Field Guides

Getting Started Birding

Birding as we know it was made possible by the development of a field guide by Roger Tory Peterson first published in 1934. He introduced the idea of field marks allowing for quick identification of most birds. Since that time many people have come up with different illustrated field guides and more recently photographic field guides to assist with bird identification. Now we even have apps and websites that can be accessed in the field on your phone. It can be intimidating trying to figure out even basic birds when starting out. A few good resources can make the experience smoother and more rewarding.

When I first began to be interested in birds, I couldn’t figure out what any birds were. The basics you take for granted that give you an idea of what family a bird might belong to are not something you are born with. I found this frustrating and I made a few false starts trying to find birds by flipping through my 5th edition National Geographic field guide to the birds of North America my wife bought for me. I would generally never figure it out.

Merlin

One day, a friend of mine on posted a link to an App called Merlin by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It was free so I downloaded it and didn’t think about it. A few weeks later I saw a bird and decided to try it. It works by establishing your location, date of your sighting and gathering some basic information of behavior, color and size.

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Example of Merlin Workflow

This is a very powerful method of bird identification and works pretty well. It finally made bird identification accessible to me and I used this app a lot initially. It also begins to teach you how good birders often make identification. They are aware of the habitat, the behavior and size of the bird the location and time of year and are able to figure out what the bird is without seeing any of the traditional field marks described in field guides.

The down side of Merlin is that it does not contain all the rarities and unique plumages. It also requires an internet connection and really isn’t useful for studying birds before you see them. Considering this app is free it is well worth getting and playing with whether or not you end up liking and using it.

Apps Vs. Books

As I progressed in my interest in birds, it became apparent that I would need a better way to review details about birds that were not available in Merlin. Personally I prefer an app format over a book. I can be anywhere and have a thought about a birds field marks and be able to look it up quickly on my phone.  They also universally allow playback of calls/song and do not require any internet connection in the field. There are many people that prefer books and luckily the Sibly guide is available in both formats.

Sibley

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When I was making the decision about what field guide to buy next I found that the Peterson Guide is no longer one of the preferred options. David Sibley has been cranking out great paintings based on new research on bird identification and has numerous examples of different plumages and subspecies. Key field marks are pointed out on each plate. For species with complicated molts and sexual dimorphism there are often marks pointed out for these as well. It is probably the most comprehensive resource available in one place.

The App is very rudimentary. There is a search function but it does not work well and requires a good understanding of birds to use well, often obviating the need for it.

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There is a My Location option that allows you to set your state or territory and this will filter out birds that are unlikely to be in your area. Because of how large a state can be, especially Texas, I found that birds I was looking for were filtered out under the false assumption that they were not common in my area. Generally I end up searching for birds by name in the taxonomic index.

This guide is great to learn about species and improve your identification skills. It is also very useful once you have a general idea what the possibilities are and would like to compare and study them. It does not have an option to list similar species. I find that this is a huge oversight. Similar species lists can really help with getting an ID correct especially when you are first getting started. I end up going to allaboutbirds.org by Cornell or using iBird.

There is no avoiding it. You need the Sibley guide in some form in order to bird North America. There are other apps and guides you can use as supplements but this is the one you will keep coming back to.

iBird

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Within the app world iBird is also a popular choice because of its powerful search functions and database of photographs baked into the app. It has a great birds around me function that uses your location and the range maps to filter out species that are unlikely. It has a similar species function and you can search based on just about any physical attribute you can imagine.

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There are a number of versions of this app, I have no idea what exactly is different between them. I would just save yourself the aggravation and pay for the fancy “ultimate” version. The app is very frequently updated. It has decent drawings but they just can’t compare to Sibley. They lack the various plumages and subspecies. It can be a useful adjunct though to compare these drawings back to Sibley.

There is also a database of images in the application. Our own Gil Eckrich has many images in this collection. This can be helpful when you are trying to get a feel for a bird. I often find that illustrations accentuate the field marks to help you see them better. Sometimes a picture can help you understand how these field marks add up to a real bird.

It has the same library of audio that every app seems to have.

I see this app as a supplement to Sibley rather than alternative. If you are just starting out, the search functions are very useful. I would get it first if you are an absolute beginner. You will rapidly outgrow it if you are doing serious birding and need a copy of Sibley eventually.

Audubon Guides

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I bought the mega app with guides to wildflowers, birds, trees and mammals. I am not sure what the stand alone apps are like. I find that I almost never use this app. It is a photographic guide and unfortunately there are often only a couple photos of the birds. Often wing markings are extremely important in making an identification and these images are missing. There is also no overly with arrows to field marks for rapid review of field marks.

It has a function to review nearby sightings reported within this app by others. Very few people use this function. It is a central part of the app and it takes away from the functionality in the field when you are reviewing information.

It is often on sale for pretty cheap. Buy it if you like photographic guides and have other field guides and want something else to play with.

Conclusions

Use Merlin. Buy Sibley. Maybe buy iBird.

If you have some other field guides you would like to review. Please contact me.