By COREY KILGANNON and EMILY S. RUEB Michael Nagle for The New York Times
Pete Dunne and Benjamin Van Doren are devout birders who share a passion for identifying rare species, recording their sightings and competing in birding events known as Big Days.
But as they prepared for the biggest Big Day of all, Saturday’s World Series of Birding in New Jersey, their technological approaches could hardly be more disparate.
Mr. Dunne, 62, has been preparing a bit differently. He refuses to bring a camera and keeps his cellphone turned off. He eschews birding apps and digital libraries in favor of the handwritten journal that he has kept since he was 7. The proliferation of digital photography and other technology changes the whole dynamic of birding, he said, “getting away from the art of field identification.”
It was all leading to a regrettable mind-set, he added, of “Shoot first and identify later.”
Not long after professional baseball came around to instant replay, the booming world of competitive birding, once seen as a refuge from the clatter of the modern world, is now debating how much it should embrace technology. It is as close as birding, long proud of its honor system, has ever come to an identity crisis, particularly over the issue of whether photography should be required to prove a spotting. In debates among birders, the encroachment of smartphones and digital cameras has become inseparable from another touchy issue, the matter of questionable sightings, known as stringing.
The competition, which also raises money for conservation, does not require photo evidence, and scoring remains on the honor system, though contestants who claim to have seen or heard rare birds can expect to be questioned by other teams about details. The rules do not allow the use of digital gadgets in the spotting or hearing of birds. Recorded calls cannot be played in the open, where they could inadvertently — or intentionally — induce birds to respond, for example. But birders are permitted to refresh themselves — in their cars, only — with recorded bird calls.
The pro-tech camp argues that it is silly to prohibit tools that educate birders, make birding more welcoming for novices, and build popular support for saving bird habitats.
“It is bringing a new breath of air into the competitions,” said Scott Whittle, a commercial photographer from Cape May, N.J., who has a $10,000 photo setup. He is also helping develop an app called Bird Genie that recognizes and identifies bird calls in the field.
He said he began birding six years ago and photographed his sightings “because I knew I wasn’t a good enough birder for people to trust me.”
The verification of sightings and combating stringing — arguable sightings by inexperienced, overeager or simply cheating birders — is one of birding’s most pressing issues and is the main argument for the use of photos.
Birding’s popularity, fueled in part by the recent films, “The Big Year,” and “A Birder’s Guide to Everything,” is approaching an extreme-sport level, with adrenaline-pumped teams putting in sleepless days.
The American Birding Association has begun discussions to revise portions of its code of ethics, said Jeffrey Gordon, the association’s president. The code serves as a guideline for birders, though competition organizers are free to make their own rules. Mr. Gordon said that what little there was in the code regarding technology — there is a mention, for example, of curbing the use of “tape recorders” — has likely gone unchanged since being established a decade ago, “before people were walking around with libraries of bird songs in their pocket.”
While the honor system remains paramount, Mr. Gordon said, photographs, provided they have not been altered, can offer “a higher standard of evidence,” especially for rare sightings, and for newer birders who have yet to establish reputations of being rock-solid in their identifications.
“I hear young birders joking around saying, ‘Photos or it didn’t happen,’ ” he said. “The expectation is that if you report something rare, you’re going to need a photograph. And I only see that increasing.”
The association created a new category of competition: Photo Big Days. Last month, Mr. Whittle and Tom Stephenson, a Brooklyn-based birder who leads tours in Prospect Park, organized a Photo Big Day in Texas, and competed as well, photographing 209 birds in 24 hours, which the birding association has recognized as a record for North America.
Even purists like Mr. Dunne, a New Jersey Audubon Society official who founded the World Series, said any tool that made birding more accessible was welcome. But introducing them to competitions goes against the trust implicit in birding, the purists said, and turns what should be a contest of devotion and skill into a free-for-all where tech wizardry and expensive cameras become the de facto entry requirements.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press
“We’re at a pivotal time,” Mr. Dunne said, acknowledging that birding technology was “going to change birding dramatically and probably permanently.”
Drew Weber, who writes a blog about birding and technology at NemesisBird.com and helps develop birding apps, said he has heard some resentment among old guard birders toward tech-savvy ones who have gained vast birding knowledge with comparably little time spent in the field.
“A lot of traditional birders, honing their skills for decades, had to put all this time in, and they might see technology as a shortcut,” he said.
Teams in the World Series recruit members who can identify bird calls and can scout where targeted species are likely to be seen. To prepare for the event, Mr. Van Doren’s Cornell team has spent a week driving around New Jersey using apps to log where specific birds had been spotted. They are not allowed to use apps to acquire new information during the event, but they can use them to refer to previously gathered information.
Mr. Van Doren acknowledged that technology should have its limits. The day will come, he predicted, when binoculars themselves will be able to identify birds. “That would be lame from a birding perspective,” he said, “because it would take the skill out of it.”