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Bird Nerds: Using the Web to Net Our Feathered Friends

How Web-based bird-watchers are helping scientists study global warming



Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey, Deanna Dawson

Combining standard field biology techniques with a Web-accessible robotic camera positioned at the Welder Wildlife Refuge in Sinton, Tex., scientists and amateur ornithologists are trying to determine whether the sighting of subtropical birds well north of their natural habitat is proof of climate change and a profound shift in wildlife migration patterns.

Amateur observers have witnessed—via the CONE (Collaborative Observatories for Natural Environments) Welder Web site—the green jay, great kiskadee and white-tipped dove cavorting north of their known breeding areas in Texas's Rio Grande Valley, about 160 miles (255 kilometers) from Sinton. In fact, dozens of species of subtropical birds appear to have shifted to neighborhoods north of their normal stomping grounds. "This is an area in south Texas where they're starting to see birds they've never seen before," says Ken Goldberg, an engineer at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped design the CONE Welder remote bird watching system, which uses a Panasonic digital camera connected to the Internet to provide a continuous feed of wildlife activity at the refuge. "We don't know the reasons, but the one thing we need to do is to document this."

Most scientists believed that the green jays—adorned with bright green plumage, a yellow underbelly and a blue cap—flew only as far north as Kingsville, Tex., 60 miles (95 kilometers) to the south. That changed in February 2007, though, when John Rappole, an ornithologist at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C., returned to the 7,800-acre (3,155-hectare) refuge where he had studied birds in the 1970s as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. He planned to spend a year at Welder working on a book about Texas wildlife. On his arrival, he set out birdseed and several green jays flocked to eat it.

When Rappole started talking to other birdwatchers in the region, he learned that some 80 species of south Texas birds had been moving north and east in the last 30 years. "I understood that climate change had occurred, but I didn’t understand that climate change would affect these birds," Rappole says. "A change in one degree over a period of years? It has to be some indirect effect, but I can't see what that is." He enlisted Goldberg to help document the changes.

It was an unlikely match: Rappole, a mellow, binocular-clad ornithologist from upstate New York and Goldberg, a fast-talking engineer who sports a wild crop of curly blond hair and whose artwork has been featured in techno-art exhibits around the world.

Goldberg's relationship with the birding world began in 2006, when he collaborated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to try to spot the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker in eastern Arkansas with an automated camera system. The bird was thought to have become extinct in the 1940s until, that is, a group of bird-watchers claimed to have caught a glimpse of it in 2005. The system could locate and capture likely bird images, but the team then had to go through the photos individually—a grueling process. The venture has so far come up dry, but the effort inspired Goldberg to consider ways that Internet users could participate and diminish the amount of grunt work involved.

Birders like to tally and compare all the bird species they see, so it was only natural that Goldberg would tap into this competitive element. In April 2007 he set up a remote-control camera in the San Francisco backyard of Goldberg pal and craigslist founder Craig Newmark. Players could log onto a Web site, control the camera panning, tilting and zooming, and take snapshots from the video stream. Players earned points based on the ratings that other players gave their photos and on the number of birds they correctly matched to their species. That system was up for about five months and drew in about 3,000 players. "The problem," Goldberg admits, "was the birds were not that interesting."

This is not the case at Welder, however, where remote bird-watchers can log on to see birds that not only cannot be found anywhere else in the U.S. but also were not supposed to be at Welder. On a typical morning, Welder volunteers refill feeders and place identifying color bands on birds they catch in the area. The team then lets the Web users make their observations, which gives Rappole the hard data he needs on birds in the area and how long they stay each season. "The idea that there is an observer present 24 hours watching a community is quite a breakthrough," he says.

It's also a breakthrough for John Callender, a programmer for the Web site Rent.com, who enjoys snapping pictures of birds perched 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) away on the Texas Gulf Coast while he's perched in his Carpinteria, Calif. home. "I'm a lifelong bird-watcher and kind of an Internet geek, so these two combined definitely piqued my interest," says Callender, who blogs daily about his observations on his Web site. He compares using CONE with "what scientists do when they explore other planets" and says he enjoys spending a few minutes each morning sorting through other users' photos and identifying their birds when he doesn't have time for his own remote bird-watching sortie.

"The idea that [the site is] involved in ongoing research with shifting breeding ranges adds to my interest," Callender says. "I'm not just geeking-out and doing it for my own enjoyment, but [rather for] some larger purpose."

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