A Sunbird Professional Nature app
Itunes: $69.99, £52.99, 1.58gb, requires iOS 7.0 or later. Compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. Optimized for iPhone 5. Available from itunes.apple.com.
The Bird Songs of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East is described as a ‘Professional Nature’ app, and its price tag reflects that.
Let me give you an idea of its scope and scale. It covers the whole of the Western Palearctic – which, essentially, is Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. It has recordings of 801 species – that’s about 10% of the world’s birds. What it’s based on, the work of Andreas Schulze and Karl-Heinz Dingler, is a collection of bird sounds that took 17 CDs to contain it! Clearly, that lot wasn’t very portable – the app of course, definitely is. It includes 2817 songs and calls adding up to over 19 hours of listening. I checked it out on an iPad mini 2 (16gb).
Start screen, taxonomy and language
The start screen can be set up in one of three ways.
My preferred modes are the gallery mode which groups all the species into 87 categories, each with its own thumbnail photo as your entry point, and the category view, which gives you a list of the taxonomic groupings in the left hand column.
Alternatively, you can arrange the 801 species in an alphabetical list in a column down the left side of the screen – but arranging things taxonomically, as in the other two views, makes more sense to me.
A bit of taxonomic knowledge will help you to make sense of, and find your way around, this app. In the gallery mode for example, there’s a picture of a Common Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus labelled ‘Flycatchers’. Touch the photo and it takes you into the flycatchers and the chats. The category view is easier to work with in this regard – here, the same group is listed as ‘Flycatchers, Chats’. This view isn’t completely intuitive to work with though – the Hippolais warblers are found in the ‘Acrocephalid Warblers’ category for example.
If you’re wondering what taxonomy the app adopts, it’s based on Howard and Moore, but with some changes based on molecular biology. The main text can be set to English or German, and when you get to a species screen, its name appears in three languages – English, Latin and German for example, though you can change each of these to any of 20 languages – useful if you’re travelling and want to know the local vernacular name of a species. But if you can’t read Russian or Traditional Japanese you might struggle with those two options…
There’s also a search function where you can enter a species name, or part of it, to find what you’re looking for. You can access this function from any of the start screens or species pages.
The species pages
The taxonomic approach falls down when you enter via the gallery or category approach. After selecting a group, the species in that group appear in alphabetical rather than taxonomic order, which is a shame. It means for example, that the different genera of plovers don’t all clump together, so American Golden Plover Pluvialis dominica is five species away from European Golden Plover P. apricaria which is eight species away from Pacific Golden Plover P. fulva.
Once you have found the species you want all you do is touch its photo or name to select it. One thing I really liked in this app is the inclusion of one or two photos of each species (there are 1331 in total), which is not what anyone is likely to buy the app for, but is a nice bonus.
The bulk of each species screen is taken up by the track listing and the corresponding loudness diagram and spectrogram – a line tracks progress along these when you play a recording. I’ve written more about the recordings themselves and how they are organised in the next section.
There is a distribution map for each species, and, in a ‘description’ section, some text about each species. The English in this part isn’t perfect but it’s OK and includes IUCN Red List status and the weight of the bird among other things. When you can get online there’s a link to whatever Wikipedia has to say about each species. There is also a ‘similar’ function, but don’t get too excited about it. What I’d like this to do is draw my attention to species that sound similar, and give me some pointers to help split them. It doesn’t do that. It doesn’t highlight the fact that Great Tits Parus major can make a ‘pink’ call which sounds very like a Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs. What it does is connect you to species that, broadly, are taxonomically similar… And it doesn’t seem to do that consistently either. For Great Tit, similar means Coal, Marsh, Sombre and Willow Tit, three of which are in a different genus. And when you go back from ‘similar’ it takes you back to the first similar species on the list, not to the species you started with.
This app also has a facility to record your sightings and will automatically record the place, time and GPS co-ordinates.
The sound recordings
For each species, the recordings are divided into a number of tracks, and many of the tracks are divided into sub-tracks. The numbers vary from species to species. Great Tit has three tracks and a total of 46 sub-tracks – 21 recordings of song, 22 of calls and three of the calls of the young. Where else could you get that diversity of recordings?
Chaffinch has eight tracks, including the North African subspecies, the Central Tunisian subspecies, the song and calls of canariensis and the calls of palmae. Black-browed Albatross Thalassarche melanophris has just one recording and African Ostrich Struthio camelus has two. The recordings are organised well with, typically, a track of songs, followed by one of calls, and then one of young birds.
I chose ten species to analyse, birds whose sounds, at least in part, I know reasonably well. I listened to all of the sub-tracks for each of these ten species. It’s subjective, but I rated the quality of the recordings as very good or good, and mostly the former. I also wanted to see if the sounds that I know of those birds were included – if there were sub-tracks that sounded like the songs and calls that I am familiar with. Mostly there were. I wasn’t sure that the Wren Troglodytes troglodytes song was quite right for how I hear them, and there was no sign of its ‘tack’ call. Great-spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major drumming didn’t quite hit the mark for me either. But mostly, the recordings matched well with my auditory memory.
A couple more niggles… some of the sub-tracks have comments along the lines of ‘from 0:54 onwards’ – but there is no counter, and while the tracks are labelled with letters on the spectrogram, the commentary differentiates between them with numbers!
On a more positive note, this app does introduce you to some wonderful sounds. Have a listen to Gray’s Grasshopper Warbler Locustella fasciolata. This is a song that is totally unlike the Grasshopper Warbler L. naevia that most European birders are much more familiar with.
This app describes itself as the most complete collection of songs for the area and the amount of recordings included is impressive. It is not an app for novice birders – they would struggle to know what Phyll. Warblers, Sylviid Warblers and Tree Warblers were – but it doesn’t claim to be.
I’m pleased that it includes a note that playback should be used carefully to avoid disturbance. Personally, I’m uncomfortable with playback being used at all if it’s just so that a birder can get a view of a bird, though if there’s a solid conservation reason for doing so that’s different.
If you have read the whole review, you will know that I don’t think this app is perfect. But it is very good. I’m certainly pleased to have it on my iPad.
Note: the version available on 5 June 2015 (v1.4.8) covers 802 species, has 1350 photographs and includes 2850 recordings.