Although point transect distance sampling methods have become widely used in surveys of forest birds, there has been no attempt to tailor field methods to maximize the accuracy of abundance estimates by minimizing the effects of violations of the method's critical assumptions, which are: (1) birds at distance 0 m are detected with certainty, (2) birds are detected at their initial location and (3) distances to objects are measured accurately. We investigate the effects on abundance estimates for Philippine forest birds of varying the count period from 2 to 10 min, and of including and excluding a pre-count settling down period. Encounter rates were highly sensitive to count period length but density estimates from 10-min count periods were, on average, only 13% higher than those from 2-min periods, and in several cases were actually lower than those from periods of 6–8 min. This was because birds tended to be recorded at greater distances from the recorder as the count period went on, thus ‘stretching out’ detection functions while having little effect on detection rates close to the recorder. For some bird groups, including canopy frugivores and upperstorey gleaning insectivores, density estimates were more than twice as high without than with a settling down period. We suggest that movement away from the recorder is more common than attraction to the recorder, and that unless pilot studies show otherwise, similar studies should not use a settling down period for surveying many species. Count periods that maximized probability of bird detection close to the central point while minimizing the unwanted effects of bird movement during the count period were: 4 min for omnivores, 6 min for nectarivores and upperstorey gleaning insectivores, 8 min for understorey insectivores and canopy frugivores, and a full 10 min for sallying insectivores, ground-dwellers, carnivores and coucals/koels. We use the results to suggest ‘group-specific’ count period regimes that could help maximize the accuracy of density estimates from similar studies of tropical forest birds.