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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Birdwatching Gadgets for Older Adults

Boomers are flocking to birdwatching. What are the best apps and techie equipment? 

Maybe it was the pandemic, when so many of us spent a lot of time at home. Maybe it’s because we are retiring and finding ourselves with more time on our hands. Maybe it’s due to an increased awareness of the natural world and the wonders it holds. Whatever the reason, baby boomers (and younger generations) are spending money and hours observing wild birds. 

A whole industry has sprung up to accommodate the needs and desires of this expanding group, from the newbie putting up their first backyard feeder to the seasoned pro with $2,000 binoculars. It is a wonderful pastime that can lead to new friends and adventures both close to home and in far-flung destinations. You’ll want to know some of the best apps and tech equipment to enhance your hobby. 

Biggest Threat to Birds? Cats.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service catalogs threats to wild birds across the country. Loss of habitat, collision, electrocution, and poisoning (herbicides) all contribute to a toll of just under a trillion feathered animals per year. But by far the biggest culprit is the domestic house cat, which kills more than two trillion birds in this country annually. It doesn’t have to be this way.

If you own a cat, keep your pet indoors. Do you feel like he needs a taste of the outdoors? Build your friend a “catio” like this one made of chicken wire and wooden supports. It will keep your cat and our feathered friends alike safe and secure. Check out the American Bird Conservancy for more information on cats and birds.

Free Apps

We like free, so let’s start with a couple of marvelous apps that many birders don’t know exist:
  • Merlin Bird ID works on seven continents to help identify birds, common or not, that you spot. Just answer three questions and it will provide a list of possible matches. Included on Merlin is Save My Bird, where the app automatically keeps a list of birds you identify using Merlin. Merlin can even provide you with lists of birds you are likely to see wherever you go. 
  • Sound ID can listen to birdsong in the US, Canada, and Europe to help verify your Merlin identification. It is also useful for those feathered friends you can hear but don’t see. More regions are coming soon for those who love to birdwatch on their travels. Sound ID is part of Merlin.
  • Photo ID is yet another cool feature of Merlin ID. This one will use a photo you take of a bird to provide a list of likely matches. Wondering how to use all these remarkable features of the Cornell Labs Merlin app? Get help with tips and tricks
  • eBird Mobile lets you report birds that you see anywhere in the world and contribute to a global online database that is open source for scientific research, education, and conservation.


The only tool you really need to expand your hobby is a pair of binoculars so you can see the sparrow over in the hedge and distinguish if it is indeed a downy woodpecker or a hairy woodpecker at your suet. The only problem is how to choose a pair from the array of choices. For this, we’ve gone to the Audubon binocular guide, rated by attendees at a recent birdwatching convention and chosen from almost 50 models. Here are their top models in three price categories:
  • Get In the Game for less than $150 with the Nikon Prostate 3S 8x42. They earned best in class for clarity, brightness, and color retention and weigh just over a pound. Check here for other contenders and their ratings in the economy class.
  • Lower Mid-Range binoculars will set you back between $300 to $500 but most have extra-low dispersion (ED) glass to minimize color distortion and improve your view. Taking the lead by a slim margin was the Zeiss Terra ED 8x42. Go here for a list of all the contenders with their ratings.
  • Top of the Line binoculars are for those with at least $2,000 to blow. It may seem absurd at first, but this could be where you want to put your cash since it is all the equipment you really need. All four competitors performed very well, but the top spot went to the Swarovski EL 8.5x42 with a suggested retail price of $2,410.

Here is some sound advice from Chris, an African safari guide at Audley Travel. “If you’re planning to spend time walking, you’ll want to keep your daypack as light as possible. However, small pocket binoculars capture far less light than larger ones, so look for the sweet spot of 8x40 or 10x42 in a good brand such as Hawke, Vortex Diamondback, or at the higher end, Swarovski, Leica, or Zeiss. I don’t recommend image stabilization, which adds weight and doesn’t deliver the best results optically.”

Audubon Bird Counts

You’ve downloaded the apps and perhaps invested in a pair of binoculars. Consider participating in one or both of two Audubon bird counts next winter. A custom at Christmas during the 1800s was the “side hunt,” wherein holiday hunters would form two opposing sides and go out to see who could slaughter the most animals, whether furred or feathered. The era of conservation dawned as bird populations were declining, and ornithologist Frank M. Chapman proposed a new tradition: the Christmas Bird Census to count, rather than kill, birds. 

The tradition took hold, and tens of thousands of volunteers in the Americas now brave the winter weather every year to participate. The count now takes place from December 14 through January 5. Their efforts provide data that organizations use to check on the health of bird populations and direct conservation action. To sign up in November, click here.

It is also easy to help the National Audubon Society, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and Birds Canada to learn more about birds and help protect them by being one of more than 300,000 participants in the Great Backyard Bird Count on February 17-20, 2023. No matter where you are, complete novices and professionals alike can spend as little as 15 minutes counting birds and submitting their results. Find out how at the Great Backyard Bird Count.

Traveling to See Birds

Like many, you may become so enamored with your new pastime that you want to travel to see new species. If you want to plan your own trip in the US, go here for a guide to the top birding hotspots in all 50 states. For a short list of birdwatching tour companies with worldwide portfolios, start with this Birdwatching Bliss blog

If you’re looking for a travel buddy, searching out a local birdwatching group may be a good first step. You can get to know each other on local forays to see if you might be a fit for traveling together on a longer trip. The Audubon Society has more than 450 local chapters and it is a great place to start. 

Birding Pal can help you explore no matter where in the world you are. It’s only $10 to join, and they will hook you up safely and securely with a birding expert at your destination. While these pros don’t charge a fee, you will be expected to pay for their transportation, entrance costs, and meals.