First, there were weekly bird hotlines. . .
Wait. If we want to be historically complete, first there was grunting and pointing, then look-what-I-just-killed-do-you-want-a-bite (i.e., here’s the specimen if you need proof), then story-telling next to the fire, then cave painting, then winter counts on bison hides, then the printing press, then books, then meetings of ornithological societies, then quarterly magazines, then weekly birding hotlines, then phone trees, then listserves, then eBird, then Twitter, and now. . .
Now? Now we have birding text alert systems. Humans have been sharing bird information with each other for a long, long time, but now we can do it almost instantaneously. What’s next? Computer chips in our brains that let us telepathically share what we’re seeing? I don’t know.
But for today, in some fortunate places, local communities of birders have set up systems to rapidly share birding information through text messages. In Cape May, NJ, thanks to the innovative genius of my friend Bob Fogg, we have KEEKEEKERR , the name of Bob’s website and the text alert system almost everyone in the greater Cape May birding community takes advantage of. I see a bird of interest, I punch out a text message to KEEKEEKERR, and immediately phones are going off across the county, indeed across the world, alerting subscribers of this latest discovery. Brilliant. If you don’t have this going on in your neck of the woods, make it happen. I can’t speak for Bob, but I think he would help – check out his website.
In order for these text message systems to be most effective, participants need to be thoughtful about what bird information they text, and how. If they aren’t thoughtful about it, one’s text inbox can fill with useless, meaningless, and (sadly) at times stupid messages, which some subscribers have to to pay for depending on their phone plan, and that no one wants to read. Many people have opinions on this stuff. Here are mine.
1. Make sure what you text is actionable intelligence. What I mean is, ask yourself, is this information going to likely result in someone following up by looking for the bird and potentially finding it? There are a couple components to this question. First, is the bird (s) interesting? Meaning, rare, early, late, unusually abundant, a spectacle, unusual plumage? Second, does someone have a chance to re-find this bird? For example, I generally won’t text about a flyby unless I think someone downstream of the bird has a shot of looking up and seeing it, or unless I want to alert people that this species is present and moving today, so be alert for it. In the photo of my phone above, I texted about the Upland Sandpiper for both reasons: I knew there were birders west of me in Cape May Point State Park that would be interested, and if one Uppie was moving that day, there might be others.
2. Make sure you are right, or indicate that you are not sure. Being uncertain is fine – just text, “Possible _________ …” so people know. Sometimes even the best birders seek confirmation, and this is a way to do it.
3. Use banding codes for brevity. Bob Fogg has written code for our Cape May system which translates the four letter banding codes to full names, which is super convenient. Basically, banding codes take the first two letters of the bird’s “first name” and the first two letters of the bird’s “last name” to create a four letter code, hence UPSA stands for Upland Sandpiper. But there are lots of exceptions. If you’re not sure of the right banding code, no problem – just spell the name out.
4. Specify the bird’s plumage, if you know it. There’s a world of difference in looking for, say, a breeding plumage male Ruff and a female/non-breeding plumage bird. Make it easy for everyone, and spell it out.
5. Give enough location information so others can find it easily. Everyone has a responsibility to put some bird-finding effort in when they’re birding, but if I text that the Ruff is at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, that could mean anywhere on 47,000 acres spread over 50 miles. Be as specific as you can, give cross-streets or reference well known locations. And use place names people can understand, even people unfamiliar with the area. “SCMM” instantly means South Cape May Meadows to me, but to visiting birders it means nothing (and I admit, I’m guilty sometimes of not being clear enough.) If the official place name is The Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, AKA the South Cape May Meadows, then say so. Then add details, like “in the center pool, best viewed from the observation tower.”
6. If after you text out a bird, it moves, send another text to say what it did, and where it went.
7. Indicate if you are going to be hanging with the bird for a while, in case you can “hand it off” to somebody else.
8. Do NOT use text alert systems to send personal messages to a particular person. “Hey John, you want to meet for dinner later?” has no place in a bird alert system. I personally don’t get mad about this, but I do roll my eyes a little. . .
9. Make sure it is clear who the text is coming from. In our Cape May KEEKEEKERR system, you select a user name, which should be your first and last name. If this isn’t how your system works, just sign your posts. That way, you get the credit for your find, and people who know you can follow up with you on the details.
All this being said. . .go find your own birds most of the time. I’m generally a lousy bird chaser. For example, yesterday there was a KEEKEEKERR message about a Sandwich Tern at Cape May Point State Park, a good bird for here. I was only a mile away, but had just left the SCMM (oops, sorry, The Nature Conservancy’s Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge, AKA the South Cape May Meadows) and was headed away from the tern. I kind of shrugged, said nah, I’ll find one tomorrow. And I didn’t find one – so maybe the next time a SATE comes across the airwaves, I’ll follow up. And even if I don’t, it will be good know one’s out there.
[The author dedicates this post to his friend V.E. Glad to be part of your “posse,” V!]
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