Reviewed by Grant McCreary on May 11th, 2011.
Birders have a plethora of printed family-specific identification guides to choose from, so I guess it was inevitable that mobile applications (apps) would follow. Two of the first such electronic guides, devoted to two of the more “popular” North American families, are HeadsUp Warblers and HeadsUp Sparrows. Currently, these apps only support the Apple family of mobile devices (iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad).
Individual species accounts (57 warblers and 47 sparrows) and a compare function make up these apps. Each species page includes:
- Photographs – one or more (max of three in the latest versions)
- Range – color map shows permanent, breeding, and winter ranges
- Notes – what to look and listen for
- Sounds – multiple sound clips
The pictures look fantastic on my iPhone and you can zoom in on both them and the range maps using the familiar pinching motion. The notes are very succinct. They mention a few field marks and maybe something about behavior or habitat, but nothing in-depth.
As would be expected from apps produced by birdJam, the sounds are the best part of these apps. On average, each species has around 6 sound clips that total two minutes. These include multiple songs and a selection of chip notes, each labeled with the state and month in which it was recorded (as well as subspecies or “type” when appropriate).
You can easily select two or more birds to compare. When comparing, you can view the bird’s head shot and range map, and listen to the first song. You need to open the species page to access the rest. An extensive set of predefined comparisons based on song types have also been included, allowing easy comparison of confusing songs. Examples of the song types include “buzzy”, “slurs”, “trill”, and “ending ‘Meetcha’”. The latter has been especially helpful for me, as those warbler songs tend to confuse me.
When opening the app, the user is greeted with profile shots of the birds’ heads arranged in three columns. Tapping buttons on the bottom can change it to four or five columns. These head shots, while visually striking, are not very helpful unless you are already familiar with these birds. But you can tap the Info button and labels will appear with the species’ name.
To open the species’ page, double-tap on the bird. If you single-tap, a green box will appear around the picture. This “selects” the bird for comparison. After selecting all those you’d like to compare, tap the Compare button to view just those birds.
The user interface and navigation are clear and easy to use. The sound-playing interface, especially, is clean and well done. The only possible point of confusion is the double-tapping, as that’s not a very common action. But the help screen that appears when first running the app makes this clear.
At first I was confused as to how the birds are ordered, as it is clearly not taxonomic or alphabetical. Instead, it is based on appearance with species that share common characteristics, especially in the facial area, being grouped together (e.g. warblers with black throats and sparrows with prominent crown stripes). Appearance-based sorting doesn’t work well for birds, particularly those that tend to be as polymorphic as the warblers. A taxonomic or alphabetical arrangement would be preferable. Or better yet, make it a configurable option so the user could choose which of the three works best for them.
Purpose and Comparison
While the HeadsUp apps seek to help birders with the identification of two potentially difficult groups, I think the audible component will be the greatest help. The photos may look great, but I wish there were more. With no more than three per species, that’s not nearly enough for some. For instance, three Yellow-rumped Warblers, a highly variable species (or perhaps two), are shown: a male, female, and winter bird. Oddly, the male and winter are “Myrtles” while the female is an “Audubon’s” type. And Connecticut and Mourning Warblers just have adult males. This is also an issue with the sparrows app, where only “Slate-colored” Dark-eyed Junco and “Red” Fox Sparrow are depicted. In terms of visual identification, these apps don’t compete with the full field guide apps.
Sound-wise, the HeadsUp apps deliver a marginally superior selection than the Sibley eGuide and iBird apps, two of the most popular general field guide applications. There’s not an appreciable difference between the sound selection for most species between the HeadsUp apps and Sibley; a similar number and types of sounds are included in both. However, that’s not the case for most rarities and vagrants. The Sibley app doesn’t include sounds for some such birds (i.e. Rufous-capped Warbler) and doesn’t include others at all (i.e. Fan-tailed Warbler), whereas these are given full coverage in HeadsUp. iBird has vocalizations for most of those that Sibley does not, but on average includes fewer sounds per species than HeadsUp.
While I like the comparison feature, it’s limited to just that family. For example, if you hear a trill-type song, but don’t see the songster, you can use the app to compare likely warblers. But it could be a Chipping Sparrow and not a warbler at all. Thus, the songtype comparisons are useful for studying, but less so for field identification.
I love family-specific identification guides. Well, I should clarify: I’m a big fan of family-specific ID guides that have value above and beyond general field guides. Otherwise, what’s the point? Right now, I don’t think HeadsUp Warblers and HeadsUp Sparrows have crossed that value threshold. Their vocalization collection and songtype comparison is the main thing that sets them apart from the general field guide apps. But even then, that advantage isn’t enough to warrant an unconditional recommendation since it can largely be overcome by a few downloads from a site like xeno-canto.
But the phrase right now is key. Apps, by their nature, are easily updated and improved. Already, additional photographs have been added to HeadsUp Warblers since it was first released. I’d like to see many more photos added to cover a full range of variation and viewing angles in order to aid visual identification. More textual information, especially about behavior, habitat, and natural history, would also be a welcome addition. And how about some video? In the meantime, unless you just want a mobile app for warblers and/or sparrows for some reason, I’d stick with one of the general field guide apps or birdJam proper.
Disclosure: The item reviewed here was a complementary review copy provided by the publisher. But the opinion expressed here is my own, it has not been influenced in any way.