The Wall Street Journal
Why Birdwatchers Now Carry iPods and Laser Pointers
Devices Help Spot, Call, Identify and Spread News; The Noise of Wireless Alerts
By ANDREW LAVALLEE
February 26, 2007; Page A1
Birdwatchers have long headed into the woods with little more equipment than binoculars and a notebook. But when Laura Erickson sets out on a birding trip, she now brings along two digital cameras, a Palm device with a bird-species database and an iPod loaded with bird songs.
"I used to be a very low-tech person," says Ms. Erickson, a 55-year-old ornithologist in Duluth, Minn. "It's become such a high-tech kind of thing, with so many people carrying so much equipment now."
Technology available to birdwatchers includes National Geographic Society's Handheld Birds, a Palm-enabled field guide; BirdGuides Ltd.'s bird-news alert for the BlackBerry and other devices; and Mighty Jams LLC's birdJam for the iPod.
Earlier this winter, she used a parabolic microphone in her backyard to record the sounds of woodcocks three-quarters of a mile away. "That doesn't seem any more cheating than using binoculars" does, she says. "But to some people, that would just be a horrifying thought."
Indeed, many traditionalists who think that the whole point of birding is to commune with nature bristle at the technology now available to the modern birdwatcher, from laser pointers used to identify birds perched on high branches to devices that play birdcalls. Professional alerting services, already popular in the United Kingdom and springing up in the U.S., allow hardcore hobbyists to receive notices of local sightings on their cellphones or BlackBerrys.
"I have seen good friends in the field that looked like electronics stores when they came down the trail," says Richard Payne, president of the American Birding Association, a Colorado Springs, Colo., nonprofit that counts about 18,000 members. "It's not my style."
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 46 million Americans observed, fed or photographed birds in 2001 -- the most recent year for which it has data -- and they spent $6.01 billion on binoculars, cameras, film, field guides and other stuff.
"For me, it's much more about the simple joys of discovery. I appreciate what technology can do, but I don't want the distraction, and I don't want a barrier," says Tim Abbott, a 38-year-old birder in North Canaan, Conn., who confines himself to binoculars. "I don't want to spend all my time wishing I could recharge my computer so I could get the bird atlas going."
Terry Hunefeld, a retired sales coach in Encinitas, Calif., recently saw an American oystercatcher in nearby Point Loma. "It was a big find," he says of the large bird, identified by its long, red-orange bill. He got a good look and then reached for his BlackBerry, firing off text messages to several friends. Six of them showed up in time to see the bird.
The device came in handy again when he encountered a crested caracara, a raptor rarely spotted in Southern California. "A rare bird, when you find it, could be gone in two minutes. But it could also be there for an hour or two," so getting the word out quickly is key, he says.
When a long-billed murrelet, a seabird that normally lives near the Pacific Ocean, was seen in southwest England in November, more than 1,000 birders hurried to the site. Many were notified by one of the bird-alert services. "You could practically hear the stampede," says a spokeswoman for Sheffield, England-based BirdGuides Ltd., whose electronic-alert services have about 5,000 subscribers paying as much as $186 a year.
Rival Rare Bird Alert, in Norwich, also notified its 1,000-plus subscribers about the sighting. It advertises that its news service is staffed 15 hours a day, 365 days a year. "People have walked out of weddings, people have walked out of their jobs, to see a bird," says a spokesman for the company.
Discussions over the use of technology in birding can "sometimes get a little bit steamy," says Paul Green, director of citizen science at the National Audubon Society in New York. "This community is a very complex one."
One point of contention is the use of mobile technologies that replicate bird songs. MightyJams LLC, in Atlanta, sells an iPod loaded with its BirdJam software and sample songs of 650 birds. The National Geographic Society also sells sample calls loaded onto memory cards for use in handheld devices. The song libraries are intended as identification guides, but they can also be amplified and played through portable speakers to attract birds.
The American Birding Association's code of ethics advises against the tactic for rare or endangered birds because it can distract them from protecting or feeding their young. "It's a very kind of personal, selfish thing to do," Audubon's Mr. Green says.
Denese Van Dyne, one of the partners of MightyJams, says the company is aware of the controversy over the use of recorded calls and encourages customers to limit their use during nesting seasons. "We have an admonition in all our ads: 'BirdJam is a powerful tool. Please use it responsibly.' "
Camera flashes are similarly disruptive, and laser pointers, which some use to point out a hard-to-see bird, also pose risks, according to the American Birding Association. "Some people have a tendency to take that laser pointer and point it right at the bird, i.e., on the bird's body, which is really a mistake," says Mr. Payne, the group's president. A laser pointer can injure a bird's eyes.
Also, wireless alerts can backfire when one tries to use stealth to pursue a bird, he says. "I don't want to be disturbed by someone's cellphone ringing out in the field. And that's happened to me before."
Lillian Stokes, a well-known figure in U.S. birding, says she has taken advantage of technology -- within limits -- to help her spot birds. In September, Ms. Stokes, who with her husband, Don, has written popular field and audio guides, coordinated a hawk-watching trip in New Hampshire. The birders, equipped with cellphones, split into two groups and hiked on mountains 15 miles apart. When Ms. Stokes saw a bald eagle headed toward the other group, at Crotched Mountain, she phoned in the alert. Someone returned the favor when an eagle was spotted heading toward Ms. Stokes's location on Pack Monadnock.
Both groups saw eagles they otherwise would have missed. Technology is coming into birding "big time," Ms. Stokes says.
Still, some birders prefer to keep things simple. Merrill Webb, a 65-year-old biology teacher in Orem, Utah, says that even though he often uses a laser pointer in his classes, the thought of taking it outside has never crossed his mind. To draw out birds, he uses man-made sounds, a practice called "pishing," certainly not an iPod. "I tried using one of those," he says. "I couldn't keep it charged."
Write to Andrew LaVallee at email@example.com
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