Author Archive

Citizen Science Test Drive: Apps for birding.

By April 4th, 2012 at 1:15 am | Comment 1

The first blog post in our new series titled “Citizen Science Test Drive,” (where we present first-person reviews of citizen science apps, tools and platforms) featured reviews of three nature apps by SciStarter contributor Lisa Gardner.  Today, we bring you Kate Atkins, a regular SciStarter contributor and avid birder. Here, Kate shares her list of personal, favorite apps for birding.  If you would like to contribute to this series and share your experiences with our community, email

The best citizen science apps for birding used to be iOS-only. I’ve known many an Android birder to switch to iPhone or buy an iPod Touch because the apps on that side of the divide were so darn good. But with Android smartphones now commanding more than half of the market, the gap is starting to close.  Here’s the best of both worlds.

Finding Birds

iOS, $19.99
DemoApple Store
Figuring out where the birds are and when can be a challenge, particularly for new birdwatchers. Not so with BirdsEye from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

BirdsEye is precisely a bird-finding app, based on the citizen-driven eBird database. Want to see a specific bird? BirdsEye will show you the most recent, closest sighting and give you directions. Want to see what birds have been observed at a specific hotspot over the last 30 days? What rare or notable birds have been seen near you recently? Done and done.

Bird information is something of an aside, but it’s top-shelf sidematter: images from VIREO, sounds from the Macauley Library, and extra tips per bird from Kenn Kaufman.

While helping people find and view birds, this app also teaches newer birders which birds can be found where and when. Yes, this one is still iOS only, but an Android version is likely to materialize soon.

144409572Audubon Birds – A Field Guide to North American Birds
iOS $19.99
Android $9.99
DemoApple StoreAndroid/Google

The Audubon Birds app recently added bird-finding functionality via eBird to their existing field guide app.  Study birds at home, on the subway, or in the park, then go find and observe birds in the real world with a little help from your friends at Cornell and Audubon.

Recording Sightings

A good birder keeps field notes. A citizen scientist shares the data. Cornell’s eBird is the key crowd-sourced database, so the ability to either directly submit to eBird or to export lists in eBird format is a must-have feature for any logging app.

If you are not familiar with the project and wish to report your bird sightings using one of these apps, I strongly urge you to first create an eBird account and use it in a browser before taking the plunge with mobile data-logging.

iOS, $9.99
Android, $19.99
Demo | Apple Store | Android/Google

Very simply, this app records and uploads sightings to eBird, from your fingers straight to Ithaca. I’d like to see it more deeply connected to my eBird account, but for base functionality and total simplicity, BirdLog is indispensable.

BWDRoundedIconBirdwatcher’s Diary
iOS $12.99
DemoApple Store

A nice option if you want the bells and whistles BirdLog lacks. This app is pre-loaded with US, Mexico and UK bird lists. Add your locations via GPS, and list for them again and again. Exports to both eBird and Google Map formats so you can easily share your adventures.

The developers have carefully crafted interactions for use in the field. Big day and group count usage is well thought-out, and as your list archive grows, the more fun it will be to study your own patterns. This app makes a compelling case to trade in your notebook for your phone.

Extensive feature run-down complete with screenshots here.

Study & Skill-building

Before, during, and after birding, reference materials and study guides are key elements to the birding life. Most marquis field guides have wonderful app versions with extra illustrations, photos, audio files and links to web resources.

Each is a little different, so it’s worth some thought before purchasing one over another. I’m partial to the Sibley guide for its illustrations, audio files, and side-by-side bird comparison, but beginners may prefer iBird for its guided search.

Field guides

Birding by ear

Honorable mention

  • Nemesis Code’s Bird Codes and Band Codes apps. If you want to be a real ace in the field, these apps will teach you the 4-letter banding codes for birds. Learning these will cut your data entry time, and help you interpret bands if you see them on birds in the wild.

I use some non-birding specific apps to enhance my days in the field. If you’re as phone-fiddly as I am, and like tramping around outside, find out what my home screens hold at Birding Philly.

Spring swan sightings

By March 8th, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Comment

Spring is in the air, and birds are finally on the move. A recent push of southerly winds through the middle of the United States have put early migrants – particularly geese and swans – on the fast track to their breeding grounds up north.

Trumpeter Swans

Trumpeter Swans - image courtesy of Adrian Binns

This weather pattern is set to continue through this week, so keep an eye out for special species, particularly the Trumpeter Swan. This beautiful species was once on the brink of extinction, but with the help of folks like the Trumpeter Swan Society, it is recovering and expanding its territory. Key to the continued success of the species is an accurate picture of where it winters, migrates, and breeds. The Trumpeter Swan Society tracks reports of the birds in eBird, but also accepts email reports.

A few sightings have popped up in Pennsylvania this month, which is pretty special, so get out there and get looking. If you have a pond, reservoir or lake nearby, grab your binoculars – and don’t forget to eBird what you see.


Trumpeter Swan sightings, March 2012, eBird

Don’t miss The Great Backyard Bird Count!

By February 13th, 2012 at 10:45 am | Comment


Your friendly neighborhood Downy Woodpecker, courtesy of Jerry Acton, NY

On the morning of Friday, February 17, I will wake up before work, pour myself a cup of coffee, and stare out my window for 15 minutes. As long as I submit my observations to the Great Backyard Bird Count, my 15 minutes of zone-out time before I jump in the shower will qualify as productive science.

The Great Backyard Bird Count runs from Friday the 17th through Monday the 20th, and it’s as easy as using a few pajama moments to participate.

Wherever you are, simply stop in your tracks and take a look around for birds. You can in your backyard, outside of the your local cafe, at the playground, or around your driveway — anywhere! Anyone can participate, and the coolest part is that even a report of a single robin matters more than usual, because people across the world will be observing and reporting all at once. In 2011 alone, this huge concerted effort yielded 1,044,346 robins alone!

The data are collected by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, The National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada, and are used to gauge how birds have fared over the winter. With the help of citizen scientists everywhere, researchers get a widespread snapshot of bird abundance and distribution right before migration heats up.

Read the rest of this entry »

Have you seen this swan?

By January 26th, 2012 at 8:11 am | Comment

Trumpeter Swans

Photo courtesy of Adrian Binns

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest bird in North America, but in the early 20th Century, they were extremely hard to see.

Over-hunted for their feathers and skins, these beautiful birds once teetered on extinction. In the early 1900s, fewer than 100 remained in the wild. Despite decades of subsequent protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the population grew only to 700 individuals by the 1960s.

The Trumpeter Swan Society formed in 1968 to better coordinate Trumpeter conservation through advocacy, research coordination, and habitat restoration. Since then, the number of Trumpeters in North America has increased to an impressive more than 34,000 individuals. The swans are now independently finding wintering grounds across the Lower 48, and the Society needs citizen scientists to report these pioneering birds.

To be a part of the effort to protect this successfully restored species, visit the Trumpeter Swan Watch and report your sightings. Visit the Trumpeter Swan Society for a printable identification guide. Read the rest of this entry »

Book Review: The Intersection by Tom Cole

By November 21st, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Comment

eBird is a citizen science project by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Step back to 1995. You have a paper address book – family, friends, business – but it’s too big. You’ve been so many places and met so many people that you can’t distinguish John Smith the college buddy from John Smith at the office. It’s time to get organized with a computer program.

You buy one off the shelf, meticulously enter the data, but over time find it wanting. What to do? Write your own program of course, then a few years later, do it again.

This is what Tom Cole, ESL teacher and game programmer, did with his birdwatching data. After decades of keeping a bird rolodex on paper, he went digital in the 1990s, and never looked back. His self-published edition, The Intersection: Seventeen Years of Bird Processing on One Street Corner of the World, tells this story.

The corner is in Gilbert, AZ, in the not-so-natural-looking Phoenix metro area. As a city birder, I feel great affinity for a person who birds a tough urban spot and finds treasure year after year. The resulting data collection is astounding. Much like baseball enthusiasts, not all birders keep a strict set of scorecards, but Tom Cole did, and still does. The value of that data, and its extreme organization, cannot be overstated. Professional ornithologists would seek grants and graduate students to forge such a dataset, but this man did it simply because he wanted to.

Newer birders are extremely fortunate. We have any number of software packages and apps and DVDs and CDs to add to our field guide collections, to use with or in lieu of our notebooks. That is, if we take notes at all.

Read the rest of this entry »