A Comparison of Audubon and Merlin Bird

Merlin Bird and Audubon Bird Guide are both amazing resources and are well maintained and updated. They are both free and have a lot of the same features. At first, these apps might seem very similar. However, there are some big differences. I’ll start off with Merlin Bird. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s birding app has a couple of standout features. The app has a much cleaner interface with a simpler bird ID feature. You’ll answer five basic questions and it gives you a list of possible birds. It is very easy to use and is perfect for novices that do not have a lot prior knowledge about birds.

Another point for Merlin Bird is the variety of regions covered from all over the globe. They also let you download these regions individually, so you don’t have to fill up your device with information you don’t need. Merlin bird has a unique feature that allows you to take a photo of a bird and it will attempt to identify it. While it isn’t always accurate (or easy to get a good photo of a bird!) I am impressed by how often it gets it right. Even with photos I’ve taken at a distance the app has managed to identity the bird correctly.

Another nice feature is that the app integrates with Cornell’s other app, eBird. If you have a bird in eBird that you’ve identified it will display that in the Merlin app. It also has a nice ability that shows you a list of birds based on how likely it is that you’ll see them in your area.

Continue reading

Racing to Save Earth’s Rarest Eagle

Our long history with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology keeps their initiatives on our radar, and their films hold a very special place.

Sales from this award-winning documentary will benefit bird conservation.

World-renowned wildlife cinematographer, Neil Rettig, embarks on the most challenging assignment of his career: to find and film the rarest eagle on the planet.  An expertly woven tale with stunning cinematography, Bird of Prey journeys deep into the vanishing world of the Great Philippine Eagle and reveals an inspiring group of people that are determined to save the world’s most critically endangered eagle species from extinction.

Click here for more information on streaming options.

Global Big Day 2019

GBD2019.jpgWhen we first became aware of Global Big Day it was just a week in advance of the first such event, and we scrambled to have the properties we managed in India do their part. A total of 253 countries participated that first year and at first glance it would seem dispiriting to realize that many fewer countries have participated since then: in 2016 the count dropped to 159; then in 2017 there were 163; last year there were 171; and this year 168 (recorded so far).

However, by other metrics spirits are easily lifted. I have focused only on one such metric, which is how many checklists were completed. This year’s totals are not in yet, but if you tally each prior year, the number of participants in this event has increased dramatically year on year. Last year there were nearly 30,000 more checklists than there were in 2015. Of course having more countries participate would be better. But having more people participating in all those other countries is a very good sign indeed.

Watching Birds From Home, Online

Thanks to Lewis Page and the folks at Sierra for this selection of bird-viewing options:

6 Exciting Birdwatching Webcams

Vicariously join in on the springtime migration from your couch

Birding is a sport for the intrepid—its participants rise at ungodly hours, bundle in layers, and sit silently for hours, all in hopes of seeing a winged animal that may never arrive. But for those who aren’t quite ready to trek outdoors into wintry-remnant weather, or who might be stuck in front of a computer when they wish they weren’t, there’s another, tamer option. Indeed, the miracles of modern webcam and streaming technology have afforded even the lowliest of couch potatoes ample portals into a variety of avian worlds. And the advent of spring means that flocks of migratory birds are en route north from their winter haunts—which means it’s about to be primetime for bird cams. Here are a few to watch in the coming months.

The Mississippi River’s Migratory Birds

On a small island in the middle of the Mississippi River’s Lake Onalaska, near the Wisconsin-Minnesota border, stands a slowly rotating camera on a pole. Continue reading

Preparing For Global Big Day 2019

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Global Big Day artwork by Luke Seitz

The first time we took part in this annual event, we had already had several years of advance prepping. For example, we had this young man as an intern who was something of a birding wunderkind. Ben helped us determine whether our region of the Western Ghats was likely to appeal to birdwatchers. Short answer, yes. That same summer, 2012, Seth was in his second year working for the Lab of Ornithology and we could see that not only our company’s work but our own family was becoming more birdy, if not yet bird-nerdy.

This year will be the best year yet for birding, and to prove it I am starting today to get ready for the next Global Big Day. I do not know where we will be that day, yet, but I am working on plan. May I suggest you do the same?

Global Big Day—4 May 2019

By Team eBird 

Last May, more than 30,000 people took to fields and forests around the world, noting more than 7,000 species in a single day—Global Big Day. In less than 3 months, birding’s biggest day is coming back. Wherever you are in the world, you can be a part of birding’s next world record!

On 4 May, will you join more than 20,000 others and become a part of Global Big Day? You don’t have to commit to birding for 24 hours—an hour or even 10 minutes of watching birds makes you part of the team. Visit your favorite spot or search out someplace new; enjoy a solo walk or get some friends to join in the Global Big Day fun.

How to participate

  • Get an eBird account: eBird is a worldwide bird checklist program used by millions of birders. It’s what allows us to compile everyone’s sightings into a single massive Global Big Day list—while at the same time collecting the data for scientists to use to better understand birds. Sign up here. It’s 100% free. Continue reading

Home Team Great Backyard Bird Count 2019

It’s been 5 years since we first began highlighting the Great Backyard Bird Count, a citizen science collaboration between the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Audubon Society and Bird Studies Canada. Since then, we’ve participated in 3 countries, on 2 continents, primarily in birding hotspots such as the Periyar Tiger Reserve in Kerala, India, a special corridor of avian biodiversity in the foothills of Poas Volcano in Costa Rica, and Baja California Sur, Mexico.

The data that is collected by thousands of individual birders for eBird has long range benefits for monitoring both the health and range of particular species, as well as the state of the planet as species have to adapt to changing climate.

The map above indicates the locations from which checklists have been submitted (each gray dot represents a list, and the larger yellow dots are a moment frozen in time when a list has just been submitted. I highly recommend clicking on the image to view the site and watch the “lists” pop through the map!) Initially the GBBC only took place in North America, and birders worldwide rejoiced when it was expanded into a global event. (We were in India at the time, so I kid you not.) Continue reading

My Thoughts Drift To Colombia

For reasons I will need to write more about another time, Colombia has been on my radar recently. When I first visited that country, the conflict was in full swing and my only task was to give a series of lectures related to the country’s potential for nature-based tourism. And I remember very clearly my sense of responsibility for not creating false expectations: as long as there was conflict, this potential would remain just that.

My most recent visit was as the conflict was nearing formal resolution. At that time I was engaged for some weeks of work to be very specific about the potential, location by location. And I was then able to say, based on my own direct observation, that this country would be a powerhouse in the birdwatching market. And I have to admit, I did not have then the knowledge I have now, thanks to the Lab of Ornithology, about the country’s species count and its ranking in the world. The information was there, but I did not have it. Now I do, and my sense of confidence in the country’s opportunity to leverage this abundance into sustainable development is strong. The film above came to my attention in the last 24 hours from several sources, all of whom I thank. But particularly I thank the sponsors of the film for their vision, and the director of the film for his visual acuity:

The Birders, a documentary film on Colombian bird diversity and birdwatching presented by ProColombia, with support of FONTUR and directed by Gregg Bleakney. The film highlights Colombian local birdwatching guide, Diego Calderon-Franco and National Geographic photographer / videographer Keith Ladzinski as they travel through one of the most diverse bird regions in the world to capture new and rare birds that have never been filmed before. The Birders, also takes people through the Colombian landscape, highlighting several of its’ top locations, culture, birds and music. Continue reading

Defending Megafauna

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Perhaps as few as eighty thousand African forest elephants remain, and a new documentary explores the megafauna’s threats and defenders.Photograph Courtesy Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku

When we moved to Kerala in 2010 one of our motivations was that among the properties we would take responsibility for one was within a vast protected forest area in southern India. It was/is one of the great remaining habitats of elephants and tigers among other mammals, not to mention birds and all kinds of other life. Which is to say the ecosystem is intact enough to support apex predators and their megafauna prey, and everything around them and below them in the food chain. Which makes their viability as species possible. We networked as much as possible with scientists whose initiatives seemed relevant to our own.  Todd McGrain somehow escaped our attention until now, even though his work at the Lab of Ornithology should have caught it the way other artists’ did. Thanks to Peter Canby for pointing us here, and we have taken the liberty of inserting some of Tom’s other photos within the text below, which you can click on to go to one of his websites to learn more:

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EP_0419.jpgIn Africa, there are two kinds of elephants: savanna and forest elephants. The species diverged somewhere between two and six million years ago, with the better-known savanna elephants spreading over the plains and open woodlands of Eastern, Southern, and Western Africa while forest elephants stayed behind in the dense forests at the center of the continent. Although the two occasionally hybridize, they are widely viewed as separate species. Forest elephants are smaller, with smaller and straighter tusks. The size of their tusks, however, has not protected them from rampant poaching, because the tusks have a distinctive hue, sometimes known as “pink ivory,” that has made them particularly valuable.

EP_0634.jpgSomething about the nobility of forest elephants regularly raises concern for their extinction. The tropical forests of the Congo Basin, once considered impenetrable, are now yielding to logging roads, mines, and even palm-oil plantations. In 2013, a widely respected study by Fiona Maisels, of the Wildlife Conservation Society, found that, between 2002 and 2011, the population of forest elephants had declined by sixty-two per cent. Perhaps as few as eighty thousand remain. The story of these declining numbers is also a story of habitat destruction. Where forest elephants exist in an undisturbed state, they build networks of trails through the deep forest. These trails connect mineral deposits, fruit groves, and other essentials of forest-elephant life. In Central Africa, there are dozens of fruit trees whose seeds are too large to pass through the guts of any other animal and for which forest elephants have evolved as the sole dispersers. These trees line the forest-elephant paths. Where elephant populations are disturbed, the paths disappear.

EP_0480.jpgMatt Davis, a researcher in ecoinformatics and biodiversity at Aarhus University, in Denmark, recently published a paper arguing that we are entering a period of extinction of large mammals akin to the scale of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “We are now living in a world without giants,” he told the Guardian, and went on to detail the many ecological consequences of the loss of megafauna. When I asked John Poulsen, an assistant professor of tropical ecology at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, if this observation could apply to the role of forest elephants, he said, “Absolutely.”

The sculptor Todd McGrain has made a name for himself, over a thirty-year career, as the creator of sculptural monuments to birds that have been the victims of “human-caused extinction.” It’s not, therefore, entirely surprising that he has directed a documentary about forest elephants, “Elephant Path / Njaia Njoku,” showing at New York’s DOC NYC film festival this Wednesday and Thursday. McGrain’s subjects have included, among others, the passenger pigeon, the great auk, the Labrador duck, the heath hen, and the Carolina parakeet. When McGrain was the artist in residence at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Katy Payne, founder of the Elephant Listening Project at the Bioacoustics Research Program, introduced him to something she had discovered: forest-elephant infrasound, which is how elephants communicate inside the forest, at a frequency too low for human ears to register. She pitched up the recordings of elephant calls so that McGrain could listen to them. “I couldn’t help but hear them as bird calls,” he told me. “It was the complexity of their language that grabbed me.” Continue reading

Global Big Day 2018

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Last year at this time, I was in Belize hosting a team from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I had known of the Lab starting 30 years ago when we moved to Ithaca for me to start graduate school at Cornell, and had known the Lab’s backyard, Sapsucker Woods, since Seth was born and we walked him through in a stroller from time to time. But I did not really know much about the Lab’s work until Seth started working there in 2011, during his sophomore year of college. And then in 2012 we had another young Lab worker join us in India.

We have been celebrating Global Big Day ever since, in India and Costa Rica, then last year in Belize. This year Seth is in Costa Rica, where he will be in a national park with a very high bird species counts. I hope we will hear from him about that experience. For now, may we recommend you click the button above to learn more?

The Luck of the Draw

Me (left, obviously) with my Costa Rican non-birder friends in Río Celeste, Costa Rica

We’ve discussed eBird countless times here in the past, but I don’t think I ever mentioned their monthly challenges, which are designed to encourage eBirders to contribute some extra element of data to their usual checklists in a given month, with the chance of being randomly selected from the pool of people who satisfy the challenge requirements. If you’re chosen, you’ll receive an excellent pair of binoculars from Zeiss Optics!

In the past there have been challenges related to adding breeding codes to checklists (for example, noting if a species was observed carrying nesting material, or displaying, or feeding a juvenile); noting flyover species; going out birding with someone else and sharing the checklist; using the eBird app; and more! I think I remember a challenge from 2015 that involved checklists including raptors and vultures, and I recall being frustrated because it came a month after I’d been in Jamaica reporting Turkey Vultures several times a day. Continue reading

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Partnering with programs like the Atlanta Community Food Bank Garden Program and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to bring bird friendly and healthy food education to youngsters connects well with our ethos. Citizen Science participation starts early. We hope our readers will share with public and private K-12 schools!

SCHOOL GARDEN GRANTS to grow healthy, happy, nature-connected kids!

School gardens provide an exciting context for cross-disciplinary learning and a wonderful opportunity to engage students in hands-on activities, project-based learning, and citizen science. Kids benefit from gardens in academic, physical, emotional, social, and behavioral ways. We are excited to support teachers’ efforts to engage kids in outdoor learning and all its benefits!

We will award 20 grants to teachers within the United States who strive to take the classroom outside, reconnect students with the natural world, and teach them valuable concepts and skills that integrate across all subjects. In partnership with our amazing sponsor, Alaska Fertilizer, we’re thrilled to support 20 teachers with a $500-$2,000 grant, gardening supplies, and BirdSleuth’s Habitat Connections kit. Funds can support a new garden or the revitalization of an existing one. In addition to funding food/veggie gardens, preference will be given to bird, pollinator, native habitat, rain, and other natural projects. Continue reading

Weather Waves and Habitat Changes

This animation shows where the 21 species in the study occur during each week of the year. Brighter colors (yellows) indicate more species are present than darker areas (blues and purples); overall, the species spend more time in Central American wintering grounds than on their northern breeding grounds. Map and animation by Frank La Sorte.

Once again eBird data and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology studies highlight the importance of forest conservation for species survival, as seen in Climate Change Or Habitat Loss? Study Weighs Future Priorities For Conserving Forest Migrants:

Birds are among the first to let us know when the environment is out of whack. But predicting what might happen to bird populations is tricky. Studies often focus on a single issue or location: breeding grounds or wintering grounds, changes in climate, loss of habitat. But in the real world, nothing occurs in isolation. A new study just published in the journal Global Change Biology pulls the pieces together. Continue reading

Richard O. Prum’s Beauty Challenge

EvolutionBeautyFor evolutionary biology, on this platform we have favored E.O. Wilson because of his biophilia ideas (about which, plenty). For ornithology, we have leaned heavily on the Lab at Cornell and its many wonderful folks. Now, a scientist at Yale combines both of those fields and takes on the topic of beauty in a challenging manner–I am looking forward to this.

Click the book image at the left to go Indie Bound, a community of independent local bookstores, or if you need more convincing, read the beautifully illustrated Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution by James Gorman in the Science section of the New York Times. It is as much profile as review and asks:

Are aesthetic judgments about mates invariably tied to traits we see as adaptive and worth passing on Or, does beauty just ‘happen’?

Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise.

“Why is there so much beauty?” he asked.

Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all? Continue reading

Strengthening Our Birding With Citizen Science

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Team Belize finished with 242 species. From left: Roni Martinez, Andrew Farnsworth, Steve Kelling, Brian Sullivan.

Seth, since his time working for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and even after his time in Ithaca, has helped me to see how important the Lab’s work is to what our company has been doing since he was an infant. Citizen science is an essential component, and at Chan Chich Lodge guests have responded to the passion the guides have for eBird, which is why we put so much attention into this year’s Global Big Day. And it is why we are already planning the next collaboration with the Lab, a collaboration Seth will lead on our side. For now, a final roundup of stories from last weekend, starting with our favorite team:

…After pooling their lists, the teams ended the day with a whopping 327 species combined—reflecting not just great birding but the region’s importance to an immense diversity of birds. Team Belize topped the friendly group competition with 242 species (including 40 species the other teams didn’t find); Team Mexico found 224 species (with 43 unique to their list); and Team Guatemala tallied 213 (with 23 unique)…

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Flame Robin by John Cantwell/Macaulay Library, taken on Global Big Day

Also, the final numbers are in and news published late yesterday confirmed what I suspected as day was breaking in Belize, titled Global Big Day 2017: birding’s biggest day ever:

…On 13 May 2017, almost 20,000 birders from 150 countries around the world joined together as a global team, contributing more than 50,000 checklists containing 6,564 species—more than 60% of the world’s birds. This is a new record for the number of bird species reported in a single day, Continue reading

Sticking To Mission & Unintended Consequences

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In recent months, as we prepared to host Team Sapsucker Belize at Chan Chich Lodge, our goals were focused on the citizen science mission. Using a couple simple metrics, the event was a clear success, comparing the number of species counted in Belize this year versus last year, and especially looking at the number of checklists submitted.

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If you look at this as the third iteration of an event that we hope to grow in future years, the progress from beginning to present is promising. As I type this there are still more than 40 hours of data entry remaining for this year’s event, so the increase in this year’s participation and species identification will likely grow larger by this time Wednesday.

GBDResult15.jpg Continue reading

Funky Nests 2017

a mother Costa’s Hummingbird on her nest at Villa del Faro in Baja California Sur. The rim of the nest is covered in her and/or her offspring’s droppings!

In the citizen science department of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Celebrate Urban Birds program (CUBs) holds several competitions a year revolving around a certain idea of bird celebration. We have covered the Funky Nests in Funky Places competition several times,  and back when I worked for CUBs as a Cornell undergraduate student I wrote worked behind the scenes on the competition.

Now the contest is back, and ends on June 30th!

Continue reading

Global Big Day 2017, Results

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When I left Team Sapsucker late last night it was pouring rain, a perfect punctuation to the day, telling them to stay under cover on Chan Chich’s deck since no bird would be out in the deluge. They were reviewing their lists, waiting to see if the rain would pass, allowing one final outing of the 24-hour period. I did not ask the final number, but I could tell they were happy with the day.GBD2017Result

As I type this at 5am the rain has long since stopped, the early birds are out in full sonic force, competing with the howler monkeys it seems, and results on eBird’s website look impressive. My eye is drawn to the Central America numbers. Partly because I moved to the region two decades ago and have worked in each country. Partly also because the region has embraced its ornithological importance, and yesterday provided one more metric for that embrace. But mainly, because I am here in Belize and the Lab team we had here was exactly as expected, not only as birders but as people.

The Chan Chich guide team had an amazing day with the Team Sapsucker on Friday, and over lunch that day they all celebrated several firsts, the details of which escape me now, but they involved two new species being added to Chan Chich’s list on eBird (a big deal) and our guide Ruben adding a life list bird that day to his nearly two decades of birding accomplishments at the Lodge.

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The Lab team explained the rules of the game for the following day. No assistance of any kind would be possible after midnight. Continue reading

Introducing The Team Prepping For Global Big Day At Chan Chich Lodge

GBD1On day two in Belize with Team Sapsucker introductions are due. The photo to the left, taken at about 5am today in front of Chan Chich Lodge’s reception area, shows two of them. The best information I could find to share with you about Andrew Farnsworth is on Songbird SOS Productions, where he says:

“I like the challenge of trying to figure out how to go birding when there’s a traffic jam on first avenue. It’s cool to be able to study birds in a city… Some people have seen technology as the end of all things natural, but there’s a whole other side to it that gives us access to a world that we would otherwise not have seen.” Continue reading

Counting Down To Global Big Day

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A world of birders has already marked out where they’ll be on 13 May. Where’s your place? Add it today!

Thanks to eBird for the one week marker until Global Big Day, which we look forward to supporting at Chan Chich Lodge. Click the map to the left to mark your territory, so to speak. This countdown notice uses one species to illustrate a conceptual premise of the annual event, and we are happy to report that this species is frequently seen at Chan Chich Lodge on birding walks, and excursions to Gallon Jug Farm, where the barns are accommodating:

The familiar Barn Swallow (right) has been recorded in eBird from 222 countries. You can hope to spot a Barn Swallow almost anywhere on the planet, from Alaska to Argentina, Siberia to Australia, Iceland to South Africa. Barn Swallows criss-cross the equator and traverse the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Their movements not only span an entire planet of birds, but connect a worldwide community of birders.

In the same way, Global Big Day and eBird connect all of your local birds with the rest of the world, making a real difference in the collective understanding of birds worldwide. On 13 May, every bird that you report contributes to the global team total for an unprecedented snapshot of our planet’s bird diversity. Every bird counts.

To join the Global Big Day team from more than 150 countries, all you have to do is go birding on 13 May!  Continue reading

Big Day Pledge

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As we have in past years, in solidarity with our friends and colleagues at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we are sharing the pledge drive as far and wide as we can, and look forward to doing our part more specifically in a couple weeks:

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On May 9th, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s top birding team will begin the long journey to the Yucatan Peninsula for Big Day 2017. Big Day is an all out midnight-to-midnight birding event to see who can identify the most species in a 24 hour period. Team Sapsucker hopes to find the most birds yet — by identifying 300 bird species. Continue reading