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article is reprinted from the May 2001 edition of Winging It,
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" on the Tube: a Video Birding Big Year
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.