5 free apps to help you identify and love birds

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Learning to love birds has changed my life.

I got hooked on birdwatching during the pandemic. In the presence of birds, I feel happier. My always-on brain is both more engaged and calmer.

The first time I saw a yellow warbler two years ago, I typed excitedly into my phone, “VERY YELLOW!”

Learning to notice details like the splash of white on an American robin’s tail taught me to revel in the beauty all around me. On my routine neighborhood walks, I now grin at bird songs I ignored before and stop to smell the lilac bushes.

It’s no substitute for being outside but Twitter has helped me learn to identify birds and feel connected to others who feel bird joy.

That’s why I was bummed when Elon Musk came for bird nerds like me.

I want to tell you about a couple of cool bird-related Twitter accounts and how Musk’s policies have affected one of them. I’ll also suggest five other useful bird apps or websites.

Apps like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube are amazing communal spaces for hobbyists – whether you like birdwatching, painting or playing video games. But my experience is a lesson that you can’t rely on them.

Manhattan Bird Alert is a stream of photos and videos people have taken in Central Park and other New York City birdwatching hot spots.

I love looking at rad birds there – especially Flaco, the Eurasian eagle-owl who lived for years in the Central Park zoo and is now living free.

I also challenge myself to ignore the text of the tweets and try to identify birds from the images alone. I’m definitely still a beginner, but scrolling day after day has improved my bird ID skills.

My other Twitter account of choice is @mbalerter. It was programmed to automatically retweet experienced birders who want to alert others to rare or noteworthy birds they have just spotted in Manhattan.

On a Sunday afternoon in February, I raced out of the house when I saw an @mbalerter tweet. An American woodcock was spotted in a small park surrounded by Manhattan skyscrapers.

This goofy-looking, worm-slurping bird isn’t particularly unusual in New York but I had never seen one.

In person, the bird’s delicate feathers and oddball back-and-forth shimmy were more glorious than I imagined from photos. I got my “lifer,” as it’s called when you see a bird species for the first time.

But @mbalerter hit a snag

Last month, Musk’s Twitter said it would start charging accounts like @mbalerter tens of thousands of dollars a month to use Twitter software for automated alerts.

Some National Weather Service accounts initially said they’d cut back on tweeting tornado warnings or other emergency notifications. Public transit systems said they’d stop using Twitter for travel delay alerts. My favorite possums made plans to leave Twitter.

Last week, Twitter reversed its policy change for public service accounts. Transit, weather and other government services can keep tweeting automated alerts for free. But @mbalerter still has to pay.

David Barrett, the avid birder who runs @mbalerter and Manhattan Bird Alert, said he is now manually sending bird notification tweets by scrolling through his direct messages about notable sightings.

He’s worried that he won’t see a message about a rare bird in time for people to see it. And time is of the essence.

“Birds fly away,” Barrett said.

He told me that he hopes Musk will change his mind about charging for access to automated tweets. Or he suggested that Musk could include automated software as part of the $8-a-month Twitter Blue subscription service.

I emailed Musk to ask what he thought about Barrett’s suggestions. I didn’t hear back.

Bird alternatives to the bird app

Bird notifications are polarizing.

Some bird lovers say it’s disruptive to birds, particularly for sensitive species such as owls, to encourage people to flock to them. Other birders say that publicizing bird locations helps people learn to love birds and does them little harm. (You can read the American Birding Association’s code of ethics here.)

Regardless, Twitter seems to be declining in importance for birdwatchers, said Drew Weber, the project manager for the Merlin bird app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Many birdwatchers use the eBird app to keep public records of birds they’ve seen. (More on eBird in a minute.)

And rare bird alerts use private chat groups including on WhatsApp and Discord, Weber said. I have been too intimidated to try birdwatching listservs or messaging groups. On Twitter, I don’t need an invitation and it doesn’t matter that I’m a beginner birder.

I’m still using Barrett’s accounts but I’m resigned to Twitter becoming less useful for my hobby. I hope my experience encourages all of us to rely more on people than on technology to fuel our passions.

When I was in Florida on vacation a few months ago, I struck up a conversation with an experienced birdwatcher in a nature preserve.

John recommended several other places I should go to see birds, including a nearby beach. He said I might get lucky and spot a reddish egret, a long-legged wading bird that lives almost exclusively on the Gulf Coast. Maybe an app would have told me the same information but I doubt it.

I followed John’s recommendations and one morning, I caught a glimpse of a reddish egret. It was magnificent. Then it flew away.

Try these free apps, websites and accounts to find your own bird joy

Merlin Bird ID: If you hear a bird singing and are curious what species it is, click “Sound ID” and press record. The app taps into a database of bird calls and pops up a match between that chitter-chatter sound you’re hearing and a chimney swift.

Or tap “Start Bird ID” and enter a few details including your location and the bird’s size and primary colors. The app will suggest a few likely species. You can also choose “Explore Birds” to see common birds in your area.

All About Birds: This Cornell website lets you look up any bird in North America and see photos, hear its songs, learn about its diet and habits, and gets tips to identify it in the wild.

There are other incredible resources here, including online bird education courses and advice for backyard bird feeders.

Ebird app and website: Birders use the eBird app to record and save a list of the species they’ve seen when they’re out bird watching.

The eBird website is useful for travelers, too. When I was last in the Bay Area, I used eBird’s “hot spots” map to zoom into San Francisco and see where people had recently saved birdwatching checklists from the eBird app. It looked like lots of people had been birdwatching in Fort Mason Park so I went there, too.

EBird is complicated to use but Cornell has a free online course to get the most from its features.

Audubon Bird Guide: This app has many of the same features as Merlin, but I use both.

The Audubon app has more details about each bird and the “similar” tab can help if you’re not sure whether that tiny black and white bird is a black-and-white warbler, a blackpoll warbler or a black-capped chickadee.

Wild Bird Fund on Twitter: The New York wildlife rehabilitation and education center has inspiring and funny tweets about injured birds and other animals. I’m a sucker for the slow-motion videos of successfully rehabbed birds being released into the wild.

Birda: I have not tried this app yet. Molly Adams from the Feminist Bird Club mentioned this app that has social features in addition to keeping a list of bird you’ve seen.

I am no bird expert, so tell me what tech you use to better appreciate our feathered friends. Email me at shira.ovide@washpost.com

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