Monday, June 8, 2015

New bird ID website and smartphone apps have been released

Female red-winged blackbirdI don't know about you, but when I post an image in my galleries, Facebook, when published in a magazine or on the web, or even just printed, I want to be able to tell viewers exactly what they're seeing in the image.

Perhaps it's part of my engineering background or the journalist in me, but I'm always drawn to answer the “Five Ws and How” questions, “who, what, when, where, why and how.”

In journalism, the questions constitute the formula to obtain a complete story on a subject. Hermagoras of Temnos (1st century BCE), an ancient Greek rhetorician (an expert in the use of using language effectively) is apparently the originator of the “Five Ws and How.” He defined seven “circumstances” which describe an issue as, “Quis, quid, quando, ubi, cur, quem ad modum, quibus adminiculis,” translated as “who, what, when, where, why, in what way, by what means.” (This is from Halm's edition of “De rhetorica” as Hermagoras's precise original quote hasn't survived the ages.)

I use many tools to help me properly identify the subjects of my images. Wildlife images can be one of the most difficult to properly identify its subjects, especially bird images.

For many years I've used iPhone/iPad apps such as Audubon Guides Box Set, Audubon Birds Pro (Android Version) and iBird Pro (Android Version) to identify North American birds, but all too often these apps fall down. Many times their search routines don't narrow the number of birds sufficiently, or narrow the birds so much that the subject bird is narrowed right out of the list. The latter has happened to me often.

On computers my “go-to” website for North American birds is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. I think it's by far the best site to identify birds and find out about them; how to identify them, what their habitat, food, nesting, behavior and conservation characteristics are, and what their songs are like. It has a variety of photographs of each bird species, including male, female, juvenile, breeding and non breeding appearances. It even has photographs of similar species of birds to the one you're looking at, in case you haven't chosen the right bird.

Despite the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds quality, I often find that identifying a particular bird there can be elusive.

To the rescue comes a new website and two new apps.

From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology comes Merlin Photo ID. It's still in “Beta,” but it's already darn good. Cornell University and the Visipedia Research Project are developing the website. The potent artificial intelligence software powering the website can identify birds in photos you take, which you upload to the website for comparison. As long as the species is in their current database of US and Canada birds the site works well. Currently, the database has 400 North American birds.

Once you upload the image into the website you're asked to identify where and when you were when you made the image, draw a box around the bird in the photo to identify its location in it, and show where the end of its beak and tail are located, as well as its eye, each by clicking on them. If you accidentally click in the wrong place, you can move the dots previously created.

Within seconds the website will show you a list of birds which are the best matches with images of those birds. I tried the website for ten different birds, including the female red-winged blackbird in the image above. The website gave me a short list for each bird. The actual bird was in each list, so the website properly identified the bird 10/10 times.

Merlin also has an iPhone and Android app, both of which are currently free. Neither permits you to upload a bird image, but instead they ask you a series of questions about the bird you've seen.

To use the Merlin apps you input the location where you saw the bird, the date, the size of the bird, three main colors of the bird and finally choose where the bird was, such as in trees, or on a fence. At that point, the app goes to work and gives you a list of the birds it might be. I found the iPhone app had my bird in its list, with images, eight of ten tries. I thought that was really good. Each list was twenty or fewer birds long.

The other new iPhone app is Twigle ($6.99). It's not available for Android, though there is a Windows Phone ($0.99) version. Twigle can identify birds based on their “song,” helped by visual clues. Identifying the birds by song on Twigle was highly problematical. Too often I found more than one bird was sing at the same time. The app's database can identify just 50 North American birds by song.

I tried it ten times. On four of the occasions I heard only a single bird singing. The app identified the bird only once. On the other occasions the app was unable to identify the bird.

I highly recommend the Merlin website and apps. I don't recommend the Twigle app.

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