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Birding Then and Now


Here’s one of the most famous covers in the history of Birding magazine:

a - cover


Sorry about the poor quality of the reproduction. My scanner’s offline, so I took a picture with my phone. I’ll have more to say about taking photos with phones, but let’s first talk about this iconic image. From our vantage point in 2014, our initial response might be to say that Michel Gosselin’s illustration is fanciful at best, and basically crazy. Today’s birders emphatically do not look like the chap at right. True, but I believe we’ve evolved every bit as much since 1981 as the image implies.

I did a bit of birding yesterday, Saturday, May 3, 2014. And as I birded off and on during the day, I reflected on just how much birding has changed since 1981.

The morning started just as it would have in 1981. A bit before 4am, I was woken up by a very loud robin outside the window. A bit after that, the kids were awake. There wouldn’t be any getting back to sleep, so we did what any normal family does in the 5am hour on a Saturday birding: We went birding. See for yourself:

b - air guitarIt’s not yet 7am on Saturday morning. Do you know where your kids are? Andrew Floyd (right) busts out the air guitar. Hannah Floyd (left) is otherwise occupied.

They don’t look like Michel Gosselin’s birders of the future. On the contrary, they look perfectly normal. And that gets at one of the subtlest, but also, I believe, one of the biggest changes in birding: We birders have gone mainstream. The park was crawling with birders all morning, more birders than any other class of visitor.

A couple hundred feet down the path, we came upon a family of Canada Geese. Hannah took a picture by pointing my phone to my scope. Here’s the result:

c -geese











It’s not the world’s greatest photo, but consider for a moment what’s happened here. A third-grader has pointed a phone at a scope, and gotten a cute photo. Back in the 1981, that outcome–today known as digiscoping–would have been inconceivable. Back then, telephones were things with rotary dials that sat on a desk or hung from the wall. The idea of carrying a phone in the field would have been as bizarre back then as the idea that you might routinely assess the fine points of molt while actually birding in the field. Speaking of which . . .

We rounded the bend, and Hannah called our attention to an American Goldfinch in a tree. Ah. A goldfinch. I’d been thinking of late about goldfinches, and, in particular, about goldfinch molt. It’d started with a conversation in the field at the ABA Convention in April. Anyhow, I got my scope on the bird, got my camera on the scope, and got this digiscoped image:

d - goldfinch











Definitely, there have been better photos of American Goldfinches. But take a closer look; click on the photo, and see what those red arrows (created the old-fashioned way, with PowerPoint and a screen-capture) are pointing at: individual primary tips. You can see exactly how far apart they are, and you can see exactly what shape they are. I could crack open my Pyle, compare it with this digiscoped image, and learn cool things about the plumage and age of this bird.

That sort of birding would have been inconceivable in 1981. There was no Pyle guide back then. Plumages and molts were studied–if they were studied at all–in museums or, rarely, on birds in the hand at banding stations. The idea of “clicking” on a photo would have been met with bewilderment. As to the goldfinch itself, it would have been admired in the field, and that’s all.

The goldfinch flew away, and a House Wren came into view. Instead of attempting to photograph it, I got this audio:

Not bad. It’s a good, clear, recognizable recording of a House Wren. Now the story gets surreal, from a 1981 perspective. I made the recording with a device that weighs quite a bit less than my fit-in-a-pocket 21st-century phone. In that October 1981 Birding, Tom Davis has an article on how you can make serviceable cassette recordings of birds–as long as you have a few thousand dollars to plunk down on equipment, and a sherpa to schlep all the gear around for you. You can do it today for less than $100. And you can get so much more out of it.

I just uploaded the recording to Xeno-Canto. Here:

Alls I had to do was convert from .wav to .mp3 format (which would have raised eyebrows in 1981), click “upload” (huh?), answer a few questions, press “submit,” and, voilà, my House Wren is out there for the whole world to hear and even see. I’ll talk about the “see” part a little later on. For now, let’s just stop to consider how far we’ve come from 1981: Some guy out with his kids on a Saturday morning walk in the park has just made available to, oh, a couple billion folks with an internet connection his recording of a House Wren. He didn’t even use a cassette recorder!

Our morning outing came to an end, and it was time for breakfast and a delay for a vintage car show.

Next up, a birthday party for Hannah:

f - birthday


Hannah’s not quite yet a teenager, so this is a wholesome form of peer pressure. (She’s bobbing for apples, if you’re curious.) Anyhow, everything seemed to be (sort of) under control, and I had almost an hour to kill, so I went birding.

Inspired by recent reports on our state listserv (try saying that in 1981), I found my way to a newly created pond just north of the birthday party. There I audio-recorded a Vesper Sparrow and digiscoped this Marbled Godwit:

g - godwit












And it’s a good thing I did, because the sighting was queried by eBird. You don’t need professional photos for eBird, but you do need some form of documentation, and a quick-and-easy digiscoped image, like this one, is just fine. But we’ve just sidestepped something, namely, eBird iteself. Back in 1981, eBird was still two decades away from beta-testing.

Even listservs, which today seem positively archaic, were unknown to the birders of 1981. I posted my trip list to the COBirds listserv, and included a link to a map I made with Google Maps. Here:

h - Jasper Road











By the way, I met two new birding friends while I was birding these recently created Jasper Road mudflats. We wouldn’t have made the connection were it not for the internet. A mutual friend–Diana Doyle, who blogs about apps (try saying that in 1981)–had tipped us off. By email, of course.

After the birthday party, it was time for the first of four soccer games this weekend. Here’s Andrew on a breakaway:

h - soccer


I did some low-tech birding while at that soccer match: no scope, no bins, no pocket recorder. Just like the old days, right? Not so fast. I eBirded an “incidental observation” from my time at the game:

i - ebirg
















In 1981, I would have written it down in my journal. Today it’s out there, with my Xeno-Canto uploads and COBirds posts, for all the world’s billions of internet users to see.

The game was to last an hour, so there was time to sneak off to near by Sale Lake, a little migrant trap 10 minutes away. Sale Lake can be fantastic during cool, wet, “upslope” weather systems in northern Colorado. But that wasn’t the weather yesterday. So just a year bird Orange-crowned Warbler and a few Bushtits. And a House Finch that I decided to audio-record. Here’s the audio:

With the House Wren from earlier in the morning, I uploaded the recording to Xeno-Canto. I’ll do that in just a bit for this House Finch. For now, I’ll show you about another way–unthinkable in 1981–of handling the recording. With Audacity, freeware available online to anyone, you can visualize–literally see–the aural data in various ways. Here’s one of several:

k - sound








This is Audacity’s “waveform” output clearly showing something that no birder’s ear can pick out in the field: the exact number of syllables in the male’s song: 19, and then the loud, rising, twangy, terminal note.

I remember reading in the early 1990s how a few–a very few–scientists were studying House Finch dialects, and learning cool stuff with expensive equipment in fancy labs. Now anybody with access to a computer can do it, and the software and analysis are free.

After another soccer match (and a few texts; funny how that word’s dominant meaning has changed in the past few years), it was time to buy shoes, have dinner, and acquire a thirdling for the night:

l - kids














Just one thing remained: a sunset visit to my local patch–60 seconds, if you’re fast, from the front door. It’s a wonderful, magical place. Yesterday evening, I saw a glorious drake Wood Duck there, plus a bunch of displaying Buffleheads. A Pied-billed Grebe sang his strange, cuckoo-like song, and the Yellow-headed Blackbirds “sang” their tormented “songs.” Western chorus frogs were going off like crazy, and I heard a Sora. I recorded the Sora too:

I met a new birder there: an older woman with one of those remarkable motorized contraptions for getting around–even to some really tricky places. She had a great little camera and showed me some beautiful photos of a Swainson’s Hawk she’d been working. In 1981, she might well have been homebound.

Oh, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo with my phone:

n night


Thus ended Saturday, May 3, 2014. In one key respect, the day wasn’t all that unlike any day in October 1981. I was a birder by that time, a full-on, full-fledged, never-turn-back-again birder. On a hectic, over-committed Saturday in 1981, I would shoehorn in the birding whenever and wherever I could.

But think of all the changes: email and the internet, eBird, smartphones, Xeno-Canto, Audacity, Google Maps, COBirds and other listservs, digiscoping, the Pyle guides (two of them now), blogging, apps, waveform images, screen-captures and clicking on photos, pocket digital recorders, texting and uploading, PowerPoint, PDFs and digital scanners, the rise of young birders and the mainstreaming of birding, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, .wav and .mp3 files, links and URLs, sound files and jpegs, and more.

About 10 years ago, I heard Pete Dunne give a talk on the 25 things that have changed birding, i.e., going back to around the time of that Michel Gosselin’s Birding cover. I think I rattled off more than 25 in just the preceding, one-sentence paragraph–several of them not yet in existence when I heard Dunne’s talk. And I didn’t even mention Facebook and Twitter!

Yes, we’ve changed, profoundly and–for the most part, I would say–felicitously so. In the final analysis, though, I have to say, I’m most greatly impressed by the timeless and singular impulse to go birding. Me in 1981 vs. me in 2014, we’re different in so many ways; indeed, I buy into the emerging scientific view, informed by fascinating new work in neuroscience, that we’re not even the same person. And yet we share the same basic fascination with godwits on a mudflat, a molting goldfinch, a Sora singing from the marsh.

Isn’t that cool?





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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Virginia Maynard

    A thoughtful, fascinating essay. I always read Ted’s posts on COBIrds because they are always this good.

    • Ted Floyd

      Hi, Virginia. Everybody else: Virginia Maynard is a large part of the reason I’ve twice had encounters with law enforcement in Prowers County, Colorado. Including the time my parked car was swarmed with patrol cars with flashing lights and stern-looking police officers. Ponder that on a sleepy Monday morning!

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  • Ted Floyd

    This morning I heard on the radio an NPR program about the importance of learning new skills later in life. The particular case study was of an octogenarian who had recently learned Photoshop and digital photography. Maybe all that screen time isn’t such a bad thing after all, eh?

  • Brooke McDonald

    I hate to throw the word “blessed” around, but we have so many amazing resources at our disposal that people back in the day could have only dreamed of. People in Podunkistan have access to information that even people who lived near a big library and who knew a lot of elite birders didn’t have.

    I’ve been playing Larkwire like a fiend recently. I went on my first spring trip to Texas last week, and it was the first time I’ve left the state and felt like I had a real handle on what I was hearing.

    I saw some confusing raptors on the trip, so since I’ve been back, I’ve been spending time with Hawks in Flight, Jerry Liguori’s books, and a few other books on raptor ID that have come out since 1981. Google image search is amazing for studying birds. (Spoiler: they were mostly Broad-wings with a probable juvenile Gray Hawk.)

    When I was in Texas, I intersected with hella friends I met on the internet, and they took me out and got me a few lifers. (Hell, right now I’m interacting with Ted Floyd… how cool is that?)

    I also needed Green Parakeet, and thanks to my friend’s smartphone, we were able to go right to where the birds were, even though they changed their roosting location this year. On the way back to the hotel, we stumbled across another massive roost, and I put it up on the eBirds.

    Even 10 years ago, I would not have gotten nearly as much out of the trip as I did.

    • Brooke McDonald

      I was musing on this more, and I have some additional unformed thoughts that may or may not be related to the OP.

      I read an argument a few years ago that said that if you make Mt. Hood easier and “safer” to climb, more people will get injured or killed trying to climb it because people without technical skills will attempt it.

      It seems like we’re facing some similar challenges in birding, where a lot of these tools have made the sport/hobby too easy in a way, and it’s possible to know the what without the why. Every day I see people posting lovely pictures online and asking “What bird is this?” and every day I fight back the urge to tell them to go look it up in the field guide. It’s not some kind of gatekeeping move on my part; it’s just that if I give them the bird’s name without making them think, it’s not going to improve their birding skills. For me, I feel like I’ve learned more from the birds that I never figured out than I did from the birds that were really easy to identify.

      How do you give the tough love without being dismissive? And how do you encourage people to use these new tools to make their own birding better instead of just leaning on the tool like a drunk leaning on a lamppost?

      (And I’m not saying any of this like I’m an expert. There are still areas where I am deeply, deeply ignorant, but part of the fun of birding is the fact that there’s infinite room for growth and learning.)

      • Ted Floyd

        Good points, Brooke. Sorry for the cliche, but it’s all about how one uses these new tools, isn’t it? Folks like Paul Lehman and Rick Wright take a cautious, even dark, view of the matter. Here are two Birding magazine essays by Lehman:

        Wright’s essay “Birding Alone,” in the January/February 2008 Birding is a tour de force. It’s not available online.

        Folks like Chuck Otte and me are more sanguine. Here’s Otte:

        And you’ve already heard from me… 🙂

  • Virginia Maynard

    Still pondering, Ted. Must have involved you and your progeny in some sort of hands-on, shoes-off, nature adventure.

  • Fascinating article.

    As a relatively recent convert to “serious birding” I’m well aware of how lucky we are. I found out recently that I’m going on a business trip to Fargo in a few weeks. Within two minutes I had pulled up the eBird occurrence chart for Cass County, and figured out which birds were likely to be present during my stay, generated a list of target birds, and sometime this week I hope to put together a bunch of virtual flash cards I can use to learn those species songs. Basically none of this would have been possible just a couple years ago.

    Books were only lightly touched upon in this post, but my impression as a birder who hasn’t been around for too long is that incredible strides are being made in this area. In 1981 the National Geographic field guide didn’t exist. I’m guessing your options were Peterson, Golden, and ??? Now not only do we have several excellent all-species North American guides, but we also have more specialized books like The Warbler Guide, Rare Birds of NA, etc coming out on what seems like a quarterly basis.

    What I’m really curious about it what effect all these new technologies will have in turning the millions of casual birders into serious birders. In my own case, before I found our local listserv and eBird a few years ago I was just a frustrated guy with a field guide. Once I became connected to the information posted by other birders in the area it opened up a a whole new world to me. I suspect that there are many others just like me and I wonder if these technologies will begin to convert some of them as they realize what they’ve been missing?

    The article also also begs the question, what is to come?

    Smartphones and tablets keep on improving and seem ripe for further progress. How long until someone takes the next step and moves the digital field guide forward. Right now most of them only include audio in addition to the content found in their paper counterparts, but video could be incredibly useful for some species. I think there was a blog post here about what a difference something as simple as a video of the tail movement of a Gray Flycatcher help birder unfamiliar with the behavioral quirks of empids ID this species.

    Technology can be leveraged in entirely new ways. Night-flight call monitoring has been around for a long while now, but it has been limited to a relatively small number of sites that are almost all in the eastern half of the US. This is probably largely in part because the technology used has largely stayed static. Microphone plugged into a computer (or maybe even a VCR!) set to either record at a specific time or manually turned on and off. Then the resulting audio has to be manually sorted through with some archaic or expensive tools. We now have small embedded systems that cost under $50 and could be programmed to do all the recording automatically and upload the resulting audio to a server for processing.In a few years all the processing could probably be done realtime on the device itself. All that would be needed would be software programmed to auto-detect and label calls with a reasonable amount of accuracy. If people could buy an pre-built and configured NFC monitoring station for less than a couple hundred dollars that was hooked into a continental network of that tabulates data it could do a lot to help our understanding of migration.

    Alright, perhaps that’s a little pie in the sky, so I’ll bring it back to earth. Right now North American birding’s social presence is really good on a micro level (listservs) and on a super macro level. What I mean by super macro is that if an truly rare bird shows up or major discovery is found it is well publicized on this blog, facebook groups, etc. What seems to be missing is the middle. Let’s say I had a question that was large enough that a local listserv was inappropriate. Let’s say I’m interested to see if there’s any pattern to the habitat vagrant Yellow Throated Warbler’s use when out of range. Where do I go with that? Facebook groups are certainly an option, but they have a lot of disadvantages. It’s hard to keep track of threads, nothing is kept in a searchable archive, only people with Facebook accounts can use them, etc. It seems like it’d be helpful to have some sort of forum the existed between the local and national that helped people discuss topics that are not necessarily local in nature. Birdforum does this somewhat well, but its user base includes relatively few North American birders. I’d be curious what sort of traction a well moderated North American forum would have.

  • Quentin Brown

    Many thanks for the really informative article. I enjoyed the way you used your kid’s activities as a background to the technological advances. I’m sure that that struck a chord for many. It did for me!

  • Ted Floyd

    The New York Times has recent coverage of this topic:

  • struatmarkes234

    Nice your kids are awake at 7 am and my kids are always awake at 9 am every weekend and If I ask for some kids activities north vancouver then they told me that they are tired.

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