The Merlin Bird App has been around for a while, but until recently lacked any Australian data. This has now changed and it has two data sets covering northern Australia as well as the east coast and southern Australia. The App works on both Apple and Android devices, and it is free.
The data sets are based on information and images collected via eBird. If you have been an eBird contributor you have been part of it all. From the Apple Appstore or Google Play Store, just download the App and the relevant data files, such as South-eastern Australia, for your area. The data files are quite large and take a while to download.
Unlike the other available bird apps, Merlin provides two very useful functions that provide assistance with identification:
- Photo ID – identification of a bird directly from a photo
- Bird ID – a keying-out procedure where you answer questions and the possibilities are quickly narrowed down, which makes identification much easier
You don’t need to have the image on your phone. It works on images displayed on your camera back or a printout.
Having tested the app on photos on my phone, camera back images and even the cover of my book I can say that the results are impressive, although not yet 100%. Oddly, it failed to identify a clear image of an Owlet Nightjar, but correctly identified many species that I threw at it, such as robins, thornbills, a Barking Owl and even a mixed image of a Powerful Owl with downy chick.
If it can’t identify an image it offers to let you assist with your suggested identification and sharing of your images if you wish. In this way it will gradually become more accurate, based on the input of a range of people.
You can download two different data sets – north and east-south. It pays to make sure you have set your location as this helps with the accuracy of the App. The large data download ensures the ability to use the software without a network connection, which is handy when you are in more remote areas.
When you don’t have a photo, you can answer questions about a bird . These include:
Location – you can use GPS on your phone, enter a location manually or select from a map
Date – helps with migratory species
Size – a comparison set of outlines is provided
Colour – main colour that you select from a palette
General habitat and behaviour – fence or wire, trees, bushes and such like
And then you a provided with a list of potential species along with images, calls, distribution and general information. Again, you can confirm the accuracy, which helps improve the App.
Although not a full taxonomic key, the keying-out process is simple and easy to use. It should help beginners get going, and well as assist more experienced birders to narrow down possibilities.
What else can I say? It works as expected, is quite accurate and will quickly become more so as increasing numbers of people contribute. And more significantly it demonstrates the power of citizen science in producing very useful tools.