The derivation of January from the Roman god, Janus strikes me as brilliant. Like Janus with faces on the front and back of his head, January invites us to look forward to the new year and look back on years past.

Today, I to share some thoughts on the ways birding has changed over the last 50 years. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in North Carolina and developed an interest in birds at an early age. My mother was an avid feeder watcher and knew the songs and calls of many birds. However, I did not have a birding mentor growing up. My eyes and ears were opened to ornithology when I began college at the University of North Carolina in 1971. So my column today will cover my perception of the evolution of birding over the past half-century.

Fifty years ago, two field guides dominated the North American market, the guides by Roger Peterson and Chan Robbins. I was a Robbins guy. The Peterson plates were better but the maps were in the back of the book. Robbins covered all of North America and also presented sonograms of vocalizations that I found helpful. Both guides covered only regularly occurring species.

Driven in large part by the formation of the American Birding Association in 1969, competitive listing and interest in rare birds grew. Two important field guides appeared. The National Geographic Guide, first published in 1983, covered all of the birds of North America, including the rarities from far-flung places like the Aleutian Islands. Then a guide by David Sibley upped the ante with the number of plumages shown in marvelous plates and its thorough coverage. Each of these guides is regularly updated.

My first binoculars were bulky, Bushnell binoculars. The image seemed OK but pales in comparison to the binoculars used by birders today. Although the prices are high, the clarity of images by binoculars made by Zeiss, Leica, Swarovski and other brands are stunning.

For 50 years, the most common spotting scopes were the Bushnell Spacemaster and the Bausch & Lomb Balscope. I owned a Spacemaster with a 20-45x zoom lens. It was useful but the crispness and brightness of the image left something to be desired, particularly at higher magnifications.

For me, a game-changer was the emergence of Kowa spotting scopes with much larger objective lenses. I bought my first one in 1985. These scopes were originally used for evaluating targets at rifle contests but found a market in birding. I could not have done my research on sandpiper foraging with older spotting scopes. As with binoculars, healthy competition thrives in the spotting-scope market now.

Fifty years ago, I cherished my two-disk set of LP records on eastern bird sounds, put out by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It provided a way to learn to identify birds by ear. A downside was the limited number of recordings for each species. The Birding by Ear recordings in the late 1980s provided a valuable learning tool, grouping together species with similar songs, like chipping sparrow and pine warbler. Today the Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds and Xeno-Canto websites host thousands of recordings, available to anyone for vocalization study.

Alerting others to the presence of rarities is so easy now. In the early 1970s we had telephone trees where each member, after receiving a call about an unusual bird, had to call two people below on tree. Not the most reliable arrangement. State birding groups set up rare-bird-alert recordings one could call to hear about local sightings. Now, email and social media make it easy to get up-to-the minute info on rare birds. The rise of eBird has provided huge benefits in communication.

Lastly, digital photography has been a boon to providing solid evidence of correct bird identifications. In my youth, good telephoto lenses were very expensive and a roll of film provided, at most, 36 images. Now, we can get hundreds of decent images with inexpensive digital cameras, or even our cell phones, and share them instantaneously.

What amazing changes in birding the past 50 years have brought.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes reader comments and questions at:
[email protected]


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