Birding in the Electronic Age

Electronic Bird

We live in an electronic age.  No doubt about it.  Computers, smartphones, notebooks, tablets – all these electronic devices accompany us no matter where we go – home, work, school, or during our leisure time activities.

Think about it – how often to you go to dinner now and see a couple texting on their smartphones instead of talking with each other?

As a birder, I know that smartphones have become, for some, as indispensible as binoculars.  And why not?  Instant access to the most up-to-date information for birds throughout the state – or world!

Instant reporting of potentially great birds from the field!


Reports of birds that, only a few years ago, would have taken weeks to filter out to the birding world are now available instantly.  With a few clicks of the thumb, a birder can alert the whole community of the presence of a potentially spectacular find.

Extremely powerful tools.

But with great power comes great expectations and, for some, the demand for instant gratification.  There is a segment of the birding world for whom chasing these reports of “great” birds has become a way of life.  Their enjoyment of the hobby hinges on the next report – grab your bins, your scope, your smartphone, and scramble to the location to get that bird!

And what of the persons who have this GREAT find?  Well, apparently the expectations for them is changing as well.  And it is time for the rest of us to decide at what level we’ll agree to play along.

So – what are your expectations?

Is there a “code of birding protocols” for the electronic age?

Should there be?

I am struggling with the answers to many of these questions (and more).  A smartphone was in my hand when I, along with two other birders, spotted and identified (with multiple paper guides and, you guessed it, a smartphone application) what we believed was an outstanding bird.

Someone said – “we need to report this to ********** (the local birding listserv)”!

No problem.  A couple clicks of the thumb and away it goes.

The debate that has raged since that seemingly simple act is unlike any other I have ever experienced and has changed the way I will approach birding for the rest of my life.

I have no doubt that we saw the bird and identified to the best of our collective abilities.

I have every doubt that I will ever reach for my smartphone again.

What are your expectations for reporting “great birds”?

What would you do if you found a rare bird?

What would you expect if you got the report of a rare bird?

And what would be YOUR reaction if the bird wasn’t there when you arrived?

Good Birding,




3 thoughts on “Birding in the Electronic Age

  1. Gillian

    Good post, Greg.

    I rarely send any sightings out to anyone while in the field. If I’m in any doubt as to the identity of the bird, I will take pictures and (at home) post it on Facebook first to see what my birding friends think. Otherwise, if I am certain of its ID, I will send a list to a small group of birders from my club about the bird. I don’t post much on our provincial emailing list since most “good” birds will immediately be swarmed by photographers. Then again, I rarely find anything THAT good!

    When it comes to chasing birds that are reported, though, I’m pretty lazy. I usually don’t chase them unless they are in my part of town. I assume that the bird has probably gone rather than that it’s still there; less disappointment that way. We had a Western Meadowlark singing away here in Ottawa one summer and I never went to look for it because not only did I have to see it, I also had to hear it!

    1. njbigyear Post author

      Thank you Gillian…Until this year I rarely chased bird reports. But chasing has become a big part of getting the winter rarities that are needed for a Big Year. I have mixed feelings about it and my experience over the weekend illustrates some of the many pitfalls of trying to get information out fast. I made an error when looking at the description in my field guide. I was in a hurry and picked the wrong description. A simple mistake that created a fire storm e-mail that hasn’t full burnt out.

      Now many commenters are suggesting that I violated an unwritten protocol for reporting from the field. Here’s the rub – unwritten rules are just that – unwritten. So each commenter seems to have their own personal set.

      Trying to take something good from this experience, I am challenging people to think about the unwritten rules they apply to themselves and others. And I am challenging myself to think about what I did this time, and what I will do differently the next time.

      Good Birding,


  2. Gillian

    Ouch. What an awkward situation. However, mistakes happen. We are only human, and I’m pretty sure you’re not the first birder to make an error in ID. One time here in Ottawa, an experienced, well-known birder saw what he thought was a Swainson’s Hawk perched in a distant tree. It was across a field on private property, so he scoped it from the road and noted the relevant field marks. He posted it on our provincial listserv and many people went to see it. The views were distant, but yes, it was a Swainson’s Hawk, still sitting in the same tree. The field marks matched nothing else. This would have been Ottawa’s only first or second Swainson’s Hawk.

    As the day progressed, more birders went to see it. Luckily it was sitting in the same tree. Another birder decided it would be worth it to get better views. He knocked on the door of the property owner, and got permission to cross the field. Guess what? The “hawk” turned out to be a badly painted plastic Great Horned Owl, complete with chestnut chest band and white throat. Embarrassing, yes, but kind of funny, too. What isn’t funny is that a few months later, when someone joked on our club’s Facebook page about the original poster sending everyone on a chase to see a fake Swainson’s Hawk, the original poster threatened to sue him and/or the club with libel. This, and his complete lack of a sense of humour, are what I remember most from the incident now….not the mistaken ID. Far better to admit you made a mistake, and to learn from it and laugh about it.

    Anyway, if your bird HAD turned out to be what you thought, and you DIDN’T report it until you got home (which could be well after dark if you were out for the day), I’m sure the same people would be complaining about the lack of a timely report so they could get out and see it. A few weeks ago someone reported seeing a Great Gray Owl 15 minutes from where I live. He saw it in the morning but didn’t report it until the afternoon when it was already getting dark. I was pretty annoyed about that, especially since he took the time to edit and upload his photos.

    Sometimes you just can’t win. However, it’s completely unfair to expect people to abide by “unwritten” rules if they don’t know what they are. If there is a code regarding reporting from the field, it should be spelled out in the rules. If it’s a “use your judgment” kind of thing, then your error wasn’t in reporting what you thought you saw, but in making a wrong ID.


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