Apps outdoors can be superfluous. I like being phoneless when I can. But sometimes it’s nice learning about nature while you’re actually in it. Below are the apps I’ve found most useful.
Merlin Bird ID
This wondrous app recognizes nearly any bird you see or hear. It’s a free and fun way to learn about birds, whether you’re on a walk or at home and curious. When I tried similar services pre-pandemic, they felt clunky or they crashed.
Merlin is fast, ad-free, and reliable. It’s also easy to use. Open the app on any iOS or Android device and you’ll see four options.
- Explore birds. If you just want to learn about birds, this option lets you thumb through a list, read short descriptions, and hear birdcall recordings.
- Photograph a bird. Take or upload a picture. Merlin will identify it in seconds.
- Describe a bird. Answer a few multiple-choice questions about a bird’s size, color, activity, and location, and Merlin suggests what it might be.
- Sound. Identify birds by recording a bit of audio, even if you’re not up close. This is my favorite feature because I usually can’t get close enough—and lack sufficient patience and skill—to snap quality bird photos.
I love how the app points out not just one bird, but a variety of local species, even if they’re all chirping simultaneously. I can click on any of the birds to learn more, or listen to recordings so I can eventually recognize birdcalls without the app.
Merlin and its sister app, eBird, are projects of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can use eBird to keep track of birds you’ve spotted and to share sightings with the world’s largest community of bird-watchers.
Since I don’t keep bird lists, I just use Merlin to identify birds I hear or see. It works best in quiet places. Background noise makes it hard to use on city park walks.
Point Seek at any plant, flower, bug, or animal and the app magically identifies it. I love spotting new flowers and odd bugs and learning about unique species.
The app collects no user data and has no ads. It doesn’t even require registration. It’s free for iOS and Android. Seek was created by iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society.
Results vary depending on how close you are, how much light there is, and how good your phone’s camera is. I’ve been surprised at how often the app quickly identifies what I’m looking at.
I sometimes feel torn about using Seek with my wife and daughters, because we prefer to be free of screens outdoors. After using it extensively early in the pandemic, we use it more selectively now, mainly when we spot something intriguing that we want to remember or learn more about.
Audubon Bird Guide
This classic field guide for birders is free on iOS and Android. It has more detailed bird info than Merlin for those who want to dig deeper. The app lets you identify birds by noting their size, color, habitat, wing shape, tail shape, voice type, or activity, so you don’t have to take a picture or record sound. If you prefer to enjoy nature without tech, you can open the app later to learn more about what you saw or heard.
This is a fantastic, brilliantly designed board game, with 170 gorgeous game cards, each featuring a unique bird. You learn about them while playing. It took my family several hours to figure out the complex play, but now we love it. (Read more about the game in the New York Times, Vox, and Nature.)
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