Bird-watching experts reveal their favorite apps





Ann Wessel, awessel@stcloudtimes.com11:12 p.m. CDT March 28, 2014

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More birders are leaving the books at home and turning to apps as a lightweight, compact alternative. Even experienced bird-watchers find them useful while vacationing among unfamiliar species.

Spindly legged shorebirds. Those puffy little sparrows seeking shelter in the shrubbery. The flash-of-color warblers following the Mississippi River Valley on their northern migration.

The apps available to help ID a species can seem as varied as the array of warblers that passes through St. Cloud every May. The Bird Chick — aka Sharon Stiteler, a National Park Service ranger and expedition leader, festival speaker and app reviewer — helped pick through some of her favorites.

She’s got 25 between her iPhone and iPad.

“Not everybody’s going to need the ‘Birds of Brazil’ app,” Stiteler, 39, said from her Minneapolis home. “Anyone of any age is using apps, and that’s really crazy because bird-watching tends to be a Luddite field.”

What bird-watchers might agree upon — whether they’re trying to ID what’s on the beach in Florida, learn more about the sparrows out their kitchen window, or pursue a seldom-seen species to add to a county list — is that in the field, a smartphone is a lot less cumbersome than a book.

“Everything in a giant, hundreds-of-pages book, a book that’s about as heavy as the Bible — to have it on your phone is a pretty good resource,” said Bob Dunlap, 28, a Twin Cities ecologist whose Stearns County species list includes about 150 birds.

While nothing can replace field experience, the following might provide a starting point. Most apps offer pared-down free trial versions. Apps with almost 1,000 species can cost $30 and consume more space. Stiteler suggests thinking twice about those touting location services or camera timers — things your smartphone probably does already. The most useful but overlooked element: birds’ body shape.

“Even if you have the best equipment and the best field guide, everybody is going to misidentify birds,” Stiteler said.

App advice


Ease of navigation and relatively low cost make iBird Stiteler’s top choice here.

“I have a lot of nonbirding friends,” Stiteler said. “It’s a nice, approachable way to get them into it.”

Getting started simply requires knowing how your phone works.

The app is one of a few with both photos and illustrations.

Linda Tingblad, full-time production artist and Wild Bird Store co-owner, uses iBird because it was the first one she purchased and she’s most familiar with it. She especially likes the feature that displays similar species.

“Maybe the bird went by you really quick, and you only got so much information to plug in,” Tingblad said.


Bird-watchers can transition from book to app in most cases — Sibley, National Geographic and Peterson are among the familiar names Stiteler suggests, along with iBird.

“I just tell them whichever is your favorite illustrator, that’s the one you should go with,” Stiteler said. “If you’re someone who prefers photographs, then you would want the Audubon app.”

The advantage here lies in quality of illustration.


Sibley and National Geographic apps contain the most birds (close to 1,000) and the most comprehensive illustrations. Stiteler said they’re particularly good for trying to ID rare birds.

“If you’re not sure if you’re seeing a Clark’s grebe or a Western grebe, you have the option to look at them at the same time,” Stiteler said of Sibley’s side-by-side comparison feature.

Up next: Princeton University Press this spring plans to release a Shazam-type app that recognizes bird calls. But nothing is foolproof.

“Birds have accents. A Western house finch isn’t going to sound the same as a house finch in Minnesota,” Stiteler said.


Traveling puts bird-watching in a different light.

Vacationers with limited time might track migrations or even exact locations, through an app such as eBird’s BirdLog North America or BirdsEye, both affiliated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“To me, that’s not bird-watching, that’s more of a collecting thing,” said Bob Russell, a Bloomington-based wetland bird biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

He prefers to find his own birds when he’s birding recreationally. But he sees the appeal for someone with limited time. Users also can share their own sightings. Many apps include a feature for keeping personal lists.

Young birders:

Collecting is one element Stiteler said might be attracting younger birders, who might see it as similar to collecting Matchbox cars or My Little Pony or Smurfs. When she was growing up, Stiteler saw only older adults birding. Internet groups allow kids to make connections.

Merlin Bird ID, another Cornell app, makes identification more of a game.

“The Internet has made it 10 times easier for young people to get into bird-watching,” said Stiteler, who counts BirdsEye among the birding apps she must have on her phone.

“The BirdsEye app tells you what people are seeing where. You can relate it to whatever city you’re in, and it’ll let you know what the hotspots are,” Stiteler said.

No matter the field guide — in book form or app — the aim remains the same.

“Enjoy birds however you want. Don’t worry whether or not you’re using the perfect field guide or if you should be listing or documenting. As long as you’re not wiping out a species, enjoy them,” said Stiteler, who spends about 20 hours a week bird-watching, a pursuit that has taken her throughout the U.S. and to 15 countries.

“It’s OK to get up at 9 a.m. and do some birding and then have a fabulous brunch.”

Follow Ann Wessel on Twitter @AnnWessel.

App essentials

The one app Sharon Stiteler, aka the Bird Chick, can’t live without? She listed four: Sibley for a comprehensive guide; BirdsEye and eBird’s BirdLog North America for tracking and logging; Larkwire bird call identification.


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