Practice good bird watching etiquette this spring

A sage grouse displays it’s plummage and dances to attract a mate.

Douglas County is home to 90% of the remaining endangered greater sage-grouse in Washington. This area is also one of the few places in Washington where the migratory snowy owl can be expected to make at least one winter appearance annually. The rarity and beauty of these species regularly brings bird watchers and photographers to south central Washington. Wherever you choose to watch birds in Washington, please use practices that make it enjoyable and safe for everyone, including the birds.

Birding etiquette issues

In early spring, sage-grouse congregate on traditional sites (known as strutting grounds or leks) to breed. The show they put on as part of the breeding process is a wonder of nature and a bucket list item for many birders to witness. Snowy owls like to perch on rock piles or other vertical objects in or close to privately owned crop fields. With virtually all leks in central Washington on private land and both species primarily occupying private land on large farming and/or ranching operations, it’s important for photographers and bird watchers to be aware of private land boundaries.

Snowy owls

Trespassing is the biggest cause of conflict in most areas when it comes to bird watching. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) gets many reports of people venturing off public roads, both on foot and in vehicles, and trespassing on private property to get a better look at birds.

This often puts people close to private homes. Armed with binoculars, spotting scopes, powerful camera lenses, and sometimes drones, this can make property owners feel like their privacy is being invaded. Even if you are on a public road, please be respectful when watching birds near homes.

Some people also get too close to birds. If you flush a bird while watching it or trying to photograph it, you are too close. Over time, this has a larger impact; every single Washington sage-grouse lek that became public knowledge during the last 50 years has either disappeared or moved.

Infrastructure damage can be frustrating and also expensive to people living near great birding areas. In the spring when roads are still muddy and soft, driving on them can cause damage that lasts all year. In rural areas, some roads that lead to homes may not be marked as private but are the responsibility of the people who live on them to maintain so you may want to think twice about driving them if it appears it could cause expensive damage.

Tips to avoid conflict

These tips can help you respect private property, protect sensitive wildlife, and still enjoy a wonderful birding experience:

Stay inside your vehicle when viewing or photographing sensitive species. Birds are more likely to tolerate people inside a parked vehicle than outside a vehicle.

If you get the opportunity and permission to closely observe sage-grouse on a lek (from a blind or vehicle), please arrive at least an hour before sunrise and depart after the last male has left so as not to disturb the birds.

Avoid sharing the location of sensitive species. Remove GPS data from images or videos before posting them. If someone contacts you asking about the location of a lek, kindly decline and explain that you’re helping mitigate excessive exposure of this state-listed endangered species.

Do not use drones. Some of the sage-grouse’s natural predators fly, meaning the grouse are nervous around any flying object. Flying a drone over sage-grouse disrupts their behavior (including breeding), which is considered illegal harassment.

Drive like a local. If your car is leaving tracks or ruts on a road, turn back. Even though its legal to drive these roads, many are not maintained for year-‘round use, and locals avoid them that time of year if possible to prevent damaging soft roadways.

In Washington, landowners are not required to post non-trespassing signs. You are responsible for knowing if you are on public or private property. This includes driving and walking on farm and private roads, in fields or rangeland. Know the property boundaries, and don’t trespass on private land.

Bird watching blinds like this one at Potholes State Park are available at various public lands across the state and can provide birds a sense of privacy and guidelines for bird watchers as far as how far back to stay. Photo courtesy Alan Bauer

Learn more

Before heading out, please review WDFW’s Ethical wildlife viewing web page and the Ethical wildlife photography practices blog, which includes drone use guidelines.

Bird watchers, photographers, and local landowners all have at least one thing in common — the love of wildlife and the lands that support them. When you do see a landowner, make sure to thank them for stewarding this habitat for local wildlife. We all want Washington’s wildlife legacy to continue.



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.