Can’t Take a Birding Vacation? Try Google Street View Instead

A flourishing Facebook group is using the mapping tool to find birds all over the world—and they've already checked off hundreds of species.

I am the most well-traveled birder I know. In the past week alone, I have seen Torrent Ducks in the Urubamba River in Peru, watched an Ivory Gull fly over the ice floes in Nunavut, and witnessed a Black Kite alight on a perch in Queensland, Australia. I’ve watched tiny, endangered Cobb’s Wrens scatter under my feet on a beach in the Falkland Islands. I’ve seen condors soar in the Andes.

I’ve been to all seven continents in the past seven days without getting a single immunization or enduring a moment of jetlag. I haven’t even left my chair. I am a Google Street View Birder.

Google Street View is, of course, the massive collection of panoramic images displayed on Google Maps that permits the user to take a virtual trip down more than 10 million miles of mapped streets and trails across more than 80 countries.

I did what I think most people did when they first learned of Google Street View in the late 2000s: I tried and failed to see myself standing in front of my house. I wasn’t home, I guess (probably birding), or the resolution of those early cameras wasn’t quite good enough to see myself.  After that, I did not do what most other people did, which was close the window and go back to work. Instead, I looked for birds.

The idiosyncrasies of Google Street View birding quickly become evident. You know there are birds out there because it’s the real world and there are birds everywhere, but the scenery is empty for eternities. You creep along a road, painstakingly pointing and clicking and swinging the camera around hoping to see something perched on a fencepost or a wire, and when you finally do find a bird, it’s often a tiny dark blob, too small to be picked up clearly by the Street View camera. There’s a temporal element in addition to the geographic: Each new image is a few meters apart but also a few seconds apart, meaning that a flying bird that appears in the sky in one frame might have turned or dived in the next, out of sight.

Though frustrating, it does occasionally work. I found a first set of images—birds like Laughing Gulls in Florida and a Great Egret in Texas—in 2013 and posted them to my blog. Other posts followed in the coming years, mostly when I had a slow day at the office or some time to kill. At that time, Google was introducing images taken on foot with a backpack-mounted camera, and I found some incredible captures in Midway Atoll and the Falkland Islands, as well as specific trips to MexicoFlorida, and other places.

Chinstrap Penguins, Baily Head, Antarctica.

But it was still just me, the lonely Street View Birder—until I took it to Facebook.

I created the Google Street View Birding Facebook group in early November and posted a link in the Birding Memes group, hoping some of those young, tech-savvy birders might want to join me in stalking Google Maps. I wasn’t prepared for the response.

In just a few weeks, more than 750 birders have signed up and are helping scroll the millions of Street View miles in search of birds. And we’re finding them. Where I was only able to manage a couple dozen of the easiest species—large herons and gulls and Rock Pigeons—the community has together identified more than 580 different species, about 5 percent of all bird species on earth. All day long people are posting screenshots and links and debating the identifications of what they’ve found.

The breadth of the searching and the communal detective work to identify birds from grainy images has been remarkable. We’ve found more than 30 gull species, including that remarkable Ivory Gull in Nunavut. We’ve found Kelp Geese in the Falklands, and Laysan Ducks on Midway. We’ve spotted Bald Eagles in Texas and both species of condor (California and Andean). We’ve found small birds, too, remarkably, including a Vermilion Flycatcher on the Galapagos and a Rufous Hummingbird in Alaska. Each sighting includes a screenshot and link, so all members can assist with or review identifications.

Vermilion Flycatcher, Galapagos.

You might be clicking on those links and saying to yourself, “those tiny specks don’t look like anything!” And, you’re right. But this is what’s great about Google Street View Birding: It’s a lot like real birding. All the time birders are poring over low-quality images and debating identifications between themselves. The Facebook group is no different, except there are lower stakes for us (we’re not submitting these to any gatekeeper Bird Records Committees, for example). It’s fun, it’s communal, and it’s exactly what the internet can be.

We’re taking new members all the time, but I’d like to give you some tips if you join to help you have a good experience.

  • We’re primarily looking for new species, which is getting harder and harder as we find the more common ones. Once you’re in the group, you can consult a Google Spreadsheet to see what species we have and which we’re missing. There are also tabs on there for images of birders in Street View, other animals, and birds on signs or artwork
  • Once you’re in, there are basically two ways you can Street View Bird. 

    • The first is to pick an area on Google Maps and just start exploring. Cruise around a landscape, paying particular attention to spots where birds pop up: on fences and power lines, along water edges, or soaring overhead. When you find a bird, use field guides or eBird’s illustrated checklists to help you make an identification.

    • The second way is to seek out a specific species. Check the spreadsheet to find a bird that hasn’t been discovered yet, and use eBird sightings maps to figure out where they’ve been seen. If there’s Google Street View imagery nearby, take a look around.

  • If you find a new bird, congratulations! Screenshot your images and post it with a link in the Group. Then relish in the newfound glory of birding the world without leaving your office chair.

Nicholas Lund runs The Birdist blog and writes The Birdist's Rules of Birding column for Audubon. He lives in southern Maine and is the outreach and network manager for Maine Audubon.