Outdoor column | The Winkelers: Mobile ID Apps Improve the Birdwatching Experience | Outside

As a young man, and even a very old one, I told myself that getting old was not an option.

I’m not talking about physical aging, it’s inevitable. But, I swore to stay current with current trends and technology. It seemed realistic at the time, but now it seems the world is changing faster than ever.

Staying up to date is harder than I imagined – even in the seemingly timeless pursuit of birdwatching.

I made what I considered a major concession several years ago when I downloaded the Audubon Birds of North America app to my phone. It is an invaluable tool.

I always carry hard copies of field guides in my car, but the phone app has come in handy on several occasions. My phone, unlike bulky field guides, can be carried in my trouser pocket. And, since the book is downloaded to the phone, you don’t have to worry about connectivity.

A world of information is at your fingertips, no matter how remote the location, as long as you have battery power.

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And, the app has one major advantage over books – songs and calls for each species are included in the app. You can actually listen to the bird on the phone and not have to try to match the sound with some stupid mnemonic and phonetic approximation of the bird’s call found in the book.

Frankly, the Audubon app has been a godsend.

Yep, I imagined update 21st ornithologist of the century. Some people certainly see this as an oxymoron. What can I say ? The haters will rage.

Of course, I had heard of that other app – Merlin ID. But, being an arrogant baby boomer, I wasn’t even tempted to download it. I didn’t need it – so I thought. I didn’t want to suffer from information overload.

However, as usually happens when you think you’re smarter than you are, there was a moment of satisfaction.

I had a few clients on a birding tour recently. It was just after sunrise and we were walking along the edge of a lake when I heard a bird call. “That’s a house sparrow,” I said confidently. “It’s the little red-headed bird we saw sitting in the gravel just a few minutes ago.”

The words were barely out of my mouth when one of my clients spoke up.

“Actually,” she said. “Merlin says it’s a parula from the north.”

Admittedly, I have a pewter ear. I’m pretty good at visual identification, but differentiating sounds, especially similar sounds, can be tricky.

“It’s possible,” I admitted. “They kinda look alike.”

Sure enough, a few seconds later, a parula landed on a branch right in front of me.

That’s all it took. Why not download the app, I thought, it won’t weigh down my phone.

So fast forward a few weeks, and I finally managed to download Merlin – which is free by the way. Of course, being a baby boomer, there was nothing easy about that. I had trouble finding the app store icon on the phone, they swore multiple times when asked for passwords.

But, within minutes – Voila. I pressed the microphone button and Merlin correctly identified the American robin singing above my head. And, as a bonus, it picked up the sound of a tufted titmouse singing in the background – something that had gone unnoticed until I looked at the app.

So, I’ve spent the last four days playing around, asking on the phone to identify every bird that sings in the neighborhood.

Again, that smug feeling of being part of the 21st century has crept up on me, though I understand how laughable that thought really is.

LES WINKELER is the outdoor writer for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at [email protected], on Twitter @LesWinkeler.

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