Bird watching makes its way into the electronic age

Refuge Notebook

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

Having grown up on the Kenai Peninsula, I often find myself being considered the vault of knowledge for the area. I am constantly being asked where is a good place to eat, where can I catch a fish and in my line of work, where can I see certain species of birds. Another common inquiry is when is a good time to go to Seward or Homer to find birds.

There is now a resource out there that answers such questions, at least the bird-related ones. It may not tell you where to find a good meal, but if you are a birder, this is a resource you cannot pass up. It is the Web site www.ebird.org. This Web site was constructed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society to serve birders by tracking all of their bird sightings and producing a checklist for anywhere in North America, based on what other birders have seen. To give you an idea of how popular it has become, in 2006 eBird participants reported 4.3 million bird observations.

There are several different software packages that do similar things, but this one is free. One extra advantage of eBird is that the authors have formed several key partnerships that make it very easy for you to locate and identify the birds you have previously seen and recorded. They partnered with Google Maps, so if you don’t know the coordinates of your house, you simply press the “Find it in Google Maps” button, navigate to your house, and put a marker down with your selected name. From then on, you can select “My Back Yard” from your places list, and it will attach those coordinates to all the sightings from the backyard of your house.

In addition to mapping tools, “The Birds of North America Online” series is free and accessible from a link through eBird. “Birds of North America Online,” publishes virtually every bit of information known about each bird species in North America. There are a few species accounts still being written, but they will soon be completed. It is basically like an encyclopedia dedicated specifically to bird species. I challenge you to find a question about a particular species that is not answered in these species accounts. This is an invaluable resource for birders from professionals to beginners.

Speaking of beginners, one area that birders often overlook is the importance of children in the birding world. I know several birders who have included their children in their hobby. Though I cannot produce hard statistics for you, I do not know of a single case of one of these kids being suspended from school, vandalizing a public facility, or committing a violent crime against other people.

I do know of one guy who managed to get himself and his son stopped for trespassing. When the owner found out the man wanted to show his child a rare duck seen on the back of the property, the land owner invited them in for a beverage and gave them a ride to the pond where a Cinnamon Teal was hanging out. The point is, birding is a great opportunity to get your kids involved in an outdoor activity that teaches awareness of one’s surroundings and paying attention to details, while allowing your children to use their vast computer skills and probably even teach you a few things.

As spring approaches, can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than a short birding hike with the kids and then sitting around the computer having them enter what was seen? You will soon find the kids using eBird to look up bird species expected in Homer as you prepare for the next halibut fishing trip. Imagine your children scanning the water for tufted puffins and thick-billed murres rather than constantly complaining about the temperature, rough water or just complaining from sheer boredom!

Todd Eskelin is a biological technician at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.



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