By Khara McKeen
Adrianna Zito, an intern for The Nature Conservancy, was unsure of what to expect when she accepted a seasonal position at New Jersey’s Cape May Migratory Bird Refuge.
“I didn’t have much experience with birds or birders. My mental image of birders consisted of people with British accents sporting tweed hats, matching khaki outfits, tattered field guides and binoculars!”
Owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy, the South Cape May Meadows is a globally renowned birders paradise. The refuge is an important stopover for thousands of autumn migrants, while endangered beachnesting birds nest and fledge here each spring and summer.
“So imagine my surprise” continues Zito “when a group of birders rushed the gates waving around Apple iPhones instead of the tattered, dog-eared field guides and notebooks I was expecting!”
One of the birders hurriedly explained to Adrianna that he had just received a tweet that an elusive black rail was spotted about 50 feet into the main trail. With that, the birders disappeared down the trail. Sure, some wore khaki, all had binoculars, and one even wore the obligatory tweed cap. But these are not your parent’s birders.
Social Networking: Not Just for the Birds
We live in an era of text messaging, emails, Facebook, Twitter and iPhones. Social networking has influenced everything from how we stay in touch with friends and family to how we do business.
So why not birding?
Birders have been networking and sharing information for decades. In New Jersey, birders used to phone in sightings to a hotline that would report data to regional bird journals such as New Jersey Birds or North American Birds.
Today’s birders utilize features for the iPhone like iBird, an application offering one stop shopping for birdcalls, illustrations and photos. In fact, iBird even offers maps, satellite images of habitat and, of course, a built-in camera. Text messaging and social networking sites like Twitter allow for real-time messaging between birders.
Then there’s eBird, a real-time, online checklist program. eBird has changed the way that the birding community reports and accesses information about birds. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, eBird provides data sources for basic information on bird abundance and distribution by soliciting sighting reports from birders all over the world.
Zito says many of the daily visitors to the refuge come because they received a text or tweet alerting them to a rare bird present there — sometimes arriving as quickly as 10 minutes after receiving the message.
“Many times visitors arrive with more up-to-date information than me on daily bird sightings,” she says. “They are literally receiving texts or tweets from other birders down the trail telling them to point their spotting scopes to the right, that in about 30 seconds they’re going to see a Mississippi Kite fly by. It’s unreal!”
And what do these “tweets” among birders look like? Here’s a few from twitter.com/CMBObirds.
Interested in High-Tech Birding? Heed This Advice
Don Freiday, the director of Birding Programs for New Jersey Audubon Society's Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO), manages the observatory’s Twitter account. They have only been on Twitter since May 2009, and have about 150 followers, a number that is growing daily.
Freiday says CMBO has been blogging for about two years and has about 20,000 unique visitors and close to 4,000 regular followers.
“With the introduction of blogging, texting and tweeting in the last 3 to 5 years, birders are getting more information, and getting it faster,” says Freiday. “However, a challenge with the increase in information is the need to make sense out of it, and also to vet reports for accuracy. Regional bird journals such as New Jersey Birds or North American Birds play an important role here.”
Freiday leaves these words of advice for the new tech-savvy breed of birders:
“I’d like to think that increased access to bird reports will inspire more people to go out birding more often, and get away from technology for a while! However, there is a tendency for people in any activity to behave like sheep and follow the herd — meaning, follow someone else’s discoveries rather than make their own.
“So yes, go see a bird you’ve heard about, but enjoy the whole experience of birding, too — it’s about the bird in front of you, what it’s doing, where it’s going and how to identify it the next time you see the same species.”
Khara McKeen is communications coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in New Jersey.
Learn more about birding at Cape May at: www.birdcapemay.org and www.njaudobon.org.