- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

CAPE MAY, N.J. (AP) - Today’s birdwatcher can use a radar image accessed through a smartphone to find out the best place to go birding.

The birder doesn’t even need a cumbersome field guide anymore. It’s all on their phone, which will even provide a variety of bird calls to help identify a feathered friend that can be heard but not seen.

And to think, John James Audubon had to shoot his birds with a shotgun just to see them up close.

“This is changing the game,” David La Puma told The Press of Atlantic City (http://bitly.com/1rtZDrQ ). He’s the director of New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Bird Observatory.

The latest technology is part of what draws hundreds of birders to Cape May Convention Hall every October during New Jersey Audubon’s Cape May Autumn Birding Festival. The oldest birding festival in North America began Friday and runs through Sunday with field trips, speakers, book signings, workshops and a number of other events.

It also brings vendors selling the latest in birding optics and high-tech gadgets. La Puma hears some complaints about how technology has changed birding, but he argues such devices, used in a responsible way, are a fantastic resource. Technology may have moved some hobbies inside, but he notes the birder still has to “get out there and see the bird.”

It’s hard to argue with La Puma when he displays a slow-motion video of a rare whiskered tern on his phone. It’s crisp, clear and in living color, showing things other birders might miss.

“Back in the day, they used a shotgun to identify the bird. A bird in the hand is not the same as a bird in the bush. It’s dead,” La Puma said.

Birding used to be a solitary sport, like hunting. Practitioners would come in from the field and have to convince everybody they just saw a rare bird.

“Back then, if a rare bird showed up, you’d find out about it in our annual report,” La Puma said.

Now, there is plenty of electronic evidence and a social network that probably means everybody else joined the birder in their field once that rare bird was sighted. Within hours of the first whiskered tern sighting last month, about 100 birders were looking at it. La Puma said birding has become hypersocial, and with the technology anybody can at least document nature so it can be studied later.

When the first birding festival was held in Cape May in 1946, it was hard to find an accurate weather report. La Puma can now follow bird movements on his phone, using the color to figure out their speeds and the lines from storm fronts to determine where they will come down to earth for the night.

“It’s all on my fingertips. We’re one degree away from having real-time bird migration forecasting,” La Puma said.

There are some detractors. Pete Dunne, a former bird observatory director, birding author and self-described Luddite, doesn’t like all the technology. He doesn’t tweet. He’s not on Facebook. He argues it will ultimately destroy birding.

“You take a picture and go to your home computer to ID it, and 100 years of field identification goes out the window. I like looking at birds in real time without all the gadgetry,” Dunne said.

The social media aspect also goes against why Dunne embraced birding years ago.

“I got into birding to hide out from people,” he said.

But new gadgetry is smaller and in many ways performs better. Close-up shots used to involve lugging a large heavy lens into the field.

Bird observatory naturalist Kathy Horn swears by her $70 adapter that allows her to turn what she is viewing in her scope into a picture on her smartphone. She said the phone focuses the picture better than she could do herself. The photography in the new field guides is so good it helps birders accurately identify what they are seeing.

Roger Horn, Kathy’s husband and a naturalist for the bird observatory, said looking at a bird in real time is great, but then it can be quickly gone. Horn said digiscoping, or taking pictures from the spotting scope, has helped him learn more about birds.

“Birders today really have an advantage with all the advanced technology,” Kathy Horn said.

It’s also being used to get children birding. Schools are using online programs to get students to learn about birds, sometimes before they have even seen them in the field.

Dale Rosselet, who has worked at the bird observatory for 16 years, said the technology also means more opportunities to see rare birds. Such sightings use to be announced on a telephone hotline birders would call. Sometimes a phone tree was used.

“Now we have text alerts. You text, and a list of subscribers get it,” Rosselet said.

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Information from: The Press of Atlantic City (N.J.), http://www.pressofatlanticcity.com

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