Archive for category Field Guide

Cornell’s All About Birds Lab: Merlin

Since 2012, when the Cornell Lab of Ornithology first reported the development of Merlin™, an online bird identification tool, Cornell’s All About Birds Labs has been hard at work adding bells and whistles to Merlin’s know-how. Through collaboration with Visipedia, this summer The Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced the debut of their new computer vision technology app, Merlin Bird Photo ID. And wouldn’t you know it, the app does exactly what its name suggests – identifies birds in photographs.

Using the online Merlin Bird Photo ID tool is simple. Just drag and drop an image of any one of 400 North American bird species, identify when and where the photo was taken, drag a box identifying the bird from any background noise, and then click on the bill tip, eye, and tail tip to give Merlin a hint.

Digging through some crummy bird photos I have taken over the years, I decided to put Merlin (and my photography) to the test to see how well it performed.


Photo #1
Location: Concord, CA
Date: 7, March, 2015


Discussion: Having seen these fellows in my yard all spring, I knew beforehand that this neighborhood regular was a western bluebird (Sialia mexicana), but because I maxed out the zoom feature on my old cell phone, the photo was left with a watercolor-esque dappling that I thought might confuse the computer vision algorithm’s at work here.

I was right.

Merlin’s best matches led with a male hooded merganser (breeding male) and an adult American robin. Hopefully, anyone with any sense would know enough to dismiss those outright and click through to “More Results.” Still, even after fiddling with the settings several times (knowing that the first time I attempted to identify this bird a week ago, I remember western bluebird falling within the first ten suggestions, this time around western bluebird was Merlin’se 23rd choice.

Clearly, the caveat that “high quality images of birds in typical poses work best” holds true here.

Photo #2
Location: Bakersfield, CA
Date: 4 November, 2011


Discussion: When I first caught a glimpse of this bird in flight at a distance in the Wind Wolves Preserve north of the Grapevine, for a moment I thought I might have seen something a little more exotic like a prairie or peregrine falcon; but deep down, I’ve always known this was an American kestrel (Falco sparverius). Merlin confirms it.


Photo #3
Location: Clearlake, CA
Date: 20 June, 2010


Discussion: If you look closely, you’ll see this photo isn’t exactly fair – there aren’t one, but two birds awkwardly posed against the tree in this pine-oak woodland. When I first saw this pair of woodpeckers, what was most remarkable about them – second only to the outlandish ruckus they and their fledglings were raising at the time – was their remarkable size. Seeing as how pileated woodpeckers (Hylatomus pileatus) are the largest woodpecker in the United States (second only to the presumed extinct ivory-billed woodpecker), their size is one of the primary traits that makes them so easy to identify in the field.

But, Merlin doesn’t know how big the bird in my photo was. Nevertheless, pileated woodpecker is Merlin’s first and only suggestion.


So despite my clumsy attempts at wildlife photography, Merlin Bird Photo ID pulls through in a pinch, even if it needs hand-holding when tricky photographs are at issue. In truth, that’s no different than catching a fleeting glimpse of a hooded sparrow and trying to narrow down your choices between a dark-eyed junco and a spotted towhee. Whether you are flipping between bird IDs suggested by Merlin or flipping between pages in your field guide, in the end it comes down to the birder to make the final call.


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Book Review: Trees of Western North America

Trees of W N Amerk10216Trees of Western North America, by Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson, Princeton University Press (, 2014, 560 pages, $29.95

In this latest installment in the Princeton Field Guides series, botanists and ecologists Richard Spellenberg, Christopher J. Earle, and Gil Nelson have introduced two new guides to the trees of North America, Trees of Western North America (reviewed here) and its companion guide, Trees of Eastern North America.

With Trees of Western North America, users will have at their fingertips a guide to the identification of 630 tree species accompanied by detailed color paintings, regional interstate range maps, and a Quick ID that summarizes key tree characteristics. For every species, the illustrations depict tree form, branches and twigs, leaves, fruits, flowers, and bark. Given the number of trees tackled here, the text is understandably brief but thorough, drilling down to the bare essentials. Still, most accounts close with notes describing any particulars that make each species unique: conservation status, varieties, hybrids, history. Whether you’re faced with a saguaro or a sequoia, a hawthorn or a hemlock, this easy guide will surely get you to the birch in time.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Raptor ID and Waterfowl ID Webinar Series

Cornell Lab BannerThis fall, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in conjunction with Cornell University, is offering two bird identification webinar series: the Raptor ID Series and the Waterfowl ID Series (a third, the Shorebird ID Series, is already underway). These webinar series for the public, taught by instructor Dr. Kevin McGowan, are designed to help beginner birders hone their identification skills through live, interactive one-hour sessions using photographs, videos, and sound recordings.

The Raptor ID Series (October 6 – November 3, 2014) includes (1) How to Get Started, (2) Other Things to Use, (3) Buteos, (4) Accipiters, Falcons, and Kites, and (5) Eagles, Vultures, and Others.

The Waterfowl ID Series (November 10 – December 8, 2014) includes (1) The Most Important Things to Know, (2) What Else Can You Use?, (3) Dabbling Ducks, (4) Diving Ducks, and (5) Not Everything That Swims is a Duck.

Both series cover everything from beginning identification through shape, color pattern, behavior, size, habitat, range, and calls, as well as specific characteristics for keying out most common North American raptors and waterfowl.

Each series consists of 5 webinar sessions, with registration fees ranging between $9.99 per session (Cornell Lab members) to $12.99 per session (non-members). Although Cornell University does not offer academic credits for these webinars, there is no question the price is right for beginner birders.

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Audubon’s Hummingbirds at Home

HummingbirdAppHummingbird enthusiasts will rejoice at the Audubon Society’s newest app, Hummingbirds at Home, a tool to crowdsource scientists’ understanding of hummingbird behavior in response to climate change. Like tiny, well oiled machines, these flying aces carefully sync their migration and foraging patterns in time with the bloom periods of their nectar sources. But as climate change increasingly gunks up the works, these incremental changes – slippages in bloom periods, anomalous weather patterns, drought – could trigger a tectonic slip in hummingbirds’ ability to forage and breed. By monitoring how and when hummingbirds nectar in gardens around the world, scientists hope to track these changes and how – or more importantly, if – hummingbirds are able to adapt. Too, by tapping into homeowner’s backyards, scientists get a glimpse into how hummingbirds interact with artificial nectar sources (feeders).

The app is free; download it, and you are ready to start logging time in the backyard. The app allows you to set up a patch in your backyard for repeat observations throughout the season, or simply log single observations if you do your birding through the kitchen window when you do dishes. The app’s website offers two great tutorial videos that walk you through how to get set up, and the easy interface includes a simple guide to identify and log hummingbird species and nectar sources, even your feeder.

True: your participation will give the scientists behind Hummingbirds at Home a window into hummingbird behavior. But on a more personal level, it will give you a window into the lives of your neighbors – the winged ones that careen through your yard like spastic fairies, of course.

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Book Review: Rare Birds of North America

rarebirdsk10101Rare Birds of North America, by Steve N. G. Howell, Ian Lewington, and Will Russell, Princeton University Press (, 2014, 448 pages, $35.00

Though I’m a rank and file wildlife biologist, I consider myself more a birdwatcher than a birder.  So it was with some surprise when I cracked open Rare Birds of North America to find that this new guide to rare North American birds dealt not in threatened or endangered species, but in vagrant species – those that turn up in scarce numbers (averaging 5 or fewer) at locations atypical of their natural range during migration events. Knowing this is key to appreciating the scope of this guide, which looks at some 262 straggler species who – whether by misorientation or weather or bad directions – run the risk of waking up one morning to find a gaggle of bino-eyed birders ogling them to check another vagrant off their life list.

Vagrancy is a curious thing in birds, a phenomenon poorly understood even today. But as authors Howell, Lewington, and Russell so carefully explain in the introduction, there are no shortage of explanations for how migratory birds stray off course. Birds are their own pilots with an array of navigational tools at their disposal, be it reading the landscape by sight, following celestial features (stars, sun, moon), or following the Earth’s magnetic field. But like pilots, their tools can be hampered by inclement weather or poor data, causing birds to turn back from exhaustion or give in to prevailing headwinds. Similarly, whether their migratory patterns are learned or innate, a miscalculation of time, distance, or environmental cues (barometric pressure, wind direction) can lead birds to over- or undershoot their destinations. Every species is different, but certain vagrants in North America are more common than others (East Asian species typically occur in western North America, Western Eurasian species typically occur in eastern North America), and shrewd birders keen on bird migration and weather systems can predict vagrants with surprising accuracy (see, for example, Derek Lovitch’s How to be a Better Birder).

Once the basis and reasoning for vagrant birds occurring in North America is established, Rare Birds… spills into a field guide to said rarities. Not a guide you’d necessarily lug around in your pants pocket – odds are if you’re chasing vagrants through the woods, you’ve got your eyes glued to your binoculars, not your bird guide – but surely one you’d consult as you planned your trip, on the plane as you share airspace with fellow migrants, or in the passenger seat as you hurtle towards your destination. The species accounts are quick and clean, with an emphasis on a description of their distribution and status (essentially, where they should be, and where vagrants have turned up) backed by a discussion of vagrancy patterns and field identification. Ian Lewington’s illustrations are exceptional, inside and out. The cover illustration of a Siberian accentor looks like a gritty, bokeh-styled field photograph I would be proud to have taken. So if you take your birds rare, don’t miss out on this impressive testament to the study of vagrancy in North American birds.

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