A Review by Sarah Toner
So the saga of Larkwire, the revolutionary bird song learning app, continues! Earlier this year, I reviewed the Larkwire Master Birder Land Birds iPhone app, which covers 344 birds out of 700+ breeders in North America. A substantial number of the other North American bird species (another 135, with little overlap), is covered by Larkwire’s newest app, entitled Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds. (Note: there is an online version, too, but this review covers the iPhone/iPad app.)
The basic structure of Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds is the same as the Land Birds app: you play a trivia game, guessing which song belongs to one of four species, and then you advance to the field mode to test whether you can recognize the song. The birds are grouped by song type, and you can customize the app to your skill level. It features varying levels of difficulty, presenting increasingly more birds to learn, and you can combine song groups into many possible combinations to practice. After completing several groups, Larkwire will ask you to review them and challenge you to remember them.
While the components of Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds are the same as those of Larkwire Land Birds, Larkwire’s new water birds app presents some distinct challenges that distinguish it from the earlier Larkwire Land Birds app. Apart from birds like cranes, loons, and bitterns, we don’t normally think of water birds as having distinct songs or calls. It might seem that because those are some of the hardest bird groups to ID by plumage, they would also be the hardest to group by sound. To an extent, that is true. The songs and calls can be frustratingly similar, more so than warbler songs. It’s not easy to sort out Ross’s Geese, Snow Geese, and Cackling Geese, the very first challenge that the app presents, but the work is worth it when you can pick a vagrant Ross’s sound out of a flock of Snow Geese (or vice versa).
There’s a running series of jokes that start with, “You might be a birder if...” I’ve heard a lot of them, but two that puzzled me were “...you know that not all ducks quack” and “...you can name two ducks that quack.” Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds will quickly teach you that not all ducks quack. Some click, some peep, some sigh, some yodel, some groan, and some decrescendo. I was actually more stumped, however, trying to name another duck, besides Mallard, that quacks. We just don’t often think about duck calls; they’re usually far out in a marsh, we view them with scopes in order to ID them, and we ignore them when they occasionally peep or twitter. Larkwire introduces a wide variety of duck quacks, including “Classic Quacks” and “Purring Quacks,” with 25 different calls to learn, from Mallard to Redhead to Red-breasted Merganser.
If you want to go beyond duck calls, this app offers plenty of other water bird songs and calls to learn. Rails are always useful to practice, especially the frustratingly similar and taxonomically confusing Clapper and King; “Bitterns” is one of the easiest categories to brush up on; loons and grebes are well-known and well-represented in this app; and it is quite fun to practice learning the calls of cranes and swans, particularly those of Mute Swans—a definite misnomer!
Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds covers even more eccentric, unusual, and interesting territory: shorebird songs and calls (useful for trips to the tundra or to mudflats); long and short gull calls; terns; and even ibises. The sheer variety of water bird calls is astounding, going far beyond simple peeps and grunts. Larkwire also lets you build, develop, and test your own methods of telling birds apart. By listening to them and practicing comparing them directly, you find connections and differences between their songs. Sometimes these points of comparison work as useful ID points, while at other times you learn, by hearing another variation of the bird’s song, that they are not reliable. I enjoy using the app because of these comparisons, which resemble the scientific method. You are presented with data; you craft an intriguing hypothesis; and you examine the data and examples to either support or refute the idea you are testing. This process is especially important when learning completely new songs and calls, because you can explore the territory with fresh eyes and discover which memory techniques work best for your mind.
Of course, the giant library of sounds and wonderfully descriptive text means that Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds isn’t cheap, but for those interested in going beyond simple warbler songs to plumb the depths of water bird songs and calls, it’s worth the expense. I’ve already begun to apply my knowledge from Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds by keeping a sharp ear out for migrating Snow Geese and by identifying Northern Pintail by ear, surprising my birding companions in the field. Larkwire’s water birds app pairs wonderfully with the land birds app, and provides an extremely useful tool for expanding your knowledge of bird sounds.
I would like to thank Larkwire for being kind enough to offer me a complimentary review copy of the Larkwire Master Birder: Water Birds app.
About the author: Sarah Toner, 16, has been birding since she was 8. She lives in southeast Michigan but wants to move to beautiful Whitefish Point, Michigan. She doesn't have one favorite bird, but likes drab, brown northern birds such as Clay-colored Sparrow, Boreal Chickadee, and Rough-legged Hawk. She was a member of the 2011 ABA Tropicbirds team in Texas and attended the 2011 Camp Colorado. Sarah also received first place in the 10-13 year-old writing division and third place in the illustration division of the 2010 ABA Young Birder of the Year contest, and is part of the student editorial team for The Eyrie.