Robo Birders – A Glimpse Into The Future

If there is one constant in life, then that is change. It’s inevitable, usually unstoppable and sometimes difficult to embrace.

Since my first forays into the world of birds and birding in the 1970’s, there has been tremendous change, most of it for the good, at least in terms of information, access and equipment.

My first identification guide was adequate, no more than that, (Bob Scott and Don Forrest – A Bird Watchers Key).

My first binoculars were less than adequate, bought if I remember correctly from a Littlewoods catalogue (Commodore 12×50).

Better guides and optics were of course available, I just wasn’t aware of them.

Since the 1980’s advances in science and technology have revolutionized field guides, optics and of course our understanding of the birds themselves.

The latest edition of the Collins Guide, for example, offers more information, better drawings, better maps and more species than ever before.

Some of the original bird guide books way back when.. and of course the new Birder’s Bible from Collins.

High quality binoculars and telescopes are available at affordable prices and digital cameras have democratized bird photography, making it available to beginners as well as keen amateurs.

In terms of bird watching locations; John Gooders Where To Watch Birds told us where to go in the UK, Ornitholidays took us there and then into Europe.

Specific real time information on which birds were where remained the preserve of the chalk board and the hide’s logbook. Then along came Birdline and their recorded messages giving us access to remote information for the first time.

More recently the rise of websites like eBird have opened up new ways to record and share information and data. Birdlines recorded messages seem like something from ancient history.

However throughout all of this change, the bedrock of bird identification resided with the craft and skills of the observer, acquired over many years, indeed and at least for me, a process that continues to this day.

The optics maybe better, the books superb, the internet available wherever we are and the potential to record all of what we see with a lightweight superzoom camera in our backpacks, but we still need to use our eyes and our knowledge to identify the brown speck in the distant bush.

Well, perhaps for not much longer.

For a few years Swarovski have been working on a monocular that acts as a camera, identification tool and recording interface all at the same time. Essentially this is a ‘binocular’ that identifies the bird for you.

At the moment this technology is clumsy, hit and miss and very expensive, though as with most digital technology nowadays, things will improve rapidly.

Whilst the basic format is still to point an optic and to record what is seen, soon even this technology will be swept away with virtual, augmented and mixed reality.

The rise and rise of social media and the internet of things is leading us to lead increasingly vicarious lives. Something I feel that is simply unhealthy and unrewarding.

For me when one removes the craft and the graft from birdwatching, what is left is a relatively empty experience, albeit one, that for now, can be enjoyed outside. The advent of the new ‘realities’ may even change that.

I don’t write this as a raving luddite (only a mild luddite), after all I am penning this on a pc, emailing it to the ABS and uploading photos to be shared on my social media sites to accompany the article.

Clearly whilst not all change is bad; this particular revolution does seem to remove a key component in the process of identification.

Will plain old binoculars become a thing of the past?

Part of the joy of bird watching is the painstaking and forensic translation of features in the glass into a name, through experience and the indefinable application of bird sense and a part of that is making mistakes.

One always gains a deep sense of satisfaction from identifying the obscure small bird in the shadows, the juvenile, the atypical and the rare.

I for one would feel the experience lessened, if I panned an optic across a flock of waders on a winter mudflat, only to have species identified without thought or effort.

Mixed reality, remote digital identification is coming and there will be some benefits, particularly in the fields of education, research and conservation.

For this mild luddite though, sitting in a remote corner of Cadiz and until proven otherwise, will remain with binoculars, pencil and notebook, smart phone and guide book to identify the teeming masses of our beautiful and varied avifauna.

Article: Neil A Hill (Rewilding Bushcraft) ABS Member
Photos: ABS Archives.

NoteThe views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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