The flight stuff: Bird watching soars on digital wings

Apps, camera gear and online services make it easy to join in the chase, enjoy the outdoors and spot more birds than your rivals.

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An American avocet comes in for a landing in the shallows of the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto.
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This is part of our Road Trip 2017 summer series "The Smartest Stuff," about how innovators are thinking up new ways to make you — and the world around you — smarter.

I'm walking through a strip of forest with Noah Strycker, with miles of Ohio marshland to the south, Lake Erie to the north and hundreds of birds twittering all around. Strycker, a professional "bird nerd," is so good at identifying birds that he needs only to hear their songs to name them: yellow warbler, blue-headed vireo, sandhill crane, bluejay, tree swallow, warbling vireo, Baltimore oriole, American robin.

Few can match Strycker's skills. He spotted a record 6,042 bird species in a round-the-world tour in 2015. The compact, articulate Oregonian is at home in rugged travel clothes, like the four shirts, three pairs of underwear and two pairs of pants he wore traveling the globe. Now 31, he makes a living writing, speaking and guiding tours about birds.

You may not be a bird-watcher, but you probably know one -- and soon might follow Strycker's lead to become a birder yourself. According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, a whopping 47 million Americans are birders, spending $15 billion on birding-related trips and $26 billion on equipment. The Forest Service expects the number of birders in America to increase 33 percent from 2008 to 2030.

Why is it so popular? Birding accommodates many motives: There's the thrill of the chase, the companionship of fellow hobbyists, the competitive instinct of outdoing other birders, the impulse to understand and catalogue the world around you, and a desire to explore and protect the wilderness that we humans are steadily obliterating.

A black phoebe, a type of flycatcher, sings in the morning in Palo Alto, California.

A black phoebe, a type of flycatcher, sings in the morning in Palo Alto, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"Birds are a great gateway drug to the rest of nature," Strycker says.

There's no substitute for the thousands of hours he's spent watching birds since a teacher piqued his interest in the topic in the fifth grade. But there's good news for the rest of us: new technology is making it easier to join in on the fun.

"The digital age has completely transformed birding. It's made it more accessible to more people," Strycker says on a clear May morning at Ohio's Magee Marsh Wildlife Area. "It's made it easier to get the information you need to identify birds and figure out where to find them."

How? Phone apps let you leave the bird book at home and, with their audio recordings, identify birds by their songs and not just their appearance. Online services track migrations and alert you when a rare bird has been spotted in your area. And you can peer at plumage as never before with new camera and scope technology.

Perhaps the most radical change in birding comes courtesy of artificial intelligence. The properly trained human brain is phenomenal at making accurate judgments from sketchy details like a bird's silhouette and flight pattern. AI isn't that good, but it can reliably identify the species of a bird in a photo. AI-powered audio identification could come next.

Now playing: Watch this: Birding takes flight

I've been birding since I was a kid, and I assure you it's amazing when an app nails a tricky ID based on a crummy photo.

This past summer, I used a half dozen phone apps to identify scads of warblers with Strycker and thousands of other birders at the Biggest Week in American Birding event at Magee Marsh and the adjacent Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in northern Ohio. I overcame seasickness and the heaving deck of a 56-foot-long boat in the Pacific Ocean to reach and photograph the awkward but adorable crested puffin on the Farallon Islands, 32 miles west of San Francisco. I lost a staring contest with a great horned owl on the other side of my camera lens in the Point Reyes National Seashore farther north in California. Even the heart of Oakland had its charms as I and others on a Golden Gate Audubon Society tour spotted an unusual northern pintail and logged the find online for the thousands of scientists and birders who track such sightings.

Connecting with birders

Mobile apps help budding birders unlock the secrets of the avian world. They can provide answers where a paper bird book provides a baffling array of possibilities.

"Think of the compulsion we all have -- we come upon something new, we have a question, then we type a few keywords into Google," says Purbita Saha, an associate editor at the Audubon Society, one of the world's oldest bird conservation organizations and publisher of a free bird ID app used by half a million people. "Apps are building on that same curiosity," but with a special focus on birding.

Compare that with beginners' frustrations just a few years ago.

"Unless you were privileged to have friends who were already birders or were living in a birding hotspot, it was very much an isolated activity," Saha says. Good luck figuring out if you're seeing a long-billed dowitcher or a short-billed dowitcher when all you've got is a printed bird guide with a short paragraph of text and a couple of images.

In the digital age, isolation is a thing of the past. eBird, a popular free online service for logging and studying sightings, has become something of a social network, too. The service just added a profile page option, letting birders connect better.

Another service, Birding Pal, lets you find find a place to stay on a birdwatching trip or host an out-of-town birder. It costs $10 a year.

Birding can even be good for your love life. "Here, we see birding as this kind of nerdy activity," Strycker says. But in Colombia, "this one guy told me bird clubs are a great way to go pick up chicks." No, he doesn't mean baby birds.

Old-school email lists remain important, too. "It's so easy to be connected and know what's going on," says Alli LaChance, from Ypsilanti, Michigan. She and her husband, Steve, are bundled up against the morning chill, starting their day with a look at a sprawling Magee Marsh sign featuring 36 warbler species. She's carrying a Nikon camera, Nikon binoculars and the iSpiny Chirp app that quizzes you on bird calls. He's got the Vortex binoculars and BMW hat to keep the spring sun at bay.

In February, an email brought news of an extremely unusual ivory gull 65 miles away in Flint, Michigan. "I got the alert Sunday night as I was cooking dinner," she tells me while we're at Magee Marsh. It was nighttime in the Michigan winter, but she decided she had to go. It was a good thing she got there in time because the gull died the next day -- survival isn't easy for birds that stray far from their usual range.

Beyond books

Bird app pioneer Mitch Waite was in the wrong place at the right time. The birder and former chief executive of Mitch Waite Press, a computer book publisher, had tried to sell a birding app for Microsoft's ill-fated Windows Mobile software more than a decade ago.

"It was a big flop," Waite says. "We sold 70 copies in the first three months." He was bummed out and burned out -- until customers of Apple's then brand-new iPhone got in touch. "When your customers are telling you you have a good idea but you're on the wrong platform, you should listen to them," he says. iBird arrived in Apple's App Store in 2008.

A quartet of Ohio warblers, clockwise from top left: black-throated green warbler, black and white warbler, palm warbler, and black-throated blue warbler.

A quartet of Ohio warblers, clockwise from top left: black-throated green warbler, black and white warbler, palm warbler, and black-throated blue warbler.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

But the real change came after Apple CEO Steve Jobs' daughter discovered iBird, which then featured in Apple's famous "there's an app for that" campaign. The $15 Pro version describes 944 North American species and includes 3,300 song recordings and 4,500 photos.

"Suddenly all the birders realized, 'I can use my iPhone instead of my book? It has a search engine? And it plays its song?'" Waite says. "That started a stampede."

Millions bought the app in its first year as birders switched from paper to digital. It's since dropped to a steady but lower rate of sales. "The engine that keeps us going is the new birders," Waite says.

Flocking birders

His target market is jammed elbow-to-elbow on Ohio's Magee Marsh boardwalk, a half-mile of elevated pathway that caters to warbler-obsessed birders. The traffic jams tell you when they've found an interesting specimen, and binoculars and telephoto lenses show you where to look. Abundant experts will tell you whether to keep your eyes peeled for a sky-blue cerulean warbler or a beautiful gold-and-orange Blackburnian.

A chestnut-sided warbler looks upward at Magee Marsh in northern Ohio.

A chestnut-sided warbler looks upward at Magee Marsh in northern Ohio.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Strycker is happy to share his knowledge: yellow warblers sing "sweet sweet sweet I'm so sweet," while warbling vireos warn "if I see you I will seize you, I will squeeze you 'til you squirt." Blue-gray gnatcatchers build their nests from spiderweb and lichen. Even with so much help on hand, though, I see plenty of bird books and apps. Birders pull out phones to read up on what they're seeing, check alerts for unusual nearby sightings and dictate voice memos to record what they see.

"I used to carry all these big, thick books. Now I use mostly the apps," says Helen Emwood, who trekked from Maryland to get her fill of the Ohio warblers. Electronic apps take a toll on your phone's storage space, but they can show more of the real-world variation in a single species of bird. "With a flick of the finger you can see the immature, the female," Emwood says.

iBird remains a fixture, but there's more competition now. The Audubon Society made its app free in 2015, and the top dog of the paper bird guide world, the influential Sibley Guide to Birds, is now available for $20.

Merlin wizardry

The first apps repackaged bird books in electronic form. But Merlin Bird ID, a free Android and iOS app from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, shows how birding apps can become more interactive. It helps identify birds after asking you a few simple questions or scrutinizing a bird photo.

Noah Strycker, a professional "bird nerd" from Oregon, saw a record 6,042 birds in 365 days of birding around the world in 2015. He's chronicling the trip in a book, "Birding Without Borders."

Noah Strycker, a professional "bird nerd" from Oregon, saw a record 6,042 birds in 365 days of birding around the world in 2015. He's chronicling the trip in a book, "Birding Without Borders."

Stephen Shankland/CNET

"We're getting to point where, if you upload a photo into Merlin, 98 percent of the time the ID is right," says Chris Wood, the lab's assistant director of information science and a co-leader of its eBird project that tracks birds worldwide. A lot of birds are inaccessible, says Wood. "You need binoculars to see them. And before you can talk about something, you need to be able to put a name on it. Now there are things like Merlin that do it for free pretty well."

Strycker, a walking bird encyclopedia who can pronounce "prothonotary warbler" [pro-THON-uh-tare-ee] without the slightest hesitation, worries that apps might get too smart.

"The day we invent a pair of binoculars that just automatically identifies a bird for you -- that's going to be the end of birding as we know it," Strycker says, with a chuckle. "If you already know everything in advance, then it wouldn't be fun anymore."

Maybe. Maybe not. After all, people still ride horses and bake their own bread even though cars go faster and the supermarket offers plenty of baked goods. Experts who've paid their dues might be peeved newcomers don't face the same challenges they did, but nobody's suggesting we roll back the calendar. After all, James Audubon had to kill the 435 species of birds he drew in his his book of paintings, Birds of America, first published in 1827. Thankfully, we don't have to do that anymore.

Sounding off

Apps offer something no bird book can: actual recordings of bird songs. It's an important, qualitative difference. Birds often are obscured by leaves or are too far away to be seen clearly, but their calls carry well. Experts like Strycker often ID birds based on their calls alone.

Over and over as I ask why birders use apps, the answer is recordings. You can tell a yellow-billed cuckoo from a black-billed cuckoo by their calls, says Tim Thompson, a Connecticut birder visiting Ohio with two Nikon cameras and a pair of binoculars hanging around his neck.

And the power of the internet is making it easier to find those recordings. Professional libraries of recordings are helpful but relatively limited. Now Xeno-Canto, an immense collection of bird recordings contributed by birders around the world, gives you more to compare. That's helpful given that birds have regional dialects not necessarily obvious in an app.

If you have a smart speaker, you can even listen to birds while you're fixing dinner. Try saying, "OK Google, ask Bird Song Skill for a great horned owl," or "Alexa, ask Bird Song for a northern cardinal."

Controversial call

Bird recordings also have a controversial use: They can prompt birds to come out and defend their territory when they hear the call of a rival.

"It works amazingly well," Strycker says. "It's almost the only way to see birds in some places, like in the Amazon where the jungle is so thick."

A Forster's tern looks for fish to snatch from the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto, California.

A Forster's tern looks for fish to snatch from the San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto, California.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

He and the Audubon Society recommend using that method in moderation. "We advise against it during breeding season when the birds are the most territorial," Saha says.

And don't play calls repeatedly or play calls of endangered species. "By riling them up like that, you make them exert all this extra energy they could be using toward survival," Saha says.

It can rile up other birders, too. As I walk the Magee Marsh path, one woman plays the call of a prothonotary warbler. Another birder gets excited and calls out the ID, thinking he's found the genuine article. But his enthusiasm quickly turns to an irritated glare when he finds he'd been hoodwinked by an app.

Shazam for bird songs?

Another new audio option is arriving now: Using your phone's microphone so an app can identify for you the bird that's singing.

"When it works, it's this miracle," says Sherwood Snyder, director of product management at Wildlife Acoustics, maker of the Song Sleuth app for iPhones. Indeed, the first time I tried it, the app correctly pegged a brown-headed cowbird's liquid burble, helping me ID a bird I'd never seen before.

American avocets at sunrise in the low-tide mudflats in San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto.

American avocets at sunrise in the low-tide mudflats in San Francisco Bay in Palo Alto.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

But Snyder acknowledges it's tough to always get good results. He expects a coming app update will help people pick out a single voice to get better results.

"Humans are so adept -- it's hard to compete," Snyder says. It won't be long before algorithms can match us, he predicts: "There will be a breakthrough."

iBird's Waite plans to add photo-based ID to his app soon, but he doesn't think audio ID works well enough yet. Difficulties include background noise, multiple birds singing and phone microphone shortcomings.

"We get so many emails: 'Can you make a version of iBird that works like Shazam?'" he says, referring to the app that identifies the song that's playing. "To do it right, so it really works, is a very difficult undertaking."

Digital eyes

Cameras fitted with mammoth telephoto lenses to magnify distant subjects have been around for decades. But digital photography has opened up the field.

Keith Barnes, a South African living in Taiwan, carries a massive 500mm Canon supertelephoto lens and Leica Ultravid binoculars. The birding expert works for Tropical Birding, which runs 120 bird tours a year for avian enthusiasts.

Keith Barnes, a South African living in Taiwan, carries a massive 500mm Canon supertelephoto lens and Leica Ultravid binoculars. The birding expert works for Tropical Birding, which runs 120 bird tours a year for avian enthusiasts.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Since there are no film development costs, you can shoot hundreds of photos to get that one precious shot where a bird is in a good position, properly lighted and in focus. And modern digital cameras work better at capturing that twitchy little cactus wren in dim conditions. Check photo-sharing sites like Flickr, 500px and Instagram to see an endless supply of spectacular bird shots that show what dedicated enthusiasts and pros can accomplish.

"Ten years ago, all people had was point-and-shoot cameras," but now they carry higher-end SLR cameras with big lenses, says Keith Barnes, a South African living in Taiwan whose company, Tropical Birding, runs 120 birding tours a year to 60 countries.

Barnes, a tall and weathered man, is in his element at the Biggest Week event. The camouflage pattern on his well-worn outdoor gear extends all the way to fingerless gloves that let him focus a camera even when the weather is chilly. A massive 500mm Canon telephoto lens is slung over a shoulder. His $2,000 no-fog, waterproof Leica Ultravid binoculars have seen so much use the trademark Leica red dot has been polished silver. Helping out those with less experience, he points out birds flitting past: Tennessee warbler, palm warbler, black-throated blue warbler, Magnolia warbler, chestnut-sided warbler.

Photography is a common way people get hooked on birding, too. "They come in for the challenge," Barnes says, then end up becoming avian experts. To be a good bird photographer, you need to know how to identify the birds, where to find them, when they're migrating through your area and the time of day they're active.

John and JoAnn Reese are a husband-and-wife birding team who traveled 125 miles north from Columbus, Ohio, to the Biggest Week. At one moment, JoAnn is spiritual about her time in nature: "God speaks through creation,"  she says. The next, she's a down-to-earth midwesterner. "There's a lot of bird butt," she gripes as she aims her lens at the non-photogenic end of an black-throated blue warbler lurking in the leaves.

The pair have settled on a division of labor: He does the scouting work with binoculars, she follows up with the camera. "He's my spotter dog. Our motto is he makes it and I take it," she says. "I photograph so much. Then I go home, I look at my pictures, I compare it to the book."

Even a crummy photo helps with identification. And you can use Merlin's photo ID feature to take a photo of a bird on your camera screen, too.

From real birds to eBird

One app is very different from the rest: eBird. Using it helps all birders, not just you.

eBird can keep your life list -- the record of all bird species you've seen -- but everybody's data also goes into a database that lets anyone find out where birds are and when, which are common and which are rare.

Thousands of birders submitted bird sighting data to eBird during its Global Big Day in May.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

It began as a website in 2002, but now more than half of bird checklists are submitted through the phone app, Cornell's Wood says. Birders can't get enough.

"For the last 12 years, we've sustained a growth rate of 20 [percent] to 40 percent a year every year," as measured by checklists submitted or website usage, Wood says. There are now 400 million database records uploaded, and about 300,000 people will use the service this year.

I was in Ohio during an annual eBird effort to record as many birds as possible, the Global Big Day, during which 20,270 people submitted 54,263 checklists detailing 6,653 species sightings.

Strycker is a fan. "eBird was enormously helpful during my big year because it will filter birds that have been seen in a given region," he says. "That was much more helpful than going through an entire field guide and trying to memorize every single possibility."

There are plenty of competitive birders. One category -- "twitchers" or "speed birders" -- race to see unusual species. They'll drive for hours or even hop on a plane.

Connecticut birder Tim Thompson keeps track of birds in a notebook, but then logs the species on the eBird service so other birders can benefit from his sightings.

Connecticut birder Tim Thompson keeps track of birds in a notebook, but then logs the species on the eBird service so other birders can benefit from his sightings.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

eBird fans the competitive flames with regional leaderboard rankings. Thompson, a birder I meet at the Biggest Week, is proud to have risen to the No. 7 spot among Connecticut eBirders.

He doesn't like phones much, and he records his observations in a dog-eared, weatherbeaten notebook. But when the day is done, he enters it all into eBird, he tells me as we stalk a Lincoln's sparrow through the underbrush of Magee Marsh.

"I love eBird because it tells my life story," Thompson says.

Coexisting with humans

eBird tells scientists a story, too, aiding conservation, ecology, biology and other research. One example: The Nature Conservancy used eBird data to figure out when shorebirds migrate through California's once-marshy Central Valley. Based on that data, the conservancy paid rice farmers to time their field-flooding operations to help the birds, a cheaper conservation alternative than buying the land outright.

In the 1820s and 1830s, James Audubon traveled a young United States to paint hundreds of species of birds. Clockwise from upper left: Barn owl, great blue heron, brown pelican, American white pelican.

Audubon Society

The birds like the soggy fields. "On average, shorebird species richness was more than three times greater, and average shorebird density was five times greater, on enrolled fields than [on] unenrolled fields," according to the project's research results.

eBird data also has detected two migration patterns among orchard orioles, Wood says. Some leave the northeast part of North America in August, but others in the central part of the continent linger later.

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"We're able to see these populations operating almost independently. They probably are never able to breed with each other," Wood says in his excited-scientist voice. "We're seeing the process of speciation possibly taking place."

Studying birds isn't just about academic curiosity. It's about the survival of nature itself. Birds are, so to speak, a canary in the coal mine, showing where humans have gone too far.

"We live on a planet where the population is approaching 10 billion people," Wood says. "We're trying to find ways where people and biodiversity can coexist."

Plus -- there's that thrill of the chase.

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