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Technology is changing the way birders identify, track their finds

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Seconds after a northern harrier swoops past a group of Thursday morning birders at Los Poblanos Fields Open Space, Albuquerque birder Phil Trine has his Kindle open and ready for action.

For Trine, using a tablet means quickly adding an entry for the bird using the iBird PRO app, which he will update after the walk with more details. Then, he can snap the device shut and return to the matter at hand – spotting a cattle egret or northern flicker as sandhill cranes trill overhead.

Trine, and many like him, are experimenting with the interaction of technology and birding, ushering in a new era marked by smartphone apps and online lists to help them keep track and learn more about birds in the field.

A smartphone or tablet means access to multiple field guides at the touch of a finger.

“It’s a lot easier than carrying a book around,” says birder Cole Wolf, secretary and field trip coordinator for the Central New Mexico Audubon Society.

More resources in the field help make key identifications – like whether that sapsucker he spotted in western New Mexico was actually a hybrid, Wolf says.

A bird enthusiast uses an app to identify and track the northern harrier on a smartphone.

The eBird revolution

In 2002, the National Audubon Society and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology teamed up to create eBird.org, a free site that collects and organizes bird observations and makes them available for researchers and the public.

“We’re collecting data on all species of birds, year-round, across the entire planet,” says Brian Sullivan, eBird project leader for the western region. “It’s basically a nonstop, continuing stream of data.”

Though eBird began to collect observations for research, it has become a valuable tool for birders to track and identify birds.

Since 2005, the site has grown by 30 percent to 40 percent each year. About 625,000 people used eBird so far this year, making 3 million to 5 million observations per month.

At 21, Wolf says he is lucky to have been “eBirding” as long as he has been birding. Wolf, a biology and statistics student at the University of New Mexico, has about 1,800 bird lists on eBird.

One of the best aspects of the site, he says, is the ability to check his own logs to see how often he has seen a species or exactly what he saw on a particular day.

Last Christmas he visited Washington D.C. For his “life list” – the list birders keep of each new species they see- he needed a purple sandpiper. Before his trip, he checked eBird and found a few places others had seen the bird.

“For me, it was a really easy and convenient way to track down a species,” Wolf says.

For Wolf, part of the thrill of birding is learning about the incredible diversity of birds and how they fit into their environment. Wherever he goes, looking for birds is the first thing on his mind. eBird helps him find them.

“(Birding) is the first thing I think of whenever I go somewhere new,” says Wolf.

Members of the Central New Mexico Audubon Society trek through Los Poblanos Fields Open Space on the lookout to add bird sightings to their lists.

Tech landscape

Every tech-savvy birder has a favorite app.

Diana Doyle, department editor for Birding magazine’s “Tools of the Trade” column, uses BirdLog, which keeps track of birds she spots, and Birds Eye, which uses eBird data to find birds in an area, as well as the Sibley eGuide to Birds and Peterson Birds of North America apps.

Celestyn Brozek, a retired UNM chemistry professor who has been birding since he was a child, hasn’t gotten into eBird but he has loaded his iPod Touch with apps like BirdTunes and iBird PRO that help him learn bird calls.

He also joins email listservs to learn about rare birds others have spotted.

“In the old days it was a phone hotline,” he says. “It’s obviously much more convenient on email.”

Apps are just the latest technology to hit birding. Digital photography, for example, already shifted the landscape by helping birders make accurate bird counts rather than relying on field observations, Trine says.

New technology brings up thorny etiquette questions, like whether finding a bird by checking someone else’s Google map is the same as finding it on your own.

One controversy is playback, when birders use an iPod or phone to play bird calls that entice a bird into view. While CDs or tapes were used in the past, the ease of an iPod makes playback more accessible, says Karen Herzenberg, instructional coordinator at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

“A lot of people really think that technology shouldn’t be used at all to lure birds,” says Doyle, in a phone conversation from her catamaran, which she uses to travel the Eastern seaboard. “Other people think it really doesn’t matter. I probably fall somewhere in the middle.”

What is clear, she says, is that playback should not be used during breeding season because it might make a bird leave its nest. It also should not be used if a bird is rare or protected in any way.

A Say’s Phoebe is spotted in Los Poblanos Fields Open Space.

Ethics of birding

Birders take that seriously. On a visit to Madera Canyon in Arizona, Herzenberg and others hoped to see a pair of elegant trogons, a tropical species reported on a rare bird alert. When one birder accidentally played the bird’s call on his phone, he faced fierce criticism.

“They really let him have it,” says Herzenberg. “He just apologized over and over.”

Brozek says he is judicious about playing calls but in some cases they are valuable. Brozek desperately wanted to show an older friend a painted bunting, which he calls “one of the most beautiful birds in America.”

After walking for some time in Rattlesnake Springs, south of Carlsbad, they still hadn’t spotted the bird.

“Finally,” Brozek writes in an email, “I played the song and a beautiful male popped up instantaneously and gave us a great, unforgettable view. This was the first and only time that my friend saw a painted bunting in his life.”

Has technology changed birding? New tools make more information available and easier to share, Doyle says. Instead of being “in” with the experts, novices can join listservs or share information on their own, she says. Birders once needed copious notes to prove a rare sighting but smartphones make it easy to post photos.

Benefits of tech

Doyle can access thousands of calls, nest guides and photos from four guides on her phone. Even if they don’t know birders nearby, they now also have access to virtual communities, through photo-sharing sites or field guides linked to Facebook, she says. A new site, BirdFellow.com, even aspires to be a social network for birders.

Sullivan says eBird pushes birders to think scientifically about how they observe birds so the data they enter is useful for others.

Like all technology, every birder decides what to sample and what to leave behind.

Herzenberg first explored apps after attending a guided bird walk in Arizona. She was fascinated when the leader used the Sibley app to compare species on her iPad, but after only six months she is still getting used to using her smartphone in the field.

“Some people have concerns that the technology is getting people less focused on the birds,” she says. “I don’t know if that’s really happening but I think there could be an element of getting so wrapped up in your technology that you’re missing something in the real world.”

Technology hasn’t revolutionized birding completely – and birders say that is a good thing.

Leah Henzler, who calls herself a novice birder, says iBird helps her identify birds in the field. But Henzler, who joined the Thursday walk, keeps her phone closed most of the time.

“I don’t want to be standing here looking at a screen when I should be looking at birds,” she says.

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