Bird watcher Larry Richardson discusses new technologies, Merlin Bird ID and eBird apps

BAZETTA TWP., Ohio (WKBN) — As local birder Larry Richardson led a group around Mosquito Lake State Park, he repeatedly looked down at the phone he had in his hand.

Standing in a clearing with birds chirping in the background, he knowingly nodded to the group.

“It’s a wood thrush,” he said, pointing to his phone.

Richardson, who has been teaching birding classes and leading trips for more than 30 years, is a traditional birder in most senses. He has a vast knowledge of birds and can pick out many just by walking beside them. He even perfected the sounds that some birds make during their bird songs.

But even Richardson says he can see the benefits of the technology now available to birdwatchers, and he’s used it himself. He thinks it might even attract new people to birdwatching, those who haven’t read much about birds and don’t know their habitats.

“When I started birdwatching… the only way to find a rare bird, or find birds, or find out where birds might be was in a phone. They had a recording that said what was seen at a certain period of time, but I had to learn the habitats,” he said.

Now bird watchers can use an app called Merlin Bird ID. Created by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, birders can hold their phone, which picks up sounds of bird calls in the distance and identifies birds in the area. The app also serves as a field guide, with information and photos of different birds.

The eBird app is also used by bird watchers to enter their bird sightings. It allows for bird tracking purposes and makes the data available for scientific research and education.

Both apps were mentioned by volunteers at Mosquito Lake State Park’s Big Birding Weekend last weekend; they touted their usefulness to participants who wanted to start birdwatching.

John Garrett, project assistant for eBird at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, said eBird started in 2002 but became more popular as the technology developed. He said the app has multiple benefits for both birdwatchers and researchers.

“We get data from ornithologists. In doing so, they learn more about birds and become better birdwatchers, and they also contribute to our scientific understanding of what birds actually do, which informs conservation pipelines, is sort of the end goal,” did he declare.

All of this data is available on the eBird Science website.

The Merlin app recently reached a milestone: there are more than 3 million active users, double from last year. The digital field guide and identification assistant can now help users identify a total of 10,315 bird species in any country.

Alli Smith, Merlin’s project coordinator at Cornell Lab, said identifying the birds can be difficult, especially for someone who travels. The idea behind the app is to give people the tools to help them learn more about birds.

She believes that many Merlin users are those with the occasional interest in birds.

“It’s such an easy entry point to start learning about birds, I think it’s really accessible to everyone. I think it’s really helping more and more people learn more about birds no matter where they are in their birding journey,” she said.

Ethan Kistler, an ornithologist and tour guide who lives in Newton Falls, said he thinks new technology, along with social media, is sparking a younger audience’s interest in birdwatching. There is an Ohio Young Birders Club and several social media groups for those interested in birding.

Kistler, who started birdwatching when he was 10, is now 32 and says it’s a misconception that birdwatchers are all older. Although there are many senior birders, the birding community is diverse and can even be competitive, he said.

He said that while the apps are useful for new birders, they aren’t always perfect, so it’s important to verify all the information birders collect.

Richards said the same – if you’re serious about birding, it’s also important to do some research.

“So when I started, I spent a lot of time traveling all over Ohio in different habitats trying to see different birds and so on and so on. So what’s going on with that, is that you have to learn the voices of it, you have to read the habitat to see if you are in the right place to get a certain bird, so you have to read a bit about their life stories.So if you do that, you get more and more trained,” he said.

Richards acknowledges that apps can help and may even attract more people to the hobby. He noted that birdwatching has grown in popularity since the COVID-19 pandemic and doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

“Because of COVID, many families started doing outdoor activities because they didn’t have to wear masks, they weren’t isolated, etc., and it continues now after that. They spent some time looking at these birds, getting binoculars, and started looking a little deeper, that kind of stuff, and they’re still doing that now,” he said.

He suggested that if anyone is interested in starting birdwatching, they should go on hikes and talk to those who know more about it.

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