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In Praise of New Technologies

A recent Facebook thread (doesn’t everything these days start with some kind of social media post) lamented the apparent reliance on instant gratification and use of technology in the pursuit of birds these days. It’s true that the use of cameras seems to be greater than the use of binoculars for today’s beginners, both young and old. Many of the posts start with “When I started birding….” followed by the usual walking up hill in both directions, three feet of snow kind of sagas about how much more difficult it was back then. Digital apps, endless streams of common birds with ID help requests attached –oh, my! What is this world coming to?

Fellow ABA blogger Greg Neise has written several pieces on the use of photography in birding including 21st Century Audubons. Have a look at Greg’s article, then have a look at the comments, especially those from beginners.

I guess it’s not surprising to hear people comparing how easy it is now to how difficult it was when they started birding. We do it all the time. About everything. I’m not sure why this is, but the resistance to change seems to be something we acquire in early adulthood and it grows and grows until we turn into old codgers. Well, hopefully not all of us. I can only imaging the outrage when the Peterson Guide first came on the scene. It probably went something like this: “In my day, we had to memorize the critical markings and draw our own pictures!” Or when optics became accessible: “What a lazy way to birdwatch! I had to make do with my own eyeballs!”

Many of the people lamenting the changing tools and technology had the great fortune of birding as children, learning field craft at that most absorptive stage of life and becoming expert at an age that is half, or even a quarter, of when a lot of us identified our first new bird. One of my life regrets at 40 was not having learned the names of the birds as a child. I had an old pair of binoculars. I’d even bought a couple of field guides. I think I could identify about 20 species. Big, colorful, obvious species. It wasn’t until a work colleague offered to take a group of us out birding that the lightbulb went on. Not only could he identify the birds by their songs, but he could tell me what features to look for to help identify those yellow-colored birds and little brown jobs. The fleeting looks I could get at them (pre-digital camera era) were rarely sufficient for me to find them in my books, but a walking talking field guide was the best it could get! When you don’t know the difference between a warbler and a sparrow, the books are not as helpful as you might think. Local checklists and bar charts?  Who knew that they even existed?  Thank goodness for eBird for beginners these days!

Preparing to walk into the spruce forest to look for Pacific Wren and Three-toed Woodpecker.

Birding with an expert remains one of the best ways to learn about local birds.

For me, and for many others, the tipping point between being casually interested in birds and becoming an enthusiastic birder was patient and ongoing help from other birders. What a boon social media is for this! Now even the tentative solo beginner has access to experienced birders to help with their identifications. I’m delighted that groups have been set up to let newbies post their photos of juncos and flickers without the derision that I’ve seen in other online forums.

It may come as a surprise to many that the help with identification of common birds drives most of those posters into seeking out more knowledge. “Holy crap, I’ve got a Cedar Waxwing in my yard!” leads to looking up the bird and getting more information. I’ve marveled at the pace people are transitioning from newbie to expert these days, and social media gets a lot of the credit. Sites like Xeno-canto and digital apps are helping people learn birds sounds when the birds aren’t even singing. Back in the dark past of 1996, I spent the winter with a computer program that included a “Song Tutor”.  It moved me ahead in months with what would have otherwise taken years. Yes, modern technology has taken some of the drudgery out of this hobby, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Less time drudging means more time actually studying the birds!  Admittedly, there are a few who will never take the time to learn, but in my experience, they are a tiny minority.

I think the most important point, though, is that any of these approaches — field craft (with or without a mentor), textbook study, and technology-assisted learning — are not mutually exclusive. You can be a photography fiend that spends hours scrutinizing a backyard bird’s behavior just to get that perfect shot. You can spend weeks studying the songs of birds that you hope to find at your upcoming vacation destination. You can ask for help in identifying your first Yellow Warbler, and a year later be helping other newbies posting photos of common birds. And you can make the hobby as difficult as you want by delving into the world of obscure hybrids or identification of birds by chip notes.

With regard to new technology, I say, “Bring it on!” Anything that reduces frustration and keeps people interested in finding and watching birds is a good thing in my book–or tablet!

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Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale (and yes, that is her real name) is an avid birder and amateur naturalist. A relative late-comer to birding, Ann took up the binoculars and scope in the mid 1990’s and has been making up for lost time since. Ann serves on the board of Rocky Point Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station on the southern tip of Vancouver Island (the place with the Skylarks!) She first volunteered at RPBO in 1997 and over the years has become a licensed passerine, hummingbird and owl bander. Also active with the Victoria Natural History Society, Ann leads local birding field trips and coordinates the Christmas Bird Count for the Victoria circle. Recently she has added coordination of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas to her “administrative birding” activities.
Ann Nightingale

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  • Greg Neise

    I am in agreement (as the article I wrote that you linked to is as well) … but the point I tried to make then–and maybe it’s just too subtle–is that when observing birds through binoculars (or simply without a camera), you take in different information.

    I come at this from having been a professional wildlife photographer for a long time. When you are framing and focusing, trying to be aware of exposure, etc … you miss a lot of what is going on.

    I carry a camera with me 100% of the time I’m birding, and I think everyone should. But I also think that there is a lot to be gained by simply observing.

    • Diane Yorgason-Quinn

      I agree and carry a camera myself, BUT — multitasking can lose you some birds. I’ve seen birds that better birders than I am missed since they were busy posting to eBird or checking that last photo they took, which is akin to those oblivious people walking along looking at nothing but their smartphones. Like Ann, my best “app” in the field is a local expert, as she was for me at the Accentor site several months ago.

  • Shaibal Mitra

    My reaction is, “Good conclusion; not so good argument.” Most of us who still go on about “walking uphill in both directions” acknowledge that buses and cars are great. The good thing about the old days wasn’t that it took longer to get to school, which was a cost in terms of other priorities that had to be sacrificed, but rather that, at the very least, kids tended to be more active and less likely to be obese. Lots of kids today are both highly fit and also able to take advantage of efficient transportation to accomplish more than anyone was able to before buses and cars, so yes, bring on the technology! But other kids today actually access few of the benefits, beyond mere convenience, that technology can confer–but they also miss out on the unintended consequences of mandatory long walks, such as health, contemplation, and exposure to the natural world.

    Contrary to the argument in this blogpost, birding technology yields its greatest rewards to the youngest and most talented birders, whereas older and less skillful converts to birding gain the least from the technology and suffer the most from missing the simpler, slower pleasures of simply watching and contemplating the birds around them. Even though those pleasures formerly came at a cost in terms of the potential steepness of one’s learning curve, when they were obligatory, at least nobody missed out. Today, for every brilliant new talent who seamlessly integrates the best facets of every tool in her kit, I meet many frustrated birders who neither master their cameras and other devices, nor ever gain the basic familiarity with common birds, and the pleasure in simply watching them, that used to be a guaranteed reward of the old-time “drudgery.”

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