David Sibley explains how to mark the location of a bird

Tree Clock
tree clockUsing the “clock” method is one way to direct people to a bird in a tree. Artwork by David Allen Sibley

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Discussions of birding skills focus primarily on finding and identifying birds, but being able to describe a bird’s location so other people can see it is another aspect. very important and often overlooked part of bird watching. Giving instructions is a learned skill, and anyone can improve with concerted effort and practice.

If you’ve been on a few birding tours, you’ve probably heard of the “clock” method. It involves imagining a tree as the face of a clock, so that the top center is twelve o’clock, the bottom right half is three o’clock, etc. The method can also be used from inside a car or boat, with twelve o’clock. hours straight, etc. A bird’s location can be described by numbers, but using the clock only works well from a vehicle or if the bird is in a symmetrical, isolated tree. Other situations require more creative solutions.

Describing a bird’s location can be difficult. Look for unique features, especially in the foreground or on the horizon, to direct other birders to the bird. For example, how would you direct someone to a bird in the blue circle?

Here are the essential elements to give direction:

  • Start with the basics – really basic. Does the bird fly, perch, swim or walk? Is it on the ground, on the water or in a tree?
  • Keep giving instructions and describing what the bird is doing; wrong directions can be frustrating, silence is even more so. Even if all you can say is “sit halfway up the tree in front of us”, it’s worth saying. If people can’t find the bird, start over with an overview.
  • Find an obvious landmark and use it to lead everyone into the ballpark (e.g. “left of the flag pole” or “in the tree with the yellow leaves” or “along the fence”) . Then, get more specific to focus on the location: “See the flagpole, go left about 30 feet.” There is a cluster of yellow leaves halfway up the tree. The bird is just above…”
  • For a single bird in a flock, it is useful to describe what it is doing: “just flapping its wings”, “preening its belly”, or “looking towards us” are all useful clues.
  • For a bird in flight, look at its path and choose a landmark, then say something like “going left, towards the blue house, it will be over the blue house…NOW, going left”.
See also  Identification of the five species of North American chickadees

Giving good directions allows everyone to see the birds quickly and easily and makes the trip more enjoyable and rewarding. Developing the skills to give and follow instructions can dramatically improve your birding experience.


This article from David Sibley’s ID Toolkit appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of BirdWatching.