Volume 23 Issue 3, Fall 2018
by Bryan Henson
Many birding experts worked years to gain their knowledge of bird identification through bird walks, field guides and good luck. Now technology is enabling many more interested people to learn this skillful pastime, accelerate the learning curve and enhance the enjoyment of this endeavor.eBird is the greatest tool you can add to your toolkit. If you submit your sightings to eBird, it’ll keep track of them for you. You can review your life/year/month list for the world, the state, or just Loudoun County. And then based on all that data, it can tell you what species you might see and when and where. Planning a birding trip? Then check out the best Hotspots and look at maps of species distributions for where you are going.
With eBird, you can sign up for email alerts. It’ll alert you to rare birds or birds you haven’t yet seen. These alerts can be set up for counties or states. You can receive them hourly or daily. When two rare Trumpeter Swans showed up outside Morven Park, that’s how I knew—and I saw them that same day.
To make it easy to submit data, eBird provides a mobile app that tracks distance, duration and location of bird walks automatically for you; you can add your list of birds seen after the walk through easy data entry. This even helps with IDs—eBird will show you the most common birds at your location first and require you to provide some documentation for rare birds. Most important, eBird provides a way to contribute to the world’s largest citizen science project.
Regional Facebook groups (VA Notable Bird Sightings & Discussion Group and Birding Virginia, for example) and email list-serves (such as “va-bird”) provide a great way to hear about interesting sightings. Facebook was how I first found out about the Snowy Owl at Dulles Airport this past winter. For the most hard core birders, there is also a GroupMe group for VA reviewable rare bird sightings.
Bird identification in the field has never been easier. You can buy field guide apps (Sibley’s, iBird) for your phone. These apps can be a bit pricey, but you can also download the free Audubon app. All these apps not only show you the drawings, range maps and descriptions you are used to seeing in your traditional field guide, they also show photos and allow you to play a bird’s calls/songs.
You can use the free Merlin Bird ID app to help guide you to an identification. This great app from Cornell University walks you through common characteristics (location, time of year, size and colors) to suggest a list of possible matches. A relatively new app called Song Sleuth can help you identify birds by their songs. Carrying a relatively inexpensive super zoom camera (the Canon SX Powershot series is very popular) with WiFi can get you that critical picture to help you document a rare bird or capture the photo you need to identify a new bird. Then you can use the Merlin Photo ID feature to get an identification. Also, the ABA created a great Facebook group called “What’s this Bird?” where you can submit your pictures and get almost instantaneous identification through crowd sourcing! For very far away birds that require a scope, you can get an attachment for your phone that allows you to take a picture through the scope’s incredible zoom.
Whether you are a novice, intermediate or expert, exploring these tools can really help foster your appreciation for our feathered friends and their vast array of colors, songs and features.