Sibley

Winter is the season when many North American birders take a tropical vacation and discover that seeing birds in dense foliage is not easy! The birds can be spectacular, but it’s sometimes a single bird skulking in the shadows, sometimes 10 or 20 species moving through in a rush, and always seemingly hidden behind leaves. It’s a good chance to practice some basic binocular skills.

Keeping your binoculars at the ready is very important. When you are in one of these “active birding” situations, hold your binoculars in both hands at chin height, ready to aim at a bird. Also check to make sure they’re focused on the right distance. You should be anticipating where the birds will show up, so before any birds appear, just raise your binoculars and focus on that area. This will save the frustration of aiming at a bird and finding that you have to spend three seconds cranking the focus knob around.

Use your naked eye to watch for movement — a shaking leaf or a bird flitting across an opening is all it takes — then immediately raise your binoculars to look for it. Hold your view on that spot for a few seconds at least, studying the leaves and twigs to try to make out a bird or anything moving. If a bird is barely visible through the leaves, you have a much better chance of finding it with binoculars. Try adjusting your binoculars to focus on different “depths” through the vegetation. If nothing is evident after a few seconds, lower your binoculars and go back to scanning for movement.

If your guide is pointing out a bird “sitting on a bare twig in the treetops,” for example, and you can’t see it with your naked eye, just lift your binoculars in the general direction and start scanning the treetops for bare twigs. If multiple birds have been called out in one particular tree or around one fruit cluster, try scanning the area with your binoculars; there’s a good chance you will find a bird.

When you do get your binoculars on a bird, even if it’s a common species, take a few moments to enjoy the sight. You’ll get some good looks, and often another bird will appear in the field of view.

This article was first published in the January/February 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe now.

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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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