iPhone App Review: Butterflies of Britain and Ireland

App details:

Category: Nature guide
Developer: Birdguides Ltd.
Minimum Requirements: iPhone OS 2.2
Compatibility: iPhone and iPod touch
File Size: 62.3 MB
Price: $16.99
Availability: iTunes App Store
Version Reviewed: 1.0.1

There’s a classic line in the musical “My Fair Lady” where Professor Higgins observes wistfully, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”  With apologies for the implied sexism of the metaphor (for any who haven’t seen the musical), this is much the same feeling I have when I browse through the iPhone application “Butterflies of Britain & Ireland”:  If the Brits can develop such a robust and lovingly detailed iPhone application for their butterfly fauna, surely Americans can do the same.

Granted, the British/Irish fauna boasts only some 61 species, so it’s (relatively) easier to develop a full treatment for every known species there.  With the 725-odd North American species, it might prove a more daunting task to work up the entire North American butterfly fauna.  But certainly the kind of approach that Butterflies of Britain & Ireland (BBI) takes in this app could be emulated on a family-by-family basis Stateside (“Skippers of North America” or “Fritillaries of North America”).  One could theoretically see regional approaches done this was as well (“Butterflies of the Northeast,” for example, or “Butterflies of Florida,” much like the Glassberg Butterflies Through Binoculars guides), but the economics of phone apps probably mean that any application needs to be national in scope to be profitable.

You can enter BBI either through a phylogenetic list (beginning with skippers and arranged in phylogentic order within the skipper group, too) or in an A-Z index (which, in the first of several small annoyances, is alphabetical by full common name – that is, you find green hairstreak in the “G” list, and blue hairstreak in the “B” list, and it seems it might make more sense to list them in alpha order as “hairstreak, green” and “hairstreak, blue”).  Each portal gives you a vertical list that can be viewed in either the vertical or horizontal screen mode of your iPhone.  On the left is a thumbnail drawing of the butterfly in question, with both common name (in bold black letters) and scientific name (in smaller font, light blue italics) listed alongside.  Unfortunately, these thumbnails are too tiny to see any identifiable features (all the hairstreaks are identically brown blurs in this view) and you won’t be able use the zoom feature of the iPhone to enlarge them.

But assuming you know you have a hairstreak in your sights, and you want to figure out which one it is, you can start clicking on the thumbnails and scrolling through the best features of this application:  incredibly well done color illustrations of each life stage of each butterfly, generally showing both upperside and underside, both sexes if it’s a dimorphic species, various instars and eggs developmental stages, and significant aberrations, subspecies, or variants.  Most of these life stages and variants are also illustrated with field photos.  And once you think you have figured out the butterfly you’re trying to ID, you can verify your hunch by reviewing the species’ distribution on the range map of the Britain and Ireland for the species, and check it against the phenogram that shows flight periods for the critter.  And best of all, the illustrations, photos, maps, and phenograms are zoomable – particularly helpful on the maps and phenograms, which often are indecipherable in their native view.

As someone who came to Lepidoptera when the Klots guide was state of the art, I suspect I will always favor drawings and paintings over photographs for ID purposes.  BBI reinforces that preference:  In addition to being first-rate renderings, the drawings also often have interesting tidbits of behavioral or natural history data that may help in identification.  A drawing of marbled white, for example, shows a common pose of the species with the legend “the wings are kept closed while resting during the hottest part of the day” or the charming illustration of the head of a ringlet with its proboscis all kinked up with the hint that “pollen sacks from orchids may block and prevent the proboscis from being coiled up.”  A feature that the developers might consider in future editions is inclusion of a plate with diagnostic arrows pointing to key features.

This is a tremendous amount of information to pack into an iPhone app, and for the most part it works seamless in this version of the app on my iPhone.  Sometimes the forward arrow (designed to carry you to the next illustration or screen in the species account) inexplicably closes the program, or takes you back to the main screen, but that’s an infrequent occurrence.

Few apps are without glitches, and BBI is no exception.  Sometimes the drawing is so large it occludes chunks of text that accompanies the illustration, as in some of the species accounts for swallowtail and speckled wood.  And occasionally is looks like someone got a little sloppy matching up photos with their legends:  all three photos of small pearl-bordered fritillary adults, for example, show the upperside – even though the last one is labeled “underside,” and even though the underside view is critical to quickly placing this species relative to other fritillaries.  Luckily, there are excellent color plates of the underside showing both male and female coloration.

Despite these minor quibbles, Butterflies of Britain & Ireland is a tremendous reference, although I haven’t had a chance to visit the British Isles since I got the app as a holiday present for myself and don’t know how well it would function under field conditions.  And it would be hard to use it the way I use my current field guides, with a couple sticky notes flagging particularly troublesome groups I might encounter that day, or flipping back and forth between two or three skipper pages and comparing the illustrations against each other.  But even as a non-field app, this is a worthy iPhone addition for butterfly watchers who anticipate (or dream about) rambles in Britain and Ireland.

This entry was posted in checklists, European butterflies, general butterfly news, Review. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to iPhone App Review: Butterflies of Britain and Ireland

  1. Mike Reese says:

    We just recently released an app for the butterflies of Wisconsin. I personally only have an iPod touch and I have a couple of bird apps, which I like, but after seeing this app, which my son David Reese made, it really does show what will be possible. I don’t think you need to be a futurist to realize that most field guides will be in a similar format in the near future. See more about the Wisconsin butterflies one here:

    http://wisconsinbutterflies.org/butterfly/iphone

    Mike Reese

  2. Pingback: Review: Butterflies of Europe iPhone App « Lep Log

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