The author of the Sibley Guide to Birds explains the development of the app and how it works
By Matt Mendenhall | Published: 2/23/2010
Contributing Editor David Sibley (right), author of the ground-breaking Sibley Guide to Birds, has been busy lately. Last fall, he published his Sibley Guide to Trees, which explains what to look for to identify 668 native and commonly cultivated trees in North America. In an interview with Editor Chuck Hagner, he described it as a “tree guide for birdwatchers.”
Last week, Sibley released a version of the Guide to Birds for the iPhone. Called The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America, it presents all 6,600 illustrations in the Guide to Birds, as well as maps, text from the field guide, and more than 2,200 recordings of songs, calls, and other vocalizations.
If you have iTunes on your computer, here’s how to find The Sibley eGuide on the App Store.
Yesterday, I spoke with Sibley about the app and the pros and cons of electronic field guides. We started, though, by talking about Thailand. He had just returned from a trip to the country in search of the critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.
How was your trip to Thailand?
It was great. I’m still working my way through my notes and photos. I’ve already put up a couple posts about the Spoon-billed Sandpiper on my website, and I have a few more to write. I spent eight days at the main Spoon-billed Sandpiper site and saw birds every day. [See David's Google map of the area.] Some days just two or three birds. And they move around a lot, so it wasn’t like you could just sit down and watch them for four hours at a stretch. You’d work your way out through the salt ponds until you found one (usually they were in the same place early each morning or within a few hundred yards of the same spot), then watch for as long as they stayed, which might be anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. And then they’d fly off to another pond, and you just hope that you’re looking at them when they fly, follow where they go, and track them down again.
But even if I missed them when they’re flying, I was always able to wander around and find another one somewhere within an hour. I learned a lot. It’s a really interesting bird. I saw six together a couple of times. I suspect there were more. They moved around so much, and it was so hard just to find more than two together. There’s a good chance that the six at once I saw a couple of times was probably not the total number using the area. But that’s just a hunch. If it’s more than that, it’s not much more.
The way they moved around, I kept thinking that some day I’d follow one on its flight and walk over to a pond and find 12 sitting together. But I never did. And I never did find any sort of gathering place for them. They were so individual in their movements; they never really flocked.
Were you there with an expedition to search for them, or how did the trip come about?
I just wanted to go. I wanted to go last winter, and I was wrapped up in work on the tree guide. So I was determined to go this winter, and I just blocked out some days on the calendar and said I’m going. Will Russell went with me. [Russell is founder and former managing director of WINGS Birding Tours, for which Sibley led tours for several years.] We met in Bangkok, and he stayed for most of the time.
The first few days we had a guide, a Thai birder who was helping us get our footing. It was my first trip to Asia, so it was really, really different, so foreign, and it was good to have some help for the first few days. But after that, it was fairly simple. We were just going back to the same place every day and exploring the salt ponds.
Wow, it sounds fantastic.
Yeah, it was. There’s so many shorebirds. Almost every single bird that you look at is a species that’s interesting from a North American perspective. Huge flocks of Marsh Sandpipers and Curlew Sandpipers and Greater Sand-Plovers and Red-necked Stints. Keep searching and you’d find lots of Lesser Sand-Plovers and a few Long-toed Stints, a few Little Stints, a few Temminck’s Stints, a few Broad-billed Sandpipers, and lots of other species.
I commented to Will at one point, when we’d been watching birds on one pond for an hour or so and we’d seen like 300 Black-tailed Godwits and 20 Ruffs and 100 Marsh Sandpipers and a smattering of other things: “Imagine discovering that pond in California.” [Laughs]
You’d have every birder in America showing up at that pond.
Yeah, it was really fun.
As much as I’d like to hear more about Thailand, I should probably move on to the app. So how did it get started?
I’ve always had an interest in it, and my publisher has always had an interest in it. This started maybe four years ago, before anybody had heard of an iPhone. The developers who worked on it were working on a version of it for Pocket PC. We got pretty well along on that, but the market for it looked like it kept shrinking. And the really powerful
Pocket PCs that would be able to run a program like this were disappearing and being replaced by smartphones. So after a couple years of that, the iPhone came along. And after a short time, it was pretty obvious that that was the platform to work on.
And the developers were able to translate most of what we had done on the early work — just convert it pretty straightforwardly into an iPhone app. So it’s been a long, long time in development. Probably if we were starting now from scratch on an iPhone app, we would design something different, but a lot of what we have in this app was developed as a general pocket-computer idea.
I’m sure we’ll be working on it more in the months and years to come, and improving it and taking advantage of the new things that come along and the things that the iPhone offers.
Were you involved a lot in developing it over these last few years?
Yeah, I was.
You know I was very involved in the design of my books. You have a collection of images and a collection of text. That’s important, and that’s the heart of the book or the product. But the way it’s arranged is really critical. And when you move things around on the page in a book, it changes their meaning or changes the emphasis a little bit. So I spent a lot of time on the books working on exactly where to put the little captions around the images, which image to use to point out different field marks.
But in the book you can look at that and see all of it at once. You see all the images of two or four species at once. And you can take it all in, and your mind makes allowances for all the variations, all the plumages in between. And you can read a caption that’s attached to one image and apply it to all the images because you’re seeing them all at the same time. And none of that’s possible on an iPhone or any little tiny screen on a computer.
So it really took a lot of thought to figure out how to best present the information, and for me it ended it in a lot of frustration, really. There’s really no way to match the experience of the book on a little tiny iPhone screen. But I wanted the navigation through the program to be simple and logical and to recreate the book experience as much as we could on the iPhone. So all of the ways the user interacts with the program are things that I was very involved with.
Yeah, there’s a difference between the way you use a printed field guide and an electronic field guide.
Yeah, one example is the maps. Everybody who wants an electronic field guide like this, the first place they go is, “Oh, it can search by location and by date and help me find the species I’m looking for.” But if you just take the maps that are in the field guide, and have the computer create a database that says this pixel on the map represents this 50-mile square block, we’re going to record the species as a summer visitor there because it’s colored red on the map. But the next pixel over is not colored so the bird’s not going to show up there. So you have a case where someone using that search function on the computer, if they’re just across that line so that their region is outside of the mapped range, the species won’t show up in their search results. Whereas, if you’re looking at a book, you’d say, “Oh, that’s possible, I’m right there.” And you’d make allowances for even if you’re several hundred miles outside of the mapped range, you might think, “Oh, I’ll keep that in mind. It’s possible.” And the computer just can’t do that. It gives you a black and white, yes or no, and it’s very difficult to program in that kind of fuzzy search that birders do automatically.
Do you have an iPhone?
I do. One of the things the developers are working on right now is converting the program to work on other smartphones. They’re working on a Blackberry version now, and I think they’ll be working on other versions for other platforms. Not being too iPhone-centric.
So what’s your take on electronic field guides? Obviously, you’ve talked about some limitations with them. One thing I’ve been wondering is who are they for?
Well, I think they’re here to stay. There’s no question that they’ll keep improving and becoming more popular. My sense is right now that most of the people who buy them will be less experienced birders. It’s the convenience. If you’re already carrying an iPhone, for $30 you can get the complete field guide and all the sounds and have it in your pocket with nothing else to carry. I think that’s the biggest appeal of it. A lot of birders, especially people who have been birding for a long time, will still prefer to use the book, but I imagine that new birders will be starting out and download the electronic guide and never look back.
You know, I’ve talked a little about the disadvantages of an electronic field guide or the advantages that a book has, but there are a lot of things that an electronic field guide can do better, like sounds. I think the most dramatic advantage is that all the sounds can be right there. I think as the devices get better and portable computers with bigger screens come along and the programming gets better, this will be a whole new way for me to think about how to present the information. As we experiment with it and see what works and what doesn’t work, and keep tweaking the way the program works, I think it’ll get better and better. And a lot of the disadvantages will disappear.
Eventually, I suppose it could replace books, but I don’t see it really completely replacing books for a long time. There’ll be a market for both.
Do you foresee Apple’s new iPad being a platform for your app, or are you looking into that yet?
Yes, definitely. One of the biggest limitations of the iPhone and other pocket computers is the size of the screen, so the iPad is very exciting, with the possibility of showing multiple images at once, and it opens up all kinds of possibilities for arranging the information that users need most.
I was going to ask you about the sounds. Who made the recordings?
They’re mostly from Lang Elliott and Kevin Colver. A few other recordists contributed stuff, and it was all compiled by Lang Elliot. And I think it’s just a phenomenal collection of recordings. I think it’s the best collection of North American bird sounds that you can buy. I really like the ability to search through species by species and select individual recordings, so if you want to compare the songs of Purple Finch and Cassin’s Finch, you can do that instantly. Just switch back from one to the other and listen to just the song. You don’t have to listen though a whole 60-second recording of songs and various calls.
That aspect of it, as a bird-sound field guide, it’s a huge step forward. Lang did a great job of putting together all the recordings.
I just downloaded the review copy this morning, and I noticed the compare feature. Was that hard to do?
[Laughs] Well, all I had to do was say that I think this is really important, and the developers did it, and they developed that for the Pocket PC, so I don’t know what sort of programming was involved in converting it to the iPhone, but they were able to do it. I think having the ability to compare two images or two sounds or two maps at the same time really takes away some of the advantage that the printed field guide has. So I thought it was a really important thing to have. And I love, especially, the ability to compare the sounds so that you can put up any two species you want, even if it’s like Common Loon versus Mourning Dove. [Laughs]
[The screen capture at right shows the comparison of Cassin's and Purple Finches in the app.]
Are there certain things that you’re looking for in future updates to the app, or is it too soon to say?
I’d really like to have the images larger. A lot of people who have looked at it over the last year or two when I’ve been working on it, and the few early comments that I’ve seen from users, everybody wants the images larger. And we knew that was an issue, and it’s partly a question of the size of the program. It’s over 6,000 images, and to increase the size of all of them to fill the screen on the iPhone would have made the size of the program much bigger. It’s already just under 300 megabytes, so it’s a pretty big program as it is. That’s something that we’ll work on and hopefully in the not-too-distant future have a new version that will have larger images.
Yes, they were from the eastern and western guides. But no, they weren’t updated. A few of them had to be updated for species like Cackling Goose and Dusky and Sooty Grouse, the species that were split. But other than that, no, it’s the maps straight out of the eastern and western guides.
Does it feel good to have it go live?
Yeah, I’m excited to finally have it out in the public and to let people start using it. There’s a point in every project where you’ve worked on it so long and not really gotten a lot of feedback, so I’m looking forward to having people use it and hearing what they think, what they like and don’t like. And the beauty of an electronic field guide is that it can be changed as often as you have the energy or the reason to change it. I’m looking forward to working on this into the future and continuing to improve it.