Friday, January 13, 2017

My Views on Birding Apps

I've been an Apple user since my Blackberry failed it's swimming test when out birding around the time they came out with the third iPhone.  Until recently I was a confirmed Apple addict, now not so much.  Is it just me or has Apple become overtly money grabbing, it seems that these days they always have their hands in my pocket, and not offering much in the way of innovation for the last couple of phones.  They used to "just work" now the operating system has become more and more complex, so I find myself not bothering with all the more burdensome features. However, one area I do use a lot are the Nature apps and more specifically birding apps.

I currently use a Windows 10 PC, an iPhone 6Plus and an iPad Pro both in 128Gb.  In as much as possible all my nature apps are set up the same on both devices, and the PC is used to hold all the master records and photos.  The phone goes birding with me and the iPad is used much like a laptop, and the PC is the huge screen on my desk that the kids occasionally let me use.

I feel birding apps into one of three categories with some overlap possible, though most only do one of the three categories well.  The categories are:

Bird listing and recording

Bird finding

Bird Identification


So starting with Bird Listing and Recording apps.  I think the choice for decent apps is very small depending on what the end product is going to be.  Do you want a detailed list, is it purely for your own use or will your sightings also be used by a citizen science database.  Are you recording a straightforward list of birds seen and possibly the number, or are you accurately recording precise locations, age, sex, etc etc.

Living in the US (Texas), I report practically every outing  and sighting in eBird and have been doing so since Jan 2004, and I do the same for my visits to U.K. though my first records only started in 2009. I also maintain my own list of sightings so compatibility is a big deal if I want to keep two sets of essentially the same data. Why would I want to do that?  What happens if my database dies or the company goes out of business, or what happens if eBird ceases to exist. All those records gone, would I have the motivation to start again?

There are only two apps that I fulfill my requirements for use in the field and they are Bird Journal and eBird.

Bird Journal

I believe that this is the complete integrated solution or close to it.  Bird Journal is an app that runs on PCs, iPads, iPhones and Android equivalents. But it is more than just an App, when it's installed on the PC it's a powerful database containing all my sightings, mapping software, 1,000s of my photographs and other related data.  It can be configured to also and simultaneously hold mammal, butterfly and plant data. Special mention should be made of the reporting and filtering capabilities that have been built into the PC version, it truly is outstanding and intuitive. You can cut and dice your data any way you choose with drop down menus by just about any criteria you can think of. When it's installed on the phone the software records in eBird exportable format and any additional custom fields that you choose.  There are checklists for just about every country and region from Afghanistan, to Antarctica to Anglesey.  All the data input whilst in the field is automatically backed up on the Bird Journal servers and magically appears on the iPad and PC as soon as the list is submitted.  It's also robust, bug free and fast.  Entry is intuitive and the whole app is easy to use.  The iPad version is optimized for the iPad and is a close copy to what is on the phone.  To be balanced, if I were to criticize, it would be that I would prefer the iPad version to be the same as the PC version.  However, and in fairness, I have enough stored photos in the PC version to fill my iPad several times over.  The company would need to come up with some kind of photo compression and also have the server speed and space required to run everything at the speed we have become accustomed to.  This is a solid 9.5 / 10 piece of software.


As the name suggests this is the eBird designed data entry app and it that respect, if you enter data in eBird, it is the best there is.     Download it, turn it on, log in, and hit start. It doesn't get more simple than that, yet this is no simple app. When you are in the field you can choose your current location, an eBird 'Hotspot" or create a personal location. Some thought should be given to your selection as what you choose will impact where your data is recorded and how it is retrieved.   For example, if you are in a State Park and it's an existing hotspot, setting up a personal location could mean that your sighting will not be recorded to the tally for the State Park, which makes data retrieval for an all encompassing report more complex than it would need to be. Once you have selected your location, the app automatically creates a checklist of likely birds.  If you have big fat fingers like me and hit albatross rather than anhinga the App will notify you that this is a RARE species for the area and you will be invited to add comments and confirm your sighting.  As this App updates eBird you can see the fruits of your endeavors online.  Although the App does not have the ability to upload photographs, once you are back at home, you can download any photos to your PC then upload to your eBird sighting at your convenience.


Of the Bird finding Apps I find the best to be the "BirdsEye" family of Apps.  I currently have three of these installed on my phone.  The original Birdseye for worldwide sightings, BirdsEye NA and even the Birdseye Texas OS .  The premise and the execution of these Apps is straightforward, BirdsEye is linked to your eBird account.  It knows what birds you have seen at any given hotspot of point, County, State and Country.  Click on "Nearby" (as defined by you as a radius from your position), it will give you a list of all Nearby sighting, Recent sightings (number of days determined by you) and Needs (as determined from your eBird sightings).  You can also browse by Name or by Location, it also has a list of Notable birds and your year list (you set the Region).  So if it has been reported to eBird you can find it.  When you see a bird you want to chase or a location that you are interested in from the map, just press of the map pins and you have the chance to get directions to the site and the App will tell you how long ago the sighting took place.  You can review the whole eBird report on the Notable birds as it was submitted by the observer.  One other nice feature is the ability to click on some icons that will take you to a description of the bird, photos, Wikipedia etc.   These are incredibly well thought out and stable Apps.  Friday will often see me reviewing various places I like to visit to see what's been turning up recently, so that I can maximize my time on the weekend.  It doesn't guarantee good birds but it will put you right where they have been seen recently and give you the best chance.


Confession time, I currently have 14 Bird identification Apps on my phone.  Do I really need all of them? Hell No, I just like them.  How many do I use on a regular basis? Three............
and they are all versions of the respective books with audio (good audio) thrown in.

Sibley Birds
National Geographic

I use these because I use the books, I imagine every birder has two of the three, most probably have all three.  Between the three there's not much you can't identify, sure there are other good ID guides but these three have an already good reputation gained from their books, they won't risk that by producing poor quality and inaccurate Apps.  Second confession......I try not to use books or Apps in the field, I used to take notes and sketches now I just point the monster lens and shoot until it flies away or I cover all the angles I can.  I think it's much easier to identify anything on a large screen in the comfort of the house then finish off my sighting list followed by submitting photos.   Flicking through the pages of a book, looking through Binos, checking the pages again, can lead to snap judgments and even quicker to embarrassment. Of course, not everyone wants to lug 14lbs of camera gear with them, so that's where the Apps come in.  For those that don't have an ethical or legal reason, the audio can be used to lure in target birds, it's even easier now with Bluetooth speakers.  But it's even more crap to carry around with you.

There are a few more specialized Apps I use:

Collins Bird Guide (from the awesome book - great for European visitors)
Heads Up - North American Sparrow Guide
Warbler Guide from Princeton  (The bible for Warblers)
Peterson Warblers (the name says it all)

That's about it.  I'd be interested to know if you think I've missed anything worthwhile or you violently disagree with my opinions.