When it comes to bird-watching, it’s not just about binoculars and an identification guide anymore.

The newest technology is used in modern-day birding — Global Positioning System units, BlackBerrys, iPods and bird-alert services. And for the not-so-faint-of-heart, there’s extreme birding, a combination of birding and roughing it in the outdoors.

“(Birding) can be great exercise, and you set the pace. It’s a great sport, you can do it all your life,” says Lisa Berger, Web editor for the Greater Ozarks Audubon Society.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 46 million Americans observed, fed or photographed birds in 2001, and they spent $6 billion on birding equipment.

Adds Andrew Kinslow, a high school biology teacher in Rogersville and extreme birder: “There’s nothing more grand than looking at life itself.”

Getting technical

Birders love GPS units, Berger says.

“We use those all the time because you may see something interesting, and if you give the coordinates, it helps others find the areas,” Berger says.

But that’s just the beginning of the technological aspect of birding. When birders find particularly interesting sites and birds, they often alert their bird-loving friends immediately through their PDAs.

Birders also use their PDAs to download bird calls for identification. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers free .wav files of bird sounds to download to computers or hand-held devices. The National Geographic Society has a mobile interactive field guide for PDAs that uses an eBird checklist to store bird-sighting data that you can later download to your desktop computer. The device may be purchased as an all-in-one PDA — a Tungsten E2 Palm Pilot — or as SD card software, compatible with many PDAs.

Using PDAs and bird songs to attract birds, however, is causing an ethical stir, as the sounds may attract birds away from their nests at inopportune times and disrupt birds’ habitats.

After seeing a bird, many birders record information on a bird alert system.

“There are lots of bird alert systems,” Berger says. “Many state ornithological societies maintain a (system) where an individual becomes a subscriber. A subscriber sends an e-mail to the (system), which then sends that message to all the subscribers.”

Online forums

The Greater Ozarks Audubon Society offers an opportunity for birders to discuss birding online, Berger says.

“We chat about which migrant species are showing up in the state in spring and fall, make announcements about upcoming and impromptu field trips, talk about identification, list what we’ve seen on trips and more,” she says.

The eBird site is an online record-keeping database sponsored by Cornell and the Audubon Society.

“An individual or group registers a site, like a favorite hot spot or even a back yard, then adds species to the eBird list after each outing,” Berger says.

Getting started

Lest you think birding is only done by aging nature lovers, Berger says there’s a trend of birders in their late-teens and early 20s. She says sometimes these birders drop out for a while, and then reappear with families.

Kinslow is one Gen X birder who never stopped birding. Kinslow grew up birding and continued his interest in all things avian in college, where he worked on research projects that took him into the field to search for nests, band birds and conduct censuses, among other tasks.

Today, he never travels without a pair of binoculars — even when he commutes to school on his bicycle. In the summer, he integrates bird-watching and banding into a summer school class.

Kinslow says Passive Integrated Transponder tags are another technology being used in the birding world for research. Stores use these tags to keep track of their inventory, but birders like to use these microchips encoded with unique identification numbers when studying birds. Made to resemble lichen, moss or twigs, these tags can be easily disguised in nests and last for generations of birds. Kinslow says the tags are used to track birds that reuse their nests, such as owls and eagles.

Another new technology for tracking birds is weather radar.

“Birds show up as big rain drops, so if the skies are clear, and the radar shows a big storm front, it is actually showing bird migration,” Kinslow says. “This is especially used on the Gulf Coast and in migratory funnels, such as Hawk Ridge in Minnesota and Whitefish Point in Michigan.”

Before leaving on a trip, Kinslow checks space imaging software such as Google Earth or TerraServer to locate bird habitat.

Going extreme

Some birders go to the extreme to view birds. Berger calls this “gonzo birding.”

“For example, two years ago, I drove all night on a Friday after work with two other gonzos to arrive in Duluth, Minn., by morning. We proceeded to log all the species we could before heading home Sunday morning. We spun off the highway in freezing fog, went down a 100-foot, 45-degree embankment backwards, then drove out of it through a downed portion of barbed-wire fence Š none the worse,” Berger says. “When we pulled back onto the access road, we noticed house finches in the trees.”

Another avid bird-watcher in the Springfield area is Bo Brown. An outdoor enthusiastic and wilderness survival instructor, Brown’s eclectic lifestyle combines avocation with vocation, as he travels to conduct research for the Audubon Society and government organizations.

Brown also is classified as a gonzo. His birding trips have taken him to Costa Rica, where he lived out of a backpack, and to Alaska.

“Sometimes I go on manic birding trips, with three to four days of nonstop birding,” he confesses.