Free, fun birdwatching identification apps for iPhone or Android

I’ve written before about some of the wonderful apps for smart phones that are available for iPhone and Android, but as always technology advances and even more exciting things come our way.

How often have you been out and seen a bird, fungus, or bug and wondered, “What the heck was that?” There have always been forums and Facebook pages to help you identify things like Wikipedia, however, it’s not always reliable.

One app that I love is Merlin from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This free app, available for iPhone or Android, will ask you a series of questions about the bird you saw and then produce a list of possible species. The questions train new birders into what to identify when they see the bird, to keep in mind the behavior, size, and habitat. Merlin is about to drop a big update, which I have had the fun of testing out. Sometime after Thanksgiving you will can upload photos of the birds from your phone to the app. For people who use their phones to take pictures of birds through binoculars, spotting scopes, or even riflescopes, this is a game changer. The phone automatically tags your photo with the date and the location, assisting Merlin into narrowing the exact ID of your bird.

I tested the app with a variety of photos from immature hawks, to feeder birds to even a few shorebirds. Everything I showed it, the Merlin app guessed correctly on the first try. The one stumble was a blurry gull photo, but every birder knows that gull identification is one of the hardest things there is, so I can’t blame the app. All you have to do is select the photo you want the app to identify, use the crop tool to make sure the entire bird is in view and the app will bring up a list of birds as the answer. You select which bird matches your picture as the ID, and that also helps train the app to be better at future identification.

If you wish to identify things other than birds, another free app known as iNaturalist is the one for you. This a network of naturalists and citizen scientists all over the world entering observations of any living thing. You can use it to take photos of plants, fungus, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and insects or you can use photos you have stored in your photo archive. After you have uploaded your photo, you can attempt to identify it or request an ID. Members then confirm or correct your id. You can even search for projects on behalf of parks, nature centers, or bird clubs to see if you identification can help them track trees or specific species of birds.

What I love about both of these apps is that they use the information in some form of research. The scientists at eBird are extrapolating data to help determine range map changes of various species and migratory timing. The iNaturalist app can be used to compile data for bioblitzes and helps people looking for information on range changes for trees and hard-to-find frogs. It’s citizen science and everybody benefits.

iNaturalist is available to use both as an app and as a website. To learn more about the app visit:

To learn more about the website visit:

Merlin is available only as app. To learn more visit:

Merlin still needs help with photos and for learning identification. To contribute photos visit:

Categories: Gallery, Sharon Stiteler

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