Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 30, 2014

Bird Identification Apps

Getting really good at bird identification takes time and patience. But the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Columbia Engineering have each developed a free app for iPhones that will help you figure out individual birds in moments without any understanding of bird taxonomy, no patience required.

The Cornell Lab’s free app, called Merlin, which will also be available for Android this month, helps you identify a bird when you type in basic information about where and when you saw it, what general size it is,  what color it is (you can give up to three main colors), and what the bird was doing. When I entered in a bird the size of a goose or larger on the ground that was gray and red, seen at my location in June, Merlin gave only one result—Turkey Vulture—when I was thinking of Sandhill Crane. It did add the Sandhill Crane, and also Red-tailed Hawk and Wild Turkey, when I changed my location to Arlington, Wisconsin.

When I gave Merlin the choice of a robin-sized bird on the ground that was orange, black, and white, the app gave me 8 choices, including the Brown Thrasher I was thinking of. When I gave it the choice of a bird between sparrow and robin size, buff or brown and white, on the ground, it gave 20 choices, with the Veery I was thinking of as the first one.

To help us verify the right choice, Merlin supplies several photographs and a sound recording for each species. Merlin’s database started with only 50 species, but once the Cornell team got it working well, they’ve been increasing the database rapidly—at this point it’s up to about 354 species, and they are constantly adding new ones.

Columbia Engineering uses a different approach to visual identification—digital photographs, with their iTunes app, BirdSnap. You have to take a photo of your bird using your iPhone’s camera, and then touch the eye and touch the tail, and the app tries to figure out your bird. To work, it needs a clear, fairly large photo, and sometimes seems to get results only with a complete side profile. In some cases, it yielded inconclusive results if just one branch passed in front of the bird, even if almost all of the bird was clearly visible. Since I was testing BirdSnap indoors, I just used shots of some really clear photos I’d already taken with my digital SLR and telephoto lens. No way could I take better photos than those directly through my iPhone!

When I entered a photo of a Ruddy Turnstone, BirdSnap first gave just two choices: Killdeer or Burrowing Owl (?!). I think the problem was in pointing precisely onto the eye and tail—My fingers aren’t that big, but it was hard touching it exactly right so the point ended directly on the eye. The second time I tried, BirdSnap gave me two choices again—this time, Killdeer and the right one—Ruddy Turnstone. I neglected to get screen captures of those attempts. In subsequent trials with the exact same photo, I got different results.

Next I tried a fine photo of a Yellow Warbler perched on a branch, clearly showing the bird’s face, back and tail.

The result was “Visual Recognition Failed.”

Another photo I’d taken of that same bird from the side yielded the right answer.

A fine photo of a Golden-winged Warbler from below showing the side of the face and the complete underside, and a clear photo of a Scarlet Tanager from behind, also showing the side of the face, both gave that “Visual Recognition Failed” result, too.

A good photo of a Common Yellowthroat from the side gave two choices—the Yellow-throated Warbler and the Common Yellowthroat. I found that a little confusing, since the two species don’t look at all alike, but at least one choice was the right one. Subsequent trials got other results, and one didn't include the Common Yellowthroat.

BirdSnap gave just one choice—the right one—for excellent profile shots of White-throated Sparrow and Chipping Sparrow. I was shocked and pleased that it correctly gave the right answer to my photo of a Veery.

It misidentified a Gray-cheeked Thrush as a Veery when my location was set to Duluth today, but got it right when I set the location to all of the United States. A photo of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker yielded two choices—the right one, and also Hairy Woodpecker. When I showed it a photo of a Prairie Warbler, it said it didn’t have any choices found in my area at this time of year—that’s quite true of the Prairie Warbler—but did show Prairie Warbler as one of the possibilities from outside my area.

When I set "here and now" as my location data, it misidentified a clear photo of a Blackburnian Warbler as a Black-throated Green Warbler, but got it right when I set the location as the United States. Blackburnian Warblers are fairly common in summer here, and BirdSnap does show a correct range map for the species, so that seemed mystifying. Cornell has much more up-to-date and accurate information about bird ranges, but even their Merlin app didn’t seem to realize that Sandhill Crane is a possibility in my county in June—indeed, one was reported just two days before on Cornell’s eBird.

BirdSnap will be useful for photographers who want help identifying birds in their photos, as long as the photos are high quality and show the entire bird, almost always from the side. Merlin seems much more useful, I suspect even for photographers who want to figure out what bird they’re seeing.

Both apps are both far from yielding 100 percent accurate results, but for people who don’t want to get into the nitty gritty discipline of bird identification, actually learning how to figure out birds on their own, Merlin and BirdSnap will often give the right names for birds seen, and as time goes by and they are refined, both promise to grow increasingly more accurate. For those of us who do enjoy tackling our own identifications, they're both fun, and free, diversions.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Update on My Little Chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill

This April I noticed that a chickadee coming to my feeder has a deformed bill. The upper mandible was elongated and curved strongly to the bird’s left. I ran out and bought some mealworms, and when I cranked open the window it instantly alighted on my hand, so I knew this had to be an older chickadee used to my feeding it mealworms. I was doing a big year in 2013, and didn’t want my chickadees to be disappointed whenever I didn’t turn up at the window, so the last time I’d been hand-feeding them was in mid-2012.

I took lots of photos and tried to get a local bird bander to come and band the bird so I could with solid proof track it as an individual, but spring is a hugely busy season for everyone working with birds. Meanwhile, I had several trips out of town this spring. That weirdly shaped beak would make it difficult for the little chickadee to pull out food from many kinds of crevices, so to make sure it was getting at least some good food, when I was gone, Russ started putting mealworms in a little container by the window. My pair of nesting chickadees was also taking mealworms from there, but the one with the deformed beak was able to get its share, too. The chickadees never once showed up when Russ was sitting at the window waiting—I’ve noticed that virtually every one that comes to the window recognizes me personally. That ability to discriminate among people is a good thing, even if it meant that Russ didn’t get the pleasure of feeding them by hand.

In May, when I returned from one of my trips and called in the injured chickadee, I noticed two developments. First, the elongated bill was shorter—the slender but overlong tip had apparently broken off at some point, and the beak wasn’t looking as weird anymore. But second, the bird’s right foot was deformed—missing all three front toes. Since I hadn’t actually seen the bird break its beak, this of course could have been a different individual, so I carefully examined all the photos I’d taken of it in April. In every one showing the right foot, I could clearly see the stump where the missing toes should have been.

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill and foot

It’s tricky for a chickadee to groom with this kind of deformity: chickadees use their front claws for scratching and preening that side of their body, and use their toes to balance on one side when scratching and preening the other side. Now that I realized what was going on, I started paying closer attention to the chickadee’s behavior, and found it occasionally wedging the damaged foot in one rotten spot on my box elder so it could balance while preening with the other foot. So far I haven’t seen it using the bad foot to preen, but it’s not looking disheveled, so it must have figured out some way to take care of its plumage on that side.

This chickadee always comes to my feeder alone, so its deformities apparently disqualified it in the competition for mates. My mated pair is still hanging out together when coming for mealworms—they must not have a full clutch of eggs to incubate yet—but the injured one doesn’t seem to be trying to worm its way into a threesome. It must be sad and frustrating for it to not be able to do what birds and bees and educated fleas do in spring, but it doesn’t seem to feel sorry for itself. It only comes two or three times a day, and so is clearly getting plenty of natural food, but as long as it keeps returning, I’ll keep looking out for it.

Every chickadee is as much an individual as every human is, but to most chickadees, we people are a faceless blur they live with but don’t deal with individually. And most chickadees are pretty much all the same to us. But right now, I can pick out one little chickadee from all the others as a unique individual, and that one little chickadee picks out me as different, too. When that little guy appears and our eyes meet, I think of riding the New York City subway, among a faceless mass of humanity, and my daughter suddenly appears. That moment of recognition and joy is exactly the point where a true friendship can begin.

Sandy Gillum's Oriole

Sandy Gillum's oriole

My friend Sandy Gillum, one of Wisconsin’s foremost authorities on loons, has a winter home in Florida. She recently sent me an email about an interesting experience she had there this spring. Sandy writes:
Every day on St. George Island is a great day, but this was one I will remember.
After a morning rain, the sky cleared and a stiff off shore wind [from the northwest] was blowing when my dog Mari and I were heading home along the shore. Mari was spooking Willets and Sanderlings and I was simply bracing against the gusts. In my peripheral vision was a flash of orange. An incoming migrating Northern Oriole glided right onto the top of a 4-foot wave, was tossed onto shore and hit by a second wave. Realizing the little male was a going to be a goner with the next wave, I shifted into "high gear" and swooped him up. He was caked with sand in eyes, ears, nares, and underwing. His eyes were half mast and he was exhausted, soaked with salt water, and very cold. 
I ran home ([a] relative [term when one has] 7-decade knees), rinsed his eyes and beak, and wrapped him in layers of toilet paper to soak water off his feathers. I also offered him fresh water, sugar water, and fresh orange juice. He let me dust off much of the sand. He was exhausted, and seemed to like the warmth of my hand. When he would take no more fluids and was a bit drier, Don and I put him in a beer box in the laundry room where it is warm. 
Sandy continues:
He slept or rested for over 4 hours. Once he began to move a bit, Don put a small branch in the box so he could perch normally, rather than sit "flat footed". After a few more feedings of juice his eyes were open, he perched on the branch, and was shaking and preening his feathers and ridding himself of residual sand.
Thinking that this guy had had a rough day, rather than releasing him on the island to face a flight across the sound into the wind, we drove him across the causeway and released him on the NOAA Estuary Reserve. He took one look at me and was "outta here"…headed north! He was beautiful! 
Wonder what tale he will share on his breeding ground?
Over the years, probably every one of us has been in a situation in which we’ve found a bird in distress. Sandy Gillum obviously has had more opportunities to deal with birds in the hand than most of us, and knew exactly what to do to give this beautiful little oriole his best chance at survival. It’s becoming in vogue for people to ridicule wildlife rehabilitation as wasting time, energy, and money on individual birds that were probably best weeded from the wild populations anyway. But the bizarre vagaries of weather during spring and fall migration, along with the huge number of human-created hazards, take out a great many fit birds. The lessons we learn in helping individual birds in need inform our conservation techniques when we’re working with endangered species. I’d suggest that one of the finest components of our essential humanity is compassion informed by knowledge. My friend Sandy embodies both a warm heart and a keen mind. Her fast and knowledgeable response kept a bird in need from being reduced to a bit of beach detritus, leaving this earth a little richer and more vivid.



Back in 2005, when I was working for an optics retailer, I started getting emails from soldiers and contractors serving in the Middle East, asking me to help them identify various birds they were seeing. A great many of them noticed and photographed one particularly striking bird. It has head feathers that it can raise in a weird helmet-style crest or lower into a funky pileated woodpecker-type crest. It’s soft brown on the face, breast, upper back, and belly, and its lower back and wings are boldly marked with black and white horizontal bars. And its bill is long, slender, and curved slightly downward.


It was easy to identify these birds as Hoopoes—the only surviving members of the family Upupidae, found in Eurasia and Africa. And it was easy to see how they caught the eyes of so many Americans—they were striking and funky and different from any birds we can see here. I’d read a little about Hoopoes—all belonging to either one or two species depending on which taxonomist you talk to. Everyone considers them to be the only representative of their family, which some taxonomists place in the order also containing kingfishers and bee-eaters, while others place in its very own order, Upupiformes. I’d always thought their scientific name, Upupa epops, is one of the coolest of all. And when soldiers started sending me photos of them, I became increasingly obsessed about seeing one myself. The Hoopoe rose to a top position on my list of most wanted birds, second only to the Cuban Tody. When I was asked to go to Africa to check out some new Zeiss binoculars, the Hoopoe was easily my most wanted species. When the trip plans changed to Europe, I knew I’d not be seeing hundreds of really cool birds, but the one I’d most badly wanted to see would still be a possibility.

Sure enough, I finally saw my first Hoopoes last week in Austria. The birds were too far away for perfect photos, but I got splendid views through the binoculars I was testing, and got at least marginal photos to serve as proof that I really did see these amazing birds.

Our guide, Gerold Dobler, knew where to find a family group, the young just recently fledged. Although the parent birds wisely kept the young away from the road and our group, we could see them perched on a fence and feeding on the ground. Hoopoes insert their slender, pointed bill into the ground to probe for insects, and when they locate one, special muscles on their face allow them to open the bill with force against the soil to grab the morsel. The fledglings seemed to stay close to their parents—I’m sure that like the woodpecker families I’ve observed, the parents continue to feed them as the young first observe and then imitate proper hunting strategies. The birds were too far off for me to pick up on the calls described by their onomatopoeic name. But more and more, I’m finding that my travels are serving as scouting trips for when my husband Russ retires and we can return to the best places together. Russ isn’t really a birder himself, but he is the one who told his mother to give me my first field guide and binoculars way back in 1974, and I know he’ll be just as taken with Hoopoes as those Americans serving in the Middle East were when they sent me photos and descriptions. The world seems increasingly filled with hatred and strife, much centered in the Middle East and Africa where Austria’s Hoopoes spend their winters. But as long as Hoopoe families are still raising young, and people are still taking pleasure in watching them, we have at least a tiny bit of evidence that something is still going right with the world.


Birding in Europe!

White Stork

I just got home from a whirlwind trip to Europe, spending four days birding in Germany, Austria, and Hungary while testing out a groundbreaking new line of Zeiss binoculars. Of the 150 or so bird species seen by our group, I added 96 lifers, including two of my most wanted species in the universe, the Hoopoe and Bee-eater.



Thrilling as seeing so many new birds was, it was also extraordinarily fun to see in such foreign settings a great many birds that were already on my lifelist. Some of our most abundant birds in America were introduced from Europe and the UK.

The common city pigeons all over here in America are equally abundant in Europe. There, too, these birds are feral—most lines of genuinely wild Rock Pigeons have disappeared now, swamped out genetically by domesticated breeds. Eurasian Collared-Doves, which have become established over much of the US, are all over the place in their natural habitats, too. But I had to look over every pigeon I saw because Turtle Doves and Wood Pigeons were among them, too, even in cities.

Turtle Dove

Wood Pigeon

House Sparrows are common there, but I think I saw even more Tree Sparrows. Like House Sparrows, Eurasian Tree Sparrows were introduced to the United States, but only became established in the St. Louis area. Occasionally one is reported as far as Minnesota, but sightings away from the core area in Missouri and Illinois are spotty. These handsome little sparrows are one of my favorite birds. Most of my sightings of them have been at my friend Susan’s feeding station in a suburb of St. Louis. In Europe I saw them just about everywhere.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Starlings are of course very common and easy to see in as many habitats in Europe as they are here in America. And I loved seeing Mute Swan families in just about every pond and lake. These beautiful birds, who inspired the story of The Ugly Duckling, are native to Europe, and apparently doing splendidly there. Here in America, where wetland ecosystems are composed of different species, Mute Swans have become an ecological problem, because our own native birds didn’t evolve with the aggressively territorial swans. In Europe, the lovely experience of watching these beautiful birds and their cygnets wasn’t clouded in the least by ecological concerns.

European Goldfinch

Several years ago I saw a European Goldfinch associating with American Goldfinches at a feeder in northern Minnesota. A small population of the European species, which is stunningly beautiful and colorful, has become established in the Chicago area due to escapes of captive birds. Seeing them in their native Europe was much more deeply satisfying.


Last month I added Garganey to my lifelist when one of these striking European teals showed up at Crex Meadows in Wisconsin—a first state record. That poor tragic bird was desperately trying to attract the attentions of female Blue-winged Teals, but they all were closely attended by their own mates. Now I got to see Garganeys in their natural homes, with their natural mates.

Tufted Duck

In December, I added Tufted Duck to my lifelist when I saw one at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California—that male has apparently returned to the same small area for several winters now. Again, it was cooler to see this bird in its natural habitat, with plenty of its own kind for company.

Although seeing and hearing so many familiar birds was truly satisfying, seeing so many lifers—birds I’ve never seen in the wild in my whole life—was even more thrilling. I'll be writing about them in coming days and weeks.