Birding: Technology makes for a different experience

A couple of recent resightings of birds got me to thinking about the state of birding in 2018. Before we get to those birds, I would like to muse on the changes in birding in my nearly 60 years as a birder.

As a kid growing up in the 1950s, the best tool we birders had was either Roger Tory Peterson’s or Chan Robbins’ field guide. Binoculars were inexpensive and the quality of the optics matched the price.

Spotting scopes weren’t a part of my birding experience until 1975. Does anyone remember the Balscope? I bought my first scope, a Bushnell Spacemaster, around 1978. What a difference that made, particularly with groups like shorebirds and ducks at a distance. Spotting scopes became a lucrative market for optics companies and current scopes provide astoundingly clear images. Scopes are now standard birding gear.

In the early 1970s I discovered the LP record set, “Eastern Bird Songs,” based on recordings housed at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. These recordings helped many improve their aural identification of birds. The recordings did not capture the variability and diversity of the calls and songs of many birds.

Twenty years later, improved resources like the Birding by Ear series, sets of recordings by Lang Elliot, John Feith, Donald and Lillian Stokes, and others provided rich resources for improving our birding by ear. Now most birding apps for your smartphone or tablet have multiple recordings of each species.

In my first two decades of birding, I saw few birders with cameras. Telephoto lenses were beyond the budget of many birders and the manual single-lens reflex (SLR) cameras of the day were less versatile than current models. Photographers shot either slide or print film so had to be economical in what pictures to shoot.

The arrival of digital point-and-shoot cameras was a game-changer. With optical zoom lenses able to zoom to 24 times or more, birders could take pretty decent pictures of birds with a tool that was reasonably affordable.

But to me, one of the greatest changes in birding over the past 25 years has been the arrival and continued improvement of digital SLR cameras. The shutter speed can be set fast enough to stop a bird in flight while lowering the aperture as much as possible to produce decent depth of field. The memory card can hold thousands of photos.

Many birders now go afield with a digital SLR and a 400-mm lens around their necks. With the auto-focus feature of digital SLRs, anyone can produce stunning photographs of birds. We can shoot at a high enough resolution that even a bird occupying only a small part of a frame can be cropped to yield a crisp image.

Documentation of birds is so much easier now. It’s quite common to see many eBird reports now with embedded images to support the identification of unusual and even common birds.

Now to the resightings. In early August a great black hawk was sighted in Maine for a few days. A first record for Maine, it was photographed by many. A great black hawk had been reported from south Texas in late April, where it too was extensively photographed.

Comparisons of the complex underwing feathers indicates a perfect match. The Texas bird and the Maine bird were one and the same.

The roseate spoonbill seen recently for over two weeks in Dover-Foxcroft finally departed. Photographs of the bird showed a puncture hole in the upper bill, likely courtesy of an egret or heron when the spoonbill was a nestling. Guess what? A roseate spoonbill appeared in coastal Connecticut on Sept. 19. It has a puncture hole in the same place as our bird, another reoccurrence made possible by digital photography. Furthermore, the same bird was seen in early August in Walkill, New York.

Herb Wilson teaches ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at [email protected]

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