• Jennifer Sartell

My Favorite Birding Apps and other Nature Identification

If you've been following me for any length of time on Facebook or Instagram, you know that I'm very passionate about nature photography, particularly when it comes to birds. I love birding, as it gives me an excuse to get out in nature and explore terrains and landscapes that I might otherwise miss.

Those who know me, also know that I'm a pretty old fashioned sort of person. I've never been a fan of high tech gadgets, my phone is cheap and sketchy at times, and well...let's just say we still watch TV recorded Christmas movies on VHS during the holidays. So it's a little surprising that I'm writing a post about my favorite apps.

But here we go...

My 3 favorite birding apps cover 3 important aspects of birding and nature observation.

1. Where to find birds

2. How to identify the birds you see

3. Where to store your observations, for your own reference and even some citizen science, if that interests you.

1.Where to Find Birds

The most common question I get when I post nature photos is "where do you find all these animals?" And to be honest, when you spend a lot of time in nature, you begin to see patterns. You notice things... Like I unknowingly look for hawks as we drive down the highway. My eyes are always scanning for that cream, inverted tear-drop shaped chest sitting in trees. My husband, who is not a birder, does not see these hawks until I point them out.

You begin to see certain landscapes as ideal habitats for certain animals and many times, if you look hard enough, you find what you thought you might. Nature, while wild and free, can be a bit predictable if you know what to look for.

But nature is a big place, and while you can get some really interesting finds just immersing yourself, if you want to be more intentional there are some tools to use. For example, when I found the wayward Whooping Crane in Michigan last year, or the Inland Pelicans or the Great Horned Owl nest this past spring, I used e-bird.


E-Bird is an incredible site created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It's totally free and it's a collection of birding observations made available to the public. So it's birders, helping other birders, to find birds!

You can search by location or species, and they're coming out with some improvements soon which will make finding and identifying birds even easier.

Journey North

Another app I love is Journey North. This isn't just a birding app, it covers a variety of species and events that have to do with migration. It uses citizen science to offer sighting maps as species migrate.

So you can see (almost in real time) as birds like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird, or the Baltimore Oriole move North after winter. I use this tool to know when to put out my Hummingbird and Oriole Feeders. It also covers Monarch Butterflies and some whale species if you live on the coasts.

2. Identification

So you see a new bird but don't know what it is. How can you look it up?

Well, my favorite way to look up a bird species is in my National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. But when I'm out on a hiking trail or in a kayak, it can be difficult to lug a 300+ page book around. Luckily, I usually have my phone. So I use the app Merlin.


Merlin is also designed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You go through a few steps identifying where you saw the bird, (perching, flying, on the ground etc.) then the rough size (larger than a robin, smaller than a crow) and the primary colors (it was grey and brown). Then they give you a list of probable birds in your area.


I-Naturalist is another great identification tool for all types of wildlife. You submit a photo, and other nature enthusiasts give their opinions as to what they think it might be. It also has smart technology where computer recognition will offer suggestions as to what your species might be. Then the computer combines that information, and other's joined opinions, and gives you a positive identification.

3. Organization and Record Keeping

My mom is a birder, though she more or less tracks the birds that visit her own property, but I grew up learning about birds. We had several feeders hanging by our door wall that we could see from the kitchen table. At each meal my mom and I would talk about the birds that visited. She'd quiz me. "What's that one?" if we didn't know, we would look it up in her bird book. At a very early age I knew the names of most of the song birds in our area.

We also had a bird book filled with Post-it's Every time we saw a new bird, we'd look it up in the bird book and mark that page with a Post-it with the date. The book had so many post it's that eventually the binding gave out and we had to tape it back together.

If you're like me, a list maker by nature, you will want to keep track of the birds/species that you see. And while the post it note system "works", there are some more tech savvy ways of recording your observations. Again, E-bird is great for recording your observations and keeping life lists of the birds you've encountered. I-Naturalist will also keep a record but it relies more on photos. I would recommend these for life lists etc.

Nest Watch

There is also Nest Watch, which helps guide you through observing certain species of nesting birds. It is a great tool for those who are managing Blue Bird or Tree Swallow houses. You set the location of the nest, and it prompts you through a series of questions about the progress of the nest. It also sets reminders for you to check the nest after so many days.

You can log all your observations and create a citizen science report which helps everyone to learn about birds.

(Please refer to the Bluebird Society guidelines before setting up and deciding to manage a bluebird house)

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