Merlin Bird ID: Tips, Tricks, and Updates
Thumbnail image: Brian Sullivan/Macaulay Library
[LEO SACK] Okay. Welcome to today’s webinar. On Merlin Bird ID, tips, tricks and updates. Thank you all so much for joining us today. I want to start by mentioning that closed captioning is available, so if you’d like to see subtitles, please click on the closed caption button at the bottom of the video. Now, this is the latest in a series of webinars for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s virtual visitor center programs. And this summer, we are highlighting a bunch of the various mobile apps, citizen science programs, and other digital resources created by the Cornell Lab. So today’s topic is Merlin Bird ID. Which is a free mobile app from the Cornell Lab, and it’s one of the lab’s most well known resources. And so a lot of our audience, are probably already familiar with it, at least the basics of it, but there’s so much more to explore that I think this is going to be a really fascinating conversation.
So let’s do introductions. There’s actually three of us on today’s panel. So let’s take turns briefly introducing ourselves. So tell us who you are, your position at the lab, maybe something about your background, and what you’re bringing to this conversation about Merlin. I will start. My name is Leo Sack and I’m the public programs assistant on the lab’s visitor team, I’m an educator and my job is to help the public learn about the lab’s amazing resources. Now, I personally use Merlin nearly every day. Both as a teaching tool, and in my own personal bird watching adventures. But, I’m just a user of the app. I’m not one of the creators. So I will be facilitating today’s conversation. Drew, would you like to introduce yourself next?
[DREW WEBER] Sure, I’m Drew Weber, I’m the project coordinator for Merlin here at the Cornell Lab. My role is to expand Merle on the rest of the world and develop new and innovative ways for people to discover the birds around them and learn to identify them. I’ve been birding since I was a kid and loved everything to do with birding and technology, I feel fortunate to combine these two things every day for work.
[LEO SACK] Thank you, and Jenna, would you like to introduce yourself?
[JENNA CURTIS] My name is Jenna Curtis, I’m one of the project leaders at eBird, a community science program that helps to power Merlin, I think birds are the greatest thing ever and I love engaging people with the birds, which is what I do at eBird. And I’m here today to help answer questions, related to the connection between Merlin and eBird.
[LEO SACK] Awesome. So we have some real experts here, Drew, and Jenna, thank you both so much for being with us.
[DREW WEBER] Thanks for having us.
[JENNA CURTIS] Thanks.
[LEO SACK] My pleasure. Okay. Now, before we get too far, I want to explain to our audience, how today’s webinar will work. In a moment, we’ll get the conversation started and get everybody sort of on the same page about what Merlin is, how it works, and what new and exciting updates you guys have for us. And then, we’ll tackle questions submitted by audience members. For our audience who’s watching live, please type your questions into the chat window, and we will queue your questions up for discussion as well. And we’re going to share my screen real quick, so for the audience members here in our Zoom call, let me show you how to do this. You want to click on the chat button in the very bottom of the Zoom window. To open the chat window on the right, and this is part is important, so at the bottom of the chat box, where it says to, right above where you type in your question, you want to use this drop down menu and select all panelists and attendees, that’s the only way we will all see your question. Okay. So now, for those folks who are watching our webinar being streamed live on FaceBook, you can just use the FaceBook’s comment section and we will be monitoring that as well, and we’ll try to get to as many of those questions as we can from everybody. All right. So let’s get to a couple of questions to start things off here. Drew, could you please start us off with a ground floor introduction to Merlin Bird ID? We have already mentioned that it’s a free mobile app. But what’s the basic purpose of this app? And what does the app do and why did the Cornell Lab create it?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so the Cornell Lab launched Merlin Bird ID back in 2014. And the goal is really to give anybody the tools that they needed to identify the birds they were seeing. At the time, we were seeing a lot of searches coming to our all about birds guide on the web, with key words like orange bird with black wings, or sparrow with stripes on the head. And, you know, these things were just not really getting the users to the answers that they were looking for, they weren’t getting to the actual bird. And we knew that, you know, we have all of these resources at the lab, we could build something better. And so we’re pretty fortunate to have some of the best researchers on birds available. With, you know, eBirds storing nearly a billion bird sightings from birders around the world, and you will photos in the Macaulay Library. We were able to package this data to carry it around in your pocket on your Smartphone. So at its very basic, Merlin is really designed to coach you through the identification process. As it as a, you know, experienced birder would go through it. And the main ID feature takes you through five simple questions of where you saw the bird, its size, main colors and behaviors. Do we want to demo that snow?
[LEO SACK] Yes, I’m going to put up a mystery bird and my phone’s screen, if I can ask my team behind the screen, to spotlight my video. Thank you. And Drew, walk me through this, how would I identify this mystery bird that we have on the screen?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, the start bird ID is the main feature that the majority of users start with. This is the classic flow. The original functionality that we’re talking about. So it starts off by where did you see this bird? This is incredibly important question. Right? There’s over 10,000 species in the world. Birds, but if we know where you saw the bird, we can quickly limit that to, you know, one to 500 species, depending on where you are. Go ahead and type on Ithaca, New York there. And then the other important question is, what time of the year? So a lot of birds migrate, you all know that, so different times of the year, there might be a different set of species, so knowing when you saw the bird is also crucial. So go ahead and click next. And then, the size of the bird. We made this pretty flexible, so you can take your best guess at it. There’s little silhouettes that indicate, you know, you can choose from, so this looks to be somewhere it’s hard to tell from a photo, but I’d say probably Crow sized.
[LEO SACK] I would agree.
[DREW WEBER] Next. And then pick the main color, kind of what sticks out to you the most, so let’s see, maybe
[LEO SACK] Some birds are easy, this one seems kind of subtle. Like would you call that a gray or a bluish gray, a red, brown or a reddish-brown?
[DREW WEBER] The yellow sticks out to me and then that dark, dark red. And maybe I’d call it blue, let’s see if this works.
[LEO SACK] Okay. I found that with these birds, where it’s the colors are sort of in between and you’re not sure what to call that color, it’s usually pretty forgiving.
[DREW WEBER] And then the final questioning is some behavior, so you can take your best take your best answer for what the bird is doing or where the bird is. Here, it’s clearly over some water. So I’ll go after swimming or wading. And then, click identify. We’ll see is what we get. Huh oh.
[ LAUGHTER ]
[LEO SACK] Try editing one of the color options?
[DREW WEBER] We could try changing blue to green, perhaps. Tada! that looks like a pretty good match. I would say that looks exactly like it, right?
[LEO SACK] And you’ve got photos of the adult, juveniles, more photos of the adult in other positions. So there’s a ton of cool stuff here to look through, and that’s certainly does look like our bird. Excellent.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so the great thing about that is as we demoed, you can put in what your best guess is and resize that until you see a bird that really matches what you’re seeing in the field. And maybe just scroll down this list, are there other options here?
[LEO SACK] In this case, no, we described it so closely, this was the only thing that fit.
[JENNA CURTIS] Often there’s multiple options here and it’s great to look through them all and get a good idea of what the other possibilities are, just to make sure that there’s not something similar that you want to also rule out.
[LEO SACK] One thing I’ve noticed is that you can actually choose, you know, a smaller number of colors, and it will actually give you everything that matches that one color. So give it a cast a broader net and it will give you more options.
[DREW WEBER] Exactly, yeah.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. So thank you for that demonstration. That covers the basic purpose of the app. We’ll come back to more. But let’s jump over to Jenna for a moment. Jenna, how does Merlin connect we bird? I’ve heard it says that Merlin’s ability to identify birds is with the eBird data. How does the eBird data make what we just did possible?
[JENNA CURTIS] It allows birders all over the globe to submit the list of birds that they have seen and heard, and puts that information in the hands of scientists and conservations who can use those data to better understand and protect the birds that we all love. And so when we say that Merlin is powered by eBird, we mean that Merlin also takes advantage of this huge database of public bird observations, some of the features like seasonal bar charts or being able to sort species by likelihood for your area, those tools are built from the bird observations submitted to eBird by you and other birders and even Merlin’s ability to recognize and identify birds in photos is developed and trained on the photos that people add to their eBird checklists, so in some ways T bigger and the better eBird gets, the better Merlin becomes as well.
[LEO SACK] Perfect. Thank you. Wow, so okay, so if people really want Merlin to get even better, the one thing that they can do is be submitting their data to eBird as well. That’s a pretty cool take away. So okay, let me jump back to Drew, because Drew, this app is growing and improving over time. And as the project coordinator, you’re guiding that growth. So give us a sense of where you started and where you’re at now? So how is this app changed since it first launched? Have you added more features, can we translate it into other languages, how big has this thing gotten?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, that’s a big question.[ LAUGHTER ] So when we first launched Merlin, we thought, you know, wow, if we could get a million people to download this app, a bird app, a million people interested in birds, that would be pretty cool. And it took us about three years to reach that first million. But as word spreads, more and more people are using Merlin. You all know, this spring was very unprecedented. Work from home, lots more people were looking at the birds in their yard. And interest in bird was sky high. We added over a million users just this year, you know, since January, so it’s been really cool seeing people, you know, so captivated with birds. The app started with just 200 species, which were, you know, common backyard birds across the U.S. and Canada. And it was really targeted towards users that were just starting to learn bird identification. In 2016, we introduced the concept of bird packs, and started releasing packs for new region, starting with Mexico. And then, central America, and Europe. And with Merlin covering more species seize, it starred to become more useful for more experienced birders as well, particularly as a quick reference for sounds and calls, photos, that sort of thing. Because, you know, even an experienced birder in New York is a beginner when they travel to Columbia for the first time. Merlin now covers over 7,000 of the 10,700 species in the world, including every continent except Antarctica. Pretty much everywhere you’re traveling now, Merlin has, you know, good offering of birds that you can download and explore. You talked about translations. The lab has strong partnerships with the conservation organizations around the world, and so we’ve been able to collaborate with a bunch of them to already add 8 additional languages, so Merlin is available in Spanish, Portuguese, French, Hebrew, Chinese, and yeah, so, with that, we’ve been able to add, you know, over 600,000 users that are outside of North America. And we’ve, you know, hopefully it’s been really useful for these o organizations as well, for outreach, into their communities. One piece that we’ve really expanded in Merlin is the explore birds feature. Which we’re going to demo later. But it basically shows you a custom list of birds for any location in the time of the year. And you can think of that as your personalized field guide. Just showing the species that you would expect to find.
[LEO SACK] Wow. So Drew, this is incredible, you have thrown out a lot of number there is, and I want to highlight a couple of them. So you said you started with 200 species, which is not even everything in the U.S., just common backyard birds and now you’re at you said over 7,000. The Merlin in front of me, the home screen says 7,500 plus species. And that’s two thirds of the bird species in the entire world.
[DREW WEBER] That’s right.
[LEO SACK] That’s incredible. And you were talking about bird packs for different countries, right? I want to share my screen real quick, I’m sharing the Merlin website. So again, Merlin is an app, but this is the web page about the app. And there’s a page here, just on bird packs. If you think of Merlin sort of as a field guide — does this analogy make sense, guys? If you think of the app as the cover and structure of a field guide, the bird packs are sort of the pages. The bird pack has all of the photos and sounds and information for all of the species in given region of the world. So Drew, you’ve got this map on this web page here, that with the world mostly shaded in green. Talking about the bird packs, could you help me understand this map here?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah. So basically, with pulled the numbers from eBird about how many species are reported in each country. And then, match that up with the species that are already covered in Merlin. And so, basically, you know, all across America, as we have all of the species already covered, kind of releasing the final packs for the Americas over the next month, with Argentina, Paraguay, some of the other southern countries. We’re just starting to really get good coverage for Africa, so we have released packs for the northern African countries, and also, South Africa and Libya. But you can see it’s lighter there and in the center of the continent and so we still have some work to do. And then, in southeast Asia, Indonesia is our current, you know, biggest hole, I guess you could say, there’s about 1,000 species that we still need to add to the app to get full coverage there. But you can see that, you know, pretty much everywhere you travel in the world, you would have pretty good coverage just from Merlin as of today, and, you know, we’re constantly releasing new packs, so. Getting better.
[LEO SACK] So this map doesn’t necessarily show everywhere that there is a bird pack, like there might be some of these countries that are shaded in light green where you don’t necessarily have a pack published yet, but
[DREW WEBER] That’s correct.
[LEO SACK] But you could probably download a bird pack from the nearby countries and it would have a lot of the same species, the countries that are in light green
[DREW WEBER] Yes, Tanzania, yeah, we only have like 50% of the species for those countries, so we haven’t released a pack yet, we have a Rwanda package, nearby, you could download that and the south Africa pack and with those combined you would have some of the species that you would need.
[LEO SACK] Fantastic. So I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m just really impressed by that, that this is not just a free convenient field guide on your phone, but that it covers an increasing amount of the world and already so widespread. That’s and you’re continuing to make more and more packs, right?
[DREW WEBER] That’s correct, yeah.
[LEO SACK] That’s incredible. Okay. Now, I don’t know if you mentioned this part, Drew, but so you’ve got a brand new feature in the app. That is rolling out basically now, right? And I think a lot our viewers are really excited for this new feature, we probably have some experienced Merlin users who are tuning in today’s webinar, just to get the scoop on this new feature. So let’s talk about it. So first of all, Drew, what is the new feature and why did you create it?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so, our number one request since the day Merlin launched has been that, you know, users want to be able to explore their own identifications. Merlin was always saving that result, when, you know, a user hit, this is my bird, to improve the bird ID algorithm. But, you know, of course, users wanted to be able to see that for themselves. See had t history of what they had recorded. So we already had this huge eBird database that we’ve been talking about that is capable of storing these observations. And Merlin users, you know, have been on and off submitting things directly to eBird, but we really wanted to provide a space for Merlin users to submit their sightings, to start building their life list and growing their confidence, identifying the birds right in Merlin. So with the save bird feature, Save My Bird feature, which we’ll demonstrate, then, that really streamlines the process of adding a bird to your life list, learning about birds and finding birds and not worry about the extra requirements for eBird.
[LEO SACK] Okay. Excellent. So then, let’s demonstrate what it looks like, so I’m going to share my phone’s screen again, and let’s bring up our same mystery bird. And if we can spotlight my video, again, awesome, so, now, before we can save our sighting, we have to ID it and I already went back to the home screen. So we have to ID this bird again, rather than go through the same five questions, Drew, do you want to talk me through using the photo ID feature? And then, maybe we can save it after we’ve ID’ed it that way?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, sure, so our photo ID is another cool feature that Merlin has, added about two years ago. And it’s been trained on the millions of photos that are in the Macaulay Library, the computer vision system. And so, with, you know, all of that all of those photos that have been uploaded, photo ID can sit on your phone, and identify over 8,000 species. Just from the photo that you took. It’s been really awesome for photographers, who are taking, you know, great photos but don’t know what they are taking photos of. But it also works really well for, you know, those blurry distant photos of birds. Like, what you’d be able to, you know, get with a with your Smartphone.
[LEO SACK] Absolutely. So okay, so I just hit the photo ID button, and it’s giving me an option of choose photo. Like from my phone’s memory. Or take photo. So I’m going to click take photo. And it’s going to well, it will give me this message for best results, use a photo that’s not obstructed by vegetation or other birds. And if you can’t see it well enough to identify it, Merlin probably can’t either. I’ll say okay. It is going to open up my phone’s camera and I’m pointing my camera at my computer screen, I want to take a photo of this bird, right?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, that’s a great way to use Merlin, and, you know, a lot of people end up with they took they had a nice camera, and they loaded their photos on to their computer, and they want an identification, that can be as easy as snap-shotting your screen like that.
[LEO SACK] I have definitely taken photos with a good camera and then take a used my phone to take a photo of the screen on the back of my good camera, or even sketched a bird and taken a photo of my drawing and it works amazingly well. This part here is telling me to zoom until the bird fills the box, I’ve got from the tail to the beak in that box. Right?
[DREW WEBER] Yep, perfect. Go ahead and hit next.
[LEO SACK] Ill could put in Ithaca, although, I don’t have to give it a location and a date. But that again will allow eBird data to sort through the options, right.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, it’s always best to provide that location and date, if you have it.
[LEO SACK] As Jenna said, that is using eBird data to know which birds are possibilities for that location date. Okay. So if I hit identify. It’s going to think. And there’s our bird.
[DREW WEBER] Excellent.
[LEO SACK] So now, now that’s a feature that’s been added since Merlin started but that’s not the new feature we’re talking about, now that we’ve identified this green heron, Drew, how do I save my sighting?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so, you know, we’re confident that’s our bird, so go ahead and say, this is my bird. Just tap that button. And so, if you have if you’re already an eBirder and you have that eBird app installed, you get this property. If you don’t use eBird, you’ll skip this. But it basically lets you get a short cut into the eBird app, if you want to record there. So for now, let’s go ahead and click on the continue with Merlin. And this is what most people would experience. And so, the first screen is you get to select where you saw that and if you’re, you know, identifying the bird in the field, it will pin your, you know, exact location. Yeah, so let’s go ahead and select the lab.
[LEO SACK] I saw it here in fuller wetlands at the lab for ornithology. It’s saying I’m creating a new location, still saying Ithaca.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, go ahead and click next and we’ll be able to name it. So now you can name it fuller wet land.
[LEO SACK] Which again is one of the smaller ponds at the lab for ornithology.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, go ahead and click next. And so naming it, means that, you know, it will be saved with that name. And then, you know, if you’re birding there in the future or, you know, you’re there and you identify another bird, you’ll be able to use that location, again, so you can aggregate multiple of your sightings at the same spot. So it’s really nice if you’re birding in your backyard, and you can, you know, have a single location for all of the spots if your bird.
[LEO SACK] Hit save?
[DREW WEBER] Go ahead and hit save. Huh oh.
[LEO SACK] You know what? It probably doesn’t want to connect to the Internet while I’m sharing my phone screen. I guess I haven’t tried that before. My apologies.
[DREW WEBER] All right.
[LEO SACK] Oh, no.
[DREW WEBER] That’s interesting. It’s not connected?
[LEO SACK] I think it’s because it’s using my Internet connection to share the phone screen to the computer. So that is because I’m being too fancy with my technology here.[ LAUGHTER ]
[DREW WEBER] Well, so, I can describe what would happen.
[LEO SACK] Okay.
[DREW WEBER] You click save, and if it’s a new bird for you, it’s going to tell you that congrats, this is a life bird, and then, from there, you’ll be able to, you know, click through to see your life list, and as that grows. And you’ll also be able to see how many times that you’ve seen that bird. So were you able to are you able to load the life list?
[LEO SACK] I should. Now, this is a test account. Because I wanted to be real obvious here which birds I’ve saved. So this is a test account that I just created and it’s only got one bird on my life list, which I added while making a YouTube video a couple of weeks ago of a yellow bellied sapsucker and I was going to add the green heron just now.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so basically, this would be, you know, the list of all of the birds that you’ve identified. And so, you know, if we had the Internet connection working, you would see the green heron here, plus all of your other identifications. So this is a growing list for you to explore.
[LEO SACK] Absolutely. And so, then, from now on, any time I see a bird that in the app, I find a bird that I have seen before, it’s on my life list, check out the bottom of the phone’s screen there, you’ve got this little blue circle, the white check mark in it, this little icon and next to it says life list, so that means that it’s on my life list.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah.
[LEO SACK] Okay. Well, I will see if I can fix my phone issue here.
[DREW WEBER] So I can talk about the rollout.
[LEO SACK] Yes, please, do. So what is the time line for the rollout of this new feature? If people have the app on the phone, will it automatically update, and how soon? And then, can people update it manually?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so, the app is actually the update is actually rolling out right now, if you’re an iPhone user, and it will be automatically updating on people’s phones, but you can also go to the app store and download the update directly. The app is still in review for Android users, in the play store, so we’re hoping to get that out start rolling that out later today. And hopefully, you know, have it out to everybody by the end of the week. So, yeah, if you have an iPhone, or an iPad, you can go get that now and start playing with it. And we’d love to hear what your feedback is, how it’s working for you.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. So it’s rolling out as we speak essentially. That is exciting.
[DREW WEBER] Yes.
[LEO SACK] Let’s see, so I want to ask Jenna, Jenna, what happens to the sightings that people save through this new feature in Merlin? I know that they show up in the life list. Part of the app. And that life list can actually be not only species that you’ve saved through this new feature in Merlin, but actually things that you’ve saved through eBird as well, so I’ve just switched to a different account, this is my normal account, that I usually use, and it’s got everything that I have previously submitted to eBird as well. And the things that I’ve submitted through this new sightings list, so the life list is a combination of those things, does that mean that my Merlin saved sightings go into eBird, Jenna?
[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, so when you save a bird that you’ve identified in Merlin, it has to be stored somewhere and we need a place to collect, organize and keep all of these Merlin saved sightings. And we were lucky that we already have an existing platform that does these storage of observations and that’s eBird, so Merlin’s sightings do get stored on eBird, but Merlin observations are personal and private, they are not a part of eBird the way that eBird observations have. If you already have observations in eBird, those will show up on Merlin, just like you have shown there on your life list, your life list will reflect everything that you have saved through either the Merlin or eBird. And like I said, you’ll be able to see Merlin records on an eBird account. There are ways to show them to other people if you want to. But Merlin records are really personal records. They’re not going to be searchable, they don’t undergo any review process, and this is very different from the rest of the eBird database, which does have several forms of public output and does get review. Merlin sightings are not part of eBird review or output. And because of this, they are also not shared with our science and conservation partners, either.
[LEO SACK] Okay, so then, that means that if somebody just wants to keep their life list for themselves, keep their saved sightings for themselves, submitting them through this new feature in Merle season the way to go. If people want to make sure that their observations are actually being used as scientific data that the scientific community can actually work with, then it is still better to submit through eBird?
[JENNA CURTIS] That’s correct. But I want to stress the most valuable way to make your observations valuable for science and observations, follow your best practices. Someone who is new to eBird, for the first time, if you really want to make your checklist useful for science, take the essentials course, tree, self guided, it’s great to learn about the system and begin to submit checklists that will really help inform projects that save or conserve birds.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. And Jenna, I think that you kind of said this, but I just want to pull it out and make sure that we clarify, if people want to see the details on their own past saved sightings from Merlin, things that they saved through this new feature in Merlin, they want to see not just the life list, but the details of where did I see that? And when? Can they log on to the eBird website and see their Merlin saved sightings?
[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, so probably the fastest and easiest way for you to check back and kind of review all of the sightings that you’ve saved through Merlin is through the Merlin app. They are store on the eBird database, you can use the eBird website to view, edit Merlin observations as well. Because an account that works from Merlin works for eBird, you don’t need to create a new one, the same account works on both platform, even if you don’t submit data to eBird, you can log into the eBird website and see your Merlin observations, but the eBird website can be overwhelming, if you’re not familiar with it, there’s a lot of Merlin users who have never touched eBird, and there are a lot of features about eBird that don’t apply to a personal private Merlin sighting. So please check out the Merlin help center for some tips on how to navigate viewing your Merlin sightings on eBird if that’s something that you’re interested in. Our help center has step by step instructions on how to do that. Just viewing your life list and exploring that within the Merlin app will get you a lot of the core details that you’re looking for.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Thank you. Okay. So before we really dig into the audience questions, I just want to check, are there other features, tips, tricks or updates about Merlin that either of you would like to make sure that we cover or emphasize?
[JENNA CURTIS] Drew, do you have anything? Do you want to go first?
[DREW WEBER] No, you had a full list, go for it.
[JENNA CURTIS] One of my favorite things about Merlin is explore the species through the apps. It provides possibilities, these are data informed possibilities, but the final ID comes down to you. So it’s so important to build these birding skills by paying attention to as many details as you can, while you’re actively looking at a bird, it’s great to use Merlin to ID bird, but also pay attention to the birds as well. And you want your life list, your Merlin life list, to be accurate to your experiences. So save the birds that you’re sure about, that you’re confident in. But as we saw today, in the example, sometimes Merlin suggestions don’t include your bird. Sometimes you’re not going to be sure which suggestion is right, you’ve got a list of options and you’re not sure which one is the right one and sometimes you won’t have any options at all, it is okay, it is okay to be unsure. Even the best birders are often unsure with their IDs, and don’t just default to the top bird on Merlin’s suggestion list because it was on the top. If you’re not sure, use Merlin to look at the results, investigate the birds that you’re being suggested. Merlin is such a rich resource, it has sounds and photos and maps and access to this huge network of data that you can use. So use Merlin to learn about birds, not just ID them. Because when it comes down to it, your skills and knowledge as a birder are more important that than the size of a life list.
[DREW WEBER] That’s great, Jenna, thanks.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Okay. So we’ve got a long list of questions that have come in through the chat. And I’m trying to decide which ones we should tackle first. As Jenna was just talking, about sometimes you don’t get an ID the first time. One person asked, would you think that the color options are where the error most often lies? If you’re describing a bird through the five question format and you don’t get a correct ID? Is it usually the colors?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, I would say that the colors are often the most challenging. Because you’re trying to like figure out what are the three main colors or up to three main colors that you see in the bird. When we were putting this together, we were really thinking, you know, what are people seeing from a distance, not like a great view of the bird, so, you know, we’re generally not including like what color was the eye? Or was there a dark ring around the bill or something like that? We’re looking at more broad patterns. And I saw that someone was, you know, interested that I used leg color for green heron, that’s one of the more distinctive things that you’re seeing from a distance, the legs pop up, so we’re making sure that we include colors like that in the features, so that you can, you know, kind of key in on whatever part of the bird sticks out to you the most from a distance in a typical, like, binocular birding view.
[LEO SACK] I will say one thing that has confused people is if they’re describing, say, a female wood duck, but the first picture is a male, which is much more colorful. So sometimes you might have to scroll through the pictures and see if any of those different options, female or juvenile, something might match better as well.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, we did code it up so that, you know, if you would select, you know, green, a female scarlet tanager would come up; red, a male would come up. So we try to support that where we can. When the colors are similar for both sexes, yeah, it’s definitely good to flip through the other photos.
[LEO SACK] That’s good to know. Someone asked, can you add field notes and additional photos, through Merlin?
[DREW WEBER] Jenna, do you want to take that one?
[JENNA CURTIS] Right now, it’s not possible to add field notes and additional photos through Merlin, but as I mentioned, you can use eBird’s tools to add those things later. Again, I would recommend checking out our help center for step by step instructions on how to do that, especially if you’re not familiar with eBird or have never used it before.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. So one person asks, will all of my personal past IDs through Merlin be available or do I need to start from scratch?
[JENNA CURTIS] If you’ve been saving your oh, Drew, you go ahead.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, I mean, I think what Jenna was going to say, if you’ve been saving them through eBird, they will appear in the app. And if you haven’t been saving them through eBird, you will need to start over from scratch. And so you can go through the ID flows, to add them to your life list. But we currently don’t have, you know, your past identifications to add to your account.
[JENNA CURTIS] I’m going to field a couple of quick questions, if you have created an account through Merlin for your mobile Merlin, you do not need to create a new eBird account if you want to look at your observations on the eBird website, log into eBird with the exact same log in information you used when you created a Merlin account. Use the existing one. For those of you asking about what eBird is, as I mentioned, it’s a global community science project. We have an app called eBird mobile, that’s available for both Android and iPhone. And a website as well. But if you’re new to the system, check out the “eBird Essentials” course and start playing around with Merlin and saving IDs there first, to get used to the workflow before you start to move into eBird, I think Merlin seems so simple and easy to save observations, that it is a great way for people who are just interested in building their life list, while they build skills.
[LEO SACK] I will say that the eBird mobile app is also surprisingly easy to use. But it does collect more detail: how many individuals you saw, and you’re making a whole checklist of everything that you saw in that birding session. So it’s not that it’s hard to use, I think, at least not the mobile version, but it is a lot more detailed than saving one bird at a time through Merlin. Would you say that’s a good description?
[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, maybe that would be a good time to discuss the differences, there’s some really avid eBird users out there. Is using Merlin right for me or should I stay with eBird? So the differences between eBird and Merlin are primarily going to matter to an eBird user. And if you want to report your observations to a hot spot, hot spot locations aren’t available for Merlin sightings, if you like keeping a complete checklist of all of the birds that you encounter on a single list, if you like to see your observations on explore pages, recent visits, species maps, eBird alerts or like to look at your standings in the top 100 list, those features don’t include Merlin observations, so if you like any of those features, you’re going the want to keep using eBird. And if all of the things that I just listed, words like complete checklist, hot spots, alerts or recent visits, if you’re not familiar with any of those tools or features, that doesn’t mean anything to you? Then you probably prefer saving your sightings in Merlin for now. Those are eBird features designed for eBird users that use eBird observations, so, I really think that existing eBird users who recognize those tools are going to want to use eBird. The first time you save a sighting in Merlin, if you have eBird mobile installed on your device, you’ll get a pop up that asks you which one of those two tools you want to use, and eBird users can select and make eBird their default app. If you selected one and want to change it, you can go to the settings in the app and change your preference there, it’s possible to switch it, but if you’re a regular eBird user, to add it to a checklist, that’s a really neat feature, even if you’re not interested in saving your sightings in Merlin itself.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. So many questions.
[JENNA CURTIS] A lot of questions about sound ID.
[LEO SACK] Yeah, there have been a couple of questions about sound ID. Will Merlin eventually have sound identification? Somebody else says it’s different, any way of having a chance to ID did birds based on the calls, hearing a sound like shazam style. We had a different app, bird net, designed specifically for that. So check out bird net. And you can check out our webinar where I interviewed the creator of bird net Stephen call about that app. But I do want to ask Drew and Jenna, are there plans to incorporate sound ID into Merlin?
[DREW WEBER] Pretty active research right now going into, you know, sound identification. Which is the Macaulay Library, hundreds of thousands of recordings, from all over the world, from almost every single species. And so, definitely the idea is to continue working on that research that we can, you know, expand the functionality to be able to identify, you know, from your descriptions, from your photos and sounds that you’re hearing, what that bird is, so, yeah, I do imagine that we’ll be moving in that direction in Merlin.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Okay. Here’s a question for Jenna about the kind of another question about the connection between Merlin and eBird. The question is, Merlin’s new feature, when you save a bird sighting, if you click use eBird, instead of continue with Merlin, it will open the eBird mobile app on your phone, assuming you have that app installed, but it will open to the home page or to your checklist, it won’t actually put the bird in for you. So somebody asks how do you fix that? And is there a way to or there will be a way for Merlin to put your bird sighting into your eBird checklist?
[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, so we definitely want to include that functionality, in fact, starting very soon, possibly as soon as this week, android phones will receive an update for eBird mobile so that if you’re an on Android phone and you haven eBird checklist running, IDing a bird in Merlin and clicking save, this is my bird, will open to that species, in your running checklist so you can add accounts and notes and details, it will jump you straight to that species card in at the bird checklists, and we will get that into iPhones next. You do need to have a checklist running. Just like any eBird observation, you can’t add a species if you don’t have a list started. So if you ID a bird, without a checklist at all, you will need to start one before you can start jumping to those species.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Okay. We’ve already talked about some of these about the save sightings through Merlin being send to eBird in a fashion. What question should we tackle next? Do you guys see anything in the list that you want to touch on?
[JENNA CURTIS] I’ve noticed a lot of questions about packs, how do I know if I have a pack in my area? When is a pack come out in my area? Just talk about pack releases and how people can stay on top of those?
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so the easiest way to see what’s available is just open up the bird pack screen, in Merlin, we list all of the packs mostly by country or region, if you have your location services on, it should select the correct one for your region, if you’re in New York, it should suggest the northeast pack. And etcetera. We are, you know, monthly coming out with new packs, like I mentioned, the South America packs are coming out probably this month. And basically, we have plans for rollout of all of the remaining species over the next year or so. Our focus right now is, you know, really getting a lot more of Africa complete. And also, Asia. So you should see a lot of those packs coming online over the next six to eight months. The packs are really convenient because you can down rode or remove them at any point so if you’re on a trip or just curious about birds, of a, you know, a certain country, you can download a pack, and then later, when you’re back from that trip, you can delete that pack to, you know, reclaim that storage on your phone if you need it. You know, a lot of people ask why we do packs. When we originally had, you know, 400 or so birds, the app was about a 500 megabyte download. And if we would include all of the content now, it would be right around an 8 gigabyte app. Which I think would make very people excited to download it. So really, the idea is to make it as flexible as possible so that you can download the birds that you’re interested in, and kind of, you know, manage the storage on your device without, you know, getting frustrated that you don’t have enough room and that sort of thing.
[LEO SACK] Absolutely. And just to follow up on that, I think that somebody did ask can they download multiple bird packs at once, and the answer of course is yes, I’m showing on my phone screen here, I currently have three bird packs installed. And I chose to use some of the larger bird packs, I could have installed just U.S. northeast and I’m in Ithaca New York, I could have installed U.S. northeast, which would have been 400 megabytes, something like that, and but instead, I chose to download U.S. and Canada, continental, which is almost 900 megabytes but includes all of the U.S. and Canada. Which is probably more efficient than downloading each part of the U.S. individually.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, if you’re interested in that broader area, you definitely want to download the full country or regional pack. If you’re just interested in a smaller set of species around like, the northeast or the southeast of the U.S., then, those smaller packs will be perfect for you.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. And as you said, it’s very easy to go into these bird packs and see what they cover, uninstall them at any time. And switch around which bird packs you have within the app. Excellent.
[JENNA CURTIS] I’m seeing a lot of questions about what happens if I make a mistake? What if I save a bird to Merlin that I eventually realize was the wrong bird oar I need to change something or edit my list, what do I do? So again, our help center has instructions on that, but you will need to use the eBird website to change and edit your lists of it is possible, everybody makes mistakes, you can reduce the number of times that you need to go back and edit these or change these lists by being sure and feeling confident about your sightings when you save them the first time. But there are ways to fix errors and delete IDs from your life list, if you later on realize that it was a different bird.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Let’s see. I do want to make sure that we get to talking about the explore birds feature.
[DREW WEBER] Yes.
[LEO SACK] Yeah, some people have asked questions a little bit in that direction. And Drew, you mentioned this before. So I’m going to go ahead and bring up my phone’s screen again. And maybe we can spotlight my screen just so that the people can see what I’m doing. But Drew, can you walk me through how to get to the explore birds and what to do with it?
[DREW WEBER] Sure, yeah, so explore birds is that bottom button. And basically, this is like your customized field guide, it’s how you can explore all of the content from the bird packs that you’ve installed. And so right now, it’s set on all install birds, so however many species you have installed. And so, any of these, you can yeah, so, yeah, so any of these birds you could tap on and see the photos, the sounds, the ID text, and, you know, all of the stuff that you normally get through the ID flows, this is all available just by searching by the bird’s name. And then, if you go back to the list, there’s a bunch of cool ways that you can customize what’s shown on this list. And so using that filter button, in the upper right, you can, you know, change what is actually on that list. So right now, he has selected filter by bird packs. And you can change this to likely birds. And then what that will do is it will use the eBird data for the location this you specify, to give you a custom list of birds for that region. So yeah, let’s go ahead and use Ithaca for today. And keep that sort how it is. And go ahead and close that panel. So it will download the data from eBird. And then you have a list of just the birds that you would expect to find in August in yeah, in Ithaca. So Jenna, do you want to talk a little bit about what the bar charts are that we’re seeing here with that what that means?
[JENNA CURTIS] Yeah, sure, the bar charts there, the gray ones tell you how frequently other birders around you are reporting this species in your area throughout the year. So tall bars there mean that a bird is very commonly reported during that time of the year, things on the left are early in the year, January and the things on the right are the ends of the things, December. The bird is frequently report at that part of the year with a tall bar. Whereas a tiny, thin, sliver of a bar, means that a bird is reported but only very rarely. So it’s infrequently occurring. Because remember, a lot of birds migrate or are more abundant if one part of the year than the other. And so these charts are really useful way of telling you when to expect these birds and also how often you’ll encounter them based on the experience of other birders near you.
[LEO SACK] We’re talking about the little gray stripe underneath the bird that has these bars for each week of the bar and January, February, and March and April, all of the months of the year, the black line is showing where we are currently. Early August. And so, Jenna, how would you read this bar chart under this pied bill GREBE?
[JENNA CURTIS] This bird is fairly commonly reported throughout the year, except for June, July and August, where there’s either no data at all, so no one is reporting this bird, or it’s just so uncommonly reported that there’s a gap. Whereas, starting about now, people are going to start seeing pied billed grebes in the Ithaca area and reporting them more often and towards the end of the year, they will be seen by birders in the Ithaca region. Versus the ring billed gull, they’re reported all year round by birders.
[DREW WEBER] I’m seeing a lot of questions about people that are not seeing the bar charts in their explore birds. And the bar charts only show up if you have a location selected. That’s so we can actually have a spot in the world that we can use to build, you know, how frequently the birds is reported.
[LEO SACK] If I go back to this top right menu, bird packs, one bird pack or all of them, no bar charts, because the bar charts are for a specific location. Okay. So let’s go back to likely birds.
[JENNA CURTIS] What are those symbols?
[DREW WEBER] That’s what I was going to chime in, questions on what these different colored symbols are? So looking back at when we were saving a bird, the check mark here, indicates that Leo has seen a mallard and a Canada goose, so you can have a quick reference to the birds you have reported through Merlin, there’s an orange half-filled icon, and that means the bird is uncommon and it’s specific to this time of the year. So basically, it means that, you know, they are around but few people are reporting them. So you want to be confident if that’s the bird you’re reporting. There are also red icons, full circle, like the pied billed grebe, the bar chart is showing that it’s very infrequently reported. And so these are birds that are, you know, so infrequently reported that you should definitely give them a look to make sure that’s the bird that you’re identifying, that it’s correct.
[LEO SACK] Excellent.
[DREW WEBER] Tap on pied billed grebe, share more of your screen. Yeah, so if you see the red dot is there, with the red word rare, so if you ever forget what it means, you could always click through to the species and you’ll see that it’s rare or uncommon.
[LEO SACK] Excellent.
[DREW WEBER] Let’s go back to explore to see if we can specify locations, if you want to pull up the refine section again. So if you tap on the Ithaca, New York, that’s where you’d be able to pull up anything from your recent list, and the stuff on your recent list is stored for off-line access, so you don’t need Internet to access that. Or you could search for a location by name, or choose it from a map. So I don’t know if you want to select any of those locations or doesn’t really match up with the packs.
[LEO SACK] I don’t have those bird packs installed, I was curious what birds might overlap. But let’s say, I was planning a trip to Florida. I’m not
[DREW WEBER] You’re not on the Internet, it’s not going to work. Use your cached locations or use yeah.
[LEO SACK] Oh, there it goes.
[DREW WEBER] Maybe it does work.
[LEO SACK] I think I have intermittent connection, it’s trying to use my Internet to share my screen and that’s slowing it down.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so one cool thing that you might want to do, Leo, is go back to that filter panel, and let’s find you some birds to look for. So switch the sort to most likely, and that’s going to sort it by, you know, biggest bar chart to smallest and then click on the hide birds on the list, that’s going to hide the birds that Leo has seen. So go ahead and close that.
[LEO SACK] Am I staying in Florida?
[DREW WEBER] Staying in Florida. All right. So what we see here, are some of the top birds that if, you know, if Leo is going to Florida, the top birds to look for and study ahead of time, are white winged dove, little blue heron, this is a great way to study ahead, so that you know the birds when you’re getting to a new area. And you can spend more time appreciating them and enjoying them rather than, you know, scrolling through a list or trying to figure out what that cool bird is.
[LEO SACK] I have a lot of work to do.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah.[ LAUGHTER ] Yeah, so you can you know, mess around with different ways of using that hiding your saved birds and the different sorts and different locations to, you know, discover what birds you might find with different trips and that sort of thing.
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Okay. Very good. Let’s see. Oh, we are about at our time. So we need to wrap it up. Drew, could you repeat for us one more time when the new feature is rolling out? Or what the time line is? Because I think that we are still getting questions about that.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, so if you have an iPhone or an iPad, you could head to the app store right now and download the update, it is available or pushed out automatically over the next week or so, if you don’t want to get it right away. It’s version 1.8, so you can look for that. If you have an Android device, the app is still in review. So we’re hoping to get that started to roll out as early as today. But I think that everybody should have access to it by the end of the week. So, just in time for that weekend birding.[ LAUGHTER ]
[LEO SACK] Excellent. Thank you. And now, this is so interesting, we could go on forever, I was already losing track of time there. But I want to be respectful of everyone’s time. And try not to go too far past our 1:00 scheduled end time here. So Drew and Jenna, thank you so much for talking with us today and for all of your hard work on making Merlin an amazing app, thank you both.
[DREW WEBER] Yeah, this has been a blast, my favorite subject, so thanks for giving me a chance to talk about it.
[JENNA CURTIS] Thanks so much for this opportunity.
[LEO SACK] Our pleasure. I also want to thank our audience for joining us today, too, it’s been really great to see such a large turnout. And then, next I wanted to share a slide really quick. If I can figure out how to do that. Okay. So I want to share this slide with you, real quick, if we didn’t get to your question today, please e mail us and we will be happy to follow up with you more directly. So for questions about the Cornell Lab for ornithology, about our public programs, birds you’ve seen, you can e mail our public information team at Cornell birds @ Cornell.EDU. And now, if you have more technical questions, that are specifically about the Merlin app, you can e mail Drew and his team at Merlin help @ Cornell.edu. And I’d also encourage you to check out that Merlin website, Merlin.allaboutbirds.org. Which has a lot more information about the app and can answer a lot of your questions as well. So that is our show. I hope that you all enjoyed it. And I hope that you all will done load the Merlin Bird ID mobile app if you haven’t done so already, and go ID some birds, thanks, everyone, and happy birding. Take care.
My position focuses around using eBird and Macaulay Library resources and data to provide people with tools to identify birds, regardless of their background and expertise.
Want to learn more about Merlin Bird ID and its newest features? Ask your questions, learn how Merlin can make you a better birder, and find out what’s next for Merlin. Already Merlin users are identifying millions of birds a month, now the Merlin Bird ID team is actively developing the feature most requested by users–being able to save your identifications to your account. Learn the latest with Drew Weber, Merlin Project Coordinator, and Jenna Curtis, eBird Project Leader.