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Smartphone in hand, bird-watchers on LI seek out rare sightings

A Ceder Waxwing was one of the birds

A Ceder Waxwing was one of the birds spotted at Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park. (Nov. 2, 2013) Credit: Ed Betz

Bird-watchers walking through Sunken Meadow State Park Saturday looked down as much as up.

For modern birders, smartphones with bird apps are as essential to sighting rarities as binoculars and scopes, they said.

"We need to beat American golden plover!" said Mary Normandia, field trip leader of a bird-watching group after receiving a text from a group at Jones Beach. Apparently, the rare bird they saw, a blackthroated green warbler, did not cut it.

Her bird-watching excursion was one of seven early Saturday on Long Island as part of the New York Birders Conference in Uniondale. The Queens County Bird Club and the New York State Ornithological Association organized the three-day event that had 165 registrants. It includes workshops and lectures -- and ends Sunday.

Technology, they said, has revolutionized bird-watching.

"There's been a proliferation of information, and it probably has served to get people a lot more interested in bird-watching," conference chairman Seth Ausubel said in an interview.

The traditional way for bird-watchers to learn about sightings had been to call a phone number and hear a recording of reports. Today, sightings are tweeted and uploaded into databases such as the website "You can see what has been seen in the area where you are," Ausubel said.

The 10 bird-watchers in Sunken Meadow arrived at dawn, hoping to see something that wasn't supposed to be there.

"It gives you a reason to be outside and find hidden treasures," said Lynne Normandia, Mary's older sister.

"You see something special, and it makes you feel a little unique."

Pulling out a notebook, Castillo wrote down the birds he saw. His method is low-tech: a paperback bird guidebook.

Tim Dunn, 46, a lawyer from Babylon, flits between his binoculars and iPhone to look up birds on an app that also publishes a physical guidebook. "The benefit is unlike a guidebook, you can hear the birdsong," Dunn said.

Mary Normandia said the apps can also draw curious birds. They need to be used with restraint because they can interfere with birds' mating habits, she said.

While the group walked toward the tree line, a text came in from New Jersey announcing the sighting of a red crossbill. Sighting rarities -- and uploading photos to prove it -- are the holy grail.

"When someone gets a rarity, they get taken out for a martini," Normandia said.

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