Audubon Birds: competition for iBird?
I have covered the development of the iBird apps pretty extensively, and if you have read the reviews you know that they are, in my opinion, among the best examples of what the iPhone does best…not to mention perhaps the most comprehensive birding guide ever published in any form. iBird provides quick easy access to a what amounts to a whole library of birding resouces, right in the palm of your hand, as well as a complete set of audio recordings, and more images, including both detailed paintings and photographs, than you could look at in several years. I am not alone in my opinion of the apps. Apple has featured iBird in two different ad campaigns already.
There is a new version of iBird just out, with additional features and content: 1.8.3. I will be reviewing that in a companion piece.
This is a review of the competition.
While iBird is essentially the creation of one man with a vision, who pretty much single handedly assembled the materials from sources around the world, the Audubon Nature Guides series has the backing of the largest conservation organization in the US…and its developers had access to the materials already gathered for the printed Audubon Guide series. That is enough to raise a certain high level of expectation.
And Audubon Birds does not stand alone. There are already Audubon Guides to Wildflowers, Mammels, and Trees in the App Store, with guides to Insects and Spiders, Butterflies, Fish, Reptiles, and Seashore Creatures in development. Multi-subject and Regional/Habitat guides are also planned. Essentially the developers intend to reproduce the printed Audubon series in app form.
Audubon Birds is a good introduction to the series.
There are three ways to access the information on a given species (see screen shots above). You can start with the Quick Guide which groups the birds into sets based on a typical bird or a salient characteristic. You have chicken-like birds, duck-like birds, hawk-like birds, long-legged waders, tree-clinging birds, etc. You can also browse by family: Barn Owls, Typical Owls, Blackbirds and Orioles, New World Sparrows, etc.
Then, you can browse the whole indexed list of common names, either by first or last name.
Quick sets and Families, and the species themselves, are arranged in alphabetical order…something which purists among birders will undoubtedly object to on the grounds that it hides the relationships between birds and families which taxonomic order displays. Alphabetical does, however, make it easier for the beginner to find birds. There is no direct way to find a bird by its scientific name, and, more disappointingly, there is no text entry search to allow you to go directly to a species by common name.
Finally there is a search engine, with (compared to iBird) a very limited set of search criteria. Here you do have text (word) search, as well as zip code search, a selector for shape, and check lists for color, region, and size. You can make multiple selections on the check lists, though over selecting will result in no matches pretty quickly.
Once you get to a particular species, you have, for each: one or more photographs (mostly more), a range map, a brief description (brief in relative terms…the text seems to have come directly from the printed guides, though it has been updated where necessary), a list of similar species, and, most important of all for this app, an extensive set of recordings. Most species have both songs and calls, and often several of each, clearly labeled as to where they were recorded.
The audio is far and away the strongest feature of Audubon Birds. I know of no other easily accessible source of such a wealth of recorded songs and calls.
There is also a Life List button on the species view, and a Sighting button. The Sighting button works as you might expect, opening a little dialog view where you can either specify the location and date, or let the iPhone do it, enter a brief note, etc. Unfortunately the Life List button is not as intuitive. It does not pick up the species name from the view you have open, and it does not automatically pick up the species name when you record a sighting. You have to manually type in the name, and there is not even a type-ahead-look-up function. Since we are dealing with an iPhone here, a computer by any other name, one has to ask “why not?”
I should also mention that on the browse views and accessible on Species views by touching the Dashboard button, there is a Camera icon, which, as you would expect, allows you to take a picture using the iPhone’s built in camera. There is, unfortunately no provision to include a picture from the library that you have already taken. There is also a file folder icon called My Content, which gives you access to your saved photos, life list, and sightings.
Life list, photos, and sightings can be synced with the http://www.audubonguides.com website, once you establish a free account there. Beware. Choosing sync all species, even when on wifi, can tie up your iPhone for a long time.
And that, as they say, is it for features.
The user experience is, in my opinion, fair. It takes a long time to find a particular species, and the search functions are, as mentioned, limited. Photos are excellent, but somewhat limited. You can only enlarge most them about 3 times and there are no indicators of important details. They are just photos. The life list function is pretty useless as implemented, and there are not enough fields to make the sightings feature really useful either. The text, while good, is not extensive.
In my opinion, iBird gives you a considerably better chance of actually IDing a bird you are not familiar with in a reasonable time in the field, as well as providing a depth of resource for further study that is simply not there in Audubon Birds.
On the other hand, the sound library is fantastic! I don’t know how to say it more forcefully. Fantastic! Astounding. Wonderful. Just about everything any bird song- and call-ophile could ask for.
I expect, I hope, to see improvements in the Audubon Guide series as they mature: especially since, while Birds might have heavy competition from iBird, Wildflowers, Mammals, Trees, and the planned future guides have none! We need the Audubon series to get good…and to get good fast!
So, if you are considering a bird guide for the iPhone, my honest recommendation is still iBird Plus or Pro. Audubon Birds may mature over the next releases. I would love to see it give iBird a real run for the money. The winners in the end, will be all the iPhone toting birders of the world (or at least North America).
Oh, and if you are really into bird songs and calls, you might consider Audubon Birds worth the purchase price for the audio alone! Just consider all the other features as a bonus.