By Crystal Simmons
The thrill of discovering a coveted and rare species in an unexpected location has long fueled passions for birding. But until recently, the activity wasn’t known for its hip, tech-loving followers. Now, thanks to widespread smartphone use, birders of all ages are trading in bulky field manuals for high-tech birding apps and sharing more photos and videos than ever.
A New Generation of Birders
Jennifer Boley has seen firsthand how technology has transformed birding. As the founder and director of the nonprofit group Nature & Eclectic Outdoors, Boley leads kids, families, and young adults on weekend nature hikes and camping trips throughout Houston and Austin.
“Years ago, if you wanted to learn about a bird, you had to scour through books and magazines and hope you came across a picture that fit what you saw,” she said.
Not anymore. With dozens of birding apps on the market, it’s now easier than ever to learn how to bird. In the time it takes to flip through a field guide, today’s birder can log new bird species on eBird, look up species on Merlin Bird ID, receive alerts from BirdsEye and TexBirds when desired species are nearby, and share photos of birding expeditions on Instagram and Facebook.
“We used to have this stereotypical idea of a birding enthusiast being a retired grandparent with a quirky hobby,” she said. “Thanks to technology like phone apps and the internet, we can identify a bird for free in seconds, no matter where we are. And it has opened up this hobby to all ages and backgrounds.”
Like many who work with youth, Boley views technology as a learning tool, rather than a distraction. Instead of banning participants from using phones, Boley often incorporates birding apps — including iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and eBird — into weekend nature hikes.
“When young people first start spending time in nature, it is difficult for them to put their phones down,” said Boley. “What we have discovered is that if we teach people to use these apps, eventually they become truly interested in nature and wildlife. Then they put away their phones and just start enjoying their surroundings.”
Younger crowds aren’t the only ones embracing technology. Claire Moore, a birder since the 1990s and a volunteer guide at Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center, has more than six birding apps on her phone. One of her favorites, BirdsEye, alerts her if a “life bird,” which is a bird she has never seen before, is in the area.
“Technology has definitely changed the way we bird,” she said. “If I come across a bird I don’t recognize, I have a bird guide and Merlin on my phone to help me. Also, I have an app that tracks the birds I see. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have a free app that can identify unknown bird calls.”
Photo sharing and digital photography have also grown among birders. With millions of followers looking for their next nature fix online, Instagram is one of the most popular sites, featuring nearly 4 million photos tagged #birdwatching and 2.3 million tagged #birding.
Like many birders, Jan Liang fell in love with bird photography after trying out birding with her sister in 2012. Now she never birds without her smartphone and digital camera.
“Taking photos and sharing them is so much easier now. Now I can take as many photos as I like and delete the rest,” she said. “I share my photos and videos on eBird so other birders can see them.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that birders are now more connected than ever. Photo sharing, high-tech apps, and social media have connected birders in ways that weren’t possible 30 years ago. Today, birders can open an app like BirdsEye and find nearby birding hotspots reported by other users. One of the most popular apps, eBird, features more than 262,000 users whose birding data helps generate a map of birding hotspots.
With more than 100 different species reported at each location, a few birding hotspots in Precinct 4 include Jones Park, Mercer Botanic Gardens, and Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve. To learn more about birding opportunities in Precinct 4, visit www.hcp4.net/events/ and www.hcp4.net/tap/events/.
Birding Programs in Precinct 4
Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center
First Saturday Birding at 7:45 a.m. (September through May)
Birders of all skill levels are invited to join a naturalist or volunteer guide to observe and document the park’s variety of birds.
Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve Birding
Third Tuesday Birding at 8 a.m. (7 a.m. in the warmer months)
Houston Audubon Society volunteers lead a monthly bird count. Binoculars and walking shoes recommended.
Attracting Birds to Your Property: Learn how to choose the correct bird feeders and types of seed for your area. The lesson will also include how to squirrel-proof feeders and what bird species are in season.
Birding by Ear: Want to learn how to identify birds by sound? Discover some of our local birds by their calls and songs.
Owl Prowls: Visit a Precinct 4 parks at night. See if you can spot some of these beautiful predators flying through the park.
Best birding apps