Be Your Own Birder

Is Virtual Birding Real?

Since the coronavirus pandemic, “virtual birding” has become a common practice for birding and nature festivals, monthly birding club meetings, and popular birding travel destinations. But does it really count?

The Rise of Virtual Birding

In early 2020, limiting social interaction and prohibiting large gatherings were key steps to control the COVID-19 pandemic and minimize transmission of the disease. To comply with travel restrictions, local mandates, and health and safety protocols, many birding festivals canceled in-person plans and turned instead to virtual events. Just as many workplaces transitioned to virtual meetings and online conferences, birding, too, adapted to the emergency with digital alternatives, focusing on screens, broadband connections, webcams, and microphones.

Mobile Devices - Photo by Steven Lilley
Mobile Devices – Photo by Steven Lilley

At first, this seems contrary to the spirit of birding. To get outdoors, to be rid of screens, to reconnect with nature – these are all key elements of birding’s appeal. Studies have even shown how critical it is for our increasingly digital world to unplug now and then and enjoy nature, real and unfiltered.

Yet during the state of pandemic emergency, it was far more important to limit gatherings and avoid possible contaminated contact than to join events. Birders were still able to enjoy solitary ventures to their favorite birding spots, provided they didn’t travel extensively or congregate with others. To fulfill that primal need for nature, virtual birding came into practice.

What Virtual Birding Is

The definition of the word “virtual” is “almost or nearly as described, but not completely or according to strict tradition” or “not physically existing as such but made by software to appear to do so.” In terms of birding, this quickly came to mean…

  • Presentations not in person, but via online transmission through podcasts and recordings
  • Tours of birding hotspots through wireless cameras instead of in-person hiking
  • Sightings of birds recorded by cameras and technology, not handheld optics

This is obviously vastly different than in-person birding, exploring trails, hefting field guides, and the other familiar aspects of birding. But emergency times call for emergency measures, and many birders embraced virtual birding – at least to an extent.

What Virtual Birding Isn’t

Virtual birding, however, did not mean taking advantage of each and every digital tool available in every virtual sense. Virtual birding did not, and does not, mean…

  • Counting birds from pre-recorded videos, movies, or entertainment
  • Seeing birds in books and field guides as if the same as traditional sightings
  • Exploring the internet in search of more birds for one’s life list

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary adjustments, and there is no disputing how extraordinary 2020 and the continuation of the pandemic into 2021 quickly became. Virtual birding filled the void when travel was impossible. But is it here to stay?

Benefits of Virtual Birding

I’ll admit, I was vehemently against the idea of virtual birding at first, and strongly felt that “virtual” birds have no place on traditional life lists and birding experiences. Even more, I disagreed with the idea that many birding festivals continued to charge prices similar to those for their in-person experiences for the much less “real” digital alternatives. Some events, however, did change their pricing structures, even offering many virtual options for free.

Alaska - Photo by Aaron
Alaska – Photo by Aaron

Yet, as more virtual events were shaped, my perceptions changed, and I’ve come to see that virtual birding does indeed have value, particularly for the philosophy of Be Your Own Birder and birding in your own unique way. Virtual birding – via technology rather than in-person – offers birders the opportunity to…

  • Visit areas that might otherwise be out of reach due to time, budget, or mobility restraints
  • See birds much more closely than in-person views, without disturbing or distressing sensitive species
  • Enjoy experiences in comfort no matter what one’s personal limitations or preferences may be

In its own way, virtual birding is the epitome of being your own birder, because you can enjoy birds in your own way and on your own time, without conforming to conventional, and possibly more limiting, options.

Counting Virtual Birds

I do, however, still resist the idea that virtually seen birds can be counted on one’s life list. While I’m very particular about my own life list, and everyone is entitled to keep their own lists in their own ways, the definition of “seeing” birds – whether visually, birding by ear, or taking one’s own photographs – can become far too blurred when virtual birding is included. If a bird seen only via a computer screen, tablet, or phone is equally valid for a life list, then why not a bird seen in a field guide, a piece of artwork, or even a comic or a dream?

Ultimately, how birds are counted depends on each individual and how they are most comfortable counting. In times of virtual birding, that may mean keeping a separate virtual list, carefully denoting which birds were seen only through virtual means. When competitively birding, of course, special circumstances should be disclosed, and the competition guidelines for which birds – virtual or not – count should be carefully and truthfully followed, no matter what one’s personal convictions.

Be Your Own (Virtual) Birder

The core principle of Be Your Own Birder has always been, and remains to this day, that we should all enjoy birds in our own ways. In these unprecedented digital times, that may mean virtual birding for some, at least temporarily. Other birders may find that virtual means expand their birding opportunities, and they may wish to continue virtually birding even when in-person options return more fully. However you enjoy birds, virtually or otherwise, it is that enjoyment that connects us as birders, no matter whether we are connected in person or through digital means.

Hooded Visorbearer (Near Threatened) - Photo by Joao Quental
Hooded Visorbearer (Near Threatened) – Photo by Joao Quental

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