In my dissertation, I take some time to talk about the use and adoption of recently-available technologies (specifically digital cameras to take pictures of birds, nexrad radar to predict migration and the Internet to share bird sightings) by birders. I call the products of these technologies (so, the digital pictures, radar images & postings) “digital objects” that mingle with us (thanks to the recent proliferation of Smart Phones, for example) in more and more places. This movement to digital objects promises to change (and already has) how birding is done.
I enjoy the interpretation of New Jersey radar images that David La Puma does at Woodcreeper during the spring and fall migration. It was his website that really got me thinking about how birders might use these images in their practice. David recently posted that this work is, at best, interpretive after (it appears) some birders on the New Jersey birding listserv suggested that his forecasts were imperfect.
This back-and-forth neatly illustrates my concerns with the forecasts. As I write in the dissertation, field birders try hard to predict the unpredictable nature of birds. In my work, this meant that many field birders that I chatted with often spoke about winds from the north and cold-fronts associated with migrating birds. In this regard, birding connects the humans doing it to the world beyond the simple presence / absence of a bird. In short, its a kind of ecological knowledge. But it’s not perfect. And birders can go out and see nothing, or go out expecting nothing and stumble into some migratory bird biodiversity bonanza. The unexpected nature of the activity, birders reported to me, was part of the appeal of birding.
I, however, write:
Access to these radar images subtly re-frames the field birding experience. Now that birds’ presence can be predicted, there can be less motivation to go out birding on a morning that the radar shows has had little migration activity. While radar is not a discrete enough tool, if you will, to identify the species of birds that are migrating, it is one step towards removing the unexpected. Radar’s use as a prediction tool is an attempt to domesticate—bring further under human control—part of the act of watching birds. Figure 5, the radar image posted at Point Pelee [National Park, located in Southern Ontario and a migratory hotspot], is [hand]-titled “Image of the BIRDS”. That emphasis on birds (underlined and in caps) gives the impression that somehow these images are offering an objective truth about migrating birds.
And this is where the New Jersey birders appear to have got confused. As David writes in the post, “you begin to understand that predicting birding conditions based on weather and radar is both an art AND a science (with art trumping science under conditions where the predictive properties of weather or radar decline).”
I would further David’s caution about the interpretive nature of nexrad images by encouraging birders, if they are interested in using this tool, to learn to make interpretations of the imagery themselves. Again, from my diss:
While interpreting radar images is not beyond the ability of any birder with an interest, it requires cultivating something of an expertise in reading these radar images to discern just what is being seen. Thus, birders unfamiliar with these details can turn to websites, like Woodcreeper, to get that forecast. This moves the responsibility of interpretation elsewhere, erasing what is involved—cognitively, technically—with making the forecast. This recognition of interpretation and technological limitations can foreground that these images are not a new vision of BIRDS but a mediated version of the more-than-human, filtered through microwaves, antennae, websites and our own judgement about what is out there. While rendering something that previously was mostly invisible to us, it cannot provide, as promised, a whole version, or perfect vision, of the phenomena.
And that’s the kicker. Often it is understood that these technologies give us access to a better truth (i.e. Nexrad will tell me if there are birds present or absent, better than my own experience). The truth, however, is something different. While birders, prior to the deployment of Nexrad radar, couldn’t “see” migratory birds on the move, it isn’t the whole picture. The danger here, and here’s where I get somewhat philosophical, is what gets lost if we decide not to go birding on a particular day or we begin to ignore our first-hand experience of what predicts a “whizzer day” for birding.