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Clellie Lynch: To Merlin or not to Merlin?

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Merlin Sound ID app, the free app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is designed for beginning and intermediate birders and includes sound ID, photo ID, list-making and descriptions of each species. "By identifying a species by sound, Merlin is definitely one up on Sibley’s and other apps modeled on printed field guides," writes Eagle columnist Clellie Lynch.

Not long ago while we’re birding at Pleasant Valley, my friend, Barbara, slips out her iPhone from her pocket, taps on her Merlin Sound ID app and begins to record the bird sound around us. The app displays the names of the singing birds, rapidly listing the house wren, bluebird, blackbird and yellowthroat on stage near us. I’m impressed!

So the next day I download the free app created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in partnership with Bird-in-Hand LLC using the amazingly comprehensive database from eBird, information gathered from thousands of birders in the field. Merlin is designed for beginning and intermediate birders and includes not only sound ID, but features photo ID, list-making and descriptions of each species. By identifying a species by sound, Merlin is definitely one up on Sibley’s and other apps modeled on printed field guides.

I often play the Sibley’s songs for an individual species if I can’t identify the bird immediately. But I do not use the app’s illustrations. Danny either carries a field guide or we have one in the car. Scrolling back and forth on the phone is frustrating. Flipping the pages of a book back and forth for comparisons is much quicker and more easily accomplished.

Since each species has its own song, ditty or squawk including variations and individual riffs, the ability of a machine to identify the species by sound is startling. Once Merlin/Bird-in-Hand programmers were able to turn sound waveforms into sound pictures (spectrograms), they were able to interpret what the phone picked up for instant identification. Using many, many algorithms with multiple spectrograms for each species enables your iPhone to listen for you and for you to listen later to the identified recording so you can learn and memorize the song and sounds related to each species.

Is this artificial intelligence? Remember AI is only as good as its creators. There are other sound ID apps that have been around for a while that I never heard about nor used: Song Sleuth, Bird Song ID USA, BirdGenie and Chirp-O-Matic (my favorite name). I believe Merlin has probably surpassed them all.

For the last two weeks, as I am walking along, I turn Merlin’s sound ID on and off. Going through each day’s recordings, Merlin has found 60-plus birds calling, singing, chipping from high up in the trees, across the meadow, in the swamp, on the pond. Many times it picks up sounds moments before I do, especially those very high-pitched sreee notes of cedar waxwings; other times I am better than the machine. I hold the iPhone directly in front of a calling brown creeper not 10 feet away, but Merlin totally ignores it in favor of the pewees calling from further in the woods.

When a species name is listed and highlighted a second or so after the call, the line item sometimes includes a red dot or a half red and white dot. I could not find a key but this appears to indicate whether the bird is common (no dot) uncommon (half red dot) or rare (red dot). When you return to a recording these dots are no longer there, appearing only when you are recording. Every time the app picks up the “push, push push, patooti” of the Louisiana waterthrush a red dot appears next to its name, as if were an unusual sighting at this location (your longitude and latitude are listed at the top of the screen) which it isn’t since I have listened to this bird here over the last eight or so years

Merlin’s website explains the app (except for that dot thing). It highlights its ability to distinguish between the very similar looking empidomaxes: the alder (fitz-bew) and the willow (fee-bee-o) flycatchers. I have been listening to a flycatcher call all spring, unfortunately from the very back of a large swampy area. The app identifies the call as the alder one day, the willow, the next and then, both on a third day. Sigh!

The app also seems to have a problem with vireos, not always easy since some of the songs of one sound like a variation of another’s. Yellow-throated vireos have been nesting by our house for many years. Some days Merlin calls this a red-eyed vireo.

After using the app for over two weeks, I decide maybe I do have pine warblers nesting. Those trilly birds (pine warbler, chipping sparrow, junco) are very hard to tell apart especially from a distance or when weaving into the fabric of five or six birds calling at once. Twice Merlin called one of these trills a worm-eating warbler which I have never seen on the road — in NYC, yes, but not here. Look as I may, I cannot find the bird even though it sounds quite near.

Merlin and the iPhone are quite sensitive to sound. I never heard the ruffed grouse that the phone picked up. The grouse, once fairly common on my walks, hasn’t been heard or seen in 10 years or so. I missed the brown thrasher and the Nashville warbler. I never even heard what Merlin interpreted as an orchard oriole. Individual Baltimore orioles all sound similar, yet each has its own twists and riffs. One by our house constantly says, “Give me the keys, give me the keys please” in those sweet notes of his.

Worse, I missed the Say’s phoebe (?!) and the dunnock (?!) that Merlin recorded. And how I would have loved to see (and hear) that Philadelphia vireo and mourning warbler that Merlin identifies on two separate occasions on the same day. It would be quite a coup to add these species to my road list!

Then again, Merlin was spot on with more than 70 species. This is definitely beneficial to beginning and intermediate birders and it did help me find that pine warbler, but be assured I won’t be leaving the field guides behind.

Clellie Lynch is a regular Eagle contributor.

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