Tech takes flight with new wave of birders

Between dawn and dusk on a frigid day, Hal Wierenga and fellow birders combed greater Annapolis for canvasback ducks, double-crested cormorants and dozens of other species as part of the 110th annual Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count. And they relied on nothing more than binoculars, decades of experience and an uncommon level of hardiness.

Despite a century of tradition, the count - and birding in general - is headed for change as some watchers abandon the worn pages of their field manuals and pencils for things decidedly more modern: electronic field guides and social networking sites.

Birders have armed themselves with iPhones that give them ready access to images, maps, sounds and Web sites such as and to record their latest sightings in real time.

Some conservationists believe more and faster information is contributing to a rise in the popularity of birding among younger people. But the gadgetry is getting a somewhat mixed reaction in other circles, especially on Bird Count day.

Wierenga remains on the fringe of the tech phenomenon. He sometimes uses a cell phone to tell other birders of special finds they may want to come see. Though others in his group frequent birding Web sites, and enjoy modern scopes and digital cameras, Wierenga discourages real-time technology during the count because he doesn't want birders leaving their posts to see someone else's find.

"I'll crack the whip if I need to," he said with a chuckle.

But elsewhere, birders such as Joan Townsend, a 49-year-old Washingtonian, are more fully embracing technology. She's been watching birds for 17 years and started using iBird on her iPhone this summer. It helps her identify birds and means she doesn't have to carry a paper field manual all the time.

The application is not faster than the book but is more convenient, she says. And because it has recorded bird calls, it's become welcome on her Nature Conservancy walks, where others enjoy hearing the sounds.

"I'm told that in mating season, male birds get territorial, and if I play a bird sound from the iPhone, it can make the male bird come and see who is invading. I haven't done that yet," Townsend said.

She logs onto, a listserv for Maryland birders that sends her alerts about what birds are where. That helps her plan outings, she said.

"I take the bird book when I go birding, but I have the iPhone with me all the time," said Townsend, who frequents Assateague, Chincoteague, Ocean City, Sandy Point and Little Bennett Regional Park to look for birds.

And she may become the norm.

Justin Campfield, a spokesman for Audubon Guides, says the group now offers 13 electronic applications, including mobile field guides for birds, trees, mammals and wildflowers, for the iPhone and the iPod Touch. He wouldn't release sales figures but said they are gaining in popularity for year-round birding.

The tech trend is still relatively new, but Campfield believes it is attracting a younger audience for a hobby long dominated by older people. A recent mobile advertising company survey showed that 84 percent of iPhone users and 93 percent of iPod Touch users are under 50.

As for the annual bird count, Delta Willis, a spokeswoman for the Audubon Society, says more preliminary results are coming via Twitter.

Geoff LeBaron, Audubon's Christmas Bird Count director, said his family was the last in New England to get a cell phone and prefers tradition to technology. He said that's what makes the count, which ends today, so effective. Tweets from the field could distract other counters and negatively affect results.

"There's so much tradition and such a big social component to the Christmas Count, and if we didn't have that it would be hard to keep it going," he said. "It's what makes it as good as it is."

He does concede there are benefits to technology for birding. New applications allow travelers to visit new places and learn immediately what kinds and where the most interesting birds are. There are maps to guide them, and recorded sounds as well as pictures to help with identification.

Perhaps the most useful technology so far has been digital cameras, LeBaron said. Documenting rare and interesting birds can be done in extra detail by just about everyone. And, LeBaron agrees, technology could be luring more and younger people important to keep the practice going.

As a sign birding is growing in popularity, the Bird Count has spread from its base in the United States and Canada to other countries, including most recently Latin America. And around this nation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported this summer that one in five people, or 48 million, watches birds; they contributed $36 billion to the economy in 2006, the latest year for which data are available. Half were younger than 45. (To be counted, a person has to travel at least a mile specifically to observe birds or has to closely observe and try to identify birds around home.)

Other conservation groups see the same opportunity in technology. Jon Schwedler, spokesman for the Nature Conservancy, said members used to share sightings in bird-watching journals or via phone hot lines, but now they can do that in real time.

"While tech has long been used by bird researchers, bird hobbyists seem to be jumping on board lately," Schwedler said. "Several preserve managers for the Conservancy have recently been reporting the use of hand-held phones, phone applications, and social networking technology by bird-watchers to record and share information about bird sightings. This electronic information-sharing happens at lightning speed and has been resulting in the somewhat surprising juxtaposition of older birders flocking to a preserve waving iPhones in response to a Tweet about the sighting of a rare bird."

Back in Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, Wierenga, who is 65 and has been on 54 Bird Counts, was doing things the old-fashioned way.

So was his crew. Fellow birder David Mozurkewich used his wits and his scope to count more than 1,000 gulls before dawn. Leo Weigant identified a kind of duck called a surf scoter and a pair of eagles, two of 36 species he logged by midday Sunday.

Wierenga had been looking for hawks, which usually sit in trees but were hiding from the fierce wind on Sunday. By Monday, with nine of his 10 regions reporting, a group of several dozen people saw 96 species and tens of thousands of birds. The average for the past five years is 102 species.

He and others were going out again in search of a bird because the counters were unsure the day before if it was a western grebe or a Clark's grebe, though either would be an unusual sighting. And that is what the count is about: trained eyes on a fowl, some common and some special.

"Experience makes a good birder," Wierenga said.

But he can tell technology is going to become more prevalent by the ever-expanding electronics section in the back of his outdoors catalogs.

"Now when someone finds a such a special bird, instantly, 38 people know it."