From Texas to Maine, much of the Eastern United States is gripped in bird fever this week, an annual burst of activity as millions of migratory birds return from their winter getaways in South America to revisit their summer feeding grounds in the United States and Canada.
Birders who follow these flying flashes of color are now using technology from high-definition radar to social media alerts to help them get an edge on their fellow hobbyists, and to provide biologists with key data about the birds' changing habitat.
Many birders are logging onto eBird, a real-time, online checklist and database launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. It allows people to note their sightings from around the world, sightings which are tallied into an interactive map. The geo-tagging function allows users to then see hot spots of bird sightings, like a birder's version of Google Maps.
Greg Miller of Sugarcreek, Ohio, uses Twitter, Facebook and eBird to keep track of his bird sightings. He often posts photos to Facebook of unfamiliar birds or ones that may have unusual markings for that species.
A semi-pro birder for decades, Miller's 1998 quest to record at least 700 bird species in a calendar year was turned into the Hollywood film "The Big Year" starring Jack Black as Miller.
"In 1998, I just had binoculars and a notepad," Miller said. "Now I have a GPS, cellphone and a laptop. These tools have dramatically changed the efficiency of birders."
Miller and thousands of other Midwest birders are headed this weekend to the "Biggest Week in American Birding," (#biggestweek) a 10-day event covering three counties of northwest Ohio, the self-described "warbler capital of the world." That corner of the state sits right in the middle of an important flyway, and open areas there serve as a rest stop for birds before they have to travel 26 miles across Lake Erie.