BLANE KLEMEK COLUMN: Getting up close in the birding world takes time, right gear
Most wild birds will allow us to approach them reasonably close. I'm reminded of this each morning that I feed the birds. It's not uncommon to observe chickadees landing near my hand or sometime even on my hand. Hummingbirds, too, what with their insatiable appetites, will frequently be buzzing around me even as I fill and hang their feeders.
Yet these birds—the birds that we attract to our backyard feeding stations—are accustomed to us, so most of them have learned that we are not so much a threat as we are perhaps something merely in the way of their food and possibly a nuisance to them.
But to get real close, then one needs to either remain completely motionless, or, better still, be completely hidden. So it stands to reason that if one wants to get near wild birds, then wearing clothing that blends into the environment may tilt the odds in your favor. After all, birds see the world around them in vivid color.
I have learned, for example, that I am able to get much closer to birds and other wildlife when I wear clothing that matches the habitat-type I am surrounded by. Camouflage apparel of many styles is available from hunting and sporting retailers. Army surplus outlets are other fine places to find inexpensive "birding" apparel, too.
Of course there is no substitute for remaining still and not moving when viewing birds up close. Moving, if done at all, should be slow and deliberate. Observation blinds can be just the ticket if you want to remain hidden from birds you are observing while having the freedom to move. Almost anything will do: blankets, netting, or a constructed shelter or tent. Many professional photographers employ ground blinds to photograph wildlife, and so birders can do the same when viewing birds. Even elevated permanent and portable tree stands work well for viewing birds and other wildlife.
I have spent many hours sitting in makeshift and store-bought ground blinds observing dancing prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse, as well as watching the drumming activities of male ruffed grouse. In all instances, these birds became accustomed to these artificial structures and allowed me to film and observe their courtship behaviors.
As an example of how quickly a bird can overcome their fear of the unknown, a few years ago while searching a woodland near my home for an active drumming log to set up my blind to do some filming, I soon located a suitable site. As I approached the log where the grouse was drumming and displaying from, the bird quickly abandoned its log and disappeared.
In a few minutes I had my portable hunting blind set up about 12 feet from the log. I ducked inside, zipped the door shut, unfolded my stool and sat down for the show. About 10 to 15 minutes later I saw the resident grouse reappear from the dense aspen thicket and approach his log. Stopping momentarily to survey the area, he then hopped on top of his log and soon after began his routine of fanning his tail feathers, erecting the black feathers on his neck-ruff, and commenced beating his wings to make the telltale "drumming" sound.
And you might recall a story I wrote last fall about spending time in my ground blind during the deer hunting season when a large flock of juncos and sparrows descended into the tall big bluestem grass on the Kittson County prairie where I was hunting. What a delight it was to sit among the large flock of feeding and calling birds.
Had I not been inside my blind, there would have been no way I could have enjoyed their company in such close proximity. Ground blinds are inexpensive and most take less than a minute to set up. Quality blinds that will last many years can be purchased for less than $100.
The choice of binoculars is important, too. Most birders choose waterproof binoculars that are light, yet possess adequate magnification. Seven or eight-power binoculars with average size objective lenses (35 or 40 mm) are popular choices. Furthermore, no birder would be without a good field guide no matter the particular birder's expertise. So many field guides are available. Choose a field guide that includes birds of Minnesota, which most generally are guides of the Eastern United States. The Peterson, Golden, Audubon and Sibley's are all excellent field guidebooks.
The wonder of wildlife is all about us. Indeed, just a short time ago while delighting in the feeding frenzy of more than a dozen ruby-throated hummingbirds zooming around my sugar-water feeders, I slowly approached one of the feeders to see if I could once again touch one of the perching hummers. Reaching out with an extended index finger, I lightly touched his little tail and the way he went, but not after taking a quick look at me before he zipped into the nearby spruce tree.
Though birding doesn't normally allow us to touch wild birds, just seeing them, whether near or far, is what it's all about as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is a Minnesota DNR wildlife manager. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.