Birding by iPhone

Having recently got my hands on an iPhone 3GS I have been busy seeing what it can do to enhance my birding. On Shetland last year Andy Mackay, Rob Fray and Mark Reeder used an iPhone’s features to help them confirm the identity of a Lanceolated Warbler… was this the first BBRC rarity to be identified using iPhone?

I suppose I ought to say here that other ‘smart’ phones are available and I am in no way involved Apple, manufacturer of the iPhone, other than as a customer. It also appears most companies are designing apps for the iPhone only.

So what can we do with the iPhone as it comes out of the box? Well, we can phone or text bird news out for a start and this should be the primary function for birders in my opinion. iPhone does have a great notes feature so you can write up your bird sightings on the move and even do a description on the move and once you get your email service set up you can email it straight to the County Recorder – providing you’ve got his email in your address book. Another feature you can use out-of-the-box is the voice recorder – again brilliantly useful for doing a quick field description as you watch the bird or for logging sightings to write up later. Google maps were also preloaded onto my iPhone so I can do a rudimentary search for an area or I could – though I would never – use it as a SatNav!

Apart from an avowed technophobe or someone who’s been up the Amazon for a few years just about everyone will have heard of ‘apps’ or applications. This is the strength of the iPhone. Apps vary in usefulness and also in cost. There are many free apps out there that can help with birding. Two freebies recommended by Mark Reeder were Cooliris, this allows you to easily search and browse photos and was used in clinching that Lancey id. Another great app is GridPoint GB, this is a GPS app that allows you to get an accurate Ordnance Survey grid reference – this is very useful for getting other birders onto your BBRC rarity with accuracy and should go some way to doing away with some of the rubbish directions on the bird news services. Birders, it seems, are great at knowing about primary projection but useless at giving anything like accurate directions… I should know I’ve walked a birders 500m! Google Earth also has a brilliant free app that does exactly what it says on the tin.

When it comes to paying for apps it is probably worth reading a few reviews as there are a lot out there, most of which don’t seem very useful. Some are only a few pence so maybe they are worth a punt but when you look at spending a few quid then I would caution, buyer be warned.

What apps would I recommend? I’ve paid for two recently, one from Birdguides, The Birds of Northern Europe at £14.99. This feature 352 species and has bird names in  15 languages – a useful feature if you’re trying to find out the whereabouts of the Great Grey Owl in Finland or the Lesser White-front flock in Holland. It features the artwork and text from BWP Concise as well as distribution maps. There are also some excellent photos and probably most useful a range of songs and calls. By tilting your iPhone from portrait to landscape you get a larger image or text and a simple tap of the screen removes the species name and sex/age bar, another tap restores this. As usual with iPhone swiping the screen moves onto the next image within the species. Navigation back to the index page is simple and this can be viewed in taxonomic order (the one we’re familiar with) or A-Z. As for rarities, some are included, Lanceolated Warbler isn’t but River Warbler is. I guess this is due to River Warbler breeding within the area featured.

Birdguides do a version for Britian and Ireland and Garden Birds so you can choose whichever suits. I would like to see further apps to cover Southern Europe and /or rarities.

For a comparison I also bought the Sibley eGuide to The Birds of North America. When released as a book it was hailed with the same enthusiasm as the Collins Bird Guide. The drawback was it was a bit too bulky to be a field guide. I bought the subsequent Eastern and Western versions and the Western guide was used extensively in British Columbia in 2008, a friend recently road tested the Eastern guide in the US, prior to this it had been to Scilly a few times. I personally don’t like guided tours and prefer to miss a few species as I learn a whole new avifauna… an amusing side to this was in Osoyoos in B.C. when I finally met another birder, a Canadian. I asked about some of the Sparrows I was trying to sort out and got a vague response. As I shot off to photograph a dragonfly the birder confessed to my wife that I ‘probably knew more about American Sparrows than he did.’ To him they were just LBJs!

So what of the eGuide? Well it brings the two back together and feature all the artwork and text of the original as well as an extensive library of calls. Images can be enlarged by tapping as in the Birdguides and enlarged further  by switching to landscape. A swipe this time moves you on to the next species. A full user guide is included and this is worth a read. Overall, I rated this above the Birdguides app and it will hopefully come in very useful in my birding on Scilly and maybe Shetland this autumn. The real test should come when we go back to B.C. in 2011. I certainly wish I’d have had the eGuide in 2008 as I could have identified so many more birds on call.

I don’t think eGuides will take over the world and I would always do my homework using books but for learning calls and a quick field reference I think they are the future. My hope would be that Collins get the Bird Guide 2nd edition out as an iPhone app pretty soon. Is there a downside? Well all these apps and constant use really do drain you battery so make sure you take a charger…

I think my next purchase will be the Birdguides Butterflies of Britain and Ireland app.


One response to “Birding by iPhone

  1. Matt Merritt

    Couldn’t agree more. John. I use the notes and voice recorder a lot while I’m out birding, and the Birds of Britain and Ireland app is a big help at times, although like you say I tend to cross-ref everything with the Collins when I get home. Must get that Grid Point GB app though

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