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Shoot first, identify later: a step away from traditional bird-watching

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By Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter
Monday, June 2, 2014, 12:58 PM

With their eyes to the sky a father and his young son meandered down a path in Hamilton, Ont., at the city's beautiful Princess Point. When a cardinal landed on a tree branch just above their heads, the father took out his iPhone and snapped a photo.

It's a scene that likely occurs at hundreds -- if not thousands -- of parks across the country, and it's indicative of the high-tech, high-speed world we live in.

Technology is everywhere -- that's nothing new. But when it starts to encroach on nature people can get touchy.

Last month, Parks Canada caused a stir when it announced its plans to have WiFi hotspots installed in 50 different national parks and historic sites.

It set off a firestorm of debate, even at theweathernetwork.com, with some online comments calling the decision "pathetic", "a waste of tax payer's money" and an "unbelievably bad idea."

The concept that technology hinders more than it helps a person's appreciation of nature is nothing new.

Earlier this month, bird watchers from across North America convened at the 31st annual World Series of Birding. The event made headlines with The Ernst Conservation Seeds' "Natives 4 Avians" team taking the top spot.

VOTE NOW: Do you think technology is becoming too much a part of being in nature?  VOTE ON THE ISSUE HERE

But it wasn't just the birds that got feathers ruffled.

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that new technologies like GPS apps and state-of-the art cameras have bred a new species of bird-watcher. One that is, according to the NYT, of the "shoot first and identify later" mentality.

This could rub some seasoned bird watchers the wrong way. After all, the hobby is supposed to be about the birds, not about the fancy gadgets that are being used to find them. But given the wide variety of products targeted to this demographic, it's not hard to see how one could get carried away.

A quick search of the Apple app store using the term 'birding' yields 179 results, many of them designed to help identify and track birds.

That's in addition to the plethora of physical gadgets -- like portable bird song identifiers, super-zoom camera lenses and a seemingly endless supply of binoculars on the market.

It's this influx of available gadgetry that is, according to the NYT, creating a divide in the birding community.

Judging by the comments the article has generated -- 166 as of the time of this writing and counting -- the topic is divisive.

"We had a snowy owl here and it was enjoyed immensely by birders and non-birders alike until a guy with a camera and lens that could easily photograph a planet in outer space decided he had to walk across the field (private property) to get a closer picture of that bird," commenter birdbander writes.

"The bird flushed, never to be seen again by local residents or others that had traveled many miles that day to observe the bird."

Commenter David, on the other hand, takes issue.

RELATED:Learn about the whooping crane, and endangered bird species in Canada

"It is important to understand that 'competitive' birding is only a tiny, tiny aspect of the birding world, and any 'clash' in styles is limited to this small arena. In over three decades of birding I have never met a 'competitive' birder, nor have I ever met anyone who has asked for proof of what I saw. Instead I have uniformly met people who are eager to share, teach, point out, and explain. The only complaint I've ever received is from a friend who thinks I should buy better binoculars."

Dave Ingram is a naturalist and photographer based on Vancouver Island. Over the span of his career he's seen his share of birds, having worked with BC Parks, Parks Canada, and the Greater Vancouver Regional District, to name but a few of his endeavours.

He got his start bird-watching in the 1990s and has seen the trends come and go.

"I personally think it helps," he says of birding technologies.

"Back before the internet and social media they would use analog technology where you would call into a rare bird hotline and you would listen to a recording and describe what bird it is but now with EBird and Twitter you can get instantaneous updates on where birds are and what’s coming into the area so now there is more of an immediate response time if there is something unusual ... so being able to get the information fast compared to waiting to see the bird before it vanishes is a difference."

It appears that newbies and experienced birders alike are befitting from new technology.

"The other day in Uclulet there were over 100 birders studying the off-shore birds and most of them were on their smart phones either using IBird or updating their status on the bird sightings," Ingram says.

"So I think there are definitely a lot of good birders here who use apps."

Jody Allair, a biologist and science educator with Bird Studies Canada, echoes this sentiment.

"We have all heard how society is disconnected from the natural world ... [but] if these new technologies are attracting a younger demographic that otherwise might not get into bird watching until they’re much older, then I think that’s fantastic," he says.

In fact, new technology may even help new birders overcome the learning curve, according to Allair, who dismisses the idea that birding apps allow new birders to glaze over the fundamentals of the hobby without ever gaining a true understanding of it.

And what about the much-criticized apps that can mimic a bird's cry?

"From a conservation perspective I have heard that bird apps that make sound can be disruptive to birds if people aren’t using common sense," Allair says.

"That being said there are far more conservation issues out there than people playing sound off their phones."

At the end of the day, Allair believes that anything that gets people involved with birding is a good thing.

"You’re hard pressed to find any other significant hobby that contributes billions dollars to the economy and there’s nothing out there that really compares to an accessible, but really enjoyable hobby like birding," he says.

"Once you start it’s hard to stop."


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