GPS and Birding

For a long time I thought GPS units were useless, maps were just fine and these gadgets were nothing more than rich people toys.

Then I met Lola.

No, I’m not Client #9 (or any other number for that matter!), Lola is the GPS unit built into 10,000 Birds  Quizmaster Jory’s car.  The affair started off innocently enough, but before long it was getting hot and heavy.  I told her where I wanted to go and she showed me how to get there!

But what really turned me onto GPS for birding (boy this post is going from “G” rated to “R” rated pretty quick!), was the ability to mark and save way-points.  I found this particularly useful when we did the Muckrace, such as the day before when we were scouting, we marked into the system where we had found interesting birds.  The next day we could just point and click and Lola would give us directions from where we were to where the bird was seen yesterday, saving us a lot of time in an unfamiliar place.

Even when Jory and I did the Southern Rensselaer CBC, since neither of us had done the section before and we had a walk-through to work from it was nice to be able to look up the intersection of X and Y and be able to find it with no trouble.  I was hooked and I couldn’t get Lola off my mind.

But we had more important things to spend our money on for Christmas, so my dreams of a GPS unit were put on hold.  However luck would be with us as a relative was generous and gave both my wife and I some ‘spending’ money for Christmas.  We didn’t really have anything planned, and that’s when my GPS dreams came true.

I started researching units on the Internet, but I didn’t want to spend more than $150 or so for one.  Visiting websites such as Circuit City, Best Buy etc. I spent what seemed like hours reading through hundreds of customer reviews and like most products, people either loved or hated it with no middle ground, all the different models have mostly the same features, with slight differences.  But after researching, I chose the model I wanted.  The next step was taking Danika to the store to look at them.

Now, my wife came into the store knowing nothing about GPS systems, because I wanted her to see which features she liked the best without a pre-determined notion of what I wanted.  We visited Circuit City and we browsed through their display, I would say half of the models couldn’t get a satellite reception and thus didn’t do much, others were broken or had their memory sticks stolen, making them useless.  I need to see something work before I buy it, so if it wasn’t running we didn’t even consider it.

Looking around 2 models caught our eye and were in our price range.  The first was a Tom Tom ONE, on sale for $99.  Couldn’t beat the price, but the screen seemed small and we didn’t like the black and white colored maps.  My wife works part time for a florist and spends a good deal of time making deliveries and the more she thought about it, the more she really wanted the spoken street names, a feature this model Tom-Tom did not have (it just announced the distance to the turn not the street).  After Danika asked question after question to a very helpful (how often do you get to say that!) Circuit City employee, we settled on a Garmin Nuvii 260 GPS  unit, on sale for $159.  It was at the high end of our limit (maybe even a bit over), but the spoken street names were a must, but we also though the screen was easier to read, maps cleaner and volume announcing directions louder and clearer.  Turns out the model she picked was the same one I picked out on-line.

We haven’t gotten to actually “use” it yet (ie take in the car and go someplace), but I got to spend quite a bit of time playing with it in the house.  The points of interest for Gas/food/lodging are fairly accurate, but for example it told me the nearest gas station was Stewarts down the street.  There is a Stewarts down the street from me, and a lot of them have Gas, but not this one, so something to be aware of.  Other things to keep in mind, all GPS units can sometimes lose their signal in tunnels, mountains etc, so something also to keep in mind.  They can also get confused easily, especially in cities where there are a lot of overpasses and merging roads, so certainly you can’t turn your brain off when traveling.

I also spent a good deal of time finding obscure roads all over the place, and the unit did a great job in finding them and getting me there.  I found it easy to program way-points to get to where a particular bird was being seen (Northern Hawk Owl for example) and if I wanted to save a particularly good birding spot, I can save it to my points of interest to find again later!

Now the unit is portable, but like most has a short battery life of an hour or two away from your car.  So its not something your going to carry around with you as walk around New York City or off into the woods for the day.

To me this is the next logical step for birding.  With E-bird  and its use of Google Maps, porting this information to a GPS unit can make finding rare birds even easier!

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