The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on most of our hobbies and pastimes. Live music is out. So, much to my constant sorrow, is playing soccer. Bowling, somehow, is okay here in Georgia, but I certainly won’t be sticking my fingers in a bowling bowl in 2020. What I will continue to do, though, is finding secluded spots around my city and watching birds. As we’ve all gone a little stir crazy, birding has never been more popular, and whether you just want to be able to identify what that reddish-purple headed bird is that’s coming to your feeder or you want to know where and how to find birds you’ve never seen before right in your hometown, a pair of binoculars and these five apps are all you need (though a copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition also wouldn’t hurt).
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed the two best apps for birding, and the first step to knowing what it is you’re looking at is downloading Merlin Bird ID. Just pick your location, and Merlin will show you a list of possible birds in your area based on the time of year. Click on any bird for a description, multiple photos and audio recordings that you can match to any bird you see. Narrow your search by entering color, size and behavior for a short list of suggestions. You can even see maps for each bird where they can be found. And you can connect it to your eBird Life List to see which birds are new to you. (Alternate options: Audubon Bird Guide – Free, Sibley Birds 2nd Edition – $19.99)
Once you’ve identified a bird, you can start your first eBird checklist to track which birds you’ve seen. The Cornell Lab has compiled millions of records from “citizen scientists” like you to track the migration patterns and behaviors of birds around the world. It’s both the gamification of the birding hobby and a real contribution to the research and conservation efforts of countless ornithological and ecological groups. The eBird app is an easy-to-use tool for logging your birding activities, and the eBird website is even more handy. You can keep a separate list for your yard, find birding hotspots near you, check out what birds others are finding in your county, as well as delivering more information than you could have ever hoped for on each species of bird. It also allows you to upload photos and audio to go along with the birds you’ve submitted, see when and where to find birds you’re looking for and track your history by time or location. You can download your own data at anytime and see how you stack up against other birders in your area. If you’re competitive or just like games, each hotspot has its own birding leaderboard you can try to climb.
Learning to identify birds by shape and color is step one, but if you want to really enjoy your experience out looking for birds, you need to learn how to pick out the songs and calls that will surround you. There are a handful of apps that purport to pick out the songs for you and match them to likely birds, but I’ve found most to be pretty useless. We’re a long from an actual Shazam for Birds, but Song Sleuth is probably the best of them. It allows you to isolate wavelenghts and delivers three choices of the likeliest birds that you can then listen to for a match. Plus, it features illustrations by David Sibley along with information about the birds. Not perfect but better than the alternatives I’ve tried.
A better option than relying on faulty AI to identify bird songs is to train your own ear, and Larkwire turns that learning into a customizable game. Start by loading up the birds in your backyard, and Larkwire will test your skills until you can pick out an American Robin, Northern Cardinal and Song Sparrow in your sleep. Then add more birds into the mix until you can start picking out rarer bird calls and know when to stop and look for that Indigo Bunting or Red-Eyed Vireo in the trees. The app comes with songs from 343 different species of North American birds, and there’s a second app specifically for 135 different water birds.
Once you’ve discovered the best places for birding near you, you’ll want to download AllTrails so you never get lost. I tend to explore off-trail sometimes, and this app has helped me find my way back, as well as discover side trails and water features on multiple occasions. It also can answer questions like whether a trail is wheelchair friendly or if dogs aren’t allowed, along with reviews from fellow hikers, bikers and runners. It’s not designed specifically for birders, but it’s certainly a birder’s friend.