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Black-winged Stilt, copyright Ian Boustead

So you may have a string of firsts to your name - first record for the Western Palearctic, first for the County or perhaps just a first for your local patch. You may rank your birding ability by the size of your self-found list, but.....have you got to grips with birding on-line.

Fed up of what look like reasonable requests of Google throwing back rubbish. Fed up of those website search engines that appear illiterate. It doesn't have to be that way. Learn how to surf the net and find birding information of real value. We've put together this tutorial to help you become a better on-line birder. Find it first - on-line.

1. Not all search engines are the same.

This is important. Search engines such as Google crawl the web and index pages based on free-text.

But remember Google only indexes 20% of the web so there's a whole lot more out there that doesn't make it onto Google. More-over, the ranking of pages returned from any Google search will be determined by the popularity of these pages (ie: how many other websites link to them) and the location of your keyword in the title and/or url. Not quite as free from bias as you perhaps first thought!

Yahoo however works from directories (built by real people not robots), whilst less well known ones such as lxquick are meta-search engines (ie they search by consolidating the results of a number of search engines). Ask Jeeves is a natural search engine. Different search engines really do generate different information for you to browse. So think about what you're after and don't always use only Google.

2. Improving your results with Google

Google returns web pages that contain all of your keywords (but not necessarily in the order you listed them) so the more keywords you add the less pages thrown back at you. For example;

Bunting - will find all references to bunting (some 1,490,0000 at the end of 2004)
Chestnut-eared Bunting - will find all references to Chestnut-eared Bunting (2,600 records)
Fair Isle Chestnut-eared Bunting - will find all references to the Fair Isle Chestnut-eared Bunting (809 records)

And if you want to search for phrases (ie words that appear next to each other) then put the phrase in quotes. Google copes with phrases of up to ten words in length. For example

"Isles of Scilly Bird Report" returns a very manageable 30 results.

Introducing the - (minus) sign can be useful when words have more than one meaning and you want to exclude other meanings. For example:

Shetland -ponies will find pages that include Shetland but will exclude those dedicated to the ponies. (some 40%).

You can further refine your search results by specifying the domain type. This can be particularly useful if you're looking for academic ( , government ( or NGO ( data. For example, if you're searching for information on warbler moult from an academic institution, just type:

"warbler moult"

You can also search through google within a specific website. This can often be more effective than using the site specific search engine.

"Portland Bird Observatory"

If you think you've found an interesting link and click through you may still be greeted with an extremely long document and it can be difficult to find the keyword(s). To quickly locate the keyword:

Press Control + F A 'Find box' will then pop up. Type in the keyword that you're looking for.

Remember if you're after images only click on the images tab under the google search box and google will give you images only.

3. Directory search engines

Directory search engines are usually indexed by real people to fit subject areas. Although not as comprehensive as free text search engines such as Google they are useful if you are browsing for subjects or for finding lists of websites on different subjects.

To find a list of birdwatching websites at click on web directory > recreation > hobbies > birding or click here

But perhaps the most comprehensive directory for birders is

4. Natural Language search engines

Sites such as Ask Jeeves are good for finding out facts and figures:

What is the wingspan of an albatross ?

will return "...among the largest flying birds, weighing up to 25 lbs. The largest species, the wandering albatross, has a wingspan of 11 feet, and can live..... [] "

What is a Hoatzin ?

will return "...Hoatzin, one of the strangest living birds, seems to be a link with the first known bird, Archaeopteryx, that became extinct millions of years ago... [] "

5. Intelligent search engines

Search engines are becoming more intelligent. Search engines such as can search from the web and your hard drive at the same time and return content based on your own preferences! Watch this space.

6. But don't forget the surfbirds search engine.

The surfbirds search engine allows you to search across the galleries, trip reports, newsgroups or even our birders address book, getting you to the gen in virtual time. Give it a try here.

With thanks to Phil Bradley whose original piece ( inspired this tutorial. Visit Phil's page for lots more tips.