Gear re­views

The use of smart­phone apps can help you iden­tify and find birds for your #My200birdyear list – here we show­case just a few of them

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - By Richard Smyth

Bird­ing apps to use on the move

On the af­ter­noon of 22 Septem­ber, cen­tral Lon­don rang with bird­song. The notes of Black­bird, Black­cap, Chif­fchaff, Nightin­gale, Robin, Wil­low War­bler and Sky Lark rose from the con­crete streets into the over­cast sky. It wasn’t an out-of-sea­son dawn cho­rus rehearsal or some im­prob­a­ble freak of migration; it was all thanks to the smart­phone. Smart­phones get a bad rap. They’re of­ten seen as the en­emy of ob­ser­va­tion, at­ten­tion steal­ers, time-suck­ers. But as the demo on 22 Septem­ber showed, there is an­other side to this ubiq­ui­tous tech­nol­ogy. The out­break of dig­i­tal bird­song – which was part of the Peo­ple’s Walk For Na­ture, which saw thou­sands take to the cap­i­tal’s streets in sup­port of our un­der-siege nat­u­ral world – was mas­ter­minded by broad­caster and ac­tivist Chris Pack­ham. Peo­ple at­tend­ing the march were in­vited to down­load a spe­cial app that would al­low them to carry a lit­tle bird­song with them as they walked. “Have it ready to play, on re­peat, and loudly,” Pack­ham wrote on his web­site, “so that as we walk through the noisy streets of our cap­i­tal that af­ter­noon we can all stop and drown out the city with the voices of those van­ished mil­lions of birds who are gone – but must not be for­got­ten.” This was just one of the ways in which smart­phone apps can en­hance our ex­pe­ri­ence of the nat­u­ral world.

Collins Bird Guide

“If you’re any­thing like me,” says Fiona Bar­clay, “you go run­ning out the door, you have your binoc­u­lars, but you’ve prob­a­bly not packed your field guide – or the 17 other books you wish you had on you.” Fiona is the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of the app pro­ducer Na­tureguides, and she’s ex­plain­ing why an app like Na­tureguides’ Collins Bird Guide has an ad­van­tage over tra­di­tional guide­books. “You al­ways have your de­vice on you,” she says. “So it’s very, very help­ful.” While she stresses that “I’d never sug­gest that the app is a re­place­ment for the book; I’ve never been with­out a Collins Bird Guide book and I never will be”, she’s quick to point out the many ad­di­tional fea­tures that an app can pro­vide, adding: “We have a fea­ture in the app where you can search by bill-length, or plumage colour, or what­ever, and you can’t eas­ily do that with a book. “You can’t lis­ten to the song or call – you can have it de­scribed to you, but you can’t hear it – and you can’t see mov­ing pic­tures of the birds. “With the app you can down­load videos and see what they look like. You can com­pare dif­fer­ent birds: you can se­lect up to 12 dif­fer­ent birds to com­pare side-by-side. So, say you wanted to look at Lin­net,

Twite and Chaffinch, you get to see them ab­so­lutely side-by­side, and that’s re­ally use­ful. And there’s a mode where it can sug­gest what you might have con­fused it with. “You can also search by where you are.” A slick smart­phone app in many ways seems like an alien in­tru­sion into the fa­mil­iar bird­ers’ world of rain-spotted note­books and dog-eared field guides. This might be no bad thing. Could this kind of new tech, I won­der, open up bird­watch­ing to whole new sec­tions of so­ci­ety?

Mer­lin Bird ID

“A huge rea­son for giv­ing away our apps for free is to reach new peo­ple, al­low­ing them to iden­tify their first bird, and to give them con­fi­dence that the name they are putting to a bird is the cor­rect one,” says Drew We­ber, project co-or­di­na­tor for Mer­lin, a bird ID app from the Cor­nell Lab of Or­nithol­ogy in the US. He added: “Bird­ers see the value they get back from con­tribut­ing their ob­ser­va­tions, from au­to­mat­i­cally tab­u­lated patch, county, coun­try, life and year lists, to tar­gets, rare bird alerts, and easy-to-browse sight­ings maps. There are a hand­ful of ‘tra­di­tion­al­ist bird­ers’ out there who feel that any­thing other than pag­ing through a printed field guide is a coun­ter­pro­duc­tive short­cut; but, for the most part, peo­ple see Mer­lin Bird ID as an­other tool for the birder’s tool­box.” Mer­lin at­tempts to guide a user to choose the cor­rect an­swer on their own, rather than just pro­vid­ing a solution, so that the user can browse the photos, au­dio and ID text to match what they are see­ing.


Both the Collins Bird Guide and Mer­lin have the po­ten­tial to make life a whole lot eas­ier for the birder in the field. But an­other app from the Cor­nell Lab has had an even big­ger im­pact on the world of or­nithol­ogy: ebird has opened up the field to a new wave of cit­i­zen sci­ence. Essen­tially, ebird is a check­list­ing app: it al­lows the user to main­tain lists, photos and sound record­ings of the birds they see. “With lim­ited time, be­ing able to en­ter and sub­mit your sight­ings while you are still in the field means no data en­try when you are back home,” says Drew We­ber. “You have up­dated info on which birds are ex­pected, which are un­com­mon, and which are re­ally rare; mak­ing it easy to fo­cus your ob­ser­va­tion time on birds that might re­quire ad­di­tional doc­u­men­ta­tion.” But the re­ally spe­cial thing about ebird is how the recorded data is used. Each user’s list feeds into a vast data­base of bird sight­ings – more than 100 mil­lion bird sight­ings are con­trib­uted each year by ‘ebird­ers’ world­wide. The re­sult is a hugely valu­able data re­source for or­nithol­o­gists and con­ser­va­tion­ists, pro­vid­ing a wealth of in­for­ma­tion on bird dis­tri­bu­tion, abun­dance, habi­tat use, and trends over time – and it’s avail­able to any­one who wants to use it.

Bird Alert Pro

Other apps prom­ise to broaden your bird­ing hori­zons in other ex­cit­ing direc­tions. For twitch­ers or the twitch­ingcu­ri­ous, there’s Birdalert­pro from the ven­er­a­ble bird­ing news ser­vice Rare Bird Alert. Break­ing news up­dates, in­ter­ac­tive maps, photo gal­leries and a 10-year ar­chive prom­ise to open up a whole world of va­grants, rar­i­ties and po­ten­tial ‘lif­ers’, as well as lo­cal up­dates for those who pre­fer to bird on home turf.


Then there’s the Holy Grail of bird­ing apps, what Fiona Bar­clay calls “Shazam for birds”. Whereas Shazam uses au­dio fin­ger­prints to put a name to a snatch of pop mu­sic, the birder’s equiv­a­lent would al­low you to hold up your phone in the di­rec­tion of a singing bird and be given an ID based on the sound alone. Fiona is scep­ti­cal, “So you can wave your phone and it’ll tell you what it is? Yeah, sure. Some war­bler go­ing ‘tack’ in a bush... I’m not con­vinced this is go­ing to work”. But this is ex­actly what War­blr prom­ises to do. De­vel­oped by re­searcher Dan Stow­ell and writer and film­maker Florence Wilkin­son, War­blr prom­ises 95% ac­cu­racy in op­ti­mum con­di­tions. Like ebird, the app hooks up to an ac­ces­si­ble data­base of bird sight­ings (or, rather, hearings): “Each time the app is used to iden­tify a bird, in-the-app geo-track­ing al­lows us to map which species is be­ing spotted when and where,” the founders say. “We are mak­ing this data freely avail­able to sci­en­tists to help with re­search and con­ser­va­tion.” The po­ten­tial for an app-driven revo­lu­tion in bird­ing needn’t be lim­ited to spe­cial­ist soft­ware. Widely used so­cial me­dia plat­forms like Twit­ter and In­sta­gram can be used to spread break­ing news, share pho­to­graphs and ex­pe­ri­ences of birdlife, and pro­mote con­ser­va­tion. For in­stance, high-pro­file hash­tags at the time of writ­ing in­clude #sin­gleuse­plas­tics and #bio­di­ver­sity. Face­book and What­sapp groups can bring to­gether lo­cal net­works of bird­ers, or en­thu­si­asts from around the world. It’s true that we risk miss­ing a great deal if we go through life with­out lift­ing our eyes from our screens. But there’s a flip­side, too: from bird­song you can carry in your pocket, to high-spec tools to help you put a name to a far-off rap­tor or enig­matic win­ter wader, to apps that tap into global net­works of con­ser­va­tion data-gath­er­ing, smart­phone tech­nol­ogy has the po­ten­tial to bring some­thing ex­tra – new in­for­ma­tion, new hori­zons, new per­spec­tives – to ev­ery bird­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.


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