Originally created 05/17/99

Bird enthusiasts track species online



HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. -- Bird watchers and researchers no longer have to rely on just their binoculars, hiking boots and instincts to track down rare species.

Some of the most important clues and work on North American birds have moved from the marsh to the computer room.

The Internet has emerged as the most powerful tool for scientists tracking species across the globe. Recreational watchers also log on for clues about birds to add to their life lists.

Like firefighters who scramble out the door for a four-alarm fire, bird watchers will drop everything to see a black-bellied whistling duck or roseate spoonbill.

Nan Lloyd of the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society said birders measure their seriousness by how many species they have spied. The most ardent birders have seen about 600 species and will drive almost anywhere to add a new bird.

Last year, Ms. Lloyd quickly drove to Jekyll Island to see what Internet spies had said was a skua, a large aggressive bird commonly seen in Iceland. When Ms. Lloyd reached the beach, she met a couple from Rhode Island after the same sighting.

They had also picked up the rare bird alert from the Internet, Ms. Lloyd said.

"It's fascinating to see how quickly the word spreads," said Allison Wells, communications coordinator for the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.

Ms. Wells said an Cornell's Warbler Watch maps migration of the multicolored birds across the country.

By using the Internet, Ms. Wells said, South Carolina residents can gauge exactly when a certain species is about to cross the border from Georgia.

"It makes you want to get out there with your binoculars," she said. "It builds anticipation."

The Internet also gives researchers mounds of new data.

Wes Hochachka, an analyst with the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, said studies previously involved months of field research and library study. It would take another year for the research to be ready for publishing.

Today Mr. Hochachka needs only a mouse, monitor and keyboard to get the most recent bird counts.

"I don't know if you could ever do that pre-Internet," Mr. Hochachka said.

Cornell is currently studying North American bluebirds and asks watchers to report in with news of bluebird nests.

Ornithologists are hoping the bluebird count will answer how much bluebirds rely on birdhouses and whether other cavity nesting species like the American kestrel, a small falcon whose numbers are decreasing, can be helped the same way.

But the data isn't just for scientists.

Mr. Hochachka said the Internet makes the information accessible to high schoolers along with doctoral candidates at Cornell.

"People can literally do science themselves," he said.