Hiking at a nearby wildlife refuge was my escape during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Instead of people watching at a crowded shopping center, I escaped to the woods where I wouldn’t see another person for miles and instead watched the birds. Even today, with lockdowns lifted, I would rather wander the trails with a coffee and a camera rather than a mall. However, I’m still a novice birder and I don’t always know where to find the birds, or even what the name of that little brown bird in the branches is. And then my favorite birding buddy — my mother — showed me an app called Merlin Bird ID.
Merlin Bird ID is an app for both iOS and Android created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Birds in the Hand LLC. But, it’s not just an app that will show you the same things as a Google search. I used the Merlin Bird ID app for the first time while out testing the Canon RF 800mm f5.6L lens. And while the app helped me ID new birds, more importantly, it actually helped me find the birds.
The app has a feature called sound ID. Give the app access to your microphone, and it will listen and identify the birds that are singing. The screen will list the different birds singing, then highlight the one that is currently making noise.
This is a huge help for new and intermediate birders. For one, I could quickly determine if it was a common bird that I could easily photograph at my backyard feeder or a less common visitor worth continuing to search for. By separating the different bird calls I was hearing, I could also follow one particular call and narrow it down to one tree rather than several.
After my mom used her phone to locate a Dickcissel, a bird I hadn’t yet photographed, I downloaded the app and returned to the refuge the next day. Using the sound feature, I found and photograph one of my favorite birds — the Indigo Bunting. As I hiked, I would pause and let the app listen to the birdsong. When I saw the app list the bunting, I started searching the trees for a tiny bold blue bird. The Indigo Bunting is about the size of one leaf on most trees, so I wasn’t having much luck finding him, even once I followed his call to two close trees.
I nearly gave up twice, but as I started hiking back, I kept hearing the same call, and, sure enough, the app told me I was still hearing an Indigo Bunting. I followed the sound through a bend in the trail and, finally, about 30 minutes after first hearing one, I saw him perched on the edge of a tree, singing his little blue heart out. I finally got the shot that I wanted of my favorite bird — and I wouldn’t have gotten the shot without the Merlin app.
While the bird song is my favorite feature, the app can also help ID a bird by selecting where you saw it, how big it was, and the color. The app can help ID birds if you upload a photo.
Don’t try to download the app during a shoot, though; you’ll need to download the app and then the bird packs for your area. (Otherwise, the app would hog a lot of space on your phone.) The photo ID is also a separate download.
I’ve tried several different types of photography apps, but Merlin has definitely earned a spot in my favorites.