Nine Tips for Leading Bird Walks

Recently, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. More and more young birders have been leading bird walks. This is awesome and really helps enrich the young birder community, as well as the birding community as a whole. I started to lead bird walks about a year ago, so I speak from experience when I say that leading walks is a lot of fun. While it can be stressful, it is well worth the effort.
As a teenager, leading a field trip can be a different experience than leading one as an adult. For one thing, usually when I introduce myself as the leader, I get quite a few double takes and questioning looks. However, birders, being the nice people that they are, always quickly get over their surprise and get used to the idea. While some young birders could take this the wrong way, it has gotten to the point with me where I actually enjoy it (in fact, I was a little disappointed on my last walk when only few people looked openly surprised). You just have to take it in stride and lead the walk.

2014 Camp Colorado participants at Pawnee National Grasslands (Photo: Jennie Duberstein)

2014 Camp Colorado participants at Pawnee National Grasslands (Photo: Jennie Duberstein)

Leading a walk as a teenager can be a stressful experience. It can be hard to decide where exactly go, what pace is good for the entire group, and when to end the walk. On top of these logistical challenges, people ask questions and expect you to know the answers! This can be quite hard sometimes. In spite of these stresses, leading a bird walk is extremely rewarding. I recommend every young birder experience it.
I will openly admit that when I led my first walk I did a pretty poor job. But I would like to think that I have come a long way in my walk-leading skills. So to help any future young birders leading walks, I want to share a few tips that I have learned through my own experiences.

  1. Be confident. Leading a walk can be hard. However, it is better to be confident in your abilities and lead the walk with pride than to be shy and soft-spoken. I am not a naturally outgoing person (especially around people who I have just met) so this is something that is difficult for me. But walks are a lot more rewarding when I am confident than when I am not. Be a Great-tailed Grackle, not a Connecticut Warbler.
  2. Point out almost every bird. This may only apply to me, but I often find myself unsure of the skill levels of the birders on the walk I am leading. As a consequence, I am sometimes unsure of which birds to point out. For example, I don’t know whether a participant can bird by ear, is an advanced birder, or is out on his or her first bird walk. Because of this, I often find myself in a situation where I don’t know which birds to mention. For instance, do the people on my walk hear the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher calling? Have they seen many of them before, or would this be a lifer? In these situations, I find that it is usually best to point out as many birds as possible (within reason). It’s better to be safe than sorry and it never hurts to point out a common bird that might be a life bird for a new birder on the walk.
  3. Answer questions well and confidently. This sort of goes with tip number one, but when people ask questions (and trust me, they will) try to be as confident in your answers as possible. The more knowledgeable and confident you sound, the more respect you will gain, and when you are leading walks, that is never a bad thing.
  4. That being said, don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. There have been many times leading walks where I haven’t known the answer to a question that I have been asked. For example, I live right in the middle of the intergrade zone for Black-capped and Carolina chickadees. The last time I was leading a walk, someone asked me which was the more expected species at the location. I didn’t know, so that is what I said. But try to answer their question to the best of your ability. In this case, after telling the participant that I wasn’t sure, I explained that on my eBird checklist I would use “Black-capped/Carolina Chickadee.”
  5. Find a good pace and stick with it (this is assuming you’re walking). The only thing worse than a field trip leader who goes too slow is one who goes too fast. Find a good easy pace that works for everyone and stick with it.
  6. Know where you are going ahead of time. One of the worst experiences as a young tour leader can be getting to a location and not knowing where to go from there. It really helps to know which areas you’re going to cover and which trails you’re going to walk before you get there. This can save a lot of time, stress, and potential embarrassment.
  7. Don’t schedule things for later that day. This is a bit of a no-brainer but you never know how long a walk is going to take and because of this you probably want to have a good buffer of free time after the walk. This will allow you to relax, take your time, and not worry about the walk going long. At the same time, if the walk has an advertised start and end time, make sure that you do everything possible to stick to these times. Participants may have post-walk plans, too.
  8. Make the best out of a bad situation. Birds are fickle creatures and are not always cooperative. If the birding is slow on the day of your walk, look at the more common birds and observe interesting behaviors. Look at the habitat and talk about plants, insects, and other parts of the ecosystem, especially as they relate to birds. Talk about conservation issues or activities at the site. Just because there are no unusual birds around doesn’t mean you can’t lead a great walk.
  9. Most of all, relax and have fun. Leading a bird walk can be a really great experience, especially for a young birder. While it can be a daunting task, the best thing you can do is to relax, enjoy yourself, not worry, and watch birds.

If you disagree with any of these pieces of advice or think that there is something I left out, feel free to post about it in the comments; I would love to hear from you.