Cape Cod's Nature Place

The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History

Birdwatching for Beginners

Free with Museum admission.
Multigenerational bird watching opportunities to participate. Homeschoolers, preschoolers, families and adults welcome!

Come once or again and again.

Gretchen Moran Towers presents basic skills designed to enable bird identification through sight and sound.

Following the presentation, you'll venture outdoors to view the birds in their natural habitat and practice the methods you will have just learned. This class includes a discussion of ideas for promoting bird watching in your own yard.

See the calendar for dates and times.

Read more about Gretchen's birding at her blog.

Find the Birds Sing ...

Bringing an app to nature isn't as crazy as it sounds

Like most of us, I can ID a sparrow, a robin, a crow, and even a Canadian Goose. Over time, my world has expanded to include snowy egret, cardinal, and chickadee. Meanwhile, my birding friends never cease to amaze me. I see something bird-like in a tree – they see screech owls. I see something duck-like - they see a common eider.

As you can guess by now, I've never done terribly well with bird ID - by the time I get back to a book, the details of what I saw flutter away.

"Uhm, it had wings?"

Trust me, that level of avian observation does not exactly help in the birding game.

So a few weeks ago I  perched at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology (aka one of the leading centers for bird study) and the National Science Foundation's site, downloaded the new Merlin Bird ID app and headed to the field to give it a try.

Well, OK, to be fair I actually headed to Connecticut first -- where Merlin immediately won a few bonus chirps. I wans't bird seeking, but happened up on a brown and green bird at a the edge of a marsh.   Ah-ha! Out came the always-with-me iPhone. Click launched the app. The best guide, I quickly remembered, is the one you have with you!

Merlin asks five questions to help novice birders along the path:

From those simple clues, the app went to work. It delved into the a massive citizen-science ebird database ( to create a list of possible matches, which included clear color photos and birdcall sounds. If the bird matches, you just click “Yes, this is my bird” to share back into the database.

I was watching a green heron stalk its lunch.

A week or so later,I decided to give the app a real test, so I headed over to the National Seashore’s Fort Hill in Eastham, which happens to be both conveniently located and an epicenter of bird diversity – some 270-plus species have reportedly been sighted here. In my frequent walks at Fort Hill I have seen, uhm, sparrows, robins, and crows. Clearly I have been missing a lot … but this time would be differenet. After all, I now had The App.

A few steps in, I quickly realized The App does not actually call birds to you ... and the only bird I spotted was a crow.  Big surprise there! But the crow spotting  offered a chance to test the app. Crow-sized/primary color black/ in a tree … and you know what? I learned something new. We have two types of crows! The photos confirmed I was watching American Crows.

A few steps further, I spotted swallows. Sadly, the app doesn’t really help me sort out which variety of swallows, and I found myself wishing for a dichotomous key feature, a tool using a series of yes/no choices to lead you to the correct name for the critter you’ve looking at.

Bird song surrounded me – seemingly hundreds of bird voices – but they stayed tauntingly out of sight. Halfway around the trail I spotted a snowy egret standing in the marsh, with a great blue heron fixed in place nearby. These represent two of the birds I already know, so I tried the app’s browse function to learn more about each.

Just as I was about to give up hope, I stumbled across the bird tree! Birds! Different birds! App in hand I see a perky chickadee! A bright yellow goldfinch! And what’s this? A brown bird that sings chup-chup…

I answered Merlin's five questions and the app suggested an “uncommon” bird called a hermit thrush. It described the bird’s call as a “chup” – exactly the word I thought of when I heard the sound.  Could this be what I saw? I click on the affirmative, but then begin to worry I’ve made a mistake. What if I put a bad bit of info into the database?

I looked again, searched again – was it a juvenile robin?  I spotted a grey-brown bird. Is it a song sparrow? What about that tiny buff bird? I’m seeing a diversity I never noticed and the app helps me along, but I’m flustered, I’m rattled, and I’m not sure what I’m actually seeing. The app opened my eyes - but now what?!?

As a black and white bird hopped along the fence, I started feeling like an avian idiot, so I use my technology a different way: I snapped a photo of the bird and texted it to one of those birding friends. Help? I wrote.

She pinged back without hesitation: Eastern Kingbird. Score One for direct human knowledge.

Thanks to Merlin Bird ID I’m looking at the sky with sharper eyes, with eyes sharpened by the app. When I'm one-on-one with a bird it helps me try to make sense of seeing it - but birding friends stand on notice: I still need you! In the complex world of birds, it seem an app is just the first step to identifying that singing bird.

Written by
    Teresa Martin | | Cape Eyes | GrayGull | Eastham, MA 02642