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Birding and the Internet - The Ultimate Field Guide?
Presented by Mitchell Waite, WhatBird.com, to the Palo Alto Audubon Society


There are many exciting things happening on the Internet today that birders should be aware of. In this talk Mitchell Waite, the creator of WhatBird.com, a bird identification site, will talk about how the Internet can enhance your birding experience. He will present his new site, WhatBird.com, and explain why over 60,000 bird enthusiasts visit it each month.

Why is the Internet Important?

There are several things that the Internet offers the birder. These include the ability to supplement field guides and identify birds, communities to share experiences, forums to ask questions, and sites that present bird illustrations, photos, sounds and videos. But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Supplementing or Replacing Field Guides

While the publishers of traditional book based field guides have been slow to directly embrace the internet, numerous trends on the web are changing the way people identify and access information about birds.

What does the web offer over a book based field guide?


Web Search Engines

First there is Google.

http://www.google.com

By typing the name of a bird on the Google search page you can find literally millions of web sites that have information on that bird, some far more extensive than what you find in a book. Or if you don’t know the name of the bird you can enter a set of keywords such as

"small black bird with red eye that eats peanuts"

Google will find every web site that contains that string of characters on its page. And Google does not skimp on answers -- we entered the above term into Google and got back 3,020,000 web sites!

Google sorts the results of the search in terms of "relevancy", putting the sites most likely to have the information you want at the top. Indeed the first link in Google for that term was "Birds that eat Peanuts"

Sites that Supplement Field Guides

However there are better ways to supplement book based field guides on the Internet. Perhaps the most popular sites on the internet that compete with field guides provide birding identification through the use of "keys".

Keys are field marks that distinguish birds, such as color, bill shape, pattern, etc. Several popular web sites offer the ability to select a set of identifiable marks on a form. Once you have made your selections you click a Submit button, the site searches a large database and presents those birds that match your keys.

Good examples:

The BioDiversity Institute's Internet Field Guide to Birds

http://bdi.org/

Other sites offer lists of bird types, either by name or by presenting a small icon, which you can click on to browse for information:

USGS Patuxent Bird Identification InfoCenter

http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/framlst.html

Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds

http://www.birds.cornell.edu/programs/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/

National Wildlife Federation's eNature

http://www.enature.com

These sites provide extensive information on bird species, photographs, range maps, articles on attracting and feeding birds, participation in international bird studies, even home study courses in bird biology.

Of course if that is all that was offered the internet would not be much of a leap beyond the paper based book, however three important features separate these web sites from book based field guides.

1. The sites take advantage of the fact that you are using a computer with sound capability by offering actual bird calls you can listen to.
2. A few sites provide video galleries where you can view birds in motion.
3. Some sites offer "forums" where you can share your experiences with other birders, and get help IDing that elusive bird you saw. A few even have "experts" available to provide identification aids.

A Common Weakness

The one weakness of these identification sites is that they require you to enter all the bird ID information all at once, so if you check the wrong combination of field marks you will end up with "no bird found". Or if you don’t check enough field marks you end up with hundreds of birds.

New Web Solutions - WhatBird Example

Innovative web sites are appearing that solve this problem by using what is called a "parametric" search, meaning you enter the field marks one at a time until the bird is found. An example is:

WhatBird Field Guide to Birds of North America

http://identify.whatbird.com/mwg/_/0/attrs.aspx

Still Not a Perfect Solution

Of course like any new technology the web is not a prefect replacement for the book. While it is possible to take a laptop on a bird walk, it's not a good substitute for a book--laptops don’t fit well in your backpack, they are still too heavy and the screen is too hard to read in the bright sun.

However there are some innovations that are making the internet more portable, which may end up impinging on the sales of books, and offer new products that that book stores can't.

The Portable Electronic Field Guide

An example is the use of PDAs or Portable Digital Assistants. Typified by the Palm Pilot and Microsoft Pocket PC, these tiny devices can be coupled with the databases that offer the birder things no book can. They have intelligence and search capability so can help you hunt down your bird by tapping icons of identifying marks on the screen. They can generate the call of the bird, and thus bring the bird right to you.

One example is:

WhatBird Mobile Guide to Birds of North America

http://www.WhatBird.com/Wireless_Pocket_PC_Tour.htm

This download enables any Pocket PC to connect to a web site database of Birds of North America. The best part is the software is free. The one caveat is that you must be connected to the internet to use this software. This works fine if you have a cellular or wifi connection to your Pocket PC, but outside of suburbia this might be hard to find. A newer version of the software will offer a Secure Digital (SD) card containing the bird database.

Bird Mailing Lists and Newsgroups

A mailing list is an online discussion group that is accessed by either email or a web browser. These lists, also called Newsgroups, are hosted by universities, business, as well as large web authority sites like Yahoo and Google. There are zillions of such mailing lists devoted to birding, one or more for every state, and often lists devoted to a specific city.

For example in California:

Calbirds

calbirds@yahoogroups.com

And in San Francisco:

SFBirds

SFBirds@yahoogroups.com

You can find most of the links to these lists at:

Surfbirds

http://www.surfbirds.com/birdemail.html

Summary

How can a birder take advantage of the internet? You can start by visiting web sites that cater to birders. There are literally thousands you can try. Many offer forums where you can share your experiences with other birders and even upload your own photos. The discussion lists are often hosted by experts that can answer your inquiries. One example is:

WhatBird Bird ID Help Forum


http://www.WhatBird.com/forums/forums/10/ShowForum.aspx

The ornithologists in this forum, David Lukas and Simone Whitecloud, not only answer questions about how to identify birds, they give exciting and useful tips that will help you with your hobby.

Or can just enter some identification information into Google and visit the numerous links it returns.

Mitchell Waite
160 C Donahue Street, Suite 226
Sausalito California 94965
415 888 3233
http://www.mitchwaite.com

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