These days almost everyone has a smartphone, iPad, or some other electronic device to help them communicate, navigate, and educate. It was just a matter of time before the sport of birding joined the electronic world. You would think that a pair of binoculars and a field guide would be sufficient, but there are times when we struggle to tell immature gulls apart, identify small shorebirds, or identify the singer of a particular song. There are apps, short for computer software, that perform particular tasks, that will help with these problems and also do things like keep a list of the birds you have seen.
There are apps that provide information on calls, physical identification, migration and home ranges, and all manner of other information. Audubon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Peterson, Sibley, Kindle, iBird and others offer various apps to consider. These have names like eBird, Song Sleuth, iBirdPro, and Larkwire. Check some out for yourself on these links: the 14 Best Birdwatching Apps or Five birding apps to give your skills a boost. If you want a review, try the Best birding apps for iPhone, iPod, iTouch, and Android Review.And if your offspring are into birding, how about Which bird apps are best for kids?I have the Sibley app that I find handy for reference at times and a Birds of Europe app that is even more useful because I don’t know European birds as well. Both are especially helpful when it comes to songs and calls.
I find a couple of downsides to apps. First, you have to carry around some piece of electronic equipment that has to be charged and kept out of the rain. And considering how many pairs of binoculars I have banged against trees, left on top of a car, dropped over the side of a boat, or ruined in myriad other ways, I could lose a lot of money doing the same with an iPhone or android. And on a bright sunny day, it’s hard to clearly discern the screen on a smartphone. Paper field guides are a lot more durable but they don’t sing to you or keep names updated.
One of the big advantages is that smartphones have cameras. So if you see an Ivory-billed Woodpecker or some other rarity, you can document it. (About twice a year for the last decade or so I get contacted my someone who swears he has seen and Ivory-bill. When I ask for photographic proof, they get huffy. Sorry, but there’s no excuse for making such a claim with out proof. Especially these days when cell phone cameras are ubiquitous.)
Now, when we birdwatch, we disturb birds to some degree. But playing songs on your smartphone may be harmful. Some people argue that playback reduces the need to physically enter and disturb a bird’s habitat and targets only a single species. Others say that playing songs stresses birds, and may cause a male to lose its territory or mate. Overall, it is probably not a good idea to play bird songs to attract birds. And you might annoy other birdwatchers in the area. In some places it is even illegal as it is in the UK’s Dorset Trust Preserves. Better just to listen to the song yourself to identify what you are hearing.
There are some cool apps like Warblr that are supposed to identify a bird by its call – just hold it in your hand and let it listen. Never tried it, though. I think its fine to use apps as a secondary or even primary source of identification, but I’m just used to using a paper field guide. The grebes are near the front and the sparrows near the back, and I can thumb through the pages quickly to find out what I am looking at. I don’t have to try to find a dark spot to read the screen, push buttons, or swipe anything. And if I drop the book into a swamp, I may be able to salvage it. If not, well, another $25 ain’t so bad.