So Long, Audubon! Time for a New Generation of Birding Apps.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 3 2013 12:12 PM

The High-Tech Future of Staring at Birds in the Woods

The arms race—wings race?—in bird-watching field guides.

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All along, illustrated field guides were dogged by a persistent challenger: photographs. After all, why are these people wasting their lives painstakingly painting every single bird in America when they can just snap a shutter? What’s better than the real thing? A good theory, but anyone who’s ever tried to photograph a bird knows how hard it can be. Even when everything is lined up just right—the bird is facing the right direction, the light is bright enough, there are no leaves blocking the important bits—the bird will flap away as soon as you get the camera raised. For years, getting a quality photo of every species in every plumage was just too difficult, and guides that tried were marred by blurry, underlit, or missing shots.

Digital photography has changed everything. Good photographs are now easier and cheaper to take and can be manipulated to improve color and remove distractions. The result is a marked improvement in photographic field-guide offerings; the best include the pocket-sized Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and the comprehensive Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Mission accomplished: The photos in these books represent precisely how the birds will look when you encounter them in the field. That said, the innovation in these guides is limited; they’re basically the Peterson style with photos swapped for illustrations. A true shakeup of the genre arrived with Richard Crossley.

I don’t know Crossley, but one look at his Crossley ID Guide: Eastern Birds leads me to believe that he’s insane. In a mad genius kind of way, though, like Dr. Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Eastern Birds is immense; at 3.8 pounds, it’s the weightiest modern field guide, heavier than, say, a sack of 20 American robins. Like the monster, too, it’s an assemblage of scattered parts, namely nearly 10,000 of Crossley’s own photographs. Each species is presented as a collage of photos, taken from different angles and distances, arranged on a background of the bird’s preferred habitat.  

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The immediate effect is bewildering, and when it came out in 2011, birders had to fight an urge to grab their pitchforks. It was huge. It was confusing. With time, though, the usefulness becomes apparent. While Peterson-style guides present the birds as if they were posing for the perfect photo, as if taken in some kind of avian Glamour Shots studio, Crossley’s guide revels in less satisfying, but more realistic, views. Birds are shown scattered among the leaf litter or as specks soaring in the distance. It’s more useful than most guides for use in the field, as birders are often left saying, “I only caught a glimpse as it flew away ... which thrush has a red tail?”

As innovative as the Crossley guides are, though, they’re still books. I hate to kick the print industry when it’s down, but it’s inevitable that carrying a paper field guide when birding will soon feel as antiquated as bringing a shotgun to collect specimens. A new range of field guide apps offer a distinct upgrade from paper guides. Obviously, keeping an entire field guide in my back pocket is more convenient than lugging around a three-pound book. Most important, electronic guides (Sibley and iBird make the best) contain the entire wealth of bird sounds.

The truth is that birds are most often heard and not seen, and a keen ear for birds’ unique songs, calls, chip notes, and flight sounds is what distinguishes the best of birders. Relating a bird’s call in a paper guide can be hilariously futile. Here’s the Stokes Guide on the song of the Nelson’s sparrow: “A harsh unmusical crt tshhhhhhhjut.” Should have no problem hearing that, right? The inclusion of actual audio with images into one device has proven incredibly useful for learning in the field.

Not that bringing a library of bird sounds into the field doesn’t have its drawbacks. Debates rage in the birding community about playing bird songs or calls in order to lure birds in for a better look. Opponents of playback say it stresses birds out and distracts them from attending to actual life responsibilities. Proponents of limited, responsible playback—myself included—counter with mostly half-formed retorts, including “It’s only for like two seconds” and “Leave me alone.” The scientific jury is still out, but the debates will still simmer.

As much as some birders still long for the days of keeping a weathered Peterson in their back pocket, field guide apps are here to stay. However, whether the field guide is paper or electronic doesn’t change the fundamental challenge of birding: knowing how to look at a bird. Field guides are used only for preparation or in retrospect; the actual business of birding remains between you, the bird, and your binoculars. That is until our Google Glass can ID birds on the wing or our phones can scan a molted feather and report the subspecies. I give it a year.

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Nicholas Lund lives and birds in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Birdist. Follow him on Twitter.