Photos courtesy of Chris DuCharme and Phil Butler. Article and graphic by Courtney Runn
“I looked this morning and didn’t see her at all.”
“She’s come out twice. She was chasing the vultures away.”
Chris DuCharme and Phil Butler stand outside of Hogg Auditorium on The University of Texas’s campus almost everyday. From around noon till 2 p.m., you can find them staring up at the UT tower hoping to catch a glimpse of the Peregrine Falcon that lives on top of it. As soon as the bird appears, they pull out cameras, foot-long lenses trained on the sky.
“I kinda joke that he’s the master and I’m the apprentice,” said Butler. DuCharme has been observing the peregrine for several years while Butler just joined him this February. Butler is a program coordinator for the School of Liberal Arts and joins the veteran birdwatcher during his lunch break.
Most of their time is spent waiting. They alternate between sitting and standing and will occasionally walk around the tower for a different angle. Only through their zoom lenses can they truly get a glimpse of the peregrine’s life atop the tower. A problem technology could easily fix. They have a pretty good idea of the bird’s routines, but a web cam could fill in the gaps when they can’t be present in person.
Butler watches a web cam in Pennsylvania that offers viewers constant footage of falcons from several angles. Through this up-close look into their world, he has been able to watch their life: babies hatching, the mother bringing back food to the nest, both parents flying in and out.
“To see it that close up…it’s mind-boggling,” said DuCharme. “Fifteen years ago, nobody thought about that kind of stuff.”
The Internet, digital cameras, and smart phones have ushered in a new era of birdwatching, making the hobby more accessible. Through web cams and digital cameras, birds can be seen up-close at any time. Websites like eBird allow users to track their own bird sightings, explore bird maps, and alert others to their finds. The tagline for the site is “Birding in the 21st Century.”
Pre-Internet days, DeCharme remembers getting alerts via telephone about bird sightings, but they would be delayed. Technology offers immediacy. If an eBird user records a rare bird sighting, members in the area could know about the bird in real time.
Smart phones also allow for more accessible birdwatching with apps to help users recognize species, record bird calls, and quickly record video or take a picture for later study.
Sheila Hargis works in the police department as a civilian but has been an avid bird watcher for 20 plus years. She volunteers with Travis Audubon, a local chapter of Audubon, a national bird conservation and observation society. Instead of carrying field guides with her on Audubon field trips or personal outings, Hargis uses apps on her phone to identify birds.
“Some of these electronic field guides…link up to the eBird data and if there’s a bird you need to add to your life list then it will tell you, hey this bird is missing from your life list and there was one that just showed up in Bastrop last week and here is where it was seen,” said Hargis.
In 2014, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology released an app called Merlin, which helps new birdwatchers identify species. The app will ask a series of questions, from bird size to location of the sighting, then offer several possible matches of species that would normally be found in the area.
While technology makes birdwatching more accessible, it has drawbacks as well.
“We’re busy entering data on our phone,” said Hargis. “We’re maybe not as connected to watching what’s happening.”
UT student Agustín Rodrigeuz began birdwatching this semester for his class Biology of Birds. He fears technology would discourage people from going out into nature since “you [could] see more ‘exciting’ birds just browsing the Internet.”
DuCharme hopes that a web cam will be installed on the UT tower soon so he can get a more intimate look at his long-time companion. But he’s also not ready for birdwatching to become completely integrated with technology.
He has a few birds he’s got his eye on right now and he’s not sure if he’s ready to share them with the world yet.