Apps for the Nature Enthusiast

Apps for the Nature Enthusiast by Charlie Grindstaff Indian Trail Master Naturalist

I recently attended the Texas Master Naturalist 13th Annual State Meeting. They offered classes on topics of interest to naturalists, from Bumblebees of Texas to Wildlife Tracking Training. Having recently purchased a smart phone I opted to take There’s an APP for That!  Smart Phone Apps for the Naturalist. It was taught by Jonah Evans of Texas Parks and Wildlife, who is well qualified since he has actually written an app. It was a great class and I think the advice he gave us about choosing apps and his recommendations are good for every nature enthusiast.

When choosing an app

  • Try free versions first  – some apps are cheap gimmicks
  • Not all apps have been developed for all types of smart phones
  • Read reviews – anyone can write an app, see what users have to say
  • Look for YouTube videos or on-line demos
  • User interface is important – should be simple, intuitive, aesthetic, consistent, immediate, & efficient – but remember good user interface can hide poor content while poor user interface can make good content unusable
  • Look for good content
  • You usually get what you pay for – be cautious with very inexpensive apps

Recommended apps include:

  • iBird – turns phone into a field guide for birds and plays bird songs
  • Audubon Guides – if it crawls, wiggles, flies, swims, bites, it can be found in one of the Audubon Nature Guide apps. Great for birdwatching, hiking, and exploring the outdoors, guides feature photographs, range maps, sounds and the ability to create lifelists and to record sightings. Besides national guides, Audubon also has regional specific guides such as the Ultimate Texas Nature Guide covering everything in nature in Texas.
  • iTrack Wildlife – comprehensive digital field guide filled with hundreds of track, sign, and animal photos; precise track drawings; and detailed track descriptions for 65 mammal species.
  • Motion X (GPS) – see your position anywhere in the world with 9 map style choices, you can record your tracks, mark waypoints, navigate, and share locations.
  • Maplets – over 5,000 maps of National Parks, State Parks, Metro, Bus, Ski Resorts, Wilderness Parks, Universities, and more.  Data is stored on your device and can be viewed without internet connection.
  • Topo Maps – United States Geological Survey and Natural Resources Canada topographical maps using contour lines to show the shape of the terrain, ideal for hiking and other outdoor activities.
  • Geograph TX – self-contained application (no internet or cellular access required) that contains a vast amount of information about the physical geography and geology of Texas.  Contains 29 layers (terrain elevation, urban areas, counties, hydrology, ocean depth, etc), which can be combined.
  • Star Walk – an award-winning education app that labels all the stars, constellations, and satellites you point your smart phone at.
  • iNaturalist – record your observations from the natural world and contribute them to iNaturalist.org, a social network for naturalists.

Jonah also recommended everyone should have the Red Cross Apps – both First Aid (puts expert advice for everyday emergencies in your hand) & Wildfires (see where NOAA has issued wildfire warnings, notification when a new wildfire occurs and gives current view of wildfire’s track and perimeter)

A few words of caution:

  • Smart phones are changing our world.  They are incredibly powerful educational tools, but use them wisely & WHEN POSSIBLE, DON’T USE THEM.
  • Avoid “Smart phone tunnel vision”… stop looking at your phone, look at nature.  Learn & experience nature with your senses not your phone.
  • Phones are easily broken or lost … don’t rely on your phone for navigation.
  • GPS apps can use your battery up even when not using cellular service.
  • If lost & you have poor cell reception, use text messages.

I love my smart phone/camera/field guides/GPS/map.  It has certainly lightened my pack.  Now I have room in my pockets for those little treasures I find when I am out in nature, a heart-shaped stone, a shell, an acorn, etc.  Hope to see you out there in nature.

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