Coronavirus is upon us, and folks are flocking to the outdoors to fight that cooped up feeling of social isolation, with “outdoor activities” being included as an essential activity in many jurisdictions.  On one hand, this is good since being outdoors benefits people.  On the other hand, more travel to hiking and birding trails, especially in our small, rural communities like West Marin where we live and work, risks doing exactly what the experts do not want, increasing virus transmission. In fact, many local public health officials are asking people not to drive to beaches, open space, or parks outside their neighborhoods. As of 3/23/20, many open spaces here that originally remained open for public enjoyment have since been closed because of safety concerns due to the high densities of public use over the weekend.

Now is the time to bird your local “patches.” Staying local is difficult for birders, especially during spring migration, but it’s the right thing to do during this pandemic. Instead of working on your state or county bird list, stick to your neighborhood, or even better, your yard—listen/look for those first-of-season spring migrants, find a species that you do not have on your patch list, document breeding behavior and put it into eBird (which contributes to our scientific knowledge and to conservation, as data at your local level will scale up), and enjoy your remaining time with the winter migrants before they head north.  

If you live in jurisdictions that have not asked people to stay in their own neighborhoods to enjoy outdoor activities, and you do come out to smaller communities to bird or recreate, here are a few things to consider:

  • There are few toilets available right now with many public places being shut down, so plan ahead.
  • Rural gas stations can run out, so fill up in the larger communities; likewise, there are limited numbers of plugs for electric cars, so make sure your batteries are charged.
  • Locals do not have many options on where to buy food, so when the local food markets run out of food (which has been happening), residents must go further afield to get supplies. Pack your own food or use the restaurants set up for take-out.
  • Employ best practices as recommended by the CDC to avoid being a vector or coming into contact with the virus when in contact with others
  • Most importantly, crowds converging from all over the place in our small towns and at key birding locations lead to a much higher probability of virus exposure for all, so do not concentrate.

Please help keep the curve low. For now, consider focusing on your local birding patches. If you do go birding in rural or other areas, consider how you can really minimize your impact. If we don't adjust, more people will be sick and open spaces and activities outdoors will be further curtailed. That is good for no one. Remember that the situation is continually changing; stay updated on what your local communities outdoor access rules are each day if you are considering venturing outside. Be safe.

Nils Warnock lives in Marshall, CA and is the Director of Conservation Science for Audubon Canyon Ranch. Diana Humple is an avian ecologist who lives in Bolinas, CA.


Photo: a banded Wrentit by Nils Warnock