When I was asked to write a roundup of today’s best smartphone apps for birders, I had little idea what I was getting into. Sure, I had used eBird and iBird Pro and had heard of other apps, but that didn’t prepare me for the breadth of mobile birding tools available — or the remarkable capabilities of each.
I quickly discovered that it’s an “app-eat-app” world out there. Several major apps that were popular only a few years ago have been consigned to the electronic dustbins of history. At the same time, talented programmers have created dozens of new birding tools that cater to almost every conceivable niche location and interest, from birding Central Park or Washington State to translating banding codes and quizzing yourself on species.
Bottom line: Even in limiting myself to the major, most useful apps aimed specifically at birders, it would be impractical to cover them all in one flyover. As a result, I’ve opted for a two-beaked approach: Part 2 of this review will focus on apps that mainly help birders learn bird calls and ID birds by song, while this review will tackle a birder’s bread and butter — field guide and listing apps.
Let the feathers fly!
Birding Essentials: eBird & Merlin Bird ID
It’s hard to overstate the importance and beauty of the two free birding apps produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. My son and I first discovered eBird while doing our Big Year in 2016. Since then, I cannot think of a bird outing in which we haven’t used it. eBird’s main purpose is simple: It allows you to quickly and easily record the birds you observe. You hit the “Start Checklist” button and choose your location from a map, GPS coordinates, a recommended hotspots list, or personal locations list. Then you are on your way. You can either track your outing in real time or plug in your birding time of day and duration after you have finished.
One thing that separates eBird from most other bird-listing apps is that all of your records go into a vast database that scientists use to learn about, monitor, and protect birds the world over. That effortlessly turns every birder into a community scientist.
While the eBird app allows you to view and edit your completed checklists, and gives you snapshots of your birding statistics, it doesn’t do much else. Then again, it doesn’t need to, which is part of its appeal. To add photos, song recordings, and so forth to your checklists — or to do research on species, locations, and other birders — simply head home, take a shower, and crack open a cold one. Then, log in to the more powerful browser version of eBird in the comfort of your personal eyrie.
“But,” you may be asking, “what about help with IDing birds in the field? Will eBird do that?” No, not directly, but Cornell Lab has you covered with eBird’s sister app, Merlin Bird ID, and when you tap on a species in eBird, a button gives you the option of viewing that bird in Merlin.
Like other popular field guide apps, Merlin provides great tools for identifying birds that you don’t know. One way you can do this is by filling in multiple-choice attributes for size, color, and activity. It’s astonishing how often Merlin places the correct bird at the top of the list, but it also provides many other choices, one of which is almost always right. Its elegance, accuracy, and ease of use made this my favorite bird ID tool of any that I tested.
I was more skeptical about Merlin’s Photo ID feature, in which you take or choose a photo and ask Merlin to identify it. The first photo I tried was the rare Ivory Gull that created a birding frenzy in Montana last winter. Merlin came up with three possibilities: Mew Gull, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Iceland Gull. “OK,” I thought, “maybe that wasn’t fair,” so I tested decent photos of a Nashville Warbler, Red-naped Sapsucker, and Horned Grebe — and also used my phone to take a picture of a Cassin’s Finch at our feeder. Merlin nailed all four birds on the first try. Not surprisingly, it has more trouble with birds that are poorly lit or farther away, but I came away convinced that this is an excellent tool for beginning and intermediate birders.
Besides helping you with identification, Merlin provides each species’ physical description, habitat, conservation status, sound recordings, and distribution map. Merlin has the best sound library of any app I tried, but the other information is pretty basic, opening the door for the other useful apps below.
Living up to its namesake: Audubon Bird Guide App
With a name like Audubon, you’d expect a good app, and America’s venerated birding organization delivers — for free. Like several others, this app combines the functions of eBird and Merlin, serving as both a listing/identification tool and a field guide. Its bird-ID tool takes you through multiple-choice categories to narrow down your mystery bird and, as with most other apps, the tool works better with some birds than others. The app’s greater strength is its field guide, which provides extensive information on each species, including migration, conservation status, feeding behavior, nesting, and more. I found the bird recordings and abundant photos especially useful.
Like BirdsEye (see below), Audubon allows you to search recent sightings, either by hotspot or species. Audubon also allows you to record your birding observations — which raises a question: Why would anyone use anything except eBird to record their sightings when eBird has become the gold standard? It recalls the 1970s when people still bought Betamax videos even as the VHS format was crushing the competition. And while the Audubon app does pull in recent sightings information from eBird, it does not send your sightings back to eBird. This would be a desirable — perhaps essential — future feature for this and other apps that allow you to record your observations.
Bible in an app: Sibley Birds
Like many birders, I consider The Sibley Guide to Birds (2nd Edition) to be my birding bible at home and in the field, and with such a heavyweight status, I asked myself, “Can the app version possibly come close to being as useful?” It does. As you might expect, the app’s field guide is its best feature, earning extra stars for its elegance and ease of use. I especially liked the little merging arrow symbol that allows you to check similar species instantly. Each species entry also comes with detailed descriptions, a range map, song recordings, and, of course, David Sibley’s superb illustrations — something no other app can boast.
I was less bowled over by the app’s bird ID tool but found it to be on par with most other apps, performing better with some species than others. Like the Audubon Bird Guide App, Sibley allows you to record your own observations, but since this also is not linked to eBird, it again begs the question: Why use it? The answer may be that the feature allows you to enter a greater variety of detailed information for each observation, making it helpful for scientists, guides, and other especially advanced birders.
I do have a desperate plea to Sibley’s team and all other app developers: Please put a Home button on every page!
Find that bird: BirdsEye
A self-described bird-finding app, BirdsEye comes with a number of useful features for birders on the hunt. Rare-bird alerts from the American Birding Association, recent sightings, and hotspot lists all aid in calculating possible species and where to find them. The app even provides directions to a spot once you’ve figured out what you want to see. One feature I especially like is that BirdsEye automatically includes month-by-month bar charts showing when a bird may be expected in a particular location. The app also comes with an appealing bird-identification tool that is minimalist but accurate and easier to use than most similar tools.
Like Merlin, BirdsEye includes a one-paragraph description of each species, written by Kenn Kaufman, along with photos and audio recordings. The app operates on a subscription basis, charging a monthly fee that varies by which package you use. You may also download fixed-price field and audio guides of birds from different parts of the world.
One slightly annoying feature is that the app seems to be perpetually updating data. Also, like other apps, it could use a Home button on every page. Despite these minor shortcomings, I liked the app. It is useful for finding birds in ways that other bird apps are not.
Quest for app domination: iBird Pro
It’s clear from the first open that iBird Pro aims to be the ultimate field app birders will choose to use — and iBird isn’t shy about saying so. At its core, iBird Pro is an extensive, impressive field guide and identification tool. The ID tool contains about three dozen different attributes to narrow down possibilities, making it useful for even the most advanced birder. My favorite part of the app, though, has to be its field guide. Each bird listing comes with a beautiful illustration that can be easily overlaid with the bird’s field marks. Additional buttons allow you to access sounds, photos, range, similar species, more detailed ID notes, ecology, behavior, interesting facts, and more. My son and I often use these features when out in the field.
Even though we use iBird Pro a lot, I must confess a bit of a love-hate relationship with it. The search tool especially drives me crazy since you must specify if you are searching by scientific name, common name, or banding code — something other apps automatically recognize (though most don’t have the scientific name search option). The interface also has a cramped feel to it, and the ID tool can be overwhelming with its many different variables. You must pay extra for the photo ID feature and the tool that helps you pinpoint birds in your area — something some other apps automatically include. iBird does offer a scaled-down free version of the app called iBird Lite, so you can see if you like the app well enough to spring for the full monty.
App of prey: Raptor ID
A project of HawkWatch International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Raptor ID caters to the legions of birders with special interest in diurnal raptors. With its elegant design and wonderful Home button (hint, hint), this free app allows you to learn about 34 species of North American raptors easily, see what they look like, and hear their calls. In fact, I consider this as much an educational tool as field guide, and it is perfect for beginning raptor lovers. If the app developers ever do an upgrade, I would request they include side-by-side comparisons of easily confused species. This might finally help me figure out if that’s a Cooper’s or Sharp-shinned Hawk flying above me!
What the heck was that?: The Warbler Guide
Do you remember in the movie Madagascar when Marty the zebra invites his estranged friend Alex the lion over to the fun side of the island? Well, The Warbler Guide definitely resides on the fun side of Bird App Island. This delightful app lets you look at and learn about warblers from every possible angle. To wit, it gives you the option of viewing warblers as if you were standing underneath them — one of six different perspectives to choose from.
But that is just the beginning. Using elegant graphical interfaces and terrific illustrations, The Warbler Guide lets you narrow down which warblers you might see according to location and season. It groups warblers by the kinds of calls they make — with three different variables. Most importantly, it contains a great library of songs and calls to help you pick out what you might be hearing. The app proves the point that sometimes less is more, and you’ll forget its $12.99 price tag the moment you open it.
An embarrassment of choices
I hope that the above descriptions point you toward the apps that will be most useful and appealing to your personal birding style and goals, but if I learned one thing using these apps, it’s that no one size fits all. If you mainly want a mobile field guide, Merlin, Audubon, Sibley, or iBird Pro will probably work great for you. Beginning birders would perhaps lean toward Merlin or Audubon, and more advanced birders may opt for Sibley or iBird Pro. If you’re a raptor or warbler fan, Raptor ID or The Warbler Guide might be for you.
If you’re an avid lister or if you want to make sure your outings are carefully documented, eBird is a must, and you might want to add BirdsEye to help you track down target species.
On a personal note, I also have to add that all of the apps impressed me, and if you’re worried about cost, please don’t. The amount of use you extract from any of these tools will almost instantly justify the extremely modest — often nonexistent — cost developers charge for their tremendous knowledge, effort, and creativity. Just get out there, see which ones you like best, and brace yourself for a richer, more fun birding experience.
For birds — and much more
Anyone who has even a passing interest in nature should have the brilliant crowdsourcing app iNaturalist on their phone. It enables users to identify all sorts of insects, plants, and animals with the help of other users of the platform and report their locations on a map. I’ve used it to snap photos of dragonflies, butterflies, moths, cicadas, and plants and submit them for identification. It allows users to create and join projects so they can pool like observations in one place. And ultimately, it helps people connect to and learn about nature in their yards and beyond. — M.M.
This article was first published in the November/December 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine.
Read Part 2: The best birdsong apps
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