GO ON, admit it. At some time in the past, you fantasised about an electronic field guide that would put photos, drawings, species accounts and even songs and calls at your fingertips. Something like The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, in fact, but with more emphasis on the finer ID points of Caspian and Yellow-legged Gulls.
When I first had that particular daydream, back in the Angel Delight and flare-bedevilled 1970s, I assumed I’d be flicking through this wondrous item just after piloting my jet-pack to work, while eating a nourishing, balanced, three-course meal in the form of a single pill.
Well it looks like we’ve still got a long wait for jet-packs, food pills and silver jumpsuits, but BirdGuides’ new Birds of Britain and Ireland iPhone application goes a long way towards making those field guide musings come true.
Smaller versions have appeared, concentrating on garden birds, but this is the first attempt to get to grips with pretty much every bird you could reasonably expect to see regularly in the British Isles – 271 species in total.
In terms of content, they’ve done a superb job. For each species, there are annotated colour illustrations by the likes of Ian Wallace and Ian Lewington, as well as, in most cases, colour portrait photographs, too. Added to that, there are detailed distribution maps, and recordings of calls and songs. These latter show a really impressive range – they’ve not simply included the most familiar where a particular species has more than one song or call.
But the biggest selling point, for me at least, was that you get the full species accounts from the Concise edition of Birds of the Western Palearctic. OK, you’re not necessarily going to need it all in the field, but there must have been the temptation to scrimp. Including them means that what could be seen as just another app, is genuinely a field guide in miniature.
All this, though, stands or fall by the user interface – how easy it is to actually use, in layman’s terms.
The answer is, very easy. Species are grouped by family in typical field guide order, but with a single touch you can change that to alphabetical order, if you prefer. There are collapsible headings, preventing the screen from getting too cluttered, and the various aspects of each species entry are entered and exited in clear, logical steps.
About the only thing I could find to complain about is no fault of the app, but a quirk of the iPhone itself. Because the touch screen works through heat sensitivity, rather than pressure, you might find that, in the field, it’s a bit slower in working when you’re using cold fingers. You have to take gloves off to use it, too, but it’s hardly an insurmountable problem, and it’s also as simple as on any iPhone app to zoom in on a certain part of the screen.
I did dread, too, as I downloaded it, that it might take a huge bite out of the phone’s available memory, but at 194MB it’s really very compact.
You’d probably want, I suspect, to use it in conjunction with a conventional field guide, but then my practice in the past has always been to have a battered Collins Guide with me in the field, and to cross-refer to two or three other books at home anyway. This app now becomes my ‘in-the-field’ guide, meaning my new Collins can get the love it deserves at home.
I’ve no doubt at all that BirdGuides and other companies will bring out bigger, even better versions as the technology changes (and it is doing at an amazing rate), but if this isn’t quite The Hitchhiker’s Guide to UK Birdwatching, it’s really pretty close. The words ‘Don’t Panic’ on the title page in large, friendly letters certainly wouldn’t be out of place
REVIEWED BY MATT MERRITT