Monday, November 5, 2007

Interview With Norm Saunders

Anyone who uses a computer to find information on birds or birding (including reading this blog) owes a lot to Norm Saunders. For nearly 20 years Norm and his wife Fran have been dispensing information on bird sightings, trips and news in the DC area using digital technology. It all started in 1987 when Norm (I tried calling him Mr. Saunders but he wouldn't have it) created The Osprey's Nest (TON), a computer bulletin board system that allowed users to telephone in and listen to messages posted by other callers. It was the first system of its kind in the country dedicated to birding and began what must be called a revolution in birding, where sightings from all over the country can be shared almost instantly through a listserv like Norm's successor to TON, MDOsprey.
I recently asked Norm a few questions about the early days of digital birding, and what the use of digital technology has meant, and will mean, to birdwatching.

bDC: In terms of reporting and sharing sightings, what options were available to a DC-area birder in the days before the start of TON?

NS: There was always the MD Ornithological Society, with its many chapters (most of which maintain loosely-defined phone trees to notify folks of good sightings) and the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Virginia Society of Ornithology (ditto). But if you were a serious up-and-coming birder there was really only one source: the Audubon Naturalist Society’s Voice of the Naturalist.

When I was getting started in birding in 1981, Claudia Wilds was compiling and recording this tape. It was released at 10:00 am every Tuesday morning from Woodend, the ANS Headquarters in Bethesda. One had to make the call (usually more than once) and then take notes like crazy to make sure every last bit of information was wrung out of the week’s recording. Later, as I recall, Claudia had help from Erika Wilson (now retired and living in Arizona), and now a number of people still take on this burdensome task. It was *THE* way for birders who weren’t “connected” to get the necessary information about the really good sightings of the week.

Of course the very best way to get the timeliest information is to be part of the inner circle of birding. There is still a loosely-defined group of 25-30 birders who get the news before everyone else of a rare bird and who get invitations to see birds that are never reported in a public forum, usually because they are on private property or located where hordes of birders simply wouldn’t be welcomed. Most of the birders out there looking for news of good birds have neither the time nor the skills to penetrate this coterie. I suppose this group is necessary to insure that really rare birds get properly validated and recorded, but it’s a fact of life about birding that has never sat well with me and one of the primary reasons I got involved with providing a public birding forum.

bDC: So, once you recognized the need for a better system of reporting birds, how did you chose a computer bulletin board system (BBS)? Home computers and the internet were certainly not as prevalent as they are today, was finding a 'market' for TON a problem?

NS: Oh, that was the easy part. I'm an economist by trade and I always felt the best part about this job was the chance to fool around with the heavy iron of the big mainframes. So I was a sucker for personal computers when they first started appearing in the early 1980s. I wanted to know them inside and out and I wanted to push them to their limits. Shortly after buying my Kaypro II I read an article about BBS's where I could talk to other people and get free software and generally hang out with other computer weenies.

I had to teach myself enough Z80 assembly language to write a simple download routine for the Kaypro. That enabled me to get my first real communications package, and that opened up the whole world of bulletin boards. After a few years searching for other online birders, I realized that there were no birding-related bulletin boards (keep in mind that this was well before a viable, useful internet had arrived) so the idea of BEING the first hit me between the eyes like a freight train (how's that for a mixed metaphor?).

I wanted to aim at people from the DC area, primarily because it was a local call for them to reach The Osprey's Nest (TON), the bulletin board I began in 1987. Getting the word out was simple--I was a regular BBS'er on about 4 or 5 local bulletin boards, so I posted messages there letting people know about TON. I started to get new users almost immediately and by the end of the first few months we had about 50 or so periodic users. After that it grew slowly but steadily until we peaked out at about 150 or so local birders. Even though we had had over 2000 individuals call in from all over the U.S. to see what it was about, it wasn't practical for most of these folks to call often because of long-distance charges. This was the great limiting factor of BBS communications. Nonetheless, it gave a lot of locals a taste for what was possible. Many of these early subscribers remain my friends to this day!

bDC: For those of us who aren't familiar with a BBS, can you explain essentially how it worked?

NS: An individual would call the phone number (a dedicated telephone line) and my computer/modem would answer the phone and query the caller for their name and password. If they were a new user they would have to go through a registration phase where I gathered information about their name, address, phone, e-mail, etc. Once past the login process the user could elect to go to the message section of the bulletin board or to the files section.

The message section was a sequential set of messages posted by other users, just like a listserv, but without the re-distribution to all subscribers. People would post sightings reports, ask questions about equipment, flame some other user (which I tried to keep to a minimum), etc. You know, all the stuff that goes on in listservs and, I suppose, in blogs today.

The file section contained material I thought would be of interest to birders and other amateur naturalists. I posted weekly transcripts of the Voice of the Naturalist, of Armas Hill's Philadelphia Bird Line, of the weekly Cape May Bird Tape, etc. There was really quite an accumulation of freeware software, birding checklists, transcripts, and other goodies, including field trips scheduled from a variety of around-DC organizations, birding clubs, and the like. I put up most of this but a significant proportion came from users of the BBS.

bDC: The internet has allowed people who share an interest but live far apart to create a sense of community. TON and the listservs that came in its wake have certainly had the same effect. Do you think that birding is "better" now?

NS: Well, yes! We hear of sightings from around the state almost instantaneously now. We meet like-minded folks on-line and that leads to widespread networks of birders of all skill levels around the state. This mix of expertise flattens the learning curve and eases the formation of mentoring relationships. It is this mentoring which has led to the current bunch of "young Turks" now moving up the ladder to the top levels of birding in Maryland and elsewhere. People get over the many beginner's mistakes faster and amidst, generally, a supportive and well-informed commentary.

bDC: Are there people, perhaps from the group of elites you mentioned before, who don't approve of the access amateur birders have?

NS: There will always be a few, I suppose, who enjoy that sense of being in the inner sanctum and who resent the wide distribution bird sightings get today. I know a lot of birders in Maryland though and I can't really think of any who don't see forums such as MDOsprey as a tremendous boon to this insane fascination with birds that we share with each other.

bDC: Where do you see the future of digital birding?

NS: Cornell Labs and others are moving more toward online electronic reporting systems for their various citizen science exercises. To the extent that this gets more people involved and aware of environmental issues, I applaud their efforts. To the extent that people use this data to draw their own conclusions about birding issues, I am increasingly concerned.

However the use of electronic media evolves, though, it will continue to be with us and we should all work to make it a valuable adjunct to the spread of birding knowledge.

-originally published 4/5/2006


Ash Green said...
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