I’ve been birding 15 years now, and there aren’t really many occasions any more where I’m stumped on a bird ID. The only occasions I have any difficulty are with species that are inherently damned hard to tell apart by sight, things like the Empidonax flycatchers or others where hearing a song/call or other audio clue might be needed to make a positive ID. I rarely ever even have a field guide with me when I’m out birding. I do love field guides in general, and they certainly were a godsend when I first started birding, I hate to say it, but they’re a bit obsolete now, when you can put the equivalent of every major field guide directly on your cell phone. I DO nearly always have my cell phone with me, and while I don’t use it much for visual ID issues in the field, it is handy for trying to figure out what call or song I heard.
I knew Cornell’s “Merlin” app has been out a little while, but hadn’t downloaded or tested it. Merlin is an app for IOS or Android that allows you to identify birds in two ways. If you see a bird but are stumped on an ID, you can enter the location, size, colors and other characteristics, etc., and Merlin will spit out the likely species. More intriguing to me is the photo ID option. You can simply choose any photo on your device, or take a photo, and have Merlin try to identify the species. The “Take a Photo” option isn’t very useful, as your iPhone or Android phone just aren’t going to be able to get good bird photos unless you’re at a feeder or other setting where birds are extremely close. However, I was intrigued by the option to identify the species from an existing photo, so I gave it a spin.
I have a huge number of bird photos, but most are on my desktop computer’s hard drives. The only ones I actually had on my phone were ones I processed on my iPad that got integrated with my photostream, from a trip to Arizona. Still, I did have photos from quite a few species. Some were quite clear and distinctive, photos that should be easy identifications. Others weren’t so clear, and I also had photos of several species that just aren’t that common in the U.S. How would Merlin do in identifying my Arizona bird photos?
In short…pretty damned good! It took me a while before I was able to stump Merlin. I started with some easier ID’s. I had been to Madera Canyon south of Tucson, and had a number of hummingbird species at the feeders there. Merlin easily handled all the male hummingbird photos, and to my surprise, did a good job on identifying female and immature hummingbirds as well. I was fortunate to see and get decent, but not great, photos of an Elegant Trogon in Florida Canyon. Merlin handled the rarity without issue (OK, that one SHOULD be easy to identify!!). Lawrence’s Goldfinch, partially obscured by a weed? No problem, although it did give me “alternative” answers other than the primary choice of Lawrence’s Goldfinch. Multiple different sparrow species with sometimes not so obvious plumage differences? No problem. Birds in flight? Did just fine on White-tailed Kites, a Gyrfalcon flight shot I happened to have on my phone, and other flight shots. I quickly went through about 35 species, and Merlin handled them all flawlessly (although like the Lawrence’s Goldfinch example, there were a some cases where “alternative” ID’s were provided in addition to the primary ID).
I was thinking Merlin was infallible! It is awfully good, but it has trouble with some of the same species I might have trouble with in an ID. I tried two photos of a Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, one of which was at an angle that was “unfair”, in that you really couldn’t see the tail characteristics that might distinguish it from a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. It missed the ID in that photo, but was able to correctly ID the same bird in a photo from a different angle. Another it had trouble with is one that I myself would definitely have trouble identifying. I had a photo of a Gray Flycatcher (one of those nasty, hard to ID Empidonax flycatchers), and Merlin whiffed. It was a clear photo, and I even entered the photo location, but that was the one case where Merlin didn’t find a single “match”.
Merlin is a really nice piece of software, and it’s an app I’ll keep on my phone. In the real world though…it’s an app that’s going to be most useful to new or casual birders. For an experienced birder, Merlin is going to have the same identification troubles that we may have. Feed it a bad photo, or a photo of species that are just difficult to visually identify, and Merlin will struggle just as a birder might struggle. There’s also the issue of actually getting a photo to the app to be identified. As I said previously, people just aren’t likely to take good, identifiable bird photos with their cell phones, so Merlin is likely most useful for photos taken on a DSLR or other camera body. For me and my Canon 70D, it’s always an adventure trying to get photos transferred from my camera body to my iPad or iPhone, with a wireless app that is balky even on its best days. For that reason alone, even if I were a beginning birder, Merlin might be less useful to me (through no fault of Merlin itself). Merlin also might be less useful for rarities, as it seems to cover most native/common birds in the U.S. and Canada, but misses some of the rarer or exotic ones.
Overall though, very cool piece of software, and one that I do wish I had when I had started birding 15+ years ago.