Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Technology trend is changing the way people watch birds

There is a convergence of technology underway that is fundamentally changing the way many people approach watching birds.

You're seeing the technology right now.

The technology trend is the ubiquitous nature of powerful, yet affordable, digital zoom cameras, combined with free photosharing web sites and blogs.

Of course, photographers have been taking pictures of wild birds since at least 1892. And, a century later, birders were discovering en mass "Digiscoping," holding up an inexpensive point-and-shoot digital camera to the best birding spotting scopes.

The problem has been sharing those photos. With the advent of the Internet and digital photography, it was easier to post photos. Easier. Not necessarily easy. If you spent the time and money you could have your own Internet web page and upload the photos there.

Though the word "blog" had not yet been coined (the word "web log" was first used in 1997 and later shortened) Don Roberson's rare bird photo-journal: Monterey County Rarities is a home-grown blog that began in 1998 and continues to this day.

One of the oldest blogs on birds still running in the Pacific NW is Mike Patterson's North Coast Diaries. Patterson started his blog in 2004.

Flickr by Yahoo! has free photo-sharing accounts. It allows users to invite others to look at their photos and leave comments.

Google bought Blogger in 2003 and Picasa in 2004. These free programs combine to allow users easily to share photos and text with others.

Now it is easier than ever before for knowledgeable birders, like Roberson and Patterson, to share their high-quality photos and expert knowledge to help teach others about birds and bird watching. This is certainly a welcome advance in bird watching.

But this is not the trend that is changing the way many people are watching birds.

The New Paradigm

Rather, these digital photography and blog technologies are causing new birders to approach birding in a different way. In the past, a beginning birder would spend time observing birds with binoculars and notepad, then research it in their field guides. They may or may not come to a conclusion about its identity. And if they didn't, the bird was gone and the opportunity lost, except for their written description in their field notebook. If they could accurately describe the bird, then, perhaps, a more experienced birding mentor could help them come to an accurate ID. Keen observation skills in the field were required, along with the ability to describe bird anatomy and, perhaps, crude bird sketching skills.

Now, however, what is clear is that many new bird watchers--for the first time ever--are approaching birding from the photograph first, post on the Internet now, identify later point of view.

Young birderA young birder practices digiscoping birds at Riley Pond, Oregon on 23 May 2009 by Greg Gillson.


Because of this fundamental change to photographing birds even before attempting an identification, Gunnar Engblom in March 2009 went so far as to make the controversial recommendation of buying young or newer birders a digital camera rather than binoculars!

Does this new paradigm cause new birders to overly rely on others to identify birds for them? Will this keep them from ever developing the keen observation skills necessary to become a competent birder? Or, conversely, could the immediate feedback and ability to get a correct identification from experts anywhere in the world actually help a new birder gain more confidence in their identification skills? Could the extra time needed to get the photograph mean more time spent observing the bird and its behavior? And could the post-processing time on the computer to make the photo ready for publication lead to more study of an actual bird's plumage and structure?

Whether you think this is the "correct" way to learn bird identification skills or not, it is clear that a photograph first, identify later, trend is sweeping the birding landscape. A year or two ago a few requests for photo ID help would appear from time to time on the various bird mailing listservs. "If I email my photo of this strange bird to someone, will you help me to identify it?" Now, however, it is not unusual to have several requests per day on the more active birding email lists. "See my new photos," "Photo ID help requested," and "Blog updated" are frequent subjects of email list postings, directing readers to their blog or photo sharing page to view and, more often than not, help out with a bird identification puzzle.

To close this discussion, I'd like to point to you to Samuel Snook's Nature blog. Snook is, as he says: "a 12 year old boy who takes birding very seriously." Read his May 18, 2009 article: Nature: Point Pelee National Park. And I mean read this. Samuel does use one of his photos (and memory of the bird's song) to get help to identify one new bird; then he immediately goes out to find another. At the end of his blog post he thanks his parents for spending time and money to encourage his birding hobby. Any parent would be proud.

Is this the future of birding?


  1. Great post. I've learned about digiscoping, went and read Sammuels blog and isn't he amazing for a young boy.
    We love watching birds since we bought a house up in the woods years ago. In fact I just planted a couple of young trees off of the deck so they could sit in them and I could get closer pictures. Then picked up a couple of free standing birdfeeders to set up near the trees. I have birdbaths close by also (6 to be exact not counting the front yard) and they love every one of them - sometimes birdbath hopping from one to another and enjoying them all. We really get a kick out of watching them.

  2. I think you are absolutely right about how photography has changed things. I think it is a good thing for learning birds. It also combines an artistic element to birding that appeals to me personally. I think it is also a way for people to "collect" birds. I don't have a complete "life list" that I maintain, but I have my photos! Thanks for this thoughtful article.

  3. Fascinating topic you bring up about photo-identification rather than field-identification. I had not pondered that before.

    The digital age of birding has taken us a long way from the days of “harvesting samples” that was so common over a hundred and fifty years ago.

    Internet resources like eBird and BirdNotes are dramatically affecting the way we bird too.

    “Old School” birders seemed to keep a list of birds they see during a day without regard to specific location or numbers of each species seen. Their records are all on paper or written in the margin of old field guides. While “old school” field identification and note taking abilities may be superior, the value of their skills to the greater birding community is reduced. My birding mentor is this way and I used his methods until just a couple of years ago.

    In order to successfully use the internet resources, digital age birders almost have to keep more precise location and quantity information to record their sightings online. These internet tools contribute to science as well as make valuable resources for the birding hobbyist.

    I know plenty of pencil & paper birders who have successfully transitioned into excellent digital-age birders (though a young and novice birder still, I was old-school), so I apologize for generalizing and creating a false dichotomy based on my personal experience.

    Another interesting aspect of digital age birding is the ability to post rare bird sightings on listservs, like Yahoo Groups, and have dozens of other birders chase down the rarity on the same day for confirmation.

  4. I just read an article in Birders World Magazine by Pete Dunne called "The e-gap" discussing how the internet and its ability to network birders is making it tough for birding clubs to recruit young and energetic members to carry the association torch into the future.