Birding with Rip Van Winkle

What does this mean, birding with Rip Van Winkle? Learning what birds might have been seen by the “real” Rip Van Winkle during the time of the American Revolutionary War would be wonderful indeed – before the loss of so many now iconic species due to anthropogenic activity including Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet, and Ivory-billed Woodpecker – but my title refers to the feeling I’ve had many times since returning to active birding in April of 2017. So much has changed! For one thing, there is now eBird, an online database of bird sightings, photographs and audio recordings from all over the world. Devised by a number of ornithologists including Frank Gill of National Audubon Society and John Fitzpatrick of Cornell University Laboratory of Ornithology, this is a way that everyone, from ornithologists to serious birders to people who just enjoy looking at birds, can contribute valuable information about bird populations and their distribution. No longer need one keep bird lists in paper notebooks or other static formats – we can log them and analyze them and compare them over time – and we’re even encouraged to compete with each other as a way to get more people outside and gathering more and more data (I have mixed feelings about this because of the expenditure of money and fossil fuels when birding trips inevitably require driving – something we unfortunately didn’t think much about in the Old Days). I love eBird for so many reasons, not least of which is that, while I love to be out watching birds, all by myself, it is no longer something I do just for myself: I can leave my data behind for others to use.

So there’s eBird. And there are cell phones! Now you can use a phone to 1) access the eBird app and log your sightings in the field, 2) get directions to birding locations 3) record bird sounds, 4) text your friends to alert them to noteworthy birds and even send them trail maps if they get lost, 5) grab a quick listen to a bird song online or look at photos if you need to refresh your memory, 6) check out what others have been seeing while you’ve been out, in case you need to change your plans and find a rara avis elsewhere. These little gizmos have revolutionized birding.

And finally, one of the harder things for me to adjust to is the many changes in nomenclature since “my day”. When I woke up from my long nap and returned to birding, titmice and chickadees had become Baeolophus and Poecile instead of Parus, and all the Dendroica warblers had morphed into other genera. Blue-headed Vireo, which was an old name for Solitary Vireo, is once again the common name for Vireo solitarius. The list of changes is long. I assume there are good reasons for them, which in itself would be a change. I remember cases when names were changed because someone on the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist Committee had a “feeling” about a species’ relationship to another one or its distinctness from it, but I think the process is much more rigorous now. Maybe I’ll go into that in another post.

So all of this has led to the title of this blog. The long hiatus in my birding activity is harder to explain, but chalk it up to the demands of launching an academic career and raising a family. I wish it had not happened (the hiatus that is, not the career and family), because I’d be a way better birder by now, but that’s water over the dam and one can only move forward. But one can look back, and reflect on the world and its changes, and I’d like to do that while I can still remember! Hence, Birding with Rip Van Winkle. Hope you enjoy it.

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