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BirdLog versus my Notebook

June 22, 2012
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I am undoubtedly one who hews towards technology when it’s available.  I’m a huge fan of the way communication has made birding easier, more cooperative, and more democratic.  And I’m pretty enamored with my iPhone, what with it’s fancy doo-dads and whatnot.  When I got it just over a year ago I was quick to jump on the myriad bird apps available on the platform.  Some are truly excellent, some less so, but perhaps no application has been so looked forward to by birders than an app that offers the ability to enter checklists into eBird from the field.  And with the introduction of BirdLog earlier this year, that app is finally here.

This isn’t intended to be a review of the BirdLog app, it’s been out for some time and the reviews are almost entirely positive.  But to be completely honest, I don’t find myself using it as often as I did when I first picked it up.  Don’t get me wrong, BirdLog is great and the things that it does it does very well, but I’m not sure it’s the killer app everyone expected.  Some issues I have are potentially easily fixed, but some are more intrinsic to the idea of depending on a smartphone in the field, issues to which I hadn’t given a lot of thought before BirdLog came along.  Issues that I wanted to explore here along with an explanation as to why I use my good old notebook and pen as often as I ever did before BirdLog.

My primary complaint with BirdLog is that it doesn’t seem to be able to approporate the filters used by eBird to determine the likely birds for any given region.  As an eBird reviewer I can say that those filters are like the birding bible for a given region.  They may seem annoying and arbitrary to experienced birders, but they are the reason we are not deluged with well-intentioned reports of Green Violetears and Mountain Quail on a regular basis (yes, it still happens).   Sure the two options that ostensibly should filter the available birds are there, marked “All” and Likely”.  But the entire state checklist is entirely too easy to access and entirely to easy to accidentally chose.

Take the screencap at left, what shows up when I attempt to enter data for European Starling.  Three of those species should not be on any checklist entered in the Piedmont, and yet, there they are.  And it seems like every time I would attempt to enter starling numbers, I’d accidentally trip European Storm-Petrel.   I realize the issue could be resolved on my part simply by typing in “S-T-A-R” instead of “Euro”, but I really shouldn’t have to do that. There’s absolutely no reason half of those species should be showing up on a list well inland, and points to a problem with BirdLog’s filters.

Of course, the same problem occurs when I enter Yellow-throated Vireo or Warbler or either of the Carolina species, too.  Those are a bit more understandable as any of those species is likely on a spring/summer outing, and point to an issue that is less about BirdLog and more about dealing with a smartphone, but get a good deal closer to the reason why I often prefer my own notebook.

I’ve more or less gotten used to the touchpad keyboard.  Apple’s autocorrect is pretty good and I don’t find myself making mistakes with any sort of frequency, at least not anymore.  But typing on the keypad, any keypad for that matter, is a time-consuming action, one that takes me away from the moment in the field and into the screen of my phone.  It’s simply easier for me to make a notation of a bird’s presence on a pad than it is on a phone.  It got to the point where I felt like my entire time in the field was at the mercy of the electronic device, and with my regular fat-fingered mistakes and the subsequent 30 second pause to erase bird B and place it correctly in bird A’s spot, I got tired of it.

Yes, my checklists are not as accurate as they were with BirdLog.  Yes, I’m more likely to combine multiple checklists into a single hotspot (not that often, I’m still dedicated to specificity), but it’s worth it for me to be able to spend more time birding, particularly for trips where that is my sole purpose.  And frankly, there’s some incredibly rewarding about sitting down at the end of a trip and entering those lists manually, but I fully realize I may be completely alone on that one.

I don’t want to pile on BirdLog too much.  It really is a remarkably useful app and there’s one thing it’s good for that my notebook can’t really do.  I find myself entering checklists when I’m not birding more.  Say I find myself at a public park with my family or at a friend’s barbeque,  I’ll pull out BirdLog and make a short impromptu checklist.  This is something I never would have done before, and BirdLog makes that easier.  That’s certainly a very good thing, but when it comes down to my weekend morning outings, you’re going to be hard-pressed to convince me to give up my notebook.

My phone will always be on me though.

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4 Comments
  1. Robert Mortensen permalink
    June 22, 2012 9:21 am

    Interesting perspective Nate. I’ve not experienced issues with accidentally entering the wrong species in BirdLog and the filtering problem hasn’t been an issue. It must be due to the different ways it is possible to enter sightings into BirdLog. If I see a dozen European Starlings, I simply enter “12 EUS” and bam! I’m done. For some species, I’m done in a matter of three or four taps on my iPhone. I personally have found BirdLog faster than writing in the notebook and less distracting from my observation of the birds. As an “efficiency” expert in my regular work, I appreciate not having to duplicate effort by entering my checklist later, but I totally get what you said about the sense of accomplishment or reward when you sit down and enter the checklist at the end of the trip. Because I had been in such a habit before BirdLog, when I am done birding now, I still feel like I left something undone. I’m sure I’ll get over that feeling with time. Happy birding!

    • Robert Mortensen permalink
      June 22, 2012 9:22 am

      By the way, I forgot to mention that I have been learning the banding codes using the Bird Codes app which has greatly enhanced my efficiency using BirdLog.

  2. Laurent Fournier permalink
    June 26, 2012 8:07 am

    So, just like Ebird, you can use banding codes, right? (any interference with the apple auto-correct feature?) Another question, any idea is the app works on IPOD touch? (meaning without any connection other than the occasional Wifi)?

  3. January 17, 2013 4:12 pm

    Have you tried Birdwatcher’s Diary iOS app by Stevens Creek Software? It also uploads to eBird from the field and has a whole different and faster way of entering bird names. And you can create custom checklists from larger lists easily downloaded into the iPhone. You can sort your list by Last, First, Scientific, or Code names (later you might want to reorder the list by taxonomy or time seen).There is minimal scrolling to find any species using a unique “Intelliscroll” technique in which you tap on “Q” to get to Quail (just one tap) and then just tap on Quail to record. A 1-letter key itself is not unique. But if you see a Gull, one tap on “G” to get to the “g’s,” then the system switches over to a 2-letter key showing all 2-letter combinations not only of “G”, but also of “F” and “H”, in case you missed the “G” (a common problem) so you just tap on “GU” to get to the gulls. With an iPhone pre-iPhone 5, 9 species are now shown (more on the iPhone 5 with its larger screen), so you might need at most to scroll down one screen (say, for Western Gull). Of course if your custom list had fewer than 9 gull species, even that wouldn’t be true. For most sightings (not including gulls and blackbirds), a few quick taps on the species records 1, 2, 3, 4 etc. individuals. For larger numbers, there is a calculator which you tap to view and then enter the number. Importantly, the calculator lets you add as well as just enter numbers. So for your first sighting of some species of gull, perhaps you enter 150. Now when you get to the next pond, and there are 135 more, you can use the ADD (+) button to add the new count to the existing count. If you are counting birds, you can quickly (with one tap of a button) switch between a list of all possible species (all of your custom list) or just the species already seen. This is key for speed because after an hour or two, most of what you see is something you’ve already seen. So instead of a list of several hundred species, the list might only be 30 or 50 long. Now your odds of getting to the right bird with just one tap rather than two or two plus scrolling are extremely high. For nine species, there is no tapping on the key or scrolling at all, just tap the species name one or more times to increment the count. And if you see a new species, just tap the “All species” button and then begin your search for the new species. Finally, on the concentration question, you are certainly right to keep your eyes on the birds! There’s no problem waiting a few seconds or minutes (or hours for that matter) until you’re at a lull to record your sightings. The price you pay, of course, is that you may forget something, either a species, or just a count. On the other hand, if you record too often, no matter how few seconds it takes, you may also miss a species or a count. Once you get some practice, recording with BIrdwatcher’s Diary is much faster than recording on paper. Most of my recording is with my thumb in one or two taps. Often I hold the iPhone in one hand while holding the binoculars and look at the iPhone for only a couple of seconds to record a bird sighting. You can add notes, but if you have pre-loaded common phrases (e.g. female, breeding plumage, calling) you can enter those with just one tap each. At the end of the day you can go through your list and make more notes and a trip note as a replacement for manually entering the list on a paper checklist. Birdwatcher’s Diary can do a lot more (archive your sightings lists in the phone, email the list, save to Dropbox, create a map of every sighting, post to your birding listserve, create “life” lists by dates, locations, notes ….), but this I think addresses your issues. I am a partner in Stevens Creek Software, the developer of Birdwatcher’s Diary, which was first released in June 2010 and upgraded with new features and improvements many times since then.

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