Well I guess it was bound to happen eventually. With vaccinations and prudent behavior I had avoided Covid for 3 years and 4 months, but that ended last weekend. Now malaise and isolation – trying to keep from further exposing the photographer – have kept us off the trail. In addition, just before my illness, a pop-up thunderstorm had us scurrying out of a forest, so we had no Footpaths subject matter in the pipeline.
Then a friend, who I suspect understood that I did not sit well, suggested that it might be a good time to familiarize myself with the Merlin Bird ID app from the Cornell Ornithology Lab. The Lab is an organization who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on birds and birding. And what a great recommendation it was – I learned a lot, had fun, and found a topic for this week’s blog article.
The title image above is the logo for the Cornell Ornithology Lab and also for the app itself. It is a colorful and animated illustration of a sapsucker, which immediately struck me as reminiscent of the work of the late renowned Cincinnati wildlife artist Charley Harper. When I researched it, I found out that the logo’s designer, Michael Bierut, said at its launch, that it was inspired by the work of Mr. Harper. Harper had a long association with the Cornell Lab and several of his original works adorn the halls there.
The photographer and I live on a two-thirds acre lot, in an older Northern Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati, that backs up to approximately 300 acres of cemetery and wooded hillsides. With a garden that has been landscaped for wildlife, with water, cover, and food sources, we get plenty of avian visitors. It was a good setting to try out the app.
The Cornell Lab started to develop the app in 2009. They are stockpilers of large amounts of bird data with regards to populations by geographic region, numerous photographs, and have over 500,000 recordings of different bird calls. Using artificial intelligence, the app software can mine this data to identify a bird by its call, by a photo, or by a algorithm based on physical characteristics.
The app is free to download and easy to activate. They recommend a “bird pack” based on your location, which cuts down on the number of species that you have to consider. By using the location and time of year, the software can hone in on probable bird sightings. For me the recommendation was the U.S. Southeast pack. This is the image on your phone when you open the app.
It was fascinating to take a seat in our garden, to click on the “Sound ID” button, which identifies birds by their calls, and watch my phone screen light up with the names of birds as the phone’s mic picked up on their songs. While the general opinion is that the answers are pretty accurate, confirmation with visual ID is beneficial, but since they show you a photo of the species with their answer, the process is fairly smooth. This was my screen one minute and 17 seconds into the recording. The grey area at the top is the actual sound recording. The name is highlighted in yellow for the most recent vocalizations.
When you stop the recording your screen will look like this.
Clicking on a green down arrow to the right allows you to listen to other recordings of the bird’s song.
And if you scroll to the bottom of that screen you can click on an “info” tab and get more information on the species, much like you would find in a thorough field guide. This includes a range map.
Another way you can identify a species with the app is with a photo. That photo can be with your phone or with a independent camera. Online reviews suggest that it does a fairly good job with less than ideal photos from a phone camera, considering there is limited telephoto capability. I caught this guy on the algae laden millstone of our water feature with my I-phone.
And Merlin answered with this screen. Indeed, the first bird listed, a House Finch, was correct. If you click on the green arrow on this feature you again will get to the information page on the species.
The app suggests that you zoom in on the image to improve identification.
When I got the photographer involved with her telephoto lens the image quality improved.
But I would say that overall the app seemed to function as well with either photo source. The photo from the non-phone camera can be pulled over to the phone by Bluetooth to be analyzed by the app. It is one extra step but can be done quickly. Doing so gave us this Merlin response.
The final option for species identification is based on physical characteristics. On the app this is called “Step by Step” and involves a check list of findings about the bird (size, color, setting). This is then paired with your location and time of year, and a list of possible birds, with photos, is generated. The operator can then compare the photos to the bird that was sighted. When I entered: Robin size, blue for color, and sitting on a tree or bush, the app produced a list of 13 birds with photos. These are screen shots of the process.
It would be very easy then to match up the app’s photo with what I was seeing in the garden. This screen shot is incomplete as I could not capture all thirteen possible candidates.
In my brief trial with the app I have only had one situation where I thought things could be confusing, especially if someone was a birding novice. I had a photo of this bird.
And when I put it into the Photo ID process I got this answer.
The answer is correct in that it is a House Finch. But this bird was a female, and the photo with the answer is a male, which could get confusing for someone who is not aware of the difference in coloration of the sexes. In fact, one might be inclined to say this bird looked more like the second bird listed, the Pine Siskin.
My testing of the app this week led to one fun anecdote. One afternoon I was sitting in the garden when I heard a flurry of bird calls. I glanced at the screen and saw that a Red-eyed Vireo was on the list so I got up and started to look around. On a Norway Spruce in the cemetery behind our property I saw this – a hawk with a Mockingbird just above it. So all the frantic bird sounds were the warning calls of small birds reacting to the hawk’s presence. I texted the photographer to join me and she captured a great series of photos.
The Mockingbird was harassing the hawk as they do sometimes. This behavior is called “mobbing” as there are usually multiple smaller birds involved, and often they will not even be the same species.
And it worked, as the hawk took off.
And then we could tell that it was indeed a Red-tailed Hawk, which is what the app said it was.
As I thought about the practicality of all this, I realized that Merlin is ideal for the traveling birder as you will not have to purchase field guides for each location that you visit. You would just want to select an appropriate Bird Pack for your destination; Costa Rica for example. They have packs for most areas of the world, although the lists may not be as complete for more remote locations, as they have not have had as many data submissions from those sites. If you are concerned that you will not have internet when birding then you would want to preemptively add that location to your “Bird List” under the Explore tab before you hit the trail. Complete instructions on how to do this is on Cornell’s ebird website.
Since I was starting to feel better I did go to a couple of greenspaces in our community and it was exciting to see the diversity of species names I was getting while using the Sound ID feature. I am really looking forward to using Merlin when we resume hiking. There are several birding hot spots nearby that should help me improve my use of this outstanding tool. I do think that I will use all 3 modalities, as often you see birds who are not singing and you will want a quick ID before they take flight. On a more targeted goal, Merlin should help me improve my hawk identification. I would love to be able to identify them by their calls while they are on the wing. Lastly, I can’t wait to get back to one of my favorite habitats, the Longleaf Pine forests of the Florida Panhandle, to see who is there that I have been missing on our previous hikes. And perhaps best of all, it means two less field guides in my backpack as we find our way in the great outdoors.
See the links below for more information on the Cornell Ornithology Lab and for a You Tube video that I found helpful as an introduction to the functionality of the Merlin Bird ID app.
A shout out to my friend Robert Horine for the recommendation on Merlin.
Photos by Peggy Juengling Burns.