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Antarctica, New Media, and Old-Fashioned Birding

So meta: Are birders becoming trapped by technology?

So meta: Are birders becoming trapped by technology?

I’m not old enough to reminisce about phone trees and rare bird hotlines, though I’ve heard plenty of stories about birding’s raw old days. By the time I picked up my first pair of binoculars, dial-up was being phased out. I am proud to be of the internet generation, and birders have been connecting online as long as I can remember.

As I type this, two windows are open on my internet browser: A digest of Oregon Birder’s Online (OBOL, rhymes with “eyeball”) and eBird, where I just entered my morning’s sightings from the local sewage ponds. OBOL is a classic listserv with more than 1,000 members, dedicated to sightings and wide-ranging discussions about birding in Oregon, and has been around as long as I’ve been a birder. eBird is relatively new, the latest advance in the digitalization of our outdoor pursuit. I’m hopelessly addicted to both.

But I wonder sometimes what birding was like in those early days, before I was born. After all, watching birds is essentially an offline activity. What would it be like to escape from the internet for a while?

You have to go to the ends of the Earth nowadays to get away from Google. As it happens, this season I did just that: I spent two months on an expedition cruise ship in Antarctica, working as an on-board ornithologist and guide, from mid-November to mid-January.


On board the Akademik Ioffe, passengers have no access to the internet.

On board the Akademik Ioffe, passengers have no access to the internet.

The ship I was on, a Cold War-era Russian vessel, is a fortress-like island of no-nonsense adventure, designed for polar assignments. It takes about 90 passengers at a time for trips lasting between 10 and 18 days, but it’s not really a cruise ship. There is no swimming pool, no movie theater, no casino, no lounge chairs, no TVs, not even a Ping-Pong table. The ship has no cell service, and, most isolating of all, no internet access for passengers. On board, all of the main entertainments—presentations, meals, wildlife-watching from the bridge, socializing in the bar, not to mention the epic shore excursions—involve face-to-face interactions with other humans. For someone raised by the web, this was surreal.

Some people were surprised at the lack of connectivity on board, but few seemed to miss it. After each day’s adventures with penguins and icebergs, everyone sat around dinner tables and talked, uninterrupted by anyone whipping out an iPhone to look something up. Many people kept old-school, paper-and-pen journals of their journey. By the end of the season, I couldn’t imagine how I manage to spend so much time in front of my computer at home.

Every single person I asked said that, given the choice, they’d rather not have satellite internet in Antarctica—that it would change the whole vibe for the worse.


When I returned home in late January and caught up on email, OBOL’s forum was hosting a particularly snarky debate about eBird. Various veterans aired their grievances about the new digital era; some comments were specific, but others rambled on until the listserv’s moderator politely asked them to “get back to birding.” I sympathized with a few of the old-timers who said they had used one system or another—spreadsheets, databases—for so long that they’d never switch to something like eBird. It’s hard to change habits.

I know this, because I’ve lately been shifting in the opposite direction. This season in Antarctica taught me the joys of living off-grid, a lesson that I’m now trying to apply at home. There is something to be said for traditional media and regular, face-to-face interactions, and I think that birders, of all people, can appreciate the need to unplug once in a while.

Rockhopper Penguins charge along a beach on the Falkland Islands.

Rockhopper Penguins charge along a beach on the Falkland Islands.

Perhaps I’m getting old—I turned 28 this month—but I’m now on a campaign to streamline my digital life. I don’t spend much time on Facebook; I don’t use Twitter or any other social media; I don’t have an iPad; I have little interest in e-books or e-magazines; and I am forcing myself to shut down my email for parts of each day. Each of these things has noble uses, but, when I sit in front of a screen, it inevitably trap-doors down some dark rabbit hole. (For instance: The top link on my current Facebook feed is called “I am a Ukrainian, this needs to go viral,” followed by “Top 10 urban highways that deserve to be torn down.”)

Personally, I am a bit sad to see publications like North American Birds, the ABA Big Day and List Report, and the annual Christmas Bird Count summaries go strictly online. I enjoyed each of those in their paper forms, but can’t seem to motivate myself to read them digitally. I understand (and support) the need to stay current and save printing costs, but, for me, the online transition has disengaged my interest.

It’s ironic: Here I am writing for a web-only blog about the pitfalls of the internet. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not nostalgic about the analog days that I never lived through, rather suggesting that, moving forward, we birders concentrate on what we do best—enjoying the outdoors—in an age when the average American adult spends a stultifying eight hours a day in front of a screen.

Antarctica is a frozen wasteland. Do we really need to go that far just to unplug for a while?

Antarctica is a frozen wasteland. Do we really need to go that far just to unplug for a while?

You don’t have to visit Antarctica to realize that the world is a big, wild place, but my two months on a ship there was an eye-opening experience. I watched people connect with each other, and with the birds around them, in an incredibly focused, hands-on, distraction-free setting. I think that’s something we can all aspire to.

And now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to shut my laptop and head outside. I’m sure the first migrant Tree Swallows and Rufous Hummingbirds are arriving, and someone needs to go out there and find them—and then, of course, post the highlights for the rest of us.

Noah’s book, The Thing with Feathers, about the connections between bird and human behavior, comes out in March 2014—in both hardback and e-book.

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Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker

Noah Strycker, Associate Editor of Birding magazine, is author of Among Penguins: A Bird Man in Antarctica (2011) and The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal About Being Human (2014). In 2015, Noah completed the ultimate big year, traveling through 41 countries to see 6,042 species of birds between January and December.
Noah Strycker

Latest posts by Noah Strycker (see all)

  • Frank Izaguirre

    Hi Noah, we’re almost exactly the same age (I turned 28 in January), and I identify with so much of what you said. One of my favorite things about travel is that I spend significantly less time on the internet, sometimes going days without it. When I’m at home, I find it impossible to resist for an entire day.

    I think the way to achieve balance is different for everyone. For me, I don’t have a smartphone, and that goes a long way in limiting my staring at a screen time. But I know many birders use smartphones to help and enhance their birding experience.

    What I like about your post is that you’ve pointed out that for birders there’s a kind of triangulation going on between the internet, print media, and the outdoors. I don’t think I spend that much less time birding than I would without the internet, but I have noticed recently that I spend significantly less time reading printed books. Your Antarctic adventure reminds me of a book a friend of mine recommended to me, Logbook for Grace, which I’ve been wanting to read but can’t peel myself away from the internet long enough to dive into.

    So today, I’ll head out to check for migrants, but I also vow to read a few chapters of Logbook!

  • Ted Floyd

    A wonderful, provocative and important, post.

    FYI, Paul Lehman–who was a legendary birder long before Noah was conceived–has a commentary coming out on this same topic. Look for it in the forthcoming March/April 2014 Birding. Lehman’s perspective is perforce different from Noah’s; Lehman is older, so old that he no doubt remembers birding even before phone trees and rare bird alerts! But he’s still keen and insightful. And he converges on the same general conclusion that Noah does. I hope folks enjoy his commentary.

    Back to Noah’s post.

    I’m going to argue that more screen-time has gotten me into the field more, not less. First, the proof: I’ve gone birding now for the past 2,629 days in a row. How on Earth do I know that? Why, because I’ve entered at least one eBird checklist for each of those blessed 2,629 days. Pre-eBird, I would have skipped a bunch of those days. But now, as a long, busy day is coming to an end, I find myself saying, in effect, “Oh, no! I haven’t gone birding yet! I need to run outside and generate an eBird checklist.” And so I do. Maybe it’s nothing more than an “incidental observation” from the deck of the observation platform at the little marsh near my house (75 seconds, if I run fast, to get there).

    But it’s still birding. And it’s a bit of a paradox, in light of Noah’s post: more screen-time *and* more birding. Talk about getting your cake and eating it, too.

    Here are more thoughts on how eBird can make you bird more, not less:

  • Great post, Noah. Ultimately these are personal decisions, such as my decision to get rid of my television twenty years ago.

    I am a semi-regular user of eBird and appreciate that it is a useful compendium of data, but I’m troubled by a tendency, particularly among younger birders, to look nowhere else for information. The idea seems to be that fast information is better than in-depth information. There are times when that is true and times when it is not.

    That said, the question of what happens to people’s paper notebooks and checklists is a very real one. I know of several sets of good local data that have been lost because someone chucked or lost a box of old notebooks.

    Of course, any such discussion assumes that birders have a duty to collect data. We don’t. We have the option of simply observing birds for pleasure.

    Sign me “Curmudgeon in Oregon”

  • John Gatchet

    John F. Gatchet
    [email protected]

  • Kurt Radamaker

    Hi Noah,
    Excellent insightful post.
    I may have a bit of a different perspective since I come from the old school of birders, but I have been working with computers and writing software uninterrupted since I was a little kid. I’m in meetings weekly discussing the pros and cons of Social Media, Facebook, Twitter, yata, yata and how our business can grow and benefit from the internet and the rapid adoption of smart phones and connected devices.

    My take is that much of the obsession with the internet will fade and the use of social media and the internet as a lifestyle will be replaced with using the internet as a tool. Anytime technologies become widely available in society, we have a tendency to latch onto them as a life style. Take cars in the 1950s for example, when cars became widely available after world war two, cars became a lifestyle, a lifestyle of cruising the boulevards, street racing, bright colors and supercharged engines. Many in the younger generation were fascinated with cars and that is what they lived for. Today, while a vehicle is still an important part of our lives, our lives do not revolve around our vehicles, vehicles are mostly a utility.

    I’m already hearing more and more about unplugging, reducing your digital footprint and getting off the grid. I’m also hearing more and more that social media is getting a little tiresome and some users are reducing posts. I think it is just a matter of time before the internet will be properly seen as a utility. I read Ted Floyd’s comments above that eBird makes you bird more rather than less, this is a case in point. eBird is being treated as a lifestyle, most of us have heard the slogans or seen the t-shirts “do you eBird”. I doubt I will ever wear a t-shirt that says, “have you Birder’s Diaried Today”. The lure of eBird is the social connection and crowd science, I get it, it’s part of something big and eBird is better place to store notes than a shoe box. Eventually eBird will resolve many of the data integrity obstacles it faces today and it will become the database utility and research tool it is meant to be, and not a competition for checklist entries.


    Kurt Radamaker

  • Mike Fialkovich


    I always enjoy reading about your latest adventures. This is an interesting post. It must have been great to witness people disconnecting electronically and concentrating on conversation and wildlife watching.

    I’m not as connected as a lot of people but I do enjoy email and listserv posts because of the immediate information available using those forums. I don’t own a smartphone, but I do like the ability to look at things like weather when out in the field so I don’t get caught in a horrible thunderstorm carrying optics and books and a tripod (the perfect lightning rod).

    I also find it hard to remain tied to online articles; I simply forget about them. A magazine on my desk reminds me to pick it up and read it, and paper copies are wonderful companions when waiting at the auto repair shop, dentist’s office, etc. I could bring a laptop but that’s a lot heavier than a magazine. I admit, I do like to check email a lot to be aware of “what’s going on”.

    I agree with Frank, balance is different for everyone. Do whatever works for you.

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