American Birding Podcast



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?