Over the years we have met some very avid birders in our RV travels, and while we enjoy watching birds and trying to figure out who’s who among the birds we encounter, we never really made a concerted effort to master the art and science of birding.
Recently while visiting some friends who are excellent birders (talking to you – Shorty and Hazie!) we decided that the movie The Big Year would make a nice birthday gift for Hazie. So we tracked it down. We had also wanted to watch it ourselves – so it was one of those “everybody wins” kinds of gifts. “The Big Year” stars Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson, a stellar lineup. The supporting cast includes three of our favorite actresses, Angelica Huston, Rashida Jones and Diane Wiest – quite a cast! (The last we heard, our friends had watched the movie three times!)
The movie was based on a book called The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, and it follows three men on their pursuit of a Big Year, a competition to see who can identify the most species of birds in a given year. We are in the process of reading it right now and it is a very entertaining book. (Can’t wait to finish this blog post to get back to it!)
Anyway- back to us. The movie made an impression. Not that we could ever aspire to such lofty heights as a BIG YEAR, but as we are traveling the country we are exposed to many more species than usual. Couldn’t we become better birders with some level of concerted effort?
We weren’t sure. It seemed like birding required a photographic memory or some alien level of recall that neither of us could muster:
–> Birding seemed to require a good memory for connecting bird names to birds. We do not have good memories.
–> Birding seemed to require observing fine details and being able to bring a similar species to mind to contrast and compare details. Again “meh” on the memory.
–> Birding seemed to require that you could remember and differentiate among bird calls and songs. Again – the memory challenge seems to be the issue here. We’re getting low on memory, and battery too, for that matter.
Enter the internet.
Lin had been tooling around various internet resources, trying to ID a rather gregarious robin-sized bird, and a rather dramatically marked sparrow-like bird that could sing up a storm here at our campsite at Oliver Lee State Park. She came upon two very important websites and an App that can run on smartphones.
The first site was AllAboutBirds.org, a Cornell University (School of Ornithology) site that had remarkably easy and effective search features for identifying birds. It made figuring out these birds, (which turned out to be a Canyon Towhee and a Black-throated Sparrow), seem like child’s play.
While exploring this site there were, of course, some interesting “Google Ads” to be seen in the sidebar.
One of them was the Sibley Birds of North America. Hmmm. An app. Maybe this would help in field identification too.
$19.95 later, Linda was trying out the app in our campsite. She decided that although it was the MOST money she had ever spent on an app, it was also worth every penny, and it worked amazingly well on her aging Android. When Ric returned from town a little while later, she demonstrated the app by “calling in” the black-throated sparrow:
The little guy proceeded to serenade us from a nearby perch, allowing us to photograph him.
While the song-playing feature is a useful tool, there is a lot of discussion in the birding world about the use of such “disturbing” techniques in the field. Sibley has an excellent post about this on his blog that fairly presents the pros and cons of the technique. We could see that it had an immediate effect, and I plan to use the feature from time to time, but also understand that moderation is best. I think one way a birder can use the technique is to employ headphones in order to play the birdsongs in juxtaposition with what he or she is hearing in the field. The novice can learn – but nobody else (other birders or the birds themselves) would be disturbed.
It is hard to understate the quality of the illustrations by David Allen Sibley. He has a skill for creating illustrations that show off the important defining characteristics of the birds. The illustrations are far better than photographs, which often don’t portray color well – or miss an important feature due to the position and the momentary posture of the bird. The Aha! moment came when we realized that this tool could become our “portable” field memory and help us overcome our personal memory shortcomings so that we could become more proficient birders.
So Ric downloaded the app on his phone too.
Later in the day Lin found another website (also by Cornell Lab of Ornithology) that is a citizen science project for birders. The website is eBird.org, and you can learn how to take your birding observations and do them in such a way as to contribute valuable data for scientific research. eBird is amassing one of the largest and fastest growing biodiversity data resources in existence, reporting millions of bird observations each month! Their help pages guide you through the process of how to conduct observations and submit them to the eBird database.
That was the icing on the cake – we love doing “Citizen Science” projects.
So there you have it. We are officially “birding”now. We think we’ll get better at observing with consistent practice and mutual support in our efforts. But more importantly, we are sure that this is one more little thing that will enrich our lives and keep our brains from ossifying any more quickly than necessary.