Restoring landscapes across the Mount Alexander Region

What’s that bird? Ask Merlin

Posted on 10 December, 2019 by Ivan

Local bird enthusiast, author and photographer, Damian Kelly, has introduced us to a very special personal assistant. Meet Merlin, a smartphone app that helps identify bird species from our region and all over the world. We hope you enjoy Damian’s following introduction to the Merlin app.

The Merlin Bird app has been around for a while, but until recently lacked any Australian data. This has now changed and it has data sets covering regions of Australia, as well as an entire Australia data set. The app is free and works on both Apple and Android devices.

The data sets are based on information and images collected via eBird. If you have been an eBird contributor you have been part of it all. From the Apple app store or Google Play Store, just download the app and the relevant data files for our region. The data files are quite large and can take a while to download.

Unlike the other available bird apps, Merlin provides two very useful functions that provide assistance with identification:

  • Photo ID – identification of a bird directly from a photo.
  • Bird ID – a keying-out procedure where you answer questions and the possibilities are quickly narrowed down, which makes identification much easier.

Photo ID

You don’t need to have the image on your phone. It works on images displayed on your camera back or a hard copy.

Having tested the app on photos on my phone, camera back images and even the cover of my book I can say that the results are impressive, although not yet 100%. Oddly, it failed to identify a clear image of an Owlet Nightjar, but correctly identified many species that I threw at it, such as robins, thornbills, a Barking Owl and even a mixed image of a Powerful Owl with downy chick.

If it can’t identify an image it offers to let you assist with your suggested identification and sharing of your images if you wish. In this way it will gradually become more accurate, based on the input of a range of people.

You can download data sets for different regions of Australia. It pays to make sure you have set your location as this helps with the accuracy of the app. The large data download ensures the ability to use the software without a network connection, which is handy when you are in more remote areas.

Bird ID

When you don’t have a photo, you can answer questions about a bird. These include:

  • Location – you can use GPS on your phone, enter a location manually or select from a map.
  • Date – helps with migratory species.
  • Size – a comparison set of outlines is provided.
  • Colour – main colour that you select from a palette.
  • General habitat and behaviour – fence or wire, trees, bushes and such like.

Then Merlin provides a list of potential species along with images, calls, distribution and general information. Again, you can confirm the accuracy, which helps improve the app.

Although not a full taxonomic key, the keying-out process is simple and easy to use. It should help beginners get going, as well as assist more experienced birders to narrow down possibilities.

What else can I say? It works as expected, is quite accurate and will quickly become more so as increasing numbers of people contribute. More significantly, it demonstrates the power of citizen science in producing very useful tools.

Damian Kelly

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