Nine-Minute Naturalist: Birding App Basics

By David,

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Birding App Basics

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. I hope you enjoy!


Writing this periodic blog may depict an all-encompassing knowledge base of the natural world around me. Do not fall for this false portrayal of me. I write about things I am particularly interested in and tend to think about regularly. The subjects I am silent on hint at my large knowledge gaps. Sadly, the subject of geology arises and my brain goes seems to block any pertinent information. Astronomy just does not tempt me to pursue greater knowledge. Knowing I have these great voids of knowledge has led me to attempt to rid myself of ignorance on one front in 2024, field identification of birds. In the most 2024 way possible, I have turned my attention to apps I can use as I walk in the woods. This Nine Minute Naturalist will discuss the pros and cons of birding apps I have used in my initial stages of learning how to identify avian species at Wintergreen.

Before I get into the specifics of different birding plant apps, I must apply a few caveats. The first is that I am cheap and only use free apps. There may be wonderful apps that cost money but I do not use them. The second caveat is apps that identify birds you photograph or hear are sometimes wrong. It is helpful to check the answers in a book or another app. The last caveat is that I am not an expert on app construction or performance. I am judging them merely based on features I enjoy and find particularly unique.

 

 

Being a new convert to the world of birding, I took the advice of those more experienced than me and started with the Merlin Bird ID app. I am a huge fan of this app for quite a few reasons. The first is that it appears to be made for dummies like me. My weakness is identifying birds via sound. My years of wandering the woods enables me to adequately identify birds visually. The likelihood of hearing a bird such as a yellow-bellied sapsucker verses seeing one is dramatic. Merlin Bird ID’s sound recognition is quite good and allows you to save sound recordings complete with bird identifications to listen to later. This allows you to continue the learning at another time. Another helpful feature is the Step-by-Step ID. It literally walks newbies like me through the visual identification ques need to correctly recognize what you just saw. There are a couple negative aspects of Merlin. It does not seem to have the largest database of bird sounds for each bird. Birds like brown thrasher or mockingbird have a tremendous amount of vocalization options and Merlin struggles a bit with that volume. Another minor negative is the download size required for the app. It is currently the fourth largest app on my phone and more than double any of the other birding apps currently downloaded.

If bird sound identification is the main criteria for your bird app of choice, BirdNET is the next plausible choice. This is a spartan app lacking the lovely frills and niceties of Merlin but strong on function. It is easy to use and seems to be able to identify birds when Merlin fails. It also provides a similar species option for you to consider. It does require internet connection to analyze bird sound due to the fact you do not have download the database prior to use. That is quite the negative if you are out of cellphone data range.

 

 

An app that demands mention in all birding app discussions is Ebird. The Ebird app is akin to the Godfather. It is the legacy upon which other apps are based. Ebird is a massive collection of information from multiple websites and other apps such as Ebird, Merlin, and to some degree BirdNET and Audubon. This app is great for tracking and allows you to retrieve other people’s sightings. It is does not help much with identification which is why I rarely use it. I admit I am lazy and rarely use The Flora of Virginia either when I identify plants. That does not mean it is not useful but that it requires a bit of foreknowledge and effort.

 

 

There are other fun options to play with in your exploration in the world of birding apps. Birda is a fun app that makes the process a game. You can connect to other users to feel part of a community but it is a bit lacking on identification skills. Another lovely app is Audubon. It has by far the prettiest photos and setup but is limited in its technical help and bird audio.

My recommendation for finding the birding app for you is to download a bunch and start the learning process. Find your top two options and keep them both on your phone to increase your references and birding ability. There has never been an easier time to delve into the world of birding!

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