Cloudy Days and Connected Nights

With tablet and iPhone in hand and head in the clouds

BirdsEye: something different in an iPhone birding app

with 6 comments

The iPhone is hot, hot, hot. Taking over the smartphone portion of inernet traffic, and providing such an explosion of apps as never seen before on any platform.

Birding is hot (notice the difference). Fastest growing outdoor recreational activity by some counts, and certainly an activity that attracts many millions of us, and puts us out in all weathers to enjoy nature. Some reckon it is closer to a religion than it is to a hobby. It has its own born-again-experience, and often produces changes in life-style similar to classical conversion. It has its revival meetings (you can be at a birding festival just about any weekend of the year, and have your pick of several most weekends during peak migration seasons). It has its evangelists, and it has it Bibles: Field Guides, beginning with Peterson’s epic work. In the past few years it seems that anyone who is anyone in birding is publishing his or her own field guide. Count the current guides in print. Amazing.

And, of course, the internet is hot, hot, hot, hot. Who can live without it? Nuff said.

Birding and the internet have been married for a long time and are now having smartphone children. (Okay, cut me some slack here.) You have, as the best example, iBird Explorer, arguably the most extensive birding reference ever published in any format, spawned by the WhatBird.com site, and fostered by the iPhone.

And now we have BirdsEye, the legitmate offspring of Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird site, also appearing in the iPhone household…er…App Store.

(And that is not to mention the iPhone birding apps with print parents: Nat Geo, Peterson’s, and Audubon all have iPhone versions of their guides…however, the print folks have yet to demonstrate a real understanding of the potential of the new platform. In each case the app looks a lot like someone tried to jam a book inside the machine…closer to a Kindle experience than a real iPhone adventure.)

I can see the thought process behind BirdsEye now.

“Like wow. We have all this data on bird locations in eBird. Whouldn’t it be really neat if there were an iPhone app that could call up that data instantly by location and tell you what birds are being see, or have been seen, right where you are, or near where you are…or anywhere you might be going? Wouldn’t it be good to include some basic id materials for folks who might be seeing the bird for the first time, or who might need a reminder…like we have all the Vireo photos, and we have this huge Macaulay Library of Sound collection of bird song recordings…what if we linked those in? And, what if we got someone really famous and cool (like you know, a birding rock star) to write brief descriptive text about each bird species? (Like maybe Kenn Kaufman?) What if?”

“And what if we found a clever iPhone developer to put it all together?”

Hay presto. BirdsEye!

[See Kenn Kaufman’s response below…he rightly points out that the intent of the text is not id…but rather further info to help you locate the bird: habitat and habits, etc. Very smart! For Kenn’s announcement/review of the app, which includes a more accurate rendering of the development history, see his own blog entry.]

And the amazing thing is: they pulled it off. BirdsEye does all that, and does it with a certain classy nonchalance that is at least iPhone-like enough satisfy most technophiles, and easy enough to use to satisfy most iPhoning birders.

Yup. You can use the auto-location on your phone to specify a location, or manually enter an an address, and then view, with the touch of a control, all the recent and/or historical bird sightings within 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles, 500 miles and beyond 500 miles. (Internet connection, either wifi or 3G, required!!) Once you set up a life list, the app will even show you just the birds being seen which are not already on your list. Each species appears in the checklist with a picture, the common name, and a date for the reference. Along the side of the list are a set of icons for the different families. Those with dainty fingers will be able to touch the family icon to jump right to that section of the sightings list. Even normal sized fingers might do the trick with practice.

Touching a species in the sightings checklist list brings up the id pages. You have at least one picture, descriptive text by Kenn Kaufman, and sounds from the Macaulay Library for over 400 of the most commonly sighted species (developer claims it is 95% of the species recorded by the top 500 submitters to eBird, and I have no reason to doubt him). The rest are available by in-app purchase from the App Store, either in one go (another $20), or in family groups (various prices).

Whether or not the app includes id info for the species, you can view a map with pins for each of the sighting locations (Hot Spots)! Way cool. Each pin opens the sightings for that location (not just the bird you are looking at, but all the birds seen there). You can see this same information as a list, which includes the distance from you. Finally, you can get directions to the spot from Google Maps. I kid you not: Directions.

And of course, the final icon on the species view is the sound icon, which calls up a little sound bar at the bottom with the recordings.

That’s one way of doing it. You can also jump right to the Hot Spots view, and explore the locations first, using the map and list tools outlined above, to see if there is anywhere you might like to go.

And, as a third possibility, you can search by a species by name, and the app will tell you all the places it has been or is being seen. Pretty amazing.

A word about the life list feature. This is the easiest life list to set up that I have ever seen. Edit Life List presents you with a master checklist of all species. You just touch the little check box to add one to your list, and you can add as many as you like in one go. You can also add birds to your list from the species view for that bird. Could not be easier really.

All well and good, but does it work?

Simple answer. Yes!

I have not done extensive testing, and I suppose there might still be areas where there is not much eBird data…but they must be few and far between these days. Southern Maine, where I live is not the most heavily birded area in the country, and yet there is plenty of data for my area, and I can not think of a spot where birds are regularly seen that is not already in the Hot Spot data base. A similar check of the Tucson Arizona area yielded predictable and satisfying results. By all indications, yes indeed, the app works as advertised.

And it is a lot of fun! There I said it. It is a lot of fun. Maybe, of course, it is just me, but I found it to be a lot of fun.

And I expect it to be eminently useful as well. I am planning a trip to Phoenix and Tucson this month and I will certainly check out what birds are being seen where using BirdsEye. What could be easier?

If the app has a weak point it is the id section. With all due respect to Kenn Kaufman (birding rock star extraordinary), the folks at Vireo, and the Macaulay Library, there is just not enough meat here to satisfy. I am not certain the id stuff is even needed in this app, and it certainly will not substitute for a real field guide…and certainly not for iBird on the iPhone.

On the other hand, as a companion app to iBird…now that is a combination to reckon with! Even to bird with!

And, of course, BirdsEye simply cries out for a way to record and upload your own sightings to eBird. Now that would be something! That would be so, so, cool. All that BirdsEye already does and the ability to record and submit trip lists…that would make BirdsEye an absolute, positive necessity for any serious iPhoning birder. Nuff said. BirdsEye guys, do it please!

BirdsEye is another wonderful example of what the iPhone is best at…easy, quick, anywhere access to masses of data from the internet… implemented in a way that makes the data useful, and even fun to use. Congratulations to all who were involved in this. Cornell Lab’s eBird team, Vireo, the Macaulay Library, and the developers at BirdsInHand. This is one great iPhone birding app…totally different…serving a totally different purpose…but right up there with iBird Explorer. It earns a permanent place on this birder’s iPhone, I know that!

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Written by singraham

December 6, 2009 at 12:30 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting. If the value is in the bird sightings, I would rather use the website (for free) through the browser. But alas, it looks like Flash gets in the way.

    Gavan

    December 6, 2009 at 4:14 pm

  2. I read an interview with the developer yesterday. He was very animate that this was not built for IDing and not an iBird (even used the name). I just tried to find the link and can’t, but if I do I’ll be sure and bring it back. The thing that struck me was that he said they wanted to do something different than iBird and that there was a need for both. I always like seeing people that support others and see the need to have a growing field. I haven’t bought the app because my naturalist interests are in where I am as an ecosystem not tracking things down, but I am always impressed when someone is noncompetitive enough to recommend another’s products. If I find myself needing the info I would take the extra step of buying it just because of how he handled the question relating to iBird. It is encouraging as a consumer that there are finally people moving into the app store that are building apps for us and not just their programming egos. I am really glad to see you support them here.

    Plantophile

    December 6, 2009 at 6:07 pm

  3. Steve,

    Thank you for the review. I’m one of the developer for BirdsEye and we built this application to help ourselves (and others) find and see more birds. We love hearing stories about how people use it so I hope that you’ll publish an update after you’ve had some time to play with it in the field and hopefully to see some new birds maybe in new places with it.

    Anyone reading this should feel free to contact us at support@getbirdseye.com
    (notifies everyone in the company and someone always replies in less than 24 hrs) or me personally at
    carl@birdsinthehand.com.

    we’re happy to answer any questions people have and we just love feedback and suggestions.

    Thank you,

    Carl Coryell-Martin
    developer BirdsEye

    Carl Coryell-Martin

    December 6, 2009 at 6:39 pm

  4. Stephen,
    Thanks for the good comments, we (like everyone else) respect your knowledge and value your opinion.

    One thing I have to say, however, as the person who wrote the text that comes up for each species: it was very pointedly and explicitly the intention of everyone involved that the text would NOT be about IDENTIFICATION of birds. The whole point of the app was to help people FIND birds, and I wrote the text with that in mind.

    So for example, under Palm Warbler, if I had been writing about I.D. I certainly would have mentioned the tail-wagging behavior and the yellow undertail coverts, because those are essential field marks. But anyone actively seeking life birds is going to have a field guide that tells them about those points. So instead, I talked about its habitat at different seasons, and where it lives within that habitat. Without such info, a person going to look for Palm Warblers in winter might look in the palms, no? But it won’t be there — it will be foraging out in the open, on lawns, fields, woodland edges, as I point out.

    Under California Thrasher, to name another random example, I didn’t say a word about its field marks — I talked about its habitat, its elusive behavior, and the fact that it’s easiest to see when it’s sitting up in the open, singing.

    The photos and sounds, likewise, weren’t included to supplant any kind of field guide — they’re in there more like a last-minute reminder of what the bird looks and sounds like, for the birder who is actively on the search.

    If you continue to work with the app, I’d appreciate it if you’d re-consider the text with that in mind, and see if it might serve better for bird-finding than for bird identification. I hope it does!

    Thanks and best wishes
    Kenn Kaufman

    Kenn Kaufman

    December 7, 2009 at 8:59 pm

  5. Excellent point Kenn, and one I had missed! Makes a lot of sense and clarifies the positioning and intention of the program even more. You (all) have a real challenge in communication the intent of the program to the potential user…most of whom will, I suspect, expect a field guide. I may rework my review to bring that out more fully, but thanks for comment to head me, and potential buyers, in the right direction.

    singraham

    December 8, 2009 at 2:14 am

  6. Stephen… Thanks for these comments about BirdsEye. I too have been part of the team that brought this to life. I thought you would be interested in two new developments that just took place in late February.

    First, we’ve released v1.2. It has two important new changes. First, we’ve added a feature that allows birders to track rare species and notable observations (seeing a species or subspecies that can be common but has shown up at an unexpected place/time). We use eBird criteria for what is rare and/or notable.

    Second, we’ve eliminated the need to purchase content about the rarer species. It all comes together in the same package.

    Our design/programming team put together a really great interface for allowing you to specify how far away you want to be notified of the rare and notable observations. For example… you might set the rare radius to be the entire continent and the ‘notable’ observation radius to be 50 miles.

    The other development of note is that we are this week’s New York Times ‘App of the Week.’ With over 100,000 apps to choose from, it’s quite an honor to be featured. Here’s a link to the NYT coverage:

    http://gadgetwise.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/app-of-the-week-spot-spring-on-the-wing/

    You’ll also see that we have improved the ability of GetBirdsEye.com to display BirdsEye’s features.

    Great birding!

    Pete Myers

    February 26, 2010 at 6:08 pm


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