Bird watching — there’s an app for that!

May 29, 2012

On a bright, crisp morning, Phila Rogers arrives at the UC Botanical Gardens with a Sibley Guide to Birds tucked under her arm and several pairs of binoculars in her pockets.

At her side is an old friend and mentee, Sylvia Hawley, a professional gardener who’s developed an interest in what’s twittering around Bay Area foliage. In a clearing, Rogers, 83, picks up a motion in the distance.

“Look out there, Sylvia. You’re my eyes.”

“It’s blue,” Sylvia says.

“It’s probably a jay. Basically there are two kinds of jays,” Phila says, launching into descriptions of the two.

In some ways, the two women represent a traditional way that bird watchers better their avian know-how: knowledge is passed down from mentor to mentee through time spent in the field. Phila has been bird-watching since she was 8 years old. Sylvia has tapped into Phila’s expertise, and drills on their field sightings by writing down one new bird each week in her calendar.

Yet bird gurus and paper are quickly becoming outdated learning tools in the world of bird-watching. Dozens of mobile phone apps designed as field guides are making it easier than ever for beginners to jump into birding, and for old-timers to ditch the extra poundage and walk light-as-a-feather into bird territories.

“We’re not collecting hard data, but anecdotally it’s just overwhelming, the amount of people you’re seeing out there with smart phones,” said Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association.

Lowering the barriers

Gordon said he thinks the trend has basically been a good one; lowering the barriers to entry gets more people interested in birds and helps with conservation efforts.  But technology has also brought a bit of hand-wringing in hardcore birding circles. “Does technology make birders lazy?” was the headline to an October 2011 post by David Sibley, who took issue with a slew of negative comments in response to news of the development of a mobile app that would allow you to record a birdcall and send it to a server for identification.

“Commenters are concerned that people would be interacting more with their phones than with nature, that birders won’t even have to listen to birds, won’t bother to learn the songs, etc.,” Sibley wrote. “The common thread is that this will create a new generation of lazy birders.”

Like it or not, it’s hard to stop the pace of technology. The mobile birding apps do many things that book-bound field guides do not. Searching methods are more versatile, allowing users to look up birds in multiple kinds of ways, like location, bird type, or size. Others offer narrower lists of bird species by county and season to better the chances of identification. Some of them also allow users to play birdcalls. But perhaps the greatest asset is the sheer volume information at your fingertips.

“If you look at the Peterson Guide to Warblers, it’s probably two-inches thick. It’s huge,” said Nigel Hall, an app developer for the Peterson Field Guide series. “It’s unrealistic to be able to tote that around.”

Hall said Peterson guide publisher Houghton Mifflin sells an 8-field-guide combo app for $14.99, a fraction of the cost (and weight) of an equivalent number of paper guidebooks. There is also a free and more limited Peterson app for 168 backyard birds of North America, which Hall insists is adequate for most beginners. Anything to draw them in is a good thing, he said.

“As soon as you can name something, you get interested in it, instead of some random bird flying around,” he said. “You start paying more attention.”

Paying attention

For a couple years, Karen Harper has been paying more attention to the birds in her neck of the bay at Coyote Hills Regional Park near Fremont. She used to use paper guidebooks, but switched to the iBird app in November when she got a smart phone.

“It was the best $10 I ever spent – I use it all the time” Harper said. “It feels a little weird sometimes. I see other birders out with telescopes and books out. I’m a lot younger. There’s a generation gap there.”

The other day Harper saw birds that looked like mallards, but had green on top of the heads. Using iBird, she looked up similar birds and discovered that they were northern shovelers. Then she confirmed it by playing the shoveler call from her smart phone. Playback is a feature that has worked wonders in expanding her knowledge of birdcalls.

“I think I’m relying a lot more on sounds than I used to because it’s right at my fingertips,” she said.

But playback is one of the technological wonder-features that’s also generated the most worry.

Bon Stronck, a San Mateo photographer, used playback on his smart phone while looking for a male ring-necked pheasant in the Palo Alto Baylands.

“I could hear him calling but I couldn’t see him anywhere,” Stronck said. “He responded immediately to it. He came out into the open, did his display, head up and wings going crazy. I found it to be an interesting way to get nice photos, to get the bird who might not have wanted to cooperate if I asked him.”

His success – the perfect shot – presented Stronck with an ethical dilemma. Should he really be doing this? What if were springtime and young nestlings were around? What if the playback attracted a predator?

“There are probably times when you would be better served by protecting birds and not doing that,” said Stronck. “There was no warning whatsoever on iBird Pro. It might not be a terrible thing to put in there.”

New digital landscape

Jeff Gordon of ABA said he would like to revise his organization’s code of ethics to reflect the “new digital landscape” and give birders more concrete guidelines. But he said he’s not categorically against things like playback, particularly in instances where luring a commonly sighted bird is used to aid beginners, say during a birding tour group.

Information on rare bird sightings can get out in a flash these days. In no time at all, a crowd can assemble under a tree, or on the edge of a pond. Can we love our birds to death? Compared to hunting or fishing, birding is pretty low-key, said Gordon.

“One of the things that’s remarkable about birding and true of the people interested in it is that it’s relatively non-consumptive,” Gordon said. “If you get a bald eagle perched on a tree, you can have a thousand people looking at the eagle and enjoying it and it’s basically unharmed.”

Phila Rogers, an octogenarian, has been rubbed a bit by the techno-craze. She often carries an iPod Touch in addition to her Sibley Guide and uses a National Audubon mobile app to help identify birds by their calls, since her eyesight is not her strongest suit anymore. She also belongs to a Yahoo! Group that posts recent sightings, and even on occasion races to the scene like everyone else, as was the case with a ruby-red summer tanager one day.

“I went to Aquatic Park for 45 minutes until my back was breaking me and then I went home,” she said. “It now comes farther than Mexico. It was a big deal.”

About the Author

Alison Hawkes was a Bay Nature editor from 2011-2017. Before Bay Nature she worked in journalism for more than a decade as a former newspaper reporter turned radio producer turned web editor with each rendition bringing her closer to her dream of covering environmental issues. She co-founded Way Out West, a site dedicated to covering Bay Area environmental news.

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