Identify birds with your phone camera

Birders these days have many tools at their disposal to help identify birds they see. Field guides, apps, other birders, and more. Today we will be focusing on an app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called Merlin. The Merlin app has an amazing new feature called Photo ID, which enables you to select a photo from your phone’s camera roll and it will attempt to identify it.

ruddy turnstone with merlin app in foreground

Birders these days have many tools at their disposal to help identify birds they see. Field guides, apps, other birders, and more. Today we will be focusing on an app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology called Merlin.

The Merlin app has an amazing new feature called Photo ID, which enables you to select a photo from your phone’s camera roll and it will attempt to identify it.

Using Photo ID is easy.

How to get started

Take a photo of the bird with your phone and open up the Merlin app.

  1. Select Photo ID
  2. Choose your desired photo from the camera roll
  3. Zoom the photo until your bird fills the box
  4. Adjust the location and date if necessary
  5. Click “Identify”

The Merlin app will then use AI and data from its more than 7,500 species to make the best guess of your bird.

The app works surprisingly well. Even if the bird looks pixilated after zooming in Merlin will impress you with its guess.

I was in Corpus Christi, TX recently down near the boats in the marina when I spotted a small brown and white shorebird running around on the ground. My shorebird ID skills are not the best and it was a while since I’ve been down to the coast so I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.

I got as close as I could to the bird without spooking it and snapped a few photos and videos of it.

Here is what happened when I fired up Merlin Photo ID to try to identify it.

A Ruddy Turnstone! In non-breeding plumage no less. Here is the original un-cropped photo from my phone.

ruddy turnstone in non-breeding plumage walking on cement

As you can see, the app was spot on, even with the bird in the original photo being very small.

I saw these birds on the jetty in the marina when I used to live in California. Here is a photo I captured of one in breeding plumage back in 2014.

ruddy turnstone in breeding plumage walking on moss

Once you’ve identified a bird in the app you can save it to your life list or directly open eBird to report it for your life list there.

The Merlin app has been slowly gaining more useful features as time goes on. Photo ID used to be online only and required extra steps before identifying your bird. Kudos to the Cornell team for delivering a great app experience. I can’t wait to see more features in the future. I hope one day to see a tool to identify birds by audio!