FACETIME- iPhone app-maker: It's for the birds

Todd Koym

As with fishermen, avid bird-watchers know the biggest challenge is finding the good spots. That realization led Charlottesville resident Todd Koym to develop BirdsEye, a new download that's become one of the hot apps for the popular Apple iPhone.

Launched on the iTunes store December 2, BirdsEye sells for $19.99; and while Koym isn't releasing figures, he claims its selling well.

"We're been on the 'what's hot' list in the App Store the past 10 days," says Koym. "There are over 100,000 applications in the store, so this is a big deal."

Koym, 42, says he became interested in birds about five years ago while living in Washington, and went out with the D.C. chapter of the National Audobon Society.

"They were excellent birders, knew good locations, and it was a great birding experience," says Koym. "When I went out on my own, it was more difficult."

He hatched an idea: "A mobile device I could turn on and say, 'What birds are around here?'"

Then came the iPhone.

"All of a sudden," he says, "there was this beautiful device with network access."

He had another resource he could tap into: eBird, a database launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society that allows people to submit their bird observations. And there are a lot of them.

"It's probably the biggest citizen science project ever," says Koym. "They get over 1 million observations a month." 

And with 500 reviewers, no one will be misled by a false sighting of a flammulated owl in Central Virginia because they're not found here. "If someone said they saw one, eBird would throw it out," says Koym. 

He also recruited the help of noted field guide writer Kenn Kaufmann.

The iPhone app has photos, bird sounds, and data– but is not a field guide.

"I had no interest in doing that," says Koym. "I want to see birds. I don't want to look at them in a book. We show you where to go to look at birds."

Koym currently works in IT ("I like to get computers to do the work for me," he says) with Pete Myers at Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit eco-news digest. Before that, he worked for Myers at the now-defunct W. Alton Jones Foundation.

Myers, who in a previous life was an ornithologist, describes how on a recent business trip to San Francisco, BirdsEye helped him add a South American bird to his life list.

"I had a little time," says Myers. "It told me the day before, a species I'd never seen before– the red-masked parakeet– had been spotted 11 minutes away."

BirdsEye is geared for both experts, who want to lengthen their life lists, and beginners– and this was the brainchild of a beginner, reminds Koym– to help move them along.

As cool as the app may be, when out looking for birds, Koym says he keeps the phone tucked away. 

"I'd rather have the phone in my pocket," he says, "and be holding binoculars."