[This review is for the Plus version. For the Pro version go here.]
For the past several days, the iBird Explorer series of apps for iPhone and iPod Touch have been in the top five sellers in the Reference category on the App Store. Evidently lots of birders own iDevices, and evidently many of them have been waiting for the first comprehensive digital field guide to hit the App store.
And what birder could resist? A field guide on your phone or media player, right there in your pocket, much smaller than any book, with a lot more information, including recorded songs and calls. And, being digital, constantly updated and improved.
But there is more. The iBird apps are based on Mitch Waite’s well developed What Bird is This (whatbird.com) system of aided identification. The system employs a tree of keywords to successively narrow in on a particular species. Choose a location, a habitat, a size, a shape, a few colors, crown pattern, wing shape, flight pattern…all easy to pick up in the field…and the program will filter down to the few birds that meet your criteria.
For a novice, the search system could be a real help, and I am not thinking only of finding the bird you are looking at. The system actually teaches the beginnings of good id skills, by reinforcing the basics of what you should be looking for while attempting an id. If this search and sort routine becomes ingrained in the beginning birder’s mind, the foundation of good field skills will certainly be laid.
Even the advanced birder will find the search function useful. You can, for instance, pull a list of likely birds for any location you travel to, by habitat. A few moments on the plane or in the tour bus on the way to the site looking over such a list and reviewing the species you might be a little fuzzy on can be invaluable once you are actually out in the field face to face with the living birds. Even the expert needs a a timely refresher.
And having the calls and songs right there for each species can be a real aid. You can review just the songs you think you might need. What could be easier, and more useful?
iBird Explorer comes in several editions. iBird Explorer Backyard has just the 144 most common backyard species (minus most raptors, on the theory that, while they might pass through your yard, they are not really backyard birds). Then there are North, South, Midwest, and West editions, and one for Canada. Backyard is $4.99. The regional guides are $9.99 and the Plus edition, which includes all 891 species in North America, is $19.99.
Those are expensive prices for the App Store, but you might better compare them to the cost of a printed field guide of the same quality and with the same content…and then, of course, add in the cost of the bird song CDs, and remember, this is all digital, so it can, and will, be regularly updated. On that basis, the costs are really quite reasonable. A bargain even.
I bought iBird Explorer Backyard, as it was the first edition available and I wanted to see how it worked. When the Plus edition became available a few weeks later, I bought that too.
iBird Explorer Plus puts a complete field guide to the birds of North America on your iPhone or iPod Touch. 891 species are illustrated. Each bird gets a range map, an identity section with considerably more information than your average field-guide, a list of similar speices, some interesting facts, and a link to the Birdipedia wiki entry for the species. Most have sound recordings, and many have additional photographs.
The search features work as outlined above (and as illustrated in more detail below). Additionally, you can type a keyword directly on the main listing screen for a quick sort. Type sparrow and the list drops to 35 species with sparrow in their name. Type marsh and you get only Marsh Wren and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. This same feature is available on the Search screen, along with all the criteria categories outlined above.
As mentioned above, the included sound files are wonderful for a quick refresher on the way to the field, but, where appropriate, with a small battery powered external speaker, they can also be used in the field.
There has been some criticism in reviews of iBird (and its sibling for Pocket PC devices: Winged Explorer) of the illustrations. They are, compared, say, to Sibley, pretty basic. Generally only the primary plumage is shown, and views of the species are limited. Additional photographs are only available for some species. (Though more are being added via updates.) I would recommend that you visit http://www.whatbird.com, which uses the same illustrations, to see if they will meet your needs.
Personally, I find the illustrations, when coupled with the full text descriptions, to be adequate for my needs. Sure I would like to see more alternative plumages, and I expect, as sales take off among iDevice users, that the Mitch Waite group will be at work adding them, along with more photos (there is a standing invitation to photographers who would be willing to submit photos for the program). [Note: The Mitch Waite Group is indeed, according to Mitch himself, hard at work on this and we can expect to see additional illustrations and more photos in a future update.] [Note also: I am embarrassed to say that I was unaware of just how many alternative plumages are already included...there are, on some species, additional illustrations below the text description on the General screen. Scroll down, scroll down!]
Actually, whatbird.com is an excellent way to test the features of the full program, since iBird draws heavily on the same technology and resources. If you find whatbird.com useful and usable, you are sure to enjoy iBird. If not, then not, and no $$ spent.
I would love to see a few new criteria added to the search section. With today’s emphasis on birding by impression, there is a real opportunity for the Mitch Waite Group to get in on the ground floor here by adding a few key indicators: They already have size, shape, bill length. Adding at least posture and behavior, and grouping those criteria nearer the top of the list, would go a long way toward making this birding by impression friendly. Of couse, what Birding by Impression really needs, and totally lacks so far, is a systematic, consistent terminology…clearly defined criteria that can be applied from author to author and book to book.
(Be aware that the WhatBird site has many more search criteria than the iBird program.)
The Mitch Waite Group is also working on a listing component with automatic syncronization to a WhatBird account, and links to eBird. That would certainly be one more reason to buy iBird Explorer. If, unlike eBird, they also make it possible to record field notes and retrieve them by sighting, it would make this a real contender for the first complete field guide/listing super app.
All in all I would highly recommend iBird in any of its editions for beginning and advanced birders. Especially if you know a iDevice toting beginning birder, gift them the Backyard edition. They will have a lot of fun with it, and it will teach them good habits right from the beginning.
More advanced birders? Check out the system on http://www.whatbird.com. I think you will be impressed enough to go to the iTunes App Store and lay your money down. The program is just too much fun to pass up, and has the potential to become perhaps the best of the electronic field guides to date. I know I will be using it to review and refresh before every outing, from now on in. I will certainly be one of the most used apps on my iPod Touch.
Specifics and Details
The group of screen shots below will give you a good indication of the range of featues and options iBird Explorer provides.
Above is a compilation of several iDevice screens. Navigation through this info is, of course, as simple as flicking your finger. Where species are similar iBird gives you extra help.
Each species has a range map, interesting facts, and sound recordings.
The search function runs something like this: this is a search for all the birds in Maine that frequent coast, ponds, marshes, and rivers; who have black and white in their plumage, are duck sized and shaped, and have an eyeline. You can see the list shrink and each new criteria is added.
As mentioned in passing, the same, or a very similar application is also available for Pocket PC: Winged Explorer. Of course, it almost certainly lacks the indefinable essence that is Apple…touchy touchy and finger flicking,…but then that is why we carry iDevices!