Dear Bird Folks,
I’m a casual bird watcher who, after being away from the Cape for a number of years, has returned for “retirement” (whatever that means). I’d like to know which is the best way to learn about, and to report, recent bird sightings.
– Elizabeth, Harwich, MA
I know what it means, Elizabeth,
How do you not know what “retirement” means? I thought everyone knew that. It means you don’t have to get up early and spend your entire day carrying around heavy bags of birdseed. You also don’t have to listen to an endless stream of squirrel complaints, or have to continuously recite the formula for making hummingbird nectar (four parts water to one part sugar). Hold on. Those probably aren’t the things you are retiring from. I may have you mixed up with someone else. Forget what I just said. In your case, I think retirement means you still get up early, but now it’s by choice. And instead of rushing off to work, you can take leisurely morning bird walks. Lucky you.
The most frequent question posed by backyard bird watchers is indeed about squirrels, but more serious birders ask an entirely different question. They habitually want to know, “What’s around?” In other words, what unusual birds have been seen lately? Back in the days before the Internet and iPhones, the best way to find out what birds were around was to call Mass Audubon’s sightings hotline, known as “The Voice of Audubon,” or simply, “The Voice.” (This was long before NBC produced a show with the same name about wannabe singers.) Every week or so we’d all call the hotline’s number and hear a recording by the legendary Ruth Emery, who told us which birds were being seen and, of course, where to see them. For the birders who didn’t have a telephone, or were too cheap to spring for the long-distance call (which is more than you might think), they could also read the sightings in Sunday’s Boston Globe. The Globe’s version of the sightings was often fun to read because the reporter rarely knew much about birds. As a result, he or she could mishear a bird’s name and report that twelve Red-eyed “Videos” had been reported. (BTW: For anyone not familiar with the bird, or who might work for the Globe, the actual name is Red-eyed Vireo…although video does sound cuter.)
While it was nice to hear Ruth’s voice every week, a weekly or bi-weekly bird report was far from ideal. Birds are not stagnant creatures. A birder might only have a couple of days or even a few hours to act on a rare sighting. To help make things more current, various calling circles were established. Birders would telephone each other immediately to report about an odd bird. But often these calling circles broke down when a person or two wasn’t home to answer the phone or wasn’t in the mood to pay for a long-distance call. (Birders have a thing about spending money).
All of this changed for the better when the Internet arrived. Web list-servers, such as Massbird, sent instant e-mail notifications to every birder who signed up for the list. A birder could be out and about, perhaps checking the prices of avocados at Whole Foods, when his or her smartphone announces that a Sandhill Crane was just sighted in the next town. Now he or she has the option to either ignore the sighting or drop the avocado and drive like a crazy person to see the crane. I’m sure you can guess what happened next. According to Whole Foods, Massbird messages are the number one cause of damaged avocados.
There is a downside with Massbird, however. One person’s “trophy” bird might be another person’s “who cares” bird. You may end up getting too many notices about birds you have no interest in seeing. Plus, as the name implies, Massbird covers the whole state. Do you constantly want to read about the birds in Newburyport? Not me. I wouldn’t care if a whole flock of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers was spotted up there. I’m not driving through Boston traffic to see them. For more local (and better) birds, you should check out the Cape Cod Bird Club’s list service. It’s quite helpful, although not as current as many birders would like.
This brings us to eBird, a birding site started by Cornell University and the National Audubon Society. I have been using ebird.org a lot lately and really like it. eBird encourages everyone, whether they are novices or hardcore birders, to report “all” the birds they see on a bird walk, and not just the rare stuff. So, for example, if you spent the morning on Bank Street Beach and saw five Herring Gulls, four Common Terns and twenty Sanderlings, you would post all of those birds on eBird. And you could even post right from the beach, via your smart phone. Then the next time someone looks for what birds are being seen on Bank Street, they would see your post. The individual can then decide if any of those birds are worth checking out. Or, if you want to know what birds were being seen at Nauset Beach, or any birding place on the Cape (or the world), eBird would tell you that, too. Pretty cool, eh?
I think you’ll like eBird, Elizabeth. It has turned me on to some great new birding locations. In addition, it lets you search for a specific bird. If you want to know where, say, Snowy Owls are being seen, eBird will tell you. Then you can drop your avocado, jump in the car and head to the location. Unless, of course, the location is way up in Newburyport; then, forget about it.