Stars? Birds? There's an app for them

Monday June 11, 2012


We were in the back seat, going out to dinner with old friends who had recently moved to Maine, and one of us noticed a super bright "star" in the sky. Had to be a planet, we all knew, but which one?

In the front seat, the passenger quickly announced that it was Jupiter.

She had a new cell phone and an app for astronomy, and she was on it.

Confessing that she was finding it hard to put the cell phone down, she followed up with what the weather would be the next day, as we continued up the coast, and what we could expect on the way home. She had run through several more informative apps by the time we reached our restaurant.

We hope she has relaxed a bit, and we also hope she doesn't know hundreds of thousands of apps are out there, waiting to keep you from eating, sleeping or cleaning the bathroom. They can also keep you calm when you're waiting 25 minutes for a table or sitting in the doctor's office wishing fewer people were sick.

My cell phone doesn't have a slew of apps, but I do love the games with words, especially the ones I can win. And the maps are marvelous because they offer three alternative routes, complete with mileage and expected time, so you can sometimes tell the GPS woman -- we call her madam -- that you don't want to go her way. (She does sound a bit peevish when she says "recalculating" for the third or fourth time.)

Getting the weather is great, too. Well, the ability to get the weather forecast, that is. Lately -- for a couple of months, in fact -- the weather itself could do with a little self-improvement.

And then there's the bird app. While it may still be a good idea to carry a bird book along when you're on a real bird-watching expedition, the bird app in a cell phone is a nearly weightless, pretty nice substitute.

And, unlike the book, it can sing.

When we discovered an indigo bunting in our backyard last spring, we were very excited. But when one of our offspring arrived and wanted to see it, we couldn't find the beautiful blue creature. Son Michael pulled out his cell, typed in bunting and hit the little horn for sound.

The song Sibley describes as melodic but metallic came out of the tiny instrument, and within seconds, a gorgeous indigo bunting nearly parted Michael's hair, apparently not appreciating any competition from another boy bunting. Michael turned off the cell while we dissolved in laughter.

This spring, the bunting was back, hunting for something delicious in the lawn. And then he was neither seen nor heard from for a couple of weeks.

Last week, quite certain I was hearing him, I played his song on my cell.

On cue, he landed on the framework over the blueberry patch, brilliant in the late afternoon sun and not in attack mode at all.

I switched to the red-eyed vireo song, to see if it matched what I'd been hearing every morning in the spruce trees. And sure enough, the app was right on. Now if I could just get a glimpse of that tiny vocalist.

The nature puzzle at our house this spring involves a pair of bluebirds who moved into one of our rentals in early May. We peeked about three weeks ago and saw five blue eggs. More recently, a sixth egg appeared, alongside what seemed to be the original unhatched five.

We're keeping an eye on this lady, who faithfully sits on those eggs. But she's not telling us a thing about what's going on. We're not sure, actually, whether she knows. But after years of never having bluebird tenants, we're hoping that some babies appear there soon.

We want that lady to be the proverbial bluebird of happiness.

Ruth Bass, a former Eagle Sunday editor, prefers bird-watching to weeding.


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