Birding can be a great way to take a break from technology, but smartphones are also a real asset in the field: You can check the winds on your way out the door, get turn-by-turn directions to your favorite birding locale, snap a photo of an unknown species, pull up a field guide to identify it, and then alert your friends about your sightings—all with the same five-ounce device. While we’ve covered ID-focused apps before, the iPhone and Android stores have so much more to offer to new and experienced birders. Whether you're looking to hone your birding skills or just expand your knowledge of the natural world, here are six more options to download before your next hike.
Bird Codes (iPhone, $0.99)
Some more experienced birders use standardized four-letter codes in place of common names; it saves time when jotting down IDs and digging through eBird or digital field guides. So how do you learn the lingo? There are some general rules for deriving these codes, but as with most things, there are also exceptions. The Bird Codes app is a handy reference to keep you from confusing Red-necked Phalaropes (RNPH) from Ring-necked Pheasants (RNEP). The no-frills interface offers a two-way search that goes by the species name or code.
Song Sleuth (iPhone and coming soon to Android, $9.99)
As a birder, you’re probably familiar with the frustrations of hearing a bird that you can’t see or identify. Enter Song Sleuth, which lets you record those mystery sounds on your phone and compare them to a library of clips to get three of the closest matches. Capturing a clear recording in the field is a challenge; but in my experience, the app was able to recognize a handful of loud, clear singers like Black-capped Chickadees and Northern Cardinals. It did, however, struggle with more complex voices such as House Wrens. Despite those limitations, Song Sleuth is the only birdsong-ID app on the North American market, and is worth the buy solely for its ability to visualize birdsongs through spectrograms.
Ever been out birding and had a cool mammal or mushroom catch your eye? You should consider reporting it on iNaturalist. Simply upload a photo of any organism—regardless of your ability to identify it— to the app and follow the discussion as amateurs and experts from around the world work to identify it. Be sure to check out posts from others in your area (and beyond) for a chance to test and share your birding skills. Also, look out for special science projects such as Life Responds, which served to collect wildlife responses during the recent solar eclipse.
Plant ID is a great skill to pick up, especially if you’re trying to learn more about avian behavior. Knowing the flora may help you predict which birds you may see in certain habitats. Plus, it’s more helpful when you can point something out “at the top of that sycamore” than simply “at the top of that tree.” Much like Birdsnap or Merlin, which use computer vision to identify photos of birds, Leafsnap compares any image of a leaf (ideally taken against a plain white background) to thousands of examples in its database to produce a match. At the moment, it only covers East Coast species.
Birding in the dark is a real treat—unless the owls and nighthawks you’re looking for are silent and elusive. In those cases, you may find yourself staring up at the sky, puzzling over a celestial object instead of an avian. It’s the perfect time to pull out Sky Guide, a fun app that lets you point your phone or tablet in any direction to view a map of the stars, constellations, and planets overhead. You can use it inside, during the day, in light-polluted areas, or on a cloudy evening. But it really shines bright on a clear night when the galaxy is fully exposed to human eyes. Android users should also check out Google's Sky Map app. It offers many of the same features with a slick, intuitive design. And most importantly, it's free.
This weather app—among the best in its class—offers a glimpse at what fall and spring migration look like in real time. To get a snapshot of which birds might be mobbing your neighborhood in the morning, scan the radar the evening before or prior to sunrise. If the conditions are right, you’ll notice huge “clouds” take off and swell across the maps. The same clouds will dissipate as birds settle into their stopover habitat to feed and rest during the day. Tracking the flights as they migrate your way is a great incentive to wake up early to go birding! (Also, they just look really pretty.)
Freebie Alert! Don't have a field guide app? Download our handy Audubon Bird Guide App to start learning 821 North American species.