The New World of Birding – With Technology

DSC_0422by Heather Kallevig

*All photos in this post are taken by Heather Kallevig

When many people think of birders they devise a mental image of three men, a tall, slick blonde in bright colors, an intelligent, goofy white-haired businessman, and an unkempt computer geek, all locked in a great battle, vying for the prize. This picture portrays birding as an expensive, obsessive, competitive sport dragging its players across the country to see who can view the greatest number of birds in one year. This is the picture drawn by the 2011 motion picture, The Big Year.

While these compulsory birders do exist, chasing species and migrations across the country, most birders would be more likely to identify with the other characters in The Big Year. These individuals enjoy birding as a life-enriching hobby, based on the beauty, surprise, and excitement of discovering new species. Birding is an activity built on comradery and conservation.

Though many do not realize it, The Big Year is based on a book, by Mark Obmascik, “The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession.” In the introduction, Obmascik defines the important difference between a birdwatcher and a birder. “No longer is it accurate to call me a birdwatcher, a term the pros use to dismiss the spinsters and retired British Army colonels who wait passively for birds to come to them. I have become an enthusiast, a chaser – a birder” (Obmascik, M. 2004).

The sport of birding has changed dramatically from its inception. Jean-Jacque (John James) Audubon, a French sailor in 1820, is credited as one of the first great birders with the initial goal of drawing a portrait of every bird in North America (National Audubon Society). Because of this feat, his name is revered by all birders. Today, instead of drawings, we take pictures, and with the new innovations in cameras and binoculars, we generally take very good ones. Nicholas Lund, writer for the Birdist exclaims, “Digital photography has changed everything” (Lund, N. 2013). If you were to attend a bird watching festival, you would be astounded to see the many thousands of dollars in lenses wielded expertly by the patient, dedicated birders.


Innovations have changed birding in many ways including our methods for tracking migrations, viewing birds, and even the way birders communicate with one another through an online social network. Similar to the computer programmer in A Big Year, most birders are part techy. We carry iPhones with expensive apps to help identify birds and maintain our life list, our cameras and advanced optic lenses allow us to take fantastic photos without every taking a photography class, and our findings are posted online contributing to knowledge and science.

Thanks to innovative apps, birders no longer lug a field guide on their birding quests. Today all we need is a smart phone. Even luddites are dropping their three-pound field guide in exchange for a device. (Lund, N. 2013). There are many different apps available for beginning and advanced birders. One of the most popular, iBird is a $20 app, and well worth it. With this app, you can identify birds by location, color, and size. Perhaps the best feature of this app is the option to listen to a bird’s song, sometimes even using it call a bird in. You can see an array of photos, read interesting facts, and collect a favorites list of birds. To learn more about iBird, add the app or visit their website at While this is one of the most popular, there are many other options. For example, a new app reviewed by Chelsea Harvey in Audubon Magazine was released this summer by researchers from Columbia University. The new app, called “Birdsnap,” uses photos and facial recognition to help birders identify a new species (Harvey, C. 2014). In the American Birding Association blog, Drew Weber discusses future tech and other popular birding apps to check out. A few of the apps he discussed are Birdseye, Birdlog, Oddfeathers, BirdTrax, eBird, and Kiwifoto (Weber, D. 2013). These apps include checklist tools and rare bird alerts allowing birders to connect and share information.


These new innovations, including the birding apps, contribute to a growing social network of birders that did not exist in the past. Historically birding could be a very solitary sport. Today, if a rare bird sighting occurs, within an hour there can be a hundred birders or more all focused with their opticals in the air. “Birding has become hypersocial” quotes Richard Degener in his review of the New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Autumn Birding Festival (Degener, R. 2014). There is no end of birding blogs, apps, social media pages connecting birders to one another to compare lists, discuss sightings, and evaluate new technologies. People are building friendships on the foundation of birding.

On any social media site, you will find birding networks large and small. I myself am a member of several Facebook groups including Birds of Alaska, American Birding Association, and the Audubon Society. On Twitter I follow posts by the Indiana Audubon Birding Society, the Alaska Audubon Birding Society, and fellow individual birders recognized for their online blogs. These connections facilitate communication and breed enthusiasm for the sport, engendered by a sense of community and network.

One of the most important wide-reaching results of birding innovation is growth in citizen science. According to birding expert and conservation advocate James Currie, this term refers to the collection and analysis of data and the spread of data through voluntary researchers. The main contributions are observations and findings shared by birders rather than trained field scientists. The annual Big Year is an excellent example of this. Though this activity has been popular since the 1900s, it has gained ground as birders connect and communicate via the Internet (Currie, J. 2011). Today scientists can follow migrations, impacts of climate change, and dwindling species all by the contribution of wee, ordinary birders posting online. Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology uses citizen scientist through observation tools like Nestcams, Feederwatches, and eBirds. All of these programs allow citizens old and young to watch, identify, and make an important contribution to wildlife conservation.


Citizen science has three important contributions. First, it encourages birders by giving them an opportunity to make a meaningful difference. Second, citizen science is often the means of introducing new people to birding. Third, it’s a means of data collection to support public policy on conservation (Currie, J. 2011). Thanks to this research scientists can observe the effects of climate change and habitat loss. The Audubon Climate report estimates 314 species, nearly half of the US’s birds are at risk of extinction within this century (The Audubon Birds & Climate Change Report. 2014).

In 2011, A Big Year brought birding to a larger public eye. It increased many viewers enthusiasm and helped them make the leap from birdwatchers to birders. As more people join this often oddball group of nature enthusiasts the sport will gain recognition and innovation will increase. This will mean advances in gadgets, lens, and communication among members. While these gains are important, there is an overarching awareness that increases with the citizen science supported through innovation in birding.   As this sport grows, it becomes more than a simple weekend activity. It cultivates a conservation movement, one with the potential to protect and preserve threatened species for many generations of obsessive Big Year enthusiasts to come.


The Audubon Birds & Climate Change Report. (2014). Retrieved November 19, 2014, from

Currier, J. (2011, December 6). Birding Technology – The New Citizen Science. Retrieved November 19, 2014, from

Degener, R. (2014, October 24). Event Highlights How Technology Changes Birdwatching. Press of Atlantic City.

Harvey, C. (2014, June 13). Innovative Technology Gives Birdwatching a Boost. The Audubon Magazine.

Lund, N. (2013, December 3). High-tech future of staring at birds in the woods. The Slate Book Review.

National Audubon Society. (n.d.) John James Audubon. Retrieved December 1, 2014, from

Obmascik, M. (2004). The big year: A tale of man, nature, and fowl obsession. New York: Free Press.

Weber, D. (2013, May 1). Future tech. Retrieved November 19, 2014, from

Leave a Reply