Two weeks ago, a smart phone app took over the world. The long-awaited Pokémon GO, an augmented-reality game which features the famous, cartoony creatures in “the real world,” was unexpectedly released for public play. The game was created through a partnership between The Pokémon Company and Google spinoff Niantic, Inc. and advertised as a celebration of the franchise’s 20th anniversary. As a lifelong Pokémon trainer, GO was on my radar for several months, but I didn’t really know what kind of quality or response to expect from the general public. To my surprise, the world turned upside down.
Everywhere you go, people are playing GO. The long-latent Pokémania of the late ’90s surged forth with impressive new life. Due to an early release and huge response, there are plenty of bugs and glitches, but people are still eating it up. GO quickly became the most downloaded game app of all time, vanquishing Candy Crush and Draw Something. The number of daily users climbed to surpass usage of Tinder and even Twitter. Although the app is free-to-play and the ingame microtransactions are not necessary for enjoyment or progress, Pokémon GO still managed to draw in an estimated 1.6 million dollars a day. Nintendo stock soared, investors scrambled, and legions of Pokéfans took to the streets to see what critters inhabit their area. Meetups and bar crawls were scheduled, flash mobs gathered to hunt for rare monsters, and a GO-based dating app is about to be released. Pokémon reminded everyone that it is still a potential juggernaut, and nostalgia is a powerful force indeed.
What, exactly, does this madness have to do with my humble nature blog? As a foremost expert on all things Pokémon, I can’t help but note the similarities between the game and my other major hobby: birding. I am not the first to make the comparison, with multiple writers drawing the same conclusion and posting tips on the Audubon Society website. When my nerdy friends first got worked up about the announcement last year, I warned them that they would soon join me in the ever-distracted realm of creature watchers. Not everyone agrees with this comparison, to put it mildly, and some of the flames on birding social media are still burning with Fire-type intensity. The two pastimes are fundamentally different, a digital track-and-capture game versus a natural seek-and-document effort, but the concept of an animal-based treasure hunt is universal. I have been a birder my whole life and a Pokémon fan for most of it, and I have always recognized that they appeal to me for many of the same reasons. Fortunately, I can bring my interests together and do both on the same outing.
Unless you drop a lot of cash or live in a game hotspot, Pokémon GO is hard to play at home. It encourages you to get out and explore new areas, though Pokémon are more likely to appear in areas with high cell phone usage. This means that rural or wild areas are disappointingly less lively than crowded cities. On the other hand, popular parks have special green terrain on the map that seems to boast some of the highest encounter rates anywhere. Visiting even the smallest parks has turned up plenty of Pokémon for me, as well as fun sightings like Italian Wall Lizards and Cicada Killers.
You can lure monsters to your location with several types of items, including one that benefits all trainers in the area. I dropped one of these modules on a Pokéstop at the Jones Beach Tower and settled in to wait for the half-hour working period. I caught a few new creatures in that time, but I was much more interested in the family of Peregrine Falcons wheeling overhead. Mom and dad were accompanied by at least one youngster, and there were several high-speed chases around the structure before one of the parents handed off a shorebird meal. You don’t always need to catch your quarry to enjoy the experience.
The best concentration of wild Pokémon, loot, and trainers in my area occurs at Arthur J. Hendrickson Park in Valley Stream. I’ve visited almost daily to catch one of my favorite Pokémon, Dratini, which is quite hard to find in our region apart from a few scattered populations. As critics are quick to point out, there are plenty of players with their faces buried in their screens, oblivious to everything around them. On the other hand, I have observed most individuals interacting and engaging with their neighbors and surrounding in meaningful ways. Friendly competition over teams and gyms, tips about where to find and catch rarities, and deep discussions of all things nerd put smiles on the faces of kids and college students alike. I’ve seen entire families out playing together, 50somethings exploring a whole new world, and huge crowds of young adults sharing their knowledge with the next generation. Despite the technological basis of the new hobby, I’ve overheard more questions and exclamations than usual directed at the nearby carp, turtles, and egrets. Ospreys wheel overhead and sandpipers pick the muddy stream banks, briefly distracting wannabe masters from their hunt for a Gastly. It’s surreal, but it’s very entertaining.
The other day, after a few hours of touch-and-go server connectivity, I was making one last loop around the lake to see what Pokémon were around. I checked the “Nearby” tracker tab, which has been experiencing a few issues, but I noticed an unmistakable silhouette listed among the creatures I’ve already caught. The sighting elicited a similar reaction to glimpsing or faintly hearing a rare, real animal. As I continued on, the shadow jumped up in the queue and then moved back, meaning it was quite close and I knew which direction to head. Stopping at the local bridge hotspot, I alerted other trainers and rallied them to the cause. A sizable crowd took off and followed me out of the park to the side streets, where we split up to check the area like a grid. When I felt my phone vibrate, I slowly spun the screen to see one of the most famous Pokémon of all, the very first I ever owned, hovering next to my avatar: Charizard.
Calling to the others, I engaged the dragon and started chucking my best capture tools at it. It took some time, and at one nail-biting moment the game froze and forced me to reset in the hopes my quarry would still be there. Major points to birding, for not being hindered by these technical difficulties. Eventually, I successfully captured the Flame Pokémon and turned to offering support to the trainers who were still locked in battle. Others gathered, excitedly chattering about this impressive find and thanking me for getting the word out. An elderly woman who owned the front yard where the beast spawned came out to ask if we’d “found our Pokémon” with no explanation needed. She was delighted by our success, and wished everyone a good evening while reminding us to stay safe.
My discovery of Charizard made a bit of a name for me in the local Pokémon community, just as finding a decent-caliber bird like a Yellow-breasted Chat will get you some props from your fellow birders. The “thrill” of the initial observation, subsequent hunt, and successful connection reminded me of so many real-life rarities I’ve experienced in my career as a naturalist. As far as I’m concerned, there’s plenty of room for both hobbies in my life and the park space around the world. Whatever gets you out in the fresh air, enjoy your time outside and be smart about your surroundings. Train on and good birding!
[Birding is still, always and forever, better. I’m excited for a weekend at Lake George and a two-week California adventure among the flesh-and-blood wildlife. More posts to come!]
Year List Update, July 18 – 331 Species (+ Pidgeot, Dodrio, Fearow, Golduck[?])