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E-Birding

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While the internet doesn't scream "outdoors," it does hold the future of birding

The Internet is a wonderful resource for the birder. There is information available for all levels of interest, from the “what-is-that?” backyard birder to the rabid enthusiast planning his or her third trip to Attu, Alaska (look it up). In this month’s column I want to share some of my favorite Internet sites. 

In the old days a birder really only had field guides to use as practical references. Subsequently, the measure of a birder’s interest was how many different bird books he or she might possess. I remember always having at least two different field guides with me, to use as cross references. I didn’t tote them both with me while “in the field,” but they were always waiting for me in my car to compare to my notes. 

Enthusiasts could also get recordings of the songs of the more familiar bird species on LPs (note to my younger readers, these are also called records or albums… ask grandma, she’ll explain). I still have my multi-disc Peterson Field Guide to Bird Songs tucked away somewhere, although I haven’t played them in decades.  

Instead, I prefer listening to bird songs on the Internet. There are a variety of sites that have countless sound files to almost any species of birds. And not just the songs of breeding season, but also different calls such as alarm or flocking calls. This is good stuff! And important; as learning bird songs is an essential tool for not necessarily recognizing species you are familiar with, but the opposite. I often find species that are new to me by being alerted to songs or calls that I am not familiar with. This is especially true for the little guys, like warblers and vireos. When I’m out and about with my binoculars in hand, nothing gets me more excited than an unfamiliar bird song. 

My favorite site for bird sounds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, called All About Birds. Here you can search birds by species and find a lot of useful information. Actually, much of the species-specific information is scant from an experienced birder’s point of reference, but for the rookie it is just right. And the audio files are a treasure trove. 

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that for many species, especially those that are continental in distribution, it is best to select an audio file nearest to my home state. This is because these broadly distributed bird species often have distinct regional “accents,” and an eastern bird will sound different than a western bird of the same species. So if you have an option, select the sound file that was recorded in the state nearest to you. Sometimes the differences are not great, but other times they are surprisingly so. For example, at the Cornell site listen to the differences between a Chipping Sparrow song from Oregon and one from Maryland. You’d think that you were listening to two different species. 

These sounds files can also be essential in differentiating between very similar species, such the Empidonax flycatchers, which are sometimes so hard to tell apart in the field that people just ID them as “empis.” I recently was able to definitively differentiate a Dusky Flycatcher from the nearly identical Hammond’s and Least Flycatchers (among others!) because of its song. On a trip to south Texas it was only the voice recording (using a cell phone!) that helped my son, Jesse, and I to definitively separate a Great Crested Flycatcher from its virtually identical cousins. Pretty cool!

Another very useful site is Ebird.org. Here you can access dynamic, real-time maps of bird sightings in your region, even your neighborhood. There is a search option that allows you to find out what species of birds are being seen and reported, by date and location. It is an essential tool, even for the most experienced birder. There is also an option that allows you, as a citizen scientist, to submit your own observations. What I especially appreciate about Ebird is that unusual or atypical sightings, such as reporting a California Condor at the Kootenai Wildlife Refuge, will be flagged and thoroughly vetted before being allowed to be posted on the map. I appreciate this extra step on the part of the folks at Ebird and this extra effort helps to maintain the integrity of the documenting process. 

Another favorite site is Idahobirds.net. This site is not as slick and user-friendly as the ones mentioned above, but the information is spot-on. It is operated and maintained by the Idaho Audubon Council. There are many links that cover a variety of useful information and this is an essential starting point for the new or less-experienced birder. My favorite feature of Idahobirds.net is the Latilong Species Distribution Maps. It is hard to explain this feature by simply writing about it—you need to go online and try it out—but basically is divides up the state of Idaho with gridlines (latitude and longitude) and reports observations within those grids by experienced birders (the same types of folks that go to Attu Island). Here you get information about a great many species, including vagrants, going back many, many years. There is even a listing for the Passenger Pigeon! How cool is that!? 

I thoroughly enjoy “ebirding,” using the Internet to expand and develop my skills as an amateur birder. In fact, I believe that it is fair to say that I’ve become a much better (and exacting) birder because of the resources that these “inter-tubes” have brought into my home. I can’t imagine turning off the Internet and returning to my dusty old Peterson guide albums. Now, these resources do not replace my Sibley’s Guide to Birds, but they sure add a useful dimension to my favorite sport. So stay home and get online. You got some birding to do! 

Happy Birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

A Bird in Hand, bird field guides, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds, Audobon, Idaho Birds, Sibleys Guide to Birds

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