Sunday, February 3, 2013

Technobirding - Has technology made birding better?

[Note: this was an older posting I had kept in draft form since Nov 2012. Even though it doesn't seem quite complete, I figured I should publish it eventually so here it is. Jan-Feb-March are slow birding months for me as I am in night school so my birding time is limited. PS: I saw the Rondeau White-winged Dove yesterday and will blog on that soon.]

Birding is described as a hobby which involves observing birds and their behavior in their habitats. Traditionally, this involved a very simple set of tools required to get into the hobby: Binoculars, notebook and a field-guide. The 'barriers to entry' into the hobby have never been looked at as financially prohibitive and beyond the initial investment in the basic tools, transportation and park entrance fees are about as much as one needs to spend to engage in this wonderful hobby.

Three essential tools for a budding birder: Field Guide, Binoculars, and an notebook.
But as technology gets cheaper, more pervasive and more accessible, it has become more and more ingrained in the practice of birding. Information & Communication Technology (ICT) can be looked at as a broad spectrum of technologies ranging from hardware, networks to software to how we use software, such as social networking. This posting attempts to look at how technology is used in birding and how it has changed birding.

Blogging - A blog, (short for weB-Log) is a simple website that allows authors to post entries or posts in reverse-chronological order. Text, images, videos and links to other sites are featured in blog postings, and an author can develop a following of readers (who can comment on blogs), and a virtual community of like minded people that creates a network of people that is called a blogosphere! A new trend in blogging is Multi-author blogs, (MAB's) such as or Wordpress and Blogspot are popular blogging tools and are free of charge! This website you are reading right now is a blog: Nerdy for Birdy!

Twitter- Twitter is a microblog, similar to a blog, but limited to 140-character 'tweets' that are limited to text and hyperlinks. Many news organizations and birding organizations that are you interested allow you to follow them, and reading your twitter feed can be thought of as stepping into a stream of articles, thoughts and resources. Point Pelee national park has a twitter account, as well as Ojibway Park and once you follow them, you may find other like-minded twitter groups to follow, perhaps David Suzuki or TVO.

Facebook - Just when social networking started to get boring, a birding friend and employee at Ojibway Park suggested I follow the Windsor Essex Nature Sightings group on Facebook! Another Facebook group is called Point Pelee Birding and is always interesting to read as well.

Flickr - is one of the most popular image sharing websites on the Internet. Being a lover of photography, I've had a free account on flickr for many years. Surprisingly, there are many birding related groups on Flickr that you can join, such as ebirds flickr group or birdshare group, a group created by Cornell University's project. There is even a group that helps happily helps you identify birds, the Bird Identification Group with over 6000 members.  Of course, feel free to check out my flickr account on flickr: Dwaynejava's Flickr Account. Just like blogger, twitter or facebook, virtual networks of like-minded people connect and share ideas on photography and this can be a great place to learn new things!

Youtube - Youtube is a fantastic website which allows people to post videos, and again, creates knowledge networks if done properly. One of my favorite youtube channels that I follow is Cornell's Lab or Ornithology group which creates excellent, informative, add-free videos related to birding. I personally have created a youtube account so that I could understand and implement this amazing technology. Check out my account here: It attempts to capture some videos of interesting birds I've seen, such as Great Grey Owl, Snowy Owls in Essex County, and Pileated Woodpeckers that I saw in Florida. If you have a blog, you can very simply embed a youtube video into your postings... this is the beauty of "Web 2.0" technology.

Google Sites - With a simple Google Email account from Gmail, you can create a website on about anything you would like. The cost is free, there is no advertising of fine print, and you require very little technical knowledge to create a site.  To me, this is very exciting technology! Some interesting examples of google sites are:

Google or Yahoo Groups - Web portal sites like Google and Yahoo have offered a virtual forum for group discussions that might give a more exclusive and local feel to its group membership. Two great examples are as follows. I particularly like the Ontario Butterflies Group.

E-mail Listserves - This technology is one of the most useful, pervasive, in-your-face examples of how technology has changed birding. Every time anyone in a particular region sees an interesting bird, they send an email to their regional birding listserve which is then distributed to hundreds, or possibly thousands of listserve subscribers. So, you can know what is happening all over your province or state! Combine this email information with a smartphone with push technology and you have instant real time updates. Check out this link here for Ontario's Ontbirds Listserve: If you want to join the Ontario birding listserve, follow this link here:

An example of the beauty of listservers can be found in this story. Last year, I had a one-week vacation to Florida, and just a few days before I left for florida, I looked up Florida's birding listserve to see what was happening. Sure enough, I had read that Orlando Wetlands had a Vermillion Flycatcher. So, upon arrival to Orlando Florida, I asked the wife if she wanted to take a relaxing nature walk at Orlando Wetlands, and sure enough... I found the Vermillion Flycatcher!

E-bird - Data warehousing and brilliant implementation of the latest information technology for the purpose of recording trends for scientific purposes. With data warehousing, thousands, or millions of people have the ability to enter their birding observations information through a web-based or app-based application, and that data is stored in a manner that other people can view to view this data compiled into interesting graphs and maps.

Which of the four weeks in March could you expect to see a Pectoral Sandpiper in Essex Co?

Here is an example of its usage. If you were to go to Victoria BC during the second week of July this year, you could bring up a regional map for Victoria BC (or the county or local hotspots) and see beautiful graphs of what birds one would see and how likely you are to see it!

Have Common Redpolls arrived to your area yet this year?
Another example is with its real-time sightings graph. This fall, Ron Pittaway's Winter Finch Report predicted that various winter finches would erupt into southern Canada and northern US. So, very easily, you can view graphs of sightings for a particular bird, for a particular time range. Very powerful information at your fingertips

More dedicated Databases:

Christmas Bird Count Database (

Online reference guides - and allow people who do not have a field guide to get to see information and regional graphs about a huge assortment of birds. is one of the online resources that got me interested in birding.

Google Maps - This revolutionary technology allows anyone with a web-browser (or smartphone) and an internet connection to see Satelite Views of a city, county, state or province. I've used google maps to see where various parks were with respect to a hotel I was staying at, and Google Maps will even give driving directions between two or more points. Google Maps can even give you street-level views of destinations you are interested in visiting! All these maps can be emailed, saved, embedded in other websites, blogs etc.
Google maps also lets you add "Pushpins" to really highlight a specific location. You could almost identify a specific tree in a field using the most zoomed-in satellite view.

A birder might use a Google Maps URL to "pin point" the location of a bird with amazing acuracy. This link below was recently used on Ontbirds. Note that you can have satelite view, map view, and even street level view. Incredible technology:,-80.557644&num=1&t=m&z=15

Smartphones & App Software-
GPS - Global Positioning Systems allows us to record a specific location and share it with others, who could use GPS to refind that exact spot. (Geocaching is a hobby that has emerged from a playful use of this tech).

Google Maps - mentioned above, but even more powerful when employed on a smartphone.

Texting - Allows instant communication in the field to friends. A friend recently phone-scoped an owl that he had found, then-video-texted me the image and an invitation to see the bird.

Electronic field guides (E-bird, Audubon Guide, etc) - On our smartphones, we can now have huge volumes of information, not only out in the field but everywhere we go, on or offline. We can see images, specs, regional inofmation, and even hear a birds call (audio playback).

Audio playback - this is an excellent feature embedding into electronic field guides that allo you to play a bird call. Perhaps to learn a call of a bird you are unfamiliar with or to call a bird into view that is shyier in nature.

Phonescoping - The ability to place a camera-enabled smart-phone onto binoculars or a scope to obtain images. Properly done, excellent photos can be obtained, although this is usually done for documentation purposes.  See for a video on how Kowa Scopes have specific hardware for your I-phone.

Birding by Ear Software or Audio resources - Click here to see some examples. 

GPS Device - Even though my smart-phone is GPS enabled, I tend to use a seperate GPS unit while driving. This preserves the battery and data usage on my phone. From the GPS device, I can input a "point of interest" such as point pelee or hillman marsh, or perhaps an intersection out in the county that I'm not familiar with. A nice feature is that the GPS will tell you the expected time of arrival and also give you a map view of the area you are driving in, as well as giving you the ability to zoom in or out as much as you would like.

Image Management Software - Picasa & Digital Workflow
Picasa is free image editing and managing software and is one of many titles out there. Read more at this link about picasa here: or read about my digital workflow here:

Digital Photography - For the first time in all of human history, Digital SLR photography has dipped below the $1000 price point. Telephoto lenses are very expensive as well, but still accessible to hobbyists. Digital photography allows birders to mix in photography to their birding endeavors.  A rare bird could be recorded with photography to prove one has seen a particular bird. But, photography also allows a slower study of birds that one observes, and allows you to share your sightings with other birders. You could also allow people that may never thought of birding to develop an interest. Photography could spur on conservation efforts and document habitat degradation or habitat preservation efforts.

Digiscoping -  Using a small camera to record images from a scope. Jean Iron has a page about digiscoping here: . Or, you could just google the topic and find various resources and tutorials online.

Technobirding Conclusion-

This blog posting is not trying to encourage non-technical birders to be more technical, nor is it trying to say that birders that are non-technical aren't as good as technical birders. Also, a person with all this technology may have not "put the time in" to really learn the calls of various birds, and is really a poor birder.

Relying on photography to capture a bird may take away from the pre-photography art of birding, which would force the birder to really make quick observations while in the presence of the bird. And perhaps, even draw or take notes on fields markings.

So, is all this technology making birding better?

Positives  - knowledge networks, learning opportunities, meeting others that share you interests, increasing the productivity when you bird at home and while traveling.

Negatives - Being distracted, depending on technology rather than learning actual calls through experience, ethical problems with overzealous birders/photographers interrupting rare birds that need solitude during springtime breeding or winter survival.

I would argue yes technology is making birding better, but I think it calls to mind the importance of our birding code of ethics. One must realize before posting to location of a rare or endangered bird, it may be observed and possibly harassed by many, birders and photographers, which could disrupt, hurt or endanger a bird and or its habitat.

Audio Playback is a technology that we should continually challenge others (as well as ourselves) to maintain high ethical standards with as well. David Sibley proposed some excellent playback guidelines here. I have had some run-ins with over-zealous photographers on many occasions, sadly, at a breeding area of Pileated Woodpeckers at Pinery Provincial Park and also at Sedge Wren Marsh at Carden Alvar.

This year, I am going to try to E-birdize my sightings (moving forwards and going back 3 years) to share what I've seen with future generations and conservation / scientific endeavors. Even ebird though has suggestions though for reporting sensitive species.

Ontario field ornithologists have an excellent code of ethics at this site:

With the rapid pace of technology, I imagine the posting will become dated quickly, but I would encourage any readers to share anything I have missed, or suggestions on better resource links, and I may keep this updated or improve it.

Good birding!

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