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Which Birding Software?

by Graham Etherington

FEEDBACK FROM THE COMPANIES TO THIS REVIEW click here

Introduction

A number of companies compete for the top spot in Birding software aimed at world birders. Amongst them are Thayer Birding Software, AviSys, Wildlife Lister, BirdBase/BirdArea and in 2010 Swift Birder Listing Software I recently acquired versions of the relevant world versions of these software and present a review of them below. Thayer, AviSys, Santa Barbara Software Products, and Wildlife Computing were all kind enough to send me up-to-date copies of their software for the review.

The exact versions used were:

  • Thayer Birding Software - Birders Diary World Edition Version 3.0.2
  • AviSys - Version 5.00E for Windows
  • Wildlife Computing Ltd - Wildlife Lister - Version 1.2.261 World Edition.
  • Santa Barbara Software Products - BirdBase/BirdArea - 1 July 2004

The testing platform was Windows 98. I tested each package in a similar manner. I decided to accomplish two tasks that most birders would want to do - create some lists and build a foreign trip report.

Thayer Birding Software - Birders Diary World Edition

Birders Diary is mainly a trip report oriented package. It has helpful video tutorials that guide the user through all the actions they will need to get the most out of the software. Unfortunately, the program crashed on me quite often, which caused complications. For example, I tried to start off with something easy, so I attempted to input my Norfolk (UK) list. Setting up the self-defined locations such as Norfolk and my workplace in Norfolk was very easy (Fig 1), but the program crashed several times when I tried to update my newly defined area with the birds I'd seen.

Figure 1. Setting up extra sites such as work places or back yards can be done quite simply in Birders Diary.

I found it difficult to know whether entries had been accepted or not until I produced a 'sightings' report of the birds of Norfolk, only to find that there were double entries. Once one is ready to input data into a trip report, it is a relatively straightforward task of setting up the trip and making the locations of the trip. Multiple locations, representing multiple dates (with different dates for the same location if necessary) are set up and the user may either proceed through the checklist and tick off each bird they saw at the relevant location and date, or use the predictive search field where one can type out the name of a bird and select it once it appears (Fig. 2).

Figure 2. Inputting data for a foreign trip in Birders Diary (click on image for larger screenshot).

It also recognises different nomenclature, so for example if you search for Tiger Bittern, it recognises this name as Malaysian Night Heron. Unfortunately, there is an annoying bug here. Once the bird is found through the search facility, if the return key is pressed, a new location/date column is inserted into the checklist. However, once this is overcome, sightings for a whole trip maybe input in one go. I did find things confusing though. On my recent trip to Taiwan I spent the first two days at two different localities. I managed to create the two locations and input the birds for the first location and then finished off with half the birds for the second location. A couple of days later I came back and tried to add more birds, but try as I would, every time I created a checklist for the trip, none of the birds appeared on the list. Similarly, I created a new location for the third day of the trip and even though I added 10 new birds to the location, only 2 of them showed up on the trip report. The next day, the problem seemed to have disappeared and all the birds appeared on the checklist.

Click here for HTML example of Birders Diary output

AviSys - Version 5 for Windows

AviSys is much more a list-oriented package than Birders Diary. It comes with a comprehensive users manual, which contains a good tutorial to get you started, plus detailed descriptions of how to handle slightly more complicated task. The only complaint I'd have with this is that Contents table or Index could be slightly more comprehensive. I started by setting up 4 lists; Staffs - UK, Norfolk - UK, All UK, and ABA. Creating the county locations and adding birds to them was straightforward, although my review copy of the software did not come with the necessary add-on to restrict lists to anything other than ABA or World. This meant that I had to go through a full world checklist to complete the first 3 lists, although numerous lists can be made during one pass of the world checklist (Fig. 3).

Figure 3. The user interface for setting up lists. The date, location, and comments can be 'fixed' so they are the same for each record.

As all the lists are linked, one can put a bird onto a county list and this will automatically be counted in the country's list, so by including Black Grouse into my Staffs lists, AviSys automatically puts it onto my British and Eurasian list. Making trip reports is a bit trickier with this software. Trip localities are denoted either by producing a new 'site' (if you birded one location a lot), or by 'key words' (if you did lots of small visits to various places) and the trip report is made by producing a 'trip' between two dates (start and finish of trip if you've been there more than once). One criticism here is that, unlike Birders Diary, AviSys doesn't recognise bird synonyms, so, for example, if you don't know that the American name for Kentish Plover is Snowy Plover, or that Chinese Bulbul is the same as Common Bulbul, you might be left hunting through the list, scratching your head as to why you can't find your bird.

It took me a while to figure out how to print out my trip report. The intuitive way just led me to a list of birds seen, but without the date and location details. When I finally figured it out, I was presented with a fairly neat trip report that gave me the entire site and date information I had previously entered (Fig. 4).

Figure 4. The output from AviSys for a foreign trip report.

One down side is that when I included the scientific names of the birds on the list, the linkage information on the site annoyingly appeared on the printout (Fig 5).

Figure 5. Including scientific names in AviSys appears to put in annoying formatting errors (the pipe bars and squares next to the scientific names) - (click on image for larger screenshot)

See AviSys' Reply to this review

Wildlife Computing Ltd - Wildlife Lister - Version 1.2.261 World Edition

A number of software products are available from Wildlife Computing Ltd. Wildlife Lister (reviewed here) is designed for people who simply want to keep their records and generate lists, whilst Wildlife Recorder (which is the replacement for the ageing and rather difficult to master BirdRecorder 32) allow greater analysis to be performed and is somewhat more flexible in the way data can be input.

Wildlife Lister is easy to install and comes with the option to input sightings by voice (as does Birders Diary). It comes with a brief tutorial in how to get started, although the instructions on how to input data from the keyboard are missing a big chunk of information given in the 'Voice Input' section, which led to some initial confusion.

It is fairly straightforward to set up lists and trip reports in Wildlife Lister (Fig. 6). The user toggles between 'Lists' and 'Sightings'. The Sightings workspace allows the user to set up information on trips and initial lists for any area from a continent to their back garden.

Figure 6. Setting up a trip report using the checklist in Wildlife Lister, which allows the user to restrict the birds in the checklist to only those found in that area (click on image for larger screenshot).

The Lists workspace provides lists of birds from the information put in to the Sightings workspace. For example, if a user creates an Sightings list for their back garden (lets say it's in Norfolk, UK), a list for their patch (also in Norfolk), a Norfolk County list, and a Cornwall list, all the birds on the list will appear once in the UK list workspace (Fig. 7).

The Lists workspace provides lists of birds from the information put in to the Sightings workspace. For example, if a user creates an Sightings list for their back garden (lets say it's in Norfolk, UK), a list for their patch (also in Norfolk), a Norfolk County list, and a Cornwall list, all the birds on the list will appear once in the UK list workspace (Fig. 7).

Trip reports and area lists can easily be created by selecting the trip or list and clicking on the print icon (somewhat counter-intuitive, as one would expect this to print out something, not create a report), and outputs in PDF, Rich Text, and HTML (as does Birders Diary).

Now, I was going to give Wildlife Lister the top marks out of the three packages, until I tried to add some more information to my lists. The quickest way to produce a British List is to make a trip called 'British List' and add your list to the trip. One problem here is that, as you will have seen your birds over a number of years in a number of different locations, it will be necessary to add information into the notes section of the record. When I did this, I entered in the location and date of some of the first birds I saw, some of which were at the same place on the same date. When I tried to update my list, I got error dialogs saying that duplicate entries were not permitted (even in the notes section?), but even worse, after I'd finished clicking 'OK' on the dialog boxes, all the records in my British list had been copied into my Falkland Islands list, and totally deleted from my British List!

Figure 7. A quick reference check can be made for each list or trip input to Wildlife Lister (click on image for larger screenshot).

See Wildlife Computing's Reply to this review

Santa Barbara Software Products BirdBase/BirdArea

Like AyiSys, BirdBase/BirdArea is mainly a list-oriented application. BirdBase/BirdArea come as a number of different packages (BirdBase, BirdArea, and sub-species add-on), which are all sold separately. They come with in-depth tutorials and 'help' features.

BirdBase + sub-species add-on. When the user first comes to using the BirdBase database, they can simply input all the birds they have seen in a particular area, without any sighting details (initialising) and then once completed can add dates and sightings as they see more birds thereafter. The task of inputting dates and sightings when you see more birds is quite easy. There is a 'common' and 'scientific' name search to find the bird you're after and then once found there is copious space to copy in notes and information. Users of the sub-species add-on also get a list of sub-species that they can select from, to add more detail to his sighting. This is particularly useful information to have in ones sightings, as when species are split, BirdBase goes through every sighting of the split group, asking the user to assign each sighting to one of the species produced by the split.

Figure 8. Adding sightings to the species list. A number of notes, statuses, and subspecies may be input or selected.

BirdBase also allows the user to record birds that, for example, have been photographed, or are heard-only records, or any other feature the user would like to list. It's database collates data very well, so that one can pull out species seen in one area, or on a particular date, or by a particular birder (BirdBase supports multiple users), etc, without that information being entered explicitly. Displaying and printing sightings and trip reports in an aesthetic manner in BirdBase is probably it's weakest feature. BirdBase displays lots of information about your sightings, but perhaps too much if you wanted to produce an attractive looking trip report. In BirdBase, each sighting of each bird is displayed individually, whereas a feature to group sightings by listing the species only once and providing dates, location and notes for each species together, would be a very handy feature. Also, a feature to remove the numerical taxonomic codes that are fairly meaningless to the non-BirdBase user would be useful.

Figure 9. An example of the output for the first page of a trip report. Users need to edit the trip report in a word processor or spread-sheet in order to produce the more concise and aesthetic looking reports like those available on the Surfbirds Trip Report page.

Santa Barbara Software Products Reply

BirdArea. BirdArea is a program that can be used independently of BirdBase to produce detailed information about the ranges of birds. It provides information on the worldwide range of any given species, and also information about what birds can be found in any given US state, country, continent, faunal area, etc. Users can also amend information in BirdArea to account for out-of-range sightings and changes in geo-political boundaries.

Figure 10. The territorial range of a species may be changed to account for out of place vagrants and changing patterns of occurence (e.g. range expansions) for all bird species.

Although it can be used independently, it's power and utility are greatly increased when used with BirdBase. Using the sightings created by the user in the BirdBase database, BirdArea can produce 'hit-lists' of all the birds a user has not seen in an area they are about to visit, or just the endemics they need, or just a list of all the birds they have seen. They can also combine different areas, say two adjoining countries, and create a list of birds they want to see in the two countries combined.

Summary. BirdBase/BirdArea is very dependable and stable program, never once crashing or throwing up any errors throughout the review. Its interfaces are kept simple and basic making the input of data fast and easy. Set up is simple and a thorough tutorial is provided (for both BirdBase and BirdArea) which covers all areas of use. For the birder who travels to different parts of the world, BirdArea is an essential add-on, and it's editable ability to list birds by countries, continents, faunal area, etc is a great feature. BirdBase's only shortcoming is its ability to produce good trip-reports. Although nice looking trip-reports can be made, quite a bit of user intervention is required. This is the only downside though, of a very good application.

Conclusion

I have rated the software on its usefulness in producing lists and trip reports. Overall, it's hard to pick out what was my favourite package as none of them were really shining examples of software development. Wildlife Lister would have gotten the thumbs up as it was very intuitive and quick and easy to use, but the early praise soon disappeared when it decided to copy the records in my British List into my Falklands List and then delete them from my British List. Thayers Birders Diary was quite good and capable of a large range of tasks, but suffered from too much unexplained behaviour. AviSys and BirdBase were the most reliable products and I had no problems with any bugs. One problem with AyiSys though was that it was rather tiresome having to trawl through a list of the birds of the world to find the bird you need and to this end, it is fairly well imperative that you spend the extra $64 on the National List add-on. I have graded the software below (Table 1), and BirdBase/BirdArea comes out on top, with the remaining packages finishing in a tie, with AviSys being my personal favourite from the tied products. One thing I have come away knowing from this review is that there is plenty of room for improvements from all companies (especially the tied ones), and that there is still a niche out there for some easy to use and reliable birding software.


Product and price How intuitive Dependability Task potential Ease of use Aesthetic output How 'International' Average
Thayer's
$124.95 /£70.00/EUR 102
4.0 3.5 5.0 4.0 5.0 4.5 4.3
AviSys
*$159.90/£90.00/EUR132
4.5 5.0 4.5 4.0 4.0 4.0 4.3
Wildlife Lister
$125/£69.50/EUR102
5.0 3.5 4.0 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.3
**BirdBase/BirdArea
$120/£65.50/EUR 97
4.5 5.0 4.5 4.5 4.0 4.5 4.5

Table 1. Marks out of 5 for the four birding software packages. Dependability refers to how many bugs were found, Task potential is how advanced the system is in relation to the amount of different tasks it can perform, Ease of use is a trade-off to how complex the system is and how simple it is to use the complexities, Aesthetic output refers to the look of the trip reports, and How 'International' refers to how unbiased it is to one particular nationality. (*with Nation Checklist Add-On, **with sub-species add-on).

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FEEDBACK FROM THE COMPANIES

Wildlife Computing Reply

The error or unexpected behaviour found while doing the review is not something I have been able to recreate in many hours of trying, nor, is it a problem that any of our users has reported in the 15 months that Wildlife Lister has been on sale. Had it been a known problem we would of course have fixed it.

Having said this, if the problem that occurred during the review was caused by accidentally changing the location of the trip the lists could easily be rectified by modifying the trip and re-entering the correct location. If the location had not been changed the lists could be reset simply by using the "Recalculate lists" option which re-populates lists automatically from the sightings held in the database. It is easy for a user to transfer sightings between lists. Because a list is merely a summary of sightings it is easy to move from one list to another simply by changing the location for the sighting. Of course it is easy to transfer back to the original list as well.

I would point out again that Lister creates lists by summarising sightings so the procedure used in the review to add information about the first date and location seen for your British list in the notes section of a single sighting record is not the one which one would normally use in Lister.

The normal procedure would be to create a separate sighting record for each significant record you are interested in. The system would then automatically calculate first date, last date, first location etc. for every list you have defined.

I’d like to add that Wildlife Lister also comes with advanced features such as speech recognition, which works very well and can greatly speed up entry of data into the system. Wildlife Lister also comes as standard with databases for other taxa such as butterflies, dragonflies, moths and mammals and that it is the only one of the systems which has a bespoke interface to allow transfer of data between Palm OS and Pocket PC mobile devices and the PC database.

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AviSys Reply

The ‘formatting errors’ mentioned in the review (e.g. Figure 5), are actually not errors. The brackets fill Place linkage locations to which the sighting Place was not linked. Because your test records did not have
complete linkages, the brackets were used to show the gaps so you can see exactly what "levels" of Places are represented.

For example, if I had a record from my yard, the linkage would show as follows:

7 Calle Pinon - Placitas - Sandoval - NewMexico

However, if in the Place tables, I had linked my home directly to New Mexico, bypassing the City and County levels, the linkage would have looked like this:

7 Calle Pinon - [] - [] - New Mexico

So, the "linkage information" added to the record listing you produced is actually the result of considerable feedback from AviSys users who wanted that data where there is room to present it, thus it's a feature, not an inscrutable design nuance. The "annoying brackets" you saw represented missing levels of linkage, typical of data where Places are often left incomplete in the interest of time. Nevertheless, that feature will be optional in the next update.

I was a little surprised to see criticism of AviSys' 134 page, bound, fully illustrated User's Guide, with an index of 143 entries, when AviSys is the ONLY program of the ones reviewed to have ANY kind of printed documentation supplied with the software. Over the long haul, a comprehensive User's Guide is vital to getting the most out of software.

I would have thought that the software products that "crashed on me quite often," and "crashed several times," or "totally deleted" records, would have received lower scores for such categories as "Ease of use," much less "Dependability."

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Santa Barbara Software Products Reply

After rereading your BirdBase/BirdArea review, we believe that the caption to Figure 9 does not give a correct impression of the concise trip reports that BirdBase can produce to screen, paper, or disk file directly -- with no editing by the user required:

Also, the addition of BirdBase/BirdArea to the review renders incorrect the AviSys FEEDBACK statement that "AviSys is the ONLY program of the ones reviewed to have ANY kind of printed documentation supplied with the software." BirdBase includes a 62 page printed manual and BirdArea includes a 61 page printed manual.

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