Birding App

merlin app

This cellphone app is a real game-changer if you are interested in finding lots of birds, especially the smaller ones that can be hard to see or identify.

Each morning during the summer months, I would see Cathy’s cell phone perched in our bedroom window while she occupied herself getting ready for the day. The phone would usually occupy that unusual space for about five minutes, then she would retrieve it, look at it, smile and put it in her pocket.

I caught on to this mysterious behavior when one morning she reported that we had evening grosbeaks outside the window. We have seen evening grosbeaks around the house before so that wasn’t terribly surprising, but we hadn’t actually seen one in quite a while. I asked her if she had seen one and she replied that no, she hadn’t seen one, but she had heard one. “How do you know what an evening grosbeak sounds like?” I asked. She responded that actually, she didn’t know, but that her cell phone did and had identified one among other birds that were calling outside our window that morning. Huh? Your cell phone did that?

Well, technically, an application or app, on the cell phone did that and has opened up a whole new level of birding for us. One of the first things we now do when entering an area is to stop and let the app run for a few minutes to see what might be around. The app will often identify half a dozen birds, giving us a clear idea of what we should be looking for.

Some might suggest that we are just being lazy. Why don’t we learn the bird calls and then just listen? Fair point, but in reality, this app can hear things we can’t. This is particularly true for me. I will see Cathy stop in the middle of a trail, cock her head and say, “Can you hear that?” “Hear what?” is usually my reply. “That bird singing.” I will listen closely, but seldom can hear it. With age-related hearing loss and a constant tinnitus ringing in my ears, I am destined to miss most of the singing that birds do, no matter how hard I try. Hence, the app has been a real game changer for me.

I have kept you in suspense long enough. The app that we are using is free and is called Merlin, a product of Cornell University. I have had this app on my phone as a visual bird identifier for years, but never realized it had this feature. It is very easy to use. When you open the app, it will have four options: Start Bird ID, Get Photo ID, Sound ID, and Explore Birds. All you have to do is click on Sound ID, then tap the microphone when the next screen comes up. You can record and save these recordings although for the most part we delete them to save memory space on our phones. One other thing. Although it doesn’t say so, it seems that this feature only works if you have location turned on. It is my guess that the program needs to get a rough idea of where you are in order to whittle down the choices.

To give you an idea of how this works, I will detail a birding trip last summer along the Henry’s Fork east of Ashton. We drove this route, popular with fishermen, and stopped periodically to listen. With the car off and no traffic, it was surprising what the app could “hear”. If we heard a bird but did not see it, we tried to determine where the sound was coming from (mostly Cathy’s job). Then we scanned the trees, shrubs and grasses until we found it. It also works in reverse. If you see a bird, but can’t quite identify it, let Merlin help you. Doing this we picked up several birds we would not have otherwise seen that day including a MacGillivray’s warbler and a cedar waxwing.

There are other apps including Smart Bird ID (for iPad), ChirpOMatic, and Picture Bird, that do the same thing. However, Merlin is free and ad-free and the others aren’t unless you pay for no ads. Picture Bird has an annual fee of $39.99, which seems pretty steep to me.

I hope you will try this app. I am confident that it will really improve your ability to find and identify birds.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho