Bird Listing Software – A Comparative Review
Review | Taxonomies | eBird Integration | Data Entry | Mobile | Reporting | Noteworthy Features | Summary
In March 2016, Surfbirds published a review in a which dozen bird listing software programs were compared. This resulted in an overview table of features, supported taxonomy lists, links to websites, data entry speed, reporting and media support. Although useful for a quick overview, the review was incomplete and did not provide much information on the usability of each listing package. A recent review in ABA’s Birding magazine (Vol 4 Aug 2016 and Vol 5 Oct 2016) was also useful and provided high-level information on several packages. However, the ABA review lacked a detailed comparison of these packages. Given the 250-300 word limit for each application this is not a surprise.
Having worked on the Surfbirds review for several months, I kept using the various listing programs on and off. This allowed me to get more experience in each program. The objective of this bird listing software review is to update the Surfbirds March 2016 table and provide more in-depth information on each program.
In this review, I focused on several software programs and on-line applications that keep track of your observations. For each listing software program a separate page with review data, tables and screen shots are available. In alphabetical order these listing software programs are:
- Bird Journal (V5.0.1203) review
- Birder’s Diary (V4.1.62) review
- Birders Notebook (1.4.1) review
- eBird (2016) review
- iGoTerra (V2) review
- Observation.org/Waarneming.nl (2016) review
- Scythebill (V13.5.0) review
- SWIFT (V2.0.15) review
Will this review cover all possible programs and on-line listing software? No. Time for such an endeavor is simple not available, if I also want to watch birds. Listing packages currently not included in this comparative review are:
The above listed programs will be included in the updated Surfbirds summary table.
A Baseline for Review
Reviewing and comparing different listing programs is a challenging task. Personal preferences, hardware and experiences with these programs will play a major role. Also, how can you compare one package against another in terms of ease of use and functionality? To address this issue, I decided to establish a baseline for testing. eBird is this baseline. The main reasons for using eBird as the baseline is that is a popular program with over 320,00 people using it and it is free. Personally, I have been using eBird since before it was known as eBird and have gained over 12 years of experience. Not only have I gained experiences as a user, but I also have been a hotspot manager, reviewer and beta tester.
With this established baseline, in theory it should be easier to determine if one program is better in terms of data entry, speed, media support, taxonomies support, etc.
Each package was used over a period of several months to learn it and gain a better understanding of its functions. Doing a quick exploration would not reveal the ease of use or neat functions in each package. Besides it was fun to work with the different pieces of software. Many functions were tested in parallel or sequential order. This facilitates comparing the software packages ease of use, differences and tested functionality.
Elements that will be considered in the review include:
- Ease of installation
- Taxonomic lists supported
- Data Exchange with eBird
- Data entry
- Mobile applications
- Noteworthy features
Findings of each tested element will be added to each listing software review page when completed. For taxonomic support, data entry, reporting, integration with eBird and noteworthy features tables will be developed summarizing my findings, and comments.
Are there limitations to my testing approach? Yes, a slow Internet connection is the most critical one. Satellite works, but it is not fast. This may hamper some of the cloud based solutions or on the other hand we’ll see which program is most efficient in transmitting information to and from the cloud.
I would like to extend my gratitude to Jeff (Birder’s Diary), Justin (Bird Journal), Bjorn (iGoTerra), Hisko (Observation.org), Adam (Scythebill), and Steve (Swift) for their input and feedback.
Taxonomic Lists Supported
Bird taxonomies. These words are enough to make me shiver. The annual updates of key taxonomic lists in July and the differences between the updated lists are enough to make you scream. At least 4 different world taxonomy lists are competing for our attention and include:
- Clements (University of Cornell)
- The Howard & Moore Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World, 4th Edition
- Hand Book of the World (HBW) Alive/Bird Life International
- International Ornithological Union (IOC) 7.1
In addition to these lists, many regional and country specific lists exists and each responsible organization adapts lists as needed. Avi-base has a neat tool that allows you to compare the various taxonomic lists and see the differences for your region of interest
Most listing programs support at least one of the big four taxonomic lists and several programs support multiple lists. As with all lists, once they are published errors will be found and will need to be corrected. Some packages will allow you to do this, others not. Table 1 provides an overview of the current bird taxonomic lists supported by each package. Additional details can be found at the review page for each individual package.
Table 1. Summary of supported bird taxonomic lists by software package. Regions are referenced using abbreviations; EU: Europe, NA: North America, UK: United Kingdom.
|Feb 2, 2017||eBird||Birders Notebook||Birder’s Diary||Bird Journal||iGoTerra||Observation.org||Scythebill||Swift|
|Birds||Clements 2016||Clements 2014||Clements 2016
|IOC 6.4||Clements 2016
|Notes||Includes additions such as:
Identifiable Sub-species Group
|Taxonomic list is limited to the full species only.||Tax lists for birds are heavily QC-ed and cleaned before being released. Probably has the best bird taxonomy lists of all.||Mostly older taxonomic lists are currently available
Most taxonomic lists focus on EU, UK and (former) British Colonies.
Many bird lists are available by country
|Worldwide coverage of all living things.||Worldwide coverage of all living things. Source of the taxonomy lists is unknown||User can add their own taxonomies. The help section provides detailed instructions||Limited selection of taxonomic lists.|
Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, iGoTerra, and Scythebill all support Clements and IOC. In addition, Birder’s Diary and Bird Journal support many other bird taxonomies with Birder’s Diary and iGoTerra providing the most thoroughly checked lists and Scythebill releasing the latest lists with the shortest turnaround time. Scythebill supports additional bird taxonomies, but the user will need to create the lists themselves.
In addition to bird taxonomic lists, Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, iGoTerra, Observation.org, and Scythebill support a wide variety of taxonomic and checklists for mammals, plants, insects, fish, etc. These programs will likely appeal more to the birder with a broader interest in keeping track of their natural observations. Most extensive taxonomic list support is provided by iGoTerra and Observation.org. Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, and Scythebill also support non-Bird lists, but tend to focus more on specific regions such as North America or the UK and (former) British colonies.
Perhaps a minor detail, but still of some interest is how all these packages handle the Rock Pigeon (Feral). Several years ago, eBird decided to handle the feral Rock Pigeons (Columba livia domesticus) different compared to the wild Rock Pigeon (Columba livia) of Southern Europe. Consequently, they introduced Rock Pigeon (Feral) in their list. When submitting to eBird or moving your data from eBird into one of the reviewed packages you are faced with updating your observation accordingly. eBird, iGoTerrra, Observation.org and Scythebill have the Rock Pigeon (Feral) or Feral Pigeon in their lists. Birder’s Diary allows you to create a species (a THING in their language) for the Rock Pigeon (Feral). In the remaining applications, you will need to map it to “Rock Pigeon”.
Compared to eBird (our baseline) Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, iGoTerra, Observation.org, and Scythebill all provide more options in terms of bird related taxonomic lists. Birders Notebook and Observation.org are on par with eBird.
Data Exchange with eBird
With eBird’s increased popularity, data exchange between eBird and other programs is an important aspect of this software review. eBird provides tools that allow the user to download all their observations (eBird Download my Data), download individual checklists, life lists, or upload data in predefined formats. Thus, there are several options for data exchange available, but all of them require some manual interaction. Each software package was reviewed based on its capabilities of:
- Importing all your data from eBird (Download my Data). The base test case was a subset of 3 years’ worth of personal observations. This set contains nearly 16,000 records including a few “sp.” and “X” for count.
- Importing single checklists. This process was repeated several times with several single checklists.
- Exporting data for upload to eBird.
- Species Matching. During the import from eBird to the package, did any species matching happen and how well is this addressed? This may seem a bit subjective, but with differences in taxonomic lists it is a key question to address.
- Speed of data upload. This will be a challenge as my home Internet connection is very slow. Small files (<100k) work fine, but larger files (>1MB) will be a bottleneck.
Table 2 provides a summary of the integration and data exchange options offered by each software package. Further details can be found at the review page for each individual package.
Table 2. Supported data exchange options and integrations between eBird and other bird listing software packages.
|Dec 20, 2016||eBird||Birders Notebook||Birder’s Diary||Bird Journal||iGoTerra||Observation.org||Scythebill||Swift|
|Import eBird All data||N/A||No||Yes||Yes||Yes||–||Yes||Yes|
|Import eBird individual checklist||N/A||No||Yes||No||Yes||–||Yes||Yes|
|eBird Hotspots link||Yes||No||No||No||No||–||Yes||Yes (?)|
|eBird Rareties / notable sightings||Yes||No||No||No||No||No
Has its own rarity list
|Notes||Does not have an import function||Import and fixing data of the test subset took just over 4 minutes to complete||Import and fixing data of the test subset took 11 minutes to complete||Import of 13607 records for a single location took just 13 minutes to complete||Does not have an import function||Import of the entire subset of data took about 1 sec to complete.||Import and fixing data of the test subset took about 34 minutes to complete.
Has a eBird synchronization tool
Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, iGoTerra, and Scythebill and Swift all provide excellent tools to import and export data to and from eBird. Import of eBird individual checklist is lacking in Bird Journal, Birders Notebook and Observation.org. Packages that support import of the eBird individual checklist all handle this quickly with virtually no differences in import speed and species matching and usability of the function. One interesting quirk that I encountered was Swift’s requirement to store the eBird individual checklists in your Download folder, but once they are there the program automatically recognizes that files are there and are ready for uploading.
The more informal and infrequently used “Life list” format is supported by Birder’s Diary (with updates to headers), iGoTerra (as custom format), and Scythebill (native).
Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, Scythebill and Swift all provide options to upload your entire eBird data holdings as well as individual checklists. Bird Journal unfortunately does not support the individual checklist upload. Both Birder’s Diary and Scythebill do an excellent job of loading your data quickly and elegantly managing your locations. This sets them apart from the other packages.
Each software package was reviewed on how it allows users to enter data and how quickly this can be done. Additionally, the ease with which data can be entered, smart search support, banding code use, and adding additional information such as media (photos) was evaluated.
My starting point for data entry test is my field notebook, with scribbles, banding codes and some of my own abbreviations. Field lists go across multiple pages as well. Altogether a mix that should make this test interesting. Data (species and count only) was transcribed from the field notebook to each program using what worked best (checklist, smart search, etc.) based on my experiences. During the process, I did make mistakes and needed to fix them, but that I consider part of data entry. Entering a single list into each listing software packages will be spread out over multiple days to avoid that I start remembering the species and number of birds seen. The data entry tests were repeated for each package several times in December 2016. Based on these tests, an overall data entry rate (seconds per observation) was calculated.
Table 3 provides a summary of the data entry options, media support, average data entry speed (and range) and other sightings related information.
Table 3. Supported data entry options in each bird listing software package.
|Dec 31, 2016||
|Birders Notebook||Birder’s Diary||Bird Journal||iGoTerra||Observation.org||Scythebill||Swift|
|Checklist with smart search||Y||N||Y||Y||Y||N||Y||Y|
|Checklist based on past sightings||Y||N||Y||Y||Y||N||N||Y|
|Non-checklist entry (Desktop)||N||Manually type in in name with smart search in new window||Keyboard entry with smart search & banding code||Keyboard entry with smart search||Keyboard entry for single species with smart search & banding code||Keyboard entry with smart search||Keyboard entry with smart search & banding code||Keyboard entry with smart search & banding code|
|Use banding code||Y||N||Y||Y||Y||N||Y||Y|
|Data entry using Speech recognition||N||N||Y||N||Y||N||N||Y|
|Speed test <20 species (sec/sp)||3.5
(2.3 – 4.3)
(11.4 – 13.8)
(2.8 – 4.3)
(4.3 – 6.7)
(8.8 – 14.1)
(6.0 – 11.5)
(3.1 – 5.5)
(1.8 – 7.1)
|Speed test >20 species (sec/sp)||6.0
(5.0 – 7.6)
(9.7 – 12.3)
(3.3 – 6.3)
(5.0 – 7.6)
(12.2 – 12.5)
(7.7 – 9.1)
(3.9 – 5.0)
(4.5 – 7.8)
|Summary window with species entered||N/A||Y||Y||Y||Y||Y||N||Y|
In terms of the ease with which observations can be entered, eBird, Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, and Scythebill are on par with each other. Data entry in these packages can be classified as very easy. iGoTerra, Observation.org and Swift require a little extra work to add the count for each sighting by either opening a row with the observation details or the need to use the mouse to go to the count field. Birders Notebook, is the most cumbersome of all to enter observation data as the smart search function is hidden in another window.
When it comes to data entry speed eBird has raised the bar in the past years by using of location specific checklists. This facilitates data entry greatly and you do not need to scroll a lot. In this test, Birder’s Diary and Scythebill are on par with eBird and even outperform it. For short checklists (<20 species) eBird and Birder’s Diary came up fastest in my tests and for longer checklists Scythebill, Birder’s Diary, and Swift were the faster compared to eBird to enter data.
Data entry for eBird, iGoTerra, and Observation.org was conducted on both a high-speed (fiber optic) and satellite Internet connection. The latter identified which packages would be impacted by network latency issues. eBird and Observation.org performed similarly, whereas iGoTerra’s (the Internet version) performance was impacted.
In terms of overall data entry speed, both Birder’s Diary and Scythebill allow for faster data entry compared to eBird.
In the past year, I have noticed that when I am out in the field, that more and more people use their smart phones to record their observations. Personally, I have not made that leap, as many of the applications require too much interaction to record sightings and you miss birds. Nonetheless, mobile apps are popular. Bird Journal, eBird, iGoTerra and Observation.org all have mobile versions for recording data in the field. These mobile applications were evaluated based on:
- Platform support
- Smart search
- Ease of data entry
- Media support
- Cool features
The applications were mostly tested in stationary settings (aka the comforts of home, the front porch or parked car), rather than during field trips. This approach allowed me to run all applications concurrently and experience the differences. Additional time was spend exploring the features these applications offer. Table 4 provides an overview of the mobile applications.
Table 4. Summary of the mobile applications by bird listing software package.
|Dec 7, 2016||
|Birders Notebook||Birder’s Diary||Bird Journal Mobile||iGoTerra Pocket||Observation.org iObs/ObsMapp/winObs||Scythebill||Swift|
|Ease of Data Entry||Very easy||Easy||Easy||Easy|
|Cool Feature(s)||Location specific checklists||Can handle data from mobile devices||Access to all your observations||All checklists incl lifers, year-ticks, country ticks are available||Users can create a track (handy for BBAs). Supports maps and observations nearby from others||Can handle data from mobile devices|
In many aspects, the four reviewed mobile applications all perform at a similar level. Data entry in the applications is facilitated via smart search features and observations can be reviewed before submitting them. Very little differences exist between the applications in terms of data entry. Personal preferences will determine what you like.
eBird’s tabbed pages allows you to see a complete checklist or a local checklist or what you have already seen. A simple tap on the screen the enter additional birds make this application easiest to use in the field. iGoTerra, Bird Journal and ObsMapp/iObs/WinObs support individual observation specific location information and support multiple taxonomic lists. Media attachments are supported by iGoTerra (you can indicate you have a photo, but not yet attach it) and ObsMapp/iObs/WinObs (Observation.org) on the mobile device.
Reporting and analyzing your observations means different things to different people. For some birders, just getting your life list by country, state, count or location is sufficient, whereas others will want to conduct more in depth analysis of their data, compare their ranking with other birders or map their data. eBird provides many different ways of looking at your data, including:
- Life Lists
- Charts and Maps
- Abundance charts
- Summary tables
- Specialty Reports
- ABA ticks (for those interested in the ABA area)
- Printable checklists
- Trip lists
In this part of the review, I compared all listing packages against a master report and analysis list. This list consisted of detailed listing of life lists options, charts and maps that eBird makes available to its users. Table 5 contains a summary overview of the offered reporting and analysis functions.
Table 5. Summary of the reporting and analysis functions by bird listing software package.
|Jan 8, 2017||eBird||Birders Notebook||Bird Journal||Birder’s Diary||iGoTerra||Observation.org||Scythebill||SWIFT|
|Life Lists & Other Lists|
|Life List (World > location)||Yes||World Only||Yes||Yes||Yes||World/Country/County||Yes||Yes|
|Life List (Life/Year/Month)||Yes||Life||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Yard or Patch List||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Life List Chart or Table||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Charts & Maps|
|Multiple Species Abundance Chart||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Single Species Chart||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Specialty Reports & Charts|
|Big Year/Month/Day Report||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Combined all listing packages provided an amazing variety of lists, charts, maps and reports. The table above provides, at best, a high-level summary of the reporting and data analysis capabilities offered to the users.
In terms of listing, eBird sets a high standard with being able to generate lists for many different scales (World > continent >region > country > state > county > location). Birder’s Diary, Bird Journal, iGoTerra, Scythebill and Swift are all on par with eBird. However, these packages are providing more flexibility to refine lists or to generate life lists based on other taxonomies.
When it comes to charts and maps, eBird provides a basic set including abundance and frequency charts and species distribution and hotspot maps. Bird Journal and Swift well exceed eBird offerings in the charts category, and Birder’s Diary charts provide a lot more flexibility to the user compared to eBird. Both Bird Journal and Swift offer their users a large variety of charts to interact with charts include progress, monthly totals, comparisons between seen/not seen, family/genus summaries, etc. Well over a dozen charts are available. It is worth to mention that few charts are alike among the listing programs. The abundance and life count charts are most similar, all other charts are very different.
eBird, Bird Journal, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, Observation.org and Scythebill all provide some sort of a map. In most cases locations are shown. From an individual birder’s perspective Bird Journal provides perhaps the most interesting mapping options. This application shows your locations, total observations and photo associated with location on an interactive map. Species sighting/distribution maps offered by eBird and iGoTerra depict more information. Given eBird’s large user pool it is hard to exceeds eBird species and location maps.
In the category of specialty reports (and charts), eBird provides the basic ABA ticks counter, dynamic targets (via email notification), and printable checklists. ABA ticks and reports are supported by eBird, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra and Scythebill. Birder’s Diary ABA reporting is by far the most comprehensive of all packages. Although several packages offer printable checklists, eBird tri-folds with season abundance information (the one you typically find at any park) are hard to beat. Bird Journal and Birder’s Diary do offer multi-day checklists for any location.
When it comes down to targets, eBird, iGoTerra and Observation.org take full advantage of the web-based user community by emailing alerts for specific target species. Other packages have options to list targets for a given area when generating checklists.
Lacking from eBird are big year/month/day reports, trip report and family/genus summaries. Dedicated trip reports are only offered by Birder’s Diary and iGoTerra. When it comes to keeping track of family and genus information Bird Journal, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, Scythebill and Swift provide you with charts or reports.
The image gallery below show some examples of reports and charts for the reviewed packages. Additional details on the reporting capability is also provided at each page dedicated to each listing package.
Each listing package has its own unique and noteworthy features. In the table below I have listed several of the more interesting features in each package. Many of these features are not addressed during the review, but some are. Addition information on these features are listed on each page dedicated to a listing package. The selection of the features is the most subjective part of the review and reflect my personal choices. Others will have different opinions on what is cool or not.
Table 6. Summary of the more interesting features by bird listing software package.
|Jan 10, 2017||eBird||Birders Notebook||Bird Journal||Birder’s Diary||iGoTerra||Observation.org||Scythebill||Swift|
|Noteworthy & Cool Features||Hotspot exploration||Highlights with link to wikipedia||Modern, clean looking user interface||Sightings Comparison Report||Photos: ID-Helper Compare Gallery & sideshow||Transects||World map with potential number of lifers||Ability to drill down to species summary|
|County and target species alerts||Location report||User Defined Fields||Countries potential lifer lists||Species alerts||Species list with drill down||SWIFT meters|
|eBird profile||Photo gallery||Reconcile Wizard||Species Description page||Photo gallery||Simplicity of the application.||Photo gallery|
|Sync functionality||Checklist editor||User profile||342 carefully curated checklists for (nearly) all countries||Specify birding seasons|
|Language/region editor||Trip Planner||View edit sighting menu/report|
eBird provides a solid baseline to compare other listing packages and web-based applications to. Because eBird has such a large user base, it is easier for many birders to understand how other listing software packages compare. In this comparative review eBird and seven other listing packages including Birders Notebook, Bird Journal, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, Observation.org, Scythebill and Swift were considered.
In the category of taxonomic lists supports Bird Journal, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, and Scythebill all provide more options compared to eBird.
In terms of data exchange with eBird, meaning the ability to import and export eBird files, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, Scythebill and Swift perform well.
eBird has set a high standard when it comes to ease of data entry and speed. Data entry is considered very easy using Bird Journal, Birder’s Dairy, eBird, and Scythebill. When it comes to data entry speed both Birder’s Diary and Scythebill allow for faster data entry compared to eBird.
When it comes to reporting, charts and maps, the reviewed listing packages offer a wide variety of options. Life lists are supported better in Bird Journal, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra, Scythebill and Swift compared to eBird. When it comes to charts Bird Journal and Swift offer more options, but eBird is best in species distribution mapping. Dedicated trip reports are provided in Birder’s Diary and iGoTerra only. For those with in interest in Big Year/Month/Days reports, Birder’s Diary, iGoTerra and Swift provide the best options. Photo galleries are best supported in Bird Journal and Swift.
On the mobile platform, Bird Journal, eBird, iGoTerra and Observation.org perform overall equally well. Each package has its own strengths and weaknesses. Observations.org is the only application that provides support for Windows.
Several listing packages either perform better or offer more features or focus more on the individual birder compared to eBird. Most of the reviewed bird listing software packages offer good to excellent interface options with eBird. So you can handle all your data locally and still contribute to citizen science in a heartbeat.
Last Update 02/23/2017
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