It might seem a bit out of character for a bird-watcher -- that old-school, nature-loving soul who patiently traipses through the woods, seeking a brief glimpse of some rare avian species -- to use something as artificial as an iPhone app to assist him in his quest. But remember that bird-watching is a relatively recent pastime, only about a century old, and that it emerged from the invention of a new gadget: hand-held binoculars. Binoculars made it possible for the first time to observe wild birds and examine them in detail from a distance while they were still alive; until their invention, birds were shot down to be handled up close [source: Britannica.com].
Also remember that amateur ornithologists are a studious, precise lot, whose personal libraries are filled with books like Roger Tory Peterson's 1947 "Field Guide to the Birds," the definitive compilation of field markings for North American bird species found east of the Rocky Mountains [source: Britannica.com]. But those dog-eared reference tomes, useful as they are, can get pretty heavy when you're toting them in your backpack, and it's tough to thumb through a thick book with one hand while you're trying to hold binoculars steady and track a yellow-faced grassquit. As usual, it's a lot easier to just pull your iPhone out of your pocket and look up what you need to know.
That's why birders have become so enamored of a new generation of iPhone apps designed to help them get the most out of their pursuit.
Types of iPhone Birding Apps
In some ways, the iPhone is the Swiss Army Knife of the digital age. In addition to using it to make phone calls, you can use it as a book, an Internet browser, a video and still camera, an audio recorder and even as a notepad for recording your observations. And those are just the things you can do with the standard apps that come with the phone.
Birders can make use of all these standard tools in the woods, but they can also customize their phones with add-on gadgets and software apps to do even more. Spyglass, an app designed for outdoors enthusiasts, contains a compass, sextant, GPS and other navigational tools that can help a birder to precisely document the location of a sighting. It even includes a binoculars function, though the 5X zoom isn't as good as what you could get with conventional binoculars with optical magnification [source: iTunes, Karpen]. Camera manufacturers now offer add-on optical telephoto lenses that fit onto iPhones, so a birder can shoot fairly high-quality digital images [source: Photojojo.com]. With an add-on microphone such as the Edutige i-Microphone, a birder can boost the sound of bird calls and record them clearly for later study [source: Schmoker].
But amateur ornithologists will benefit especially from iPhone apps designed specifically for them. There are two basic types:
- Digital field guides include searchable databases of bird species and are illustrated with high-resolution images that help birders to identify a particular specimen. Some also include audio samples of bird songs, range maps and information on bird behavior.
- Online logging tools for birdwatchers allow enthusiasts to systematically record sightings and find the correct logging codes, and even make it possible to peruse data gathered by other birdwatchers.
Popular iPhone Birding Apps
Birdwatchers should watch for these apps to enhance their adventures in the woods:
BirdsEye: This app provides a convenient way for birders to send their observations to eBird. The latter is a real-time online database created in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society that has revolutionized birding by allowing users to share and analyze data from millions of sightings across North America. In addition to easy data entry, the app provides a map of birding hotspots and species seen in particular areas, as well as images and audio samples of calls for 470 bird species [source: eBird.org].
iBird Explorer Pro: This interactive field guide includes all 924 bird species found in North America and Hawaii, including extinct ones. It includes what the maker touts as "Audubon-quality" color illustrations and full-color range maps for every species. But the app's strongest selling point may be its database, which allows users to search by song, conservation status, genus, species, shape, size, color, flight pattern, bill shape and length, and wing shape, among other variables [source: Birdwatching-bliss.com].
Peterson's Birds of North America: The print version of Peterson's has been the virtual Bible of birdwatchers for the past 75 years, so it's no surprise that the iPhone version is quickly becoming a mainstay as well. The depth and breadth of the data in this app is amazing; it includes not only data and pictures for 800-plus bird species, but also 500 photographs of various species' nests and eggs. One nifty function allows a user to compare two similar species on the same screen, to differentiate them [source: Birdwatching-bliss.com].
Birdtunes: This app gives users access to an encyclopedic collection of bird songs and calls for 674 North American bird species, including between two and eight different song types for each bird. It also provides tips on regional differences in sounds from the same species. All in all, it's an invaluable tool for aurally identifying birds [source: Kammermeier].
Audubon Birds: New York Times technology writer Bob Tedeschi touted this app in 2010 for having "the broadest range of bird calls and the best photography" of any field guide. The app's sketches highlight key identifying features for particular species, such as the two white wing bars on the Baltimore oriole [source: Tedeschi].
Admittedly, I'm not that knowledgeable about wild birds, but I can understand why birdwatchers are so passionate about their hobby. When I was a young boy, my family had the good fortune to have a robin's nest on the ledge outside our bathroom window. We kept the window, which opened to the side, propped partially open all summer, so that we could observe the mother robin and the hatching of her eggs through the narrow space. I was sad when the little birds finally grew enough to leave the nest and make their way in the world, but I liked to think of them building nests on windowsills of houses where other little children could delight in them.
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