Birding is something just about anyone can experience, regardless of age or ability. Avid birders know that seasonal birding requires using resources that describe where birds are being seen. The last 10 years have seen a proliferation of smartphone apps that enable users to search near and far to see where bird species are being reported. In fact, most hard copy field guides have introduced digital apps.
Although many are not free, they provide a variety of robust features with exceptional portability and easy-to-use search features to quickly identify birds you see. All things considered, most birders I know use one (or both) of these excellent FREE apps available for both iOS and Android platforms: The Audubon Bird Guide app and the Merlin Bird ID app. Cornell Lab, a prominent scientific resource in the birding world, created Merlin, which is the most widely used app in this category. The Merlin and Audubon apps both enable you to pack all of the information in a paper field guide in your smartphone.
Using the date and geographic data collected from your smartphone, the apps ask you a short list of questions about the birds you see to help you identify species based on the criteria you provide.
- What size was the bird? The app provides a scale from wren to robin to crow to goose or larger, including a size in between each.
- What are the bird's three most prominent colors?
- Where did you see the bird? At a feeder? Swimming or wading? On the ground? In trees or bushes? On a fence or wire? Flying or soaring?
Based on your observations, the apps generate a short list of species and photos to help you make a match. Each app provides several photos of each species, as well as their songs and ranges. And each app offers a unique plus. Merlin allows you to enter a picture of your bird, which it will then analyze and identify, while Audubon includes information about your bird's conservation status, as well as its feeding behavior, diet, nesting and eggs. It also helps you create a record of your sightings.
Digital birding apps may not be right for everyone in every situation, however. They require a smartphone with enough memory to store the entire app. Birding field guides and identification apps use very large files that must be stored for access on the phone and not from the Cloud. The Audubon Bird Guide app stores bird photos and data on over 800 species. Merlin demands similar storage capacity. ANY bird ID app needs to be downloaded when you have good connectivity and time. In other words, it can be difficult to download these apps while you're in the field.
Online guides offer an additional option. One popular reference guide for our area, Birds of Nebraska, is now out of print but is available online at birds.outdoornebraska.gov. Although this guide is not available as an app, it is FREE and is a very detailed and accurate tool that can be used on any home computer, phone or tablet with Wi-Fi or internet access.