Last week, an online video event was held to celebrate and showcase work funded by the National Science Foundation, called the NSF 2015 Teaching and Learning Video Showcase: Improving Science, Math, Engineering, and Computer Science Education. 112 videos featuring innovative work in these fields were shared on the website, and 21 were recognized as Facilitators’ Choice, Presenters’ Choice, and/or Public Choice projects.
From the Showcase website’s About page, here are the criteria for recognition in each category:
During the event, facilitators from each resource center will select a few videos, which will recognize extraordinary creativity in the use of video to share innovative work to determine the “Facilitators’ Choice.” In addition, all presenters will have the opportunity to vote for their favorite videos to determine “Presenters’ Choice.” Finally, all public visitors to the event will be asked to select those videos that they find most compelling. Those with the greatest number of public votes will receive “Public Choice” recognition.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID app was one of only 3 projects to be selected as Public, Presenters’, and Facilitators’ Choice, making it quite a popular video! But then again, it’s also a very popular app. In the iTunes App Store it enjoys an average of 5-star reviews from thousands of users; in Google’s Play Store, where the app was only recently released for Android earlier this year, it already has a 4.2-star average.
I had actually been under the impression that we’d already featured the Merlin Bird ID app on the blog in the past, but the sole reference I can find is a brief mention in James’s recent piece on birding in the Southeast. Having only just downloaded the app myself this month, since I was traveling outside the US when the app was first opened to Android users in January, I can now finally comment on it.
The Merlin app, cleverly named for both the sorcerer of Arthurian folklore and the small falcon found throughout the northern hemisphere, asks a user several questions to narrow down the possible birds he or she may have seen. Obvious elements like size, color, and behavior come into play, but Merlin also connects to the constantly-updated database of eBird to help determine if certain species are reasonable candidates in a particular area, especially during migratory seasons.
Merlin can clearly be extremely helpful for the average person who doesn’t know every bird they see in their backyard (you should watch the video linked above and here to learn more), but it can be useful to the amateur birdwatcher who is traveling around North America (and for now Merlin is limited to the continent). The beautiful bird pictured above, for example, is only found in the southern Great Plains and Texas during the summer breeding season; otherwise they’re migrating through Mexico to winter in Central America. As a resident of Georgia and New York, I had no clue that this species was even remotely possible to sight in the US, but while driving on a highway in Missouri this weekend, I happened to see a bird with absurdly long tail feathers ending in racquet-tips.
From my Cornell ornithology class, I knew the chances were good that it was a flycatcher, but I had to resort to Merlin for an actual ID. After going through the location and date in the app, I selected a robin-sized bird, put down its main colors as black, white, and gray (I mostly got a silhouette view so those were my best bets), and said that it had been flying when I saw it (the other useful criteria would have been if it was on a fence or wire). Sure enough, out of twenty shortlisted birds in the Merlin results, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher was in there, and was obviously the only species I could have seen.
My only problem with Merlin is that it doesn’t list “Similar Species” the way Cornell’s All About Birds page does, which should be a very simple matter and wouldn’t even require photos to be quite helpful for quick confirmations of IDs. If you ever wonder what birds are flitting around your neighborhood and you have a smartphone, I encourage you to download this free app and try it out!