The use of smartphone apps can help you identify and find birds for your #My200birdyear list – here we showcase just a few of them
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.
A SLICK SMARTPHONE APP IN MANY WAYS SEEMS LIKE AN ALIEN INTRUSION INTO THE FAMILIAR BIRDERS’ WORLD