Technology has been a real game-changer for birders.
Birders once entered the field with several books, a map, compass and a notepad. Now, all that has been replaced with one thing: a smartphone.
Hardcore birders are finding out in real time when and where the birds on their life lists are sighted, and new birders are having an easier time than ever getting into the fast-growing outdoors pastime.
A look at some of the latest and greatest birding technology for experienced and new birders alike:
This app, free and available for both the Android and iPhone, is a go-to for anyone who’d like to get into birding, according to Sharon Stiteler, an avid birder from Minneapolis. It’s also good for people who aren’t interested in birdwatching but who want to know what they’re seeing.
The app works like a 20-questions game, asking a series of questions to narrow down what bird the user is seeing. It starts with the user’s location and the date the bird was seen, followed by a simplified way to identify the bird’s size. Users select up to three of the main colors they noticed on the bird, and what the bird was doing, whether it was swimming, eating at a feeder or sitting in a tree. Then the user is offered a list of birds that fit the description they’ve entered, each with several high-quality pictures and information on the bird.
“It is surprisingly accurate,” Stiteler said. Gone are the days of flipping through guide books.
Birding field guide apps
Popular printed birding guides have taken to the technological revolution with vigor. Nearly every well-loved brand has an app, and some apps are making waves despite the fact that they never had a printed companion.
Judd Brink, a Brainerd, Minn., birdwatcher and birding guide, uses the iBird Pro app more than any other.
“Basically, it’s an online field guide,” Brink said.
The app has substantial information about hundreds of birds, including photos, audio of bird calls, and a list of similar birds. It helps with identification by allowing users to input the color, size, shape and location of the bird they see, and then listing the possible birds they could be watching.
The app is available for the Android and iPhone and costs $9.99 — a good deal, according to Brink.
“You can’t even get a bird book for $10,” he said. “And with this, you’ve got every bird in North America.”
The app also stores the user’s bird checklist and allows birders to record where they saw the bird, when, and even what the weather was like at the time of the sighting. While the app has illustrations for each bird it lists, it also allows users to upload their own bird photos.
The Sibley Birds of North America app is an alternative to iBird Pro. It’s available for the iPhone and Android and a bit more expensive than iBird at $19.99. Stiteler, who said she has every bird guide app available, prefers Sibley over any other, but said it comes down to personal preference. She prefers Sibley’s illustrations and likes the added feature of being able to compare birds side-by-side.
Sibley also offers the ability to create a bird list, though the app reports some issues with this feature. Nonetheless, users praise its quality and detail, and many report it’s well worth the money.
Several other birding guide companies also offer apps, including Audubon Birds of North America, which is free, and numerous other apps that specialize in regional birds around the world.
ebird and Birdseye
These two apps are separate but work together to allow birders to record their sightings and to find nearby sightings of birds.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology created eBird, an app that provides a mobile alternative to its ebird.org website, where birders record their sightings. All sightings are added to the eBird database, a global, online database of bird records used by hundreds of thousands of birders around the world. eBird also is popular in its web format, but the app allows birders to record sightings from the field in real time. It’s also a way for birders to store their lists, online or offline.
BirdsEye uses eBird reports and data to show users what’s been recently sighted in their area. Stiteler said the app is great because it gives accurate directions, much better than relying on birders trying to describe the location of their recent sightings. The app is free, but very localized, Stiteler said. Because she travels heavily, Stiteler subscribes (costs vary by region) to areas around the world so that when she lands somewhere new, she’s able to see what birds have been sighted nearby. She then uses the app to get directions to the birds’ locations, and has found it to be far more accurate than the directions offered by fellow birders.
Stiteler, who works for the National Park Service, said she’ll often get questions from birders about whether migratory birds are in the area.
“If people are asking about hummingbirds, I can look at the app and say ‘oh, they’re in Iowa, so they’ll probably be here next week,” Stiteler said. The real-time reports of sightings of migrating birds will move with the birds, allowing birders to track species’ progress in their migration.
Mobile phone digiscoping
Birding photography has been taken to a whole new level by digi-scoping phone adapters.
Digiscoping allows digital cameras to be attached to binoculars or spotting scopes, and new mobile phone cases are allowing birders to connect their phones to their scopes. This allows users to get remarkable cell-phone photos of faraway birds.
“It’s just another thing that’s made birding super easy and super accessible,” Stiteler said.
The cases range in price from $30 to $200. Stiteler has used the Swarovski $199 iPhone case that allows her to attach her phone to her spotting scope and said that it was “worth every penny.”
The only reason she no longer uses it is that it’s not made for her particular phone model.
Phone Skope makes adapters that start at around $30. Users input the type of phone they have as well as their model of binoculars or spotting scope at the Phone Skope website, and Phone Skope uses that information to make a custom-molded phone case that works with their equipment. Stiteler currently is using this brand, and said that while it serves its function well, the phone case isn’t good for all-around daily use; she removes it when she’s not taking photos with her scope.“You can get crazy-amazing pictures of birds, even in low-light settings,” Stiteler said.
A new world of birding
As it has in so many other areas, technology has taken over birding.
“I can carry 10 books or I can carry my phone … I still have a library of bird books that I’ll probably never use again because everything is right here,” Brink said, holding his phone. Phones on their own have allowed Brink to call or text friends the locations of birds from the field, and the apps expanded the birding world even further.
Brink said apps like iBird will help kids get interested in birding.
“So many kids have phones and iPads, and they’ve got a lot more potential this way to get hooked than to pick up a bird book and go outside,” he said.
Websites have long been a source of information for birders, but Stiteler said that those communities can be a little “cantankerous,” and apps remove the attitude but keep the information handy.
“It’s amazing how accessible all these apps have made birding,” Stiteler said.
While it’s changed the hobby, Stiteler said it’s for the best.
“At the end of the day, if more people are caring about birds, it can’t be a bad thing in my book.”