London’s Hampstead Heath with a storm brewing is not where most right-thinking people wish to find themselves at 5am – particularly with only the gleam of a smartphone screen as a beacon in the half light.
We attract curious stares from the odd ultra-keen jogger racing by, but our eyes are only on one thing: the birds, stirring in the trees and undergrowth around us.
Deciphering the myriad sounds that make up the dawn chorus is something humans have troubled over for centuries. The Romantics wrote breathless poems; the Edwardians made meticulous notes. In recent years we have had Sir David Attenborough’s Tweet of the Day on Radio 4 to try and help us distinguish between the calls of the 574 species in Britain, alone.
Yet a new smartphone app claims to go one better. Through a ten-second recording of bird song it supposedly can instantly reveal the exact species of feathered creature; separating the wheatear from the chiff chaff, regardless of the user’s ornithological aptitude.
Warblr, as it is known, was released on Thursday at a cost of £3.99 and has already courted plenty of publicity for revolutionising bird watching. Last October, developers Florence Wilkinson and Dr Dan Stowell, a research fellow at Queen Mary University, launched a crowd-funding campaign supported by Stephen Fry. Earlier this year the university’s innovation fund donated a grant to finish the project.
There have been several previous birdsong apps. One, Chirp!, provoked outrage among birders for mimicking the songs of rare birds to draw them closer. Dorset Wildlife Trust was forced to erect signs on Brownsea island to deter such digital twitchers.
Warblr was built with the help of the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) which gave developers access to a database of 220 species. The recording then matches this against the individual timbres of bird song. The technology is similar to the hugely popular music app Shazam - which can identify any song, from Fifties ragtime to Taylor Swift, within seconds.
To test it out I head to the heath with Ms Wilkinson, a 28-year-old marketing consultant, and David Lindo, better known as the “Urban Birder” and the man who recently instigated a national poll to find Britain’s favourite bird - 500,000 people voted and the robin, won.
Lindo, a vision in double denim despite the early morning chill, is part of a new wave of bird watchers who are helping move the hobby away from what he calls “middle-aged men with beards and bellies”.
“I reckon it is becoming much more open to everyone,” he says. “There is no national curriculum or exams you have to pass, it is something you can just pick up in your own time.”
The app, he says, is what people have been dreaming about for years. “Why can’t there be a shazam for birds?”
The answer, it very quickly becomes clear as I raise my phone to record a hooting wood pigeon breakfasting off berries on a nearby branch, is the variations of the great outdoors make recording a much trickier experience.
There are gusts of wind and sirens and competing birds. I can hear it’s a pigeon, I can see it’s a pigeon, yet Warblr is telling me I am most likely listening to a tawny owl.
Most of the time, though, it does get it right.
The app works on the probability of percentages, offering four or five different options of bird. It correctly identifies the melodious morning song of a blackbird and the urgent alarm call of the ubiquitous wren - the smallest and most common British bird - scuttling among the bushes. When a robin trills from an unseen perch, a sound that at this time of year so Lindo tells me becomes more melancholy in anticipation of the approaching colder months, my phone confirms it is an 82 per cent dead cert.
But Warblr is still by no means infallible. Invariably, and satisfyingly, for birders who have spent years honing their skills, the most exciting sightings of the morning (a pair of green woodpeckers and a lesser spotted woodpecker) are made by plain sight alone.
“I would always rather see things with my naked eye rather than waving a telephone out in the bushes,” Lindo admits.
Do its failings really matter? Not a jot. The app stays true to the golden rule: to observe, not intrude. And above all it serves the basic purpose of getting us listening to the birds in the first place. This, Ms Wilkinson hopes, will be the legacy of her design.
“I’ve had somebody ask anxiously if this app means there will be lots of young people with smart phones trudging around the countryside,” she says. “Well, hopefully, yes.”