In 2000, David Sibley published the Sibley Guide to Birds. The volume revolutionized the printed bird guide world. It contained descriptions and clear illustrations of 810 species. The multiple illustrations included breeding, non-breeding, juvenile, and intermediate plumages The birds are shown in flight., and sometimes in characteristics poses. At 6"x9", it was not published as a field guide, but it was so useful that birders found various ways to carry it into the field when they were birding. A couple of years later, smaller and more field friendly Eastern and Western versions were published.
Also in 2000, Kenn Kaufman published his Birds of North America, another revolutionary guide. Conventional wisdom said that photographic guides were much inferior to illustrated guides for bird identification. The two thousand photographs in Kaufman’s guide were digitally enhanced, creating a field guide that rivaled such classics as the Peterson or Golden guides. For many years when I still had the humility to admit that I needed a field guide close at hand, I chose the Kaufman guide for the very practical reason that it would fit into the rear pocket of my jeans – and it was good.
In the last decade the publication of bird guides has mushroomed with new editions of the superb National Geographic guide, photographic guides from Stokes and Smithsonian, and many specialty guides (e.g. shorebirds, seabirds, gulls,) both illustrated and photographic. This presents a dilemma - what are you going to carry in your pocket, or backpack, or store in your backseat, or carry in your luggage, when you go birding?
Last January, I hiked up a remote canyon in the Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson. A Rufous-capped Warbler, a Mexican bird that on rare occasions sneaks across the border and stirs up the birding community, was being seen. I carried the Kaufman guide.
I found several other people also looking for the bird. The question of its song and call came up. Someone produced a small, hand held devise, fiddled with it briefly, and we heard the song and call. My interest was piqued. Up to that point, if I was going to have access to a resource for bird songs in the field, I needed a back pack, a portable CD player, a 3 or 4 CD set of birds songs, and the indexed booklet which would guide me to the appropriate CD, and then appropriate track. Cumbersome, to say the least.
Back home in Vermont in February, with nothing to do except keep the wood stove filled and the snow shoveled, I began reading the advertisements in birding magazines with particular interest and attention. I won’t take you on the full journey, but here is a summary of what I have discovered and a review of those results.
It is now possible to go into the field birding with multiple field guides and audio resources that can be held in the palm of your hand and slip easily into a breast pocket. You can review songs, calls, and identifications of every bird that has ever been seen in North America.
All of the applications reviewed below (“Apps” as they are known) work with the iPhone or iPodTouch. Many work on the many other devises available.
Here are the birding Apps currently available:
“birdJam Maker” is usable with most iPods. This application organizes a bird song collection into playlists so that you can quickly find and play the song of a particular species. The most comprehensive collection is “Stokes Field Guide(s) to Bird Songs,” Eastern and/or Western Regions. Unless you buy a preloaded iPod from the vender, this is the most complicated App to set up. However, “birdJam Maker” provides very clear instructions on how to do it. The end result is that you have all seven CDs from Stokes in the palm of your hand and can find any song in about a half minute. (They claim 15 seconds.)
“iBird Explorer Plus” is the future of the electronic field guide. Currently providing information on 934 species, birds can be browsed by first name, last name, or family. For each species there are illustrations, photographs, range map, and detailed information on identification, including description, range, habitat, breeding, nesting, foraging, feeding, and more. Song and call can be played. “Facts” provides interesting information and trivia. If there is wireless internet available, there is a link to Birdipedia. The downside to this App is that the illustrations often are not very good, and the number of photographs are often sparse. (The developers continually update with donations from photographers.) “iBird Explorer” is a work in progress, but a good work, and at present is the standard against which other electronic field guides should be measured.
All of the electronic guides provide description, voice, and range. What makes any guide useful is the visual help it gives in identification. “National Geographic Handheld Birds” is based on the field guide, and uses the excellent illustrations from that guide. For some species the illustrations are very limited and small. Its design (user interface) is different from the previous one, but easy to use.
“The Audubon Guide - Birds” relies on photographs. The number of photographs varies, and unfortunately they have not been chosen for how well they will assist field identification. I would not want to rely on this App for identifying little brown sparrows. It retains all the problems of the old photographic guides.
There are three Apps based on the Peterson Guides: “Birds of Prey,” “Warblers,” and “Backyard Birds.” Beyond the Peterson illustrations which are sometimes too small to be of any help, the limited number species and small amount of information and description make these Apps marginal at best.
The electronic field guides can all be downloaded and automatically installed via computer or wireless connection.
A new App which has just become available is “BirdsEye.” It is integrated with Cornell Lab's Project eBird, the online database for reporting sightings. According to reports, with this App “you can instantly find out what birds are being seen in your area, how recently, and exactly where, and you can go straight to the spot and see them for yourself.”
Often when using a field guide, you want to look at similar species. “iBird Explorer” and “Audubon Guides - Birds” provides a quickly accessible list of similar species. Only “iBird Explorer” provides quick access to birds with similar voice. With a simple touch you can listen, for example, to Willow Flycatcher, then Alder, then Acadian, then back to Willow - exceptionally useful!
The ideal would be for “iBird Explorer” to contract with the publishers of, for example, Sibley, Kaufman, and Stokes guides to use their paintings and photographs. Perhaps someday. Electronic guides are still in development. They will not replace the traditional printed guides. They are useful aids, and they eliminate a lot of weight when you are in the field.