Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Dangers and Hazards of Birding!

Thirsty man image used with permission ©

Its funny, I've been thinking about doing a post on the dangers of birding for a long time, but only now have I put my thoughts into words. Birding is an incredibly interesting hobby, but like many things, there are some dangerous pitfalls that can happen to a birder while birding. This posting attempts to bring to light some of these dangers. In case you are wondering, yes... this is filler.

Sun Exposure - Birding can have you outside for great deals of time at the mercy of the harsh elements. It took me a while to figure this out, but investing in a good fitting, wide brimmed hat and keeping it in your car at all times is very useful. Skin cancer is a serious reality for us outdoor enthusiasts. Another benefit of a good hat is that it shields your head from various bugs such as biting flies, mosquito and ticks.

Heat Stroke - Heat exhaustion is a serious health issue that involves letting your body's temperature get too high for too long. Your brain has proteins that could denature at certain temperatures, this is the main danger of heat stroke... Have you ever tried to un-cook an egg? Its serious business, so finding shade, taking breaks, eating, drinking and staying hydrated is your best method of avoiding heat stroke. I've suffered from heat stroke on a few occasions and it is not fun.

Frost bite -  In the great lakes region, winter birding can offer surprisingly good birding opportunities, be it Winter Gulls, Winter Finches, Owling, or perhaps a Christmas Bird Count. One quickly learns that investing in the proper gear will pay dividends. Warm hats, coats, gloves, snow pants, and especially insulated waterproof boots will let you enjoy the outdoors without getting sick or doing skin damage to your extremities. Enjoy the cold, but dress for it!

Tick on Yours Truely - After walking in tall grass at Ojibway Prairie

Biting Insects:
Ticks- I only came to realize the existence of these bugs in my 30's! Ticks thrive in natural areas, especially that have tall grass and near water. Deers and other large animals spread ticks, so if there are deer around, ticks are probably around. When you finish your nature hike, do a tick check (kill them, don't just brush them off you). Double check your clothes and shower after you walk through a suspicious area. Ticks could give you Lyme's Disease so do not mess with them. If a tick has bitten you, remove it with tweezers as close to the skin then pull it away from your body. Do not rupture the engorged body while it is biting you. Keep the tick in a zip lock bag and bring it with you to your doctor to have it checked for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Check your kids and pets after walking in natural areas and tell people about ticks to raise awareness.  Read more:

Mosquitoes - Avoid them by carrying bug spray, and reducing the amount of exposed skin. Some mosquitoes have been known to carry West Nile Virus.

Biting Flies - Avoid them by carrying bug spray, and reducing the amount of exposed skin. Some hardware stores even sell a bug net that you can drape over a wide brimmed hat that will prevent them from even contacting your skin.

Snake Bites-  Depending on the region you live in, there could be venomous snakes. Always respect wild animals and do not approach them unless you are a reptile expert. A young boy in Lasalle Ontario was recently bitten by a rattlesnake after he picked it up. He had thought it was a non-venomous Fox Snake. More on that story here if you are interested.

Poison Ivy - Image Source: Wikipedia Commons

Botanical Bemoanings:
Poison Ivy - Leaves of three, let them be. Poison ivy is found in many natural areas, and found where birds are, because birds spread their seeds occasionally in their droppings. Wear long-sleeve pants and shirts.

Golden Alexander (Wild Parsnip) - Wild Parsnip can cause skin burns just by touching your skin! Read more here.

Trail Hazards:
Underestimating the distance/difficulty a trail - I have done this many times. In fact, I call it the endless nature trail phenomenon. I've done this at Pointe Mouillee in Michigan, Hillman Marsh dyke, even the trail on Blackpoint Drive on Merrit Island Florida (much to the chagrin of my wife). I went out to a shorebird cell that is possibly 2-4 miles 5-7 kilometers. When you go that far, you could seriously suffer from dehydration, heat stroke, fatigue etc. Remember also, you need to have energy to back, the longer portion of your walk. Here are some tips to avoid this phenomenon:
  • Carry a map and respect the scale on the map
  • Have cell phones, gps on you. Let people know where you are going and when you plan on returning.
  • Have a backpack with water, juice, granola bars, trail mix, bug spray, hat (Alcoholic drinks can exacerbate dehydration so avoid it).
  • Invest in proper footwear, whether it be insulated, waterproof winter boots, rubber boots, hiking shoes etc

Trail deficiencies - Sink holes, fox dens, rocks, branches, tree roots, puddles, soil erosion, slippery surfaces, steep cliffs, deficient fencing etc.

Getting Lost -  Who amoung us hasn't uttered "OK... where the *&#$ am I???" on occasion? Bring a map!

Unleashed dogs - I had an issue once. We'll leave it at that.

Auto-Related Birding Hazards:
Car break-ins - I've heard this all too much from various people. Crooks know that nature areas probably involve walks that span long periods of time, so your car can be an easy target. Never leave anything of value in plain sight in your car. If you have valuable items, put them in your trunk, preferably at a different location than the actual parking lot you are parking in.

Driving while birding - Laugh if you will, but I have had more close-calls than I'm willing to admit. This is a serious hazard --- probably worse than texting while driving. I almost died once because I thought I saw a scissor tailed flycatcher on a wire... it turned out to be a morning dove with a long tail! I also know of a birder who, lets just say needed some auto repair work recently after, well, driving off the road a little. Best practices are to very carefully pull over, or let someone else drive! Using birdlog ebird reporting software has been used on occasion by some birders... maybe more dangerous than texting while driving.

Run-ins with large bovine animals while owling - I've heard of this happening. Be weary of deer moose, elk etc... Especially during mating season.

Social Hazards:
Relationship Stresses - If you get really into birding, you could become so engrossed in the hobby, that you reduce the amount of time with your friends, significant other, and even kids. This was demonstrated all too painfully in the move "Big Year" where the main birder "Kenny Bostick" (played by Owen Wilson) ends up separating from his wife due to his unrelenting birding pursuits. Some ways around this is to invite those loved ones with you, or wake up really-really early and get back for breakfast. It seems that retired folks, single people and people who are unemployed (or work park time) have an advantage in this domain. 

Birding during Duck Hunting Season -  Duck hunters and birders often share wildlife areas, but the main difference is that the birder's tool is a scope, the hunter's tool is a deadly firearm.  I once heard about a birder who had shotgun pellets almost hit him while walking on a dyke. Its probably rare, but a definite possible hazard of birding!

All humour aside, I think its important to raise awareness of Ticks, and encourage people to wear sun-protection when spending long periods of time outside under the sun. And no matter how bad you want to, filling out your ebird checklist can wait till your drive home has ended... It can wait!

Have I missed any hazards or dangers? Feel free to share any stories or ideas!!!

*NEW* Reader Contributions:
Warbler Neck (Ergonomics) - Looking up all day could cause a sore neck due to repetitive straining motions while looking upward.

Border Crossing Issues - Another reader contribution to this posting. Sometimes crossing the border for birding has gotten me pulled over. After a few questions and sarcastic remarks they usually send me on my way.

Security and Law Enforcement Run ins- (contributed) --- Yes, I read about a birder in Florida who had police approach him when he was in a natural area with a large telephoto lens and binoculars. I've read about being close to airports with cameras can sometimes cause run ins with security. Hopefully, both situations can be quickly diffused with good communication.

Tidal Awareness - I guess in some places, (bay of fundy?) tidal awareness could be the difference between life and death. Good shorebirders are often keen to tidal level changes as low tide has increased shorebird habitat. 

Good birding!


  1. All filler aside, the 'Find my iphone' app is a handy safety feature if you set it up with an iPad or another iphone at home.

    1. I guess lost electronics could be an issue... Identify theft etc! Thanks FG.

  2. An interesting post Dwayne.
    One must not lay in poison ivy to observe a butterfly near the 'Serengeti' tree, as I my friend in Sarnia will attest to!

    1. Blake, our Butterfly survey walk at Brunet park spawned this article. I recal asking you and Paul D if it was foolish for me to be wearing shorts when everyone else was wearing pants. It was then that Paul alerted me to Golden Alexander!

  3. I would alter one and add one more. I grew up with poison ivy in the Midwest, but in the Pacific states I really had to learn about poison oak, which can make amazing thickets.

    Also respect the ocean! When birding on breakwaters or beaches, know the tides! It can also be hard to keep track of dangerous waves when you are trying to ID that confusing gull.
    -Jim Neitzel, Olympia WA

    1. Thanks Jim - Tidal hazards noted in my reader input section.

  4. I would add the various security-related dangers, such as being stopped by the US Border Patrol, airport security, etc.
    Also "warbler neck".

  5. Hi Dwayne,

    There is no good evidence that Lyme disease can "become" MS - please don't propagate this myth.

    See for example:

    Ken Schneider MD, PhD

    1. Dr Ken, thanks for the correction. I've edited my original comments.

  6. Congratulations on this post. Glad that the ABA picked up on this and referenced it in their blog. Well-written and well-received

    1. SFD - Thanks for letting me know about the ABA nod and the kind words! I did have fun with this one!

  7. Yeah, just hunting in general. In Ottawa there was reports of people entering nature areas and shooting ducks during breeding season. I myself have been nearly missed when I approached the edge of a pond from one side near some ducks and did not see the hunter on the other side taking aim. He got one of the ducks in front of me. Which leads me to my next point, always have a change of clothes in your car. There may be times when changing pants or undergarments due to a fall or near accidental shooting might come in handy.

    1. Change of clothing could be a good thing to add. Thanks for the comments and ideas.

  8. I got to thinking...I bet I have pulled over two thousand ticks off me (here in Oklahoma). I have literally had fifty on each leg before. To my knowledge, I have never had a tick disease, but know other Okies who have. Perhaps I pull them off before they can transmit it?

  9. I keep telling my non-birding friends that I risk life & limb to get the photos and stories I relate to them, er, endlessly, to hear them tell it.... And, I am here to say, I have alienated a good many family members and friends over the years but happily have replaced them with new birder associations. It's all good.

    Seriously though, Dwayne, you bring up some good points that casual birders may not be aware of.

    Great Post.

  10. I grew up where ticks were a constant concern, but lived in Canada 14 years before my first encounter, which was last year while watching Dickcissels in that tall grass at the spot you alerted us all to. I picked up two ticks that day.



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