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Review: The Warbler Guide App

April 14, 2015
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At long last, after a miserable winter across most of the eastern US, warbler season is finally upon us! Earlier this month I heard by first Louisiana Waterthrush of the year, a robust fountainhead of bird song echoing from a small wooded stream. It won’t be much longer before the headlong rush towards the boreal forests is joined in earnest, and I’ll be trying to get outside as often as possible to take it all in. Can any of us do any less?

When Tom Stephenson and Scott Whittle’s The Warbler Guide came out in 2013, it was hailed as perhaps the finest example of a family-specific field guide yet. I even said as much, calling it a “quantum-leap forward” in the way family guides are produced. Part of its greatness lied in the way that the information was laid out, with a premium paid towards comparison of similarly positioned birds. Need an entire layout of undertails? You got it. Need a plate showing what ever warbler looks like when seen from 3/4 behind and beneath? You got it. Need an entire series of spectrograms of similar sounding warbler songs? Well, this is the only book that has that. The book was laid out more like an app than a field guide, allowing you to simply flip to the right page to get exactly what you needed and a lot of it.

TWG appTurns out the app comparison was particularly apt, as Stephenson and Whittle had plans from the beginning to put the whole book in the palms of our hands in the form of an app, and the result of that project is every bit as comprehensive and probably more useful than the book. The warbler guide app takes all the incredible detailed photos and computer rendered illustrations and puts them in your phone or tablet where you can explore to your heart’s content. As great as that book was, it’s the advantages of the app medium that could never have been realized in book form that are really what make this app stand out.

We’re used to having the vocalizations of birds available to us on our phones these days, and The Warbler Guide is no different. While this app includes only Parulids, those warblers are represented by their entire repertoire. Not only A-songs, but B-songs, warning chips and various flight calls all make the cut making this app the most comprehensive collection of warbler sounds outside of xen0-canto.

More, the sort of comparative images that made the book so useful are available here. Birds can be sorted and viewed by side view, face view, underside, undertail, and, incredibly, 3-D, which is exactly as cool as it sounds.

But easily the killer feature for this app is the extent to which you can customize your search. Not just by location or by season (which are good enough), not only just by overall color and patter, but by color and pattern of specific parts of the birds. It’s really a remarkable thing. This stuff looks great on my phone, but it looks incredible on my iPad.

TWG photo

As impressive as the comprehensiveness of the app is, and as useful as the various features are, I do have one issue. For starters, all that information takes up a lot of space. In book form it’s easy enough to make room for a useful tome, but on our phones and tablets, our space is limited and often precious. as such, the nearly 1 full GB that this app takes up makes it hard to put anything else. I eventually had to remove it from my 16 GB iPad because it was sucking up too much space. It found a home on my newer 64 GB phone, but I miss the larger screen. I know that some have managed to make it work by putting the app in the cloud and calling on it when needed. That might be an option, but if Apple only gives you 5 GB free in the cloud, that may not be enough for some birders, particularly those with other field guide apps or large music collections. Your mileage may vary.

In my mind the data issue doesn’t mean the app isn’t worth purchasing, and truly I don’t know if it’s even something that can be fixed. What information are you going to drop? In the future such data considerations may not be so much of a problem anyway as data gets cheaper and cheaper, but for now, it’s worth thinking about.

All in all, this thing is pretty amazing. And just like the book, I think it will be something you’ll absolutely want nearby once the warbler start pouring in.

The app is $12.99 in the Apple iTunes Store. Thanks for Princeton University Press for providing me with a review copy.

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Double Chen

December 17, 2014
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This winter is turning out to be the winter of the Ross’s Goose in the Piedmont of North Carolina. While still considered to be a semi-rare vagrant in the state, at least away from the massive Snow Goose flocks in the east, the increase in records shouldn’t be terribly surprising given the explosion that Snow and Ross’s Geese populations have seen in recent years. I don’t think anyone, however, quite expected the glut of Ross’s Geese found these first couple weeks of December. The birds seem to be everywhere, with at least 4 in the western Piedmont (not counting a couple unconfirmed, but compelling, reports) and another two in the east. All have been found hanging out among migratory Canada Geese that are slowly filling into the state this month, and given these geese’s penchant for shuttling around to the many small farm ponds in the area it’s hard to say precisely how many Ross’s Geese are around. Potentially, there are a lot.

Last week I saw two different individuals in two adjacent counties in one day. For an obsessive county lister like myself, this is akin to finding a $100 bill on the ground. Twice. In one day. Or something (I feel like there’s a better metaphor out there, but I can’t find it now). The problem with so many Ross’s Geese in the area is that we are seeing heretofore unheard of invoking of The Hybrid Theory.

As we all know, every single Ross’s Goose is subject to speculation, however absurdly realized, that it is actually a Ross’s x Snow Goose hybrid. This is either because no one can truly believe that there are so many Ross’s Geese around (though it’d happen with just one, too), or because people want to build their reputation by throwing shade at other birders. In any case, why we should automatically assume that an uncommon bird would be just as likely to be a extremely rare hybrid is beyond me. Think about it, Snow and Ross’s Geese are known to hybridize “regularly”, but what this really means is that it happens about 2-4% of the time. That’s more than an order of magnitude less likely than a pure Ross’s Goose (or pure enough), and would seem to me to require a great deal of evidence to defend such an assertion.

But that never happens with Ross’s Goose. Oftentimes the merest suggestion of goose miscegenation is enough to get people worked up. And once the hybrid train is out of the station it’s really hard to turn it around, as I had learned before with a previous Ross’s Goose.

So anyway, the first goose that fateful day was a long-staying bird at a park in Rockingham County, to the north of Greensboro. It had been hanging out in a Canada Goose flock that also periodically contained a Greater White-fronted Goose, so I was aiming for two geese for the price of one. The latter was nowhere to be seen (and hasn’t been seen since), but the former was still present, still Ross-y, and as good a ROGO as you’re likely to see. Nice small, triangular bill, domed head, straight line between the face and the bill. It all checks out.

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Ross’s Goose. Rockingham County, NC. No doubter.

While working that same day, feeling rather pleased with myself about picking up a county tick in Rockingham County, I got word on Facebook that there was a Ross’s Goose in Guilford County now, fortunately not more than 10 minutes from my kid’s school. So I picked him up and we headed down to High Point where we found, after a bit of searching, this Ross’s Goose hanging out among (what else?) Canadas at an office-park pond.

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Ross’s Goose. Guilford County, NC. Slightly less of a no doubter.

This was an objectively better bird, mostly because it was a home county tick, which any county birder can tell you is the best kind of county tick aside from the ones with double zeros at the end. To my eyes it looks fine for Ross’s Goose, but it wasn’t more than a few hours that a respected local birder merely commented offhand that the bill was a bit longer than one might expect. That’s it. And soon afterwards the local listserv was humming with speculation about things that are completely within the regular realm of Ross’s Goose but are suddenly suspect. This bird has a grin-patch so it’s part SNGO (Ross’s Goose does have a grin patch). The bird has a long bill so it’s part SNGO (Ross’s Goose expresses sexual dimorphism, males are larger with larger bills). And all this despite the fact that every other mark is definitively Ross’s Goose, but again, once the train has left the station…

I am not, I hasten to point out, calling anyone out on this. But in a time and place in the birding culture where idle speculation becomes common knowledge so dang quickly, maybe we should be a little more careful with the former. See the recent Japanese Murrelet incident for further evidence. Alls I know is that I’m counting both of these as Ross’s Goose with absolutely no qualms. Ticks times two.

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