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BirdsEye: something different in an iPhone birding app

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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