Another in a 2014 guest column series which builds on the one in 2009 where 50+ had written about how science/tech has evolved their hobby/interest.
This time it is my wife, Margaret Newman who could have written about so many of her passions from gardening to holistic healthcare, but writes about her love of birds.
Growing up in rural Ireland, I could say birdwatching was an occupational requirement. I would notice how hedgerows acted as great hiding places for smaller birds and as they gave way to fences you could notice changes in the bird population. I particularly noticed the birds in the wintertime and how they took the berries off the holly tree before you took in the branches for Christmas. We would leave bread for the birds in the winter but it would never occur to us to buy seed for them! We had to put nets over the strawberries and raspberries to stop the birds eating the food. We had apple trees and I picked many an apple with much of it already eaten! My parents liked to watch nature programs and kept a giant book on birds they would consult periodically, when they saw a species they did not recognize. It was the days before the Internet!
Things are very different today. Living on a canal on Florida we get wading birds, migratory birds, and local birds of prey. Our backyard is a riot of colors – cardinals, Blue Jays, parrots and a cacophony of sounds as woodpeckers and ospreys do their daily routines. The feeders I keep well stocked have “no mess blend” of seeds and nuts, shelled peanuts, whole peanuts, “no melt suet” which comes in ‘different flavors’, and thistle seed for the yellow finches at certain times of the year. The bird feeder stand, feeders and food come from Wild Birds Unlimited. There is also a baffle to stop squirrels and rats from reaching the food. This baffle works fairly well, with only one squirrel able to outsmart the system. I have watched him leap up the pole and then jump on to the baffle at some speed. He appears to be an Olympics candidate! I have eight feeders but only one with a tray so that the number of doves I feed are limited. It got to the point where Vinnie said either we feed our children or we feed the pigeons. We had flocks visiting us. Our children won the toss, by a very narrow margin, as we felt they provided just a bit more entertainment!
I am impressed how pervasive birdwatching has become -actually its hipster name, birding. Wild Birds tells me they grown to 275 stores across N. America. Over Christmas, someone gifted us the movie, The Big Year. When big stars like Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black star in a movie about birding, you know it has gone mainstream. Planning a trip to New York in a few weeks, Vinnie pointed me to the documentary Birders. Amazing that 200+ species show up in the concrete jungle. Take my binoculars into Central Park or go shopping in Manhattan? I hate choices!
Technology is taking birding to new heights. Serious birders invest in precision scopes some of which have embedded digital cameras like the Zeiss above.
Then there are mobile apps like iBird, a digital field guide to birds (on left). With high resolution photos and helpful search capabilities these apps make ordinary folks almost as knowledgeable as the famous ornithologists of old like John Gould and Alexander Wilson.
Then there is travel related to bird watching. Trips to Belize, bird sanctuaries in India, Lake Nakuru in Kenya with its sea of flamingoes (below) are all on bucket lists of serious birders.
Technology is also allowing science to marshal armies of birders to understand migratory patterns and other avian data. An example of that is the crowdsourced eBird database.
Of course even more impressive is the work being done at institutions like the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with its searchable 100,000 digital sound recordings and 40,000 video clips and other technologies to further research on birds and the Audubon Society’s geospatial and other technology applications.
Enough of technology. Let me describe the backyard drama we witness every day. There is a strict hierarchy at the dining table. At the top is the kamikaze squirrel and no one feeds while he is there. Next are the various black birds, and the pigeons and the little birds come last. Underneath the table we have the rest of the squirrels, some doves and two ducks, who have made our yard home (and you can see them at the other side of the pool in photo above) competing for the seed droppings. There is a local Osprey who takes a keen interest in the table and he often sits on top of a pole across the canal. I have seen him make a dive for the birds feeding but never seen him successful. I have, however, seen him with a fish in his mouth and just today he dropped his catch by our garage door and never came down to reclaim it! There are blue herons, egrets and other water birds who come over to see what all the noise is about and then go on their way. We are glad to have the ducks as they are the only ones to use the pool in the past year! There are bird baths which are often used as such and some birds sit on the pool steps to drink the water. It’s wonderful to see the yard so alive. Oh, did I mention the local black cat called Shadow?
I am just a low-tech nature admirer. But it’s great to see science and technology delight so many new birding fans around the globe.