How new technology is impacting bird watching

BAZETTA TWP., Ohio (WKBN) – As local birdwatcher Larry Richardson led a group around Mosquito Lake State Park, he looked down a few times at the phone he had in his hand.

Standing in a clearing with birds chirping in the background, he nodded knowingly to the group.

“That’s a wood thrush,” he said, pointing to his phone.

Richardson, who has been teaching birding courses and leading trips for over 30 years, is a traditional birder in most senses. He has a vast knowledge of the birds and can pick many of them out by simply walking by them. He has even perfected the sounds that some of the birds make during their bird calls.

But even Richardson says he can see the benefits of technology now available to bird watchers, and he has used it himself. He believes that it may even be attracting new people to bird-watching, those who have not read extensively about the birds and are not familiar with their habitats.

“When I started birding… the only way you could find a rare bird, or find birds, or know where birds might be was in a telephone. They had a recording in it that would say what was seen at a certain period of time, but I had to learn the habitats,” he said.

Now, birders can use an app called Merlin Bird ID. Created by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birders can hold up their phones, which pick up the sounds of the bird calls in the distance and identify the birds that are in the area. The app also serves as a field guide, with information and photos of different birds.

The eBird app is also being used by birders to enter their bird sightings. It allows for bird tracking purposes as well as makes data available for scientific research and education.

Both apps were mentioned by volunteers at Mosquito Lake State Park’s Big Birding Weekend last weekend; they touted their usefulness to attendees who were interested in getting a start bird watching.

John Garrett, project assistant for eBird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said eBird started in 2002 but became more popular as the technology for it developed. He said the app serves multiple benefits, for both birders and researchers.

“We get data from birders. In the process, they learn more about birds and become better birders, and they also contribute to our scientific understanding of what birds are actually doing, which informs conservation pipelines, is kind of the ultimate goal,” he said.

All of that data is available is available on eBird Science’s website.

The Merlin app recently reached a major milestone: there are over 3 million active users — double the number from last year. The digital field guide and ID assistant can now help users identify a total of 10,315 species of birds in any country.

Alli Smith, Merlin’s project coordinator at the Cornell Lab, said it can be hard to identify birds, especially for someone traveling. The idea behind the app is to give people the tools to help them learn more about the birds.

She believes that a lot of Merlin’s users are those who have a casual interest in birds.

“It’s such an easy entry point into starting to learn about birds, that I think is really accessible to like, anybody. I think it’s really helping more and more people learn about birds, no matter where they are in their birding journey,” she said.

Ethan Kistler, a bird watcher and tour guide who lives in Newton Falls, said he believes the new technology, as well as social media, are sparking an interest in birding from a younger audience. There is an Ohio Young Birders Club and several social media groups for those who have an interest in birding.

Kistler, who got his start birding at the age of 10, is now 32 and says it is a misconception that birders are all older. While there are many older birders, the birding community is diverse and can even be competitive, he said.

He said while the apps are helpful to new birders, they are not always perfect, so it’s important to verify any information that birders are collecting.

Richards said the same — if you’re serious about bird watching, it’s also important to do the research.

“So when I started, I spent a lot of time traveling all over Ohio to different habitats to try seeing different birds and so forth and so on. So what happens with that is, you have to learn the voices of it, you have to read the habitat to see if you’re in the right place to get a certain bird, so you have to read a little bit about their life histories. So if you do that, you get drawn further and further into it,” he said.

Richards acknowledges that the apps can help and may even draw more people into the hobby. He has noticed birding has grown in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

“Because of COVID, many families started doing outdoor things because they didn’t have to wear masks, they were not isolated, and so forth, and that’s carried on now after that. They’ve spent time out there looking at these birds, and getting binoculars, and started looking a little deeper, that sort of thing, and they continue to do it now,” he said.

He suggested that if someone is interested in starting bird watching, they should go on hikes and talk to those who know more about it.