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Birders can get a helping hand from technology

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Fargo, 58102
Fargo North Dakota 101 5th Street North 58102

Its no news to anyone that technological advances have had a profound affect on the lives of all of us for generations. And it continues to spread (some would say invade) exponentially into our habits in ways we never dreamed. The scary part is that our kids may very well look upon such things as MP3 players like we once did vinyl 45s. These developments have not left the world of bird watching behind either. A tiny example played out recently near Phoenix.

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A company trip to Scottsdale during the Thanksgiving week afforded me the opportunity to bring along a fellow bird watcher. Lucky for us he had done much research leading up to the day of departure. It seems a rare bird was being seen in a suburb of Phoenix; one that neither of us had ever seen nor perhaps ever have the opportunity to see again. A Streak-backed Oriole had been found at the Gilbert Water Ranch on the southeast side of town on the 11th of November and continued to be reported. How did he know this? The Internet.

The Streak-backed Oriole (Icterus pustulatus) is a Mexican species that ranges as far south as northern Costa Rica and accidentally strays into the southern fringe of the US, mostly in winter. It is considered a great find any time and only recently has nesting been confirmed in a couple locations in southern Arizona. This was only the second record ever in Phoenixs Maricopa County.

We missed it the on the first try. Several folks were stalking the trails looking for The Oriole but no one had seen it that day. Three days later we were better prepared. Maps of the trails and photos of the bird had been printed (Internet), telephone calls had been placed to those in the know (cellular), the orioles song had been listened to (CD), and digital camera batteries had been charged in anticipation of finding this gem.

The parking lot already had cars in it when we arrived at sunrise. This looked more promising than our previous attempt. At least half a dozen birders were armed with high-end digital cameras and giant telescopic lenses. An hour later the bird was located and word quickly spread. One would have thought Brad Pitt had been seen the way folks were anxiously crowding around. (For some fantastic photos of this bird take a peek at http://azfo.org/gallery/photos.html ).

In the aftermath I wondered how this would have been possible just 20 years ago. In his book, The Big Year: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Fowl Obsession, Mark Obmascik describes the 1998 efforts of three fanatical birders in their personal quests to top the mark of most species seen in North America in a calendar year. Aside from the money involved in travel costs (the winner covered 130,000 miles); it is obvious that technology played a fundamental role in the breaking of the record. Were it not for the Internet, cellular phones, ease of air travel and even GPS, I seriously doubt the attempts would have met with such success.

The list of technological gadgets available today goes way beyond a pair of binoculars and a field guide. In addition to those previously mentioned there are software programs, digital hearing devices, three-dimensional mapping tools, digital sound recorders&you get the drift. Even on the local level the Internet has become an indispensable tool for birders, particularly those wishing to find birds. For North Dakotans, the following website gives daily updates on what is being seen and where: http://listserv.nodak.edu/archives/nd-birds.html . A quick Google search will put you on similar sites for nearly every state.

In the end it may be that some of the purity of merely enjoying the birds is being lost. After all, little can replace the peaceful experience of a casual stroll through the woods with nothing but binoculars. But if technology is desired to further your bird watching endeavors, it is definitely out there.

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