A Caution For Those Using Sound Identification Apps

A Song Thrush singing away but can you identify and record it if you don't see the bird?

BTO article -

Being able to recognise birds without seeing them and locate some of our most elusive species is made possible by learning the songs and calls of various bird species. However, if you are new to birdwatching, or have little experience with a wide range of species, this can be a daunting prospect. A growing number of smartphone apps, such as Merlin Bird ID, Warblr, and BirdNET, offer a useful companion when learning bird songs and calls. These remarkable apps use your phone to listen to the soundscape and attempt to identify the birds present. Although excellent for learning there are some issues to be aware of when undertaking bird monitoring and recording. The first is that the suggestions these apps make are not always completely accurate, and each suggested species should be verified by either seeing the birds in real life or, at the least, comparing the song or call to other recordings (Xeno-canto has a huge searchable database of bird calls and sounds you can use to compare your recordings too). If you see the bird as well as hear it this is more likely to stick in long-term memory.

Secondly, you should always confirm whether a species is likely to be present in the region at that time of year and in that sort of habitat before relying on any unexpected suggestions. Examples of suggestions that these apps have got wrong include a Blackbird that was suggested as a Golden Oriole, and a calling Chaffinch that was suggested as Redstart.

So although these apps are great for learning because they are not 100% reliable, you should never add species to a BirdTrack list purely on the basis of an app identification; only species that you have confirmed by other means (e.g. seeing the bird) should be added to a BirdTrack list. After all, a complete list is a list of what you identified.

End BTO article

The Goldcrest many older birdwatchers can no longer hear Goldcrests but an App can!

We have had recent experience of this on some of our Birdwatching Trips Tours and again this showed these Apps should be used with caution, and not as a record of a species being present until backed up with a sighting or having an experienced observer/listener to check the sound. In Finland recently one of guests announced "There is a Great Bittern calling!" having used his Merlin App. We all stood and listened and sure enough we heard a call but not a Bittern but a distant dog barking! The fact we were in a conifer forest miles from any reedbeds also just about ruled out it being a Bittern! This happened on numerous occasions on that tour and other tours, though the App was often right, but often isn't great really. The best way to learn bird calls and songs is to spend lots of time in the field watching birds make their calls and deliver their songs. If you can go out with a very experienced bird watcher, listener, and pick up their knowledge by listening and watching, it takes time but that way the knowledge is good and you retain it far better than using an App. The other disadvantage with an App is that it gives you multiple bird names at one time, not very often will there be just one bird calling in isolation and the App can and does pick up birds that some birders can't hear - classic cases are Goldcrest and Grasshopper Warbler. The App may tell you there is a Goldcrest calling but you can't hear it so don't know where it is or worse still you might mis-identify a sound you can hear as the Goldcrest! App's are helpful but please use with caution and as the BTO article says do not submit records unless they are confirmed by sight, photos or an experienced person.

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