Trail running was how my love for the outdoors began, and while I’m not the fastest runner going around, my huffing and puffing meant I wasn’t able to appreciate nature in the way I wanted. In recent years and with my growing interest in photography, I’ve started bringing all those passions together in the perfect pursuit of wildlife photography, namely birds. It gets me out in nature and exploring trails, all while capturing native birds in their habitat through my viewfinder.
You don’t need to be a photographer to appreciate the Diamond Firetail Finch.
What seemed like a straight forward transition, actually required more thought and equipment than I had anticipated. Here are some of the things that have come in handy for me along the way and may be of help for your trailblazing adventures.
Since I’m not just into spotting birds but trying to photograph them as well, it’s fair to say the camera equipment has been a slippery slope and an expensive one at that! However, you don’t need to be a photographer to develop an interest in bird spotting, so my focus here is to give you an insight into the other gear I take with me on my escapades.
A good comfortable pair of boots are the most important part of your gear.
A great pair of boots will take you far
Coming from a trail running background, I never really understood why people made such a big deal of hiking boots. Wouldn’t my runners do just fine? I quickly discovered that when you’re covering tough terrain, the extra protection and support is not just handy, but essential.
I took a punt on the Merrell Moab boots and could not be happier. I’ve travelled who knows how many miles in those things – both in Australia under all kinds of conditions and through the jungles of Java and Cambodia. Cold, hot, wet, dry, they’ve been amazing!
If you’re going to be standing around for long periods, as well as hiking, a pair of comfy boots (and socks!) are the most important part of your gear. My boots get the two big thumbs up from me. And my feet.
My gaiters changed my life. Image: Sea to Summit
My gaiters changed my life
I also happen to have a bit of a snake phobia. Yes, logically I know I probably have more chance of being struck by lightning than a snake, but I’m still super sketchy on narrow trails in warm weather. I’m happy to say my Sea to Summit Quagmire Gaiters are truly a game-changer. I’m not exaggerating. They’ve completely transformed my level of enjoyment out on the trails and enabled me to relax.
They’re even more important when you consider that for spotting birds effectively, you need to be as quiet as possible with your line of sight focused away from the ground. Both actions being the exact opposite of what you should be doing to avoid snakes. So, boots plus gaiters really do make my bird-nerding way safer and more enjoyable.
Wearing long pants means I can comfortably lie down to get a good angle on my shots.
Pants and pockets
I’m not overly keen to ever find out for certain, but apparently, even a regular pair of pants about 2mm in thickness have the ability to protect you from a snake bite. I wear a decent pair of long hiking pants regardless of how hot or humid it is. I can’t confirm if they’ll stop any snake venom from penetrating my skin beneath, but they do give me confidence plus protection against scrapes, scratches and various bug bites too. Even better if they have extra pockets for batteries, memory cards, lens cleaners and other bits and pieces.
Wearing my camo gear is no fashion statement, but it works for better bird spotting.
Camo is not a fashion statement, but it works
Although I started with regular neutral coloured clothing, as I’ve grown more eager to capture the better shots, I’ve gravitated towards some camouflage gear as well. This is not something I necessarily recommend for everyone if you don’t want people to look at you funny. Still, in certain circumstances, it’s definitely helped me snap some photographs I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get.
I also wear merino because when you’re standing still waiting to capture that perfect shot it’s easy to become cold. In winter or chilly conditions, layers of merino insulate far more effectively than any other fibre so I pile them on. They’re good on the flip side too, as when it’s hot or you’re wearing the same clothes for a few days at a time, natural fibres like merino help you stay stink-free.
It’s obvious, but a decent hat for sun protection is also right up there on my list. In cooler weather, I’ll opt for the warmth of a buff/neck gaiter thing, and as much as I love some of the brighter coloured ones, for birding, neutral colours are the go! Always aim to observe from a shaded position but sometimes there’s none to be had, and you’ll find yourself standing exposed for long periods, so… cover up people!
Keep your cool
Speaking of the heat, there’s nothing better than a nice cold drink when you’re out and about for long periods of time, and a decent drink bottle makes it much more enjoyable and keeps you refreshed. I’ve always kept it pretty simple and gone for a regular flask, but these days I like the insulated bottles that keep my drink cool well into the day.
Binoculars to get up close and personal
My eyes aren’t what they used to be, so when I’m not peering through my camera viewfinder, I’ve got an old pair of field binoculars I use to help me spot and identify birds at long range. My pair is actually quite bulky and heavy, so I’ve got my eyes on a more lightweight pair. The specifications vary a bit, so it really depends on where you’ll be and what kind of distance you need for spotting.
On a recent tour, I used a rather fancy pair and later found out they were about $4,000 to buy! Needless to say, I haven’t purchased a pair of those (yet!), and for most people, a regular set will do.
I pack all my gear into dry sacks when I go birding in my kayak. Image: Sea to Summit
Staying dry even when it’s not raining
Another must-have for me is a couple of dry sacks for equipment ‘just in case’. The obvious thing is to protect gear if it rains, but even on a hot day, I put bits of valuable equipment (batteries, memory cards etc.) in dry sacks to protect them from getting damp from perspiration. It’s a bit like insurance!
I always hope I don’t need them, but they’re there if something goes wrong. Plus, sometimes I go birding in my kayak, and I absolutely rely on my dry sacks to protect everything when I’m out on the water.
Super light but able to hold up to 130kg, the Pegasus is a great chair to take on the trails.
Take a seat
Standing around or crouching beneath bushes is all well and good but if I’m planning a long day out in the field, I’ll pack my hiking chair. Because I’m on the trails and I’m carrying everything with me, I keep my chair lightweight and easy to carry, but it still has to be comfy.
A comfortable packpack for all my bits and pieces
And oh yeah, it goes without saying a backpack for all your bits and pieces is pretty handy as well. There are all sorts of brands and styles out there, but currently, I’m using a 20L day pack that’s perfect for what I need. Not too big, not too small, and some good access to the various compartments if I need to grab something fast. The last thing I want to do is finally spot the bird I’ve been after and then miss the shot!
Learning how to find and identify native birds, like this male Scarlet Robin, is very satisfying.
So, whether you’re out on the road for days at a time or more of a dabbler just doing a few hours here and there, your gear matters. If bird spotting is something you’ve never tried before, but you’re keen to get started, there is a heap of great online resources with information about how to find and identify the birds in your area.
Just be warned, one day you can be a perfectly regular member of society and before you know it, you’re hiding behind bushes in full camouflage trying to spot a Scarlet Robin or some other feathered friend. It’s a slippery slope, my friends.
Have you ever gone birding or are there other kinds of wildlife you love to spot?
About the writer...
Sputnik writes, takes photos, trail runs, kayaks, hosts adventure tours in Bali and Cambodia, and is engaged in what he refers to as The Relentless Pursuit of Wow. You can follow his adventures on Facebook.com/swashbuckler or Instagram @theswashbuckler