I love my copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds. It’s traveled with me to a lot of places and helped identify a lot of birds over the years. I find the information it provides to be indispensable. At 544 pages, it provides great illustrations and details about range, size, calls and pretty much anything else you could want to know. But – those 544 pages add up to about 3 pounds of weight in a shoulder bag, and it’s larger in size than my binoculars. So, on my recent trip to North Carolina’s Crystal Coast, I decided it was time to leave the book at home and try out some apps for my phone and Kindle Fire instead.
There are a lot of birding apps out there, but I chose two to use on this trip. Rather than try to determine which of these apps is “better”, or describe every feature of each one, my goal here is to share my overall impressions of using apps instead of a book, and show how the experience worked out for me during my recent trip. For more detailed comparisons, check out this article from Bird-WatchingBliss.com, or Birding Apps Revisted over on the Birding is Fun! site.
- Sibley Birds of North America, used on a Kindle Fire (tablet), $19.99 for Android
- Audubon Birds: A Field Guide to Birds of North America, used on a Droid Bionic (smartphone), $1.99 for Android
- Both the Sibley and Audubon apps (and most others) allow you to create lists. It’s up to you how you use them. You can create a list of “life birds” and add them as you spot them. You can create lists for certain trips. Robert Mortenson of the American Birding Association, who was my birding partner during the North Carolina excursions, used an app to create a list of birds he was hoping to spot while he was in the region. As he spotted them, he could easily check them off. He also kept track of our spottings throughout the day, adding each bird as we identified it. On a windy boat, this was certainly a lot easier than scribbling on a piece of paper.
- While paper bird guides often offer descriptions of bird calls, these don’t always really help you out (how many birds are described having a “hoarse cry”?). That’s why I love the ability to play calls directly using apps. When birding by boat with Captain Jess Hawkins, we heard the cry of a bird in a nearby marshy area. Captain Jess was reasonably certain it was a Clapper Rail, but to make sure, we pulled up the birding app and played the call, confirming the spotting.
- NOTE: There are some conflicting opinions about whether you should play bird calls in the field. If other birders are nearby, you could potentially confuse and/or disturb them. And while it’s a lot of fun to play the call of a bird from your app to try to lure wild birds closer to you, you could be bringing that bird out into the open where a predator might easily find it. I’m not going to make an ethical argument here; that’s for you to decide.
Favorite Benefit of Sibley Birds of North America:
Hands down, the coolest unique feature of the Sibley app is the ability to compare two species side by side. You simply select two birds from the index page, and the app brings them up on the same screen so you can look closely for differences. I used it to determine whether a shore bird was a Piping Plover or a Wilson’s Plover – two very similar species and both found along the NC shore. When I brought up both on the comparison screen, I was quickly able to see the differences in the beaks and determine my spotting was a Wilson’s Plover.
Favorite Benefit of Audubon Birds:
The Audubon app interfaces with Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird website to help you locate birds and birding spots nearby. You enter your current location and the app works with recent eBird spottings to help you learn which birds have been reported nearby, including notable and rare birds, and it also locates “Birding Hotspots” – locations nearby where spottings have happened recently. This is especially nice when traveling to a new location, where you might not know the area, or just for learning about what’s been going on right in your own neighborhood.
A Few General Tips for Using Apps Effectively:
- Set Your Location. If the app you’re using allows you to set your current location, I recommend doing so. That way, when you search for a bird or scroll a list of names, you won’t waste time with birds that aren’t found in that area. When using the Sibley Guide to identify a gull, indicating our location was North Carolina narrowed the list from 17 options down to 4, making the positive ID of Ring-Billed Gull much faster.
- Use the Search Function Instead of Scrolling: Guides are often used to look up specific birds when you just need some information or want to verify a sighting. When you use a paper book as a guide, you get used to turning to an alphabetic index and flipping through to specific birds. You can do the same with the list of birds available in an app, but scrolling through a list of 800 or so birds isn’t very efficient. Instead remember to take advantage of that little magnifying glass icon at the bottom of every screen – click on it, and type in the name of the bird you’re searching for. It’s a much faster process.
If you have a smartphone or tablet of some kind, apps are incredibly useful and worth trying out. They’re easily portable and can go anywhere you’re willing to take your technology. There are plenty of options out there, so do your research and find one that suits your own needs. Once you get the app downloaded, be sure to read any help or tip screens it offers, and play around to find out what all the great options are. Don’t wait until you’re in the field to try to figure it all out – give yourself a few minutes in advance to get comfortable with how it all works.
What about you? Have you tried out any birding apps? Which ones do you love, and why? We’d love to hear all about it, so drop by the comments below and share your opinions!