After a winter that seemed to drag on forever, spring has finally arrived in Connecticut. Crocuses are out in full bloom in more colors than I can count, and tulips are pushing their leaves out of the detritus. But more importantly for me, the birds are finally coming back and singing over the cold mechanical din that never ceases in the city. Yesterday I saw a scarlet tanager (I haven’t seen a tanager since my honeymoon in Costa Rica in November – that’s 4 1/2 months) and a small hawk that was sitting low enough in somebody’s tree for me to startle it as I walked by. And this morning, I woke up to calls I couldn’t place.
As a kid in rural Pennsylvania, whenever I wanted to identify a bird, my mom would crack open her old copy of Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Eastern Birds and we’d set upon the range maps and call descriptions. I would spend hours paging through that guide, and when I began college in North Philly there was an instance involving Orientation Weekend Jeopardy, John James Audubon, and a frustrated comment from a freshman which led me to the horrible realization that many people can’t name the things that inhabit their backyard. Anyway, I live 200 miles away from that guide, and the information is way past its 30th birthday anyway. So what can I use right now to help me find out who is making that three-note reedy call?
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has consistently has great websites for bird identification, I have been using All About Birds for years. The title is misleading to me and reminds me of amateur informational websites that don’t go beyond the basics, have an agenda, and look like they haven’t updated their design since 1997 (I’m looking at you, Dog Breed Info). However, All About Birds is well-laid out, professionally run, and insanely simple to use.
It’s image-driven instead of text-driven, which is the downfall of a number of other identification websites out there. Maps and sounds are just below the fold, and you can click on tabs for more in-depth information and several sound recordings. I’m finding the “Related Species” link more helpful than the “Similar Species” link. “Similar Species” takes you further down the page to the elements “Field Marks” and “Similar Species,” but “Field Marks” is on the lefthand side and takes up two-thirds of the space, so it takes a few seconds (or revisits) until you realize no, that thing in the skinny column on the right isn’t an ad, it’s the “Similar Species” element you were trying to access.
…Or wait, is “Similar Species” the three image photo gallery, or is it the heading to the text that’s two-thirds of the way down the page?…
… Or is the “Field Marks” part of the whole “Similar Species” element? Yep, that’s the one. You can look through some example photos and put them side-by-side with similar species so you can see how to tell them apart.
“Related Species,” on the other hand, takes you to a scrolling list of roughly a dozen other species in the same family. At a glance, it’s not completely clear how AAB differentiates between “Related” and “Similar” birds. I only learned after playing around with the identification tool, and looking at the page title for the “Related Species” link let me know that the page is actually “Browse by Bird Family.” Do many people look at the page title nowadays, though? I’m even one of the tab-happy ones who would be the most likely to pay attention to the titles, but I tend to memorize the placement of my tabs and scan for the proper icons instead of watching how the titles change.
ANYWAY, usability nitpicking aside, it’s a great little website.
This morning I discovered their audio and video library, the Macaulay Library, which focuses on birds but has extended to include other members of the phylum Chordata, a number of arthropods, and a handful of miscellaneous recordings. Birds are still the primary collection here, with almost 116,000 sound clips and nearly 38,000 videos (by comparison, the generally sexier mammals category has a paltry 7450 sounds and 2700 videos).
You can browse by taxonomy, or type in a search by taxonomy or field name. Instead of typing away and blindly hitting enter, though, you need to select an item from the dropdown list, similar to Google’s autocomplete. Once you select your species or family, you can organize the list of results based on type of sound (if noted), location, date, and quality, among other headings. The video tab defaults to a thumbnail view, but selecting list view is much more helpful. It displays the videos the same way the audio clips are displayed, and you can then search based on types of behaviors displayed. Which is awesome. And every sound and video I’ve encountered so far is very high quality.
Of course, it is a library, so there is some incomplete cataloging. Videos and audio clips with behavioral values or sound type values are fewer than those with blanks. But the fact that they note behaviors at all is wonderful, and sometimes they’re noted in the Notes tab once you go to the individual videos. Items with near-complete cataloging have notes on the bird’s age and sex, the equipment used, and a Google map of the location. A Google map! There is really superb cataloging going on here, and I’m excited to see how this website evolves.
If you’re not sure which bird you’re after, though, you really need to start at All About Birds and narrow it down. Then, once you have a species or two, you should be following the links to Macaulay Library and double-checking the videos and other sound clips. Which is what I did for my bird of prey. I clicked around the falcons and hawks on AAB until I narrowed it down to three species, then I watched videos of them on Macaulay Library. With a couple Google image searches for juveniles of my species, I think I saw a young Merlin.
If you’re not hellbent on identifying a bird, and you’re only looking for a way to waste some time, then Macaulay Library you can also spend hours jumping around the videos watching sockeye salmon building nests. Which is partially why it took me all day to finish writing this. That and the 78 degree weather beckoned me outside for a few hours.
Now then. If I wanted to buy a physical guide instead, something I could take out in the field, it seems that Sibley is the top recommendation.
However, Peterson is still a close second, and many birders will go out and buy both.
Looking at the popularity of bird guides on Amazon it appears that National Geographic and Stokes are also popular, but the birdwatching sites I’ve read have pointed to Kaufman as one of the top three.