Thursday, December 03, 2009

A Bird-finding App for iPhone and iPod Touch

Note: A week after I wrote this review, I was asked to join BirdsEye's staff on a temporary basis. I had no idea I would be joining BirdsEye at the time I wrote this, and I still stand by what I wrote here. However, if you would like to read an evaluation by an independent reviewer, there are now several other reviews published in print and digital media.

Yesterday BirdsEye, a new birding application, was released into the iTunes App Store. To date, mobile applications for birding have focused on the problem of bird identification in the field. Mobile apps have some advantages over traditional field guides as they can incorporate media such as audio, video, or extra photographs beyond what would fit on a printed page, all in a package much smaller than most books. A few apps already do this well. BirdsEye tries to solve a different problem: helping birders find out what birds are being seen nearby.

I had the opportunity to test BirdsEye while it was in beta, via a loaned iPod Touch, thanks to my friend Todd Koym, who is one of the app's developers. It was interesting to watch the application develop over the past few months, from its basic outlines to a fully-fledged app ready for release. While the content remained the same, the user interface improved dramatically. The descriptions and screenshots in this post are from the final beta, which should be substantially the same as the released version.

BirdsEye includes 847 species of North American birds. (The base version includes 470 species; additional modules are available for the other 377.) Each species has its own page, with a short text by Kenn Kaufman, photos from the VIREO database, audio files from the Macaulay Library of Sound, and a location map based on recent sightings reported to eBird. You can see a typical species page at left. Kaufman's text describes the habitat and range of each species, along with some behavioral notes, but generally avoids discussing field marks. This is intentional since BirdsEye is meant to complement field guides rather than replacing them.

Despite the lack of a physical description, BirdsEye can still be a valuable identification tool. High-quality (and sometimes spectacular) photos provide suitable visual aids if you know what to look for. More importantly, the audio files provide an impressive range of songs and calls that are clear and recognizable on even the iPod Touch's limited speaker.

The really exciting aspect is that finally we have a better way to harness the eBird database to find birds we want to see. From BirdsEye's homepage (see screenshot at top), a user can select a birding location. This could be a hometown or a destination on a road trip. Once a location is selected, one can view a list of birds that have been reported to eBird near that location during the past three years, with an option to view only the most recent ones. (I have the list of most recent sightings selected in the image at right.) Touching a bird species brings up the species page, which links to a map showing sightings within the past 30 days (via the bird on a stick pin button). On the home page, there is also an option to view nearby hotspots and what birds have been reported at them.

Finding the locations of target birds while on the road should work somewhat better with iPhone than the iPod Touch, as the iPhone does not need a wifi connection to download sightings from eBird. BirdsEye's species accounts, images, and audio will all work on the iPod Touch even without a wifi connection. However, the lists will not be fully up to date, and mapping will not work since hotspots are plotted using Google Maps.

Species maps show sightings at eBird hotspots. The map at left shows the recent Ivory Gull sightings in Cape May Harbor. Selecting a stick pin brings up the name of the site and how long ago the bird was seen there; touching the right arrow brings up more information about the hotspot.

For most uses this works very well, as eBird hotspots usually offer the best overall birding opportunities and provide the best sense of what birds are typical for an area. It also avoids the problem of exposing a truly private location, such as a residence or a restricted area. However, rare birds have a knack for showing up in places not on eBird's hotspot list. Those sightings will not appear on either the recent birds list or the species maps unless a hotspot editor approves a location for them before the bird departs. Finding rare birds with BirdsEye also depends on birders entering sightings at the most accurate locations, which is usually but not always the case. When rarities do show up at hotspots (and are mapped appropriately), a user can find out quickly where it is being seen and how to get there.

Despite those limitations, BirdsEye is an important step forward in connecting birders to the birds they want to see. Most birders will find this app very useful when planning birding outings. For beginning birders, it offers a guide to what birds are most probable in their areas. For more advanced birders, it can help with tracking down target species. Both can benefit from having a wealth of birding media condensed into such a small package.