Thumbnail image Amanda Guerci | Macaulay Library

[Alli Smith] All right. Welcome, everybody, to tonight’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. My name is Alli. I’m with the Cornell Lab here in Ithaca, New York, and I will be hosting tonight’s trivia game. So over the next hour, our two expert birders, who we have here and all of you in the audience, are going to be competing against the Merlin Bird ID app in a trivia game.

And before we get started with the trivia, I do have a few notes that I want to go through ahead of time. So first of all, for those of you who aren’t familiar, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is home to a community of researchers and supporters from around the world, who appreciate birds and the integral roles that they play in our ecosystems.

Our mission is to advance leading edge research, education, and citizen science that helps solve pressing conservation challenges. And today’s webinar is part of our two-week long migration celebration, which is the lab’s largest online event of the year. And you can check out all of the other virtual programs and watch recorded webinars like this one at the link that we’ll post in the chat.

And other quick notes before we begin, I have a few tech notes for our audiences here on Zoom and on YouTube, so closed captioning is available on Zoom. If you’d like to turn captions on or off, you can click the captions button at the bottom of the screen. And if you don’t see a caption button, you can click the three dots that say More, and you should see it there. If you’re watching tonight on YouTube, you can click the CC button at the bottom of the video to turn on the captions there.

And one other quick note, tonight, we have a game show absolutely packed with trivia, so we unfortunately, won’t have time to answer questions from the audience. However, we do have a team of helpers behind the scenes, both on Zoom and on YouTube. So if you need any technical support during the webinar, please do message us in the chat. We will be monitoring for that throughout the evening.

If you have a question tonight about Merlin or about how to use the app, need tech support specifically for the Merlin app we have a fantastic Help Center with a lot of answers to common questions. And you can also submit a message to us on the website there. So we’ll put another link in the chat there just in case anybody needs it. So that’s about it for notes. So let’s get started.

So officially, welcome to the Merlin Game Show. The game is pretty simple. We’re going to have 14 rounds, where I will show a photo of a bird or play a recording of a bird song. And whoever identifies the most birds correctly will win. We are right now right at the start of fall migration in the northern hemisphere and here in New York, of course. So as a way to celebrate this mass movement of birds, all of tonight’s questions will have a migration themed twist to them.

And with us today, if you want to turn on your camera, all the way from Oregon, our expert birders, Hannah and Erik. And these two passionate birders caught the birding bug in a college ornithology course. And they really enjoyed traveling the globe to see birds, meet people, guide at birding festivals and compete in birding competitions.

So I think this might be a brand new birding competition for the two of you.

They like to encourage others to get out and appreciate birds by sharing travel tips birding knowledge and more on the really cool podcast called Hannah and Erik Go Birding, which we’ll put a link to in the chat as well if you’d like to check it out.

They really believe that birding is about the places you go, the people you meet, and the birds you see, whether it’s around the world or just in your backyard. And when they’re not traveling, they live in Cannon Beach Oregon, where they run a family hotel and lead bird walks to Haystack Rock to see tufted puffins.

So welcome, Hannah and Erik. Are you feeling ready to compete against Merlin today?

[Hannah] Well, thanks for having us. And we’ll give it our best shot.

[Erik] Yeah, I’m excited.

[Alli Smith] Awesome. So today, Hannah and Erik are going to be competing against Merlin, which was developed by us here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. And Merlin uses machine learning technology to identify birds in photos and in sound recordings.

So also with us today is Sam Heinrich, who is a machine learning engineer here with Merlin. And throughout the evening, he’s going to be sharing a little bit more about how Merlin works behind the scenes.

So Sam, we have two expert birders here. How do you think Merlin is going to perform against them today?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, I’m so excited to see how Merlin stacks up. You know, we do a lot of testing to ensure that our photo and sound ID features work really well, but they have their limitations. So it’ll be really interesting to see how they stack up against true experts.

[Alli Smith] Awesome. I can’t wait to see how everybody does. So we’re just about ready to begin. I’m going to share my screen, and we’ll go over the rules, and then jump right in.

All right. So in this game, we are going to be testing the bird ID skills of our experts Hannah and Erik, of the Merlin app, and of all of you in the audience tonight. So all of the birds in tonight’s quiz will be North American species that can be found in the United States or Canada.

So here’s how it’ll work. We’ll have 14 questions. We’ll have 7 photo and 7 sound. And for each question, I’ll show a picture of a bird or play a recording of a bird call. Merlin, and Hannah and Erik, and you, all, in the audience, will have 30 seconds to decide on your answer. If you’re watching in the audience today, a poll will pop up on your screen.

If you’re watching on Zoom, and a poll will be in the chat if you’re watching on YouTube. And when that comes up, you’ll be able to choose from 4 multiple choice options for each question. So you can all participate too. After those seconds, we’ll share everybody’s answer. And whoever gets it right will get a point. And then at the end of the 14 rounds, whoever has the most points wins. So let’s jump in.

So the first half of the game is based on photo ID. And identifying a bird visually is a really important skill that Hannah and Erik here use every time that they go out birding. When they find a bird, they’re probably looking for the size and the shape of the bird first, and then maybe colors, and patterns, and the length of the bird’s bill, and other field marks that they can use to identify it. But Merlin might be a little bit different.

Sam, could you give us a quick explanation on how Merlin identifies birds and photos?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, absolutely. So Merlin’s ability to identify birds in photos begins with the Macaulay Library, which is the Cornell Lab’s really state of the art digital archive of natural history photos, audio and video.

In order to work on photo ID, volunteers drew boxes around birds in hundreds of thousands of images and then identified what the bird that was in those boxes. After that, researchers used those box images to create a machine learning model called a Convolutional Neural Network that can identify birds in photographs.

Now, these neural networks are able to extract important features such as size, shape, and color from an image. And they recognize patterns in those features that correspond to a particular species. This type of model is super useful for bird identification because it’s able to recognize two types of features. Coarse grained and fine grained. And so as you might guess, coarse grained refers to large scale features.

You might think of where red is on a cardinal. And then fine grained features are smaller features, like think about sparrow identification, where really subtle differences can differentiate between two species. That’s a fine grained feature.

[Alli Smith] That’s super cool. That sounds really similar to how I might personally identify a bird, like using my overall initial impression of size and color, and then kind combining that with all the really fine details to get down to an identification. So that awesome.

So let’s jump in with our first question. So late summer and the start of fall migration, I think is a really fun time of year because a lot of our familiar birds start to look a little bit different. And there’s also young birds out and about that might look completely different from what adults might look like of that species.

So you don’t just notice the brightly colored birds that are still in the breeding plumage. Birds start to molt and look really scruffy. There are young ones that look extra, extra scruffy that don’t quite have adult coloration yet. So it’s just a really fun time of year to observe these differences.

And sometimes, when you’re out birding, you find a bird that looks a little bit confusing at first glance. So let’s say, you are birding in this beautiful oak forest in South Carolina, and you see this bird looking back at you from one of the trees. What species might this be? We’ll give you, all, 30 seconds. We’ll turn the poll on, and we’ll see what we think.

See Hannah and Erik deep in thought.

All right. You’ll have 10 more seconds to answer in the polls.

All right. Time is up. Looks like the audience is kind of split between two species here. About 60% of you think this might be a summer tanager, and about 30% think it could be a scarlet tanager.

Hannah and Erik, what do you think that this bird might be?

[Erik] So this is like an unusual plumage like you said. We’re looking at a bird in the fall. Possibly a younger male or something. I immediately ruled out goldfinch and yellow warbler just looking at their bills. It doesn’t have that small conical bill the goldfinch does. It doesn’t have the little tiny needle bill that warblers typically have. So I kind of narrowed it down immediately to the two tanagers that we have on the list.

And looking at the two tanagers, the scarlet tanager typically has a smaller bill than the summer tanager. And the summer tanager has got a little bit larger of a bill that’s kind of like that peachy color, you know? And that’s kind of where I landed looking at this guy here.

[Hannah] Yeah, and this one is a little tricky too because if you look at its wings, it’s not a great looking at the wings, but they are a little bit darker. And scarlet tanagers, of course, they have the beautiful rich, black wings in their breeding plumage, you know, that translate to a little bit more muted olive colored in the fall. And so this one is a little tricky because of the wing color for me, at least. But yeah, I’m going to have to go with summer tanager.

[Alli Smith] All right. Summer tanager on your end. Audience agrees. Summer tanager. Let’s see what Merlin says. Merlin is in agreement with you, all, that it thinks this could be an immature male summer tanager. And you are all correct. Congratulations. Everybody gets a point.


Awesome. Good start. So this is a really distinctive bird, like not many other birds look, honestly, this beautiful even if he’s a little bit scruffy looking.

Sam, did Merlin also find this to be an easy bird to identify?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, so images like these are really helpful for a machine learning model to learn to recognize because you can see the whole bird. The image is well lit. It’s in-focus. And so it helps the model key in on all the relevant features.

And Merlin probably went through the same thought process that Hannah and Erik did, where it saw the thick bill, the patterning of red and yellow, and immediately keyed in on the tanagers. And it seems that it’s seen enough images of summer tanager in this plumage to make a judgment that it’s a summer tanager.

[Alli Smith] That makes sense. That’s awesome. Let’s move on to the next question. So that was a really fun distinct bird. But I think what fall migration is really known for are these birds that normally, look very vibrant and beautiful but look very, very drab and a little bit harder to identify in the fall.

So for the next question, let’s say you’re birding in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee. And you see this kind of grayish bird hopping around in the branches of a tree. So we’ll give you all a minute to look at this and then 30 seconds to answer in the poll. What species might this bird be?

I see some secret whispering happening between Hannah and Erik.


Some good debates. Feel like warblers always do spark the best birding debates out in the field.

All right you’ve all got tens to answer.


All right. Time is up in the poll. Some serious splits on this one. Lots of different opinions here. About half of you in the audience here voted for Nashville warbler. And next after that, highest percentage, a quarter of you voted for chestnut-sided warbler.

So Hannah and Erik, what do you think that this bird might be?

[Hannah] So this one definitely is tricky. We’re not fortunate enough to have some of these fall warblers coming through, so we don’t get a whole lot of looks at them when they’re in this plumage.

We went with chestnut-sided warbler because you can see a little bit of chestnut underneath its wing. Just a little bit. It’s got those beautiful wing bars. And it has that great cap and back of the like golden kind of pollen colored.

[Alli Smith] Yeah, so let’s see–

[Erik] No, that’s it.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say here. Merlin is agreeing with you that it’s a chestnut-sided warbler. Went against the audience here. So let’s take a look at what the answer is. This is in fact a chestnut-sided warbler. So a point Hanna and Erik and Merlin. Sorry, audience. No point for you, guys, on this one.

But yeah, this is a really great example of how wildly different that a bird can look in the fall compared to in the breeding season. Like the chestnut-sided warbler is so well known for this bright chestnut sides, but here, like you can kind of see it. And maybe, he hasn’t quite molted those feathers yet. I think that’s kind of cute. Just a little few little chests on armpit feathers there but really, really different looking.

But Merlin nailed this one, and I think it’s because this is such a clear image of this bird. It’s in-focus. It’s really clear, and like Sam says, Merlin has also been trained on many, many, hundreds of photos of fall warblers. So I feel like really, if anyone sees hundreds chestnut-sided warblers in the fall, you really start to learn it. And Merlin kind of operates on that same principle there.

So let’s move on to the next question. So let’s say you are birding in a forest in Arizona, and you see a tiny little bird bouncing around in a tree. And you try to snap some pictures of it so that you can identify it later because you feel like you have no hope there in the moment. And getting a picture is a really great way to document it so that you can look through it a little bit better later.

But then when you get home, you find that this is the best photo of the bird that you were able to take. So he’s right in the middle there. I promise there’s actually a bird in this picture. So what do you think that this bird is? We’ll give you all a second to look and then 30 seconds to answer in the poll.

So you do have one hint that it is a warbler based on the multiple choice options here. But what is this sneaky little bird?

Ooh, looks like the audience is pretty divided between two answers here.

Give you a few more seconds to answer. And we’ll say time is up.

All right. So almost an even split here between two different answers. About 42% of the audience thinks this might be a blackpoll warbler, and 36% voted for black-throated gray warbler. So about equal there.

Hanna and Erik, what do you think that this little blob on a branch might be?


[Erik] A blob on a branch is definitely, definitely right. So this is actually a familiar bird for us being on the West Coast here. In the spring, we get these, guys, pretty frequently flying high in the trees. You can usually hear them singing much earlier than seeing them, but I think we’re looking at a black-throated gray warbler here.

You see the little black through the eye, or it looks like where the eye could be. Maybe, you can see the little yellow right in front of the nose and then those distinct streaks down the side that are black and white.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. And I will say this one gave me a big laugh when I was putting this together. Merlin had some creative ideas about this bird. Merlin thinks that this is a yellow-crowned night heron. And honestly, I can totally see that. Like if this is the only part of the bird that Merlin has to go with, there are some black and white stripes on the face there. So that’s an interesting take.

I can guarantee that this is not a night heron, but let’s take a look at what the actual answer is. The answer here is this is a black-throated gray warbler. So you’re totally right. You can see the pattern on the face. They’re really similar to a blackpoll warbler, honestly, as far as the black and white patterning goes, but this one is a black-throated gray.

So yeah, Hannah and Erik, you were able to cue into those field marks that you can see on the partial view of this bird, but Merlin was not able to get this. Merlin, that was a big miss.

Sam, what do you think happened here?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, so it can be really hard to get a good look at the bird– entire bird all at once especially with these warblers. But even with the partial look– I mean, Hannah and Erik were able to pick out the relevant field marks. And they had a good idea of what size it was, which Merlin clearly did not. So that’s one thing. It can be a little challenging for a machine learning model to understand how big a bird is.

And the other part of this is that Merlin just has trouble with things that are obscured views. You know, the model’s looking for those coarse grain patterns that are evident across the entire bird. So having part of the bird behind a branch is not super helpful. And it means some of those patterns that it’s looking for, when it’s looking for a black-throated gray warbler, won’t be there. Merlin can still sometimes get these obscured photos correct, but it’s not quite as accurate.

[Alli Smith] Yeah, and one thing I really like to note about Merlin is that we’ve trained it on as many blurry photos of birds as possible because we know most, people that are using Merlin are going to snap a quick picture with their cell phone and then use it from there. So Merlin is pretty good at identifying blurry cell phone photos like in this example up here.

This is a tufted duck. And of course, it works very well on very clear photos. But even like pretty blurry photos from far away– it can get. But when Merlin is– when you’re trying to use an obscured photo it does really trick it as we just found out.

So moving on to the next question, something that I always look forward to in the fall is getting to watch the migration of hawks and other raptors. And they’re most often the most visible birds that you can actually see migrating because they’re out flying during the day, and they’re huge. And some species form really big flocks on migration, which are called kettles.

So let’s say you are at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, and you are really hoping for a big kettle of raptors to fly over. And it’s your lucky day. You see this really cool flock fly overhead, and you’re able to get some cool pictures of it. So these birds are all the same species. So that should be a help.

So looking at these birds, what species is this? We’ll give you, all, 30 seconds to answer.

All right. You’ve got about 10 more seconds. Looks like the audience is pretty confident about this one. See some hot debate happening between Hannah and Erik. It’s always good.

All right. Time is up. So the audience is pretty confident that these are broad-winged hawks.

Hannah and Erik, do you agree with that?

[Hannah] We do. And yeah, this is a beautiful picture. I love seeing these migrating hawks like this in the huge numbers that you see on in some different places in the world. And definitely broad-winged hawk with those the stripes and striping in the tails. Their wings are fatter, you know? Kind of candle shaped.

What else do you have on that?

[Erik] Yeah, it almost looks like they’re reaching forward as they’re gliding there, which is pretty distinctive of broad wings when they’re soaring. So yeah, I think broad-winged hawk.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. Merlin is agreeing with you here, and we’ll see what the answer is. The official answer is yes. This is in fact a kettle of broad-winged hawks.

They’re one of my favorite raptors because of this behavior in particular. It’s so cool to suddenly see this kettling, spiraling group of birds, flying through the sky right above your head. And yeah, it’s just a good note that behavior can be a really important part of bird identification just as much as plumage differences can be.

So I have I have too many favorite birds. They’re all my favorite. But if I had to pick a group of birds that were truly my favorite, it would be shorebirds. And I love them because their journeys are so inspiring to me. Most sandpipers breed really far North in Canada and Alaska and then winter, in the Southern United States or Central or even South America.

So for a lot of people like us here in New York, we only really see them when they’re passing through on migration. So that’s a really exciting time of year for me. And when they’re passing through in the fall, unlike in the spring, they’re really drab. A lot of them tend to look the same. They’re all just kind of gray and round and low to the ground. But I think they’re really fun challenge.

So let’s say, you are birding in Oregon maybe on the beach. Maybe looking for some shorebirds, and you see a small flock at the edge of the water. And they’re foraging. There’s maybe some tasty treats in the sand, and they’re all kind of squabbling over something. And it’s a little bit chaotic looking. And the scene looks something like this.

So there are two different species in this picture here. But my question for you is, what is the larger species in this photo? The one that is getting bumped into? The bigger bird. So I’ll give you all seconds to answer.

As a side note, I think this might be my favorite photo in the entire Macaulay Library.

Audience is not confident about any of these answers here. Very, very split really between all four answers. And this is a really tricky one too. I think this is– it is a funny photo which is why I picked it, but it’s extra tricky because this does look like a young bird. So it doesn’t quite look the same as adults might look.

All right. We’ll say time is up in the poll.

All right. The poll is basically evenly divided between dunlin and pectoral sandpiper.

Hannah and Erik, what do you think that this bird might be?

[Erik] So I’m going to be honest. I’m awful with shorebirds.


I love them. They’re fun to watch even though we live here on the coast, and we do get this species here pretty regularly. I’m fairly certain that we’re looking at a red knot here. It’s got the kind of a pot-bellied look to its body, the greenish, yellowish legs, the single color to the bill. The bill is about the same length as the head. Kind of putting all those things together, I’m thinking red knot.

[Hannah] Yeah, red knot.

[Erik] But I actually wanted to– the last photo was actually Cannon Beach, where we’re sitting right now. I don’t know if you did that on purpose.

[Alli Smith] That was intentional. Yep.

[Erik] OK. All right. Yeah, so I’m thinking red knot is what I’m thinking.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. Merlin is agreeing with you here that this is a red knot. And the answer is red knot. Nice work. That’s tricky. I think really, shorebirds are one of the trickiest birds for a lot of people just because they do all look the same.

This one’s nice because you do have that comparison of size between a very tiny peep and this much bigger, fatter red knot. But this is a really, really tricky group of birds, especially because they are so ephemeral for a lot of people. You really only see them maybe for a few weeks every year. So they’re really hard bird to get practice with. So nice job.

All right moving on. Oh, I did want to ask Sam too. These are really tricky birds for humans to identify. So how does Merlin decide what shorebirds species are? Like they really do all look the same even on this grid of six pictures here. Like there’s a lot of similarities. What is Merlin cuing into?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, so before, we were talking about coarse grained features, which are those larger scale features on a bird. Here, that’s not super helpful for shorebirds because as you can see, all these birds look pretty similar. So Merlin’s going to have to key in on those fine grained features which are really precise stuff. So you could think of like the exact shape and size of the bill, the color and shape of the legs, the pattern of scaling on the flanks. Those are all probably things that Merlin keyed into when trying to identify that red knot.

[Alli Smith] Awesome. That’s super interesting. And also, what a cool bird. What a cool set of birds.

So shorebirds are really well known for their migration. A lot of them fly incredibly long distances. Some of them even go across entire oceans, but a lot of other birds aren’t as well known for their migration even though they do in fact migrate. So I have one bird here that to be totally honest, I just learned that this bird migrates. I had never even considered that this was a bird that could migrate.

So let’s say you are birding in Iowa on the edge of a forest like this one here. And you see this thing zoom over your head on its migration South. What is this species?

We’ll get the poll up and give everyone 30 seconds to answer.

As another fun side note, if you ever searching through the Macaulay Library, you can filter the photos by flying birds. And that’s honestly, one of my favorite things to do. Like these are the funniest pictures of birds when they’re flying, and they’ve tucked their wings. And they look like little tubes zooming through the air. They’re so fun.

There are a lot of really, really incredible pictures of like little tube-shaped warblers and woodpeckers and all kinds of other birds. They’re really fun to search through. And they make for really good great quiz questions because it’s doing a really great job of hiding some of its field marks.

All right. Time is up in the poll. Some even splits here. We have first in line with 42% of the audience thinking this might be a black-backed woodpecker. And then next up about 30% of the audience thinks that this is a red-headed woodpecker.

Hanna and Erik, what do you think about this bird?

[Hannah] Well, I just absolutely love these woodpeckers. They’re so beautiful in their breeding plumage, and you can see a little bit of it left on its chin right there. And it also has that gorgeous white on its back with it. When it does have its wings open, it flashes it so brightly that you can spot it in the forest as it’s flying through just based on that white. So I think we’re going with red-headed woodpecker on this one.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. Merlin is agreeing with you here that this is a red-headed woodpecker. And the answer is red-headed woodpecker. And you totally nailed. This is a young bird. He doesn’t quite have that red head yet, but I love this. He’s starting to molt. He’s got like one little red feather on his chin. We’re very proud of him. But yeah, that’s a really tricky bird.

This is like really hiding most of its field marks. You can’t see that really boldly patterned, black and white back. And this is a really bizarre position that you don’t often see woodpeckers in. So a challenging question for sure. So we’ve got one more photo ID question coming up, and then we’re going to move on to sound. But the last question– I had a little bit of fun with.

So right now, birds all across the entire northern hemisphere are on the move, not just birds in North America. Birds all around the world– in Europe and Asia as well. And sometimes, individual birds fly a little bit off track and end up in places, where they’re not normally found. And these vagrants can be really interesting to see because what an opportunity to find a bird that’s not normally close to home. But they can be really challenging to identify because, of course, it’s not a bird you’re familiar with. And it can be a really, really fun mystery.

So let’s say you are on the Coast in New Finland and you see this scene in front of you here. What is going on here? What is this bird on the left? Not the bird on the right, though that is a really good comparison. We’ll give you all 30 seconds to answer the question, what is the bird on the left?

This photo was taken about two weeks ago too which is pretty fun.

Give you about 10 more seconds. The audience is very confident on this one. And for good reason. I think this individual bird is almost a celebrity at this point.

All right. Time is up. All right. The audience is very convinced that this is a Steller’s sea eagle with a few people voting for each of the three other species.

Hannah and Erik, what do you think about this bird?

[Hannah] Well, I agree. I think this bird has definitely become a celebrity. And I’ve been waiting for it to go back to its home. And fly–

[Erik] Fly through Oregon to go home. We were jealous of everyone that’s been looking at this guy over there.

[Hannah] So we’re going with Steller’s sea eagle as well.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say here. Merlin. Merlin doesn’t know what to make of this bird. Merlin had absolutely no guesses, which was really interesting. And the answer here is– you and the audience got this correct. This is a Steller’s sea eagle.

So yeah, of course, this is a celebrity. It’s been reported in a few different states and provinces on the East Coast here up in the Northeast.

But Sam, why did Merlin not get this bird correct? It’s really distinctive.

[Sam Heinrich] Yes, so this is–

[Alli Smith] What’s going on? Yeah.

[Sam Heinrich] Super distinctive bird. And you know, Merlin doesn’t have the benefit of being able to read the news and learn that this bird is a celebrity, so it’s kind of stuck with what it knows. But one of the things that Merlin does is it uses your location to filter down to likely birds in your area. And so a Steller’s sea eagle is not very likely in New Finland.

This one has obviously made the news for how rare it is. So it’s really important that users have their location on because will there can be erroneous results if you keep your location off that are totally outlandish. However, the flipback side of that is that sometimes, you might see a Steller’s sea eagle in New Finland, and Merlin won’t be able to identify it for you. But 99% of the time, it’s really important to have your location on, and make sure that your results are tuned for exactly where you’re using Merlin.

[Alli Smith] Awesome. Thank you for that bit of advice. That’s something we always recommend to Merlin users– is to make sure that location is on. Really important, especially for sound ID, which is a great segue into the next category.

So before we jump into sound questions, I want to do a quick score check. Got my little whiteboard here. Hannah and Erik are doing awesome. They’ve got 7 out of 7 correct so far. And Merlin’s got 5 out of 7. And the audience is 3 points. So I’ll continue keeping score, and we will jump into sound ID.

So identifying birds by sound can be a really useful skill because sometimes, you can’t see the bird. Sometimes, it’s at the tops of the trees, or it’s really far away, or maybe, you’re gardening or walking your dog, and you can’t pull up your binoculars and identify what’s singing. But you might think like, why do I need to identify birds by sound in the fall?

Nothing’s singing. It’s not breeding season anymore. But they are still making noise. And a lot of birds, in particular, make flight calls as they’re flying. And other birds like geese or blackbirds form these huge noisy flocks, where they’re all squawking at each other to communicate, which makes like really a lot of what you hear in the fall is very different from the noise that you might hear in the breeding season.

But no matter what time of year you’re in, learning to identify birds by calls and by song can be really tricky because a lot of birds sound really familiar or have a huge variety of different noises that they can make.

So to start out our sound ID category, Sam, could you tell us a little bit about how Merlin learns how to identify birds by sound?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, so really similar to photo ID. Sound ID starts from the Macaulay Library and a skilled group of annotators. So first, sound recording enthusiasts upload their recordings to the Macaulay Library. And then these recordings are turned into a spectrogram, which is the visual representation of a sound that you can see on your screen here.

Then we have a group of really highly skilled annotators go in to these spectrograms and draw boxes around each noise that they can find and identify which bird is making that noise. Then similarly to photo ID, machine learning researchers like myself, take these boxes and turn them into a machine learning model that can run on your phone in real time and tell you what birds you’re hearing.

[Alli Smith] That’s awesome. This is one of the coolest things I think that this is a birding app powered by birders. Both birders, who are submitting all of these recordings to train Merlin and also birders who are annotating these and helping Merlin learn. So that’s super cool.

So for this round we’ll have 7 questions again. All themed around fall migration. So I’ll set the scene. I’ll play a song or call the species from a species of bird, and then I’ll give you through the end of the playthrough, plus a few seconds afterwards to answer the poll.

So let’s jump to question 1. So let’s say you’re at home wherever you are in the world, and you’re watching one of Cornell’s live streamed bird cams. This really cool one of a bird feeder in Ontario. And you hear a bird. And you’re pretty sure that it’s not one of the birds that’s on the screen right now. You think that there’s a different species offscreen calling that you can’t see and it sounds something like this.


What might this be? You want to pull up the poll. We’ll give you all some time to answer.


I’ll play it again just to give you all a little bit more time.


Looks like the audience is a little split between two options here. Give you a few seconds to finish. All right. Time is up.

The audience kind of divided between the two nuthatches here. But overwhelmingly, 54% of the audience went for red-breasted nuthatch.

Hannah and Erik, what do you think that this bird was?

[Hannah] So just a fun call to hear in the forest, and it just echoes throughout even though it’s such a tiny little bird making such a big noise. So we went with red-breasted nuthatch because it does have that kind of longer, lazier call versus a white breasted that would be quicker and more connected with one another. Those calls.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin had to say here. Merlin is agreeing with everybody here that this is a red-breasted nuthatch. And nice work. Everybody gets a point. Good way to start the sound ID round.

All right. Oh, keeping score make sure. I don’t miss anything here. Let’s move on to our next question.

So you are birding in a grassland in Colorado, and you see some songbirds zooming overhead, but they’re backlit. And you can’t pick out any details. You have no hope of visually identifying this bird. This little flock of birds. But they are making a lot of noise as they’re flying overhead. And that noise sounds something like this.


I’ll make sure to play this through twice so that you all have time to listen.


All right I’ll play it one more time.


All right. We’ll wrap up. Last call for answers in the poll. And we’ll say time is up.

Looks like people in the poll are feeling very confident. The audience is in strong agreement that this is an American pipit.

Hannah and Erik, do you agree with them?

[Erik] Yeah. Yeah, I’m fairly certain this is an American pipit. I usually see these guys, where they’ll do like two or three flaps, and then they’ll say their name. They say pipit as they’re going.

So I feel like it’s sometimes described as zipit, but they’re just saying, pipit, pipit, pipit, as a couple flaps. And they’ll do that. Boom, boom all in a row. So that’s kind of where I’m thinking. Pipit.

[Alli Smith] I do appreciate when birds say their names. And looks like Merlin appreciates that too. Merlin is pretty confident this is an American pipit. And again, everyone got this one right. Nice work.

Sam, this is what I think could be an interesting challenge for Merlin. It is a very, very short call, and there are a lot of other birds that pip as they’re flying overhead, making these very, very short calls. How does Merlin differentiate noises that are really similar to one another?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, absolutely. So similar to a human, when a species sounds similar to other species, Merlin is going to need to hear it a bunch of times in order to learn to key in on the fine grained features that separate it from all the other birds that sound similar. So we really need a large number of recordings that will allow the model to do this.

And the Macaulay Library, thanks to you know birders around the world uploading their recordings, we now have millions of recordings for Merlin to learn from. So it’s been able to figure out what a pipit sounds like, thanks to birders like you out in the field, uploading recordings of them.

[Alli Smith] That’s awesome. That’s super cool. Let us move on to question 3.

So let’s say you are enjoying a beautiful day of fishing on the Georgia Coast on an island with a nice sandy beach that’s bordered by a salt marsh. And you’re very focused on fishing. Maybe you’ve caught something. You’re on to a fish, and you’re very busy reeling it in, but you hear some birds off in the distance that are making some really, really beautiful noises. And they sound something like this.


I’ll play it one more time.


All right. Give you a few more seconds in the poll to finish your answers.

Looks like there’s some debate between two species in the poll. And we’ll say time is up.

All right. The audience– about half the audience went for whimbrel as the answer to this question, followed by common loon as the second choice.

So Hannah and Erik, what do you think that this bird might be?

[Hannah] Well, I think location specifically is a huge factor on this one. So we’re on a sandy beach. You said Georgia, I believe. And so that kind of knocks out a few species. So you might likely see like black-bellied plover there or whimbrel.

And the whimbrels– they have more of this kind of long, trilling call as well. So the black-bellied plovers are more of a pee-yoyee sort of scream. So that helps you kind of knock that out and go with whimbrel as it is that long trill.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. Merlin is agreeing that this is a whimbrel. Also, look at that beautiful spectrogram. That’s a really, really cool looking one. One of my favorites. And it is in fact, a whimbrel. Nice work.

This is– of course, shorebirds are near and dear to my heart so I’m a little biased here. But I think they’re really cool birds. They are really long distance migrant that fly from their breeding grounds in the northern parts of Canada, all the way down to their wintering grounds in the Southern United States, and then all the way down throughout all of Central America on the Coast. And yeah, I just think they’re really cool birds. So nice work everybody.

So moving on to our next question. [AUDIO OUT] fall, in particular, around August or so, can be a really confusing time of year to be birding by sound because you, not just have the first very early migrants coming through to consider, you still have your breeding birds that are in the area. And all of their fledglings that are recently out of the nest.

So yeah, there are a lot of different sounds that might be new that you could potentially be hearing. And these fledglings in particular make a lot of noise they’re very, very loud because they want to tell their parents that they are hungry. And they need food right now because they are growing and maybe aren’t quite ready to catch their own food yet.

So for our next question, let’s say you’re birding in Yellowstone National Park. You’re in Wyoming, and you hear a whole bunch of noise coming from the ground in a really brushy area. And it’s so brushy that you can’t see the bird that’s making all of this noise. But it sounds something like this.


Who might this bird be?


I’ll play it one more time.


Lots of debate among the audience here. This is pretty cool to see. Babies are tricky. I’ll give you all a few more seconds.

All right. And we will say that time is up. And honestly, pretty evenly divided among the audience here between chipping sparrow, dark-eyed Junco, and Ruby-crowned kinglet. They all really do make a lot of these kind of buzzy noises. But the highest number here– 43% of the audience went with chipping sparrow.

Hannah and Erik, what do you think about this little baby bird?

[Erik] This is difficult. I don’t– I’m kind almost guessing on this one. So I was hearing a little bit of like kind a metallic-y, like chunk, chunk, chunk, where there was a couple notes at the same time going on. And frequently, I hear that with our Juncos up here in Oregon. So that’s kind of where I’m leaning.

The audience has me scared with going with chipping sparrow. I’m not super familiar with their call, but I think I’m still going to stick with Junco.

[Alli Smith] Hannah, do you have any thoughts to add? Are you equally confused?


[Hannah] No, that’s definitely a tough one. And chipping sparrow and Junco are easily confused for one another. Ruby-crowned kinglet is a little bit higher, squeaky pitched. Northern Cardinal, obviously isn’t really in that area. And those are more of like a pew, pew, pew sort of noise. So yeah, I’m really torn in between chipping sparrow and Junco too, but I’m siding with Erik on with Junco on this.

[Alli Smith] All right. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. Merlin has absolutely no idea. So it’s not just that’s confused. Merlin’s got absolutely nothing on this one. And the correct answer is chipping sparrow. So the audience got this one right.

This is really tricky. I mean, not many people even get to hear fledgling, chipping sparrow noises. This is a noise that these birds are only making for a few weeks just right after that they leave the nest. So super, super short window of time.

So Sam, why didn’t Merlin get this one correct?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, so these begging calls are tough, and even human experts, obviously can have challenges with them. But so with Merlin, we’ve made the decision that Merlin should not be trained on begging calls at all.

So you know, no matter what bird you hear making a begging call? Merlin will not know what it is. So we’ve decided to focus on a more common set of vocalizations that are a little bit easier to identify.

[Alli Smith] That makes sense. And it is really tricky. Like if you scroll through the Macaulay Library, there really are just generally so few of these begging call recordings in general. So who knows? Maybe in the future, that’s something we’d be able to train Merlin to do. But the most important thing to do that is to have this huge bank of recordings at our hands to be able to train it, and we don’t really quite have that yet.

So next summer and fall, if you hear some begging birds, if you want to help us out, you can start recording them. And submit them to your eBird Checklists. And maybe, they’ll make their way into Merlin sometime.

So moving on, one really exciting part of fall migration can be visiting places that are known for birding spectacles, where huge flocks of birds gather on migration to stop for food or to rest. And wetlands can be a really great place to look for big flocks on [AUDIO OUT] flocks. There’s lots of food. There’s water. It’s generally a little bit safer. Easier to see predators from far away if you’re standing in shallow water rather than hiding in some trees.

And let’s say you are in New Mexico, and you’re at this beautiful wetland in a marsh. And you can’t quite see the birds over the tall grass yet, but you can hear a huge flock of something very close by. And that’s something sounds like this.


All right. I’ll play it one more time.


All right. We’ll give you a few seconds to finish answering in the poll. [AUDIO OUT]

All right. And we’ll say time is up. And it looks like the audience is very confident on this one. Very confidently saying that this is a flock of sandhill cranes.

Hannah and Erik, do you agree?

[Hannah] Well, this is one of my absolute favorite sounds in the natural world. It might not seem like everyone’s favorite as they are very loud and raucous, but yes, sandhill cranes. You know New Mexico is very famous for having these huge flocks come through and just deafening noise as they fly over. So yes, I would agree with sandhill crane.

[Erik] Yeah, I love the way the spectrogram looks on that too. It’s literally just a blob.

[Alli Smith] I got a kick out of that too. It looks like if there’s a lot of car traffic going by or an airplane overhead, it almost looks exactly the same. It’s just like a gray blob. Yeah, that’s cool.

Merlin is agreeing with you all that this is a flock of sandhill cranes. And nice work. This is, in fact, sandhill cranes. Nice work. Good job.

So birds like sandhill cranes are really known for their migration and their behavior that they do on migration. But there are a lot of other birds like the red-headed woodpecker earlier that I think a lot of people don’t realize migrate too.

So for our next question, this has a sound that isn’t unique to migration. This is a sound that a bird can make any time of the year. But I thought this was a fun bird to include.

So we’ll say you are in Louisiana, and you’re birding in your neighborhood park. And you hear a bird that sounds like this. Weird noise coming from a tree that you can’t quite pick out.


Ignore the crows in the background. I want to know what the loudest bird is.


All right. We’ll play it one more time.


A wacky one. And the audience is pretty evenly split between all four answers here.


All right. Time is up. All right. Audiences is almost evenly split among the four answers here. That’s really funny actually. That’s pretty cool. We’ll say Mississippi kite had the most votes with about 30% of the audience, and then the rest was almost equal number of votes for red-tailed hawk, Mississippi kite, and blue jay.

Hannah and Erik, what do you think this bird is?

[Erik] So I’m kind of thinking this is a blue jay. So you had– the first note and the last note were, obviously the crunch noise that is kind of really typical of a blue jay. And then everything in between was a mix between what I thought I was hearing, red shouldered and red-tailed mimics. So I’m thinking it’s a blue jay doing some silly playing around up in the trees.

[Hannah] Trying to trick us.

[Alli Smith] Hey, they do a lot of silly playing around. I love that description. Merlin. Merlin had some interesting things to say here. Merlin also seems to be evenly divided among a few species. Merlin did decide blue jay, but it also picked up Mississippi kite and red-tailed hawk which is interesting.

So the actual answer here is blue jay, which are really excellent mimics and also another bird that migrates that a lot of folks might not realize. Migrate– because for a lot of people, they are a bird that you can see in your backyard year round.

So I’m not really even sure how to score that one for Merlin. It technically got it right, but it also got it wrong. So maybe, we’ll give Merlin a half a point there. I’m not sure if that quite counts.

But, Sam, what was going on with Merlin there? Why did Merlin suggest three different species for this one bird that was calling?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, as you might imagine mimics are a huge challenge for Merlin. And I think Erik’s explanation actually provides some really cool insight into what’s going on with Merlin. So Erik was like, OK, the first part sounded like a blue jay, but then in the middle, it was mimicking. And then it sounded like a blue jay again. And so he was able to use the whole repertoire to sort of key in on the fact that it was a blue jay.

Merlin, however, doesn’t have the ability to do that. So Merlin makes predictions every second that are independent of all the other predictions it makes. So it doesn’t really have the ability to remember what it said before. It’s making a new prediction every second. So it’s going to get tripped up when a mimic does a really good job of sounding like a different bird.

[Alli Smith] Yeah, that makes sense. Like we as humans have the context of the blue jay’s full song and like we could also like see that there is one bird calling but Merlin doesn’t have that context. It’s just looking at those small chunks over and over. So I’ll tentatively give Merlin a half point here, and we’ll see if we need to do a tiebreaker later on.

But moving on to the next question and the last question. There are so many amazing aspects of migration, but I think the one that maybe inspires the most wonder is learning that most songbirds migrate at night. And right now, it’s almost 8 o’clock here in New York, and it’s getting dark out, which means millions and millions of birds across the state are taking off out of the trees, off the ground and flying South.

And one amazing resource that I wanted to highlight here is BirdCast, which is available for the United States. And you can find it That’s the website at the bottom right there. We can paste the link in the chat as well. And if you go to that website, you can see a daily report that looks just like this of a map that shows you where in the United States should be expecting high levels of migration each night based on winds and weather.

So this is the prediction for tonight, which is really exciting. I’m looking at the mid-Atlantic Coast, and it is glowing. It’s incredible so if you’re in Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, and North Carolina, definitely, if you can in the morning, take some time to go birding because there are millions and millions of birds that are starting to fly overhead right now, which is pretty exciting.

And while these millions of birds are flying at night, they’re not just flying. They’re also making noise the entire time that they’re flying, which is a really interesting behavior that we don’t fully understand. But these noises that each species make are really distinct to each species. These noises are called flight calls.

And as these birds are migrating, they just call over and over and over in their own little voice. And if you’re able to go outside and listen to them or record them with a microphone and look at that beautiful spectrogram that these noises are making, you can actually use these calls to identify them to species.

So for our last question here let’s say you’re here in Ithaca, New York, and you are at the observatory on Cornell’s campus. And you’re ready for a night of stargazing, but maybe it’s not quite dark enough out to use the telescopes yet. So you’re waiting outside, and you can hear birds start to fly overhead.

So my question here is, not what species are they, but how many species are calling in this recording. So you’re sitting out here, and you hear something that sounds like this. So how many different species of bird are calling in this recording?


All right. I’m going to play it one more time just to give you all a second look at it, but this is very, very tricky.


All right. We’ll give you a few more seconds in the poll. This is really challenging. This is one of those cases where looking at a spectrogram is almost more helpful than actually listening to the bird itself just because you get that nice visual as well along with the sound.

So we’ll say time is up in the poll. Pretty divided here among a few different options. About 43% of you all in the audience decided that there are 4 different species calling here with 5 species being the runner up.

Hannah and Erik, how many did you think you heard?

[Hannah] Well, I think we tallied about 4 as well. You had that one that was just doing the kind of eh-eh. That’s very even throughout the whole call that you can see in the spectrogram. And then there’s the kind of high pitched “plee.” That’s another one. What–

[Erik] Yeah. yeah, I got 4. I’m very glad you’re not asking us what species because that is not–

[Alli Smith] That would be mean. Yeah, that would be terrifying.

[Erik] But no. I’m thinking 4. That’s what I was– 4 different distinct calls.

[Alli Smith] All right. So audience and Hannah and Erik all voting for 4. Let’s see what Merlin has to say. Merlin picked out 5 different species. And Merlin actually nailed it. Merlin got all 5 in here. I’m so sorry. You look so devastated.


No, this is so challenging. It’s really, really hard to pick these out even if you do have a spectrogram in front of you. And a lot of them do sound really, really similar. We have some thrushes, 2 different songbirds, a few different sandpipers.

Sam, how does Merlin make sense of this? This seems like this is such a challenge for birders. Is this also a challenge for Merlin?

[Sam Heinrich] Yeah, absolutely. So one really cool thing about Merlin that’s a little different than how a human evaluates noise is you can think about when you’re listening to a bunch of different birds at once, you might focus on one, try to identify, and then move on to a different one.

Merlin actually doesn’t do that. So Merlin has what I like to call an infinite attention span. So every second, it’s making a prediction for every single one of the over 1,000 species in sound ID. So it’s actually one of those situations, where Merlin might have an advantage on a human is it’s able to detect tons of birds at the same time. So it’s going to have an advantage in a situation like this where there’s a lot going on.

[Alli Smith] That’s super cool. I really wish I had Merlin’s attention span, but I am really grateful to have Berlin with me in cases like this. Like I, in particular, have a really hard time with dawn choruses. There’s just so much going on. So I’m always thankful to have Merlin on hand, either just to look at the spectrogram or to have a little bit of a help with identifying it.

And now, this is also making me want to go outside right after this is over in a few minutes and see if I can hear anything. So that brings us to the end of the trivia game. So let’s do a final score check-in.

We’ve got Hanna and Erik in the lead with 12 points, Merlin with 10, and the audience with 8. Everyone did an awesome job. These were some really challenging questions. This was definitely trickier than the first time we did this. So awesome job, everybody. Fall migration is, I think, the most challenging time of the year to be birding in. So awesome work.

I do want to leave you all with some resources before we leave. If you’d like to hear more from Hannah and Erik, you can visit their website. Listen to their podcast at We’ll leave a link in the chat so that those of you who are interested can take a look.

And I have, in addition, a few tips for using Merlin while you’re out and about birding. So number one most important thing that you can do when you’re using Merlin is to make sure that Merlin has access to your location because Merlin will give the most accurate results if it knows where you are. If it doesn’t know where you are, is instead of just looking at the birds that it knows you can find right around you, it’s looking at all like almost 11,000 species of bird around the world. So that leaves a lot more room for error.

So giving Merlin access to your location can really improve the accuracy and make sure that you’re getting the best experience possible. When you’re using photo ID, I know this isn’t always possible, especially because birds are tiny and fast and often, very far away from you, but trying to get the most clear and unobscured photo possible to use in photo ID will definitely bump up the accuracy there.

And when you’re recording sounds, whether that’s with Merlin or with a microphone, really any way that you’re recording, these tips really apply in any case. So that the two most important things when you’re recording to do are to be as quiet as possible, and to get as close to the bird as possible. And there’s some important other tips in here as well. So when you are recording, you are the closest thing to the microphone– much closer than the bird is usually, unless you’re unusually close to a very tame bird maybe.

But if you’re holding out your phone, you are the closest thing. So it’s picking up, not just the bird that’s singing, but it’s also picking up your hands shifting around on your phone, or it’s picking up your footsteps as you’re walking through the forest. So being as still and as quiet as possible can really enhance the quality of your recording. And then of course, getting closer to the bird will increase the quality as well.

But you want to really make sure that you’re doing this without disturbing the bird or without changing the bird’s behavior. The bird safety absolutely is coming first here, and we want to make sure that we’re not having an impact on the birds that we’re watching. So generally, we recommend trying to make a recording from far away from the bird first and then maybe, getting a few steps closer, and then making another recording if Merlin isn’t getting at that first time.

So that is about all we have time for tonight. It is just after 8 o’clock. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Thank you so much, Hannah and Erik. Congratulations. You can now say you beat Merlin in a game show. That’s pretty cool.

If anyone has questions or wants to learn a little bit more, you can visit us at So awesome. Thank you so much. We’ll see you all next time.

End of transcript

Join us for a bird identification trivia game! The Merlin Bird ID app, developed by the Cornell Lab and powered by machine learning, will be put to the test. Can the app outperform an experienced birder and, you, our live audience? Using photos and sounds, we’ll determine who can accurately identify the most bird species. This is an interactive game, so come ready to play! Throughout the game, we’ll explore how Merlin “decides” on an ID. Our panelists will share their advice on how to identify tricky birds based on calls and appearance—plus, they’ll provide insights into birding during the migration season.

This webinar is part of our annual Migration Celebration. Join us for online events and ideas and resources for your own migration activities. Visit the Migration Celebration website for the full schedule of events and recorded webinars.

Explore More:
  • Have a question about Merlin Bird ID app? Check out their in-depth Help and FAQ pages!
  • Check out All About Birds, the Cornell Lab’s online guide to birds and birdwatching.
  • Some hawks and raptors are on the move this fall, learn more about these birds of prey with the Bird Academy online course which is on sale now!