Derek Solomon, Frank Willems and Rory McDougall. Mydigitalearth.com.
Available through Google Play & iStore. Price € 21,99 / $ 19,99.
Outside South Africa, there aren’t many birds apps at the country level in Africa. For Eastern Africa, the excellent field guide by Stevenson & Fanshawe is available in app form as an e-guide, including calls. The African Bird Club has produced an app on Mauritius, and is working on Nigeria/Benin/Togo/Ghana. But otherwise, not so much. This may be because much of the safari and birding trips are organized and the domain of trained guides; the independent birders do their preparations beforehand and probably carry multiple guide books; and finally perhaps because the local demand is not so high because the relatively small national birding scenes have their own networks and know where to go. Still, the paucity of apps is a shame, since many people in Africa have a smartphone nowadays and an app would be an easy way to get more people into birding.
But now, there is the Birds of Zambia app, and it sets a great standard for other countries to follow suit. The app is developed by the local birdwatchers Frank Willems (a former fellow Dutch birder, working in conservation and bird guiding in Zambia since 2008), Derek Solomon (over 30 years of guiding experience all over southern Africa and a keen photographer) and Rory McDougall (who owns a Zambian birding safari company, works in conservation and in training and examination of safari guides). Between them, they have a wealth of field experience in Zambia and southern Africa.
When exploring the app, it quickly becomes clear that it has been designed by birders, for birders. The design is fairly basic, but clear and easy to use. It covers every bird species recorded in the country (780 species). You can switch between taxonomic and an alphabetic species order. It follows the modern IOC taxonomy, e.g. falcons come after the woodpeckers and before the parrots - something we should all get used to anyway. While scrolling through the species list, the family bar stays on top so you know where you are. The app also allows you to store records at localities and keep lists.
Every species account has photographs, a text account, a distribution map and call. The photographs are of good quality and show species in various plumages and flight, and for passerines quite often also in the hand. The makers have gone to great lengths to use photos from Zambia, also the Palearctic migrants. When a photo is from elsewhere this is indicated. Some hard to photograph birds, like most flufftails or African Blue Quail, have (additional) drawings; others, like for example White-winged Warbler, have photos that perhaps wouldn’t make it to a magazine, but depict perfectly how you would see them in the field. Where useful and relevant, subspecies have their own pictures, for example in Rufous-naped Lark. Unfortunately some raptors do not have flight photographs, like Southern Banded Snake Eagle and Ayres’s Hawk Eagle, which is a pity since these are most usually seen and identified in flight. When in photos, you can swipe straight to the neighbouring species.
You can also compare birds, by selecting the two species from the index (the introductions explains how to do this). They then appear side by side in a split screen (photos, text, maps and calls – very handy). The images show the comparison of photos and distribution maps of Rufous-naped Lark with Flappet Lark as an example. You can play and pause the calls to compare one by one (or even simultaneously! not that it’s is very useful). When in bird compare mode, you can swipe the upper species to compare with the next one.
Flappet and Rufous-naped Larks in bird compare mode.
The text accounts have a brief descriptions, focusing on the main ID characters and with useful info on separation from similar species. Then there are sections on status and habitat, food, voice, and seasonality and breeding (with handy coding per month). There is a thing with bird names in Africa, which can still spark almost religious discussion, so fortunately account shows alternative names when necessary.
The distribution maps are quite ingenious – as one might expect from a former Sovon employee like Frank Willems. The coding takes a bit of study but this is carefully explained in the introduction. There are colours for year-round presence, wet season, dry season, summer and winter visitors, with a shade for regular an irregular, and a couple of additional symbols like a cross for isolated records. In addition, there are codes for seasonality. This is very useful because of the different breeding strategies of Afrotropical birds. The maps are detailed, but unfortunately not zoomable.
Most species have sound recordings and the quality is good. There are no separate recordings for song and call; when different sounds are available, these are edited into one recording. This is different to for example the Audubon app for North America, which has songs and calls separately and many may consider this an advantage. The trade-off is ease of use (and probably also the size of the app). A very handy feature is a loop button, to continue playing without further tapping.
The introduction is worth a special mention. Apart from detailed instructions on how to use the app, there is a very comprehensive chapter of the biogeography of Zambia – which reads like a book. It covers topography, climate, National Parks and IBAs, conservation, and importantly, vegetation. Important, because a basic understanding of vegetation zones greatly helps to understand the bird composition and diversity, especially for the visiting birder. With every distinct habitat, typical birds that occur there are mentioned.
In all, I found the app well-designed, easy to use and full of all the information you need. The Birds of Zambia app sets the stage for serious, information-packed birding apps perfectly tailored to what a birder is looking for. Let’s hope more countries will follow! Both as a resource for preparing your trip and for checking calls and descriptions in the field: if you’re planning a trip to Zambia (or elsewhere in southern Africa for that matter), this one is a definite must!
Bernd de Bruijn