Big birding competition will forgo the gadgetry

Posted: May 14, 2010

Scott Fraser is prepping for the birding big time.

So he doesn't just have his binoculars and his scope.

He's got his iPhone with its super birding app. He's got his navigational GPS. On a day in the field, he'll be calling and texting, ever in search of feathered updates.

And, yes, har har, he'll be tweeting.

In the normal birding world, new technologies and social networking have transformed the way people find birds, identify them, and learn to recognize their songs.

In Fraser's world - as a contestant in Saturday's World Series of Birding, which pits some of the superstars of the hobby against one another, each trying to find as many species as he or she can in one 24-hour period within the confines of New Jersey - it's all but a prerequisite.

Except for one thing: Some of the gizmos and sites are so good that they've been banned from the big day.

They're OK for advance scouting, but come 12:01 a.m. Saturday, everyone has to power down.

This suits the few remaining Luddites in the bird world just fine.

"What I like about it is that by the time midnight rolls around, all this stuff turns into a pumpkin," said Pete Dunne, director of the Cape May Bird Observatory who started the World Series of Birding 27 years ago. "It's bare-knuckles birding."

The rest of the time, it seems, it's high-tech birding.

Today's birders do Facebook. They blog. They post minute-by-minute updates on the whereabouts of a find. They check weather radar.

Add on the photo gear, even sound-recording equipment, and "I've seen people so heavily laden they can barely move," said Ted Floyd, editor of the American Bird Association's magazine, Birding.

Gadgetry has become such a pervasive part of birding that Floyd recently decided to offer a new workshop - "bare-naked birding." And he doesn't mean streaking.

Saturday's main event involves teams of birders who are competing not just for the acclaim, such as it is, but also for conservation.

They get pledges for each species they see and then donate the proceeds to the Nature Conservancy, in the case of Fraser's team, or other groups and projects.

Most of them have spent all week, day and night, dashing about New Jersey, searching for the best spots to see - or hear - various species. They plot elaborate routes and to-the-minute timetables.

"On Saturday, there are 1,440 minutes. We can't change that," said Meadowbrook's Bert Filemyr of the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club's team, last year's winners, with 229 species spotted. "But we can change our skills."

He swears by his Droid.

Bill Reaume, a member of Fraser's team, spent untold hours in the field, but he also scouted from his computer at his Germantown home, checking listserves, hotlines, and blogs.

Fraser, of Collegeville, has been tweeting all week as Paloons, short for the team's state and name, Four Loons. Their Twitter bio: Birders gone horribly awry.

Thursday, he'd sung out more than a dozen times by midafternoon. "Followed the call of a VA Rail at the top of 560(!!!)" "Broadwing calling like crazy" from Grau and Skellinger Roads.

For all birders, the new phone apps are big.

David Sibley's consummate field guide took its 6,600 images and 2,200 audio recordings to iPhones and iPod touches in February.

That was preceded in the i-o-sphere by BirdsEye, which brings together content from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, text by author Kenn Kaufman and images from the Academy of Natural Sciences' exhaustive photo collection.

BirdsEye also provides a real-time connection to Cornell's eBird database, which birders say has revolutionized the way they report and access information about sightings.

It's gulping down about 1.5 million to two million observations a month, then spitting them back out in almost whatever form a birder asks for.

Someone stepping off a plane in Dallas - or walking into a field in New Jersey - can turn on an iPhone and learn what he's likely to see within a 30-mile radius. Or he can ask how close a particular species might be, based on recent sightings. Link in the GPS and it will take him there.

Besides helping Saturday's contestants prep for the big bird fest, proponents say the plethora of information has helped democratize birding.

In days gone by, sightings of special birds were kept among an elite few. It wasn't so much snobbery as limited connectivity.

Compare that with last Thanksgiving when an ivory gull, an Arctic species, showed up in Cape May.

"From the time of the first report that it was seen until the time it was available, with pictures and specific information, worldwide on the Web was less than an hour," Filemyr recalled.

The glut of information is also advancing science.

Tom Bancroft, the National Audubon Society's chief scientist, said that although there were two long-standing bird surveys, they were limited - one to winter, the other to the spring breeding season.

eBird, he said, is amassing data constantly, everywhere. "It allows us to get information relevant to conservation that we never had before."

Earlier this month, eBird put out an alert to Gulf Coast residents, asking them to be extra diligent in recording bird observations there.

Officials said that pinpointing the location and abundance of birds would help identify high-priority areas for protection or restoration.

But as usual, the gadgetry isn't all good.

Some use recorded bird calls to lure a particular species. The bird hears it, thinks there's an interloper, and flies over to challenge it.

The Academy's Doug Wechsler said that if this happened too often - say, to a bird unlucky enough to be nesting near a popular birding trail - the bird would spend too much time defending its territory instead of feeding its young.

Then there are the old-school birders like Dunne, who wasn't joking when he said: "I'd rather light myself on fire. The reason I go birding is to get away from all this junk."

He often wonders why all the people he sees with their noses stuck in iPods don't just stay indoors. "The temperature's more controlled."

For this year's competition, as in years past, the Four Loons plan to start in the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in northern New Jersey - about 26 miles west of Times Square.

Other groups often start there, too. It's partly a tradition, partly a way to knock off a few hard-to-find birds in one particular marsh.

They'll chat for a while, renewing annual friendships.

But they'll also be monitoring text messages and tweets. Chkd pond; Duck stl on it.

Then, at 12:01, they go dark. They can still use their GPS devices, just as they would written field notes. But they can't text, take phone calls, use eBird, or do anything else to get new information.

If things go as usual, they'll walk down a road toward some woods, and one of the birders will whistle an imitation of the screech owl they know is there.

When the owl replies, they'll check it off, and the race will be on.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com

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