For birding/bird watching, the Merlin app is truly a game changer.
The app is something you can download to your phone at no cost, and using it is easy.
Honestly, I’ve only been using the sound ID feature for a month or so, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be using it from now until the end of time. The end of my time, that is.
But even though it is wonderful, there are some things that people should know.
First of all, the app should be used as a tool, not a replacement for reasonable diligence when identifying a bird species.
Now, as mentioned previously, I’ve only been using it for a little over a month now, and that is mostly the sound identification feature, so I’m not yet an expert.
However, what this thing can do for your birding experience is awesome.
In late April 2023, I’d heard about it, and I was actually making recordings of birds, then playing it through the app for identification.
Then, in early May while I was with a group of experienced birders, I saw them just press the record feature, and hold up the phone while we were in the woods. Within seconds they were picking up many bird species.
I then began to use it that way myself, and it was great!
I wished I had known about that feature prior to traveling to High Island, Texas, in late April for spring bird migration. Even so, I couldn’t wait to travel and use it in other locations.
But first, I used it near my house, and also at Wintersmith Park.
I picked up — then later confirmed — several migratory species such as blackpoll warbler, American redstart, magnolia warbler, and rose-breasted grosbeak, just to name a few.
But there are some issues with the app.
I believe, and I am not alone in this, that the app sometimes identifies the wrong birds.
For instance, while visiting Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oklahoma recently, the Merlin app picked up a black-throated blue warbler, which would be very rare there, but I suspected it accidentally misidentified the song of a northern parula, which sounds similar.
I searched and searched for a black-throated blue warbler, but I didn’t see or hear one, and the app didn’t pick it up again.
While visiting Beavers Bend State Park in Southeastern Oklahoma in May, the app identified a black-whiskered vireo, which would be highly improbable. The mostly Caribbean species is typically found close to coastal areas, and would be way off course if it were in Beavers Bend.
The Merlin app also picked up the Philadelphia vireo several times, but it always occurred when a red-eyed vireo was singing as well. I never could find a Philadelphia vireo by sight, only the red-eyed.
I later heard that, because both species sound so much alike, the app tends to list them both, cycling between the two. I can’t say for certain if that’s correct, but from whet we saw that day, it seems plausible.
However, I also wondered why it never did that any other time that I’ve been around red-eyed vireos.
So, I got to thinking, every time the app has picked up red-eyed vireos when I was using it, it was in the areas of Ada, Tishomingo and Lake Texoma.
Then I figured maybe — even though the National Audubon Society shows that the Philadelphia vireo does migrate through those areas — the Cornell Lab of Ornithology — the creator of the Merlin app — does not.
The Cornell map, however, does show Beavers Bend as being in the migratory pathway of the Philadelphia vireo. So, perhaps the app wouldn’t confuse the two if it thinks one wouldn’t be in a certain area.
But I don’t know for certain. Maybe it did pick up a Philadelphia vireo that day, but since I never saw one, I did not count it.
So, as mentioned previously, the app should be used as a tool, not for definitive conformation.
The following is a great example for how the Merlin app should be used.
While on Craven’s Nature Trail at Tishomingo National Wildlife Refuge earlier this month, the app picked up a Kentucky warbler, which, it listed as rare for the area. However, based on so many visits to that refuge, I would say the bird is uncommon there, not so much rare. But I digress.
I saw it on the phone, and I recognized the bird’s “purdy, purdy, purdy, urdy” song, so I knew it was there. I then hiked a few yards and saw the bird about 20 feet up in an oak tree.
And that was it. The phone alerted me, then I confirmed that it was correct.
And so it really is a tool. Like binoculars, like a camera, like a field guide. and it’s a tool that should be used.
So, if interested, visit the app store on your phone and search for the Merlin app, then go outside and turn it on.
And just one last thing. I’ve only scratched the surface here as far as the app goes, and there are a lot more features involved. Once you download the app, you’ll see
what I mean.
Grape jelly warning
The Raptor Education Group, Inc., an agency dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of injured or orphaned native bird species and public education of wildlife issues, recently issued a warning about using grape jelly to feed certain birds.
“Earlier this week, Raptor Education Group Inc. admitted three adult ruby-throated hummingbirds from different areas, within a two-hour period,” a social media post read. “They were covered in grape jelly. One patient was deceased on arrival; the others are alive but struggling. Other hummingbirds were admitted earlier in the month, and there is little doubt more will follow.”
In the post, the group said that during the past few years, providing grape jelly to orioles has become a popular alternative to the traditional orange slices/halves.
“Grape Jelly was a convenient energy food as it is a “semi solid” substance even in colder temperatures and easy to keep contained in a bowl. It provides a quick source of energy during migration. But then, for whatever reason, the use of jelly … bypassed logical use and morphed into a multi-species, year-round jelly feeding frenzied fad.”
The group says a problem occurring in hot weather is that jelly “melts, i.e., liquifies” somewhat, and it is therefore more available to adhere to a bird’s body, feet and feathers. Some people added water to the jelly and began serving it in larger bowls. This fad occurred even within the birding community, the post read.
The group recommends that the jelly only be used during migration, and not year-round. However, I will go a step further and recommend that it not be used at all.
Odds and ends
I made a video concerning the use of the Merlin app’s sound ID feature, which is available at this web address: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6BoKK7x1bU&t=253s.
(Editor’s Note: Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for more than 40 years. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)