Times have changed a lot when it comes to bird watching.  No doubt people have watched, been entertained by and learned important lessons from birds for centuries, but all they had were two eyes, which grow weak and blurry with age.  Technology has remedied that in dramatic ways.

When I say technology I’m not just talking about electronics or other modern developments. Changes began even in the late 1700s when John James Audubon decided to see whether the phoebe that nested on his property was the same one that returned the next year. He took a length of silk thread, tied it around the leg of the bird and sure enough, the next spring there was the phoebe with the dangling thread.  We could say this was the beginning of future banding programs and the explosion of knowledge and understanding that would follow in the next 200+ years.

As for eye pieces to bring our view of birds closer, we go back even further in time.  Just after the turn of the 17th century a man by the name of  Johann Lipperhey, who had already invented the single Dutch telescope, came up with the idea of attaching two telescopes side by side and thus was born the first ‘binoculars’.  It wasn’t until 1854 when a real pair of prism binoculars were developed by an Italian named Porro.  In 1935 anti-reflective coatings for the glass improved the optic qualities even more.  It’s been a non-stop race ever since for lighter, stronger, and

Binoculars bring the birds closer to us

Binoculars bring the birds closer to us

‘smarter’ binocs.

One of the more recent designs that many people have found very helpful is the anti-shake or image stabilizing binoculars. Just as the name implies they are able to focus on a subject – say a bird hopping from branch to branch and remove any shake coming from the human holding them; something that tends to increase with age or if you’ve been trying to hold the binoculars up to your eyes for a long period of time trying to find that dang little bird.

More scientific advances have allowed us to learn even more about where birds actually go when they leave each fall. Using leg bands was the initial method.  It is a time intensive process and while birds or their bands have been

Banding birds is one way of studying their lives

Banding birds is one way of studying their lives

recovered, showing us where they go or end up in migration, most are never found or seen again.

Radio and satellite telemetry has changed all that with the development of tiny little transceivers that can be attached to the back of a bird, without interfering with its flight or life. It sends a signal that shows the researcher just exactly where the bird is during the entire migration or life of the receiver.  This information is critical because it shows just where birds need to find habitat and food to for a successful migration.

Similarly there are now maps on the internet that update the locations of various birds for any one of us to see.  For instance Journey North (http://www.learner.org/jnorth) keeps track of the Hummingbird migration (just one of many bird species it tracks).  The map has a little red dot indicating where the birds have been seen and when. Watching it over time is like watching a slow moving tide creep northward.  The low tech part of this process is that people are the ones watching and reporting when they see the birds in their area.

In April I wrote about the magic of web cams and how they can take us right into the nest of various birds.  I have been watching a Bald Eagle nest for several weeks now.  I leave the page up on my computer with the sound on, and throughout the day I will check in and see what’s happening. Right now the days are hot and the three eaglets try to

In this eagle nest you can see the two adults and one of the nearly fully grown young

In this eagle nest you can see the two adults and one of the nearly fully grown young

find shade and just pant.  But I’ve been able to watch an adult fly in with a fish and observe the process of feeding the young. They have reached the point now of grabbing the entire fish and feeding themselves.  The problem is that the parent just brings one fish at a time and there are three fledglings.  I can only hope that the others get a meal in turn.

These eagles are fully grown and it is just a matter of days before they make the great leap into space and fly away.  Right now they spread their wings and flap them up and down, getting a few inches off the ground.  This is how they strengthen their wings in preparation for their new life. I fully expect to turn the computer on one of these days and find only two birds in the nest and then one. It would be really exciting to see one of them take off, but that is probably too much to hope for.  It has been a wonderful diversion in these difficult times, to watch the life of our nation’s symbol in a very personal way.

Each year we learn more about birds, from direct observation and through new scientific developments, but there will always be some unsolved mysteries.  And that’s a good thing.

By Kate Crowley