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This article is reprinted from the May 2001 edition of  Winging It, a publication from the American Birding Association.  Permission to reprint the article, and to post it on our chapter's webpage, was obtained from the author, Leroy Jensen, as well as from the editor of  Winging It,Mathew I. Pelikan.  This is such a novel method of birding, I thought others who are limited to birding from home might also enjoy it.

"Winging It" on the Tube: a Video Birding Big Year
 Leroy L. Jensen

If you are a birder whose birding opportunities are now limited; if you are a birder who would enjoy the challenge of identifying hundreds of the world's most interesting bird species; if your birding library is gathering dust, then I invite you to join me in a surprisingly rewarding experience: birding through the medium of television.

During the mid-1990s, I became aware that many of the world’s rare, beautiful, or otherwise fascinating birds could be seen in nature shows on television. I noticed that the narrators of the shows in which birds appeared often failed to name every bird, or named a bird only to its group name, such as "glossy-starling." I began to identify skipped-over species that were new to me, or to determine which of the seventeen or so species of glossy-starling it was.  I called the birds that I saw on television "video birds," and this act of birding became "video birding." I began a video birding life list that was separate from my American Birding Association (ABA) life list, but was based on similar rules: a bird would qualify for my video life list if it appeared to be wild and free; if the narrator named the bird before I could identify it, but I was able to see its identifying features, then I could list that bird.

In 1998, I found that in the next year I would be obliged to stay at home, forcing curtailment of my real-world birding activities. I decided to turn the situation around; I would make it perhaps my most active birding year ever, identifying as many species of birds on television as possible — a video birding "big year."

Like a birder planning a traditional big year, I prepared carefully for my video birding attempt. Researching the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) schedules and the schedules in TV Guide, I was surprised to learn of the many nature shows on television; there were shows almost every day. I also learned that, in my area at least, PBS scheduled many more nature shows than did commercial television. I chose two of the four San Francisco Bay Area's PBS stations, KQED (Channel 9) and KCSM (Channel 60), to be my main providers. Their monthly schedules and the weekly TV Guide kept me informed of all pending nature shows. I found that I did not need cable, although in some areas access to cable might expand your video birding horizons.

January 3, 1999, a Sunday, was my break-in day. I watched four and a half hours of nature shows and saw my first big year video bird, a Gray Wagtail in far-off Japan. By week's end, the complicated living pattern demanded by my viewing schedule was testing me, but I had seven birds on my list. From then on, it was nature shows every day. By the end of January, I had watched eighty-six shows and listed ninety-nine species of birds. I was happy!

I soon learned that without video cassettes and the VCR's remote control, my big year would be in jeopardy. If I taped a show, no matter what happened during the day, I could count on the tape to rescue me that night. Moreover, the VCR proved to be a valuable tool for identifying birds. Many of the birds were on the screen for just seconds, and sometimes several species were in view at one time, making the identification of a already difficult bird almost impossible. But the VCR's remote control solved this problem. During the tape replay I could press the "pause" button and freeze the image for further study. If necessary, I could manipulate the "jog-and-shuttle" device and move a bird's image, frame by frame, forward or backward, in order to bring its identifying features into view. This image management, along with patience and reference books, allowed me to identify almost every bird on the screen.

For maximum image resolution, I used premium tapes and recorded at the machine's highest tape speed (the SP setting, with a short, two-hour run time). Tapes that had served their purpose were rewound for future shows. Tapes were often played at fast-forward speed to quickly see their contents and scan for birds. I managed the entire year's daily taping with only ten cassettes.

February through June, I averaged 83 nature shows a month, and at midyear my "Big Year" video birding list had reached 737 species. July had 86 shows; however, when August arrived the show count increased dramatically. August had 161 shows, September 123, October 137, and November 124 shows. During those months, there were ten days with seven nature shows each. December slumped to 74 shows, and twelve days had but one per day. But by that point, I was relieved!

At year's end I had watched and taped 1,736 television nature programs. Of these, 1,208 shows included birds, and in 477 of these shows I identified 1,136 species of birds representing 150 avian families. My big year of video birding was a success! I had never seen 507 of my video birds in real life, but thanks to the nature shows and my library, these birds are no longer strangers.

There is no question that many species of birds may be seen on television, but there is a question of how best to convince birders of the fun of video birding. Surprisingly, video birding turns out to offer some advantages over birding in the field. Perhaps examples of real and video birding will show how exciting each can be and how they both should be part of our birding activities.

A television screen cannot portray the reality of an exciting high-speed boat chase, like one involving a strange storm-petrel seen while a group of us were birding the Gulf Stream off of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. The swells were gentle as we moved among feeding shearwaters, terns, and storm-petrels. Then someone yelled, "Follow that storm-petrel!"; the engines roared, the stern went down, the bow went up, the boat split the sea, spray flew. The bird was fast, but we stayed with it and tried frantically to see its features. Eventually the bird was photographed and videotaped, and the race stopped. The boat idled and moved with the swells. We clustered and chattered around our field guides. The bird was identified as a Swinhoe's Storm-Petrel, normally a bird of Oriental waters, perhaps just the first or second occurrence in our part of the Atlantic Ocean. I will never forget this experience. It was real life birding at its best! I added five other birds to my real birding life list that day, including a Herald Petrel and a White-tailed Tropicbird.

On the other hand, if you have seen the television program "Attenborough In Paradise," you will realize that in New Guinea there is no way for the birder on the usual guided tour to see as many kinds of birds-of-paradise in the intimate ways they can be seen on TV. Sir David Attenborough and his skilled team do more than bring you into the realm of the birds-of-paradise; they make you an invisible observer of its inhabitants. You are placed in the midst of these birds, and as you moved from species to species, you don't disturb them and they behave as if you were not there. I found myself holding my breath as these stunning birds performed their incredible courtship displays only a few feet in front of me. I will never forget that superb show! Watching it was video birding at its best. I added ten species of the birds-of-paradise to my "Big Year" video birding list that evening, including the Black Sicklebill, the largest of the birds-of-paradise, doing its early dawn courtship display. Clearly, both real and video birding can produce memorable birding experiences.

There was more to my "big year" of video birding than birds alone; it was also a year for me to see their habitats. During my search for birds in the television nature shows, I  made numerous virtual visits to the world's "Edens" where I saw a large portion of our planet's biodiversity. During the 477 shows that built my bird list, I video birded on all of the world's continents and in all nine of the ABA Listing Regions: I tallied 78 visits to Africa, 51 to Australasia, 103 to Eurasia, 156 in North America, 55 to South America, 2 to the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, 5 to the Indian Ocean, 22 to the Pacific Ocean, and 5 to the South Polar Region. 72 percent of the trips were outside of the continental United States and Canada.

Among my 1,136 big year species were 16 penguins, all 8 of the pelicans, 62 species of waterfowl, 14 storks, 91 hawks and allies, 12 cranes, 63 shorebirds, 43 gulls and terns, 32 parrots and allies, 23 owls, 31 hummingbirds, 27 woodpeckers, 14 birds-of-paradise, 14 Old World flycatchers, 17 weavers, 26 New World warblers, and 55 species of tanagers and their allies. Fortunately, there was but one cisticola. . .

If you decide to try video birding, consider the following: the nature shows themselves, the form of your video birding life list, and your birding library. The nature shows range from the joyful children's programs to masterpieces in the art of nature display. To manage the shows, study TV Guide, join your local PBS station, and maintain a weekly nature show calendar. The weekly TV Guide will list all of the nature shows but will frequently omit their topics.

The weekly nature show calendar begins on Saturday. Record each nature show's title, its channel, the date, and the time it is to be viewed and taped. Except for Friday, the weekdays usually have one or two half-hour, afternoon nature shows. These shows typically have series names such as "Wild World," "Hidden World," and even "Zoboomafoo!" Each series may run for many weeks and will present a variety of nature subjects. Most evening nature shows are one hour long, and there may be several such shows each week. The weekends usually feature a variety of nature shows, often including a half-hour program devoted wholly to birds. The children's nature shows are generally a delightful half-hour with an exciting mix of friendly animals; however, they often surprise you with quick views of wild birds to further spice the programs.

In keeping a list, you may want to list a video bird's location as where the bird was videographed. Hopefully the narrator or screen information will identify the site; if no clue is given, the video birder should rely on determining the full range the bird is known to occupy. For example, if you are watching a children's nature show and a black, grey, and white shore bird that you do not recognize appears on the screen for a few seconds with no hint of its name or its location, what do you do? During tape replay, you freeze the bird's image and identify it as a Blacksmith Plover. The best you can do is to record the bird's location as "Eastern and southern Africa," the range given in Birds of the World: A Check List by James F. Clements.
While taxonomic or other organizations are possible, my video birding life list is chronological; each bird's entry includes its location, TV channel, date, time, and show title. For instance:
        754. Cattle Tyrant
        Llano of Venezuela   Ch.9. 1999,  6 July. 2:30 p.m.- 3:00 p.m.
        Wild World: "Orinoco Hog"
The television nature programs reflect the world's biodiversity; therefore, an international birding library with lots of pictures and distribution data will contribute to the pleasure of video birding. If you wish, you can easily limit your birding area. The latest edition of Clements will help with species distribution and up-to-date nomenclature, and an international atlas will show you where you are birding.

Most serious birders have probably already accumulated enough bird books to get started. I have a modest birding library with a few field guides for each continent and a growing number of the popular bird-family identification guides. Fortunately, most of the birds seen on television are the common birds of a given region, and they are likely to be illustrated in the guides.

Now that my big year is over, I find that my interest in video birding has not lessened; the fun of seeking new birds remains as strong as ever. I continue to find many excellent nature programs and my video birding life list now has 1,430 species and 167 families — more than one-seventh of the world's avifauna!

My thanks go to the producers of the many superb nature shows that continue to bring the world of wildlife into my home. My special thanks go to Sir David Attenborough, Hugh Miles, and George Page for showing me so many interesting places. They, and those who work with them, are doing a splendid job of keeping us aware of what we will lose if we are not careful with our planet.

During my big year, I found that organized video birding is a rewarding surrogate for my dwindling out-of-doors birding. I especially encourage our older birders who wish to continue the enjoyment of identifying and listing the world's birds to watch the television nature shows and to give video birding a try.

Editor's Note:  Having passed the 1,430 species mark, Leroy Jensen is working on videolisting one-fifth of the world's avifauna. He does his international birding from his home in Fremont, California, where he eagerly anticipates the arrival of the BBC series, "Andes to Amazon," on U.S. airwaves.

Sea & Sage Audubon Society
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