Naturalists, Snap that App

Not so long ago, the only option for naturalists was to stuff a field guide in their pockets to identify wildlife, but smartphone apps are now confining books to a dusty station on the shelf. Most subjects spiking the curiosity of a naturalist now have a handy program that works as well in the field as on an Internet connection at home. Most apps cost a fraction of books ($3.99 to $14.99), and some come free. I am sorry that the technology tide is carrying paper and ink away, but who can resist a screen that instantly gratifies us with beautiful pictures, bird and mammal calls and a wealth of information at our fingertips, including a search button? Since there are few reviews in the App Store, I am recording my limited experience.

Birds. The Sibley Guide was the first nature app I purchased, and the first I reach for. It resembles David Sibley’s wonderful book, and works like a field guide with an index, although there are filters to focus on candidate species and for storing a species list (birders are incurable listers).

Peterson Birds is a competitor of Sibley and they are both priced around $14.99.

Audubon Birds (and Audubon Birds and Butterflies) is an impressive compendium of over 800 species priced $9.99. It is not a product of the said conservation organization.

Merlin was created at the renowned Cornell Lab of Ornithology and offers pictures and data for 400 North American species. It is a good choice for novices because after keying-in location, date, size and color of the bird it generates a short list of candidates. For example, when I entered “medium-sized/ black bird/ Virginia/ springtime I was offered in descending order of probability: American crow, fish crow, boat-tailed grackle, followed by some unlikely species. The bird was an American crow.

For sound recordings, including variations in dialect across the geographic range of species, Larkwire and Chip USA are worth considering. I used Larkwire recently to check the calls of two common summer visitors in our yard—the great crested flycatcher and red-eyed vireo. Songs and calls are often as helpful as pictures for identifying birds because when spring comes round again I have forgotten those I learned the year before!

Pro Animal Call and Hunting Call only offer game birds and mammals that interest hunters. Wild turkey hunters will find ten different calls, but playing back a clucking hen to call a tom turkey into range is appbuse!

Eastern tiger swallowtail

Eastern tiger swallowtail

ButterfliesAudubon Butterflies is the only North American app of its kind I am aware of. That surprised me considering most people love to see them dazzle the garden. Perforce, I still carry my favorite book into the field, Butterflies through Binoculars by Jeffrey Glassberg, which contains 625 photographs, range, maps, etc. for eastern North America. Hopefully, we will see more butterfly apps in future. Considering the poverty of wildlife in the British countryside today, there are many excellent apps for naturalists in that country where conservation interest is high. Brits even have an app for moths (for over 2,000 species), but there is no equivalent in America.

Trees and other plants.  Trees has too short and broad a list to be very helpful. Some common trees like hackberry are missing, and I don’t see many date palms and giant sequoias when I am hiking in the eastern forests.

Purple trillium

Purple trillium

I sometimes use Leaf Snap to snap the subject on my phone against a white background. The app gives a short list of matches. It didn’t identify a mystery tree in our yard because the leaves resembled many others. Sometimes you need more than a leaf to identify a tree or shrub—bark, shape, size, and flowers or fruit. According to an expert, it is a persimmon.

When I searched the app store for “native plants” I didn’t find much of relevance. Australians have their apps, but in North America the search term leads to gardening apps. The gap needs an app.

Other apps. Forest Pests is useful for foresters who, for example, need to confirm an infestation of red oak borer or southern pine beetle. North Woods Tracks shows the spoor of common mammals plus the wild turkey. There are even apps for scat, but that’s something I need no help to identify!

While some apps are created gratis by kindly enthusiasts, many are made for profit and, hence, with an eye on the size of the market. It may be a long time before I can replace my New Guinea Birds book.

striped skunk

Identification easy!

For those who don’t want to carry a phone in the wilds and only need guidance for common species pocket guides are good alternatives that pack lightly in a folding waterproof jacket. They are lavishly illustrated with short descriptions.

The best nature guide travels beside you on two legs. An app is no substitute for the companionship of a whiz naturalist because one can amaze you. The jizz of a LBJ (Little Brown Job) darting into the foliage is enough for an expert to declare an acadian flycatcher. Or she can distinguish northern and southern red oaks from glancing at leaves in the canopy, and is equally confident in winter when trees are unclothed and she only has bark and acorn litter to go on.

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About Roger Gosden

I took early retirement from my post as Professor & Research Director in Reproductive Biology at Cornell Medical College in New York City to concentrate on writing about science and nature,
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