The advent of advanced computing and the internet has been a incalculable boon to birders everywhere. However, the one area where birdwatchers have been slow to cross the digital divide has been in the realm of species identification. We birders just haven’t had good reason to leave our field guides on the shelf. But with Winged Explorer and iBird, a new day may just have dawned.

Let me disclose up front that I’ve known and followed Mitchell Waite for years. I liked his first parametric avian identification search platform, which I believe was called the Perceiva Bird ID Site. His system of identifying any North American bird by interactively stepping through the field marks was refined and expanded upon tremendously in Whatbird. But until now, these identification solutions lived online, whereas most field identification is attempted far beyond the reach of wifi. Now the incredible ID engine has been formatted for Windows Mobile devices and iPhones. These programs are Winged Explorer and iBird (Plus or Backyard) respectively.

I’ve been playing with Winged Explorer for a couple of weeks now and love it. Winged Explored basically enhances a full North American field guide comprising 891 species with audio for every bird in a package that fits into your mobile phone or PDA. Isn’t that cool? The audio component alone, just one of the many installed features, really makes this application useful in the field for me, as I never find the phonetic descriptions of bird calls in field guides very useful in recognizing the real thing. Plus, if you don’t recognize a bird, you can search its identity by Location, Shape, Size, Habitat, Color, Family, Bill Shape or Length, Head Pattern, Crown Color, Wing Shape, or Flight Pattern. Because you can further refine your search by each criterion, you can quickly drill down to a possible identification.

The Winged Explorer software, from its easy interface to the plentiful range maps, really impress. I will point out, though, one flaw that will prevent Winged Explorer from replacing your trusty field guide in the field, at least for the time being. The illustrations for many species are limited only to certain plumages. For example, I spotted a loon in Lake Ontario and wanted to show someone why it was a Red-throated and not a Common Loon. However, Winged Explorer only shows loons in breeding plumage, which happens to be useless in December. Since even experienced birders often need field references for female and juvenile plumage, this is a problem.

Even this flaw, however, highlights the opportunity of software over static media: instead of costly new editions, you get free upgrades. The publisher not only plans to add multiple photos of various plumages, ages, and sexes for each species but also free monthly updates that will include any new illustrations, images, taxonomic changes, etc. Everyone who buys and installs Winged Explored automatically gets a lifetime subscription. Imagine a field guide that keeps getting better and is always up to date!

This ultimately is why I believe in Winged Explorer and its sister application iBird. Having followed its lifecycle from when it was just a metaphorical twinkle in its developer’s eye, I like where it is and love where it is going. Frankly, the idea that a full audio-visual field guide of the birds of North America from coast to coast capable of fitting into a shirt pocket is just the beginning here really boggles the mind.

The list of features goes on and on. If you have a Windows Mobile device or iPhone, you’re going to want to pick up one of these applications soon, especially since the prices just went way down. In Winged Explorer and iBird, Mitch Waite may very well have just introduced the first true 21st century field guide.

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.