Bird Watching Apps and Field Guides

By Eileen Richardson

Bird watching today differs immensely from Audubon’s time. Over the centuries technological advances have changed the hobby of birdwatching several times over. Opera glasses and notepads replaced shotguns and burlap bags used by Audubon. By the middle of the 20th century, birders were equipped with the first field guides and better, lighter, more affordable binoculars.

 And today, birders are heading out with 50-megapixel image-stabilized super-telephoto zoom cameras and precision-honed, multi-coated, ultra-light-weight binoculars… and paper field guides, the technology of which hasn’t changed significantly since their inception nearly a century ago.

So take a look at some of the apps described below and bring your smartphone with one or more of these apps to help you along. Make sure you have a charger on hand and a way to charge your phone because these apps will drain your battery.

Field Guides

These apps compete with the classic paper field guides. Some, like iBird, are designed exclusively for the mobile app format, and others are digital versions of paper field guides you may already be familiar with (Sibley, Audubon, National Geographic, Peterson, etc.) But this technology has some features that go beyond the contents of the paper versions.

Application Price* Platforms Details
Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America $19.99 iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Windows, and Blackberry Covers 810 species and features all of the drawings, range maps, and explanatory text found in the Sibley Guide to Birds. Taking advantage of the digital format it includes more than 2,000 recordings of songs and calls, a compare species function, and a smartsearch tool that allows you to filter species by color, shape, and your current location.
Audubon Bird Guide Free iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, HP, and Nook Covers 810 species using photos instead of drawings, includes range maps that also cover Central and South America, has a good selection of audio recordings including alternate calls and regional variations, and slightly more descriptive text including habitat, range, and nesting information. Similar species and browse by family or shape tools are useful for identifying unknown birds, and includes a find birds with eBird function to find nearby reports of specific species.
iBird $2.99-39.99 (free Lite version) iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, and Windows Covers 940 species (in the Pro version) with both photos and drawings of each species. Great audio recordings, including variations and convenient links to similar-sounding species. Contains copious amounts of information on each species, including notes on identification, ecology, behavior, nests and eggs, as well as links to Wikipedia and Flickr and a very powerful filter/search tool. Five different versions from Lite to Ultimate available with different features and species.


Active Identification

Much like the field guides above the goal of these apps is to help you identify an unknown bird. They do it by analyzing your observations, photos, and audio recordings to help you arrive at identifying the bird.

Application Price Platforms Details
Merlin Bird ID Free iOS and Android Amazing app for beginning and intermediate birders that asks you five questions to help identify over 400 common North American birds: Where were you? When did you see it? About how big was it (relative to other birds)? What were the main colors? And what was it doing? Provides photos and descriptions of matching bird species based on this information and is surprisingly accurate.
Birdsnap Free iOS and online This app uses computer vision to identify the species of birds in the photos you upload. Simply take or upload an existing photo, zoom in to frame the bird, tap on the eye and tail, and then let Birdsnap go to work. Works really well with good, close-up photos, so great for digiscoping with your smartphone.
BirdSong ID: USA Automatic $4.99 iOS and Android This is the app that people always ask about when it comes to birding apps: it allows you to make a 30-second recording of a bird singing, then attempts to identify the species based on the audio recording. Not incredibly accurate and getting a good recording with smartphone microphones can be difficult, but a very promising idea.


Bird-finding Guides

As the name implies these apps help you locate specific species of birds in the field, based on either reports to citizen science programs like eBird, or through decades of local knowledge.

Application Price Platforms Details
BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide Subscriptions are $1.50-4.99 a month iOS and Android This is a great tool for finding new and interesting birds at home or in a new location based on real-time citizen science data. You can immediately start viewing reports of nearby birds, but the real power comes after you sign into your eBird account and can view nearby birds that are missing from your life or year lists for a specific location. Filters allow you to adjust for the timeframe and distance of reports shown, and the app includes an abbreviated species guide with links to Flickr and Wikipedia pages for more photos and information.
The Great Washington State Birding Trail (and other birding trails from Aves Amigos) Birding Loops are $1.99 each iOS Based on copious amounts of local knowledge instead of real-time data, this app features information on 375 birding hotspots within Washington state. The app features details on each location, such as: the best time of year to go birding at each site, where to park, what trails to take, and what birds you can expect to see. It also includes information on fees, handicap accessibility, parking, and nearby amenities. Great for planning a birding trip in advance, as well as finding birds and other nearby birding spots in the field.


Song Learning

These apps are designed specifically to help you learn bird songs and calls and can be helpful for even the most tone-deaf of birders.

Application Price Platforms Details
Chirp! Bird Song USA $3.99 iOS Features over 300 high-quality recordings of songs and calls of North American birds. There are several ways to experience them, including listen and slideshow modes and an interactive quiz. You can select specific species to practice identifying or select from more than a dozen different regions to focus on the most common species you are most likely to hear near you.
Larkwire Birdsong Master Birder $2.99 iOS Includes songs and calls from 343 North American species and presents them in a game-like quiz. Offers the ability to sort by Eastern and Western birds, as well as song types, including clear, rough, complex, and simple. A little bit more difficult and repetitive than Chirp!, but worth checking out for the different style of gameplay and few extra species.


In closing I hope this information will bring you ease, understanding, and even more fun to bird watching.