AI and Birdwatching

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Front view of the Optik Ax Visio smart binoculars
Swarovski Optik

There’s a new development in AI and this one pertains to birds. Swarovski is coming out with Optik Ax Visio smart binoculars – the world’s first AI-supported binoculars that claim to help you identify 9000 species of birds as well as other animals. I haven’t used them so I can’t speak from personal experience and at the price approaching $5000, it’s not likely I will get a pair soon. Hopefully the price will come down. You can read more about how they work on Swarovski’s Ax Visio website.

I have used a few “smart” applications to identify plants – take a picture with Picture This and the identification promptly pops up. It’s pretty darn accurate in my experience. And there’s the Merlin app to identify bird songs which is also quite good. The app I don’t find very handy is the one with which you take a cellphone photo of a bird and the app identifies it for you. In my experience, if you are close enough to take a good photo of a bird with a cellphone, you should be able to identify it with your field guide quickly enough. All these gadgets and apps are amusing and interesting but are they taking some of the challenges out of birdwatching? 

It’s fun to find a bird, especially one you rarely see in your usual bird tramps around home or observing birds in a locale you have never been, especially an exotic one, and try to ID it. That can be a rewarding experience. But it can also be frustrating if you are unsure of its identification. More than a few times I have been stymied by a bird sighting, often because I only had a brief glimpse, but on rare occasions, even with a very good look, I’m stumped. And I will never know for sure what I saw – I still have nightmares about the ones that “got away.”

Lens view of the Optik Ax Visio smart binoculars
Swarovski Optik

Here is where AI comes in. After you spot a bird you can use your Optik Ax Visio or other device/app to check yourself. You don’t have to ID the bird right away but you can confirm your sighting later to yourself or others. AI would be especially important in verifying a sighting of a rare bird or a bird way out of its usual environs.

Beside binoculars and apps there are bird feeders with cameras that identify visiting birds. That’s very cool but the future of AI in birdwatching or ornithology in general is mind-boggling. A project in France is using AI to identify individual birds, which would make the age-old technique of bird-banding obsolete. Large data sets and artificial intelligence are being used to uncover patterns in nature for entire avian communities across continents. This method shows which species occur where, when, with what other species, and under what environmental conditions, according to research published in the Journal Ecology.

A future blog will further address the rather amazing impacts AI is having on the world of birds, especially their conservation.

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