If spotting birds is like catching Pokemon, then Central Park is New York's Safari Zone. It hosts 200 bird species with other rarities occasionally making an appearance. I recently joined the Audubon Society and Postlight (who built the app) on a walk through the park to try out their new app.
A picture of a cardinal I took by putting my iPhone up to my binoculars. Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum
It's good - and I think it might be the app a Pokemon GO player would need to make the switch from catching Pokemon to spotting birds.
"We designed it with the novice birder in mind," Martha Harbison, Network Content Editor for the National Audubon Society, told me. "We were really mindful that we wanted it to be usable for anyone who likes watching birds, even at their feeder. At the same time, we wanted it to be useful for a bird expert, too."
Audubon's original app looked a little bit like the kind of app you'd use to get around a business conference, with long lists and clunky buttons.
The new app has a bird ID feature, which, based on the time of year and location, can tell you which bird you're looking at based on its size, colour, shape, how it's acting, the sounds it makes, and other attributes. It also lets you log your sightings, read bird-related articles from Audubon.org, and explore what other birds people are seeing in your area.
It isn't the only bird app out there. Cornell's Merlin Bird ID can also help you figure out what species you're looking at, but doesn't let you log your sightings - there's another app, eBird for that. In Australia, there are apps such as Aust. Birds and The Morcombe & Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia. Then there are pricey mobile bird reference guides, more regional apps, and other log-a-sighting apps.
Though it only features birds found in America, Audubon's app combines features from a lot of these apps, and it's free.
An American goldfinch. Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum
Expert birders might even find it useful, Audubon field editor and naturalist Kenn Kaufman, who wrote much of the app's copy, told Gizmodo. "Being able to explore local hot spots is something I'll use away from home."
"It's a quick and convenient way to figure out where to go and what's being seen."
I've been using Audubon's new app for about a month and have gone birding three or four times with it, and it's pretty good. It still has a few annoying design quirks: It requires more tapping in a less streamlined workflow to identify a bird than Merlin Bird ID does, and the images crop a little weird in the explore screens.
But otherwise, I've read articles from its main screen, browsed it for fun, and listened to the calls to confirm birds I think I've identified but can't see.
Red bellied woodpecker. Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum
During the walk, experts mostly relied on their ears, eyes and binoculars, but eventually used the app without being asked to (even at the app release birding walk). Kaufman used it to play bird calls and show us pictures of birds we only caught a glimpse of. NYC Audubon Birder Jeffrey Ward used it to explain that female Northern Cardinals look a lot like their cousins, the Pyrrhuloxia.
By the end of the day, we'd spotted 25 species of birds including some not often seen in Central Park, such as a red-throated loon, the yellow-crowned night heron, and a summer tanager.
Jeffrey Ward uses the app to explain the difference between Cardinal species. Photo: Ryan F. Mandelbaum
And while maybe it isn't much of an augmented reality app, making it easier to identify birds certainly augmented reality for me - and I didn't have to keep my face in my phone.